About 15 years ago, our small group pastor challenged all the groups to do at least one outreach event or activity per month. So one month we'd play volleyball at an apartment complex. The next we'd through a cookout for some friends. The next we'd do some kind is service project. While these were good, we failed to be present in any one neighborhood.
When I need an imagination about what it means to be present in a neighborhood, I have to break the my pragmatic tendency to immediately develop a list of ways to be missional. As helpful as such lists are, it's too easy to do missional things in a non-present way. In other words we do something but we fail to remain, to reveal God in an ongoing way.
By contrast, imagine that you were a part of Paul's entourage in the first century as he began ministering in Ephesus. Pull out a study Bible and look at a map of Ephesus. It was a large city for the time but small in size, only about five miles long. The houses were built right next to one another. They didn't have private garages or glass windows. Nor did the have big yards and fences to separate the homes of nuclear families. The reality is that usually multiple generations of one family would share one roof or a series of connected homes. It was a different world.
Now imagine that as you and the rest of Paul's team start to minister in this city, all kinds of God things happen. Someone gets healed. Someone gets set free from a demon. A family converts to be Jesus followers. Those in the synagogue have questions. Very quickly you start meeting in someone's home to talk about Jesus, worship God, eat together and pray. The New Testament called this church.
My point is that most people in Ephesus, and all in that section of the city, would have known about Paul and this little group that's been meeting to worship a crucified Jewish Messiah. They had no choice but to be present in their neighborhood because of the way local architecture worked during that time. Everything that they did was public. Anyone could see how they lived as Christians. They way they prayed and worshipped could be observed by simply walking by the host's home. They way they sacrificed for each other in love was on display everyday. They had no concept of a division between private spiritual activities for church insiders and public ministry activities done for the sake of outsiders. This kind of division that puts prayer and community into the category of insider ministry and evangelism and social justice into the category of outsider ministry is a relatively new idea in the history of the church.
Now of course we don't live in first century Ephesus. We live on streets and in apartment complexes where our homes are built for privacy. And we've done church by dividing up activities into insider and outsider categories. We need a new imagination about what it means to be present.
Missional small group leaders are learning to be present in a local setting and lead others to be present there. This is not hit-and-run evangelism. This is a way of doing life together as a group so that outsiders can observe and experience "the reason for the hope within" (1Pet 3:15).
Are there things we can do to be missional in our neighborhoods. Of course. There are quite a few lists online that are getting a lot of circulation. There are great ideas in those lists. However if you want to have an impact, be present, remain, focus, stay put. Let people see the life of God in you and your group.
For the next post in this series, a challenging, short video, click here.