One of the main points of this blog is to conceptualize my life as a follower of Jesus Christ as one who is sent as a missionary to my community. Here's one of the things I struggle with: connecting with the mission field. Let me explain.
Who Is Your Mission Field?
"Who is my mission field?" is one of the best places to start. Notice it is not "what" or "where," but "who." Knowing geography and physical location is good, but knowing the people is better. God has placed a desire on my heart to reach those who are not actively following Jesus Christ and help them be transformed by God's love into Jesus Followers.
There are many types of different non-active Christians. There are those who used to be, but were hurt or turned-off by the church. There are those who went to church as a kid, but never really owned the practice of faith for themselves. There are those who have never had any connection to Christianity except for what they've seen, read or heard from others; and even then, that is probably very little. I want to focus on this last group, which may be harder than I realize. But, I think if I focus on that group, I can probably pick up some of the others along the way. (I suppose I could be wrong about that.)
I have a lot of questions about what life is like for a non-Christian, mainly because, I've never really been one. I was born into a "Christian home". My dad is a United Methodist, and my mom was raised Roman Catholic, and my step-mom was raised Church of God (Anderson, a holiness church). I was baptized as an infant, and raised in the church. My dad is a more charismatic type of United Methodist, and he took us to other denominations' (or non-denominations') mid-week services that had different worship experiences than our Sunday mornings. I was active in my United Methodist youth group as a teenager, and in inter-denominational Christian ministry. My friends were mostly Christians of some sort: Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, etc. I went to college and was involved in the United Methodist Campus Ministry, the First UMC, Campus Crusade for Christ, Campus Christian Fellowship, etc. I've read the Bible pretty much since I was old enough to read, and I've always thought of the voice in my head as an ongoing prayer conversation with God. Being a follower of Jesus Christ is about all I know. I'm not perfect at it, but I can talk the talk and walk the walk...in my sleep. I'm NOT saying this to brag. I'm saying this because I realize how different I am from the Mission Field. I'm realizing that in many ways I live an insulated life, in a "church bubble."
My language is different. My priorities are different (to a degree). The things I think about are different. The books I read are different. How I want to raise my kids is different. How I choose to spend my money is different (again, to a degree). My general worldview is different. I don't fit-in to one particular political party. I listen to different music and radio stations. Out of all of these, I think the biggest differences that impact my practice of ministry is Language and Worldview.
In order to connect with the mission field, I need to be able to speak the language. And, I need to talk about things that people care about. If I can't do those two things, then it will be almost impossible for people to hear me. Fortunately, I hope (and know) The Holy Spirit can make up for my lack of connection. But I still want to do my best to connect, especially with the language I use. Too often, I use "churchy" words, or overly-theological concepts. How do I translate the good news of Jesus Christ to language people can hear, both actions and words?
Truthfully, in many ways, I'm not that different from the mission field. Since I'm serving in the Midwestern United States, and only an hour from my hometown and place of birth, I can identify with a lot of the people around me. I'm a white, middle-class, American, and so are most of the people in my community. There is a lot of overlap in language, music, priorities, and worldview. Emphasizing those gives me a way to connect. Probably the biggest connection I can make with someone is that we face similar struggles, and together, with Christ, we can make it. That's good news!
How do you overcome a lack of connection with the mission field? Simple: Get Connected! Find ways to make friends with those you're trying to reach. Make sure it's true friendship and not just a means to an end of "conversion" so you can get another notch in your belt and feel good about yourself. The real motivation here is Love, God's love. Find ways to run in different circles, become friends with people in your community (people outside your church attendance/membership) and learn their language, priorities, worldview, struggles, etc. Walk with them and guide them to follow Jesus Christ. Of course, this means you have to be doing your best to follow Jesus too.
I'm not really an expert on this. I'm learning as I go. Will you help me? How do you make new friends and connect with the mission field? How are you investing in people's lives? How do you cross cultural barriers? How do you overcome self-made barriers, or a lack of confidence in the ability to connect with strangers? How do you escape getting caught in "churchy" language?
What ideas do you have, or what has worded for you? What have you read that helps you with this?
If you haven't made reaching your mission field a top priority in your following of Jesus Christ, then I highly suggest you consider it and think deeply about these questions. Why? Because God's love compels you.
