We’re a culture of loners, strangers, and exiles: 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 cost us but stability? We’ve lost our sense of pride in the ordinary things of life, of loving our family and friends, and of being devoted to one another.
Craig Bartholomew writes: “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 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, consume, and 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.
We live in a crisis of place. We’re a culture of loners, strangers, and exiles: people who have no clue where their home is.
Stickers, on the other hand, find a place and stay. They build a life, settle within it, and commit themselves to their place. Stickers, writes Berry, “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 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’re less than human when we’re 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 must stop and listen to the stickers.
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 and restricted. He is omnipresent; we live within many limits.
Just as we’ve been created to dwell in a certain place, God has designed us to live within the boundary lines of our bodies. We’re 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 can’t do all the things I used to, things 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:
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. (Ps. 16:5–6)
I have one portion, one cup, one lot. The boundary lines surround this one life and place. But like David, I can trust God is the one who has drawn those 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 him. This is my place.
And in faith, I want to be able to say, “The boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places. This is a delightful set of circumstances the Lord has entrusted to me.”
There is a real spiritual danger to being a boomer, constantly looking to a new and better place.
There is a real spiritual danger to being a boomer, 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 way to be a Christian, and it’s a real threat to the whole church.
For there’s always going to be the lure of bigger, faster, better—bigger city, faster growth, better church.
Practices for a Rooted Life
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?
1. 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’re wise to question it.
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.
2. 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 remind me of my heavenly citizenship.
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 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.
3. Stay in the Story
At a recent 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, 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 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.
Live a Rooted Life
As for my wife and me, for probably the first time in our lives we’re 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.