A Place to Start

Ric Hudgens Pastor's Corner

Congregations have approached renewal in a variety of ways. Spring revival meetings used to be common. An evangelist would come from out of town for a week-long worship and preaching series with a focus on conversions and baptisms. Evangelistic courses were the rage for awhile. Training in door-to-door evangelism with prepared answers to suggested questions was literally sold as the key to new vitality and a sense of congregational purpose. Sometimes the focus is on innovative worship services, hiring a youth or family pastor, changing the worship time, or shortening the sermon (no church ever lengthens the sermon!).

Clearly some of these ideas have sometimes worked with particular congregations in particular contexts within particular church traditions. Prescribing them as as “one size fits all” answer to the life cycles of a particular community however seems wrong-headed at a very fundamental level.

I am convinced that our renewal must be connected with our place. Place includes the geographical, biological, chronological, and sociological aspects of our location. “Location, location, location,” the retail person says. Well, it’s true. Location is important not as point of sales but as a point of belonging. Location is the place from which renewal must start.

You’re probably familiar with hydroponics, a method for growing plants without soil. It can be done.

Many churches have become hydroponic churches growing Christians without any connection to their place. It can be done. No argument from me there. Churches expand across the country like cheeseburger franchises each one like the one before regardless of where in the country they are located. The worship spaces are the same, the music is the same, the teaching is the same. Copying the retail model, their intention is to make the “worship consumer” as comfortable as possible in a familiar atmosphere that never varies from place to place.

Just like the corporate mindset they imitate, they have no sense of belonging, no love for the local, often little investment in the welfare of the commons from which they partake. Companies abandon long-standing factories, offices, and warehouses to move somewhere more profitable. Churches focus on worship and Christian education to the neglect of neighborhoods, neighbors, and local politics. The health of the commons they share seems to be of little concern.

Many congregations (even Mennonite congregations) know more about justice issues in countries south of the equator than they know about justice issues in their own communities!

What happens when the practice of God’s shalom is limited to a 90-minute gathering one morning per week?

Docetism was an ancient Christian heresy that asserted that Jesus did not really have a physical body like you and I. Docetism was condemned by the church, but the docetic disposition abides wherever the church neglects its location.

Wherever churches act as if our mission can be divorced from our local context—the people who live next door, the principalities and powers that hold authority, the water that does or does not flow under our feet, the flora and fauna that struggle or thrive outside our window— there the gospel is betrayed.

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)

Word. Flesh. Dwelling.

Congregational renewal begins by taking our dwelling more seriously—by re-placing ourselves with a deeper connection to our context: social, political, economic, ecological, and spiritual.

Understanding that is just the beginning. It’s a place to start. Like buttoning a shirt, you have to get the first one right.