Last weekend, I found myself in an energetic conversation in the foyer of the mosque that meets next door to our church. My wife, a woman from our congregation, the Imam and I were discussing how to address human trafficking in our neighborhood with the leader of a regional task force on trafficking. As I walked out into the warm evening air of a San Diego winter’s night, I was struck by how much Alan Roxburgh’s work has changed the way I see the world. At times, I feel as though my life is being poured into Luke chapter 10. My neighborhood has never seemed more alive, more full of hope, or more full of mysteries. What is God doing in the midst of all this? His newest book, Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World, is short, challenging, and catalytic. This is not book about church growth or church health. This is a field manual for those wanting to press their hands into the messy soil of everyday life in their neighborhood.
Alan Roxburgh is a pastor, teacher, author and consultant. In Joining God, we get five decades of experience and perspective boiled down into a hundred pages. These are pages best read slowly, reflected on, acted out, and then re-read. At the center of the book, as with everything Al writes, is the burning conviction that “God is ahead of us in our neighborhoods, calling us to join.”
It is no secret that profound cultural transitions have proven disorienting for a large number of Jesus followers in North America. Many churches and in fact whole denominations have become disengaged from their local contexts. They have lost touch with their neighborhoods and more importantly their neighbors.
In the first part of the book, Roxburgh offers a trenchant analysis of how we got here. Like yarn unraveling from a partially knit sweater, the stories we tell ourselves about how to address the deepest problems we face have been coming undone.
Roxburgh calls these underlying, often pre-conscious narratives “defaults.” He names four defaults that lie deep within the identity of churches and leaders. To take one example, Roxburgh drills into the narrative that with the right management all will be well. This is a default with deep roots. The fruit of this imagination is seen in both our anxieties and our frustrations. Juxtaposing our tendency to look to strategies and leadership for results with the story of Moses and the burning bush, Roxburgh writes, “All this planning, strategizing, data gathering and managing tells a true story about who we think is really in charge of this world. God’s agency is secondary, functioning as a background resource to support our own management efforts.” I almost never have coffee with anyone where this foundational story doesn’t surface in some way.
In the second part of the book, Roxburgh proposes five practices for the journey ahead. Mining Luke 10, this section functions is designed for practitioners. It is meant to be carried into the field and lived out. The great value of Roxburgh’s book is not new information, new ideas, or new techniques but rather new habits and practices.
The first practice he offers is listening. When I first started working with Al, the reminder to listen seemed basic, a bit quaint, easy, and, to be honest, a bit dull. There has to be more to life than that. Before long, I was rediscovering how much work and skill listening takes. Roxburgh makes that case that congregations need to learn to listen not only to God and each other, but also to our neighborhoods. He writes, “God is abundantly and creatively present in our neighborhoods. What we want to do as God’s people is practice how to listen in on what God is up to in the neighborhood so we can join God there.” In 25 years of church leadership, I have been to workshops, classes, conferences and meetings that aimed to equip followers of Jesus to hear God. I have discovered that all that training has been a great help in discerning what the Spirit of God is up to in the church. However, very little of it prepared me to explore with others what God is up to in our neighborhood, which is precisely why Al’s book is so vital. Roxburgh invites us on a journey not so much of going but rather a journey of staying. At its fullest, Joining God has the potential to initiate an adventure for churches, groups, and networks longing to discover in a fresh way what God is up to. At the end of his marvelous poem, “Little Gidding,” T.S. Eliot writes,
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
May we never cease from exploration. It is time for followers of Jesus in North America to step out again beyond what we know into the risky invitation of Jesus. We may, in the end, see our very homes, workplaces and neighbors as for the first time.