In both my personal life and pastoral ministry, I am sustained by this underlying conviction: Our place in this world is wonderfully important.
The reality is that wherever we are, we live in bodies and occupy both space and time. I am never apart from my physical body and space—the material, tangible space of my office or our living room. Plus, the deeper reality is that certain spaces matter far more to me than others.
While space is all around us—it’s air, ground, objects, and so on—some places are different. Place is unique; it’s meaningful and significant space, almost sacred space.
Place is hard to define but easy to recognize and describe.
Place is where I grew up, on Cherry Street in South Kansas City, where we turned our backyard into a baseball diamond and invited friends over to play home run derby. Place is the cemetery where my older brother and younger sister are buried. It’s just grass and flowers and a couple of caskets, but of course, to my family and me, it’s so much more. It’s almost sacred, holy ground; its significance is deep to us. Place is Columbia, Missouri, where my wife and I met in college, married and started our family, and have now returned to raise our three boys. It’s our sidewalks where we walk and meet our neighbors, it’s the public school where our kids attend, and it’s the rented space where our young church gathers weekly for communion.
Place is home. It’s where our heart is, where we find meaning, where we are known, where we are safe, where we belong.
We were each created by God with this divine capacity to fall in love with the natural spaces around us, for them to become a place for us.
In his great work Where Mortals Dwell, Craig Bartholomew writes: “Place is so fundamental to human existence and so ubiquitous that, paradoxically, it is easy to miss.”
But the Scriptures carefully describe places as though they were intimately connected to the people and events that occurred there. The creation narrative is a beautiful telling of the beginning of the cosmos and then humanity, not as an entire, diverse race, but as a single man and woman, in one unique place, Eden. Mankind is given dominion over the entire place of earth; by “ruling” over the land, animals, and seas, man images its Creator. But in the fall of man, the “emplacement” of man in Eden gives way to their “displacement”—both from the presence of God and their place in Eden.
Through the rest of the Old Testament, place is critically significant: Cain’s punishment for murder is removal from the land; Abraham is told by God to “go to a place I will show you”; slavery in Egypt is followed by the exodus into the wilderness, where the people wander in pursuit of the Promised Land; Israel’s lowest points spiritually and morally lead them into exile in Babylon and other nations, their highest points see them restored to security in Jerusalem, the City of David, Zion itself!
Similarly, in the New Testament, Jesus is found walking along the path, sitting in the town square, eating with tax collectors and sinners, and reclining at table with his disciples. He retreats into quiet mountains, he collapses in the Garden of Gethsemane, and he was crucified, significantly, “outside the city gates.”
Speaking of his own death and resurrection, Jesus says (John 14:1-4):
Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. You know the way to the place I am going.
Jesus insisted on the permanence of his presence in the language of place, and his great victory is a physical, literal, bodily resurrection. After rising from the grave, he returns to many of the same places, but now everything has changed. So too, after his ascension back to his eternal place (the right hand of the Father), his followers are no longer identified by their old nationalities (Jew and Gentile) but as a new dwelling place, the temple of God and the body of Christ. Our salvation is only fully realized at the New Creation, the physical resurrection of our own soil, water, and skies and our eternal dwelling place.
As Jen Pollock Michel has written, “to be human is to know the grief of some paradise lost…. Home represents humanity’s most visceral ache—and our oldest desire.” In Christ and the New Creation, our restless, homesick hearts find their true rest, their long-awaited place.
But despite the great biblical narrative and basic human reality of emplacement, we live in a crisis of place.
We are a culture of loners, strangers and exiles: a people who have no clue where their home is. In the name of mobility—the ability to get a better education, better job and better family—our culture has trained us to always look for “the next big thing.” And what has mobility has cost us but stability? We have lost our sense of pride in the ordinary things of life, of loving our family and friends, and of being devoted to one another.
“In our late-modern age we have lost that very human sense of place amidst the time-space compression characteristic of ‘postmodernity’ and globalization. Place has become something that one moves through, preferably at great speed, and virtual reality is no re-place-ment.”
Borrowing the terminology from Wallace Stegner, the poet, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry has written that there are two types of people in our world—boomers and stickers.Boomers are those who want to move up in the world; their desire is to win, to consume, and to move on to something bigger and better. The boomer is motivated by greed, power, and comfort. He has little to no need for relationship and community; he is the self-made man. He rushes through and past, under the guise of upward mobility and progress. American history is a biography of boomers.
Stickers, on the other hand, find a place and stay there. They build a life, settle within it, and commit themselves to their place. Berry continues:
“Stickers are motivated by affection, by such love for a place and its life that they want to preserve it and remain in it.”
Not all stickers spend their lives in one place or pass their days on sweating on idyllic farms, but they see their space as Place, infused with meaning and the sense of home. Stickers remain, and try to leave things a little better than they found them.
For Berry, values of community and place are more than mere traditions; they represent an alternate vision of human flourishing that has become increasingly marginalized. In Berry’s vision, we are less than human when we are independent from others and responsible only to ourselves.
We have lived in a world run by Boomers for a long time, but now more than ever, we need to stop and listen to the Stickers.
But let’s take it one step further. Place is more than just the memorable space we inhabit; it’s the full measure of circumstances in which we dwell. Unlike our infinite Creator, we are finite, limited, and restricted. He is Omni. We live within many limits.
