Living Out Space-and-Place Christianity

“The lived Christian life always occurs in a place. It is never an abstraction, never a generality, never a technique. Place: Shechem, Sinai, Galilee, Bethany, Kalispell [the town Peterson grew up in]. Geography is as every bit essential to the Christian life as theology.”

— Eugene Peterson, As Kingfishers Catch Fire.

Just prior to heading down to Tauranga, I got the chance to hear Paul Sparks (one the authors of The New Parish) curate an event at Crave. It was titled ‘An Evening for Missionally Minded People’—or something like that—and featured speakers from Crave itself, a community centred around a large cafe focusing on making their neighbourhood Morningside a better place to live and work; UNOH, a missional order devoted to working alongside urban poor, regenerating communities and breaking cycles of poverty; and Urban Vision, an Anglican new-monastic movement centred around intentional living, hospitality, and rhythms of prayer. It was a mixed crowd, to say the least.

A theme of these types of movements—movements I am very much excited by I might add—is the idea in which the story of God must play out in specific time and space. The story of salvation is a local one. All true gospel transformation occurs when it begins to leak into the daily lives of specific communities and places. I couldn’t agree more.

More and more we are realising that long-lasting transformation occurs within lived-in, space-and-place Christianity. It is not until the good news of Jesus Christ has reached into the far recesses and nooks of our everyday lives, at home, work, and so on, that we see the gospel take root. It is not until we realise the story of Jesus actually playing out in our neighbourhoods and witness his Spirit at work there that we see communities turn around. But the last century has thoroughly ripped apart most people sense of space-and-place, the ancient concept of the ‘parish’ barely a memory after the onslaught of the internet, urbanisation, and automobiles. How does the gospel place out in the local, specific neighbourhood in this new disconnected, ‘global’ community?

Space-and-place

Cultivating a sense of ‘space’ is fascinating and demanding task for many Western people. Settler and Pakeha dynamics mean that many simply don’t have a strong concept of space and place. We do not know, and cannot pretend to know often what it truly means to be tangata whenua, people of the land—a land, of this land. For many (and I’m painting broad brushstrokes here), especially in urban environments like Auckland it is difficult to understand and cement oneself in a place when homes are transitory rungs on a housing ladder, community is the coffee group you met with the next suburb over, and schools and churches aren’t defined by locality but by attraction or prestige.

Westerners, and especially settlers like myself, do not understand the rooted and centred forms of living which humans have always had. Prior to the time of automobiles and readily-accessible mobility, you simply lived where you grew up, working and worshipping within walkable parameters. This indeed is where the ancient understanding of ‘parish’ comes about.

In the modern age, the parish is a deeply fragmented place. Our sense of space and locality is greatly diminished. This is only exasperated by the fact that Westerners all over the Commonwealth are not truly at home, recent or immediate descendants of immigrants into an already inhabited land (there is a great deal of nuance here not the focus of this discussion). I speak for myself now in expressing the difficulty in placing home and belonging being born in a different country and into an immigrant family. Our prior homeland South Africa, was also not our true place of origin, once again settlers in a foreign place, ‘orphans of an Empire.’ As much as the quest for Pakeha indigeneity might rage on, the simple fact of the matter is due to out settler status, most Christians in Aotearoa will struggle to cultivate a strong sense of space-and-place Christianity. We have a lot to learn from our tangata whenua.

[I]t is difficult to understand and cement oneself in a place when homes are transitory rungs on a housing ladder, community is the coffee group you met with the next suburb over, and schools and churches aren’t defined by locality but by attraction or prestige.

Yet the Hebrew Scriptures and worldview are rooted in a deeply embodied, space-and-place attitude. God’s salvific acts are tied to geographical and physical realities; Zion, Jerusalem, and YHWH are all linked in synonymous ways. The story of salvation was a local one.

‘I Praise You From Zion’

There is a lot of similarities between the Hebraic world and te ao Maori, both are, as Eugene Peterson would say, ‘topographically’ concerned. God’s people are always grounded to the land, intertwined in space and place. In te ao Maori, the whenua (a word for the placenta) returns to the whenua (also the word for land). In Genesis, adam (the word for humanity) is formed from adamah (the earth), created from the dust.

