Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘mission’

“Our mission to the world cannot make creation whole again, any more than we can create wholeness in ourselves or our churches. We offer the world only the grace of God, and that can never be confused with problem solving. It is high time we let go of all mission strategies that offer optimistic social agendas for the world. Instead, our mission is to live in the midst of brokenness that we cannot fix with a vision of God’s healing — healing from the damage people have wrought by playing god in the world”.
Craig Barnes in Yearning: Living Between How It Is And How It Ought To Bep. 174.

So often I hear or read advice to congregations about vision or mission statements that suggest that the church’s mission is about ‘meeting needs’. Congregations are to find a need in the neighbourhood that matches the interests, skills, and passion of their people. Then, they are to develop a programme or project that will meet that need.

I am troubled by that approach. It seems to me that it sets the church as one more provider of a product that others will consume.  How often have you heard someone suggest that one of the failings of the church is that it doesn’t advertise enough? That it needs better marketing?

I know that we are often not ‘on the radar’ for many people. Ask a stranger, “Could you direct me to  . . . Church?”  and there’s a good possibility that s/he won’t be able to do that, even if the church building is in sight. I also know that people often don’t know all that the church is doing in the community. Those are both indications that a congregation needs to get better connected with its neighbourhood.

However, I don’t think ‘church’ is a consumer product. I don’t believe that declines in participation will be fixed by better marketing. I don’t think that the mission of the church is about ‘meeting needs’ or fixing social problems.

I like Craig Barnes’ reminder that the church’s work is be a witness to and a foretaste of the healing and redeeming work that God is doing in the world. And, I am challenged by his comments that “our mission is to live in the midst of brokenness that we cannot fix with a vision of God’s healing”. That sets the church within mystery, within relationships, within a deep respect for the holiness of life. It seems to me that that is a better description of what we are about.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

I’ve been  doing some research on congregational amalgamations. One thing is very apparent: amalgamations have a greater chance of being ‘successful’ if they are driven by a conviction that the participating congregations are able to serve God’s mission better together than separately.

What is also apparent is that most congregations enter into the conversation about amalgamation when they are desperate: the leadership of the congregation are tired of working very hard to keep things going; the building is in need of major repairs; the finances are unable to sustain the ongoing costs.

Often, then, people enter into the conversation hoping that an amalgamation will solve those problems. Past experience indicates that that will probably not be the case. If nothing is done to address the dynamics that caused the decline and the crises in the first place, within a few short years, the new congregation will be facing the same problems again.

Addressing those dynamics is hard work. Once a congregation enters into the process of amalgamating with another congregation, its people can be easily distracted from that hard work by the technical details of making an amalgamation happen. However, figuring out why God has called them to be the church in a particular place and time is critical to their becoming a flourishing congregation. That work needs to be done before, during and after the amalgamation process.

In the recent past, many congregations tried to do that work by developing mission or vision statements and by listing their values. I am not convinced that that has been helpful or fruitful. Many congregational mission statements are merely generic descriptions of what the people think a church should be. They are seldom very compelling. They are usually focused primarily on the church rather than on the mission.

So, what does a congregation do in order to get a clear sense of what God is calling them to be and to do in their particular place and time? I suspect that the answer to that question lies in story-telling. The Church is a story-formed community. The Bible doesn’t list a set of values. It tells stories about the Triune God and about the people who have lived in response to and in obedience to that God.

What would it look like to reclaim that way of being the Church? People would need to know the Story well. It would need to dwell deeply in their hearts and their lives. The sad thing is that so many Christians have given up on our Story. They are not convinced that the stories in the Bible have much to say to the way they live their lives. It is a great challenge for their leaders to wrestle with the scriptures so deeply that the Story catches fire in their own lives. Then they will have something to offer their people.

The people will need to know the Story well enough that they are able to work with it creatively. Then, there will need to be a culture in the congregation that nurtures in them that creativity and celebrates it.

I am wondering if a way to start would be to give story-telling a more prominent place in the life of the community of faith. Have people tell the stories of what God is doing in their lives. Discover what biblical stories are living at the heart of the community. Learn those stories. Wrestle with them. Tell them to each other. Let those stories shape the decisions that are made. Let them be the lens through which the congregation sees what God is calling them to be and to do.

Does anyone know a congregation where that is happening? I would love to hear about it.

Read Full Post »

God of our salvation,
in Jesus Christ
and through your Holy Spirit,
you promise to be with us through
all that life may bring us.