Just as we have been created to dwell in a certain place, God has designed us to live within the boundary lines of our own bodies. We are both emplaced and embodied creatures, surrounded by fences on all sides. An enduring mark of spiritual maturity is the faculty to dwell within these fences. The quality of our relationships largely depends on our willingness to recognize and live within.
For example, I have a minor chronic illness that dictates how much time and energy I can spend. I just can’t do all the things that I used to, what other people can do. But if I try to live as though I don’t have a limited body, it won’t go well for me.
I also have the relational boundaries of one wife and three children. As a result, Jessie and I have safeguards to protect our marriage, and we don’t relate to all children like we relate to our own. Growth in Christ alone can enable me to say with King David in Psalm 16:
Lord, you have assigned me my portion and my cup;
You have made my lot secure.
The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
Surely I have a delightful inheritance.
I have one portion, one cup, one lot. The boundary lines surround this one life and place. But like David, I can trust that God is the one who has drawn the lines, who has determined my portion and cup. Everything within these fences—this body, this spouse, these children, this job, this neighborhood—has been given by God. This is my place.
And in faith, I want to be able to say, “The boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places.” Only in spiritual maturity can we say, “This is a delightful set of circumstances that the Lord has entrusted to me.”
There is a real spiritual danger to being a Boomer and one who is constantly looking to a new and better Place. “I wish I had a different job; I wish I lived in Boston; I wish I didn’t have health issues; I wish we weren’t stuck at home with little kids every night…”
This is a dangerous and sad place to be as a Christian, and it’s a very real threat to the whole church.
There’s always going to be the lure of bigger, faster, better—bigger city, more innovative strategy, faster growth, better church.
So, we must ask, are there any practices or habits we can cultivate to enable a more deeply rooted life in our place? How can pastors and ministry leaders deepen their sense of place?
Question Upward Mobility
In a general sense, upward mobility is positive—the ability of a marginalized person or community to move into greater social and economic well-being. But in a world where upward mobility is the driving pursuit of even the most privileged groups, we would be wise to question its promise.
Upward mobility offers a promise of sorts: “Come here, leave behind your old relationships and limits, and find a space with great ambitions and no commitment.” The promise of freedom attracts us to wonder if a better version of ourselves might emerge in this new environment, and we might even—what is the phrase, again?—change the world.
The promise of a forgotten past and a fresh anonymity can be appealing to those running from Christ as well as those serving him in ministry.
The allure of upward mobility seems as prevalent in evangelical ministry as it does anywhere else. Urban church planting and ministry is critically-important mission work, but we still need to carefully examine our motives. Are we clearly called to move or are we following ambitious dreams and running from our given place? (The sure test of this calling seems to come in the difficult years after the allure has worn off.)
Most of us, whether in the marketplace or vocational ministry, will have the greatest witness in the places where we have relationships and history, even though it requires accepting our place and staying in the story.
Put Down Roots
During a particularly dark season of life and ministry several years ago, my wife, Jessie, and I were sitting down with one of our mentors. He asked, “Remind me: Where is home for you?” We both paused. “What do you mean?” I asked. “Where did I grow up? Or where do we go for holidays?” I thought it might be a gospel judo move where he would tell me of my heavenly citizenship in Christ.
Nope. He simply restated the question: “Where is home for you?”
We had no real answer. We could answer where we grew up, where we had started our marriage and family, and what neighborhood in the city we lived in. But Where Is Home?We needed an answer. Thus, a new journey began, one that ended with us returning to Columbia, Missouri to plant our lives, raise our children, and do ministry.
This stability, a love of place and commitment to it, is an essential element of ministry faithfulness. A friend of mine in college ministry told me his organization doesn’t expect to see significant measures of success in a new minister’s first two years. It takes at least that long, he explained, for a leader and group to get to know the university culture, build meaningful relationships, and see students come to Christ. But in year three, ministries often become fruitful. It makes me think that the average tenure of pastors and church staff should be longer than two or three years.
Find out where home is, put down roots, and be patient.
Stay in the Story
At a recent Sojourn Network pastors’ retreat, Scotty Smith urged us to remain planted in the grind of everyday, unspectacular pastoral ministry. He described a few situations in his decades-long ministry that were so difficult he was tempted to leave.
His advice was this, as I remember it: “Stay in the story long enough to see a resurrection.”
Some people seem like they’ll never change, churches and ministries may seem stuck. And yet it’s here, in the unexpected places, that our God often does his best work. As pastors and leaders plant seeds, Christ might be watering more than we see. It often takes decades of pastoral stability to witness the types of growth that matter most. Stay, wisdom calls aloud, and work patiently toward something great.
As for my wife and me, for probably the first time in our lives, we are living truly rooted lives in our place. We’re finally becoming aware of who we are and where we are. Although we have a lot to learn, the Lord has brought us to a beautifully satisfied place. This is where we are. This is our home, our place in the world.
May the Lord give us wisdom and patience for a wonderfully simple, deeply rooted life.
Craig Bartholomew, Where Mortals Dwell.
Jen Pollock Michel, Keeping Place.
Wendell Berry, It All Turns on Affection.