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A great resource for congregations who wish to engage more fully in being part of the reign of God in their neighborhoods.
Posts Tagged With: missional
My new book is available, and at a discount price! Retail is $13.00, but order now for only $10.40 at https://wipfandstock.com/store/The_Neighborhood_Church_Gods_Vision_of_Success
This blog is mainly a “Missional Church” blog with helpful insights and conversations about how congregations can deepen their understanding and participation in God’s mission. However, this series of three posts are more personal. I believe them to be beneficial for the broader church, but for different reasons. You decide for yourselves.
Here’s the situation: I was recently a “middle of the pack” nominee for the office of bishop in the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). I’m sharing the journey of that process with you from the inside. I hope you find it beneficial at whatever level you are open. You can catch up by reading Part 1 here and Part 2 here.
At the Rocky Mountain Synod Assembly, almost 500 voting members gathered, sent from each congregation in the 4+ state territory that comprises this synod. The big agenda item was the election of a new bishop as our current bishop, Allan Bjornberg, was retiring after 18 years of faithful service in that office.
The first ballot was a nominating ballot. All of the pre-nominated 17 were, in fact, nominated. Myself included. At this point nominations were closed, and one of the 24 people who accepted this nomination would be called as the RMS bishop.
The second ballot required voting members to vote for one of these 24. The top seven would move on to the third ballot and would be asked to address the assembly the next day. When the votes were tallied, there was a tie for seventh place, therefore the top eight would actually move on to the third ballot. Yours truly was in ninth place, one vote behind seven/eight.
I’ll admit I was a bit disappointed. And yet, I swear, at the moment it sank in that I was out of the running, the colors in that large conference room became brighter. Kind of like the allergy medicine commercial on TV where the hazy filter is peeled away to reveal how bright things can be. My breathing became noticeably deeper. I felt like I had suddenly lost ten pounds. And I was aware that anytime I wasn’t conscious of it, I was smiling. I think I actually skipped out of the assembly gathering for the dinner break.
That night I slept like a rock for the first time in months. Finally, this ordeal was over for me. The eight candidates remaining were all solid, wonderful, faithful people. And none of them were me. Whew. As far as my participation was concerned, this process was finished. I had been faithful to the leading of the Holy Spirit, learned some things, and moved past some personal obstacles. Thank you Jesus. Let’s elect a bishop, finish up the assembly, and go home.
The Rev. Jim Gonia was elected on the fifth ballot. My experience of his election was deep, spiritual, and moving. It seemed that the Holy Spirit had truly worked through this gathering of amazingly diverse Lutherans who gathered from the ranches of Wyoming; the urban centers of Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, and Colorado Springs; the border community of El Paso, and many other communities—large and small—that make up the territory of the Rocky Mountain Synod. I was taken aback at the powerful effect his election had on me. This person had truly been called by God to this office. It was a win/win. God had called someone who had responded, and it wasn’t me.
As I gathered one evening with a few other colleagues toward the end of this election process, one of them asked that since I was out of the running, what I was going to do now. “What do you mean?” I asked. “It seems self-evident. I’m out of the running. I don’t do anything.” No, this colleague answered. It’s not over. It’s just beginning. You were a viable candidate for bishop of this synod. Like it or not, Rob, you owe it to this church to speak out. Apparently, you have something to say that this synod wants to hear.
In my 27 years of ordained ministry, I think I’ve spoken into a microphone at a synod assembly once. Not my forte, not my comfort zone, not my desire. I’ve not expressed any aspiration to serve on any synod-wide committee, council, or task force. Although I allowed myself to be nominated for and subsequently elected to the synod’s Mission Outreach Board some years ago, I’ve never promoted that position or publicized my work there. I work as a team with my fellow board members, learning, speaking at meetings when necessary, and (as is so often my style) quietly influencing when I know something that’s relevant to the agenda or when I believe something ought to be on the agenda. I rarely “speak out” at synod assemblies, board meetings, or anywhere else outside of the pulpit.