We are grateful for signs of your faithfulness all around us:
for the work of your Spirit in the lives of
those who commit themselves to your mission;
for the presence of your Spirit
carrying us in times of crisis and trial;
for the creativity of your Spirit
opening new channels of peace and reconciliation
after all our best efforts have failed.

Teach us who bear the name of Jesus
to live into and out of his grace
with such passion and commitment
that other people’s lives are blessed
and our communities flourish.

Let your healing waters flow over us
that we may be instruments of your grace
wherever you send us this week.

Read Full Post »

In the Christian calendar, this Sunday is a feast day called “the baptism of our Lord”. Jesus began his public ministry by showing up at the Jordan River and being baptized by his cousin, John the Baptizer. The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord used to be a more important celebration than Christmas. A surprising number of icons painted by the early church depict Jesus’ baptism.

For early Christians, baptism was a life-defining act. If you decided you wanted to become a follower of Jesus, you presented yourself to a local congregation. They would question you. Then, you would embark on a programme of preparation of baptism that would last two years.

During those two years you would learn the stories of Jesus and participate in the worshipping community. Mentors would teach you to pray. They would help you examine your life and learn to live the odd, peculiar ways of Jesus’ community.

Being baptized was neither automatic nor easy. It was also dangerous. For much of the first three centuries of the church’s existence, Christians were a persecuted minority. You made a very intentional decision. It changed who you were. It gave you a new identity, a new life. You became different from others around you.

Then, all that changed. One night, the Roman Emperor, Constantine, had a dream, or a vision, of a cross in the sky. He heard a voice that said, “By this sing you shall conquer.” When he woke up, he decided that everyone in the Roman Empire was going to be a Christian. Roman soldiers would come to a village, herd everyone into a lake and everyone would emerge baptized.

The soldiers themselves had to be baptized. They did not know much about being a follower of Jesus, but they did know that it means renouncing violence. They knew Jesus had said, “Turn the other cheek.” This created a problem for soldiers. How could they be baptized as followers of Jesus and still fulfill their duties to the Emperor?

Some of them came up with a solution: as a soldier was being immersed in the waters of baptism, he would hold his sword arm out of the waters. That meant that the soldier had been baptized — all of him except the hand which held his sword. With that arm he could serve the Emperor.

We all do it. We all hold some portion of our lives out of the waters of our baptism. God can be Lord of our lives on Sunday but, when we get to work on Monday, we operate by a different set of rules. We can let Jesus comfort us when we are troubled or suffering but, in those times when we are strong and feel like we are in control of our lives, we figure we do not need to refer to him.

In the 1940’s, Clarence Jordan founded a community in Americus, Georgia. In the deep south of the United States, he founded a community that was to be a living sign of and witness to the Kingdom of heaven which Jesus had inaugurated. It was a community where everyone was welcome — blacks and whites, rich and poor.

People ridiculed them. They found themselves embroiled in a number of legal battles because it was against the law for blacks and whites to share meals together, much less raise their children together.

Clarence’s brother was Robert. At the time he was just a country lawyer, but he would eventually become a state senator and a justice in the Georgia Supreme Court. Clarence asked Robert for help with a legal battle. Robert replied, “I can’t do that. You know my political aspirations. If I represented you, I might lose everything.”

Clarence replied, “We might lose everything too. Why is this so different? When we were boys, we joined church on the same Sunday.”

Robert said, “I follow Jesus up to a point.”

“Would that point by any chance be the cross?”
“That’s right. I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not going to get crucified.”

“Well, Robert,”  said Clarence, “I don’t think you are a disciple of Jesus. I think you are an admirer of Jesus. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to and tell them that you are an admirer of Jesus, not a disciple.” (Stanley HauerwasMatthew, p.57)

We are not used to making such a harsh distinction. Our traditions around baptism were shaped largely by a time when everyone was baptized as a matter of social custom. We tend to think of it as a ritual that mostly involves babies and little children.

If you ask the parents who still seek baptism for their children, “Why do you want your child baptized?”, they are, for the most part, unclear about it. They are unsure not only about why they are asking for baptism but also about what baptism means.

