I finally saw “The Book of Mormon,” the musical filled with religious satire that has garnered sold-out audiences since its March 2011 opening on Broadway. It’s a show I’ve heard much about. I know some of the music, and I’ve seen video clips. I was prepared to be offended, and there were certainly times when I was not sure if it was appropriate to laugh or remain silent. It is not a work for children, and I would not organize a church group outing to the Kennedy Center to see the musical. However, there is a lesson inside that we need to hear.
How much do you love the place?
Elder Price, one of the main characters, is the substance from which bishops are made. He’s articulate, he’s attractive and he believes he is the one who will change the world. He longs to be assigned to Orlando for his two-year mission but finds himself partnered with Elder Cunningham in Uganda. What Elder Price is, Elder Cunningham is not. Elder Price plays by the rules, knows the Book of Mormon well, and longs to convert people. Elder Cunningham admits that he has not even read the Book of Mormon and comes with countless personal issues. Within days, Elder Price is ready to go home because Uganda is dangerous and no conversions are taking place while Elder Cunningham starts to adapt the Book of Mormon to fit the needs and desires of the Ugandans to whom he is preaching. Elder Price loves the idea of being a successful missionary who is known for the number of people who join the church and are baptized. Elder Cunningham starts to love the place – the place Ugandans have told him everyone simply leaves after two years.
How much do you love the place?
Are you serving where you are because you love the idea of conversions and baptisms and evangelism awards or are you serving where you are because you love the place? Do you love your place as much as you love your people? And what comforts or possessions are you willing to let go of to prove your love of the place?
It is these very questions that I have been wrestling with as one who has taken a few steps away from the local church in order to savor a summer of clergy renewal. I’ve learned that God speaks to me most clearly when I am most removed from my familiar surroundings. I know there are risks involved in going away this summer – that the end result could be a call from God to go somewhere new. And I returned home from the first leg of the journey with tears in my eyes as a wise mentor pushed me to reflect aloud about how I was experiencing God’s call on my life.
“Are you prepared to return to this place?”
“Is God still calling you here?”
I responded by letting my mentor know how much I love the people – how much I adore the congregation that calls me pastor.
“But do you love the place?”
A place is so much bigger than the people. A place extends beyond the familiarity of what is inside to include all that is on the outside. In the place called “city” there are deep factors to consider when pondering passion for a place – people who are housed and people who are unhoused, the rich and the poor, traffic and busyness, powerful and powerless – all right outside the church door.
Do you love the place?
Elder Price was quick to love the church and the accolades that could come to him if he grew the church. Loving the place where he was sent proved to be a much greater challenge. The Ugandans had great needs they were not afraid to name including people dying from HIV/AIDS and children being raped and abused. A simple telling of stories was not enough for these people who had watched too many young Mormon missionaries come and gowithout making a difference. They wanted real change in their community.
If we are going to make a real difference in our communities, we must first love the place where we are privileged to serve. We cannot possibly love the place if we believe our ministry is centered on what happens inside the walls of the church. Loving the place means developing deep relationships all over the place. It means expanding our love of our people to include all the people around us – and especially the people and problems beyond the church doors.
In his new book, “Center Church,” Timothy Keller writes, “All churches must understand, love and identify with their local community and social setting, and yet at the same time be able and willing to critique and challenge it.”We must love and identify with the city rather than be hostile or indifferent to it. Keller tells countless stories of how many church leaders come to him asking for insights and recipes on how to duplicate what has happened with his church, New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian, in places across the country. Keller’s book is an attempt to answer this question – not with proven church growth strategies but with lessons on how to know, love and contextualize your own context.
Do you love the place?
Throughout the gospels, Jesus enters cities and towns. When he enters, he does not go directly to the house of worship to see how many people are inside. He does not attempt to convert those who appear to be easy targets.Rather, he encounters the people on the outside. He seeks to meet the needs of whoever is in his midst – healing some, forgiving others, providing water from a well that never runs dry. Jesus’ ministry is never limited to one location in the city but rather extends throughout whatever community he is in.
It’s easier to love my people than it is to love my place for it is a place where more than a dozen people sleep on the church porch at night while people whose offices are a few floors above the church office can bill for $500 an hour in their law firms. It is a place where senseless violence occurs. It is a place where visitors crowd the sidewalks on their way to a convention and where cars line up three lanes deep while waiting for a light to turn green. It is a place where flowers grow alongside the smell of urine because there are few public restrooms for people to go who have nowhere else to go at night. It is a place of power and poverty. It is a place where I see victims of sex-traffickingwaiting for pimps to pick them up just before 7:00 in the morning. It is a place where it is easy to be defined by what your business card says about you. It is a complex place with more questions than answers. And yet, there is no where else I’d rather serve than the city – this place that regularly calls me to respond to the questions Jesus asks about meeting basic needs, offering hospitality to strangers, and seeking to be part of God’s efforts to bring about signs of God’s kingdom on earth – in the city – as it is in heaven.
Yes! I really do love this place. And that means we have a whole lot of work to do – work that cannot possibly be finished in just one hour on Sunday mornings.