This is the first in a series of articles devoted to exploring the strategy of living and remaining near your church.
Not Essential, But Wise
It’s important that I begin with a preface: I cannot point to a Bible verse and say that God requires you to live near your church. The Bible doesn’t require it of believers. Therefore, churches shouldn’t require it.
This is the overstep of some of the monastic or communal religious groups over the centuries. They just require more than the Bible does. We can only require what God requires. Godly members may be unable to live near their church for a number of reasons. It is not my intention to heap guilt on a gospel non-essential.
Having said that, I think it is a wise strategy to intentionally live near your church. To think of it as a strategy is helpful. That’s why we say that we are presenting the strategy of living and remaining near your church.
I also want to tie this strategy to another strategy: Building healthy churches in low-income communities.
We need good ministry everywhere. We need healthy churches in the suburbs. Healthy rural churches. Healthy Bible-belt churches. Our focus on healthy churches in poor neighborhoods is not to say that other ministries are lesser-than. But we do think low-income neighborhoods are often neglected and overlooked when it comes to healthy church ministry.
I recently came across an article in The Atlantic entitled: Low-Income Communities Are Struggling to Support Churches. One big takeaway for me: “Working class and poorer families are less likely to participate in a religious community than any other socioeconomic group.”
Since low-income communities cannot support church ministry, ministries that do reach out to them are often upper-middle class and very much so take an “us-them” approach. What I mean is: We come from the outside to serve you. In urban commuter churches, middle-class members drive into poor neighborhoods on Sundays, and then drive home to their leafy communities shortly after. Many of those who live in the poor community won’t see them again until the next week. Neighborhood outreach often consists of a clothing/food pantry, soup kitchen, and giveaways. Hence “us serving them”.
All of this communicates that church is not really for you. For these reasons and many others, low-income families are statistically less likely to attend any church. I believe a lot of our poor communities are simply unreached with the gospel of Jesus. For as many problems as they have in this life: from the education system, to joblessness, to addiction—the greatest tragedy is that they don’t know Jesus.
Why Many Aren’t Moving In
Here’s all I’m trying to say: We need to see our poor communities as a mission field. And Christians who are part of these churches need to think deeply about their whole lives, what it really looks like for them to be on mission, and why they are not intentionally living among the people.
There are common reasons for it:
- Our Kids—When I was moving into the neighborhood, I literally had a man call me to tell me I was being selfish to move my kids into the city. A place plagued by poor school systems, violence, and drugs (to name a but a few). And there’s truth in that right? But where does the Bible tell us to organize our lives around safety and good schools? I’m convinced many people idolize high paying jobs so they can live in good neighborhoods so they can send their kids to the best schools so their kids can idolize high paying jobs and live in good neighborhoods. But is that the biblical vision for parenting? Or have we simply baptized the American Dream?
- Our Dreams—I dreamed of having a better house with a bigger yard. In the city, the rent is typically higher, you gotta put up with landlords that have these bloated prices for a one bedroom. You can get something cheaper elsewhere. In some ways, there’s a choice between living intentionally on mission and chasing your housing dream.
- Our Status—“I have to prove I’m better than this.” I don’t want to be associated with this neighborhood, these people, and these problems. I’m better than this.
- Our Entitlement—I put my time in, I deserve something better. I did my time in a tough neighborhood. I grew up there. I deserve something better.
What are these? When I hear myself saying words like: I deserve, I’m better than this. I want. I’m afraid. I realize something’s not right in my thinking.
These things smack of Fear, Greed, and Pride. Nothing that resembles the Christian.
Compare these responses to the missionary Adoniram Judson, who was about to leave as a missionary for Burma when he fell in love with Anne. In this letter, this is how he asked his girlfriend’s father for her hand in marriage:
I have now to ask, whether you can consent to part with your daughter early next spring, to see her no more in this world; whether you can consent to her departure, and her subjection to the hardships and sufferings of a missionary life; whether you can consent to her exposure to the dangers of the ocean; to the fatal influence of the southern climate of India; to every kind of want and distress; to degradation, insult, persecution, and perhaps a violent death. Can you consent to all this, for the sake of him who left his heavenly home, and died for her and for you; for the sake of perishing, immortal souls; for the sake of Zion, and the glory of God? Can you consent to all this, in hope of soon meeting your daughter in the world of glory, with the crown of righteousness, brightened with the acclamations of praise which shall redound to her Saviour from heathens saved, through her means, from eternal woe and despair.
Her father agreed. Adoniram and Anne would go on to live intentionally in one of the most hostile places toward Christianity at the time. They buried babies there. Adoniram was tortured and imprisoned while Anne suffered and died from disease.
I’m not even saying anything in our communities are halfway similar to 18th century Burma. I’m just saying that Christians have a long history of living for the next world, not this world. We have a long history of caring for the lost, not only our own. We have a long history of living for God’s glory, not our glory. These are the things that drive us.
This article is adapted from a talk given at a recent ONE HOPE workshop. Original talk can be found here.