These thoughts appeared first this week over at ABP/Religious Herald.
Lately I’ve had occasion to think a little more deeply than usual about churches and mission/social justice programming. It seems to me that collaborative efforts to heal the world are critical parts of life together in Christian community.
And that’s not just because we claim to be followers of Jesus, who was pretty clear about the transformative nature of his message. It’s also true that hands on, faith in action kind of programming is compelling. It draws people to our communities; it’s tangible evidence of vibrant identity.
I can’t even begin to count the times I have heard people say things like, “I looked on the website and I saw all the ways this church was impacting the community, so I had to try attending,” or “I left because I just felt the church was too self-focused — they didn’t care enough about helping the poor.” (Never mind that variations of both comments were said about the same church.)
Compelling, creative programming that reflects the mission and identity of a church while making meaningful impact in the world draws people in.
But what about when it doesn’t? What about when the programs we have at our churches actually don’t impact the community in places of need anymore, don’t reflect the mission and identity of our church as times have changed, and don’t engender much enthusiasm in the congregation as a whole no matter how hard we try to make people care?
Well, we can’t possibly cancel them. We keep programs like that around because we’re afraid of looking selfish or heartless by putting an end to anything that vaguely seems missional; and, let’s just be honest, we’re afraid of the pain that any change, even a necessary change, will inevitably bring.
It could be, for example, that the Crocheted Kleenex Box Cover Ministry, while deeply impactful in 1973, is not engaging the faith of our people or changing the world to the degree it did back then. And, while our efforts to hire staff to crochet Kleenex box covers — since nobody in the church has time or energy to crochet Kleenex box covers anymore — is commendable, perhaps we’ve fallen into the trap so many faith communities encounter. We’re doing mission out of guilt, obligation or fear of change instead of listening for the leadership of God’s Spirit in our midst, watching for organic life, energy and commitment, and responding with courage and creativity.
Think of it this way. When I was a little kid I was fascinated with the people who collected tolls in those little booths along the highway. I thought then that, given how much I loved meeting new people, this career path would be ideal for me.
And that was fine when I was 7 years old.
As I’ve grown and matured, as my faith and my life journey have taken twists and turns, I am not so sure that being a toll collector is exactly where my vocational calling lies anymore. Staying that course in my career for the sake of affirming the professional value of toll collectors everywhere and avoiding change, then, is probably not the best choice for me.
I don’t think it’s all that different with faith communities. God calls us for such a time as this; our job is to be open and welcoming to the movement of God’s Spirit as she blows through our lives and invites us to join her in healing the world. Right now, in this time and place.
With all of that in mind, I thought of three questions we might want to ask ourselves as we take stock of our community’s mission programming:
1. Is this effort founded in a sense of conviction borne out of the gospel message? Adopting popular issues for the sake of advocating issues, urgent though they may be, can fracture communities into various competing camps rather than strengthening conviction, resolve and discipleship. A good question to ask is this: what is our motivation for this effort? If every mission effort we engage is motivated by our foundational conviction that we are called to live as radical followers of Jesus, we become stronger and clearer about who we are and what we’re meant to do in this world, together.
2. Is there a critical mass of people in our community who feel a personal call to engage this issue/effort, who show up to invest time, money and intention in its success and who can articulate for the larger community why and how this effort contributes to the larger community’s identity as followers of Jesus? If not, this particular effort may not be the calling of our community at this time. It’s OK to hear a call to different efforts at different times of our life together.
3. Are we doing this work well? Sometimes well-intentioned communities take on too many projects or issues, causing stress and strain for staff and laity. It’s hard to pare down and focus our ministry efforts because we don’t want to give any good thing up. But the trap of this becomes: we end up lessening our effectiveness in all areas.
We can’t let obligation, change aversion or even the fear of naked Kleenex boxes set the agenda for the work of our churches. There’s too much to be done in this work of healing the world, and we, God’s people, need to do it well.