Over and over again in the Hebrew Scriptures the Exodus story of their salvation is told, about God’s deliverance from literal slavery, an actual desert, from physical enemies, into a specific promised-land. The lives and faith formation of the Israelites occurs in geographical terms, fit with specific enemies, places, and sacred space. Take Psalm 132 where the psalmist recalls his revelation of God, on the fields of Jaar, in the place of Ephrathah, or Psalm 126, where the author cries out that YHWH would restore their fortunes like flowing streams in the desert of Negev. In the exile the Jews pined for return to their homeland, to Mount Zion and for the temple where God dwelt, living on the shores of Babylon. In short, it was seemingly impossible to divorce the faith of the ancient Hebrews and the land in which they inhabited. It was that ingraining sense of space-and-place that drove the disciples to ask the admittedly confused question, “Lord, is this the time you are going to restore Israel?” (Acts 1:6).

All this is to say is that salvation occurs in time and place. Holistic transformation of communities and individuals occurs within lived-in, concrete neighbourhoods, but I must admit I am discouraged by the odds which stack against this rooted way living out faith. How do we learn to embrace space-and-place, to connect to our whenua amidst historical and Western cultural currents combined with increasing fluidity and displacement of modern people in urban environments? People I talk to seem far more interested in acquiring the next step in the housing and lifestyle market than in committing to being God’s people in one time and place long-term. I get it, and I understand the desire, but how do we reshape this heavy, embedded cultural attitude?

I’m yet to see much agreement on the best way of doing things. The sheer diversity of the ‘missionally minded’ folk who gathered at Crave was obvious evidence for this; groups committed to working in the poorest areas of Manurewa verses groups creating hip cafe’s and cidery’s in gentrifying central Auckland suburbs. It is highly, highly contextual—by nature it has to be, right? What are ways which we can truly embody place-and-space communities of God’s people to holistically transformed?

The New Parish would suggest embracing the 'parish' in the three forms of formation, mission, and community. They tie these three compartments together in the life of the church in order that a community lives a comprehensive life of worship together, each facet distinct but overlapping in “God’s vision for human flourishing” (86). I like it, and want to expand it further specifically in the way a pastor might then be called to work.

The ‘Local’ Pastor

Formation, mission, and community has to be grounded and cultivated in the actual lives and experiences of people. Therefore, the liturgy, songs, prayers, and preaching can't be ethereal or disconnected events but use the language, stories, and experience of the people in that area. As much as the support of overseas and offshore mission is important, the church's work has to be grounded and local, deeply involved in the issues of the community and reaching the ones who fall through the cracks within your own neighbourhood. Community also has to become part of the parish life, encouraging people to have small groups that actually meet within the neighbourhood of your church, as the pastor actually living in the area and hosting people in your home which is near the church. It means sending you kids the local schools and communicating this locality as a key value.

If I want to take the concept of parish seriously then it means reordering my own life to be local. That's hard work, and especially easy for me to talk about as an unmarried, childless young guy. Those types of commitments to ‘parish’ living are much unimaginably more complicated when your spouse works out of the neighbourhood or your local schools are rough places to send children. Yet this integrated life demonstrates the seriousness to which you live out space-and-place Christianity.

Perhaps more importantly, it also takes special time and care to know and hear the experience of the people and the land in your parish. It takes time to listen to peoples stories, struggles, and pains. It takes a prayerful ear and patient lifestyle to tune into what God is doing and has done in that place. It takes energy to study and to research the history of that land and to hear that history represented for all voices on the spectrum. These stories, language, and experience must begin to find their way into your preaching, praying, and worship.

~

These are my thoughts—what are yours? I’m learning and making my way as much as the next young person and person who feels called to pastoral ministry. How much do you agree with Peterson’s claim that ‘geography is as important as theology?’

This is a blog interested in theology, church, pastoral ministry, and the gospel of Jesus in post-Christian, 21st century, Aotearoa New Zealand. Comment and korero below, or get in touch with the author at andrewclarkhoward@gmail.com.