“We do not flourish as human beings when we know no one and no one knows us; we do not flourish as human beings when we belong to no place and no place cares about us. When we have no sense of relationship to people or place, we have no sense of responsibility to people or place.
“Knowing what you know about yourself and the world, what are you going to do?”
Steven Garber, Visions of Vocation.
A community is most often defined by geography or cultural nuances or both. Community is about what certain people have in common. Do you see yourself in relation to a people and a place?
Ministry and mission always include a people and a place. Your people could be your immediate local community, your extended neighborhood. You may live in a community context that stretches back for several generations. You may possess a rich cultural heritage right where you live. Maybe your heart breaks for the homeless or those trafficked for other people’s pleasures, or those who are experiencing food or educational insecurity. These particular people may live in proximity to you or in another part of your city — or somewhere else in the world. But you identify with them in some way as a community that needs an expression of the love of God.
As you identify your people and your place, there is responsibility. It is not enough to simply hold sentimental feelings toward someone or somewhere. You must act. The primary Hebrew word in the Bible for “to know” is yada. The thrust of this word is layered and rich. It means to pursue a deep and intimate knowledge that leads to action. This applies to your relationship with God as well as your relationship to people and place. God is a missionary God and pursues all people with perfect knowledge and love. Because you bear His image and are His follower, you can imitate Him through your knowledgeable and loving pursuit of those God has placed along your path. Being a follower of Jesus bears implications. The more we get to know God personally and His heart for the whole world, the more we are implicated to express His compassion with others.
Your local context is the best starting point to find a community to serve. Begin by better comprehending your local story. Why did the God of the universe place you where you are with these particular people in this particular moment in history? What shared knowledge, experiences or cultural understanding do you already possess with this people and place? How might God desire to leverage this sense of existing continuity for His glory and choose to use you in the process? Where is there already common ground that might create a relational pathway for the good news of the gospel to root and bear fruit? Service requires endurance and perseverance. Service is about a continuous connection of listening, learning and serving a people and a place.
How is Community as a People and a Place Portrayed in the Bible?
The Bible is filled with raw and real stories about people making a difference for their community. Some chose their space of contribution and service. God chose others to serve and make a contribution in a very unlikely place and among unlikely people.
- Ruth, an immigrant story (Book of Ruth)
Ruth was a Moabite woman who married into a Jewish family. Culturally, there was great animosity between Moabites and Jews. Ruth was also a widow who deeply cared for her widowed mother-in-law. Widows in those days were left destitute if there was not a family context to care for them. Within this setting, Ruth makes a great declaration of loyalty to her mother in law, Naomi, “. . . where you go I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried” (Ruth 1:16-17, English Standard Version). Ruth returns to Israel with Naomi and enters into the social fabric to provide food and care for her mother-in-law. Along the way, Ruth discovers that there is a near relative, Boaz, who could nurture and care for both Ruth and Naomi. Ultimately, Ruth marries Boaz, this near relative to Naomi, and Boaz portrays a beautiful picture of redemption and restoration. God valued Ruth’s initiative so much that she stands in the genealogical lineage of Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 1.
- Esther, a divine intervention in history (Book of Esther)
Esther was a Jewish woman living as part of an exiled community in Persia. She existed as a minority among some who accepted her and some who wanted to eradicate her people. Through no choice of her own, Esther became a queen to the king of Persia as a young woman. This was God’s sovereign hand to use Esther to save her people. Yet Esther did not know this when her circumstances thrust her into a place of influence. A man named Haman who was arrogant and self-promoting became the second most powerful man in Persia. He attempted to use his power to eradicate all of the Jewish people from Persia. Esther stood in a singular place to both expose Haman and save the Jewish people. At the urging of her uncle, Esther displays bold faith and quells this evil genocide. Mordecai, Esther’s uncle, encouraged her faith when he said, “And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14, ESV).
- Paul, a Jew called to the Gentiles (Acts 9)
The Apostle Paul, whom God used to author 13 books in the New Testament, was once an enemy of the church. He arose as a highly educated religious leader among the Jews. Not long after the birth of the New Testament church, Paul was part of an organized effort to destroy this newfound way and community. But one day, as Paul was traveling to Damascus to bring further persecution, he was struck by a vision of the resurrected Jesus. At that moment, and over the subsequent days, Paul not only received his salvation but was dramatically commissioned to be God’s mouthpiece to the Gentile world. This commissioning took Paul all the way to Rome, the supreme seat of power and influence in his day. God used Paul mightily to help establish the church among the people he once despised.
- Peter, a Jew called to the Jews (Galatians 2)
Peter, one of the original twelve disciples and an early leader in the church, was called by God to minister to his fellow countrymen. Peter grew up as an ordinary person among a group of ordinary people. He was a fisherman by trade. The gospel accounts in the New Testament reveal Peter to be a boisterous and energetic follower of Jesus. He experienced great highs and great lows along the way. He even denied knowledge of Jesus three times. Yet Jesus restored him and used him greatly within the context of his own culture for great good.
- Timothy, a disciple assigned to a city (1 and 2 Timothy)
Timothy was a multi-ethnic disciple of Paul. As an apprentice, Timothy traveled extensively with Paul on his missionary journeys. He became a trusted emissary and often took reports and brought back reports from fledgling churches throughout the Ancient Near East. As Paul’s life and ministry began to wane, he chose Timothy to oversee all of the house churches that had been started in the city of Ephesus. Timothy did not choose this assignment, but God chose Timothy to be a leader that would strengthen and establish the church in a very culturally significant location.
- Thomas, a doubter who becomes a cross-cultural missionary (Matthew 10; John 20)
Thomas, like Peter, was one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus. And though Thomas traveled and ministered with Jesus for three years, he doubted the resurrection of Jesus. He found it improbable that this leader that he had come to love could actually be God and conquer death. Jesus, in a show of compassion and grace, allowed Thomas to touch his very wounds as proof that he was the living Savior. Apparently, this was a shocking moment for Thomas and launched him into incredible ministry. Several historical accounts record that Thomas was the first to take the gospel message to the subcontinent of India. To this day, there is a strong Christian community in southern India and a burgeoning church movement throughout the country. Thomas was compelled to cross cultures and bring the message of Jesus to a people who had not yet heard.
Can you see the people and places in every one of their stories? Some settings were very natural. Some were surprising. All of them required faith, perseverance and endurance.
Discovering Your People and Place
How do you determine your people and your place? To whom and where is God inviting you to make your contribution?
The proper pathway includes everything we have gained from these posts thus far. Knowing the true story of the whole world fans the flame of missional desire. Knowing your design, your gifts and your abilities plays an important role in understanding your unique contribution. Pursuing ever-increasing intimacy with Jesus will allow you to hear his voice and recognize his invitations. Being in Christian community will allow other voices to better inform you along the way. Understanding your local story may help anchor your people and place. Looking out at the world at large may fuel your passion for what ought not to be and your invitation to do something in the name of Jesus to bring correction.
Pay attention to the idea of rootedness. This is your grounding. It begins with your foundation in Jesus first and foremost. But rootedness also includes your ethnic heritage, family, community, passions, causes and competencies. Your rootedness may take you toward your people and your place. Focus on the depth of the contribution that God wants you to make. He will take care of the breadth.
Who are your people?
Where are you already rooted?
What place and among which people are you to root yourself?
What is your space of contribution?
How will you take your place in God’s great story?