A few weeks back, I was drinking a good cup of fresh roasted coffee at a local café, waiting for a friend to arrive. The folks at the bar, who obviously frequent the place, were sharing about a friend struggling health problems. They were passing around a card for him, organizing meals and getting the word out to visit him.
These café regulars developed into a caring community. Something in all of us longs for this feeling of connection to a place and the people who inhabit it.
People everywhere are longing to be locals again. Signs of localization are everywhere from “Buy Local!” campaign posters to gentrification of forgotten places in cities to the rise of fixie bikes parked at the coffee shop. An urban studies theorist, Richard Florida, says, “The 20th-century American dream was to move out and move up. The 21st-century dream seems to be to put down deeper roots.”
I started to crave roots when I was living out my dreams on the peaks and open waters of New Zealand. I came. I explored. I was done. I longed to belong somewhere, anywhere.
For a long time now, mission has been framed as a far-off endeavor, a trip requiring a passport and a plane ticket. My wife and I have done a lot of ministry—from global mission trips to caring for highly broken people in our city—but we have never experienced anything like what we’re doing in our neighborhood and city right now.
Like any place, there are cracks, but they provide spaces to watch the Gospel become redemptive mortar. The place you already live is the most obvious, but most overlooked, place to start ministry. As followers of Jesus, we need to learn to put down roots—not just to occupy places, but to become faithfully present in them. Here’s the catch: it won’t happen by accident.
Here are three key aspects to a life of faithful presence.
Jesus’ ministry plan was incarnation, to move “into the neighborhood” (John 1:14), to move from being above us to being among us. Jesus became a local among humanity; He locked into people’s lives, stories and fears when He ministered to them.
Incarnational ministry moves us from above our places (where we have no meaningful connection) to among the people, within the community. Living incarnational lives requires us not just to physically stay but to remain patiently, locally and personally engaged in the spaces and lives around us.
Faithfulness involves sticking something out. People are wary of “supernova ministry” that burns bright, burns out and heads out of town.
Your neighbors might only expect to see you once, to bang on their door and leave them some literature about hell and brimstone. The longer you are active in relationships with people who are far from God, the more they will actually believe you care about them, and the more they will open their lives to you.
Your care can remind them that God is relational, drawing people into eternal relationship.
We can talk about incarnation and longevity all we want, but if we are avoiding the pain, joy, questions and doubt of those around us, we fall short of faithful presence. You can’t become faithfully present in theory; you need to become characters in the story.
Humans are designed for ground-level connection, and this is how we must minister on Jesus’ behalf. There are no incarnational strategists, only practitioners. We are currently grieving a marriage falling apart in our neighborhood and another neighbor in rehab, while simultaneously celebrating growth with other neighbors.
Are we willing to be voluntarily interrupted by those we are living among? A busy life does not equate to a life of mission. In fact, we must slow our lives down enough to learn to pay attention to the things unfolding right in front of our faces.
Look at Jesus’ example—a firm commitment to be among rather than above, a lifelong connection to the same general area, and an authentic concern for the ground-level struggles of the people around Him.
The soil gets richer as our roots extend deeper.
God’s mission of drawing wanderers into His family always takes place in the midst of ordinary places and relationships. This can take just as much energy, finances and careful planning as a trip across the ocean.
Our mission trip started the day we were born; it ends when God calls us home.
In some ways, staying might be more uncomfortable than sleeping on a dirt floor in India and eating strange food in Liberia. Our mission with God plays out in how we walk, talk, eat, commute, party, pray, participate, communicate, spend money, make money and invest our time wherever we are.
You don’t need to take God somewhere; He’s already there. God is doing local work among the people you already know and community you are already in.
Perhaps you are full of ideas that can change your community and the world. Just remember you need to be connected to actual living, breathing people with souls. This is why we pray, “Your Kingdom come, your will be done, [in your place] as it is in heaven.” Staying in one place and working for its good might be the most countercultural thing we can do. It’s time for the people of Jesus to live for Him right where we are.
What if the Church was again known for being the people who loved their cities and the people in them the most? I hope we get to experience that day.