Seven Marks of Vital Congregations – Part Three
In some ways, we might want to say to this theme, “Been there, done that.” Having an outward focus is what we are about as a bridge-building congregation. We know that the Holy Spirit is a work in the world ahead of us, as we say in our mission statement. This concept of having an outward focus is not new to us.
As a concept, it is definitely not new! We get the idea. The disciples are sent out to find what God is doing and work with God there. We are disciples. We are sent out.
But do we go? Where have you stumbled upon God doing something in your neighborhood and stopped to join the effort? In your family? Among your friends? What about strangers? When has a need called you so loudly that you could not say ‘no?’ You pulled out your wallet, you shrugged off your coat, you opened wide your door? When did you last do this kind of thing?
I am reading a kind of frightening book right now – and I don’t mean in the sense of a thriller. Almost Christian, by Kenda Dean explores the conclusions of the National Survey of Youth and Religion. The 2008 report shows that most teenagers are members of “the Church of Benign Whateverism.” And what is that? Listen to her words for a moment:
It’s that not-too-religious, “decent” kind of Christianity that allows our teenagers to do well while doing good, makes them successful adults without turning them into religious zealots, teaches them to notice others without actually laying their lives down for any of them…. In a world crazed with violence and intolerance, Isn’t being “good enough” good enough? … Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is what is left once Christianity has been drained of its missional impulse, once holiness has given way to acculturation, and once cautious self-preservation has supplanted the divine abandon of self-giving love” (p. 39-40).
It is kind of like she is showing the church a mirror, and the emperor is not wearing any clothes. She is sounding an alarm. It is a wake-up call for us all. What are we doing here?
Now, I have talked with the author of this book, Kenda Dean, professor at Princeton Seminary, and I want to give you a bit of a spoiler – Professor Dean has not given up! She is passionate about the future of the church. She sees hope all around the country. When I met her, she was taking some students on a field trip to see churches who are doing things differently, who are not stuck in the box of the way it has always been done. She wanted to hear about what we are doing with Taborspace, what Columbia Presbyterian Church is doing with Future Forge, and what our presbytery is doing through the new ministries team. She is going around the country planting seed of hope and visions of being a new kind of church in the young students she mentors.
Our presbytery has taken the lead in calling the churches of our denomination to become “Matthew 25 Congregations.” In 2016, Portland hosted the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Members of our presbytery were convinced it was our opportunity to say something to the larger church. So, they did what Presbyterians do and wrote an overture to the General Assembly, which our presbytery enthusiastically endorsed. It was called, “On Choosing to Be a Church Committed to the Gospel of Matthew 25.” It calls the church to renewed commitment with the least, the last and the lost. One of the co-authors, Aric Clark, works with me on the new ministries team. He said, “I began to see something in the gospel, that stirred me to awe. And fear for myself. There are people who are hungry. There are 4000 people who are sleeping on the streets every night in Portland, and every one of those is Christ.” This is what he saw when he looked at the least, the lost and the lonely with the glasses of Matthew 25: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
Not too long ago, a member of our congregation read about “Matthew 25 Congregations” and asked me if we are one. Gulp! At the last meeting of the Presbytery Leadership Commission, Brian Heron, one of our presbytery staff, brought a request from the National Church: Don’t you think it is time for the Presbytery of the Cascades to become a Matthew 25 presbytery? Gulp! We quickly affirmed the concept, and sent it on to be adopted by the presbytery in November. Our overture, yet we neglected to take action ourselves.
We will announce that we are a presbytery whose identity revolves around serving the poor, the neglected, the oppressed, the least. Brian, during his first two years as our staff person, has visited every congregation in the presbytery. One of the things he found is that our people are busy in every congregation with food banks, hot meals, clothes closets. Our congregations are welcoming the handicapped, the poor and the lost. Everywhere, he saw our congregations helping. But we have not identified ourselves with this aspect of our work. As a Matthew 25 presbytery, we will name this as a core of our identity. It will allow us to put on Matthew 25 glasses in every decision we make: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
One aspect of the Vital Congregations Initiative is to encourage congregations to become Matthew 25 Congregations. And it is all about becoming outwardly focused and hands-on in our ministry. It means breaking away from our fear of losing the way we have done it in the past, and being inspired by the call to accompany Jesus as he walks through the streets of our city and our neighborhoods.
As we have imagined what God is calling us to be and do in the next era of our ministry one of the yearnings the session has heard repeatedly is that we want to do something more “hands-on.” At first this surprised me. Already, we rub shoulders with the least, the oppressed, the lost every day in our community activities. We partner with a ministry to physically and mentally handicapped adults called, “Public Annex.” We nest more than a dozen support groups for people oppressed by addictions, life trauma or health concerns. We protect and nurture children. Our down-and-out friends have found here a safe and welcoming place to be, when there seems no where else to go. Unemployed friends have come here to work and create new livelihoods. We do this.
Yet, as a congregation, it feels distant. It is a program we are proud of, but we don’t get in and get involved. We are not hands-on with this ministry. We have our food collection for Portland Food Project and we give them free space to organize their work, but we don’t meet the people we are serving. We do so many good things and support so much good work – Matthew 25 kind of work – yet many of us in the congregation do not touch the ministry with our own hands. We are distant.
The call to an outward incarnational focus, for us, emphasizes the incarnational part, the hands-on part. It is time to get our hands dirty.
Outward Incarnational Focus is about being the community of disciples of Jesus – sent out! We go not because we have a strategy for new membership; we go because we have a Teacher who commanded us to be on God’s mission. We go because God’s love in Christ, cannot be contained in our buildings when we live with neighbors in need and a hurting world. Outward Incarnational Focus means we daily take up our cross and follow to the marginalized of society, the poor among us, the suffering and sick, the stranger and enemy, the down-trodden and “the least of these.” We do not just focus on bringing similar or like-minded people inside to assimilate to our way of doing things; nor do we just go to people and places that are familiar and comfortable. Outward Incarnational Focus, requires an emboldened faith that goes because Christ is already present, and calls us to join.
Have you ever been on a mission trip? My first experiences were terrifying. As children and youth, we went to the elderly care center next door to our church, we went to the local rescue mission, we went to a home for unwed mothers. The only courage I had was that trusted adults and my friends were there too. We were the church, together in this act of love. I watched the adults engage the disabled elderly residents in conversation. I watched conversations with the street people of the rescue mission, I began to talk to the unwed mothers. Their experiences were so foreign to me! But together, we had some moments of joy, or at least a change of pace.
Honestly, I never felt like we made a difference, but looking back, it made a difference in me. And that is what the adults were modeling for us. This is what today’s teenagers long for – to see those they love make a difference in the world. To have those in their community stand up for something.
Are we ready? Do we want to become a Matthew 25 Congregation? Do we want to volunteer for the helping ministries right here in our building? Is there something you are called to do that is too scary to do alone? Have you always wanted to go help build a house after a hurricane ripped through a neighborhood? And if you are not that “able,” what about writing letters and cards, hosting a cold drink station, knitting or crocheting hats and giving them out in person. We can hand out sack lunches sitting in a chair. Are we ready to get hands-on? It is what our world is yearning for. A church, followers of Jesus who are doing – heart and hands – what Jesus did.
We are called to follow Jesus – to go do what Jesus did. Who will answer?