Now I wonder, perhaps, if I’m being called to move beyond my own comfort again. If the demon that has kept me relatively silent for fear of ridicule has been exorcized (see part two of this blog series), then who knows what God will now call me to do and/or say? I am passionate about this church, I see God at work in and through us. I have the background, education, and experience to have a voice. I believe with all that is within me that the purpose of the church is not to do church, but to be the church God has called and gathered. And to be that church in the world. I can lead my congregation in living that out through new and fuller means. I can articulate that in any number of ways. I can imagine that in even more ways. Perhaps I can use a new-found voice to be more effective in encouraging and challenging others to be missional church as well.
Which is why this blog exists and how this series fits into it.
And that, my dear reader, is how God has used this bishop election in ways that I never could have imagined. Soli Deo Gloria!
I went to the Service of Holy Communion at St. Andrew and St. George Parish Church in Edinburgh, Scotland, just off St. Andrew Square. It is a beautiful and historic building. Though small by Scotland standards, the building is significantly larger than most U.S. church buildings. As I walked in, I saw there were about a dozen chairs gathered in a circle around the altar in the chancel, half of them occupied. It looked like they were having a meeting, so I hung back in the tiny foyer area, waiting for the meeting to break up so people could gather for worship. I soon realized no one was talking up there–apparently there was no meeting; this was worship. So I went up and prepared to sit down. Though not in obvious prayer, no one looked up or said a word. It was rather uncomfortable, even for this church geek.
I noticed that they all had bulletins, so I asked someone–startling him, apparently, by speaking to him. He mumbled something, and pointed back out in the little foyer. I went back and found a small stack of bulletins, fairly well hidden on a table with several other flyers of sorts.
Returning to the circle of silence, I took an empty chair on the opposite side (the first 6 people had taken the closest 6 chairs, causing me to have to walk around behind them). From this vantage point I could see a few other people coming into the foyer area (unseen by the “members,” who, in taking the premium seats, had their backs to the door). These visitors saw our “meeting,” apparently assuming the same thing I did when I entered, so they turned around and left. I was actually embarrassed.
As I was trying to figure out what to do, recognizing I was a guest in their house, I saw a couple come into the foyer, look quizzically up front, and begin talking together–pointing toward us. I caught the woman’s eye, and waved them in. They smiled, and came up front–without bulletins. Now knowing where they were, I left my chair and went out into the foyer to get them some.
As I passed them in the aisle, they thanked me for welcoming them into my church. I just smiled and said, “You’re welcome.” I think my accent threw them off a bit, but they at least were inside. While I was back there, someone else came in, so I handed her a bulletin. Apparently, I’m now the host.
I returned to my seat, noticing that there were now only two chairs left. And sure enough, three people came in the door. What’s the practice in this place when there are more people than chairs? Do they move out into the regular worship area? Do they bring chairs up and start a second row? I waited to see what the members would do–though not really expecting anything. And I wasn’t disappointed. Finally, in frustration, I got up and grabbed a chair from the nave, bringing it up into the chancel area around the altar. The others scooted chairs around until there was room in the holy circle. Some of the other visitors (the ones who thanked me for welcoming them into my church), did the same when others came in. This process was repeated until there was a full complement of 20 people. Still, the members, though watching all this, hadn’t moved or spoken. The visitors were acting as hosts for one another.
The pastor came in through a back door and looked surprised at the “crowd.” Come to find out, he was a guest preacher, as the regular pastor was on vacation. He was welcoming, gracious, informal (“call me Tom”), and made sure we all knew that the communion table was open to everyone.
The service was wonderful, though only about twenty minutes total (no singing). The sermon alone was worth coming for. And communion was, in fact, for everyone who had gathered. Once the service was underway, I, with bulletin in hand, was fully able to participate. The only thing that seemed unusual to me during worship was that eye contact during the sharing of the peace is apparently prohibited. Either that, or everyone was noticing some unusual pattern in the carpet they hadn’t paid attention to before. Or perhaps that is simply Scottish cultural procedure. I’m open.
Afterward, I spoke with a couple of people who were slow to leave (most members bolted for the door as if the building were on fire–or maybe it was just their waiting breakfast that was burning). These dawdlers were somewhat interested in where I was from and why I was there. The pastor, who had gone to the back to try and greet the hasty retreaters, then joined us and continued to be gracious and hospitable. We spoke for a few minutes, until he had to get ready for the next service (someone had since quietly arranged chairs in a small circle down in the front of the nave).
