Did you know that Bristol, Tennessee, has a few Confederate monuments in East Hill Cemetery? That makes sense, given the fact that Bristol served as a hospital during the Civil
I’ve been thinking for a while now about contrasts: the way things that appear similar but are strikingly different and do very different things. That may be a strange thing to be thinking about, but I have my reasons. For one thing, I roast coffee. The art and science of roasting coffee fascinate me because there is such contrast between coffee beans. While coffee beans appear similar they roast differently. While a bean from Bali does amazing things at 400 degrees, other beans will burn at 400. Another contrast that has been on my mind is rooted in my experience as a pastor. This contrast involves the way we imagine church.
I have been in ministry since 1992, which is not a long time but long enough. However, I have always struggled with the balance between “disturbing the comfortable and then comforting the disturbed,” as John Stott wrote. Frankly, it seems like all the comforting that pastoral work requires has left very little time for leading the discomforted out of their comfort zones and into the mission of the kingdom. In other words, I’ve spent way more time in committee meetings focused on the business of the church than on the mission of the kingdom (inside rather than outside). I was in one of those internal meetings a few years ago when I realized how lop-sided that is and the utter necessity there is to change it.
A young woman in our church met with me to talk about her concerns regarding her neighbors. They were refugees who had been settled in a few different houses within our community, and specifically her neighborhood. As she got to know them she realized that despite our government’s best efforts there were a lot of things that her neighbors did not know how to navigate very well. For instance, most of them had very little understanding of banking and currency. Because of the variety and abundance of food, many of them were overwhelmed when they went to the grocery store. One woman had no idea how to use a washing machine; she continued to wash clothes by hand in the bathtub. So, this young woman had come to see me to ask what her church could do.
I felt like it was a great opportunity to share the love of Christ and to live out the love of neighbor. I set up a meeting with the person who coordinated our women’s ministry and asked her what we ought to do. The coordinator had a heart for the Gospel and for the needs of women. However, she surprised me with her response. She said that the mission of the church is to worship and teach, “then you let people just go and do.” I remember saying, “that can’t be right.” But, when I met with a few elders from our church I quickly realized that was exactly how they thought of things. A pastor’s job goes hand in glove with the role of the church. We are hired to lead in worship and to teach. That’s what we do every week. When I started thinking about it, I realized how true it is for a lot of churches. Very often a church’s identity is rooted in worship and teaching (discipleship programs).
It is hard to deny the place that worship and teaching have played in regards to significance and identity in church history. After all, worship and teaching are key to the Christian community. What I am suggesting, however, is that worship and teaching are the primary identifying aspect of most churches, at least in the US. That may not be so good and in fact, it may be part of the problem. What happens on Sunday morning and perhaps Wednesday evening drives the church engine, so to speak. Worship and teaching are the mission. Getting people engaged in the life of the church means getting them into worship or a small group. But that endeavor has little to no impact beyond the church.
Churches that focus largely on worship and teaching are what I call worship communities. Of course, that is not to say that worship communities only care about worship but they often restrict the definition of worship to what happens on Sunday morning (per se). A simple list of programs offered by worshipping communities provides ample evidence that churches care about things beyond their doors: mission budgets (conferences, trips), schools, VBS, Celebrate Recovery, Divorce Care, Meals on Wheels, food pantries, tutoring, ESL, etc. Nevertheless, it is difficult to suggest that those programs are the primary focus of any church. In fact, a lot of those programs are done with the hope that it will somehow lead to more people coming to worship or being part of a small group where they will encounter Christ. Thus, the community is usually built around worship and teaching.
Most, if not all, of the churches that I’ve been associated with were worship communities. A real giveaway to that was the way assets were used. The amount of time, money, staff, and effort spent on being outward facing paled in comparison to what was spent on worship and teaching. In one church that projected their worship service on the wall, they spent more on printing the order of worship than on youth ministry. When that fact was brought to the leadership’s attention it was quickly tabled for a future discussion, which to my knowledge has never taken place. Beyond that, worshipping communities can lose their focus and become insular.
