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Does Your Church Know Who Your Neighborhood Is?

We should add to the familiar question, “Who is my neighbor?” the less familiar inquiry, “Who is my neighborhood?”

On the final night of a course on worship I’ve been teaching recently, we explored the extent to which our worship services were shaped by their neighborhoods or wider communities.

This is a complicated matter. What is named as neighborhood or community can be a contested topic.

On the one hand, the neighborhood or wider community can be the people in the geographical location around where the church is situated.

On the other hand, for many whom attend the congregation, their neighborhood or surrounding community of presence and influence may well be located in a different place, one where they work or live and move and have their being.

It may be necessary to recognize that neighborhood for the church gathered may be different from the neighborhood of the church scattered. This distinction actually may be crucial to notice.

When people in congregations are being asked to build relationships with the people in the surrounding neighborhood (understood as the area around the church), they are often being asked to build relationships in a place where they actually spend very little time.

The question “Who is my neighborhood?” therefore is a real one and points to neighborhood as places of diverse encounter on the journey of life rather than in a fixed geographical location.

Taking this matter of the church scattered in neighborhoods is also a strength, of course, with the attendant weakness of a Baptist ecclesiology of congregation as gathered (or gathering) rather than primarily geographically located.

Of course, I am not denying or decrying the geographical significance of the location of a building in relation to its surrounding neighborhood, but this is certainly not the only neighborhood in town.

To be sure, from a congregational perspective, it makes sense to give some attention to the geographical location and the people who live and work around where the actual church building is situated.

To limit our understanding of neighborhood, however, only to this geographical location may be simply to miss the opportunity of encouraging and enabling people to live as faithful Christians in the wide variety of other communities in which they are already situated and already have relationships.

Perhaps, a greater recognition of the network of communities and neighborhoods in which the church has scattered is a better strategy – without completely negating the issue of the neighborhood around the building.

In addition to the above, when we talk of crafting worship for our neighborhood, we have to pay attention to the congregation who gathers as neighborhood as well as the wider community as neighborhood.

The immediate neighborhood in this understanding is actually the congregation who gather in their specific demographic makeup.

In this respect, I frequently make the point that the cultural relevance of worship services does not need to be something targeted toward the not-yet attenders.

Rather, cultural relevance is necessary for the meaningful engagement of the congregation who are already present.

Indeed, they are the ones who are going to scatter, and worship services should enable, empower and inspire them to live faithfully in the diversity of the contexts in which they live.

The above notwithstanding, it may be true to say that many congregations do not represent in their worship an explicit sense of their physical locality other than in the most general of terms.

This, of course, will differ from congregation to congregation and context to context.

For example, a rural congregation may be more shaped by the requirements of our farming timetable, and the congregation in a multiethnic area (one would hope) may be more shaped by such demographics than a congregation, which meets in the dominant cultural expression.

This noted, I still think that it may be true to say that many congregations do not represent in their worship an explicit sense of their locality other than in the most general terms.

This conversation also relates to the wider question of the presence and nature of a national identity.

With reference to our congregational gatherings for worship, the sorts of acts and activities in which our local neighborhoods – gathered and scattered, congregational and wider – could be more explicitly reflected are prayer, preaching, musical style and in terms of the art represented in our buildings.

Some of this will require some work. Some of this will not – such as the intentional decision to pray for another local community group each week.

I would argue, however, that the local crafted flavor is to be preferred to the bland global brand (either European Classical or Global North Contemporary) that many worship services can adopt.

Stuart Blythe is associate professor of the John Gladstone Chair in Preaching and Worship at Acadia Divinity College, Nova Scotia. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Politurgy, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @StuartMBlythe.