Engagement in Church and Community

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This fall we’ve asked a number of leaders to respond to the question, “What is saving your ministry right now?” We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By John Wilkinson

At our staff meetings each week, we begin with going around the circle and asking people to share “one good thing” from the previous Sunday. It’s a great prelude for all that follows, not a magic corporate strategy but a lovely litany of faith and reminder of the ministry to which we are called.

I am not sure that anything is saving my ministry right now, other than Jesus! But I do know that many, many good things are giving my ministry energy and fueling my passion, for which I am very grateful. Here’s a list…

  • Worship. Worship. Worship.
  • A call to make a difference in public education in Rochester, New York and Monroe County, where concentrated poverty and inequitable access holds children back. Fortunately, through the Great Schools for All movement, we are making a difference in our community. It’s the good and hard work of organizing and coalition building, all very Presbyterian.
  • A transforming trip to Kenya in October, where five of us visited our partner congregation just outside Nairobi. We experienced extraordinary hospitality and learned so much about what it means to be the church. Plus, the sights and sounds of Kenya are indescribable.
  • Challenging and important conversations on race and racism that we are attending in our community and hosting in our congregation, led primarily by Facing Race, Embracing Equity (FR=EE) a local community organization.
  • Our Book of Order, yes, our Book of Order. We utilized a new provision in the Form of Government to transition an interim associate pastor to an associate pastor. We worked closely and cooperatively with our Committee on Ministry, who engaged this new process with great thought. Cheers to a new sense of adaptability for mission purposes!
  • Stewardship, yes stewardship. We are having creative conversations about faith and money and seeking ways to make Stewardship Sunday feel different than it traditionally has.
  • A Vision and Strategy team on which I am privileged to serve in our presbytery. We are working on what many presbyteries are working on, the difficult task of change in a fluid environment. We are putting a heavy emphasis on relationships and also reminding ourselves that a presbytery’s health is closely linked to congregational health and pastoral leader’s health.
  • The East Avenue Grocery Run. What began as a way to reframe a hunger walk and to raise money for our various hunger programs at Third Church has turned into an epic event with over 1300 runners and walkers and thousands and thousands of dollars raised for our hungry neighbors. A wonderful leadership team makes it all happen, meeting rarely. We’ve also involved local businesses and other community groups who normally wouldn’t connect with a faith group, but do for this. It’s been fabulous!

I know that all of the above are very contextual and personal, but if there are common denominators and transportable values, they reside in collegiality and collaboration, openness to innovate, and a heavy reliance on prayer. I am grateful indeed!

john wJohn Wilkinson is Pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY. He has been active on the presbytery and national levels, including on the Strategy Team for NEXT Church, and loves our connectional culture and confessional legacy.

Greatest Hit: Making Space to Engage Our Neighbors

This fall, in addition to sharing reflections on “what is saving your ministry right now?”, we are also bringing back some of our most popular posts over the last couple of years. We hope these “greatest hits” will allow you new insight in this busy time of year. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

This post on multicultural ministry and community engagement is one of our most popular posts in the history of the NEXT Church blog. We’ve updated it slightly below in hopes it becomes a fresh resource as you look towards December.

By Rachel Triska

Several weeks ago, I was sitting in our coffee bar during an event and overheard a conversation that made me smile. A tech company had brought 125 of their employees from across the globe to our space for a major annual meeting. One of the guests was visiting with Kevin (a Dallas cop who runs security for all our events). The gentleman asked Kevin, “So what is this place?” Kevin began to give him our elevator pitch, “Life in Deep Ellum is a cultural center built for the artistic, social, economic and spiritual benefit of Deep Ellum and urban Dallas.” Then he added, “Basically, it’s a church that opens up to the community for a lot of different things. I’m here all the time – art shows, corporate events, fundraisers.” To which the gentleman responded, “You could have asked me for a list of twenty guesses – a church would not have been one of them.”

From the Life in Deep Ellum Facebook page

From the Life in Deep Ellum Facebook page

Joel and I have been pastoring together at Life in Deep Ellum for almost six years. Deep Ellum is a historic neighborhood just outside downtown Dallas. It’s often described as the Brooklyn of the South. Basically, it’s a small neighborhood with a big personality – lots of artists, entrepreneurs and folks who pride themselves on not needing God.

It’s that last characteristic that forced us to think differently about how to engage our neighborhood – traditional methods of outreach were not working. It was my husband who first pointed out what this neighborhood was forcing us to do. It forced us to stop thinking like pastors and start thinking like missionaries.

He was absolutely right. We found that to connect with our neighborhood we had to slow down enough to learn the language, the customs, how to appreciate their sense of humor. Some people might say we’ve kind of gone native. Ministering in this neighborhood certainly changed us.

What I love about thinking like a missionary is it taught me to think beyond Sundays. To think about how we might engage our neighbors seven days a week. That’s how we reached the decision to operate as a cultural center Monday-Friday.

