Tuesday, June 23, 2015

When Mission Knocks On Your Door

“Moses is here to see you.”

It was my first day at a brand new call.  In fact it was the first hour.  New church, new people, new town. I was doing all of those important things that you do when you move into your new office, before the real work begins – putting books on the shelves, checking out the computer, looking through the directory to try to put names with new faces – when my secretary poked her head into the room and said those words that I never expected to hear, “Moses is here to see you.”

Sure, I thought, Moses is here to see me.  And perhaps Elijah and Joshua are sitting in the waiting room. I was convinced that this must be some kind of church secretary humor.  Some way to haze the new guy and welcome him to town.

I walked out of the door with a smile on my face, trying to think of some quick comeback that would amuse the office staff and show that I was a good sport, when I came face to face with Moses.  He was the tallest man I had ever met.  Fairly young, but imposing nonetheless, a new immigrant from the country of Sudan, with the ritual scarring common to adult males of the Nuer tribe. He put out his hand and said something that was even more surprising than his introduction, “We have been waiting for you.”

A few minutes later, Moses was joined by several other leaders of the local Sudanese community, who shared the story of their journey and the difficulties they were facing integrating their families into a new and largely unknown society, thousands of miles away from familiar surroundings.  They came to the United States to escape the violence that had engulfed their homeland and the constant threat of death and persecution that terrorized their families.  In the refugee camps of Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya they had encountered the Christian faith, largely as a result of the teaching and care of Presbyterian missionaries. So when they arrived in this country, they sought out the church that was familiar to them and upon learning that a new pastor was coming in a few weeks, they waited.

We talked about their needs, their wants, and their dreams.  Some things were immediate, like navigating the school system, getting a driver’s license and insurance, and finding decent housing for their families.  Other necessities popped up in the conversation, such as English language classes, access to clothing, and resources for families who were about to give birth.  We bought a lot of cribs that summer. And of course, there was worship.  They wanted a place to gather so that they could have a service in the Nuer language.  The elders would do the preaching, but it was important for the pastor to be there, to pray and serve as an ambassador from Jesus.  More about this in a few minutes.

Our little town in Southwest Minnesota was the destination for a large number of new immigrants.  Hispanic, Asian, and African men and women brought their families to our community in search of jobs and safer way of life.  With several industries that seemed to be constantly searching for new employees, including a packing plant, and a community of people that was small enough to recognize you by sight and call you by name, we fit the bill nicely.  Just a few years earlier, diversity had meant the difference between being Norwegian and Swedish.  Now diversity described the changing nature of our churches, schools, and neighborhoods.

Rural America is experiencing a new wave of immigration that is changing the way our communities sound, the way our schools look, and the way our churches live out their ministries.  These changes are felt more rapidly in a rural setting, where we know our neighbors and can respond quickly to their needs.  The church should be on the cutting edge as our local demographics change, being the first to extend a word of welcome, to be aware of the needs of our new neighbors, and to desire to be in ministry with those who may see life through a very different lens.

A number of recent UDTS graduates, new immigrants themselves, have been called to ministries among the immigrant communities of rural America.  They conduct services in a variety of languages, from Nuer and Anuak to Spanish and Chinese, along with many others.  They help members of their communities straddle the divide between an English speaking culture and families that still reflect their homelands.  They serve as guides, spiritually, vocationally, and socially, and offer endless encouragement to the people in their care.  And they encounter the same social problems and concerns that plague other communities, but with fewer resources and less support.  Pastors like Enna, Gilo, Paul, Jordan, Owar, Ekram, and Tina, along with many others, serve with very little compensation, but with endless enthusiasm.  Theirs is a work that seems to be never completed, serving congregations of believers, both officially recognized and spontaneously conceived, sometimes meeting in shared or repurposed buildings, rented space, or even in homes.  And to a person, they would value the help and partnership of other pastors in their communities.

If there are new arrivals to your town, consider how your church should reach out in the name of Jesus Christ.  Are we truly living our call if we are sending mission dollars overseas, but ignoring the needs of people down the street?  Do we effectively represent our Savior if we encourage our youth or other members to embark on short-term mission trips to exciting locations, but fail to share with newcomers in our area?  It is not a matter of either or, but the importance of doing both.  While this is not an exhaustive list, here are a few things to remember as you think about your local mission efforts:

1.  Always think ministry “with”, not ministry “to”.  The history of failed mission and evangelism efforts is littered with examples of well-meaning Christians trying to do things for others. Instead, consider entering into a mutually beneficial relationship that openly acknowledges that we have a great deal to learn from each other. Never think of a neighbor as a mission project, but rather, think of ways you can walk in this journey of faith together.  Sometimes the best start is simply being a friend.