If your church attendance is increasing, then you must be doing something right. Right? Pastors and church leaders will disagree about this, but it seems like most people in the pews feel that if participation (attendance & offering) is declining, then there's something wrong. Probably so. The reverse seems to happen too. If participation is increasing or holding steady and gradually increasing, then things are good. When things are bad, we will search for "why?" but when things are good, we make the assumption, "we must be doing something right."
When things are good, we assume that our theology and practice of ministry must be good, or at least "good enough." But what if that's a bad assumption. What if increased participation numbers don't tell the whole story. I think things could get great participation, but still be 'off' or 'wrong'. It seems like we value 'more' than 'less'. Here in the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church, many times I've heard people from small congregations (which I think 80% or more of our congregations are 100 people or less) complain about being overlooked or not heard or underrepresented. We lift up larger churches as models of ministry, and we set expectations for churches to be "like that." Small churches often feel devalued even though there are a lot of great things going on in those churches. I think that's a cultural value of "more" over "less".
Sometimes I think that if we were really proclaiming the gospel and asking people to live like Jesus, our churches would be getting smaller. Because it's hard to follow Jesus. Who really wants to die? Or be a "living sacrifice"? The more I reflect on what Jesus is asking of me to do as his follower, the more I realize how counter-cultural it is. He may want me to live in a historically "dangerous" urban area so that I have relationships with the under-priveleged and more diverse people. To do that now, would be a great risk to my family. My mother-in-law would hate it. But I still hear Jesus calling me into relationships with people who need to know God's life-changing love, God's world-order-changing love.
I recently finished reading A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd. In it, he says Jesus proclaims a Gospel of Peace, not violence and war. Jesus was hoping to get people to be a peaceful counter-cultural resistance to the Empire's violent abusive power wielding ways. In particular, Zahnd tells a personal story of his father who was a judge. His dad frequently told him not to trust the majority (or the crowd). Sure there's strength in numbers, but might does not make right. I think Jesus taught something similar which he showed by spending more time with people on the margins of society (sinners, tax collectors, prostitutes, poor, sick, lame) than the power brokers. Perhaps, we should question the "majority rules" thinking as well.
Just because participation is up in a church doesn't mean that your theology is right. Just because a church is large, doesn't mean they have it all figured out. Just because a denomination has and is declining doesn't mean their theology is wrong. Just because a denomination isn't declining as fast as others doesn't mean their theology is more right (or less wrong) than others. Just because one church is growing, doesn't mean their interpretation of scripture is better than one who's church is declining. There maybe correlation there, but that doesn't mean causation. Somehow, we need to have the difficult conversations, find agreement where we can on essentials, and show grace and liberty where we disagree, and still work together for the mission of the Church. We can't let The Church be defined by arguing and disagreeing. As the UMC discusses Homosexuality and Gay Marriage and other issues, I hope we keep this in mind. We need to value one another more as God's children instead of saying "God's on my side and not yours."
I also think that local congregations need to keep this in mind when making ministry decisions. Sometimes doing the right thing won't draw a crowd. It might even make the crowd angry (I think Jesus showed us that). And some people will turn away (John 6:66). Ultimately, it's love that covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8), not having the largest crowd or majority voice and vote.
Why I really Think This Is Important
This is important because I'm afraid only the loudest and most popular theological voices get publicized and heard. Those are the ones with the radio talk shows, cable TV channels, feature films, etc. I'm afraid we're missing out on how deep the Bible really is if we only hear one interpretation of it. I'm afraid people in the pews of churches get confused when what they see in movies (like the upcoming "Left Behind" movie) and hear on the radio doesn't jibe with what their pastor teaches. I'm afraid that those pastors are called "false teachers" and their churches called "bad churches," when in actuality they are very much within the historical orthodoxy of The Church and grounded in the best exegetical methods. All of this because it's the popular theology of the day that gets the most publicity. Instead of putting other pastors and churches down for different interpretations of scripture, we should be working together to show people Jesus. We can still discuss our disagreements, but let's not forget "the more excellent way" (1 Corinthians 12:31). Instead of being so certain that your interpretation is the right and only one that you become arrogant and prideful, focus on loving one another because "love covers a multitude of sins."
