A sunset in the small town of Denton, Texas.
Photo by Monica Bourgeau on Unsplash
It is more important than ever to keep the “local” in “local church”
July 25, 2023
Local elected governance has always been exactly that: local.
In the municipality (population 32,000) in which I pastor, things like new housing developments, stoplights, road reconstruction projects, housing studies, city services, repair issues, and recognition of local heroes are often on the agenda.
The picture is similar with school boards, and the people elected to such offices are neighbors and friends who say hi at the grocery store or know your kids from the swim team. They come to clean-up days and community festivals. They know the town, and the constituents they serve are not nameless and faceless like at the national level.
Recently however, especially at local school board meetings, residents in districts scattered all over the country have been showing up with eerily similar messages: Teachers are wolves in sheep’s clothing indoctrinating our kids with CRT. Diversity and inclusion initiatives are anti-American. LGBTQ people groom our children.
A couple of years ago, it was about mask mandates and other COVID-related policies. It has not let up since then but has simply shifted to other issues.
These people have all somehow gotten really angry about the same things at the same time, even though their local elected officials are part of diverse systems with different issues they face. It’s almost as if they’ve all been watching the same network or on the same website.
It is not only similar messaging that is hitting all these different local entities, but also unruly behavior. School board officials all over the country report being harassed, threatened, followed and filmed while going to their car. Parents are doing things that one would think you only do when you know of an imminent threat to the life and safety of your children.
Karen Watkins of Gwinnett County, Ga. remembers the deranged attacks starting as soon as she set up a Facebook page in her bid to run for the local school board: “I knew we were in a heightened political era where there’s a lot of divisive issues,” she said. “I just didn’t realize that it would impact the local school board… Our main focus is towards student achievement and ensuring that we are producing children that are thriving.”
We don’t need churches steeped in ideology, left or right. We need local churches. We need churches on the ground, on the streets, and in the margins; churches who know their communities and whose communities know that they are loved and welcome in their spaces.
Something is happening that has already started to tear communities apart: local entities and servants — who have historically been focused on very practical and local issues — are being bombarded with national, organized messaging, buttressed by manufactured threats and dumpster-fire anxious energy. The problem is so widespread that the U.S. Attorney General’s office issued a memorandum about it. Eddie S. Glaude Jr. appropriately bemoaned “the willingness of so many of our fellows to toss aside any semblance of commitment to democracy—to embrace cruel and hateful policies…”[i]
This is nothing completely novel, of course, but coordinated, partisan meddling in local affairs has intensified in recent years. Dark money groups and PACs have been frustrated by their lack of success at the national level, so they shifted their strategy.
As this trend likely continues, it could leave even more of a void in a crucial space: the need for locally focused, connected, compassionate leaders who hear and know the concerns of all citizens and who create spaces for life-giving connection.
Enter: the local church.
We don’t need churches steeped in ideology, left or right. We need local churches. We need churches on the ground, on the streets, and in the margins; churches who know their communities and whose communities know that they are loved and welcome in their spaces. Rick Rusaw, coauthor of the book The Externally Focused Church, loves to ask the question: “If your church vanished tomorrow, would anyone notice? Would anyone care?”
If other parts of our communities continue to drift away from the real lives of people, this does not just represent a need for the church to “step in.” It is a space that the church should already be living in—and must do so much more fiercely—by nature of its very identity.
Baptists have long said that the local church is the primary vehicle for God’s mission, and we so strongly believe that a church must be flexible and responsive to its context that each congregation operates with full autonomy.
But there is a much more important, theological reason for this that is steeped in our understanding of an incarnational God. As Christians we declare that “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” (John 1:14, MSG). We Christians claim that God, in Christ, lived as one of a particular community in a particular time and place. Jesus wore the clothes, spoke the language, and walked the streets of first-century Palestine. This is our paradoxical and subversive claim: that God’s fullest and most complete self-revelation was also the most local and contextual.
So must our ministry be.
In his book Church on the Move, G. Travis Norvell encourages churches and believers to do anything they can that will facilitate more presence and conversation with their surrounding neighborhood, including and especially walking, biking, or taking public transit. “The movement I am proposing is not a pilgrimage to Rome but becoming pilgrims in your neighborhood/community/parish as a way to get to know those who are also [a part of] your town/city/urban center.”[ii] In his book he explains that maximizing local community connections not only made him a better pastor but galvanized his church right at a time when they needed clarity and motivation about their mission.
As believers and as a church, our calling finds its origins in God, its definition in Scripture, but its directive in context. One important part of being the hands and feet of Christ in our context is being a people of welcome and advocacy for those who have been marginalized in their communities. Glaude puts it well: “In our time, with so much hatred and venom in our politics and culture, we must actively cultivate communities of love that allow us to imagine different ways of being together.”[iii]
The last part of that sentence is especially important. The love of Christ is not just kindness and compassion in the face of the opposite. It is an oasis of healing vision and practice of a different kind of living altogether. That is the source of true hope, and that is the calling of the church, first and foremost right in our own backyard.
Rev. Dr. Corey Fields is senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, Newark, Delaware.
[i] Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons For Our Own. New York: Crown Publishing (2020), xx.
[ii] Norvell, G. Travis. Church on the Move: A practical guide for ministry in the community. King of Prussia, PA: Judson Press (2021), Kindle location 287.
[iii] Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons For Our Own. New York: Crown Publishing (2020), 142.