That might be true for most of us. That can be partly explained because the cultural understanding of what baptism is, is changing. It is no longer something everybody just does as  matter of course. As the church moves back to being on the margins of society, we are becoming more like the early church. Baptism is again taking a more central role in the identity and mission of the church. Once more, it is becoming the gateway into a community of people whose lives are shaped by commitments and convictions that are different from much of the rest of the culture. We are a community that becomes different from the world as we participate in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Baptism is not just something that happened to us when we were babies. It initiated us into a way of living where we are continually turning, or orienting, our lives toward to God who is revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth. It happens once but it takes a whole life to live into it. It shapes our spirituality. It forms our identity. We are a baptized and baptizing community of faith.

Martin Luther lived in the sixteenth century and was a leader in the Protestant Reformation. The spirituality that was shaped by his baptism led him to confront the abuses and corruption of the church in his day. He was often in trouble. He was often troubled. When he was troubled, he would trace the sign of the cross that had been marked on his forehead in his baptism. He would say to himself, “I am a baptized person.”

He didn’t say, “I was baptized.” He said, “I am a baptized person.” It reminded him that God had called him to speak truth to power. It reminded him that the Holy Spirit surrounded him and kept him in the midst of trouble.

A few years ago, I led a study group that looked at the meanings of baptism. I invited the participants to go through the week saying, “I am a baptized person” and to trace the sign of the cross on their foreheads, either literally or simply in their minds.

They came back the next week and many of them reported how amazed they were at the difference it had made in their lives. One woman said, “I was in situations where I was tempted to be petty or mean — to join in office politics and gossip. I would visualize the sign of the cross and say to myself, “I am a baptized person”. That enabled me to turn away from all of the meanness and to live into a the better standard that I cherish for myself.”

Another person found the ritual enormously comforting. It reminded her that nothing that happened to her could take her outside the realm of God’s redeeming power and gracious love.

Baptism is a gateway into a way of life that is shaped by God’s claim upon us. This is both wonderful and rightening.

It is wonderful because God has a good and holy purpose for our lives — a purpose that lifts us up and gives dignity and hope and meaning. In baptism God gives the Holy Spirit to empower us for all that that entails.

It is wonderful because, when we learn constantly to turn our lives toward Jesus Christ, we experience the presence of God in amazing and life-giving ways.

It is frightening because we are often afraid that God may demand more of us than we are ready to give. God may ask us to make changes that we do not want to make. We may be afraid that God will judge us for not measuring up, not being good enough, not doing enough.

Both the wonder and the fear are gathered into the waters of our baptism. As you live into that powerful event, you rise again and again to hear more and more deeply the words first spoken to Jesus, “You are my Beloved. You are my delight.” (Matthew 3: 13-17)

That is who you truly are. It is a gift that will see you through all your days. It is a gift you get to offer to others.  We are a community called to flood the world with the love we have received. This week, whenever anyone or anything makes you feel small or insignificant or alone, remember your baptism. Live into your high and holy calling. It is the gift of God’s grace for you. Thanks be to God.

Read Full Post »

Something new is being created in various places across the United Church of Canada. A new congregational culture is taking shape, albeit often in tentative and fragile forms. Congregations and other faith communities are finding their way forward. Based on the conversations I have been having, some trends seem to be emerging.

There is a congregational culture emerging that is focused on the ministry of all the baptized, not primarily on the ministry of the ordered ministry personnel. Clergy-centred solo pastoral ministry is giving way to participatory leadership teams in all aspects of congregational life. Authority is being distributed among the people based on gifts, relational influence, and areas of mission; power is seen as something that is to be given away to others. Clergy are recognizing that it is not their role to ‘be the minister’ but to equip the ministers of the congregation and to cultivate a congregational culture where creativity and permission-giving and risk-taking are the norm. There is an expectation that people will be engaged in deepening discipleship throughout their whole lives since the work in which they are engaged cannot be done in one’s own strength and wisdom. What ‘deepening discipleship’ looks like is localized, depending on each different context and the gifts and passions of the people involved and driven by the missionary situation in which people find themselves.

A congregational culture is emerging that prioritizes the deepening of the ministry of all the people over the continuance of the institutional structure or the building. Organizations get the results for which they are structured. That which is given attention is what grows. Churches are changing what they are paying attention to. This includes changing the way the church measures what it is doing. Rather than measuring how many people are on the membership roll or how many dollars are being raised and spent, churches are beginning to measure the people’s depth of involvement in ministry and mission in the world. Rather than paying attention to who is serving on what committee, worship services and annual reports are providing opportunities for people to witness and testify to the ways in which the Holy Spirit is working in and through their lives in their neighbourhoods, places of work and leisure times. The conversation is about ‘sightings’ of the reign of God, not the needs of the institution.