***One quick piece of information before I get started on this, if a child or youth or anybody in your church asks if there will be a camp for them this summer, 2015, please answer "Yes." We don't know exactly where it will be yet, but we will know soon. It will be different, but there will be something, and it will be great because I know the people like me who are committed to making it great.***
I'm not saying that anything has been hidden, or that we've been deceived. I'm saying this change in direction has more to do with combining Camping & Retreat Ministries with Youth Ministries (CCYM) into the new "Next Generation Ministries" than we may realize. So, a lot of the conversations leading up to this change were a part of aligning the conference ministries with the mission statement: "leading congregations to lead people to actively follow Jesus Christ." (side note: I've always thought the word "actively" was unnecessary or redundant because isn't following an action? can you passively or inactively follow? I think those would be "not following".) The impression that people seem to have is that this emphasis is just a Missouri Conference thing. It bothers a lot of us because it appears to make us more congregational in polity rather than connectional. For example, I've seen this post passed around on the interwebs, and it's titled "Disconnecting Missouri Methodism." The fear that we are becoming more congregational may be valid (I don't think so), but it's not a Missouri specific thing.
In addition to our mission statement, the Missouri Conference of the UMC has the following vision: "Growing, fruitful, vibrant congregations changing lives through Jesus Christ." This also puts an emphasis on local congregations, and seemingly away from our connectional nature and more towards congregationalism. However, this is not just a Missouri thing. It's a Council of Bishops and Connectional Table thing. It's a denomination thing.
A while back (2008), the Council of Bishops and The Connectional Table announced the "Four Areas of Focus." You can read an overview of it at the umc.org website. Among those four foci (is that how you pluralize that?) is...drum roll please..."Growing Vital Churches." Specifically, the focus is on planting NEW churches (actual wording is "new faith communities") and creating NEW ways for people to connect with God and The Church. But, they also include renewing existing churches. If you dig deeper and click the link to find out what they mean by "Growing Vital Churches," you will find more details for the vision of what exactly a vital church is. One of the components of a vital congregation is..."strong children's and youth ministries." (Note this as an emphasis on "Next Generation Ministries.")
What prompted this vision for our denomination? Why is there an emphasis on strengthening local congregations? Why emphasize children's and youth ministries? Here's what the website says:
as many of us realize, The United Methodist Church is aging, and our numbers are declining:
The vision of emphasizing these Four Areas of Focus is "not for the next quadrennium, but for as far as the eye can see." We will be living into this vision for many many years to come. I think it's a great vision for us to strive for wholeheartedly. (Personal Confession: In fact, I wish I would have paid more attention to our Bishop announcing this stuff and found all of the material on the website sooner.) In order for us to truly be connectional and accomplish this vision, we need Vital Congregations. Without vital congregations, we won't have a denomination to be connected to. The good news is, someone has done a lot of work to show us how to develop a vital congregation. The website has this PDF document that your church can use as a guide to implement what they call "drivers of vitality," which are things that help the church fulfill the vision of a "vital congregation." The first (of sixteen) drivers of vitality is focused on small groups for all ages. The next two are focused on Children's and Youth Ministries. So again, there is an emphasis on "Next Generation Ministries."
What Does This Have To Do With The Change To MO UM Camps?
I'm pointing all of this out because I want us to see that this is bigger than just the Missouri Conference, Bishop Schnase, Rev. Garrett Drake, and the Camping & Retreat Ministries Board. Sure, maybe the Missouri Conference is somewhat of a pioneer on shifting the focus to local congregations since this began for us prior to 2008, but still, this is not about people leading us away into congregationalism. This is about the future of The Church, our church, the United Methodist Church.
On the one hand, it looks like we've taken support away for Next Generation Ministries because first we closed our campus ministries, now we're closing campsites, and soon CCYM will be different. But in reality, we haven't had this type of concerted focused effort and alignment of resources to reach the next generation and form new communities of faith that reach the next generation. I give kudos to our Bishop for slowly (he's been here 10 years now) and persistently leading and influencing us to re-align our mission and vision and way of doing things (budget and staffing) to actually catalyze next generation ministries in our local churches. Did you see the stat above? The Average United Methodist Is 57 Years Old. Our conference leadership is being intentional about trying to change this. (And I am unique: one of only 850 people in the world who are under age 35 and ordained UMC clergy. Woo Hoo! Go me! Maybe if the process didn't take so long we'd have more, but that's a whole 'nother issue.)
