Several years ago, my family moved from small-town New Hampshire to a suburban community near Philadelphia. One of the first discoveries we made is that just because an area is full of people does not mean those people know one another.
In northern New England, we figured that weather, geography, and local culture had much to do with some of the isolation between neighbors. But we quickly discovered that crowded suburbs four hundred miles to the south were not much different. Our family could play outside in full view of all the neighbors and yet have remarkably little social contact with others on our street. Sometimes we might venture a tentative wave as a car drove home, but the neighbor invariably navigated his or her SUV into the attached garage where the door closed tightly just as the brake lights turned off.
Participating in the work of Home Missions in Pennsylvania and Delaware revealed to me that our experience was not unique. From cities to suburbs to small towns and rural areas, I noticed that church planting in local communities was facing an increasingly evident problem: our communities often lack community. I was encountering individuals who had a great enthusiasm for church planting, but sometimes these delightful, friendly people had almost no meaningful attachments in their neighborhoods and communities. It was hard to gather groups of people in new communities when those communities seemed to be full of people living in essential isolation from one another.
Christians can help to rebuild the crumbling foundations of local community life when we are a part of authentic, functioning communities in local church bodies. Our congregations ought to be radically counter-cultural not only by our faith in Jesus Christ but by a commitment to express the corporate body of Christ in regular interactions with one another: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” These words in John 13:35 tell us that we’re called to love one another, and that starts by knowing one another, committing to spend time with one another, and learning to serve one another in order to build one another up and give witness to the watching world.
Don’t let busy schedules crowd out prayer meetings, Bible studies, playdates, visits to the elderly, regular fellowship with church friends, or special occasions for gathering. Through these practices and many others, we are following the pattern Jesus gave us. Through these simple appointments and habits, we are saying something to the world about our Christian faith and how it helps us to experience an objectively more blessed life.
I am most excited by this when I think about church planting. In the work of home missions, we map out geographical areas that are lacking in biblical witness so that we can plant a church for those people. Yet in the process we unite people together in a completely new expression of local community life. We give people two reasons to develop a love for the church—the real-life people and relationships we know that we need, and the Savior in whom we together place our trust.
There may come a day when unreached people in America need two levels of “evangelism.” In the first, they need to recognize that we are socially impoverished if we lack all forms of community attachment. At the second level, we need to see how our spiritual impoverishment and brokenness is relieved by the riches of God’s grace and his redeeming power in Jesus Christ. May God move our churches to recognize the neediness in this world and supply both.
Taken from the article in the April 2019 edition of New Horizons, written by Dave Holmlund, the regional home missionary for the Presbytery of Philadelphia.