The emerging congregational culture is finding ways to attend to the pastoral care and spiritual needs of its members (often through small groups) but the dominant conversations are not about getting one’s needs met but about discerning what God is doing and what God is calling the church to be in the world. The focus is not on programmes and membership privileges but on following Jesus as a way of life. People are learning ways of listening to others outside the church. They are learning not to approach situations as ‘fixers’, with their well-intentioned agendas; rather, they are recognizing that they are often on the receiving end of the hospitality and gifts of ‘the other’. There is a humility and openness in their relationships — and a recognition that it is about building relationships rather than fixing problems.

Not every renewing congregation or developing faith community exhibits all those characteristics. However, these trends keep emerging in the conversations I have been having. What is also apparent is that congregations often are finding their way forward in isolation from others. They need to be in networks with other faith communities that are finding their way. What another church does is probably not directly transferrable to another church. ‘Cookie cutter’ solutions will not work in the diverse situations in which congregations find themselves. We live out our faith incarnationally, which means its expression is shaped by the local context. However, what is working for one church may provide inspiration for a creative initiative in another congregation. Besides, we all need companions on the journey, especially on this journey where we have no maps but only Jesus who is himself the Way.

Read Full Post »

The report of the United Church’s Comprehensive Review Task Group, “United in God’s Work” recommended that the United Church “make a commitment to supporting new ministries and new forms of ministry through an initiative that tentatively would be called Chasing the Spirit” . It frames the purpose of this initiative in terms that come from the Missional Church conversation: “The task group believes the challenge, risk, and hope for the church lie in joining what God is already bringing to life”(p. 13).

The language of the missional church conversation is being heard in many places in the United Church. There is lots of talk about engaging the neighbourhoods around church buildings. However, the term ‘missional’ is often applied to congregational mission projects rather than connoting a genuine shift in identity: mission is seen as something the church does rather than what the church is.

The Missional Church conversation recognizes that the the Church does not have a mission; rather, it participates in God’s mission in the world. That mission does not just happen in distant places; the Holy Spirit is at work everywhere, including the neighbourhoods in which congregations exist. God works through the everyday, ordinary lives of the people of the church and through the congregation as a local expression of the Body of Christ. Baptism is a person’s ordination into ministry and mission. The church is not a ‘place’ where spiritual consumers come to get their needs met. It is an outpost of the reign of God from which disciples of Jesus are sent into the world. It understands itself to be both gathered and sent for the sake of God’s mission of reconciliation and grace. The conversation is not about, “What can we do to get more people into our church”; it is about, “Where is God already at work and in what ways are we being called to participate in that work?” As congregations make this shift in identity, the role of the ordered ministry personnel shifts from being “the minister” to being a leader who equips disciples of Jesus for their ministries in the world and who cultivates a congregational environment that “nourishes this work of discernment, experimentation, learning and engagement with God at work in their neighbourhoods” (The Missional Network website).

Read Full Post »

In the posts that follow, I outline some of the core convictions from which I am working and about which I believe  “soul-stretching conversations” (Craig Dykstra and Dorothy Bass) need to happen. I recognize that these convictions will not be shared by many people in the United Church of Canada. I hope that they provide a starting point for the conversations since it is in the conversations that the way forward will be found. I also outline some of the implications of those convictions for the ways in which we train leadership in the church.

Conviction 5:     The Church is intended to be a community of ministers.

Christians know God as Trinity — a relational being who invites us to participate in that relationship.

The basic rhythm of church life is twofold: being gathered and being scattered. Worship gathers the community of disciples into God’s presence, receives their offerings of adoration and praise from the week that is past, nurtures them and sends them out into the world to live their adoration and praise in their daily lives, anticipating God’s new future. Churches that thrive in the future will be communities in which each person makes an active contribution, both in the church gathered and in the church dispersed in service. As much attention will need to be given to the formation of the so-called laity as to the clergy, to the church in diaspora as to the church in ekklesia.

The model of the church will need to shift to recognize the power, giftedness, and calling of all the baptized.