These two emphases, vital congregations and next generation ministries, are critical for our church worldwide, and especially in the US. This vision is an effort to recapture the original Methodist Movement, not an institution. The Movement was always focused on small groups in local congregations who lived out their faith in their local communities. The local congregation (the people, not the building) is the primary locale that people connect with The Church.
To sum it up, I'm trying to say that this change is connected to more than just finances or ambitions. I'm trying to say that this is not us devolving into congregationalism. This is not denominational leadership sticking more to selfish ambition of growing a great organization. No, instead, this focus is deeply rooted in a desire to see us living as followers of Jesus Christ, disciples who care for the poor, lead our communities with integrity, and improve world health (historically Methodist emphases). We do this at the most basic level through our local congregations in communities, cities, towns, neighborhoods across the globe. People connect to people. The Church is people who connect people to the person of Christ. This vision is not necessarily trying to save a denomination, but it's trying to do the important work of continuing the Methodist way of Following Jesus Christ. Even if the denomination ever goes away, I think there will still be people who follow the Jesus Way in a Methodist Style, and I think these Four Areas of Focus capture that and it's well worth giving my life to...even if I won't get to use the same camp facility that I have grown to love.
A good number of my friends have shared this article about what we can learn from St. Patrick: http://www.umc.org/news-and-media/what-st-patrick-can-teach-united-methodists. In it, a professor of church history, Jim L. Papandrea, states:
Patrick demonstrated that "we as Christians have something worth sharing, even at great hardship,"
Let me state that again: WE HAVE SOMETHING WORTH SHARING EVEN AT GREAT HARDSHIP. Wow! What a reminder. If you read the rest of the story of St. Patrick, you'll find that he was sold as a slave to people in Ireland, then, years later, he chooses to return to Ireland in order to tell them about Jesus Christ and help them become Christians. In his [Patrick's] mind, he was committed to loving them as God in Christ had first loved him.
What hardship are you willing to face in order to share your faith? Most of the time, I'm too nervous to try. I probably worry about the possible reactions too much. Maybe I have a fear of rejection. Or maybe I'm too busy to try. Or maybe I just assume that I'm such a good follower of Christ it comes naturally without being intentional. What is it for you? The bottom line, they're all excuses not to share this great love that God has shown me.
I want to have a new heart, one committed to sharing my faith regardless of the cost.
Many of my clergy friends are moving and have moved to new contexts for ministry in the past weeks and I thought this is relevant to getting to know people.
When Zachaeus climbs up a tree, Jesus tells him he's going to his house today...at least, that's how the song goes that I was taught. Looking at Luke 19 verse 5, it's pretty clear that Jesus just invites himself over to Zach's house. I don't know what the culturally accepted (or expected) way of doing things was back then, but I know that today in the U.S.A. That's not typically how it works. That's called "inviting yourself over." It could also be called "party crashing." At least Jesus made contact first and gave a warning. Jesus didn't just show up at Zach's private residence, but he did invite himself over.
Can/should we follow Jesus' example today? Is it ok for me as a Follower of Christ to just invite myself over into people's homes to spend time with them? What's the balance between respecting culture and violating etiquette? Let's take a deeper look at the story.
Jesus does not just invite himself over out of the blue. Zach made a clear effort to try and get to know Jesus. Jesus responded and said, "I'm coming to your house." So, it would not be best to walk up to some random stranger and say "I'm coming to your house today." If that "stranger" is an acquaintance (or on the way to becoming one) and shows an interest in you and what you're about, then you can invite further conversation and invite yourself to their home.
Also, notice that Jesus knows Zach's name. Whether it was divine foreknowledge, or if Zach was a well-known public figure, the story doesn't say. But, Jesus knows Zach's name. Again, this is not just a random stranger out of the blue. The story says Zach is a rich leader among tax collectors. Zach is a person of influence, and probably known in the community, which can be negative or positive (in this case, probably negative because he's a tax collector). And Jesus knows his name and calls him by name. I imagine Zach also knew Jesus' name. Why else would he be climbing a tree to try and see him? Ok, maybe he just did it because everyone else was crowding Jesus and Zach just wanted to see what the spectacle was. But even then, the buzz was probably going around: "Jesus is here." So they both probably knew of each other, but didn't necessarily know one another. So if you know a persons name, and they probably know yours, then you can invite yourself over to their home. Are you following me?
