6-7 October 2017 – Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, London
Posted on May 26 2017
Yesterday my next-door neighbour fixed the leaky pipes under our kitchen sink. He was made redundant recently and his poor spoken English makes him quite under-confident when it comes to applying for another job. We knew he was a bit of a handyman so we asked him to come in and take a look at the puddle on our kitchen floor. With a bit of pointing and sign-language he told me what parts to get, and then came back to fit them. It’s a job I maybe could have done myself (my wife isn’t so sure), but our antenna are out for opportunities to build relationships with those we share our street with, and particularly for chances to let them serve us. In the case of this family, we have helped them on several occasions, including when they arrived going to welcome them and to explain the complex process of taking the bins out (each house has four different ones. Note we did not offer to do it for them, but showed them how they could do it themselves). He was obviously pleased at the opportunity to repay a favour, and my hope is that his self-esteem has gone up a notch.
What does this have to do with mission? The concept of the missio Dei – the constant activity of a loving God as a missionary seeking to deepen his relationship with his creation – (making the Church’s task one of joining in) gives scope for a deeper, holistic form of mission. God’s desire for people is shalom – health of mind, body, spirit and community – which will include a sense of well-being and self-esteem. This comes right down into the small, everyday things of normal life – like bins and leaks and many more. I call this ‘mission-with’ and it is rooted in being present alongside others and building relationships. Not so we can bestow blessings on our poor, lost neighbours, but so we can live alongside, get to know, learn from and be blessed by, as equals, and when it comes to dealing with issues we share a concern about – such as a problem with gang violence – as co-workers. A part of them getting to know us will be getting to know Jesus in us having an effect on our attitudes and reactions. We don’t hide our faith, but we also don’t push it. We try to show it in the day to day and most days life is just like anywhere else. Our community is a diverse one, but we all do mostly the same things: like the school run, cook meals, moan about the weather… and take the bins out.
‘With’ has been called ‘the most important word in theology’. It is the active part of that amazing title of Jesus, ‘Emmanuel’, meaning ‘God with us’. It speaks of the incarnation of Jesus as the ultimate incomer. ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.’ And he sends us as the Father sent him, to be with people. It’s all about relationship. I am evangelical by background and we are big on the Great Commission. But it is preceded by the Great Commandment, which is surely the lens though which we should view our commission. The two parts of that commandment – on which everything else depends – to love God with all we are and our neighbour as ourselves, are actually of equal importance (like the old Double A-Side if anyone remembers the old vinyl single records). The Greek word for neighbour simply means ‘near’, so next-door, next desk, co-worker, team mate.
Mission is often seen as events or activities: acts of service for or taking a message to. Nothing wrong with events and activities, but by their nature they are episodic, one-sided in power terms and not conducive to forming loving, empowering and equal relationships. And as we have seen, mission is much bigger. Particularly in a multi-faith context, beginning with a mission-with approach, being among, sharing life, building relationship (making it an ‘always on’ model), can earn the right to some more overt for or to action, though it should never be seen as a means to that end. Over our time in this neighbourhood we have seen some lovely changes: now there is far less vandalism, graffiti, on-street drunkenness, overt racism, and far more engaging with and watching out for each other. There is more to do, not least a fly-tipping issue, but overall shalom/well-being levels have increased, not just because we are here, but because others have also responded to a gradual shift in atmosphere. Many of our Muslim neighbours now know the difference between a christian and a Christian. Some neighbours have even come to our church Carol Service.
Mission-with can work in any context containing neighbours… so just about anywhere. In our particular case that context has been an inner-city neighbourhood in Manchester. This brings a whole other dimension to the ‘who’ we have been with, in that we have been following a calling to choose to live long-term in the sort of area most people, given a Lottery win, aspire to move away from. This has been the classroom where mission-with has been/is being learned through being, doing and reflecting.
So that those relationships with neighbours can grow, where Christians are is of vital importance, and that in two senses. The first is summed up beautifully in a cartoon by Dave Walker at the front of my book, ‘Mission With’. Titled ‘Where the church is’, it is a busy city scene with numerous arrows and the word ‘here’ pointing to a pedestrian, a bus passenger, a car driver, a shop assistant, a window cleaner and more. It is saying Church is the people where they are and what they are doing and who they are with on the other six and a half days of the week when they are not warming a pew.
The second sense of ‘where’ is to do with where we choose to live. Surely, if our faith more than a ‘devotional add-on’ to normal life, the big decisions are to be made by calling over comfort. Part of what led us to the inner-city over 30 years ago was seeing the imbalance between where most people lived and most Christians lived. If all Christians are actually living – or working – where God has ‘placed’ them, given the proportion in the inner city, that would seem to be a massive contradiction to God’s ‘preference’ for the poor.
The New Testament letters contain next to no exhortation or how-to instruction to evangelise. But there is a lot about relationships: with God, with each other and with those outside of the church – our neighbours. Peter says: ‘Always be ready to answer everyone who asks you to explain about the hope you have’. Surely that is about an observed lifestyle causing curiosity. Half of the recorded words Jesus spoke were in response to questions related to his actions. I would now query an isolated outreach initiative such as litter-picking where a church visits and does something for a community. Being with people, encouraging picking up the litter together is better on several levels. But it is also harder and takes longer.
“We need to do our work and live our lives in a way that calls attention to the new Spirit that lives within us and who is changing us. We need to relate to people … in ways that create a sense of wonder. We must seek a spirituality that makes our lives eloquent.”
This is city transformation from the low-visibility, micro end of the scale (see also mustard seeds, yeast) and it is one person and one leaky pipe repair at a time.
Paul Keeble came to Manchester from Northern Ireland in 1978 for a year… and stayed. One-time bass guitarist in several bands, he now works with the charity Urban Presence on various church and community projects, networks and initiatives. He and his wife Judith have followed a calling to live in a Manchester inner-city neighbourhood for more than 30 years.
Paul will be speaking in the Social Transformation Track at Movement Day UK