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Front Porch Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Mary Harris Todd

A sermon for Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, NC. Scripture: Mark 1:29-39.

Jesus really did not cover a lot of distance during his ministry. He spent most of his time in the region of Galilee, an area about the size of two or three North Carolina counties, maybe Nash, Edgecombe, and Wilson.1

The region of Galilee was dotted with about two hundred villages, some larger, and some smaller, and to get from one to another you walked. Think about the old days when people around here used to walk up and down this road, visiting neighbors, and walking to school at Joyner’s Schoolhouse, which was across the road from where we are this morning — and it was the building in which Morton Church got its start. Picture what it would be like to walk from Easonburg to Langley’s Crossroads, and that’s a picture of the kind of traveling that Jesus did.

Capernaum, and specifically Peter’s house in Capernaum, was Jesus’ home base in Galilee. Located on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum was more what we would call a small town, maybe 1500 residents. It was a center for the fishing industry. Jesus would go places, and then he would come home to Capernaum.

The story we read from Mark this morning took place very early in Jesus’ ministry. It didn’t take long for word to get around town that Jesus had healed Peter’s mother-in-law from a dangerous fever. “Did you hear what happened at Peter’s house?” By evening excited kinfolk and friends crowded around and into Peter’s house, and Jesus healed many more who were sick or in the clutches of demons. No wonder Jesus went off alone for rest and prayer.

When they realized he was gone, Peter and his companions went looking for Jesus. “Everyone is searching for you!” they exclaimed when they found him. Jesus needed to come on back to the house and get back to work. There was so much more that needed doing right there at home at Peter’s house!

But Jesus said, “Let’s also go on to the neighboring villages so that I can proclaim the good news there, too. That’s why I came.” Yes, Jesus loved the members of Peter’s household, and his family and friends in Capernaum. But Jesus was also concerned about other neighbors and other neighborhoods. His concern reached to the ends of the earth. “Let’s go to the neighboring villages also,” he told his disciples. And before it was all over, Jesus was going to send them on to the ends of the earth.

Mark doesn’t tell us how Peter and the others reacted to Jesus’ plan to visit neighboring villages and interact with other people, but if they were anything like the members of Peter’s household now — the church — I think they might have been dismayed. How can Jesus suggest reaching out to others when there is still so much to do right here? Shouldn’t we take care of the needs at home in Capernaum first? Shouldn’t Jesus give them his attention first? Besides, surely people out there will hear about the wonderful things happening here and come join us!

But reaching the ends of the earth has always been God’s intention. Early in Genesis2 God called Abraham and Sarah to leave home, to move outward, and God plainly stated, “I am going to bless you. You are going to have a lot of descendants, and your family is going to be a blessing to all the families of the earth.” Abraham and Sarah got up and went. This is all the more remarkable because they were 75 and 65 years old respectively, and they had never been able to have any children.

Through the prophet Isaiah God reiterated that concern as we read in our call to worship today: “I want my salvation, my blessing to reach to the ends of the earth,” God said.3

When God’s people were in exile in the city of Babylon and filled with homesickness, God told them to be a blessing right where they were, to their Babylonian neighbors. Through the prophet Jeremiah God told them, “Seek the wellbeing of the city where I have sent you, for in its wellbeing you will find your own.”4

Or as Jesus put it, “You are going to be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and to the ends of the earth.”5

And, as in today’s gospel lesson, the ends of the earth aren’t always far away. “We must go on to neighboring villages,” Jesus said. “Let’s take the message to the neighbors.”

We live in an age where you can get on a jet and fly to the ends of the earth, and yet not know your next door neighbor, even by sight. People often live in side-by-side isolation. It used to be that almost every house had a front porch, an in-between kind of space where people could sit and talk and watch the world go by. Porches helped neighbors see one another and talk more often. Now back decks and privacy fences outnumber porches. People stay inside in the air conditioning and watch TV or stay on the internet, and family members might all be doing this in different rooms.

What’s more, cars make it fast and easy to go somewhere else to work or shop, and not pay that much attention to the neighborhood. And that makes it easy for things to happen behind closed doors without anyone nearby knowing it. No, the ends of the earth aren’t far away at all.

