I know a pastor who left a large, suburban church where he served for 25 years to plant a new church in one of the poorest areas of town. He joined with another non-profit and they formed a new LLC and purchased property together. The new space is not only where the church worships but a place for health care job training, English learning for immigrants and refugees, and leadership development.
I know another pastor whose church made a courageous decision to stay in a deteriorating part of town and, over the next 15 to 20 years, was the catalyst for reinventing the reputation of the neighborhood, making it a place of thriving development and the site of an annual party which many city leaders and officials make a point to attend.
I know of 20 cities across the United States that have intentional networks of congregations that use power in numbers to bring attention and action to systemic problems facing their communities, taking seriously the biblical call to “do justice” (Micah 6:8, Matt. 23:23). These networks of believers have been the voice of the voiceless in their communities and been on the leading edge of expanding services and opportunities, doing it all unapologetically in the name of Christ.
These are just a few of the countless examples of local congregations, filled with normal people like you and me, doing Spirit-inspired work in their communities. All over the country, people of faith are working in and with local leaders in a relentless effort not only to better their communities but put flesh and bone on their belief in the Kingdom of God and the command to love your neighbor.
The above examples are ones that I either personally visited/witnessed or was involved in myself. But I hear many other stories like these all the time. I know it’s anecdotal, but I am confident that the church is alive and well. When you look locally, you see a vibrancy and heart for mission that stands to challenge all the narratives about church decline, hypocrisy, etc.
“Local” has always been where the action is. But the problem is that much of the media that people consume today does not highlight what’s going on right around us. In all fairness, national media isn’t really meant to highlight local communities. That’s why we have local newspapers and TV stations, but those outlets are losing support (subscribe to your local paper!). So the result is that we’re often looking way out and up to national organizations and leaders to the neglect of the people and settings where things actually happen.
We see this in the way that a few of the most outspoken and controversial megachurch pastors or seminary presidents are called upon whenever the media wants to get the “Christian” perspective on something. We see it in the hyperfocus on the Pope (although, don’t get me wrong, I like Pope Francis, and his recent choices in cardinals represented an important shift). We see it in the way some Christians have opted to stay home and read Joel Osteen’s keys to happiness rather than connecting with the pastor and congregation down the road.
However, people also look too high in politics. It’s not lost on anyone that we are in a contentious and unprecedentedly weird presidential election. Most people can tell you who the two major party candidates are, and a historic number of people say they don’t like either one. Yes, too few people are even aware that there are other candidates. But the problem is much deeper than that: millions of voters will go the polls on Nov. 8 knowing little to nothing about down ballot races and issues, which will likely prove more consequential to their everyday lives than the top race.
To be sure, the power of the president is not to be taken lightly. But public policy that affects your healthcare, your taxes, your rights, and basically everything else you care about is largely decided by your local, state, and congressional representatives. However you feel about your public schools, your property taxes, or your ability to find a job, much of the credit or blame actually goes to those county and state representatives that you may not be able to name. Or consider all the buzz about the Supreme Court and how the nomination of future justices plays a large factor in how people are voting for president. How many of those same voters can name their U.S. senators, who are ultimately responsible for confirming those nominees? How many will vote in the midterms?
A friend of mine had been frustrated about the defunding of schools and other things going on in her state legislature, so she went to the polls in a state primary with an anti-incumbent prejudice and, in each race, voted for the “other person,” the challengers to the incumbents. ‘Just vote them all out’ was the thought. But in at least one race, that amounted to a vote against an incumbent who actually shares her views. Whoops. People may feel that their representatives are not doing their job, but we have a responsibility, too: to be engaged and informed.
Some state election commissions have websites with information about what/who will be on your ballot, and this website is also helpful: https://ballotpedia.org/
We often look too high. Local is where it happens. Local is where citizens are working for the common good under the radar. Even more importantly, local is where churches are serving as their community’s conscience, being the prophetic voice for “justice, mercy, and faithfulness,” and living in witness to the Kingdom of God.
It’s happening. We are there. But often you can only see it if you turn off the TV and look outside your window.