Every Sunday we stack all the chairs in our venue (worship space) and put them away. Our band clears the stage. We take down all our church-specific signage. We clear out because we are making space to engage our neighbors. Those very same neighbors who say they will never go to church but hang out with us in our building all the time. On Tuesday nights a dance company takes over the space. Mondays and Wednesdays we host Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. In the next few weeks we’ll host a book launch for a local author, a closing reception for an art exhibit and have 500 teens in for a spoken word event.

Each year, not including Sundays, we see between 10,000 and 20,000 people come through our building. Our coffee shop will serve somewhere around 35,000 cups of coffee this year.

A lot can happen when we think beyond Sundays. One of our friends who first engaged with us via community events says, “What happens here Monday through Friday is why I gave Sundays a chance. And what happens here on Sundays restored my faith in what Christian community can be.”

We use Monday through Friday as an opportunity to redefine for people what it looks like to be the Church on mission. And often, it does open their hearts to what happens on Sunday.

Rachel Triska is the Chief Practicioner at Life in Deep Ellum. Rachel enjoys running, reading the classics, and expressing her inner child while playing with her two daughters. rachel@lifeindeepellum.com


Looking for more? Check out the resources below from NEXT:

From Cultural Competency to Cultural Humility

God colors smallBy Rev. Natasha Iwalani Hicks

I was in a meeting a few months back and a gentleman approached me asking me about pastoring a church in White Center, a diverse urban community in Seattle.  As our conversation proceeded he interjected and asked me why I do not preach in Spanish, and before allowing me to answer, he continued to give his rationale behind why I should be preaching in Spanish if I really cared about this particular community.

I rebutted with a similar question, asking if this gentleman speaks Spanish in order to better engage with the community that he is seemingly so passionate about.  His response was that he does not, but he is not Hispanic.

So, let me begin with the fact that I am actually not Latina/Hispanic either, despite my brownish skin tone, long brown hair and brown eyes.  I am Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiian, Irish, German, Dutch Welch, I grew up on a Native American Reservation, and I speak English and some Romanian (as I was a missionary in Romania for a period of time).

In the past I used to get fired up about the assumptions that people make about me and my cultural/ethnic background, especially because it often came with a lack of expectation based on my appearance and my quiet presence.  However, as I have grown to be more and more comfortable in my own skin and to truly value my experiences as a multi-cultural person, I have increasingly learned to lean in and to engage in conversation instead of allowing anger or disappointment to lead my response.  I will admit though, that I still do experience those knee-jerk responses of anger and disappointment at times, especially when I see assumptions being placed upon others.

Let’s be honest, the PC(USA) has a long way to go in regards to authentic cultural engagement.  I heard much about cultural competency in seminary and I saw the attempt to paint a visually diverse picture of our seminaries, but the reality is when I attempted to question why there was such a lack of globally diverse voices included in the curriculum, I was told to go and take a class at the African American Seminary if I wanted that perspective.  Seriously, that was an actual response from a professor!  Don’t get me wrong, I do not share that to simply come down on the professor or our seminaries, but I use it to highlight the reality that we as a church have a long ways to go if this is still a reality in our seminaries, where leaders for the church are being formed.

Western culture values intellect.  We see a problem and we want to fix it.  We like process (decently and in order!).  We create resources and programs to overlay upon our increasingly diverse communities and wonder why they are not always well received or why they do not actually work.  Action, albeit at times well intentioned, takes precedence over the “inefficient,” time-consuming, practice of enlarging the circle to hear a wider array of voices and experiences.

Competency is easier than humility, because it implies that we can attain it and be done with it.  I have a Hawaiian friend, so I “get” Pacific Islander culture – check.  I’ve been on a mission trip to Mexico, so I understand Latino/HIspanic culture – check.  We’ve got a black person on staff, so we are diverse – check.  I BBQ with my white neighbor, so I “get” white folk – check.  Obviously, I am being somewhat facetious, but I honestly don’t think I am too far off.

Before I go on, I want to be clear that I do not think this is just an issue of “White Folk.”  I see this happen in the reverse all the time, where racial-ethnic folks disregard white folks, because they presume “they don’t get it” or they somehow come to believe that white folks do not have anything to contribute to the conversation around culture.  Reverse judgment, reverse prejudice, reverse exclusion gets us nowhere.  I understand the issue of white privilege and am not seeking to undermine or dodge the legitimate issue of power, but I believe the greater issue is a matter of humility, of the heart.

Each of us has a story.  I think we would all agree with this.  BUT, are we willing to truly enter into relationship with the firm belief that each person has something to contribute to “my” life and “my” story.  Period.  It doesn’t matter if they are poor or rich, Japanese or Lebanese, from the country or from the city.  Am I, are you, willing to enter each encounter with a posture of humility, desiring to learn, believing that the very heartbeat of God already exists within each person?

God came in flesh in Jesus Christ to share life with us.  To share life with us.  He was born within a particular culture, in a particular place, but he consistently pushed the boundary and invited those who followed him to do the same in order that life and culture could be shared and exchanged.