It generally happens when a church allows worship and teaching to take center stage of everything they are doing – sometimes at the expense of the very neighborhood where they are located. For instance, a large church in a mid-western city had a parking issue. Parking in a city is always at a premium. Congregants often parked in front of the houses in the neighborhood behind the church, which frustrated the church’s neighbors. Their complaint was well grounded; congregants sometimes blocked a driveway or worse took parking place in front of houses on Sunday and Wednesday (weddings and funerals, too). The church tried to work things out by raking leaves and baking cookies; they tried to have conversations with their neighbors. What they didn’t do was no longer park in the neighborhood. Some within the congregation felt that they had a right to park there since it was a city street and they were there for to go to worship.
To help settle things, the city offered a parking lot down the street from the church, but the congregants felt the half block was too far to walk. The neighborhood went the legal route. The church responded by secretly buying up houses in the neighborhood through a dummy corporation set up by a few of the elders; they planned to tear down the houses and build a parking deck on the edge of the neighborhood – despite the protests of the neighborhood. Eventually, the neighborhood appealed to the city council. The city council sided, rightly, with the neighborhood. The Sunday following the decision the senior pastor comforted the congregation, “While the city council has impacted our parking they will not impact our freedom to worship.” He was right, of course. However, while the church had preserved their worship community they had done so at the cost of a relationship with nearly everyone who lived in the neighborhood and with a lot of people in the city. Not that it mattered, most of the people in the neighborhood didn’t attend the church.
While some churches can afford to burn relational bridges, most churches cannot. And yet, a lot of churches are just as insular in their own way; they work hard to maintain the integrity of their worship community because that is what has been communicated. An all too familiar story involves churches in demographically changing neighborhoods. The church, however, eager to maintain its worship community does not change. It isn’t out of stubbornness. Often attempts are made to engage with the neighborhood. However, those attempts are often done with an invitation to be part of what the church is already doing. In other words, the church wants people in the neighborhood to join their thing. While the church may be warm and welcoming they often don’t make an effort to accommodate the cultural differences. Inadvertently the church sends a clear message and simply wants people to step into what is already happening. To borrow slightly from C.S. Lewis’s Last Battle, the church is for the church.
Too often in those cases, the church comes to a place where they must close its doors. Through death and attrition, they simply do not have the people to maintain their worship community any longer. The real tragedy may not be that the church closed but rather that no one noticed. What a terrible epitaph. A church closes and no one notices. It was so focused on being a worship community that no one in the neighborhood is even aware that it no longer exists.
For a lot of churches, the idea of being in community with one another is so important that it overlooks the way it interacts with even its closest neighbors. Community, however, is Biblical but maybe it ought to focus on something beyond itself to be healthy. Hebrews 10:24 tells us that we are not to forsake gathering together. The assumption that is often made from that text, however, is that it means gathering together with worship and teaching as the focus. I’m not sure why worshipping communities expect more people to be involved in mission when the clear (if not subliminal) message is that the church focuses on “worship and teaching.” When 20% of the folks do 80% of the church’s work and that 80% is focused on maintaining the community for the sake of the church, well, it might be more of a worshipping community than what I call a mission community.
For the most part, there isn’t anything wrong with being a worship community. However, some people in worshipping communities feel like they need to apologize for not being more engaged in mission. They see a need in the community and they want their church to step in and do something; sometimes that happens. Generally, however, when something happens it is either for the short-term (think responding to natural disasters) or it takes a dozen or so committee meetings before anything is ever done. Worship communities can be frustrating for people who want to see the church on mission. What they are asking is that the church become a mission community.
