I just returned from seven weeks in Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Where I met several times with groups of pastors on the issues they face and the leadership challenges they are experiencing. Many of the same things the American church struggles with are also issues in these parts of the world. The cultural shifts we are seeing in attitudes about marriage are global. One key difference is that the Christian communities in these countries are much smaller in terms of percentage. They function as a cultural minority; therefore, there is no advantage to being a Christian culturally.
What was encouraging to see was how these pastors tackled their challenges: many brought their staffs with them. There was a great sense of the whole team taking on problematic areas. They wrestled with the tension between challenging their culture’s practices (which are not biblically aligned) and thinking through how to show genuine love and concern in order to extend an inviting hand for the gospel.
A number of these churches are spending a great deal of time and energy ministering directly to the communities around them, particularly helping with local school needs as a way to get to know the families in their neighborhood. This means offering tutoring programs and organizing work days to help improve the school facilities. I heard more than one story of principals who were initially skeptical, but took the help because it was needed. Their skepticism was converted to enthusiasm for the church’s presence and deep appreciation for what the church was doing. Thus, this act of concern crushed a stereotype about Christians in the process.
These conversations reminded me of something Andy Crouch and I discussed on one of the Hendricks Center’s first Table podcasts: impact is usually made at a local level. Often we have grand ideas about how to impact the world, but often the hardest and yet most significant impact we can have is right in our own neighborhoods where we already have a presence. This trip made me realize that issues may be global, but impact is quite local, starting with one person or institution at a time. Until people get to know us and see that we care, they will probably care little about what ideas we have to share. Once they can see our concern and compassion, then they might be more open to listen. So the exhortation of the day involves being local in how we do ministry. What do we do that shows our community we care? How can others get to know us up close and personal? Maybe there is an opportunity right next door that can open the occasion to interact with those who otherwise might not have a clue who we are. As big as the problems are for the church in the world today, one way to tackle them is loving our neighbor, one proximate location at a time.