Neighbourhood Grace
Neighbourhood Grace

Neighbourhood Grace

In public settings, we are often called to "think thickly and speak thinly." So I ground my thinking in scripture and theology, even though my conversation partner may not share these foundations with me.

"My biggest frustration is that I can't seem to get many of the members to put any of their time or effort towards our shared mission."

I listened to his words, but also was aware that I must have had this conversation over a hundred times during my 15 years in ministry. But this time, it wasn't a church member complaining to me about the rampant individualism or consumerism within the church body. This was the District Manager of the Stadium Historic Business District Association (SHBDA) complaining about the lack of involvement with the broader goals of the district among business owners.

Photo: Eric Jacobsen

I had recently been elected the President of SHBDA and the District Manager was looking to me for support and help in his plight. In some ways, my involvement in the SHBDA was a natural fit, since the church at which I serve as the Senior Pastor is embedded in the heart of the neighbourhood and serves as a visual anchor for the district. On the other hand, the church is not technically a business and the source of my authority at church (the Word of God) is not a recognized authority outside of her walls. So far in my tenure, the awkwardness of this fit had not really crossed my mind, but the framing of the District Manager's concern was familiar enough to cause a momentary lapse in clarity between my two roles.

Had this been one of my lay leaders at church, and had the complaint been about church members, I would have had a better sense for how to frame my response. Perhaps I would have used 1 Peter 4:10 or Ephesians 4:11-13 to help us think about ways to remind our members that they have been given gifts of the Spirit in order to serve one another and build up Christ's kingdom. Not only would this language most likely fall flat on the District Manager, but the truth articulated in those verses would probably not apply to many of the business owners who are not followers of Christ.

As I reflected further on his dilemma, I began to frame a more helpful approach—at least in my own mind. Richard Mouw taught me that in public settings, we are often called to "think thickly and speak thinly." This gave me permission to ground my thinking in scripture and theology, even though my conversation partner may not share these foundations with me. Later, as a second step, I could think about ways to communicate the conclusions I had drawn.

I began with the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:27, in which God instructs humanity to fill the earth. The neocalvinist tradition holds that this reference to "filling" means the development of cultural goods. This mandate is one part of the larger creation mandate that is given before the covenant with Abraham, and so pertinent to all of humanity. I share it not just with the Christian community, but with all people, including the business owners and employees in the Stadium District. It is, first and foremost, an affirmation of their vocation to repair cars, clean teeth, hem pants, lend money, and prepare and serve food. Before we ask them to "do more to support the district," we can begin by affirming what they are already doing.

Then I began thinking about the great biblical notion of shalom. I have come to love the idea of shalom as human wholeness and flourishing in the context of loving relationships. Shalom is a word for God's intent for the good of humanity, and I believe it is attractive to people whether they have a relationship to God or not. According to Jeremiah 29:7, shalom is something we can seek for our unbelieving neighbours and with their cooperation. My favourite image of shalom, from Zechariah 8:4-5, is a picture of intergenerational life on the streets that I can easily picture taking place right in the middle of our Stadium District. I believe that fleshing out this picture may provide a key for getting the District Manager and the business owners to work together to bring about this attractive vision.

This led me to think about common grace. As I considered the plausibility of this vision in this place, I realized that there were other districts in our area that had managed to increase shalom through the collective voluntary efforts of business owners in the area—many of whom were not Christian. The immediate agents for this shalom increase were the business owners; however, we can also claim that God was the cause of this shalom through the blessing of common grace, the non-salvific blessing that God can give to any person. Common grace comes in many forms (natural blessings, the restraint of evil, and so on) but the pertinent form for this discussion is identified as "acts of civic righteousness."

This mental journey helped me reframe the District Manager's question in my mind. Although he didn't know it, he was asking me whether I could help the business owners in the district fulfill their God-given mandate to increase shalom in this place by affirming the goodness of their primary vocation and relying on the blessing of God to help them overcome their self-absorbed disposition in order to serve the greater good.

This thick reframing of his question helped me respond to his dilemma in a way that employed thinner language. I first tried to really listen to his concern and not brush it off. Shalom is meant to be a shared vision for the community, and it is distressing to feel alone in our pursuit of this ideal. He may feel blown off by the other business owners, but I wanted him to know that he had my full attention. I also affirmed his frustration. His picture of what this neighbourhood could be was more than just a projection of his ideal community setting or that which brought him comfort: it was, at some level, inspired by God's expectation for community life. And it is not just frustrating, but wrong when we fail to achieve it or even care about it.

As much as I felt that I needed to validate his frustration, I also recognized that I needed to be careful of indulging it. After all, much what the business owners were doing was simply living out the cultural mandate. He also spoke fairly sharply about the business owners' self-absorption and wanted to make them pay (by subtle censure) for their failure to contribute to the district. Part of his frustration grew from the gap between what the district could be and the effort that each was willing to put towards getting there. But perhaps the greater part of his frustration was the disappointment of discovering how pervasive a self-oriented perspective is within the members of our district.

I was less frustrated because I was less surprised. One of the great advantages of a Christian worldview is that we are not surprised by sin in either its egregious or milder forms. I encouraged the District Manager to have a bit more patience with the business owners, because the idea of putting the needs and desires of others above their own was alien to them. If it was going to be different, it was going to need to be taught and modeled. No amount of scolding was going to bring about shalom. We needed to revise our expectations and to take things a bit more slowly. What we need—what we all need at some point—is to be graciously invited to enjoy the fruits of shalom as we are being asked to contribute to it.

I knew that behind our efforts was a God who is even more interested in bringing about shalom in our neighbourhood than either of us could ever be. I never used the words shalom, sin, or even vocation in expressing this conviction. But I believe that our conversation that day honoured God, and hopefully helped us take one more step towards helping out neighbourhood to be God honouring as well.

Eric O. Jacobsen
Eric O. Jacobsen

Eric Jacobsen is the author of The Space Between (Baker, 2012), and Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith (Brazos, 2003) as well as numerous articles on New Urbanism. He is a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, and a participant in the Colloquium on Theology and the Built Environment sponsored by St. Andrews University and the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship at Calvin College.


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