September 4, 2008
The Hansen Report: Where Are You From?
Can you shepherd a flock that won't stay put?
Where are you from? No, where are you from from?
If you live in a suburban or urban area, you have probably asked and answered these questions countless times. The follow-up question is meant to uncover something about your conversation partner that can't be learned by hearing which faceless suburb he or she inhabits. But at the rate Americans continue to move, this follow-up question may not elicit a better answer.
According to a USA Today report last fall, nearly 50 million Americans - more than 16 percent of the population - moved in 2006. Mobility increases during inclement economic weather, which is one reason why during the late 1990s the rate slowed to pre-World War II times. Though 2008 data has not yet been analyzed, we can expect the moving rate to increase given the high number of home foreclosures.
Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan recently connected this trend to the Republican and Democratic nominees for President. Sure, you know Sen. Barack Obama lives in Chicago, and Sen. John McCain lives in Arizona. But do their places of current residence tell you anything about them?
Noonan doesn't think so. "Neither man has or gives a strong sense of place in the sense that American politicians almost always have, since Mr. Jefferson of Virginia, and Abe Lincoln of Illinois, and FDR of New York, and JFK of Massachusetts," she writes. "Even Bill Clinton was from a town called Hope, in Arkansas, even if Hope was really Hot Springs. And in spite of his New England pedigree, George W. Bush was a Texan, as was, vividly, LBJ. Messrs. Obama and McCain are not from a place, but from an experience."
These would-be presidential vagabonds share their interstate experience with millions of fellow patriots.
"All this is part of a national story that wasn't new even a quarter century ago," Noonan observes. "Americans move. They like moving. Got a lot of problems? The answer may be geographical relocation. New problem in the new place? GTT. Gone to Texas."
This mentality, common both inside and outside the church walls, makes pastoral ministry exceedingly difficult. How do you encourage the deep fellowship that only develops with years of experience if the congregation switches like a hockey team's line change? Longevity is necessary for the kind of lay leadership that really gets things done in the church. Those lay leaders need pastors they can trust who aren't always looking around for churches that offer higher salaries and bigger ministry platforms. Writing in No Place for Truth, David Wells observes that congregations during the early 1800s would rather put up with poor preaching than lose their preacher. That won't fly today, but we could learn something from them about the bonds that unite parishioner and pastor.
Longevity in one place also makes church discipline possible. Discipline means little if the offending member finds a new church home across town. For discipline to work, members must know each other well enough to confront one another over sin. Fences may make good neighbors, but they make for lousy church members. Anonymity is the enemy of ministry. Yet anonymity results when frequent moving breaks down the difference between suburb and suburb, state and state, and region and region.
"Modernization has broken up many of the small social units that used to be so important in the raising of children and the shaping of national character, such as the nuclear and extended family, the neighborhood, and the larger community," Wells writes. "These were the contexts in which children used to learn about life. Today, however, extended families have been scattered by geographical mobility, nuclear families by divorce, and the more functional ethnic and urban neighborhoods by the social and economic forces that make flight to the loose-knit, anonymous suburbs a temptation."
For the sake of loving each other and loving our neighbors, Christians should re-learn how to put down roots in one community. There will often be valid financial and educational excuses for leaving. But if you invest in your community, the community will invest in you. For too long Christians have followed that American dream to greener pastures, to the neglect of their genealogical and ecclesiological families. If we hope to reverse this trend, shepherds should set the example.