A blog break

You may have noticed that I've been increasingly irregular in my blogging as of late. At most, I've usually been able to share links and music I'm discovering but I've even broken that routine.  I really enjoy blogging as it is fun to share things I've found intriguing and process "out loud" what I'm currently pondering with you. Yet, as is evident, I'm a bit short on the extra time needed for this privilege. I have lots planned for the future and may continue to post sporadically but nothing may show up on a regular basis for a while. Until then, follow me on Instagram. I may show up on Twitter and Facebook from time to time (though I increasingly think FB may have "jumped the shark"). Just need to give myself permission to step back and keep my focus on what needs my attention right now. I hope you can do the same thing for yourself when needed.

Oh, and sign up for my newsletter! That will continue during the blog break and will, in fact, be coming out again soon.

Crossing the Lot Line

Photo: Stuart Shelby, St. Richard's rector
(no, I am not singing to attendees)
On Saturday, I led two workshops for vestry members in the greater Austin area. For non-Episcopalians, a vestry is the committee that assists clergy in leading a congregation. In other traditions this may be called a session, committee, leadership team, church board, elders, etc.

The subject of my workshops was what these volunteer leadership bodies can do to shift the culture of a congregation towards an increasingly missional posture. I'm trying to make these big ideas practical and usable. What follows is a "download" of what I covered. I'd love to know if this kind of stuff is helpful or not. Thanks ahead of time for letting me know...

Establishing Priorities
The first point I tried to drive home was that mission is maintenance. There is not one healthy institution or organization that does not attend to who is not yet a constituent. Mission is not another category for boards and committees to consider separate from maintaining the current demands of a system. It is central to helping an institution remain, or regain, health. It is therefore something that ought to be central to the culture of a congregation. If this is a shift, there is no better place to start than with the leadership.

I encouraged vestry members not to think about "missional" as another program to undertake. Rather, I encouraged them to think about practices, habits. To that end allowing mission to shape the meetings of these leadership bodies, is helpful.

I offered that when a vestry gathers for their regular meetings, they could share brief stories about experiences in the neighborhood. Offer things they notice about the community. Maybe you met a new neighbor, noticed a store front nearby has opened--or closed, or that a street light was out. Whatever it is, take a few minutes to share your collective observations about the surrounding community.

It's also a good practice to semi-regularly study the neighborhood. In this Diocese, we have some robust tools for analyzing the demographics of our communities. But they are not hard to come by elsewhere. This is not something that needs to be every month but possibly ever quarter or twice a year, look at community data and discuss whether this squares with your collective experience and whether this offers data that should change practices or programs within the congregation.

Lastly, I encouraged these leaders to study Scripture together with an effort to change how they think about and engage the surrounding community. A short Bible study at the beginning of a meeting can dramatically shift the tenor and outcome. We have provided a great tool for this but it can also be as simple as asking six questions. About a selected passage: What is God doing? How do God’s people respond? What do we know about the context? And then for application: What is God telling us? How are we to respond? What does this tell us about how we engage our neighbors?

Neighborhood Engagement
Outside of meetings, vestry members can start thinking of opportunities to be present in the community immediately. Maybe it's simply going to a park or cafe with others for lunch after services on Sunday. Maybe it's visiting a Sunday afternoon farmer's market, flea market or festival. Whatever it is, simply show up and observe. Introduce yourself to folks. Let them know you're from the church nearby and watch their responses. You may learn a lot about how folks think about your congregation from simply watching their faces as you tell them that you're a member of the church around the corner. Take these as stories back to your next meeting. Begin considering: Who you need to learn from? Whose story needs to be heard? Who you can partner with right now?

Church committees are notorious for talking great ideas to death. So, I strongly recommend that leadership bodies in congregations that are not yet connected to the surrounding community to commit at least 2-3 times a year which they put on the calendar and plan to get out of the building and connect with the community. These can be dates on the liturgical calendar, such as Ash Wednesday (Ashes-to-Go). National and state holiday celebrations (July 4th) or cultural milestones (Back to school in the fall) work as well. These should be off campus. If they are on campus, you do so with community partnerships. For example, I know of one church that invited a pet store to hand out pet treats and the Humane Society to set up pet adoptions on their church's front lawn on the feast day of St. Francis when many congregations do pet blessings.

When you schedule these neighborhood engagement activities, make sure people have something to hold in their hand. We're all a little less nervous when we have something in our hands. A simple postcard will work. Make sure it is consistent (color, fonts, logo) with your other communication pieces (including your website), clean and simple. List your website, worship times and a map, address or directions. Do not include the church history. Do not include a monthly calendar of events. You are simply ensuring folks know how to find you if they are intrigued.