Jesus proclaimed that his followers would be known by their love.  He doesn’t lead with a clenched fist, but rather an open hand outstretched toward us.  He doesn’t lead with a heart of judgment, but rather a life of overflowing grace.  He doesn’t lead from an exclusive circle, but rather a table of invitation and belonging.

We get the ideal.  We understand the value of this intellectually, but where do we land practically?  How do our actions unveil the motivations of our hearts?  What do our day-to-day lives look like?  Who do we spend time with? Do we lead with assumptions, or curiosity to truly know another person and to value them?  Do we value them enough to embrace mutuality, sharing our lives with them, as they share theirs with us?  Do we speak for or about others, or do we ask questions and listen, giving them the opportunity to speak from their own lives and their own experiences?  Will we allow ourselves to be changed, our lives to be interrupted, and to risk our vision of the Kingdom of God being shattered wide open as we encounter the cultures and experiences of others?

As a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural person, I am often told by others what I am before a question is even asked.  I am tired of the assumptions.  I am tired of hearing that I am somehow not White enough, or Pacific-Islander enough or Asian enough, or that I don’t belong because I am not from a particular place, or my faith journey does not fit a specific mold.  I am, in fact, enough. I am held in God’s grace and I have experienced the power of God’s redemption in my life and know that I am beloved.  You are enough.  And we become enough-er when we choose to live life together, to grow with and from one another.  When we choose to learn the stories of one another.  When we choose to love for the sake of love, because we were first loved by the very God of life.  When we choose to be attentive to the ways the Holy Spirit is at work and to celebrate this with others instead of tearing down or dissecting the story of another because it doesn’t fit our cultural understanding.

We are called to bring out the “God-flavors and the God-colors” of this world (Matthew 5 MSG).  To bring out makes clear that the beautiful array of flavors and colors already exist.  How do we then encourage and draw out, to inspire and lift up?  It begins with a posture of humility, with a heart that desires to grow and be broken open by the joy and the pain of being in genuine relationship.  We have to move beyond intellect, to having things simply well articulated in writing, to lives lived. Cultural humility is about curiosity and wonder and it will always, always enlarge our hearts.  Perhaps this is what it means that “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation, [a new culture]: everything old has passed away; see everything, [yes, everything!] has become new.” The God-flavors and the God-colors of this world should delight our souls as we come to experience Christ anew through the lives, the experiences, and the cultures of another.  Everything is becoming new!  Amen.

Tasha Hicks is the pastor of the Mount View Presbyterian Church in Seattle, Washington and a member of the NEXT Church Advisory Team.

One Body

by Jessica Tate

We’re in the process of getting NEXT Church up and running as its own legal entity. I’m out of my league when it comes to the the ins-and-outs of incorporation. I’ve had to go to a lot of people for help–business administrators, Board of Pensions reps, Stated Clerk, General Presbyter, COM, lawyers, finance people, other pastors… It’s taken all those connections to help sort out next steps. In all of these conversations, I’ve noticed two things:

1) Everyone has a piece of the puzzle and no one has the whole thing.

There’s the legal piece, the church piece, the pensions piece, the presbytery piece. There were lawyers helping us who reached the end of what they could do because we needed a lawyer barred in Virginia to finish things up. Everyone had a piece of the whole.

2) People want to play their part.

I’ve been issuing a lot of thank you’s. Inevitably people say, “of course,” or “you’re welcome,” or “glad I could help.” This isn’t terribly surprising. Some of it is cultural conditioning. It seems, though, that people are genuinely glad to offer their gifts and contribute to something larger than themselves. They are proud they can offer something truly needed.

I had the privilege of visiting Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia a few weeks ago. Broad Street began when five partner churches decided they didn’t want the vacant Presbyterian building smack in the middle of the arts district in Philly to be vacant, shut down, or sold. Surely there was ministry to be done in that section of the city.

Seven years later they’ve been proven right. One of the glints of wisdom they shared is that the current talk of self-sufficiency in the church is overrated. “You don’t want to be self-sufficient,” Pastor Bill Golderer said. “You want to be interrelated.”

It sounds like a metaphor I’ve heard about everyone having a part to play in a body. Without the eyes, where would you be? Without the ears? The foot?

In her book An Everlasting Meal, Tamar Adler gives some basic instructions on adding salt to boiling water. She says that every ingredient needs some salt.

“The noodle or tender spring pea would be narcissistic to imagine it already contained within its cell walls all the perfection it would ever need. We seem, too, to fear that we are failures at being tender and springy if we need to be seasoned. It’s not so: it doesn’t reflect badly on pea or person that either needs help to be most itself.”

The pea and the pasta need the salt. And the salt would like to play it’s part in bringing out the best of the pea and pasta. Self-sufficiency isn’t the secret to being tender and springy. Nor is being tender and springy the secret to being self-sufficient. The secret is that you want to be interrelated.

Source: Adler, Tamar. An Everlasting Meal (Kindle Locations 153-159). Simon & Schuster, Inc.. Kindle Edition. 

Jessica Tate1Jessica Tate is the Director of NEXT Church and head water-boiler at her house.