There is a temptation in our modern, connected world to forget where we are at. Not in the sense that we don’t recognize physical details of our surroundings like buildings, streets names, and landmarks (although that is possible now that Pokemon Go is taking over the world and grown men are staring at their phones as they walk off of cliffs). No, we have the tendency to forget where we are at in relation to the people around us. People who occupy a defined geographic, cultural, and relational space. We have lost, in a great sense, the concept of community.
The globalization inherent in the revolutionary technology we take for granted as “the Internet” has made radical changes in the way we interact with our fellow humans, the way we interact with information, and in the way we interact with our community. Instead of valuing others as divine image bearers, we make each person we interact with a prop in our one-man stage shows on various social media accounts. Instead of treating information as a valuable resource that must be allowed to inform our foundational worldview, we treat it as a throw away commodity, there when we want it but never there to challenge us when we don’t. Instead of living connected lives immersed in a local culture full of unique and differing opinions, lifestyles, and interests, we settle for a homogeneity of 1s and 0s that end up looking just like us.
It is in this disconnected, disassociated, and frankly disappointing landscape of shallow connection that the church could make such a difference. And some are!
But most aren’t.
We need to pay more attention when we read our Bibles. There is a challenge for the modern church hiding in plain sight, especially in the New Testament letters. We are often tempted to skip the first few verses of these missives, but we do so at a great price, especially today. Because in those introductions, we see a corrective to our culture’s forgetfulness of place: “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi”, “to the church of God that is at Corinth”, “to the saints and faithful brothers at Colossae”, etc.
Do you see it? Those two letters, that one word? “At”. In that word there’s a lesson. These letters are included in the canon for a reason. We celebrate the call to unity in Philippians, but we miss the “at”. We are grateful for the instruction of 2 Corinthians, but we ignore the “at”. And we exult in the preeminence of Christ in Colossians, but we neglect the “at”.
Too often, we get concerned with the latest evangelical drama in some large church in some large city in an altogether different environment than our own. We sit in rural Iowa and read books touting a church growth strategy that was phenomenally successful in San Francisco. The miracle of technology means that we can instantly access church resources from New York to Tallahassee to Denver to Seattle. But “can” doesn’t equal “should”.
When future generations read of today’s churches, will there be an “at” or an @?
If the church is going to fulfill its counter-cultural mandate to make disciples, it’s going to take a different approach, one that eschews the flattening influence of modern evangelical culture. Instead of pastors worrying about building a national platform, what if they invested themselves in building local leaders? What if church members stopped comparing their pastor’s preaching to the national platform guy and started valuing the guy who’s there in the hospital room at 2 AM? What if people starving for relationships online could switch the computer off and find connections at a local church? In our rush to keep up with the times, have we left gospel community behind?
Because the New Testament “at” reminds us that the gospel is ineffective apart from a thriving, local, intentional, believing community living out their faith day by day.
How do we do this?
Christian: focus on your “at”. Don’t get so caught up in your national Facebook news that you forget your neighbor next door. Don’t think that your spiritual maturity is safe in the hands of a podcast preacher whose words can teach you, but whose hands can never join yours in prayer or whose ear will never hear to you. Don’t confuse gaining spiritual knowledge with maturing as a disciple; it’s part of it, but being a disciple means living out what you learn in your sphere of influence.
Church: focus on your “at”. Don’t worry about your denominational standing, worry about your reputation in your community. Be involved in service projects. Show Jesus’ love in practical ways to those who live around your building. Establish an online presence but don’t forget your community presence. Open your doors to the community and they just might open their arms to you. Demonstrate love, compassion, and truth instead of expedience, hurry, and disaffection.
Pastor: focus on your “at”. Don’t worry about what your buddies from seminary will think when they listen to your sermons online. First of all, they won’t. Secondly, they’re not who God has given you to minister to. Don’t preach to the congregation you wish you had; preach to the one God has given you. Get to know your people. Go hang out with them at community events. Take your kids to the local library and get to know other parents. Be present. If God gives you a national or global platform, use it! But don’t neglect where you’re at to get there.
This may be just a Luddite rant. Maybe the future of the church is online. Maybe the eradication of local culture is God’s hand at work. Or maybe it’s an open door for the church to fill the need for genuine community as the mad rush for global relevance leaves the weak and defenseless and neglected behind.
Excuse me while I go check my “at”.