Preaching the Great Commandment
Do your church’s sermons disciple worshipers to love God and their neighbors with all they have? What does that love look like in your neighborhood?
Hosting a garage sale to raise money for a local park. Tutoring a child every week. Spending the 4th of July grilling steak and chicken for police officers. Staying after church to pick up trash in the neighborhood. Helping residents wash and repair their mobile homes. Praying for local legislators by name in worship. Knowing which neighbors have children with special needs or elders with dementia.
Churches sometimes see these good works as worthy, yet different and lesser than announcing God’s good news. They probably have individuals with a “heart for the least, the last, and the lost.” They might host an annual event “for the community.” However, if these churches left the neighborhood, those living or working nearby might not notice.
Other congregations see themselves as placed by God in a particular neighborhood. They worship, learn, serve, and work with others to become more like Jesus. Their Spirit-inspired gifts of hope and imagination invite everyone to help create a local preview of God’s ‘as-in-heaven-so-on-earth’ finale.
Whether or how much Christians care about their geographical community’s people and places often depends on the sermons they hear.
Name what God is doing
First Presbyterian Church in Bend, Oregon, has helped start local shelter, health, eldercare, and immigrant ministries. It partners with churches in Cuba and Bolivia, and with Habitat for Humanity in Guatemala. Having so many members deeply involved in helping their city flourish flows from preaching that “makes connections in worship,” says Jenny Warner, pastor for justice, spirituality, and community.
“We talk about current events through stories. Pastors share statistics and encourage our congregation to get involved,” Warner says. Sermons often include testimonies from worshipers who tell about being transformed through serving or from Bend community leaders who come to thank First Pres.
Pastor Mike Decker says, “Christians who want to simply ‘sit and soak’ don’t stick around very long” at Palm Harvest Church in Costa Mesa, California. The church’s tagline is “Loving God. Loving Others.”
“We pray about loving our neighbor, preach about it, sing about it, and showcase it with homemade videos and photos. We continually challenge people to identify those in their personal circles of influence whom God is inviting them to reach. I often remind people that they may be the only Jesus some people will ever meet or see.
“Whenever possible, we have people share personal testimonies in the worship service about their neighborhood activity. This showcases what God is doing and reinforces how God uses each one of us in his kingdom,” he says.
Decker, who also volunteers as a police chaplain, notes that building relationships of trust among churches and civic leaders can take years. It more often requires humility and consistent presence than launching a church-led initiative.
The Apostle Paul reminded Christians in Colossae and elsewhere that Christ is supreme over all creation and is reconciling all things to wholeness through his body. Yet, as Craig G. Bartholomew explains, Christians often miss out on the breadth of God’s cosmic salvation plan because they live by a dualistic sacred-secular worldview.
“We have to recover the Bible to see that the gospel relates to all of life, including our politics, food, and church properties. Christ came to save us from sin in all broken relationships—with God, one another, oneself, and the world,” he says. Bartholomew grew up in South Africa, is an ordained Anglican priest, teaches philosophy at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, and wrote Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today.
Bartholomew pastored a church in South Africa during apartheid and says, “To preach is the most extraordinary thing. You love the people. You’re their shepherd. But they are racists…or have bought into the idols of consumerism…or are CEOS of companies with appalling building and development practices. And you’re called to bring God’s Word to them. As the great missiologist Lesslie Newbigin said, mission takes place at the crossroads of the biblical story and your cultural story. It’s a place of unbearable tension.”
Apply God’s Word
Honest sermons often prompt confession. “During a time of silent confession, we can ask the Holy Spirit to prompt us about something we’ve said or done to an employee or student. The Old Testament, however, speaks so much about corporate confession. What do we need to confess, as a church, that we’re not doing as a church?” asks Randy Weener, who is co-leading a multiple church plant effort in and near Grandville, Michigan.
He says that preaching a gospel relevant to a congregation’s place often raises awareness that produces guilt. That’s why it’s important to offer real life sermon applications.
He preached at a Grandville church on Job 31, where Job asks God to reveal where Job has been unjust. Weener noted that these worshipers had, in general, more education, income, and influence than the average city resident.
His sermon applications invited worshipers to use holy imagination. “Consider getting to know—and learn from—a person who is poor, maybe someone you meet at a food truck. What passion has God instilled in you that stirs your heart or makes you tear up? Whether it’s pregnant unwed teens, immigrants and refugees, or people with addictions, what first step can you take?
“Take inventory of where you may be privileged. Job says we all start in our mothers’ wombs. So we’re all equal in God’s eyes, but we don’t all start at the same point. Some people without jobs don’t have a phone to receive a call from a potential employer. They don’t have a car to get to work. They don’t have insurance or money for a dental appointment. What resources of material things or influence has God given you to use for others?
“Or what would happen if churches became so pervasive in Grandville schools that there was no student falling behind?” Weener asked.
Read this conversation with Artie Lindsay about why Tabernacle Community Church is working with other churches and organizations to bless the Alger Heights neighborhood in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Ray Oldenburg wrote about third places. Twenty-somethings began choosing where to live before looking for work. “Locavore” and “local first” became buzzwords. Peter Block, John McKnight, and Wendell Berry reawakened a yearning for abundant communities in real places. But what does the Bible say about placemaking? This review reveals what you’ll gain by reading Craig G. Bartholomew’s Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today.
Watch the brief video “Place Matters.” Connect with missionally minded people in The Parish Collective. Get ideas from Christianity Today’s fantastic This Is Our City series. Follow other churches’ low-cost ways to revive the art of neighboring.
Gather a group to pray through Don’t Invite Them To Church: A Devotional Guide to Pursuing God’s Mission Together in your Neighbourhood by Karen Wilk. These quick easy devotionals can help your church move from “come and see” to “go and be.” Draw on God’s gifts of joy and shalom to love your neighbors.
START A DISCUSSION
Feel free to print and distribute these stories at your church staff, board, education, worship, or missions meeting. These questions will help your group talk about how your worship proclaims and models Christ’s love:
- Who lives, works, or studies in the buildings adjoining your church property? From their interactions with your congregation, how do they experience Jesus?
- Does your church partner with civic groups, public schools, neighborhood associations, and other non-church organizations to work for the common good? Why or why not?
- What, if anything, concerns you about making service part of worship?