Speaking of nervousness, you might want to do some role playing of these opportunities before the event. Be willing to laugh at yourselves. Let people practice what it feels like to introduce themselves as members of a congregation. It will also help you sniff out those that might be too verbose or too shy for this kind of engagement.

Budgets and Metrics
Most congregations have a section of their budget called "outreach." All sorts of efforts get dumped in here: evangelism, service, communications/marketing and social justice. None of these are the same thing. It doesn't really matter to me that these are all one budget category but being clear on what distinguishes these efforts from each other is important. How much should be in the outreach budget? I would argue that every church should set a goal for getting to 10% of the budget going towards external ministry. If a congregation is above or beyond this, great! If you are not there yet, try to move a percentage point year by year. Let the congregation know about this. Be transparent.

When it comes to our charitable, service or mercy ministries I am increasingly convinced that measuring how many people are serving, is as important as how many are served. It's a spiritual discipline, which means if your formation, discipleship ministry is not teaching people how to serve it's not doing it's job. It's all connected. Out of your average Sunday attendance (ASA) how many people are serving? If 25% is engaged in serving others outside of your church, set a goal for 50%. Aim high. Share your goals and progress with the congregation.

In addition, as I've mentioned before, there is a difference between mercy and justice. We're called to both. Set goals for seeking justice for those you routinely see needing the same things from your church over and over. As I mentioned in that other post, your leadership community should ask yourselves:
"... are our efforts among the marginalized changing unjust conditions or simply offering temporary alleviation of injustice? If, for example, you work with the poor and some are getting out of poverty than you are contributing to justice."
Again, share your goals and progress with the congregation.

Will new communities spring up as a result of this? Maybe. Maybe not. But the first step is culture changing. This is what these are aimed towards; changing the culture of a congregation towards becoming a community engaged with, and loving, neighbors. If you missed this last Saturday, this is mostly what we covered, along with what questions and ideas those gathered brought to the conversation.

Weekend Listening: Astronoid - Air

Ambient metal? I dunno. It's pretty though!

Maybe Good Politics Start Around a Dinner Table

Of course, I was back in DC for only an hour before I found myself immersed in conversation about politics. This was a common feature of conversation when I lived in here. When I lived here it could get tedious at times, especially when you live in this city not due the fact that this place is the center of this nation's political life but for other reasons. It would be like having to talk about oil and gas in every conversation in Houston

I don't mean to say that it wasn't enjoyable last night. Not at all! On the contrary, it was food for my soul to be back with people that shaped me and challenged me for four years of my life. It was great fun closing out a restaurant, talking late into the evening with people that live and care deeply about how this nation is governed. Yet, something arose from that conversation that has kept me coming back to a portion of Jesus' sermon on the plain all morning:
"Here is a simple rule of thumb for behavior: Ask yourself what you want people to do for you; then grab the initiative and do it for them! If you only love the lovable, do you expect a pat on the back? Run-of-the-mill sinners do that. If you only help those who help you, do you expect a medal? Garden-variety sinners do that. If you only give for what you hope to get out of it, do you think that’s charity? The stingiest of pawnbrokers does that.

"I tell you, love your enemies. Help and give without expecting a return. You’ll never—I promise—regret it. Live out this God-created identity the way our Father lives toward us, generously and graciously, even when we’re at our worst. Our Father is kind; you be kind."
We've become so comfortable with demonizing each other, creating a straw man of the "other." Christians have not, by and large, contrasted themselves from the broader culture when it comes to this behavior. Instead, we've reflected it. Whether this is conservative Christians calling their liberal brothers and sisters wimpy idealists and snobby intellectuals or liberal Christians calling their conservative brothers and sisters stupid and ignorant bumpkins. Those may not be the exact words we use of each other--it's often much worse, but you get the point.

I'm amazed at how so many of us have lost the ability to come together, break bread and discuss our differences; offering basic human respect to the other. I watched this happen last night, difference appeared, a guarded-ness began to arise and then common ground was found and it was lovely. And you know what, it happened while brothers and sisters broke bread.

If we cannot do that even within our own faith traditions how will we find ways to do this with others across any other variety of difference. Do we really think we will ever find common ground, find peace, by continually castigating each other? Do we really think that wholesale demonizing of whole groups of people, whether by ethnicity, nationality, orientation or religion, we will ever offer something productive at the end of the day? Do we have to be so easily offended by different opinion, lifestyle or worldview?

