I (Veronica) live in a neighborhood on the Westside of Atlanta that at some point was identified as a “mission field” by major church denominations. In my small community there are four different churches, one of which sits on the property across the street from my home. It’s an older, historic church building surrounded by open green space. The church has been gracious over the years to allow the neighborhood to use some of the land for a community garden, which brings people together regularly to care for the plants or chase their kiddos around the old trees.
But the church itself has really struggled over the last few years. Shortly after we moved in, I attended one Sunday morning with my daughter Aubrey to check it out. It was a sweet, small group of people – but had the hallmarks of a dying church: very few attendees, limited resources (no childcare was available, so Aubrey sat next to me during the long traditional service during which I bribed her with crackers to sit still), and a growing sense of pressure from the denomination that numbers needed to improve – and fast. In the short three years we have lived in our neighborhood we have seen three different pastors come through this church. The most recent pastor, Michael Dutton, moved in to the neighborhood a couple of years ago with his family and a heart to love the community well.
Unlike his predecessors, Michael quickly realized that the best way to reach the neighborhood was to get involved in the community. He seemed more interested from the start in connecting with neighbors than building numbers on Sunday mornings. The church attendance has continued to suffer, but Michael and his family (in a relatively short period of time) have made themselves a critical part of the fabric of the neighborhood. Every opportunity he’s had to volunteer to support community events, Michael steps up to do so. He was one of the major coordinators of last weekend’s annual Easter Egg hunt. Last Halloween he set up a spooky backdrop and took free family photos which were delivered on a disc to resident’s mailboxes. Recently when a neighbor’s house caught fire and burned down, Michael set up a GoFundMe account that raised nearly $3,000 to support him. Michael shows up with a humble spirit, is one of the first to volunteer, and invests his personal resources (money and time) to create programs and opportunities that benefit the neighborhood…even though very few of us attend his church. He is one of my favorite neighbors and he makes our community a great place to live.
I see Jesus in the way Michael shows up as a neighbor.
But his church didn’t see it the same way. I don’t know the details, but he’s no longer the pastor and the decision came down from the denomination. According to Michael, they “didn’t see the good that was being done” and ended the relationship. This resulted in Michael losing his housing since the sitting pastor’s house is across the street from the church and is owned by the denomination. I saw the U-haul parked outside of his home the other day and my stomach sank. His family had to temporarily move out of the community while they wait for another rental opportunity to open up. Yet, even in the midst of moving he is as involved as ever and his family has every intention of moving back as soon as they can.
This whole experience has convinced me that sometimes we need a good neighbor more than we need another church.
Could we, Christians, adjust our vision for what “church” even looks like? Doesn’t it seem more Jesus-like to be a body that goes door to door handing out invitations to the Christmas party and works hard to clean up the community park rather than waiting in an empty sanctuary for people to come to us? In fact, based on what I see in scripture, I wonder if Jesus himself would say that being a good neighbor is a the higher priority. Consider Mark 12:30-31 (NIV):
30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.
I saw Michael this past weekend at the church egg hunt and he summarized his story perfectly,
“I wanted to be known as a good neighbor before I was known as a pastor.”
And that, to me, is what church is all about.