I was chatting to a young(ish) Baptist minister recently who was trying to recruit me to support a particular campaign he was developing (that’s not important right now). What intrigued me was that, as he was pitching his idea to me, he casually mentioned that he just met the local Catholic priest who had shown some interest in his campaign as well.
I stopped him.
“Earlier you told me you’ve ministered in that neighborhood for 10 years. And you only just met your local parish priest? Is he a new priest?”
“No,” came the reply. “He’s been the local priest for nearly the same length of time as I’ve been there.”
I lost all interest in his campaign proposal and started wondering how a Baptist minister and a Catholic priest could both be serving their congregations in such proximity, but have never met.
If the Baptist hasn’t even met the Catholic – or the Pentecostal, or the Seventh Day Adventist – what hope is there that he’s met the local imam or Buddhist monk?
I’m often hearing evangelical church leaders telling me they love their city or neighborhood, but I find myself wondering how well they even know the city they say they love. If you’re not even familiar with your fellow Christian leaders, there’s little chance you know any of the other non-Christian faith leaders.
Your city is full of people practising all kinds of religions and spiritualities and if you say you’re attentive to your context surely you should know what they are. And who they are.
Michael Mata, professor of Transformational Urban Leadership at Azusa Pacific University in Los Angeles, commends what he calls the five S’s to understanding your context. They are Structures, Signs, Spatial dynamics, Social interaction and Spirituality. In recent blogs I’ve looked at the first four, but now I want to encourage you to study the spirituality of your city.
It is sometimes difficult to parse what’s considered spiritual and what’s non-spiritual these days, but for the sake of this process, let’s use “spiritual life” to refer to the ways in which humanity interacts with the unseen world, the inner life, God, spirit, and their concept of life after death.
Examining what people worship, how people worship, where they worship and how their worship impacts their everyday life is imperative to better understanding our place and gaining insight into what influences our place as a “force” or “energy” or “spirit” for good or for evil. As we dig deeper in understanding what influences are at play in our place, we will uncover the unseen fury that impacts the places we inhabit. Some may call this “bad or good energy,” others may use the terms “territorial spirits” or “forces of good and evil.” No matter the name we give it, most of us can agree that there are unseen elements that take up residence in a place.
How do we become aware of those elements that influence the environment and therefore act to open the space for more goodness, justice and redemption to be birthed?
Here’s some questions for studying the spirituality of your neighborhood:
- What are the formal places of worship in the neighborhood? When and how were they built or started? Are they well attended? Are those who attend a worship service from the neighborhood or do they commute in?
- What are other spiritual groups that gather in your neighborhood? Where do they gather?
- Are there spiritual gatherings in parks, coffee shops, homes or rented rooms? How do you know they’re there?
- What kinds of spiritual postings do you see on community notice boards, at cafes or restaurants on telephone poles? What kinds of services are provided in your neighborhood for spiritual seeking, meditation, service to the poor, activism or help groups?
- Do people proselytize or go door to door?
- Are there debates, discussions or conflicts over beliefs?
- What are places of solace in the neighborhood where people go to for silence, solitude and meditation? Where can one go for prayer, spiritual readings, fortune-telling or religious classes?
Remember, you’re undertaking this work like a missionary. You’re assessing the environment. You’re attentive to every aspect of the space. This is work churches expect missionaries to do in a new culture, but churches rarely seem interested in doing it in their own contexts.
By remaining ignorant of the space you inhabit, you are less able to see what God is doing, or determine what God wants to do in that environment.
Together with my co-author Christiana Rice, I explore these ideas in much greater detail in our forthcoming book, To Alter Your World. Look for it in March, 2017.