Mission communities are generally more focused and driven by the needs of the community around them as opposed to international mission work (of course they care about that but they are hyper-focused on their community). While a mission community resembles a worship community in the sense that they worship together and are concerned about discipleship, the major contrast is what drives the congregation. For instance, a mission community takes Jeremiah 29:7 as its core identity and works for the welfare (shalom) of their community. Of course, the greatest need that people have is a relationship with Christ. A mission community goes about the work of sharing the gospel by working for the good of its neighbors out of the love of Christ. Sharing the gospel is by proclamation as well as by acts of service.
A mission community is on the lookout for the broken places within its community and takes it as their responsibility to bring the hope of the gospel to bear. It works for the restoration and renewal of its community. Rather than being insular, a mission community is constantly orientating itself toward the welfare, the shalom, of its neighbors.
Worship communities could say the same, except for the fact that a mission community doesn’t try to start its own thing. For instance, a lot of churches will start their own food pantry rather than work with one that exists in other churches or one that the city has put together. Sectarianism does a great deal of harm to the mission of the kingdom and shows a real lack of spiritual imagination. A mission community, however, often looks for ways they can engage in what is already happening in the community and figures out ways to get involved with the work that is already being done. That allows those who are engaged in the mission community to build relationships and work for good. Mission communities start their own work when there is a gap that needs to be filled.
In one community, the school system has been working diligently to increase literacy among its elementary students. One mission community approached the school system with an offer to provide volunteers needed to launch the program. In the process, they began asking others, outside of the mission community (and not involved in worship communities), to participate in helping kids. In other words, they invited people to participate in the mission. They didn’t expect those folks to participate in worship and discipleship before they could work for the good of their community. The hope was that they would be able to build relationships with people beyond their church walls. A mission community invites people to see the gospel at work in the lives of its people and on display in the community.
There are not many churches that are mission communities. The reason for this is quite simple. It is tough to change the DNA of an established worshipping community. It requires change and most churches, like people, would rather face “ruin than change” (WH Auden). Not only that, but change often leads to conflict and most pastors and church people are conflict avoidant. Additionally, pastors may not have the leadership skill needed to navigate change or conflict. Nevertheless, it is my belief that if worship communities do not start becoming mission communities they will become obsolete and insignificant in their communities. There may be more churches closing soon if they do not move toward the needs of their communities.
That goes for church plants as well. Very often church plants start off with the idea of being missional, focused on the welfare of their community. Over time, however, they begin to take on the shape of a worshipping community – complete with all the specialized ministries that go with the territory. Every so slowly, their focus shifts from being outward facing to being attentive to “comforting the disturbed” to the point they have little time to shepherd folks to think of others as more important than themselves. Eventually, the pastor finds himself enmeshed within inner-church issues, and the budget reflects they have settled neatly into the rhythms of a worshipping community where 20% do 80% of the work. Ten years into a church plant and many of them are no different than any other worshipping community.
It is difficult to maintain a mission community because it is so different, but it is exactly what the church needs and exactly what communities need. Though they may look the same, though they may both be called a church, there is a striking contrast between a worshipping community and a mission community. The former can easily become insular and concerned with its own interests. The later, while not perfect, as least has the needs of the others as its highest end, which after all is closely connected to the way Jesus fleshed things out.
The essay was first published by Tactical Faith where I serve as a Pastoral Fellow (https://www.tacticalfaith.com/pastor-fellows-2/).
Coming back home after 25 years is a strange and wonderful experience. We recently moved back to one of the most beautiful places in the country – East Tennessee. The mountains, rivers – oh the landscape – is awe-inspiring. One thing that constantly grabs my attention is how much I took the natural beauty for granted when I grew up here. Don’t misunderstand, I spent as much time as I possibly could out in the woods, fields, rivers and lakes growing up. What I took for granted was that they would always be here.
A few days ago I drove by a corn field that I used to hike through to get to the mountains. It was part of a farm and I got to know the farmer. In fact I spent a lot of time on his porch, hearing stories – mostly about the way the land had been when he was a boy growing up there. The stories were always told the way old men tell stories, with lots of names and details of things like they had been.
