Over the past several years, there has been a transition in military theory that has reshaped the armed forces of the world. Conventional wisdom has moved away from large armies supported by artillery and air power to small, mobile, specialized units designed to get close to the enemy, execute their mission with minimal collateral damage and safely return home. The movie scenes of battalions of marching soldiers like those of WW1 and WW2 are things of the past. Now, we have surgical strike forces using drones who can skillfully take our one enemy combatant and leave everything else undisturbed.
Small, fast, able to adapt quickly to the changing theatre of battle — this is the future of warfare. That is until the robots take over…
This emphasis on small, fast, and quickly adapting units has not only changed our military, it’s changed every aspect of our corporate and institutional life. Banks, long known for their imposing downtown edifices touting their success, have now moved their branches into grocery stores. Large department stores have now placed mini-stores in local neighborhoods. Grocery stores have done the same thing.
Of course, shopping online has put retailers right next to the consumer. More and more, organizations, businesses, and even nonprofits have developed processes and procedures to put their work and resources as close as possible to those people who are being reached by their organization. Decisions are being pushed further down the line to those men and women who are responsible for implementing those decisions.
We’re beginning to realize one size doesn’t fit everyone. Consumers are wanting to personalize their choices. Everyone wants to choose their favorite color and be able to adapt the product to meet a particular criterion. Want a new car? Don’t go to a showroom. Go online. Pick the color, the interior, engine size, and other upgrades with the checking of a box. The car will be delivered to you in a few weeks (give or take).
Believe it or not, this has always been the genius of the local church. From the beginning, churches were located in homes and local meeting halls in the neighborhoods they served. Christians knew their neighborhoods. They knew their neighbors. They knew the stories that had shaped the communities. They knew the opportunities and challenges down every street and on every block.
Because of this, each church was able to tailor their ministries to meet the needs of their communities and neighborhoods. If someone was hungry, the church knew them and could respond. If a child was falling behind in school, the church could hold tutoring sessions. Not every church had to have each of these ministries and each church was free to do what was best for them and their communities. No one size church fit every neighborhood.
Each congregation was a local dispensary of grace. The form that grace took was up to each church and neighborhood.
The current pandemic has shut down a lot of ways we did church. We can’t travel, so we can’t go to national meetings. We can’t go to conferences, travel on mission trips, or even meet in large groups for Bible studies. In some areas of the country, churches haven’t been able to meet in person at all.
While there is a long list of things we can’t do in this time of COVID, there is an equally long list of things we can do. We can still pray for our neighbors. We can find out what’s going on in our communities and neighborhoods and design ways to share grace with our friends and neighbors. After all, we’re the ones closest to the needs. We’re the ones closest to people who need our ministry and help.
The pandemic is pushing us back from international and national concerns to more local issues and opportunities. The failings of national politics over the last few weeks have only exacerbated this feeling. Most of us feel like we can’t change anything about what’s going at the national level, but maybe we can make a difference in the local school, or local homeless shelter, or food bank.
We’ve learned a lot during this time of pandemic and a lot of what we learned wasn’t learning at all. It was remembering.
We remembered having dinner at home with the family could be pretty nice. We remembered playing board games with those closest to us was still a lot of fun. We remembered that a lot of stuff we were doing, buying, watching, checking, or listening to, was simply a waste of time. We won’t go back to the way things were before and that may not be a bad thing.
And churches are remembering they are located where they are for a reason. They are the forward operating bases of the Kingdom of God on their streets and in their neighborhoods. No one knows the community like they do. No one knows the stories or the people who live there like the local church should.
The good news of the gospel isn’t that we can get to God, but that God, in Christ Jesus, has come to us. Christ is the Incarnation of God and local churches are the living and local reminders that God has come near — to our streets and our neighborhoods.
If our nation finds healing, it won’t be because better laws were passed in Washington, but because neighbor loved neighbor, friend helped friend.
The church is the nearest point of grace for meeting these challenges and problems. No one knows the neighborhood like we do. No one knows how to love these people like we do.
We have been put where we are for a reason — to be a forward operating base of the Kingdom of God, a local dispensary of grace.
Too bad it’s taken a pandemic to remind us this was God’s plan all along.