By Rick Rusaw
I have lived in Boulder County, Colorado, for nearly 29 years and currently work from an office on Pearl Street in the city of Boulder. Some describe Boulder as 20 square miles surrounded by reality. At times, I would agree. I don’t know of any better location for ministry than a place that embraces spirituality but rejects Christianity. Boulder often is listed as the least religious place in America. That would be true, unless you consider naval gazing, pot smoking, hiking, biking, and running to be nonreligious activities.
Boulder is also ranked as one of the healthiest and most fit places in America. As a result of the area’s health consciousness, some of the best farm-to-table (organic) restaurants in the country are located in Colorado. If you have done any sort of ministry for at least 10 days, then you have heard, seen a tweet, read a blog, or attended a conference that tells you the church needs to be more organic. We are told we need to quit structuring things and just let things happen. The list of all the things wrong in the church is long. Organic is one of the rally cries for change.
People often mistakenly think organic farming is easy. You don’t have to do anything but scatter seeds, right? No weeding, no hoeing, no pesticides to spray—just let it go and grow. I’ve heard some church leaders talk about that type of “organic.” It’s where you quit organizing, don’t do anything, and just let the church take its course.
I think we assume that “just being” is preferable to working. “Let’s just hang out at Starbucks and be organic.” But try farming that way in real life; your farm will end up overgrown and falling apart. Truth is, when I am enjoying a great organic meal in Boulder, I am eating the fruit of hard work and much sacrifice. The truly successful organic farmers in our area must work hard. Nothing on the farm just happens! Without effort or intentionality, a farm is overrun.
If my friends who insist the church needs to be more organic mean we should refrain from all pesticides, be healthier, and be more like Jesus, then I completely agree. Usually what we mean, however, is we don’t like what we have, we aren’t sure what to do next, and let’s do something different.
Measuring What Matters Most
We have resorted to a lot of things to grow our congregations. As a pastor, I want our church to grow. Jesus said the church should grow. I am measured by growth, and I measure myself by growth, as well. We all are measured by others and by ourselves and by Outreach magazine. In our efforts to grow, it’s possible we have used some pesticides and used some shortcuts as we added to our numbers. As some have said, there’s a big difference between the church getting fat and the church growing.
Don’t get me wrong, I think numbers are important; they are certainly one useful way of measuring. For many (me included), we often stop with butts, bucks, and baptisms.
What if we were to measure the number of changed lives and the cumulative effect of those changed lives over time? What if we didn’t just measure weekend attendance but also the resulting change in our communities? What if we counted not only how we gathered but how we scattered? What if scattering actually meant we’re getting better at the two things Jesus said mattered most—loving God and loving our neighbor?
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).
Jesus’ said everything his Father had said up to this point (Prophets) and every command God had ever given (Law) hung on these two things—love God and love your neighbor. In other words, if you want the door of your life to swing more freely, get better at these two things.
But I discovered that getting better at the two things Jesus said mattered most gave rise to more angst, more failure, and more challenges than anything I had wrestled with before, both personally and in the church. It changed the way we measured change; instead of big stories that involved hundreds or thousands, we had hundreds of little stories.
Becoming a Better Neighbor
Focusing on what we call “neighboring” didn’t necessarily equate to more attendance or giving or decisions right away. Neighboring was more a mind-set than a measurable program where results could be tracked. Hardest of all, it was personal to me as a leader. By that, I mean I couldn’t lead where I hadn’t been. It was organic, and intentional organic was much harder.
I thought I was a good neighbor—our dog didn’t mess in our neighbors’ yards, we kept our grass cut, and we were polite and kind. But just as nearly 20 years earlier we had asked, “If our church disappeared, would anyone care?” now we were asking, “If you moved out of your neighborhood, would anyone care?” The hard answer for me was, “probably not.”
So, to give some handholds for us and for the church, we began four simple practices to becoming a better neighbor:
1. Stay. Get connected in your neighborhood, learn your neighbors’ names (I was shocked I didn’t really know their names), learn something about them (where they work and where they are from; their hopes or hurts or dreams). I discovered I was driving out of my neighborhood early in the day and getting home late, and hitting the garage door opener before I stepped out of my car. Now I have a simple rule: If someone is outside, I don’t go inside; I engage with my neighbors, even if just for a few minutes.
2. Pray. Praying for my neighbors is now a regular part of my life, and no longer is it simply praying for the people in the blue house with the loud dog. My prayers have grown more specific, more intentional, and my neighbors now often ask me to pray for things.
3. Play. Host a cookout, have the neighbors over for a meal, find a way to hang out. Move your backyard to your front yard. The most underutilized spiritual space may not be church buildings, but, instead, the kitchens and family rooms in our homes.
Jesus stated three times why the Son of Man came; these are purpose statements:
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).
“For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
“The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners'” (Luke 7:34).
When you read the Gospel of Luke, focus on how often Jesus was at a meal, going to a meal, or coming from a meal. In some ways I think the Pharisees wanted him dead because of his table manners!
4. Say. Through intentional neighboring, I have learned our conversations eventually turn to life stuff and spiritual matters, and I have gotten to share my story of grace. All of that has come out of the power of relationship and connection and friendship.
These four practices aren’t complicated, but they are kind of difficult. The opportunity to have a far greater impact on our community is substantive; it puts the mission of the church back into the hands of the church, and that isn’t so easy. Personally, it was organic for me—intentionally organic—and it was worth praying every day, “God how can I get better at the two things you said mattered most?”
Rick Rusaw serves as chief executive officer of Spire.Network. He and his wife, Diane, served at LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, Colorado, for more than 28 years. He is the co-author of several books, including The Neighboring Church: Getting Better at What Jesus Says Matters Most.