Posted by: Tom Rowley | February 12, 2010

The Local Church: God’s People Working Out of Love

By Robert Campbell*

The right place is where people meet on a manageable scale with the restorative power of divine love. I will begin this section with a lengthy quote from Wendell Berry in his article, Word and Flesh:

“The question that must be addressed, therefore, is not how to care for the planet, but how to care for each of the planet’s millions of human and natural neighborhoods, each of its millions of small pieces and parcels of land, each one which is in some precious way different from all the others. Our understandable wish to preserve the planet must somehow be reduced to the scale of our competence—that is, to the wish to preserve all of its humble households and neighborhoods.

What can accomplish this reduction? I will say again, without overweening hope but with certainty nonetheless, that only love can do it. Only love can bring intelligence out of the institutions and organizations, where it aggrandizes itself, into the presence of the work that must be done.

Love is never abstract. It does not adhere to the universe or the planet or the nation or the institution or the profession, but to the singular sparrows of the street, the lilies of the field, ‘the least of these my brethren.’”

Elsewhere, Berry tells of  a woman who came up to him after a lecture and said, “I just love the environment.”

“No, you don’t,” he wanted to respond. “We name the things we love.”

And so the people we are called to love as the Santa Margarita Community Church have names. They are Dave and Nancy, Jason and Brooke, Dave and Lori, Matt and Su, Kevin and Edee. Personal is very different. And, often, our love is shown in part by how we spend our money. We buy breakfast from Carrie. We buy tea from Carol, wine from the Arnold Family, a fine dinner from Jeff and Lindsay Jackson (whose daughter went to school with my son), gas from Chris, and beer from Chris over at Dunbar Brewing. These are particular people in a particular place. This is the kind of impact that a local church can have that no one else can have because God has placed us.

It was just a few years ago, while many of these thoughts were coming to fruition in my mind, that I was sitting on a patio on the campus of Trinity Western University in Langley British Columbia. One of the pastors there said that his church was planning to reach 500 people in the next 5 years. The request came in response, “Name them.” The shock of that phrase brought us to new conversation. Why? We will do things differently when we have actual people in mind. If there are 500 nameless, faceless people, we will put an ad in the newspaper. If they are friends and neighbors we will invite them over for dinner. This is where the difference is for the local church. We can know the people where we live.

So, too, can we know and love the places where we and those people live.

Recently, at our annual creek clean-up day, we removed all the debris from the creek so that it won’t flood, as it often does. We were working next to John and Carol’s house. If we did not remove the debris, it would be John and Carol that would be flooded, not just some distant community we see on the news. The name makes all the difference in the world. We are God’s people in the right place for the job. So for us, it’s not just about loving neighbors, it’s about loving Dave and Lori, it’s about Carol, Sam and Christopher. It’s not just about the environment or some nameless creek; it’s about Yerba Buena Creek.

Let me finish with a story that connects people and place in a very personal way.  Here in Santa Margarita not long ago, a  man was arrested for dumping his own waste in his neighbor’s well. Not surprisingly, the neighbor had become violently ill and did not recover until this dreadful act was discovered and stopped. This is what I am talking about. We all know that our environmental actions have an impact…somewhere and upon someone. But if we stop and think that “somewhere” is a drinking well and “someone” is a person with a name and a face and a heart, the impacts of our actions become much more real, much more personal. It takes a hard heart indeed to pee in your neighbor’s well. And if I couldn’t do that to my neighbors, Dave and Nancy, I shouldn’t do it to anyone. Not in Santa Margarita, not in the Gulf of Mexico, not on the other side of the world.

*Robert Campbell is Pastor of Santa Margarita Community Church, an Evangelical Free Church on the Central Coast of California. This series of essays comes from remarks delivered at the A Rocha USA symposium in Santa Barbara, CA, October 8-10, 2009.

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