A continuation from my previous post.
2. Is your congregation adept at finding new partners in the mission of God? A few important words here. First of all, notice that we’re defining what we’re up to as God’s mission, not the congregation’s. This might seem like a small difference, but the biggest piece of the current, functional imagination of most congregations is the notion (often unspoken) that everything we must benefit our church and its members. As a result, churches often do not pursue opportunities unless the benefit to the organization is obvious and direct or unless there is some hope that it will result in new members. Again, this is an example of how a focus on numbers can distort things. Within this kind of imagination, people either become projects or objects (thanks, Jarrod Robinson for your observations along these lines at Pepperdine), which actually gets in the way of what we hope for–new disciples.
The mission is God’s. The church doesn’t own it. Therefore, the appropriate word to use here is partners. We’re not looking for prospects or clients, we’re looking for partners.
In Luke 10, Jesus sends the 70 to experience the hospitality of God on other people’s turf. Their job is to find people of peace and to remain among them. Again, we tend to think of God’s hospitality as our hospitality. When visitors come in the door, are they warmly greeted? But Luke 10 imagines God’s hospitality on other people’s terms. God is the host, and we embody the Christian story in these encounters when we give up our privilege and become servants.
In an age when “if we build it they will come” is no longer a viable strategy for most of us, congregations will have to be adept at cultivating relationships in the mission of God apart from our assemblies. This requires beliefs, habits, and practices that most of our congregations have not cultivated or aquired.
I like the habits/practices that Ryan and Jess Woods cultivated in the new church development they were involved with in Vancouver, WA. The first practice was to convene a group of Christians (not all from the same congregation, but all from the same neighborhood) to share a meal on a regular basis. Every time they met they asked two questions and prayed: To whom is God calling me to serve? Who has God brought into my life to serve me? I like this simple practice for several reasons. The reason I want to highlight is that they ask the second question. They see their presence in the community as one of giving and receiving, of mutuality and reciprocity, and therefore as genuine and authentic.
The second practice that makes this first one rich and meaningful is the commitment to live, work, and play in the neighborhood God has placed them. For Ryan and Jess, this meant hanging out at the same coffee shop, shopping at the same grocery store, walking through the same neighborhood with the same people on their way to take their kids to school. As a result, it was impossible to go anywhere in that neighborhood with Ryan and Jess without them being stopped by someone who wanted to greet them or see how they were doing. (Several of those who spoke at Ryan’s memorial had met him within the previous two years at a local coffee shop). This kind of saturation in the community obviously makes the first practice of a meal and prayer more meaningful. And I don’t know of anyone who did a better job of finding partners in the community for the mission of God than Ryan.
One more example from Ryan and Jess. The downtown community of Vancouver hosted an Easter egg hunt every year. It was a community event. The Easter before Ryan’s death a new church plant arrived and advertised their own, alternative Easter egg hunt. They were interested in people belonging to their church and not necessarily having their members belong to the community. This was appalling to Ryan. His imagination about finding partners in the community was different. He didn’t have to be in charge of something. The benefit of participation did not have to directly accrue to him and his. And the 1,400 people who showed up at his memorial service is but one piece of testimony to the power of these practices.
How are you doing?
While I agree completely with your suggestions and insights, But, I now struggle with the level of presence I am capable of providing in our neighborhood. Like many, we are living fragmented lives driving to various places throughout suburbia, driving past the schools or kids attend, driving past the fields and park they play on, driving past the stores to bargain hunt our scarce pennies, or driving beyond our neighborhoods to find work and on it goes.
We had the kind of presence as you describe for Ryan. As little as it seems, our dog was a major contributor to the mission of presence. Since we don’t have a fence on our suburbia lot, we had to take our dog out for exercise on a walk or a jog. It was then we were most able to interact with our neighbors. After our dog died, so did most of our ability to stay in touch with our neighbors. So while our life remains fragmented, we’re thinking that a trip to the pound may help.
Craig, I like the fact that this matters to you. Even though I live and work in the same neighborhood, I’m still a drive by kind of Christian. My neighbors who know each other well have dogs that they have to walk daily. Yesterday, in conversation with two of my neighbors, I realized how hard I work to keep my life isolated. I hesitated at their offer to plant some flowers on my behalf. I’m gone too much, I countered, which is true. But they’d be willing to look after them for me, which means I would have to count on them, etc. Yikes. I have work to do.
Mark good insight as always. Thanks for sharing part of the Woods’ story.
It’s interesting to see the comment about the dog…my wife and I just got a dog, and I’ve been excited about the ways it might open for us to connect more with our neighbors—if only the dog would not be so scared/anxious of strangers, that is!