Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Focusing on Mission Might Just Save the UMC [Real Food 01]

In the first part of this series, I used diet pseudo-food to represent food that isn't real food- it's full of chemicals and doesn't satisfy us. What should I use for real food? I found this image by doing an image search for "Catholic Worker Farm". I think it fits. :) In case you are wondering about the Catholic Worker Movement and what a Catholic Worker Farm is, you can read an interesting article, "Taking Root", about the movement's history and what the farms are doing today.

I begin with this image because Catholic Workers devote their lives to mission. Last week we talked about things we can do to adapt to changes in our society and attitudes in our culture that are reducing the number of people who come to worship and participate in our ministries. I have argued that we need to stop talking and start doing. Where do we start? Mission!

The UMC has never really stopped doing mission. Our United Methodist Women and the General Board of Global Ministries have steadfastly been in mission for a long time- UMW members have been doing mission since 1869! But in recent years, movements that focus on spiritual formation and church growth (which sometimes have been less about mission and more about marketing) have shifted the emphasis in the way ordinary Christians practice their faith on a day-to-day basis. Now is the time to re-commit to practicing mission. I say "practicing mission" because I believe mission is a spiritual practice and it's a part of what it means to be Christian- to "practice" our faith.

What is mission, anyway? As Christians, we have been sent into the world to do Christ's mission in it: "Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ " (John 20:21). I think it's no mistake that Jesus sent us into mission right after he said, "Peace be with you". Mission is the work of bringing about God's peaceable reign on earth: the Kingdom of God. When the angels announced the birth of Jesus, they proclaimed "Peace on earth and goodwill to all people". That initial Gospel proclamation is what we continue today when we do mission. The Greek word for Gospel is euangelion, which you may recognize as the root of evangelism. Euangelion means "Good News". When the New Testament uses euangelion as a verb, it is directly translated as "be Good Newsing". When Jesus traveled through the countryside doing acts of mercy, with his disciples in tow, he was Good Newsing. Thus mission is the doing of Christ-likeness in the world, and the Christians are a people who are sent in mission. "As a fire is meant for burning, so the Church is meant for mission", writes Ruth Duck (The Faith We Sing 2237). If we are not in mission, we are missing the point of the Christian life!

As Jesus Christ was Good Newsing, so we also must be Good Newsing. What does that look like? According to Dr. Dana Robert, our church missiologist, there are five different models of mission in the United Methodist Church. Every local church employs each of these models at different times. Which one we should use at any given time depends on the context and the needs of individuals in the present situation. They are:

1. Hospitality: not just coffee hour and offering a bulletin- this is a radical welcome to those who are different from us (the "Other").
2. Christian Presence: simply being present with others without necessarily speaking the name of Christ. Stephen Ministers are a good example of this model of mission.
3. Evangelism: speaking the Gospel of Christ*
4. Ecumenism: building relationships with Christians outside our denomination and with people who practice different religions*
5. Serving with the poor: volunteering at food banks, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, ect.

*In the last 50 or 60 years or so, the manner in which Christians have used the evangelism model has been "hard sell"- in other words, rather loud and pushy and sometimes insensitive. Lots of folks in the general population have stories of times they felt Christianity was shoved down their throats. Certain Christian denominations have also been intolerant of other Christians with different theologies and of non-Christians, and have said very exclusionary things to them. Local church members should bear these things in mind when selecting models of mission and how to go about using them. 

That said, I believe local UM churches can regain trust and respect in their small corners of the world by concentrating more of their time, effort, and money in the area of mission. The more church members are out in the world showing compassion, the more people will get to know them and see what we're really about. And the more time we spend practicing acts of compassion, the more we will be transformed into the likeness of Christ. Compassion is a common thread throughout the Gospels, and it is present in every model of mission.

Hospitality, Christian Presence, and Service are the models that are most readily visible to those who are not already part of our local churches. For instance, my church here in Cambridge houses a shelter for homeless youth ages 14-24 in our basement. This is a radical act of hospitality that often stretches our resources and our patience, but people outside the church who hear about the shelter instantly know what kind of people we are.

Serving with the poor can often be a powerful witness to others in our communities. I say "serving with" because those who are poor should not be disempowered (and sometimes objectified) by having ministry done to them. Christians ought to engage in ministry with them, as this UM website illustrates so well. Friends and fellow blogger Jeremy explains that doing ministry with others- whoever they are- is not about us. It's about encountering Christ in the Other: the person at the shelter, the person in the breadline, the person at the abortion clinic. We are not here to judge them or to give them something from our high and lofty place of privilege. We are here to acknowledge our privilege, do what we can, and be open to meeting Christ in that encounter. I meet Christ each month on the street in Cambridge when I take part in the Outdoor Church's sandwich ministry. As Jeremy said so well: an Incarnational ministry allows other people to be Jesus to us.

The more we focus on being compassionate people in the lives of those around us, the more we will become compassionate and the less we will focus on the minutae of day-to-day management of the church. My friend Tom, who is the Director of the Outdoor Church, walked into our church one day and said to me, "I love gritty urban churches! A gritty building means the money is being spent on mission." In that sense, I'm proud to be part of a gritty urban church, and I think more churches should be gritty. We need to invent the Gritty Rural Church and the Gritty Suburban Church. The less churches focus on trappings like the building, committee meetings ad nauseum, and intra-church drama, the more their members can focus on doing ministry in the community. Of course, committee meetings and building stewardship are important (not so sure about the drama...), but it should not absorb the whole of the church's energies.

Churches that are struggling may find a mission inventory helpful. Take a look at the ways your church is using its building and its funds. What percent is being spent on maintaining the church building and intra-church fellowship vs. outreach and spiritual formation? Another Pastor Jeremy over at Dirty Ministry offers a really interesting model for evaluating one's church building use here, and it even includes a ready-to-use Excel spreadsheet (my inner Type-A just made a squee)! The way your building and funds are used can tell you a lot about where your church's time and energy is being spent. Once you have a good idea of that, you can think about ways to give more in the area of mission and less in the area of maintenance. Start with what's simple and intuitive and build your mission activities from there. If your church isn't ready to do this as a whole yet, you can start doing more mission on your own.

So to re-cap:
  • Being in mission is what the Church is here to do!
  • Doing mission makes us more Christ-like and increases our faith; it ultimately gives us life.
  • When others see us in mission, they can better understand who we are as persons/ as a People.
  • Evaluating how your church can do more mission can be a straightforward, intuitive process.
  • You can start any time- just do it!
Of course, doing mission takes a certain amount of emotional and physical energy. We're already busy people with full lives and not enough sleep. How are we going to add mission to the mix? The logistics of making time for mission vary for each person, but I can tell you how to gain the energy necessary: spiritual formation and inspired worship. In the ideal Christian life, all three of these things should be balanced so that one is not lopsided, majoring in one or two and not doing anything in the other area(s). How do we go about participating more fully in spiritual formation? The discussion continues next week!

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