May 19th, 2015

We live in an Internet, Instagram, iPod, “selfie” culture that values individuality, exclusivity, and anonymity. Yet, one our deepest needs as humans is to belong. We long to belong to a family, a community, or an organization that knows us by name, loves us unconditionally, and helps us to find meaning and hope in life. We want to belong to groups where joys are experienced, meals are shared, and “good news” is lived out. This belonging is what hospitality looks like. Sometimes it happens in the context of a local church and sometimes not.

Renaissance UMC, where I serve, is an urban church. We are confronted with the realities of homelessness, joblessness, violence, drugs, teen pregnancy, and racism. Our mission is “Helping people experience new life through Jesus Christ, thus making new disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” This mission has led the church to engage in diverse ministries, including a weekly community dinner, a summer sports camp for elementary school students, individual counseling, and a transformational Sunday worship experience. The church also engages in discipleship with small groups, called Growth Groups, for adults, couples, youth, and children. These are examples of how the physical, mental, and spiritual needs of people in our neighborhood are met in a context of community. These are spaces and places at Renaissance UMC where people in our neighborhood belong.

But the overwhelming majority of people in our neighborhood, and throughout the US, do not attend any church. This disturbing fact reminds me that there is another level of belonging that our young church of four years has yet to address. This type of belonging is a form of evangelism. It’s a connectional, social, boundary-crossing evangelism, and it happens outside the church. It seeks to liberate individuals and communities from all forms of burden and oppression through the love of Jesus Christ. This is the deeper, messier work of evangelism that is required to transform our communities in the wake of unrest in communities such as Ferguson, Missouri, a few miles from where I grew up in St. Louis. This liberating work can be done in partnership with a variety of organizations and agencies, but authentic spiritual liberation is the primary responsibility of the church of Jesus Christ. It starts in the street, engages with local leaders in law enforcement, local government, and school districts, and includes local congregations. This may not immediately build the church’s worship attendance, small group participation, or financial offerings, but it’s the work of kingdom building and is essential to fulfill our mission of “Helping people experience new life through Jesus Christ, thus making new disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

Our churches must continue to make places of belonging for people in our neighborhoods. We must practice welcoming hospitality. My prayer for The United Methodist Church is that we will also be courageous enough to engage in kingdom-building evangelism, that we will be attentive as it bubbles up in our communities, that we will be bold and encourage this kingdom force to spread, that our local congregations would be transformed. We all belong to Christ, and in Christ we find our place of
belonging. In every way, through hospitality and evangelism, share this message.

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