A point I've made repeatedly over the last few years, in books, blog posts, podcasts, and from church stages, is that one of the most pressing problems in our desire for social change has been the loss of a local imagination.
Both progressive and conservative Christians are afflicted by this loss. For both groups, the only imagination we have for changing the world is Washington, DC. If we want to change the world the only lever to pull is electoral politics, winning elections. In short, the kingdom imagination of Christians has become wholly politicized.
But there are other levers to pull if you want to change the world for the better. As I've shared with many people, we must develop a more local social imagination.
And this is where the role of a local church is so important. So many young people have abandoned the local church, and I do have a lot of sympathy for their reasons for doing so. That said, so many young people live as isolated persons, separated from local communities and local work. Young people spend all their time on social media and are, thus, pulled into and spellbound by national dramas. Important dramas, no doubt, but always national dramas that have little to do with the daily flesh and blood realities of our neighbors. For so many young people the only social powers that exist are themselves and Washington, a single individual the the state. Nothing in the middle, no local mediating institutions where our passions for social change can cash out in tangible work with real people. What's missing is the local church.
Pondering this, I was put in mind of a quote from Gerhard Lohfink:
There must be a place--visible, comprehensible, subject to examination--where liberation and healing begin, that is, where the world can become what it is meant to be according to God's plan. Starting from this place, then, the new thing can spread abroad...Human beings must have the opportunity to view the new thing and test it. Then if they want to they can allow themselves to be drawn into the history of salvation and the story of peace that God is bringing into being.
I know a lot of churches have lost their way. To me, though, that doesn't recommend abandonment but investment. There is work to be done. Spiritual spaces need to be renewed and reclaimed. For if we abandon these local spaces we become isolated and spend our days doomscrolling, freaking out every four years over national elections. All that is left without a local imagination is social media and Washington.
For too many young people, the isolated individual and the state are the only pieces left on their chess board. A lowly pawn and an all-powerful queen. But with a local imagination other pieces appear. More pawns, rooks, knights, and bishops. More moves to make, other ways to play the game, different paths to checkmate.
And if we turned back to our local churches, what should be the work? I think Lohfink gives us a nice mission statement. There must be a place in your neighborhood where liberation and healing begin. And observable place where people can view, with their own eyes, the new thing God is doing.
Yes, I know, no church is perfect. But neither is Washington, DC! Neither is Twitter! You're not getting perfection in this life. But I'm relatively certain that there is some work being done in your town where humble people are doing humble, life-giving work. There is some place in your town where the new thing is coming into view, where liberation and healing are taking their first, tentative steps. Find this work and join it.