After the corn was harvested the stalks would be broken and bent over, hanging brown. They were home to quail and other animals. Sometimes they stirred when I walked through. They have a special place in my memory and that is the only place they exist now.
The other day I drove by that field and it is gone – and then I found this poem. It sums things up I think.
The field is gone, buried beneath future
Rubble of convenience and commerce.
Stalks that once drew bird and game
Draw gamers and the budget minded.
It wearies a memory to replace
What is here with what once was.
Natural overcome, replaced with synthetic.
Creation’s groaning is nearly audible.
I have no right to chatter,
It was a borrowed field.
The farmer passed on his debts.
Someone must pay. So the land and memory do.
*poem published on http://longexposuremagazine.com/
I sat across from Jacob as he stared into his coffee. We spoke a few days earlier on the phone and arranged to meet. He shared little with me on the phone except that Trish, his wife, had urged him to call. Trish is the friend of a friend who thought Jacob and I should talk. Though we were strangers we had attended the same seminary a few years apart and we were both pastors. Perhaps I would understand. We sat in a coffee shop in St. Louis Jacob trying to frame his thoughts and me wondering how on earth I could be any use to him.
“A few days ago,” he started, “I gave serious thought to ending my life. Schindler’s List and a picture of my family stopped me.” The clatter of the coffee shop with its ironic, retro-music was a strange but oddly comforting backdrop. “I can’t believe I am in this situation – can’t believe it. The church thing sucks but to make it worse…it turns out that Jesus hasn’t shown up like I thought he would.”
He took a sip and hid half his face behind the cup. “I knew being a pastor would be tough – I’m not naïve. But I didn’t expect to be picked apart by a church that I had given so much of my life to. The worst part is that I felt my faith slip away – in the church and in Jesus. Through no fault of my own I’ve fallen from grace.”
I knew he needed someone who understood, but I wasn’t sure how I could really help him. The story he told was too familiar. He longed for Jesus to show up in a real way, to comfort and assure him in the midst of a dark time, his wounds were deep and perpetrated by the bride of Christ. As painful as it was to be wounded by those he had shepherded for years it was far more severe to feel abandoned by God. “For decades,” he said, “I’ve been telling people Jesus always shows up, brings comfort, healing and hope. But I’ve got to tell you I’m not sure any longer and that terrifies me.”
Sometimes – but not always – the church while preaching grace, mercy, love, and gospel actually embodies judgment and exclusion; it is painful to experience that, especially as a pastor. Jacob dipped a cookie in his cup and bits of it loosened from the whole and floated around the surface. I said little, letting Jacob talk. As he looked up from his polluted cup I hoped he would find the look of a friend who understood.
“It’s hard not to dwell on the past when the future is uncertain – in every way. I mentally replay every conversation, every event to see what went wrong. I confess every sin I can think of. Still there is no relief. I sat in my living room praying, crying out to God. I was wrestling with what it would be like to give up on faith, on the church – on Jesus. I was staring at this picture of my family and I at the beach. We are all laughing. I remember when we took that picture. Then I thought of the scene in Schindler’s List where a woman stops someone from ending her life by saying something like, ‘this is not how your story ends.’ Was God in that for me? Was he in that moment saving me? Or was that just me trying to make God fit into something?”
Jacob’s voice trailed off as he looked out the window of the nearly empty shop. He gathered himself and carefully laid out all that had happened to him. I listened to him for the next several hours. I wondered how to help Jacob – wondered if I could do more than suggest counseling and quietly praying for Jesus to show up.
I have been where Jacob is – felt as if God disappeared – felt the ground give way beneath my feet and all that I thought I knew to be true vanish. Imagine that happening; imagine something that was seemingly solid giving way – only to return stronger than before.