Authentic worship is just that. It is open, it is inclusive, it is unifying when done with an awareness of its inclusive nature. It is, after all, reflective of the God we worship. But the very nature of its inclusivity cannot happen apart from those who gather for it. Corporate worship is public, therefore those on the “inside” of a particular congregation are obligated to be hospitable. It isn’t extra, it isn’t for the ushers and greeters, nor is it reserved for those with special gifts. It is mandated by the nature of this inclusive God. In the words of the hymn, “All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.” It is up to us, as the insiders of a local congregation, to make sure everyone who comes in the door knows this, and experiences this.
I wonder how many people have to come to this or other churches this Sunday needing the community of believers gathered in Word and sacrament, and were turned away by the “members'” unawareness of their role as acting hosts? Hospitality isn’t added on or plugged in, nor is it everything God calls God’s church to be. But it is at the heart of worship.
2nd Pentecost (A)
Jeremiah 28:5-9; Matthew 10:40-42
I’m starting my sabbatical in five days. I’ll be resting, writing, and researching during the next twelve weeks. Most of that time will be spent in Scotland and Ireland. I’ll be a guest in a foreign country for eight weeks. I’m mindful that everything I do and say represents not only the U.S., but Christianity, Lutheranism, and this congregation. These communities are all parts of my identity, and I want to reflect well on them. That makes me think that I’ll be pretty careful about what I say, what I do, how I treat people.
I will be a guest. That means I need to obey their laws and follow their customs. I will be somewhat vulnerable, because I’m a guest there. If I miss something, say something wrong, or do something that by their customs is really stupid, I risk reflecting badly on all of you. I will be careful, but if you hear anything untoward, try to remember to listen to my side before you rush to judgment.
My anticipation of being a guest in foreign countries makes me somewhat sensitive to the situation of the disciples in Matthew here. Jesus is sending them to other towns and villages on their own. They are being sent and will therefore be guests. They will need to obey local laws and follow local customs. They will be somewhat vulnerable, because they will be guests. If they do or say something stupid they risk reflecting badly on each other and on Jesus.
Never in the last 1600-1700 years has this text been a more appropriate description of the church today. We’re no longer the hosts in our neighborhood, we are guests. We don’t dictate laws or customs, our culture does. We’ve got to accept the reality that we, as church, are guests in our own culture. We are being sent into this culture and are therefore guests. We will need to obey local laws and follow local customs. We will be somewhat vulnerable, because we are guests. If we do or say something stupid we risk reflecting badly on each other and on Jesus.
For the early church, that was understood. The concept of the disciples of Jesus being guests in the surrounding culture was normal. And however the culture treats us is, well, how they’re going to treat us. Whoever goes out representing God gets whatever the host culture gives them. Prophets speak for God, and sometimes their “reward” wasn’t too terrific. Righteous people act for God, and sometimes their “reward” was better. But however the surrounding culture responds to us is how they’re going to respond—both good and not so good. Getting them to respond one way or another isn’t the point. The point is that we are sent.
That’s what Jesus is making clear to his early disciples; and making clear to us. We are sent to be guests in a different culture—revealing the forgiveness, grace, mercy, and love of the kingdom of God. Sometimes the response will be great; other times not so much. Regardless, go. Rather than putting so much effort into controlling the response (conversion, joining the church), we in today’s church might want to try putting effort into revealing Christ to our host culture regardless of the response.
I wonder what would happen if we really took that to heart. What would be different if we quit emphasizing people coming here to us, and instead emphasized our being sent to them. Instead of them joining us, it should be us joining them. The ultimate goal is not membership here, but forgiveness there. We are given the name of Jesus and sent to bear his presence to every person we meet out there. Not in order to convert them. Not in order to get them to come to church. But to make sure they meet Jesus who has made us his own in baptism; who has filled us with the Holy Spirit so that we can reveal him in the world.
This doesn’t make us better than our hosts, any more than I will be better than the Scots and the Irish I’ll be meeting. We are called by God, given the name of Jesus Christ, and equipped by the Holy Spirit to expose Jesus present in the world. We are sent into what amounts to a foreign land to bear the reality of Jesus. That may be accepted, or it may be rejected. The response is not so much our concern.
Think about it this way. There’s a huge difference between approaching a friend with, “If you were to die tonight, do you know what would happen to your eternal soul?” and, “I’m sorry that I hurt you.” Which reveals Jesus?
