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Reflections: Who is my neighbor?

Your house and where you live as ministry
By Jonathan Bradford

The principle of home has been deeply etched into the social and economic foundations of Western culture. There is “home cooking” and “the home office,” both implying that the home is a place of supremacy. The sanctity of private property ownership is even enshrined in the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. There is also an economic angle associated with where we live. Fundamental to our economy for decades has been the motivation of investment gain as a core benefit of owning a house. While the recent economic meltdown in the Unites States has prompted some reconsideration, home ownership, with all of its implications for banking policies and practices, employment and tax policies, still enjoys strong favor.

What purpose does your house serve? How do you decide what kind of house to rent or buy? By what standard do you chose to locate in one part of your community over another?

First and foremost, one’s housing must protect and provide a place to love and be loved. Safe and decent housing is a fundamental human need and is essential to our physical and emotional health. There can be no debate about this, but might there be other objectives to consider as we make decisions relative to our housing?

Yes, I think you and I should broaden our discernment on this. As God’s new people in Christ Jesus, our role as his ambassadors requires us to reflect Christ’s lordship over all dimensions of our lives. Because our homes are often a large part of our identity, it seems reasonable that we should take care to explore ways in which our houses and our decisions about home can be forms of ministry.

Much has been said of late about hospitality. It lies in the bedrock of the Christian tradition, yet many Christians today understand it only in the narrowest way. It is good that we are learning again the rich biblical context that has inspired this ancient form of ministry. To the chagrin of John Calvin, people in the 16th century increasingly relied on the inns, the commercial hotel industry of Calvin’s day, and not personal hospitality in private homes. He warned of the dire implications of this spiritual decline.1 Perhaps it might be difficult to ever re-establish private homes in the Christian community as the truest form of hospitality. Yet the welcoming “home” that we have through the grace of God in Jesus Christ is our clarion call to welcome the wanderer, the alien, the sick and the hungry into our lives and even our homes whenever possible.

Our residential decisions can enable other forms of ministry. Nearly all houses are part of some kind of larger community. Whether you live in a tiny rural village, a larger town or a city, small or large, you have many relationships with those around you. There are a host of political, economic and social connections that comprise the fabric of our communities. I am not concerned here about property taxes, zoning laws or building codes, although, indeed, as Christian citizens we are to abide by all such legal requirements. I want to talk about three core considerations that should be part of every Christian’s residential location discernment process. Let’s look at them:

The Neighborhood

Decisions about where to live are made for many reasons. Proximity to work or a desire to live near the kids or aging parents are common and legitimate reasons. But is a desire to live in a neighborhood of folks just like ourselves also legitimate? It may be easy, but I’m not so sure it is right. Each person is created in the image of God, and we are all equal before him. So, remembering how small the world has become through technology, it is imperative that we come to know and understand the diversity of people that are in God’s world. Knowing and understanding people from various cultures provides a treasure of knowledge and understanding that will serve us and our children in multiple ways through all of life. Further, living in neighborhoods that are diverse in both cultural heritage and economic status also helps achieve and maintain neighborhood stability. In the delivery of critical public services such as education, police and fire protection and street maintenance, public officials often pay more attention to such stable neighborhoods. When that occurs, all residents benefit equally: the recent refugee, the single mother and her two kids and the two-parent professional family.

The Environment

The impact of urban sprawl poses a larger and more long-lasting threat to our environment than such headline-grabbing catastrophes as oil spills. A choice to live out on the rural fringe of an urban area has multiple implications for God’s creation. In most cases public sewer systems do not extend to these areas, making it necessary for the homeowner to install and operate a septic system. Too many such systems pollute the aquifer and pose serious health threats. Living in rural areas also means many more miles of driving to work and to church and school activities. The additional consumption of gasoline and resulting air pollution have serious and lasting environmental implications. Choosing to live in a more densely populated area not only reduces the duration of such trips, but, for those of us living in larger metropolitan areas, can also have the added benefit of putting us near public transportation, thereby further reducing the miles we travel in our cars. The earth is the Lord’s, and where we live has distinct implications for our stewardship of it.

The Budget

How much house should one purchase or rent? Until recently, many people were conditioned to buy as much house as they could possibly afford because, of course, house values will always increase and one’s income will not go down. Sadly for many, they have recently learned this is far from the truth. Of course sound budget practice tells us to avoid the temptation to strain our budgets just to have more house. But sound stewardship practice requires both restraint in satisfying our own needs and consideration of the needs of our neighbors. Rather than committing to a rent or a mortgage payment that will demand the usually recommended 30 percent of a $75,000 income, for example, holding that payment to 25 percent will yield a monthly savings of $312. Even half of this savings could make a real difference to a family in need. “Live simply,” goes the saying, “so that others may simply live.”

The wholeness, flourishing and opportunity—the shalom—that God wants for all of creation is both a promise to, and a responsibility for, those of us who are children of the light. Even how and where we live can hasten the day when that promise is realized by all in our communities.

Questions for reflection:

  • What factors most strongly influenced your choice of where to live?
  • Do you see your home and neighborhood as a place of ministry? What form(s) does that ministry take?
  • If you could live anywhere right now, where would that be, and why?

—Jonathan Bradford, Class of 1971, CEO, Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF)

1 Christine D. Pohl, Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 36-37.

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