This does not mean that we cannot have strong disagreements, this does not mean we shouldn't hold each other accountable or critique each other's arguments. On the contrary, if we could actually dig into issues rather than berate each other we could have thoughtful, generative conversation.

I've been watching this video below repeatedly over the last few days. Doggone those Canadians for making me weepy! Go ahead and call me a sap but I am increasingly coming to the conclusion that good politics start around a dinner table.

Making Sense of Missional: A Missional Hermeneutic

Note: Before reading this, you might want to start here and here.

Sorry for the delay of getting back to this series. Yet, before I get too far, let me offer a point of clarification regarding my last post in this series. Some readers asked what I was getting at with the whole mega-church and consumerism idea. Fair point. I didn't do that good of a job explaining my point.

What I was hoping to say was that consumerism has contributed to the success of models of western church that acquiesce to the consumer sensibility. This is not a direct indictment of mega-churches as much as a cultural observation. These churches are not numerically successful because they are more orthodox. They are numerically successful because they know how to cater to the consumer. This is not, of itself, a bad thing but it does require a sober awareness of the flaws and weaknesses (as Willow Creek bravely proved possible some years ago).

Okay, moving on.

I wrote in my last post on the subject that the argument for a missional church came about through a reading of Scripture with a particular lens. In his brief, yet dense book, Bible and Mission, Richard Bauckham argues that the Bible ought to act as a metanarrative for the Christian. In other words, the Bible offers a particular view of how the world works. As I said before, these theologians have argued that what they have derived from Scripture is that it is primarily the story of who God is and what God is doing. Along the way, God's people are invited into God's activity.

If Scripture is a comprehensive (though not always so cohesive as some would argue) drama or story than Christopher Wright argued that there are certain characters and particular stage.

God and God's people are the characters.

The context of each reading is the stage.

I would go one step further based on my reading of Walter Brueggemann and offer that there is a third character.

The third character in every reading is the other.

Brueggemann argued that in any reading of Scripture there are always three "scenes" (and these are the scenes of any great drama, to be honest).

Scene one is of conflict and victory.

Scene two is announcement of this victory.

Scene three is response to the announcement.

Three characters. One stage. Three scenes.

Let's try to summarize. The entirety of Scripture conveys a story of God's mission of reconciliation. The mission, which ultimately believed to be victorious, experiences small "wins" along the way. Which means that this mission is in conflict with other missions or agendas. Some are witness to this and they are invited to share the good news of these victories with others. But this brings us to a critical yet often missed piece--the kicker, if you will: someone is always invited to respond to the announcement of this good news. In other words, without another in our midst, an other that is invited to also enter into the story ... it lies fallow. The mission, and the message of this mission, is always intended to provide a doorway for the outsider to become an insider. Without it, it is another story. Not this story.

A word about the first scene of conflict. I am convinced that this is a primary element of reading Scripture with a missional lens. I imagine that some that have taken on the term "missional" have done so simply with the intention to use it as a replacement for "evangelism" or cultural relevance. If so, the idea of conflict might be disagreeable. I would then argue to go use another term. It's important to remember that the seminal work on this subject, Missional Church had as advisers to the contributing authors John Howard Yoder, Justo Gonzales and Stanley Hauerwas; theologians that represented Anabaptist and liberation theologies. These are theologies that are rooted in a contrasting narrative, a presumed conflict with other metanarratives. In their reading of the Bible, the architects of missional theology understood it to be a contrast to popular worldviews. As they saw it, the missional church would not seek to impose or acquiesce to culture. It would exist in contrast to the popular (or dominant) culture. 

A word about the "other." Read from cover to cover, the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (both Old and New Testaments) are headed in a particular direction. That is to say that all the authors, over various times and places, that wrote the books compiled into what would become the Bible point towards a shared mission. This is not only a holistic biblical interpretation, it is a traditional and historical interpretation. The canon, compiled as it is, conveys an integrated vision even when considering the contextual conflicts. If a missional hermeneutic implies that God is on a mission to be reconciled with all people, all of creation then there is always someone(s) to whom the news of victory over other metanarratives is good news. If our conception of God's people is static than it is unlikely that it is missional. Again, go use another term. A missional hermeneutic implies that there is always a "listener," a "hearer," someone within the context invited to respond.

Got to to stop here. Next time, we'll try this on for size with a couple passages.

Until then, some reading:

Bible and Mission by Richard Bauckham
The Mission of God's People by Christopher Wright
A Light to the Nations Michael Goheen