“Baptism and the ministry of the laity is the starting point for the ministry of the church to the wider community. Although ordained ministries have historically received greater attention, the ministry of all the baptized, sometimes called the ministry of the laity, is now the subject of widespread recognition. Importantly, newer occasional rites associated with baptism also include rites of blessing for the vocations of all the baptized, the ever-present and perennially overlooked complement to ordained ministry. Such attention to the ministry of the laity is crucial, for it is in the daily encounter of Christians with non-Christians, in life at the border, that significant missional activity occurs” (Robert D. Hawkins, “Occasional Services: Border Crossings,” in Thomas H. Schattauer, ed. Inside Out: Worship in an Age of Mission , p. 186)
In conversations about elevating the ministry of all the baptized in churches, two kinds of comments often surface. The ordered ministry state that they have a hard time getting the people of the congregation to make commitments to serve on committees and to attend programmes. The people of the church indicate that they do not feel qualified or adequate for the tasks that they are asked to do, that meetings are not a good use of their limited time, and that they are they are weary from taking care of the ‘business’ of being the church. They are tired of expending all their energy on fundraisers and on the administration of the structures. They are yearning to attend to the nurture of their souls. They are often strangers to basic Christian practices but, when they experience them, find that the practices feed their souls. They want their churches to be places of transformation: places where they themselves experience the transforming, liberating power of Jesus Christ and places where they are trained to invite others to experience that same transforming power.

Ed Stetzer has likened the church to a “bear fed by tourists . . . What happens when you feed the bear is eventually it can’t fend for itself.” The models of church and of ministry that are operative in most churches leaves most of the power in the hands of the paid ministers. The rest of the congregation, restricted from exercising real ministry, becomes dependent and weak. Paid ministry personnel need to be given authority to give their authority away to the rest of the congregation’s ministers. The baptized need to be commissioned to expressions of ministry that really matter — the kinds of ministries that will challenge them so deeply that they will be compelled to pray, to search the scriptures, to seek out the companionship of others in order to find the help they need to live into their ministry. “When people are grounded in spiritual practices and are growing in faith, they are more willing to take up the exercise of their spiritual gifts and calling” (from a conversation with Rev. Dr. Richard Bott).

Some Implications for Leadership Training

A) The leaders of a church will need to be trained to equip others for ministry, helping the  church to be the church. Their work will be less about providing chaplaincy services and more about cultivating environment where all the people of God thrive. They will need to be trained in cultivating an environment where each person knows that s/he is indispensable to the Body of Christ. They will need to stop trying to rescue the church by working harder when others do not step up. They will need to trust that a congregation’s mission endeavours will develop organically, i.e. from the callings and passions and commitments of the people.
B) Leaders will need to be actively engaged in apprenticeship in Christian practices. Training for leadership will need to include a strong emphasis on formation in what the scriptures call ‘holiness’, i.e. formation in spirt, character, and virtue. It will include training in faithful use of power and in exercising creative authority.

C) Congregational leadership will need to develop the capacity to nurture structures that help people discern their callings and the gifts that the Spirit has given for those callings. They will need coaching in trusting and empowering people to own their ministries and their identity as God’s ambassadors. Such participatory leadership cultivates a community that comes together to discern their participation in God’s mission. Elizabeth O’Connor describes such a community at Church of the Savior in Washington, D. C.: “Everyone was needed and everyone was aware of the point at which he was needed” (Elizabeth O’Connor, Call to Commitment: The Story of the Church of the Savior, Washington, D. C., p. 43.)

.

These days, many people are looking for hands-on-ministry. They are not interested in being passive consumers in a church that operates out of a solo-minister model. They want to participate. More than that, they want to participate in activities that emerge organically, from the grassroots, not in activities that are dreamed up by someone else and managed from the top down. Leadership for such people consists of participatory teams. Most United Church ministers have not been trained in team leadership. They do not know how to do it. There will need to be ongoing training provided for ordered ministry personnel who want to move their congregations toward ‘every-member ministry’.

There seems to be very little attention given to training people for participatory team leadership in the United Church of Canada. One possible exception is the Camino D’Emaus congregation in Quebec. This congregation includes five ‘base communities’ which meet weekly in addition to the Sunday worship services. These base communities are located in their neighbourhoods and each one has a different focus. Each gathering includes a spiritual dimension; for example, a sharing dialogue on biblical passages and life experiences. They are lay-led. The animators, or lay leaders, of these communities are part of the parish council. The church provides very intentional leadership training once a week. The focus is on “popular education” rather than academic. This is not to say that the quality of the training is not high. Rather, it is based in liberation theology’s model of praxis and reflection. Through participation and discussion, the participants develop their faith and leadership skills.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: