Missionaries in the past were a key source for understanding the world beyond the West. Take someone like William Carey (1761–1834). As the missionary to India who founded the Baptist Missionary Society in 1792, his overriding motivation was to preach the gospel. Yet, his pursuit of that goal meant he joined himself to people, places and spaces.
Carey set the bar very high. As a botanist, he discovered one of the three varieties of Eucalyptus found only in India. Among other things, Carey was also an agriculturist, forester, liberator, reformer, astronomer, translator and librarian.
When the Holy Spirit gave Carey a desire to go to India, the Spirit then joined him to a place and a people – a shared life with many Indians and many places, one that took shape and bore witness to the good news of God’s kingdom. Carey took seriously the geographic dimensions of discipleship, and so must we. Wherever we live and work, God’s desire is for us to make deep and lasting connections with all that surrounds us. With people, land, animals, and the foundations of local life. This shouldn’t be a strange thought. The Gospel of John opens with the stunning statement: ‘The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood’ (John 1:14, The Message). There is nothing abstract about the incarnation or how God interacts with his creation. The implications of the incarnation extend to people, to a neighbourhood, to the very soil. Creation matters. And in the context of concrete places, among real people, the gospel creates an alternative community that creates an alternative space in which the lordship of Christ is worked out across the whole of life.
Yale theologian Willie Jennings’ commentary on Acts got me thinking about the practical dimensions of geography and discipleship:
The mapping of space and the constructing of living spaces through city planning, land development, real estate operations … determine our communities and, to a large measure, dictate the vision of what life together might mean for us. This planned geography determines the reach of our discipleship and the material enactment of God’s love in our communities.1
Following Jesus in loving our neighbours must, by extension, involve loving our neighbourhoods. We must pay attention to place and prayerfully discern what ‘the material enactment of God’s love in our communities’ might look like.
Becoming part of the story
So, if we’re engaged in church planting, whether in East Asia or in the UK, this will mean attending to the geographic dimensions of place. We need to get to know and find out the story of that space, and look for ways to involve ourselves and our local church in the shaping and reshaping of our communities with gospel hope and Christ-centred service. We might ask ourselves, is this a space that enables people to come together and create community? Or, are there economic, social, political, or racial barriers that prevent it? How might the gospel be challenging us to break and reshape geographic patterns that keep people apart? What is our vision for how the new humanity community, in the concrete expression of a local church, might share ‘life in all its fullness’ (John 10:10) in ways that transcend fragmented geographical spaces?
The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted the problems of a world too often characterised by fragmentation and commodification. Our world is crying out for communities that model a holistic perspective of life, of place, and that engage with the whole of creation. We have the privilege of joining in with God’s great redemptive plan for the restoration of all things, anticipating that goal even in the mundane aspects of living in a particular place at a particular time with particular people. We might not match the scope of Carey’s engagement but Willie Jennings’ questions can help us take some small steps in the right direction:
…what if we lived as though the well-being of those around us, including our surroundings, was as important to us as our own lives? What if for the first time I felt the absolute depths of God’s love and concern not only for the one who God has drawn into my life and me into theirs but also the place I inhabit, the streets I traverse, the animals I see, and the plants I touch with all my senses every day? For those disciples so willing to be led by the Spirit into radical love, God will create a communal reality that answers back the groaning of the creation with a word of great hope: the children of God are now visible.2