Why am I discussing this? Because breaking cultural norms to reach people for Christ is tricky business. I need to fit in culturally, and speak the language, and follow the "rules," but the cause of Christ compels me to push the boundaries and take risks. Inviting myself over is a daunting risk, but if I know the person's name, and they've made an effort to know me, then I'm just returning the favor and seeking to know them more. This is how relationships start, and a relationship with me is a start to a relationship with Christ.
So don't pass up the opportunity to violate etiquette and invite yourself over to strangers homes. They won't be strangers for long, and you have the chance to share your relationship with Christ by starting a new one. Take the risk. It's worth it.
What do you think, is inviting yourself over going too far? How is it different from door-to-door evangelism? I think if you keep the above thoughts in mind and the person is becoming an acquaintance instead of a total stranger, then you're good to go. But honestly, for me, it's a very daunting task to step out, risk rejection and build a deeper relationship with some one I don't know. Again, the risk is worth it for the sake of Christ. I'm working on growing in this area myself, and I'm finding that yes, taking the risk is worth it. I
Ok, I have another chart for you. The last one I stole from facebook.com/journeychurch.org but this time I just kept the layout and changed most of the words myself. I'm trying to highlight a key difference about how evangelism is viewed or done differently. I'm calling it Attractional vs. Relational Evangelism.
In the attractional model, it's all about getting people to come to you. In the relational model, it's about going to meet people where they are in ordinary life and living as a Christ follower. Attractional methodology works to draw a crowd as quick as possible and offer a product (give a sales pitch). Relational methodology takes an investment of time and friendship.
I'm not sure these are mutually exclusive. I think there is possibly a hybrid option here. BUT, I prefer the relational side. It makes sense. I've encountered Jesus Christ and that changes me and how I live. It should be natural that my relationship with Christ has an effect on all aspects of my life, especially all my other relationships. I do not draw myself out of culture, but I engage people through culture, at least the parts where my life intersects theirs.
Relational takes a long-term view of building a relationship. The aim is to populate the kingdom of heaven on earth, not simply fill pews. The Relational Evangelist (which every Christian should be) brings the kingdom of heaven to people where they are, much like Jesus is depicted doing in the Gospels. We work to bring to the world: peace, justice, beauty, creativity, love, blessing, health, reconciliation, forgiveness, redemption--the values/ideas/lifestyle of Jesus Christ, the kingdom of heaven. Relational methodology is about influencing the people around you by the way you live (as Christ).
The problem most of us "church people" face is that we "joined" a church and quit making new friends outside of church. We've disengaged. The way I've been taught to alleviate this problem as a leader is to have "bridge events" where we create space for "church people" to interact and build bridges with "non church people" (lack a good term for that). What if we took a different approach and used the events/activities that are already going on in our everyday ordinary lives?
For example, I recently convinced another church to open their gym for some time for men to play basketball. I saw it as a way to invite people and build relationships with guys I don't know well. It is working. That is happening. But now I feel like I have to pull a "bait-n-switch" tactic to get them to "come to church". A better way would probably have been to go join an already existing basketball league/program in my community. Then I could build relationships and live out my faith in noticeable ways that my new friends would want to investigate further.
A hybrid methodology is possible, but it is hard to avoid feeling a bit deceptive about a "bait-n-switch". The bridge event would need to have no hidden motive other than the stated good that the event does for the community. It would still provide a space for relational evangelists to mix and interact with "non church people" and begin building bridges and relationships. I consider this hybrid because you're still doing some marketing to get people to come to something instead of sending "church people" to go where "non church people" are and build relationships.
What do you think? Am I on target? Any adjustments that you would suggest?
I am a United Methodist Pastor, but I'm trying to re-define that as a Missionary sent to my corner of the USA. What would it look like for you to envision your life as a Christian more like a Missionary than a Church-goer?