2. Don’t worry about membership. The goal of our outreach with our international friends should never be the impact it will have on our membership rolls. Becoming a member of a congregation is a non-biblical concept that is a construct of denominations to enable them to effectively tax or assess their congregations. Does that sound too cynical? Probably, but the truth is that membership standing has very little to do with pastoral care.  We don’t offer care on the basis of social status, economic resources, or family relationships.  Instead, think of your church family in different terms, recognizing that the sphere of ministry to which you are called goes far beyond the boundaries of the official congregation.

3. Your church will experience change.  This is a positive thing, so embrace it. If your congregation tries to reach out to the new immigrants in your area, but refuses to entertain ideas that may change the way they have always done things before, then you will inevitably encounter barriers that bring your efforts to a screeching halt. Your worship services may look and sound different, your Sunday school teachers may need to adjust their lessons, your annual cycle of events may include celebrations that you have never heard of, and your boards and committees may have to rethink the way they function.  Keep in mind that the church does not exist to perfect itself, but to provide a way to do God’s work together in a very imperfect world.

4. Worship is essential, but the way you worship is not. Over the years we have developed our worship patterns and practices as a way of expressing our love for God within a particular cultural context. But our way is not the only way to worship Jesus.  When we introduce voices from outside the culture, our worship service experiences change, but with a richness that witnesses to the larger community we have become.  When Moses and his friends came to our small town congregation, they expressed a desire to have a Nuer language worship service, apart from the regular worship of the church.  We quickly agreed, but with one proviso – that our Sudanese friends would also be encouraged to attend the traditional worship of the church, and that the members of the congregation would be invited to attend the Nuer language service.  Surprisingly, many did, attending both services with equal enthusiasm.  We prayed together, conducted baptisms together, and shared together around the Lord’s Table.  The participants may not have always understood the language, or even what was being said, but the result was a sense of community and shared experience that enhanced each worship gathering and brought glory to God.

5. Culture is relative, not normative.  In our communities we live in contexts that are comfortable and familiar to us.  Our culture is comprised of things we take for granted, like potluck dinners, high school basketball games, and 4th of July celebrations.  We have a way of living as residents of our towns and even of this country that feels natural and consistent.  But the things that make up our culture and even our way of life are not the same around the world.  New immigrants come into our neighborhoods with backgrounds and traditions born of a different context and often, a different world view.  When these new friends merge their lives with ours, they may not always appreciate those things that we assume.  And likewise, we may lack an appreciation for the customs and traditions that they hold most dear.  Our goal should not be assimilation into a single, homogenous culture, but a sense of respect and appreciation for those aspects of another person’s culture that they value and celebrate. Our new friends may never understand our national obsessions with bacon and our lawns, but that doesn’t stop us from being brothers and sisters in the faith.

If there are new immigrants in your area, it is an essential part of your calling to reach out and welcome them into the church family.  It isn’t always easy to make introductions and there are times when the first attempts at conversation may seem awkward, but caring always beats ignoring.  Mission is no longer an activity or even a separate function of the church.  Mission is now an integral part of the work that we do every single day, as we work together to realize a different kind of Christian community.  A place where all men, women and children are invited, welcomed, and encouraged to be a complete part of the body. 

What will you do when mission knocks on your door?  Remember the lesson of Matthew 20:1-16.  It doesn’t matter who came first or last, but only that we answer the call.

Monday, June 15, 2015

New Life for Tired Churches

What do you call a church with thirty members?

In most denominations today, a church with only thirty or forty members is often considered a candidate for closure.  At the very least, you can be confident that the topic has been discussed, either within the church itself or by others in the denominational structure.  However, if you had asked the same question a hundred years ago, the answer would have been very different.  Back then, a church with thirty or forty members would have been considered a good start.

Why the difference?  It is all a matter of perspective and identity.

From our 21st century, North American point of view, we measure success with numbers.  How many members do you have? How many have you gained this year?  How many have you lost? Then we tend to compare those numbers with the standards set by other congregations.  Our measure of a successful church is one that is increasing in membership and consistently has more income than expenses.  Congregations that experience consistent declines in these categories are a source of concern, regardless of the type or quality of ministry that they practice.  We feel comfortable with this corporate model of assessment, because it is the same model that we use to assess the other aspects of our lives.

