That is my usual response when I speak with individuals and churches who name a desire to engage their neighbourhoods more actively, or to be a mission presence in their community.
And yet, at some point in every one of these conversations, I need to ask the question, “Why?”
Why do you want to engage your neighbours more actively? Why do you want to be a mission presence in your community?
What is motivating you?
In Jeremiah 29:7, the prophet presents a profound, conversation-altering challenge to the people of Judah: Pray to the Lord and ask the Lord to bless your city (or neighbourhood, community or nation).
Seek the peace of the place where you live, the prophet says. Actively work to make it even better.
For the exiles in the land of their enemies, this invitation would have been as difficult to swallow as Jesus’s command to his disciples to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).
Many of us likely have no idea what it’s like to live in the land of our enemies. However, this invitation can present a similar challenge to us.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we would rather read Jeremiah 29:11 —“‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future’”— and wonder what awesome thing God might have planned for us.
Don’t get me wrong: I love the promise of that verse, but I’m also concerned about the distortion of this blessing in a society that praises and prizes individual success and gain above all else.
There is deep missional significance in the challenge Jeremiah gives the exiles.
At the beginning of a new year, it’s a challenge I need to hear for my own journey as a husband, father, leader and neighbour.
Ivan Illich, an Austrian priest and philosopher, was once asked about the most revolutionary way to change society. He answered the question this way:
“Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into our future so that we can take the next step . . . If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.”
What are the stories we are telling in our neighbourhoods?
How active are we in seeking the blessing of our neighbours?
How often do we give thanks for the prosperity and blessing our neighbours experience?
Jeremiah’s invitation in 29:7 challenges the dominant individualism of our society: “Pray to the Lord [for your neighbours], because if [they prosper], you too will prosper.”
Jeremiah challenges me to consider that my success, my blessing, my plans/hope/future are tied up with the blessing of my neighbours and my community.
Jesus invites us to grow disciples to the ends of the earth, so that the ends of the earth will know the goodness, blessing, promise and hope of the Kingdom of God.
Jeremiah challenges us to see that the prosperity and blessing of the Kingdom begins when we set foundations, and plant and produce for the welfare of our community.
We do this when we raise our children in the community and become part of its fabric, and we do this when we pray for (and give thanks for) our neighbours and seek their blessing.
As 2024 unfolds, with all its promise and opportunity, turn your gaze outward and give thanks for the community that creates the space within which your household can grow and flourish.
Then pray that God will prosper the people next door.
Norm Dyck is the mission minister at Mennonite Church Eastern Canada.