Jacob’s gaze returned from the street. He asked, “What now?” The heart and soul of this pastor had been laid bare; nothing trite was going to bring him peace; no promise to pray for him was going to bring healing. Telling him my story wouldn’t help either. God was going to have to show up or not (though I believe he would). I encouraged him to do as a friend of mine had encouraged me. I said, “Let everything else fall away that can fall away and speak the same words to God that Jesus spoke when he felt God turn away: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani…My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34 ESV).
 This is a work of fiction…
 Allan Gurganus – http://williamgiraldi.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/gurganus.2.pdf
One thing that I am very proud of is my family – and not only my immediate family. My extended family, like my immediate family, is filled with brilliant, creative and wonderful people. One person in-particular consistently points me toward great articles and challenges me to think outside the box. I’m certain I’ve never told her that – or thanked her. Nevertheless – she has done it again by pointing me toward an insightful article from The Atlantic.
The article, by Anu Partanen, is entitled What Americans Keep Ignoring About Finland’s School Success. It is insightful as well as challenging. Partanen points out that Finland’s success is counter to most everything we do in the US.
For instance, Finland has no standardized tests. Instead teachers are trained and given the responsibility to “assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher.” In fact, in Finland “all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility.” If a teacher is not a good teacher the principal deals with that situation. Oh – and a person must have a master’s degree to teach.
One thing further, there are no private schools. The reason for this goes back to Finland’s understanding, years ago, that their system needed reformation. So, according to the article, “Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.”
I am certain that a lot of counter arguments can be made about Finland’s system (of course their results seems to shout down most arguments). What stands out to me isn’t so much their results but the “main driver” within their systems. From my perspective, what is driving their system (equality) sounds a lot like Jesus’ call to love neighbor – or shalom.
I think a lot about the mission of shalom and or love of neighbor. Primarily because I believe it is the clearest way Christians are actually Christ-like. Years ago a pastor in New York helped me to understand the concept of Biblical Shalom (loving neighbor). He said, “It comes down to this. If I want my kids to be safe, well feed, well-educated, healthy, free from harm, I should also want it for my neighbor’s kids as well.” In fact, not only should I want it but I should also work toward that mission. That is part of what Jesus calls His people to do when he calls them to love their neighbor.
Finland’s education reform is a powerful example of loving neighbor (whether intended or not). Their reform is something that the US needs as well. Inequality is clearly seen in education (just visit a large city like Saint Louis). However, there are a lot of people trying to do something about it it is in the US – although not in an overt way.
As I read this article in The Atlantic I could not help but think of a number of efforts that are being made by Christian men and women in relationship to public schools. There are churches that provide tutoring and after-school help. There are churches that give meals for kids and their families on the weekends. Churches are trying to partner with public schools by doing painting, landscaping and providing school supplies. Churches offer ESL to help immigrants and refugees. There are also private Christian schools (including where my kids attend) that are making efforts to bridge the gaps as well. Some churches are even trying to establish charter schools in partnership with public school systems in depressed areas in an effort to break the grip of poverty and inequality.
Believe it or not these efforts aren’t so much about proselytizing as it is a concern for children getting a good education. In effect, it is the mission of shalom. Christian people have been about this sort of thing for a very long time – a very long time.
It is a mark of Jesus’ people to step into places of brokenness and attempt to bring wholeness and hope. The clearest example of that is in Jesus himself. Just look at the way that Jesus treated people (but take note that he overturned tables and drove out people out to ensure justice at the Temple). But it has also been that way throughout the history of the church. Look at Mother Teresa, The people of LeChambon during WWII. And of course, the fact MLK was not only an African-American working for Civil Rights but also a Christian and a pastor.
There are a lot of examples of churches across the US that have realized the need to do something about inequality in education. There is much more that can be done. Partanen’s article presents a challenge – and not just to the public education system in the US. The challenge comes to the local church as well – in whatever setting. Churches and Christians should ask what role the Christian community can play in furthering equality in education. They should also be asking about ways Christ’s people can help bring reform and then do it.
I am certain that is something worth considering.