It was the most hipster of Minneapolis neighborhoods, before being hipster was mainlined with mustaches and suspenders. Every shop was local, every pub unique. My husband and I soaked it all in, refreshed by the urban pulse so different from the rural community of 357 souls we called home. It was in those early years before children transformed relaxing vacations into wonderful but exhausting trips. We leisurely explored each nook and cranny of the borough, slowly thumbing through weird t-shirts and overpriced knickknacks. My imagination was stirred. What if we could pastor in a place like this, vibrant and energetic? A place bubbling with creativity and excitement?
Discontentment flared in my heart. Loving this place would be natural, I thought. It would not take nearly the effort of loving our current assignment in the rural Midwest, a context that still felt foreign after two and a half years. I continued to browse all the lovely, quirky things we could not afford, the discontentment digging its claws deeper still. A shirt caught my eye. At first glance, it looked like a classic “I heart NY” shirt, but this one had a twist. It said, “Go heart your own city.” I felt chastened—and by an extravagantly priced t-shirt in a Minneapolis gift shop.
Five years later, my husband and I were serving a new church in Mountain Home, Idaho, once again as co-pastors. As pastors in a new context often do, we devoted those early weeks and months to understanding the history and culture of the church and town. We were thrilled to learn that much of our church programming was centered on serving the community. But we noticed a trend that was not unique to our congregation: the majority of our events, even outreach-oriented events, depended upon the community coming to us. There was a deep desire to serve, but our service was on our terms and our turf. We determined a need and responded accordingly. Our corporate attitude was not mean-spirited or self-righteous, and it was perhaps not even intentional, but it was the product of a particular posture common in church culture: come to us.
The Lord began to reorient our imaginations through a command given to the people of God through the prophet Jeremiah: “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (29:7, NRSV). While we certainly didn’t see our assignment as an exile, we felt the stirrings of the Spirit to seek the welfare of the place we had been called to love, and not on our terms.
We began by asking community leaders what was needed in our town. Many did not know how to answer the question, particularly when asked by a pastor. How can you help? Well, um, let’s see . . . prayer? Finally, two school principals responded to our query with projects. That spring we launched our first annual “We Heart MH” event. We painted murals on school playgrounds, repainted playground equipment, and washed windows of shut-ins, rocking some seriously cool We Heart MH t-shirts. We gained none of the typically prioritized results from the event: no new members, no conversion stories, no press. But we had sought the welfare of our town and were united in the assurance that giving our lives through service to the community was not only the right thing to do; it was the deeply Christian thing to do.
In this strange, unsettling age of COVID-19, it is not an option to actively draw people to our church facilities. But that does not release us from the command to seek the welfare of our cities. Rather, it strengthens the command as we face an unprecedented crisis. We are challenged to reimagine what it might look like to seek the welfare of the cities and towns in which we have been placed, particularly in the challenging months to come. We are invited to practice faithful pastoral care, offering both comfort and challenge to our people—the challenge to be the church in our communities in ways never before seen. Our imaginations—pastors and laity alike—must be sanctified and expanded by the Spirit.
We are invited to practice faithful pastoral care, offering both comfort and challenge to our people—the challenge to be the church in our communities in ways never before seen.
Social distancing and exclusively online church services will not last forever. However, the impact of this crisis will linger for months, if not years, to come. Could we begin to reimagine what it might mean to heart our own communities into the strange new future? Could we invite the Spirit to crack open our imaginations and give us a renewed vision of what it means to seek the welfare not merely of our churches but also of the cities and towns in which God has planted us? What might happen if the church led the way in service and mercy? In compassion and care?
Ask and listen. Loving your community well in the months to come will look unique. There is no cut-and-paste option. Talk to your community leaders. In humility, inquire about the needs of your town and ask how your church might be a part of the solution.
Partner with others. None of us can do this work alone. To attempt to go it alone borders on idolatry and robs us of the opportunity to cultivate meaningful relationships with those outside our church families. What organizations are actively seeking the corporate good of your community? How might your work intersect? Local businesses, hospitals, and nonprofits can become powerful partners in the work of seeking the welfare of our communities.
Shift the metrics. What we measure reveals a great deal. Service and sacrificial obedience are difficult to assess—far more difficult than counting heads and dollars. How might we find different ways to celebrate that highlight creative cooperation, compassion, and mercy instead of the typical indicators of ecclesial success?
None of us knows what the future will bring. How sharply poignant that reality feels in these days. But our vocation as the people of God remains constant. The call to serve, to give our lives for the sake of the world, remains steady. May we be found faithful.