A Sense of Place

January 2nd, 2011

The mission challenge for our churches is to help us become inhabitants. Planted in a place, congregations can put down deep roots.

On Thursday evening, June 21, 1781, Francis Asbury went riding. This man who only a few years before had estimated his travels at 6000 miles a year got on his horse again to ride another mile and a half. He was “in a land of valleys and mountains,” he wrote in his journal, a rugged section of Virginia near the South Fork of the Potomac River. He had arranged to meet an old settler he knew as Father Ellsworth, who wanted to show him some caverns.

They went in a cave, clambering down its narrow entrance to step out into “lofty chambers, supported, to appearance, by basaltic pillars.” Here in this underground cathedral the stalactites looked like organ pipes and rang out when struck with a stick. A rise in the wall appeared to Asbury like the balcony of a church. He was even moved to sing a hymn about “the deepest abyss.” It was all, he wrote, “new, solemn, and awfully grand.”

I never really liked Francis Asbury much until I read this passage. I had always thought of him as the peripatetic, workaholic spiritual offspring of the tirelessly driven John Wesley, both of them committed to perpetual travel, constant preaching, and the relentless business of saving souls. Asbury was not the reader Wesley was, but he stayed fresh on Baxter, Fletcher, and other divines, and like his mentor carried on a vast correspondence with preachers, critics, and seekers all over the land.

After I heard about him singing in that cave, though, I began to see another dimension of our Methodist forebear. This was also a man who could write that the stream he just forded was “murmuring through the rocks, and in the rich lands, gently gliding deep and silent between its verdant banks.” He found the countryside “elegantly variegated” and praised the “pure air.” He noted the hundreds of people trudging along mountain trails to seek a new life and wrote, “We must take care to send preachers after these people.” He was, in short, a man in love with the land and its people.

Often in conversations with pastors I will ask in one form or another the simple question, “Tell me about your congregation—what's it like?” Many times the reply is about the people and the land as much or more than it is about programs or the usual measures of institutional life (members, money, and so on.)

“Most of my conference is farm land where the culture and the rhythm of life is shaped by the weather, the seasons, and the prices for produce.”

“I serve an old city church built for the trolley lines that are now paved over, and we're trying to figure out how to connect with these urban professionals renovating old houses as well as the working people getting displaced by the real estate market.”

“My congregation used to be in the countryside but now it is a mix of descendants of the original farmers and newcomers who have just bought homes in the subdivisions sprouting up on those same farms—and I'm trying to help them care for each other.”

All of these are comments about landscape, the land shaped by human uses over the generations. The most effective and fulfilled pastors I've known are those who, like Asbury, are in love with the land and inhabitants they've been given to serve. Or to put it another way: pastors who can connect with the landscape and appreciate what it means to the inhabitants who come through the doors of their churches will have a much better chance of developing an effective ministry with them. They will have a chance to be theologians of place, discovering gospel in the caves and streams, farms and factories, homes and sanctuaries of the communities they serve.

The dominant culture of North America does little to encourage a sense of place in ministry. Hooked on mobility and the self-propelled, self-contained automotive means of getting across the land, Americans increasingly are drawn to live in the abstract. Computers, e-mail, cell phones, and jet travel seem to make it completely irrelevant where we are. “A lot of us,” wrote Wallace Stegner, “have never stayed in one place long enough to learn it, or have learned it only to leave it.” Many people come to our churches speaking of a “spiritual hunger.” This is surely, in part, a hunger for connection, for community, and for place.

Much talk of the “new mission field of America” fails to address this hunger for place. As Scott Russell Sanders put it, few of us “imagine that the condition of our souls has anything to do with the condition of our neighborhoods.” But how can we gather to witness and serve God's reign of well-being and justice if we do not have lives that make for community or that enable us to be good neighbors?

The mission challenge for our churches is to help us become inhabitants. Planted in a place, congregations can put down deep roots. They can encourage us to develop a truer sense of the places we live by nurturing our love of God's creation and our care for the land, by giving us occasions to tell our personal and collective stories, by offering ways for us to be neighbors, by recalling to us the prophetic vision of a place in which people live justly and in peace with one another.

Pastors can nurture this habitation by paying attention to the places they have been given to serve. The art of pastoral attention is sometimes dismissed as passive. To the contrary, attending to a place requires immense energy and focus. It is a kind of love that notices the particular red of the maple in the October churchyard, the sunlight on people's faces when they sing on Easter Sunday, or the longing for home in the voice of a new resident. Attuned to the stories and symbols of the people, pastors can build up their congregations to witness and serve God's reign in the language, culture, and community of a particular place.

comments powered by Disqus