British journalist George Monbiot has declared that we live in “the age of loneliness,” and despite all our technology, we live increasingly disconnected and lonely lives. So, what are we to do? How do we begin the work of restorying the world, of giving shape to new stories that help us live more connected and more meaningful lives?
A Thread Through History
This work, I believe, begins locally with embodied communities. Most importantly, it happens in our local churches, where we are connected not only with real flesh-and-blood brothers and sisters in Christ, but where we are also, whether we realize it or not, connected to a particular faith tradition, a story or more precisely an interwoven thread of stories that goes back as far as the beginning of time – connecting us to other people in other places and indeed to all humanity. Connection can and certainly does happen in other embodied communities as well: in neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. But typically these communities do not have the sort of history and continuity that our churches have. The biblical story in which our churches are rooted, claims to really and truly be good news for us, for others and for all creation, in ways that other communities simply don’t. Shouldn’t this community and this narrative stream be the one that we leap into? Shouldn’t it be the one through which we make sense of all other communities and all other stories that we find ourselves a part of?
Our Journey into a More Connected Life
Thirteen years ago, my wife and I became a part of Englewood Christian Church on the urban Near Eastside of Indianapolis. It’s a long, complicated story of how we got there, which I’ll skip for now, but we were drawn to ways in which this little church actively tried to share life with one another and with their neighbors. The church services honestly weren’t all that exciting, and neither was the neighborhood around the church building – it didn’t take much effort to see that this neighborhood was one that, like many urban neighborhoods, had been deeply abandoned: sandwiched between two abandoned industrial plants, the Englewood neighborhood was full of abandoned stores, offices, and most of all, houses. It was a dull, gray place. The school building next-door to the church was surrounded by barbed wire, it was boarded up and on the verge of falling down. But we got to know and to love the people, and started participating in things that were going on in the church and the neighborhood.
Within a year, we had bought a foreclosed home that wasn’t in too bad of shape, fixed it up, and moved in. We have three kids, all of whom were born or adopted into this community. When Noah, our youngest son was diagnosed with cancer or our daughter Hazel was stillborn, we were carried by the love and care of this community in practical ways that are still very difficult for me to talk about. We started to get to know our neighbors on our block, in the Englewood neighborhood and throughout the Near Eastside, and found them to be beautiful, engaging people.
I had the opportunity a few years ago to coordinate an Englewood neighborhood history project. And the stories we uncovered by talking to neighbors, and digging through newspapers, libraries and online archives were extraordinary: our tiny little neighborhood had connections to major figures in the American story: Babe Ruth, Elvis Presley, Barack Obama, Andrew Carnegie, Jimmy Hoffa, the Duracell Battery (which was invented here!), and many more. I spent countless hours walking the neighborhood with my kids, finding trees to climb, paying attention to birds and wildflowers. We found a mulberry tree that made a scrumptious – if messy – jam, a catalpa tree that was so hollowed up inside that kids could climb down in it like a cave. Englewood was growing on us. You had to slow down and pay closer attention, but the place was full of compelling stories and deep beauty and wonder.
[Tweet “If you slow down and pay closer attention, places become full of compelling stories, beauty, wonder.”] The longer we were part of the church there, the more we found ourselves telling the church’s stories to friends and family using the pronouns we and us, even if the stories took place decades before we arrived. We gathered with our sisters and brothers of Englewood Christian Church on pretty much every Sunday night for conversation that focuses on strengthening our understanding of the scriptural story of what God is up to in the world, and wrestling with the story of what God was doing in our midst, drawing us deeper into the all-consuming love that is healing and transforming the world.
A Different Kind of Start-Up Church
As one who loves books, I volunteered for a couple of years as coordinator of the church’s teensy little book store. I was also selling used books as a sort of hobby, and we rolled that in with the new book-selling that the church was already doing. Eventually that book-selling was going strong enough that I was hired to run it full time, and soon the bookstore launched The Englewood Review of Books, the magazine that is now the focus of most of my labors. My case was not a peculiar one, though. The church has started at least half-a-dozen businesses, all situated at the intersection of gifts and skills within the congregation and opportunities for deeper connection with one another, our neighbors and other churches: a daycare, a community development non-profit that provides affordable housing, a bookkeeping operation that manages the finances for other churches and non-profits, and most recently, a hydroponic farm that is growing produce year round in a nearby warehouse that not long ago was abandoned.