There’s a huge difference between spending time passing out Gideon Bibles in hotels and spending time volunteering at the Jeffco Action Center, a hospital, or Habitat for Humanity. Which reveals Jesus?
There’s a huge difference between feeding a poker table in Blackhawk and feeding a homeless child recovering from the tornado in Joplin, MO. Both will cost you $100: which reveals Jesus?
There’s a huge difference between saying, “I’ll get you for that,” and “I forgive you for that.” Which reveals Jesus?
The Holy Spirit gives us the name of Jesus, gives us a new identity in him, gives us a new-and-forgiven life in order be sent. And we are sent in order to reveal the nature of Christ. Accepted or rejected. Believed or not believed. Welcomed or turned away. We are made new, equipped, and sent to reveal the nature, the reality, the person of Jesus to those we meet in the world this week.
I will be very mindful of that in Scotland and Ireland as I’m a guest in those countries.
This text is reminding you to be mindful of the same thing right here. We bear the name of Christ. We are sent. As guests in the world, we cannot control the response we get. But whoever welcomes us welcomes Christ. And whoever welcomes Christ welcomes the one who sent Christ. Truly, none of these will lose their reward. Amen.
Sometimes it takes a while, but a deep agenda of many congregations ultimately emerges with a lot of decisions they make. Sometimes it rises up during the initial discussion; sometimes it’s later, during the “how do we implement?” phase. But no matter how good any given idea is, no matter how Spirit led, no matter how selfless and compassionate a decision or direction may be, a hidden agenda will most generally show itself.
Walk with me, here. You discover a need in the community—let’s say local middle school kids are running around unsupervised during the afternoon between the time school ends and their parents get home from work. You see this as a recipe where trouble is likely to brew, so your congregation decides to begin an after-school sports program for middle school children. Wonderful! Doesn’t this sound like something the church ought to be doing? Altruistic, selfless, serving, benefiting the neighborhood. All-in-all a very Christ-like thing to do.
But sooner or later, someone says it. They’ll sneak it in at some point in the deliberation or planning. More often than not, no one notices—because everyone else at some level is thinking the same thing. “This will be great for the kids,” they say. Wait for it . . .
“This will make a real difference in our neighborhood.” Wait for it . . .
“We’ve got the resources to make this happen.” Wait for it . . .
And then . . . here it comes, “And some of these kids’ families may end up joining the church.” Bam! We just twisted this benevolent idea into a self-serving project.
You might think I’m making a big deal out of nothing. Now, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing tragic about people joining the church. Far from it. That’s part of the Holy Spirit’s work too. But when it enters into the decision equation as motivation, I believe we’ve lost something important. Or maybe it’s more that we’ve added something. We’ve spoiled the mix. We’ve contaminated the way in which we approach the relationship of the church in the neighborhood. It’s a very short and very slippery slope from “wouldn’t it be nice if some people joined our church” to “how many new members can we get out of this?” Once we start thinking in terms of the church’s benefit, that notion has a dastardly way of easing into virtually every decision for ministry.
Be honest, how long are most congregations willing to spend large amounts of time, energy, and finances in programs or ministries that don’t bring in any new members? How long would your congregation exert the kind of resources necessary to run an after school sports program if, year after year, there were no people checking out the church? Be honest, now. There are some congregations, yes, but we aren’t very thick with them.
OK, church growth people. This is where you can chime in about how if we do the sports thing right, there will be new members whether we’re focused on it or not. If no one is interested year after year, maybe we aren’t inviting, maybe we aren’t including, maybe we aren’t welcoming, or some other maybe. You are likely correct in these and many more maybes. But that’s not the point.
And I hear you theologian-types, too. Right now you’re saying something about original sin or “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” or “if we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” or whatever your denomination or affiliation generally says about our sinful nature. And you’re right. We cannot escape it. We cannot do anything apart from our sinfulness. We have to trust that somehow God will redeem our efforts and use them for “reign of God” purposes. I absolutely agree.
So, then, what’s the big deal with getting a few new church members out of an after-school program? On one level, nothing, really. Because, of course, God can transform our meager and (deep down) selfish motives into something that reveals the presence of the kingdom. God does it all the time. Good heavens, I hope so! But once we start down the road of church-as-beneficiary of ministry efforts, we’re closing doors on other opportunities. That’s where we goof it up. Read on.
