Having finished Alan Roxburgh's book, I thought I'd reflect on how I feel his analysis of our situation and Luke's writings is shaping how I think about my task in Bromley.
The first thing to note is that I agree absolutely with the thrust of his argument. 'The road onto which we are being called is counter-intuitive; it calls us to leave behind our bags filled with methods and models of how to make the church work by creating programmes that will attract and catch people. The way of the Spirit involves going on the road as a stranger, needing to receive hospitality from the other. This is a strange inversion of categories and actions - it does not fit with the way of life we have developed as middle-class individualists living in a "make yourself" capitalist culture.' (p130 - that last sentence certainly describes the church I lead!)
He argues for a resolutely neighbourhood-based approach to living our Christian story. He suggests that the way we have done church over the past 100+ years in the west has alienated us from our neighbours. This combined with the rise of the network society that has led to mission theologies putting network and connections ahead of where we live, has led to a chronic level of disconnection between Christians and their neighbours and, tragically, our neighbours and the Christian life.
Roxburgh ruefully asks: 'can we grasp the implications of what we've become when we have to train people how to have conversations with neighbours or set times aside to talk with another human being? What kind of inhuman world have we created for ourselves, and how has the church managed to accept it and develop the marketing skills to manage it? Can we be that far away from the gospel of our Lord that we don't see what we have become?' (p146) Ouch!
I confess to having waxed lyrical in the past about our need to capitalise on our networks, how our neighbours really no longer understand themselves to be neighbourhood people but rather people who live in a world of connections that arise through work, shared interests, etc. I don't doubt that this is true. But I agree with Roxburgh that we have allowed ourselves to be shaped by a world that judges relationships this way rather than fashioned by a gospel that asks us to look for and act as 'a neighbour' (Luke 10:36).
Clearly we need to relate to those we work with, people who often live miles from where we do. But equally clearly, Roxburgh seems to be on to something when he says that the focus of our living should be local. In particular, it means that the focus of what the church does should be local, centred on the places where church people live, shop, find entertainment and education for their children. Instead of inviting people to join our programme in our building, is God saying to us 'see what's going in your street, among your neighbours; look at what I'm doing there and come and join me'?
This, of course, involves big changes in the way we disciple people and the way we organise church. It also raises questions about our role in generating neighbourhood-based social captial in the communities where we live, seeing the church, Christians, as a key means of bringing people together and creating a sense of neighbourhood identity. I'll reflect on that later.