Our most important work is being done in our tiny little neighborhood, but it is not being done in a vacuum. Our work has helped us forge a crazy web of relationships that stretch outward from our place: across the city, the state and the world, with churches, local, state and federal government, non-profit organizations, and for-profit companies. For instance, just this past Tuesday, CNN brought a crew to film at our hydroponic farm. People are taking note, but we’re not all that extraordinary of a congregation. We are certainly not the largest or the richest congregation, or the most well-educated either. Other churches are just as equipped as we are – if not more so – to join in the work of restorying the world in their places.
I want to leave you with three key practices that local churches will need as we enter into this work of helping people connect to deeper more meaningful stories.
1. Stay. Attentive. Staying and being attentive could be talked about as two separate practices, but I want to address them here as one, because they fit together: staying in a church community and a place helps to focus our attentiveness by giving it a structure and a narrative (we are working to be attentive to THESE people in THIS place). Attentiveness helps to clarify HOW we stay in a place. We’re not just staying because we’re stubborn or because we have no other options; in age overwhelmingly dominated by distraction and a LACK of attention, we are staying in order to learn how to be attentive. Staying will inevitably lead us into difficult choices about our career and our home life. Maybe we turn down a promotion, or the opportunity for a bigger house, or slow down our career paths. Attentiveness gives us a taste that in making choices like this that seem to be sacrifices, we are actually choosing a life that is deeper, more connected, and even – I would argue – more beautiful. As we stay, what are we being attentive to? To answer this question, let’s remind ourselves of the Apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 4:8: “whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, excellent, dwell on these things.” Look for these things, and then consider how they might be leveraged to cultivate more goodness, more beauty, more truth and justice.
2. Create Space for Open Conversation. I could spend all day talking about the virtues of open conversation. Although my church has done millions of dollars of work in helping our neighborhood to flourish, it is our practice of open conversation that has by far been the most transformative thing we have done in the last quarter-century. In conversation, we recover important social skills like listening, and seeking something bigger than our own self-interests. It is in conversation that we develop a clearer sense of the stories that give meaning and purpose to our community, and even refine the language and terms with which we articulate those stories. My church spent several years wrestling with the meaning of certain biblical terms like salvation and gospel and the “word of God” that we all frequently used, but had a wide range of understandings of what these terms meant. These conversation spaces should NOT primarily be about getting stuff done, but about learning what it means to BE together and to be present to each other. I would add that even though amazing things will get done as we learn to BE together, the focus of the time we set aside for conversation should not be action, but rather contemplation. This is not contemplation in some abstract mystical sense, but rather contemplating together on the stories of who God is and who we are, and what is the nature of this place that we find ourselves gathered in.
[Tweet “Conversation’s not about getting stuff done–it’s about learning what it means to BE together.”] 3. Find Ways to Invite Neighbors into These Practices – The deeper, more beautiful, more connected life that we find as we enter into this work of restorying the world is NEVER the end, rather it is always the means. The Gospel is REALLY, TRULY good news, right? It is precisely this abundance of life, the wonderfully connected web of stories that make the gospel good news. The end is not to make a really great community for ourselves, rather the joy and connectedness of our shared life is meant to entice our neighbors. In order for that enticement to happen, we have to be in relationship with them such that they can get tiny tastes of the life we share together, and what better way to connect with our neighbors than by inviting them into these practices of staying, of being attentive, and of practicing open conversation? In many urban neighborhoods like mine, our most vulnerable neighbors are often very transient (moving every 3-6 months when they are evicted by their landlords). Our churches can work alongside these neighbors, helping them to find and keep affordable housing. In more affluent neighborhoods, there is another kind of transiency, often born of upward mobility. Find ways to get neighbors more connected with each other: cookouts, sports leagues, service projects, all of these can be ways to be more connected and to, perhaps, at least pause and give a second thought when presented with the opportunity to move away. Find ways to bring diverse neighbors into conversations with one another, and especially try to do so in ways that are not highly politicized.
[Tweet “Find ways to bring diverse neighbors into conversations with one another”]
The Thread Binds in a Disconnected Age
This work of restorying the world, of tasting and sharing the abundant life to which we have been called in Jesus, is why the local church matters. It is here in our local churches that we REMEMBER the body of Christ, we join our bodies together to become the healing, restoring, and transforming body of Christ in our place. This is our hope, the meaning-full life to which we have been called. This is our religion – from the Latin roots meaning to bind again – binding together through stories a world that has been torn apart into the tiniest of pieces!
(This post was adapted from a talk given at Taylor University, 27 February 2016).
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