It’s extremely difficult to keep this hidden agenda at bay. It infiltrates everything and can sully even the best intended ministry effort. With “what’s in it for the church?” thoughts lurking in the back corners of our minds, ministry opportunities that don’t have an obvious or immediate benefit to the church stand a greater chance of getting overlooked. Regardless of what God may or may not be inviting us into.
That’s the significant issue, really. Rather than gaining clarity on God’s movement, God’s action, and God’s direction, we become clouded with our own survival, numerical growth, and congregational advantage. As baptized people of God, we are called and sent in the name of Christ to proclaim and participate in the reign of God. Regardless of anything else. Including what we as church are or are not getting in return.
To be in Christ is to be called to give up one’s own (or one’s congregation’s own) life. To die to self, in other words. Are there many congregations willing to risk that? Jesus sums this up pretty well, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). If the cross that marked us in baptism is any indicator of our call to participate in God’s mission (and, duh, it is), our agenda is to reveal God’s grace, mercy, love, and redemption—even if it gains us no new members. Even if it costs us members. That takes courage. That takes faith.
Day of Pentecost
Acts 2:1-21; John 20:19-23
We began and are ending this Sabbath Year of Listening to God on the 3rd great festival day of the church, the Day of Pentecost. This is appropriate, and on purpose. On Pentecost, the Spirit of God comes, speaks, and acts. The disciples are waiting, listening, and preparing to follow. The church engaged the world in new and Spirit-led ways.
During our Sabbath Year, the Spirit of God has come, spoken, and acted among us. We’ve waited, listened, and are ready to follow. We too will engage the world in new and Spirit-led ways. The Day of Pentecost is our day, the church’s day, LCM’s day. After a year of listening and waiting, we can boldly move forward as Christ’s church with the confidence that we are following the Holy Spirit.
But what is the Holy Spirit saying? In both these narratives of the coming of the Spirit there are descriptions of some powerful, out-of-the-ordinary events.
On the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts, there was the sound like the rush of a violent wind, then tongues of fire appeared over each disciple gathered. Peter spoke intelligently (there’s a sign if there ever was one). All the disciples spoke in other real-world languages.
In the gospel of John, the resurrected Jesus comes and appears to the disciples who were gathered in a locked room. He breathes the Holy Spirit into them.
It would be hard to ignore fire on your head. It would be difficult to not be impressed by your best friend rising from the dead and appearing inside a locked room with you. Wouldn’t it be cool if we had that assurance like in Acts: wind, fire, and languages? Wouldn’t it be assuring if the resurrected Jesus suddenly appeared with us here? Wouldn’t it be easy to follow then? Wouldn’t we go forth boldly, with confidence then? Yeah, those first disciples had it so easy . . .
Big signs and wonders like that—neon signs in the sky, if you will—generally don’t have the effect we think they will. In Acts, some simply wrote this all off as a bunch of drunken Galileans. In John, Thomas missed out and refused to believe a word of it until Jesus met his expectations.
We Christians are often cautious people. We don’t want to act or speak in God’s name unless we’re very sure it’s actually God. So we tend to stay quiet or do little. Because, like those early disciples, we can excuse even the most obvious sign as serious drinking (Acts) or wishful thinking (John).
It comes down to trust. We do what we can to understand the Holy Spirit’s activity and voice in our midst, then we plunge in. It’s always been that way, and it still is.
We’ve spent more than a year deliberately listening, seeking to understand God’s voice. We’ve prayed, discussed, and listened some more. 55 weeks now. This is no fly-by-night whim. It’s been over a year of daily, serious, intentional, faithful, and honest prayer. We can be confident that the Holy Spirit has been moving among us. We can act, trusting God is behind us, in front of us, and within us.
There are the themes that have emerged:
First, that we’ve been blessed by God with a time of rejuvenation. We’ve been able to renew spiritually by soaking in the presence of the Holy Spirit for a year without any pressure to accomplish any new tasks.
Second, affirming that the direction we’ve been moving as a congregation is led by God.
Nothing radically new or different. God has been leading us all along, we’ve been responsive to that leading all along, and we’ve had this year to have that affirmed so that we can continue this course with confidence.
