Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Is It Local? Portlandia and Gospel (re)Discovery


There is a phrase that is thrown around a lot in our congregation, "buy fresh. buy local." This slogan is intended to encourage citizens of West Chester to support local businesses and prepare meals with fresh produce. The food industry is breeding grounds for social injustice, human oppression, and creation exploitation. So "buy fresh. buy local." has been endorsed by our faith community in efforts to speak to God's concern for the whole creation, not only humanity. This campaign invites us to develop a social conscience and raise questions about where and how our food is grown, harvested, and sold.

That said, if you hang around Westminster long enough, you will hear many in our community ask similar questions to the ones asked by the hipster in the Portlandia vignette, "is it local?"

Yet Amber and I, more often than not, buy in bulk. Our food comes from all over the country and all over the world. It is certainly not fresh. It is easier, cheaper, and faster to buy packaged and preserved products. Still, I am convinced that many of the migraines I have experienced of late are not only the byproduct of stress, but also the result of a steady diet of preservatives and MSG.

This got me thinking, is our gospel local? Is the Jesus we proclaim and the Messiah we invite others to follow pertinent to the local concerns and questions of our immediate context or is our message packaged in some mysterious ecclesial farm and coated with theological preservatives and MSG?

Does it give you and your neighbors a migraine?

Doing local theology is hard. [1] It demands that we enter into community with our neighbors whom we may see while mowing our lawn or purchasing local produce. Local theology requires disciples to ask questions like, what is the good news either longed for in my community or already alive and well in my neighborhood? How does the good news of Jesus speak to both?

Local theology assumes that the faithful will serve alongside the poor and afflicted not only in the sexy parts of the developing world or major cities, but also and especially in the borough just down the road. God's call of discipleship demands that we not only advocate for the oppressed in Sudan, but also the bullied at Stetson or Pierce Middle School; we not only lobby for the hungry and homeless on the Avenue of the Arts in Philly, but also on High Street in West Chester.

Local theology asks the same question Jesus posed to Peter, "who do the people say that I am?" (Mark 8:27). Then local theology responds to this same Jesus' invitation to incarnate fresh expressions of the gospel among those very people.

I have been in youth ministry for a good while. Yet it was not until last summer when I realized that our youth ministry was not "local." While we had great relationships in Philly and beautiful partnerships in Honduras, we did not know much about "Colin" and his friends in West Chester. We certainly did not have any significant partnerships in our immediate context whereby we could ask questions of faith or build community of hope among our neighbors in the borough.

So we initiated SoMEthing. That is, we dreamed about a Summer of Missional Engagement (SoME) that would concentrate on related hopes and dreams in the borough of West Chester. We grabbed a list of the ministries our church has supported financially for years and began to consider how we could follow dollars and cents with people and presence. The primary stipulation, it must be local.

We have begun significant conversations with a few service organizations and faith-based programs that have excited us with possibilities to enter our community and be God's people alongside God's people there. We are not sure what this will look like in three weeks let alone a year from now. What we do know is that the Imago Dei Youth Ministry is going local this summer.

Through SoME, we expect God to open our eyes and ears to new possibilities. We encourage real questions and relevant extensions of the gospel among our neighbors whom we are sure to run into as we jog throughout the borough or when we purchase our local (or not so local) produce at the grocery store. In the end, or the beginning, God will go with us as we refrain from a ministry diet of packaged programs and reconsider what it looks like to do local youth ministry.

I am eager for the questions that will follow. I look forward to dreaming together with new and old friends as we look to embody God's kingdom throughout the borough of West Chester.

Actually, I am mostly excited to see how God's kingdom is already alive and well in these places, maybe we are just late to the party...or just in time...

The kingdom of God is universal, yes.

But it's also local.


[1] A great read is Doing Local Theology by Clemens Sedmak (Orbis 2002).

**Also, a related podcast from Homebrewed Christianity: Global Leadership and Local Christianity