Friday, June 21, 2013

Missional Disconnection

Sitting at annual conference (the annual gathering of United Methodists in a specific area for business, worship, and usually hand wringing) I wasn’t expecting to be caught off guard by the speaker. I mean I have heard Lovett Weems more than a dozen times lament about the coming “death tsunami” and the quickening pace of decline of United Methodist and other mainline and even sideline denominations. In true Weems fashion he was rattling off research and expressing concern and then he said, “The longer your local church has been in existence the less likely it is to represent your community.” Wow! The truth of that statement was stunning. Essentially he was postulating that at one time the church you serve looked just like the people outside of its doors, in the surrounding neighborhood, community, or rural area but the outside changed and the inside stayed the same. I have dealt with dozens of churches and seen this time and time again. That
there has been a cultural, racial, or economic shift around the church while at the same time the population inside the church has become more and more homogeneous, they look more and more like each other. History has shown that religious people tend to value education and achievement more than the average person (thanks to the American infatuation with the Protestant work ethic) and that as their faith increases so does their income level. They begin moving out into nice neighborhoods and pursuing the “white picket fence” life. The faithful ones maintain their allegiance to the church that raised them, often commuting some distance to a neighborhood they wouldn’t live in to attend church. Over time the members of the congregation look less and less like those in the surrounding community until there is a significant missional disconnection between who attends the church and who lives near the church. This type of missional disconnection causes anxiety, suspicion, and tension both inside the congregation and in places where the congregation comes in contact with the community.

So what do you need to do? How to you rebuild burnt bridges to the community? There are two reasonable and one radical ideas you need to consider. I believe that if you are serious, and I mean absolutely committed, to having your church represent the community that surrounds it you must love the community, listen to your neighbors (the reasonable ideas), and you must live in the community (the radical idea).

Love the Community
Many churches I have visited are suspicious of the community that surrounds their stained glass sanctuaries. The buildings have become museums instead of mission stations. No longer is there an openness to serve, but there is a fear that something will get stolen, or damaged, or broken. You cannot love somebody who you distrust. You cannot accept somebody who you have suspicion toward. Oh, and by the way, you don’t hide it that well. When you are guarded, suspicious, and wary of somebody, they know it. You may think you are faking it, but you aren’t that good of an actor. The first step toward your church reaching your community is that you have to love your community. Get out of the building and prayer walk the neighborhood. Look for places where you can make a difference. Is there a senior adult who needs some assistance with their yard? Is there a single mom who needs an oil change? The key, however, is not the service your provide but the stories you hear and the people you get to know. Everybody has a story, when you learn people’s stories it is so much easier to love them. This is not a one time stroll, this is a regular interaction with your neighbors. Who is your neighbor? You’ll never know if you don’t get out there and meet them.

Listen to your Neighbors
I have already hinted at the next step, listen to your neighbors. Listen with one ear toward your neighbor and the other toward God listening for what God is saying to you and what God is leading you to do. God is always speaking but so often we fail to listen. God is pushing us, cajoling us, and begging us to be His hands and feet in the community and yet we plug our ears fearing that it will be uncomfortable and inconvenient. I am certain the cross was uncomfortable and inconvenient, if Jesus can die for you, you can listen to your neighbor. You will hear stories of struggle and stories of hope. As I have listened to stories from people in struggling neighborhoods I have been humbled by the power of their faith and how it molds and shapes every part of their lives. I am convicted that I have become so self-reliant that I really cannot hold a candle to the faith of a grandmother who is trusting God for enough food to feed the two or three grandchildren who are living with her. Listen to your neighbors.

Live in the Community
Now I’m moving from reasonable to radical. If you really want your church to look like your neighborhood, then you must live in the neighborhood. My bet is there is a house for sale (or rent) right around the corner from the church. Oh it might not meet your standards, the yard may be too small (or way too large in a rural community!), the school district might not be the best one for your kids, and you may have concerns about safety…that sounds an awful lot like a mission field. If you are serious, I mean Jesus level, die to self, get over your personal preferences and do anything for the Kingdom serious about reaching the community that surrounds your church, you have to be an integral part of that community. Oh, and they won’t trust you right away. It may take months, even years, before you are considered part of the community. You have to show up for every neighborhood meeting, you have to open the doors of your church for kids to play, for meetings of local clubs, for block parties and holiday festivals. You have to be willing to give yourself and the church to the community and then the church will start to be part of the community and not set apart from the community.

Last Words
Gone are the days of commuter Christianity, where you can fly in, preach a little, sing a little, and pray a little and expect God to do big things. You (and I) have to get some skin in the game. We have to be willing to make inconvenient and costly sacrifices to live out the calling God has placed upon our lives. Then, we have to invite others to come along and love the community, listen to the neighbors, and live wherever God sends us. I remain:

Consumed by the Call,

Gracious God help me to be fearlessly faithful to do whatever you call me to do. Amen

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