There’s a dilemma at the heart of the missional conversation today. A number of key voices are fruitfully calling for a return to the local geographical neighborhood as the primary space in which to discern and participate in God’s movement. This represents an important corrective to modernity’s abstraction away from the particular and local. If modernity is embodied in the big box stores and chain restaurants that make so many American communities look the same, embracing the unique character of local life and culture is a welcome thing. But there are some complications worth exploring.
First, let me affirm the basic theological move undergirding this turn toward local neighborhoods: the Incarnation. In the Incarnation, God shows up in the ordinary, local, and particular. God joins us where we are, in the spaces of daily life, in the mundane. This was and remains a revolutionary theological idea that the church still sometimes seems reluctant to embrace fully. The Christian life is not about escaping ordinary life in the world, but discovering God’s presence and restorative movement within it.
The complication is not theological, but sociological. As Mark Dunkelman (in The Vanishing Neighbor), Nancy Ammerman (in Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes) and other writers have documented, the geographical neighborhood no longer functions as a place of community or spiritual meaning for contemporary America in ways that it once did. People spend more time with their intimates (immediate family and close friends) while connected virtually to people who may be dispersed across many miles, rather than make themselves available to the people who live on their own street. Ammerman’s research found that for the majority of Americans in her study, the neighborhood was not a meaningful place of sacred connection. The “middle space” (Dunkelman) of neighborhood and voluntary organizations (including congregations) is collapsing—one of the reasons why local churches are under such stress and decline.
Many geographical neighborhoods are also increasingly sociologically homogeneous. As Bill Bishop explores in The Big Sort, Americans now tend to live near people who look, vote, believe, and think like them. The nation’s political polarization reflects this reality.
There are, of course, exceptions to this shift away from the neighborhood. Just like the craft, artisanal, locavore movements that have swept across a certain segment of North American society (generally white, well-educated urban dwellers), some people are intentionally making geographical neighborhood primary in their search for community, identity and purpose. My own city, St. Paul, has a number of neighborhoods like that. But this is a minority, like those who shop on Etsy.com and hang out in one-of-a-kind coffeehouses rather than at Target, Wal-Mart or Starbucks. (The church version is best represented by Christopher Smith and John Pattison’s Slow Church.) For many Americans, the artisanal life is out of reach or undesirable. There are also distressed urban neighborhoods that retain cohesiveness because their residents aren’t able to move easily or escape them. Rural communities—many of which are aging and shrinking in population—also tend to have enduring relationships and a unique dynamic of their own.
Church leaders can invite ordinary disciples to try to reclaim their geographical neighborhoods, but for many this cuts against the grain of how their lives are structured today. It simply won’t make sense. It will seem an ideal that only certain people can embrace—like those few who practice an artisanal life, or who have a lot of spare time. The deeper call to engage and accompany neighbors wherever they are can get reduced to an inaccessible niche lifestyle.
This is why I think the missional conversation needs to claim a broader definition of “neighbor.” I would like to suggest language from the Book of Common Prayer (from Prayers of the People Form IV, p. 388): “all those whose lives are closely linked with ours.” Precisely who falls into this category may not seem obvious at first blush. It is not just our intimates—close friends and family. It includes all those whose economic livelihood is tied up with ours, including those who grow our food, who make the clothing we wear, those upon whom we depend and who depend on us. It includes the people who live near us—our geographical neighbors—but also, in a globalized world, those distant with whom we are connected through economic, social, political, and cultural systems, including people who share our town or city but inhabit very different neighborhoods than our own.
Claiming a more expansive definition of neighbor—including both the geographical neighborhood and transcending it—requires entering discernment. Discovering what God is up to in the lives of our neighbors, listening to their stories, and bearing faithful witness to God’s reign in relationship with them may happen in the physical neighborhood, but also in the workplace, through communities connected by suffering and struggle, shared interests, hobbies, or anything else. Sometimes it might mean intentional crossing of cultural and socioeconomic lines.
Where I live in Minnesota, people do not get out and interact much with their physical neighbors for six months of the year (winter), but they sustain lively relationships with all sorts of people through other avenues. For example, my son’s soccer team has connected our family with a diverse array of families from around the city, with regular opportunities for more meaningful conversation and community than with some of our geographical neighbors. This is a space of presence and connection.
The question we must wonder about is, To which neighbors are we called? I’ve come to believe there are no simple categorical answers to this—it is a matter of ongoing discernment. Jesus is asked by the lawyer seeking to justify himself in Luke 10:29, “Who is my neighbor?” He answers with the parable of the Good Samaritan, a tale of an outsider crossing social, cultural and religious lines in compassion.
How do you define “neighbor”?