Many small and rural churches suffer from an identity crisis based on their perceived place in the comparative pecking order.  As pastors we feed that mindset in the ways we refer to our own ministry settings.  In talking to others about the work that we do, one of the first questions we frequently ask is, “How many members do you have?” as if that is the most important of all identifying factors.  Too often members of these smaller churches undervalue the work and ministry they do, simply because they are trapped in a system that puts more of a premium on the number of people in the seats and less of a value on the quality of their faith or the things they do in the name of the Gospel.  But what if we ignored the numbers and focused primarily on mission? What if we looked at the work that we do in our context through the lens of service to Jesus Christ, rather than quantifiable categories?

Smaller membership congregations have the opportunity to renew their own sense of spiritual well-being by intentionally thinking about the purpose of their faith community.  It goes without saying that worshiping and glorifying the Lord is our primary purpose, but what happens if attendance numbers are low or musical gifts are absent or the quality of worship is uninspiring for reasons that are unrelated to the gospel itself?  These factors can accelerate the sense that a church is in decline.  Worship is essential, but if worship is the only way the congregation expresses its life together or its presence in a community, then a decline in worship may be an indicator that the life of that congregation is coming to an end.

Vital churches, regardless of size, discover additional ways to express their mission to Jesus Christ.  While worship is generally an internal expression of a congregation’s calling, other means of outreach can feed the flames of their faith and assert the importance of the church in that community.  Let's be very clear - making disciples and providing pastoral care are essential functions of every faith community, regardless of size. And mere activity should never be mistaken for the real business of the church. But activity is the language that the church speaks in its effort to be visible to the larger community. Through visible activities the church is able to make inroads into larger circles, often filled with those who have a marginal, or even no faith commitment. This is an opportunity for mission and evangelism local-style, even if we never use those words.  A low-membership church, even one that has been in danger of closing, can experience a renewed sense of life and purpose, when its members rededicate themselves to a particular work that distinguishes them within that context.

Mission studies are common within most denominations, but unfortunately they most frequently occur when the church is in the process of seeking new pastoral leadership.  Too often that means that the study is seen as another hurdle that needs to be overcome so that we can get on with the process of finding the right person.  As a result, they often reaffirm the most common practices of a congregation and seldom lead to new ways of thinking or new directions for ministry. Therefore it is important for congregations seeking new vitality to think intentionally about their identity at a different time, when finding a pastor is not the primary concern.

Every small and rural church should ask this question  - If we did not exist in this community, what would be missed?

If the answer is nothing, then the writing is on the wall. That church is a good candidate for closing, since it contributes little to the cause of Christ or the community itself.  But if the answer reveals an aspect of ministry or service, then the conversation has a place to begin.  Vitality in any church, particularly a small congregation, is directly related to identity.  And identity is related to the ways our efforts to represent Jesus are perceived and received by ourselves and by those in the world around us.

Many churches still live in the shadow of their golden years. They look back on a time when the pews were full and the Sunday School rooms crowded and think that the same type of ministry is possible today. But with very different resources, the 30 member church cannot live the same life as the 200 or 300 member church that they used to be.  The question is not "How can we do what we used to do," but rather, "What can 30 people do well in this place to bring glory to God?"

What does this look like in real life?  A sense of service in the name of Christ is unique to every faith community.  In one place I served it was our commitment to meals on wheels and the impact that had on the shut-ins around us.  In another, it was realized by renewing our commitment to the young people of the community, regardless of faith or denomination, and providing a place for them to gather a couple of nights a week. In other towns it might mean providing weekly volunteers at the local nursing home or sponsoring a food stand at the county fair with prices that enable even the poorest of families to enjoy a meal.  Some congregations have an annual meal or event that everyone looks forward to, like a chicken supper or a roast beef dinner.  On the outside they may seem like simple fundraisers, but in reality the ways that church members are drawn together to make the event a success and the perception in the community that this Christian church is doing something for others in the name of Jesus, makes the event a success in ways that reach far beyond the number of people served or the amount of money raised.

Even churches that have no distinguishing activities or types of outreach can gain a sense of vitality by asking a couple of different questions – what does our community need, how can our church fulfill that need, and how could such an outreach serve the cause of Christ?

Being a small church is not the same thing as being a dying church.  Because numbers only tell a part of the story.  The real key to finding vitality in small packages is in identifying our unique calling and in realizing how that serves Jesus in this place.

What do you call a church with only thirty members?  If it is committed to serving Christ, regardless of its limitations, then I call it a success!