I can’t wait to share with you my little “aha” moment I had this past week. You might recall that last week I went easy on myself and forwarded an article to you titled “Re-Designing Church for the 21st Century.” I was in Wisconsin visiting my mom who is in end of life care. I had a great deal on my emotional plate and just didn’t have the mental or emotional space to sink into a thoughtful blog. I came across this article and knew that the content would do my work for me.
The article highlighted four assumptions that feed into the successful “re-designing of the church,” but it was the first point that really caught my attention. “Community first, church second,” was listed as the most important assumption. I right away attached myself to it as it reflected my own experience in ministry over the past 25 years and also felt right for our time.
But the “aha” moment came when I reflected on one of the common themes I highlight when I am consulting with churches about our changing communities and the shifting religious values of our society. I almost always frame my comments in the broader context that what is happening is that we are moving from being the church in the middle of Christendom to being an outpost in a mission field.
The difference is this.
In Christendom, there was enough homogeneity between the church and our community that we could assume that people would come to us as long as we unlocked our doors on Sunday and smiled as we shook their hands. In the mission field we acknowledge that the values and lifestyles between us and our communities are different enough that we need to go where the people are and meet them where they are at. We can’t expect them to come to us; we have to go to them!
And this is where I had my “aha” moment.
For decades we have done amazing mission work in countries all over the world ranging from teaching good farming practices, promoting clean water policies, digging irrigation canals, collaborating on issues of reconciliation, providing emergency medical care, building schools, and on and on and on. Really good, remarkable, Christ-embodied work!
What all of these mission projects have in common is that they seek to meet the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs of the people where they are at. Rather than demanding that people look like, pray like and believe like us we do mission work in a way that embodies the living presence of Christ in their context, their language and their culture.
A few years ago I heard the story of an African pastor who had come over to America. This pastor was meeting with an American pastor and the American pastor immediately launched into a query about how his church could be most helpful to the African pastor and his community. The African pastor quickly cut him off and said, “No, no, no! You don’t get it. We have economic impoverishment in my country, but you Americans have a deep spiritual impoverishment. I am here to do mission work with you; not the other way around!”
This was my “aha” moment.
The great spiritual need, the deep spiritual impoverishment of our culture is around connection and community. We have AWD cars, air conditioned homes, flat screened TVs, pension plans, and more technology than our little brains can assimilate.
But we also suffer from social isolation and from a deeply concerning alienation from each other and our own deeper selves. We often don’t even know the names of our neighbors and are more likely to call road side assistance than our own family when we are in trouble. We have so much abundance, yet we suffer so greatly from a deprivation of connection, deep belonging, and old-fashioned Amish-style community.
This was my “aha” moment.
When I placed the article last week right next to my constant reminder that we now live in a mission field, the lights went on. The article advised us that in “Re-designing church for the 21st century” it is community first, church second. Suddenly it wasn’t just good advice from a church consultant; it was like getting marching orders from our Presbyterian Mission Agency: “If you want to do mission work in America, it is community first. Go out and address the deep spiritual impoverishment of a people who have everything, but who lack basic connection, belonging and community.”
In some countries the mission work is to build schools and irrigation canals in deeply connected communities. In America we have the schools and the canals. What WE need are relationships, connection and community.
We are now in a mission field, my friends. And our neighbors desperately need us.
Community first, church second.