God also seems to be letting us know that this year of listening needs to continue. It needs to be a way of life for us. All the workshops, the events, the opportunities, the teaching, the sharing all need to continue. Just ‘cause the Sabbath Year is coming to and end doesn’t mean that our listening is ending.
Third, spiritual growth in two areas has emerged from your listening that involve all of us, and all our ministries: Discipleship and Caring
Many ministries and individuals fall onto one side or the other. We’re hearing that God’s call is for these to overlap much more than they currently are.
More than abstract knowledge about God and generic believing in Jesus,
More than acting on every good idea that comes along whether it’s God’s call to us or not,
God is calling us to make sure we’re doing both: that our faith leads us know God well enough to be able to follow Jesus into the world so that our caring actions are part of what God is actually doing.
Fourth, stronger encouragement for ministries and ministry leaders.
we are being called to make it amazingly easy to begin new ministries—the current applications can be intimidating, the month of waiting for approval can be discouraging. So we’re thinking that anyone who believes a new ministry should be started should be able to do so—immediately. What’s forming is a plan to be able to talk to any council member and go. The council will find ways to back you, help you, and support you. If there prove to be some difficulties, that council member will talk with you about them, but the important thing is that ministry happens, not that forms get filled out.
And we also need to recognize that some ministries will complete their purpose. Not every ministry is a forever ministry. We don’t need to artificially prop them up. We can celebrate completed ministries and rejoice in their success as they finish.
Finally, two issues seem to be emerging that get in our way:
Communication and cooperation. They overlap significantly, but are different.
We need to become more intentional about our communication: both giving and receiving. More venues, more planning, more deliberateness, more completeness. We’ve got to make sure all information is readily available to all. That requires a different kind of energy and focus.
That being said, all of us have to seek to find out what’s happening. All the information in the world won’t matter if we aren’t listening.
Coinciding with that a bit is the issue of cooperation. We can no longer go about ministry in separate silos, independent of one another.
We tend to focus on tasks. But we are more than a bunch of people who accomplish separate tasks. We are a congregation, woven together.
Rather than merely accomplishing tasks in our separate ministry silos, we need to recognize that we are part of a ministry web—what one ministry does affects other ministries. So we have to be asking, “How do I involve more people in this? How can I partner with other ministries on this?” We can’t see that as inconvenient, but rather the work of the Spirit!
Discipleship and Caring,
Encouraging New Ministries,
Communicating and Cooperating.
The Holy Spirit on this Pentecost Day has come, is speaking, and is acting. Now we’re ready to follow. Come, Holy Spirit.
Ah, yes, the suburbs. The ideal in American living. The place where life is good, where there’s no pain, no trauma, and no difficulty. Suburban life is what so many people strive for and hope to achieve. It is, in many ways, the ultimate sign of success. Oh, really?
What’s God up to in the suburbs? How is the biblical mandate of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the imprisoned manifested when there don’t appear to be any hungry, naked, or imprisoned people? Are churches in the suburbs resigned to helping and serving those in the inner city? In foreign countries? Is there any place for the suburban church within the realm of God’s mission beyond simply getting bigger? Is there any relevance to a congregation in America’s suburbs outside of becoming a mega-church with an elaborate building, an enormous attendance, and an incredible budget?
I’ve served a rural church, a small town church, and have now been serving with a suburban church for thirteen years. I’m here to tell you, suburban ministry is the by far the most exhausting ministry I’ve experienced. How do you proclaim forgiveness, compassion, and service among people who cannot acknowledge they need any of those things?
And there’s the rub. I’ve come to believe the real definition of suburban life is, “the place where everyone’s life is perfect . . . except mine.” Brokenness is very real in the suburbs, it’s often just one level below the surface.
The pain that people in other walks of life experience is equally real to suburbanites. Rather than obvious homelessness, the suburbs are full of people one paycheck away from losing their homes. Rather than obvious violence, suburbanites live with revenge just slightly camouflaged–concealed just enough to avoid discussion. Not overtly racist, the suburbs often have a subdued, hidden, and unspoken racism that is just as evil, just as deadly. Divorce, sickness, death, addiction, loss, persecution, hardship are all present in the suburbs. The difference is that no one feels they can talk about these painful issues. Suburbanites deal with many of the same heartbreaks as people in other cultures of America, but do it alone. Brokenness is hidden in the suburbs. Hopelessness is dealt with in private. Loss is handled on an individual’s strength alone. And often less than successfully. Suicide, depression, despair, and loneliness are the secret curse of suburban life.
Enter the church. God has compassion for those living in pain in suburbia. Jesus died for suburbanites. The wind of the Spirit blows in the suburbs just as it does in the poorest inner city neighborhood and the most remote rural community. The suburban congregation is called to provide the very real kingdom of God compassion, care, forgiveness, and redemptive hope.
The question is, how? Suburban churches, in their attempts to reveal the kingdom of God in their neighborhoods, are often the target of ridicule for trying new ways to be part of what God is doing there. I’m the first to admit, this ridicule is far too often deserved. And yet, I have a growing concern that the body of Christ is less than forgiving of congregations that are willing to try something outside the traditional box. A recent article in my local newspaper highlighted an new, emerging inner city congregation. One member, in enthusiastically describing this congregation, said, “this is a liturgical and sacramental ministry. It’s no happy-clappy suburban church.” The implication of this and other comments was that what his congregation is doing is real ministry, as opposed to the suburbs, where the only concern is how many instruments can fit on the professionally lit stage during performance-style worship?
Granted, performance cannot be at the heart of Spirit-filled worship (and I’ll admit too often is). But implying that the quality of music and programs that exist in some suburban churches is somehow in opposition to God’s mission is narrow-minded, exclusionary, self-righteous, and just plain ignorant.
I applaud suburban ministries that dare to try revealing the reign of God in their contexts, that are brave enough to attempt to find a way to strengthen the relationships within suburban neighborhoods. Like any other congregation in any other context, we goof it up–and badly. We get full of ourselves and end up with boneheaded priorities that make for easy stereotyping. We really do need to quit that.
The struggle isn’t about form or instrumentation or lighting or size or program or budget or building. The struggle in the suburban setting is about authentic relationships. How can you proclaim good news to people for whom the expression of any need is cardinal rule-breaking? How can you establish real relationships with people who are ostracized for having their pain exposed? How do you help, walk with, and befriend those whose context prohibits them from being helped, walked with, or befriended? The struggle is exhausting.
We in the suburbs have our work cut out for us. We aren’t always able to set up a food pantry and become successful in our neighborhoods. Our ministry usually involves feeding a much deeper hunger–a hunger whose very admission is anathema. Though we get sidetracked for the sake of a successful appearance (who doesn’t?), we are part of the body of Christ. We are Word and sacrament ministries. We take very seriously the leading of the Holy Spirit in our contexts, and, though often stumbling and imperfect, manage to be used by God for real, live, authentic, missional, reign of God ministry. The kingdom of God is revealed in the suburbs, thanks be to God.
As Christian churches in the United States continue to allow themselves to be pushed further into the margins and lose influence on a national level, it becomes ever more important for congregations to establish relationships locally. No longer the authoritative moral voice in this culture, the church must now regain its contextual voice in the neighborhood. This can only happen through a congregation’s fuller understanding of its missional identity given by a missional God and embracing the accompanying vulnerability of mutual relationships in the local context.
Most of the literature published on church/culture relationships assumes numerical growth as a measure of success or some other congregational benefit as the goal of relationship. How incredibly self-serving! And how contrary to the nature of mission! The missional success of the church is not measured in “butts and bucks,” but in joining God already at work in the neighborhood. There are changes that are likely to occur in the church as a relational concept of catching up to God in the neighborhood is applied. Among these are a decrease in the measure of success through mere numerical growth, a wider variety of congregational worship and practices based on context, and a regeneration of scripture study and discipleship practices to grow in missional self-understanding. Further, a renewed emphasis on the congregation’s serving and being served as part of the neighborhood will likely emerge, rather than the use of the community as a resource from which to grow the congregation.
Some advice from Alan Roxburgh on trying to transition an institutional church to a missional one, quoted from an interview with Michael Wallenmeyer at:
“Stop trying to change and transition your people. That makes them a project. Start loving them for who and where they are just now. This creates safe space. You start to model what you believe the Spirit is calling your church toward. In other words, YOU move back into the neighborhood and start practicing Luke 10. Until you do that stop trying to change others.
“Share the stories of what God is doing in the neighborhood and be a detective
of divinity by looking at where the Spirit is stirring heart desire in others
in the church. Encourage them, work with them.
“Become an interpreter of the Biblical narratives so people can start to read
their neighborhoods with God’s eyes.
“Stay put, stop moving from church to church.”
Joining God at work in our neighborhoods involves a focus on Jesus and the Spirit’s activity already happening inside and outside our church walls. It means that church leaders need to lead–not in programs or activities or meetings, but in discerning the activity of God and participating in it.
We start in our own neighborhoods.
I would recommend Alan Roxburgh (again) and his work on joining God in the neighborhood. He has a great blog at: http://www.roxburghmissionalnet.com/
Congregations operate almost exclusively from the position of wanting to serve. We organize ourselves around this understanding, establish practices to enhance this understanding, and speak openly about the ways in which we serve our communities. Serving our neighborhoods is often at the heart of our missional self-understanding. Our theological perspective bears this out; our understanding and view of scripture justifies this starting point. We speak of Jesus entering the world to serve the world, even to the point of dying for us. We, in turn, understand our role—our identity—in a similar fashion. We exist to serve the world, and in so doing hope to reveal Christ through our service. We are much more articulate about the nature of our theological identity than we are about the nature of our relationships within our neighborhoods.
Missional self-understanding is then the starting point for the development of our deliberate, missional relationships with our neighbors. We ask who in our context needs help, who is hurting, who needs to be served? The answers to these questions are largely the basis for launching into relationships—relationships that allow our congregations to serve. We seek out the poor, the hungry, the homeless, and the disadvantaged. We support, supply, and partner with agencies and institutions in our communities that share their concern for the needy people in our neighborhoods and communities. We do what we need to do in order to serve those who need our help.
As good-hearted as this orientation of service is, it is extremely limited. Starting with a service-oriented missional self-understanding requires that congregations attempt to acquire the resources necessary to serve. If they serve the poor, they must have financial resources to accomplish this. If they serve the hungry, they must have excess food to share. If they serve the spiritually searching, they must have their theological resources ready to articulate (at least by rostered staff). Consistent with and informed by an American cultural context of self-sufficiency and consumerism, the beginning point for all the relationships within the neighborhood is almost always the congregation’s acquisition of resources. They feel a need to make sure there is at least enough to sustain themselves and those they seek to serve. Serving requires the acquisition of resources with which to serve.
This starting place of serving has noble attributes, but is limited. One of the theological foundations for this research is the perichoretic Trinity, a God in three persons whose very identity is derived from mutual self-giving. Authentic relationship, as the Triune God reveals, is not defined in service only, but through reciprocity. One must not only serve, but be served. To serve only is to enter into relationships from a position of power, rather than mutuality and reciprocity.
Rather than trying only to serve the community, congregations need to consider how they can embrace reciprocity in their relationships with the culture, rather than merely endure it. The church can serve the culture from a position of power, but at the same time must be served by the culture in a position of vulnerability and need. This reciprocal view of the church-culture relationship runs counter to the cultural preference for dominance, a view that congregations who seek only service-oriented relationships exhibit.
Jesus models this reciprocal relationship with his culture by serving and by being served. Anthony Gittins points this out, “For Jesus, the solution to the problem of hierarchy and dominance was to be both master and servant, both one up and one down, both host and guest, both stranger and host.” Several biblical stories reveal Jesus welcoming—even requesting—service from those around him. The woman who anointed Jesus with the expensive ointment of pure nard (Mark 14:3-9), the boy who offers his lunch of fish and loaves (Mat 14:15-21), and Jesus’ request that his three closest disciples stay awake with him during his most difficult hour at Gethsemane (Mat 26:36-45) exemplify this.
In short, seeking only to serve is a limited perspective on mission. The relationships that develop from this perspective within the broader community will be necessarily limited as well. A missional self-understanding that emphasizes only one side of a reciprocal relationship is a less than complete missional perspective. Congregations which understand themselves primarily as serving agents are approaching their relationships within their neighborhoods from a desire for dominance, rather than an embrace of reciprocity. This supports their service-oriented missional self-understanding while inhibiting their relationships. These obstacles stand in the way of these congregations fully living out their God-given missional identity.
 Anthony J. Gittins, Ministry at the Margins: Strategy and Spirituality for Mission (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2002), 147.