I read a blog post entitled “7 Reasons Your Church Should Have a Front Porch.”6 Our church building does have a front porch, so when I saw the title, I immediately imagined rocking chairs on the church front porch, and us sitting out there visiting and having Bible study. A very pleasant scene.

But that’s not the author’s point. Front porch is a way of thinking. It’s an outlook. He says that front porch oriented churches have their eyes on the neighborhood. They spend time getting to know their neighbors, and letting the neighbors get to know them. Contrast this with backyard-oriented churches that are looking away from the neighborhood, or only looking inward.

Front porch churches listen to the neighbors. They want to be neighborly right there in the neighborhood where God has placed them. The post asks, “Does your church know its neighborhood well enough to know its urgent and persistent needs? Has the church developed trusting friendships that are there in times of need?”

Jesus said, “Let’s go also to the neighboring villages.” This is a call to listen to people, to listen for what is going on around here. And as we listen to our neighbors’ concerns, we will hear what God is concerned about. We will discover what God is up to. Eventually we will discover ways to get in there to work with God, and work with our neighbors.

What it’s not about is blanketing the area with flyers inviting people to come here and join us in what we are doing. It’s not about going around announcing our point of view or presenting a set of arguments we want to convince people of. I can hardly think of anything less appealing, and if that were our agenda, I wouldn’t blame people for hiding in their houses when they saw us coming.

What’s more, it’s also not about recruiting new blood for the church, and it doesn’t make people into mission projects. It’s not about dreaming up some program we think people need or developing a hook to get people to come through the doors. It values people around here just because they are here. It’s about seeing people through God’s eyes and listening to them through God’s ears.

The community organizing training that I started in Baltimore last fall is continuing, and we constantly talk about building relationships. There is power in making connections with people, building relationships, and then taking action together. A critical part of it is to spend time talking one on one with people, listening, sharing stories, finding out what’s important to them, what makes them tick.

In community organizing work they call these visits relational meetings. But to me, they sound a lot like good old front porch visiting, good conversation in that in-between front porch space where connections can happen, and sometimes grow deep.

God has richly blessed the family of faith that gathers in this house. And like all sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah, God calls this family to be a blessing. We could stay home in Capernaum, spend most of our time hanging out with each other here in Peter’s house, or we can visit neighboring villages with Jesus. We can stay inside, or we can find a way to get out on the front porch and spend time talking with neighbors. We can sit around and worry about our own wellbeing, or we can connect with neighbors and in their wellbeing find our own.

We can literally visit people with Jesus. Think about where our neighborhoods are. Think about where our homes are. There’s this little section of West Mount Drive right out in front of the church house. There’s Leaston Road down at the corner, and the trailer park there. There’s the Vick path. There’s the village on Great Branch Drive. And there are more. These are some of our neighboring villages. God has placed us here geographically. And God has placed us in workplaces and in different kinds of groups. These are neighborhoods, too. We can find out what brought these people to these neighborhoods, and what they’re concerned about, and what they need and hope for.

This is the place, and these are the places where God has planted us. These are the people we are called to listen to. These are the people we are called to love. Front porch churches are concerned about our neighbors because Jesus is concerned about them. “Let’s go to the neighboring villages also,” Jesus said. “I want to proclaim the kingdom there, too.”

Or as he puts it in another place, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Which also means, you shall love your neighborhood.

Amen.

1 Nash is our congregation’s home county. Nash, Edgecombe, and Wilson are the tri-county area that the congregation knows well.
2 Genesis 12:1-5a.
3 Isaiah 49:6.
4 Jeremiah 29:7.
5 Acts 1:8.
6 http://after.church/7-reasons-your-church-should-have-a-front-porch/.

Editor’s update: We’re gearing up for our second community organizing cohort, which gets kicked off in late October 2018. We hope you’ll join us! 


Mary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another, Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Visit with Mary and her flock online at The Mustard Seed Journal, where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.

Energy, intelligence, IMAGINATION and love…

by Mary Harris Todd

At ordination and installation Presbyterian elders promise to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  Of the four, imagination may be the most challenging.  Unlike a body of information or set of procedures, imagination can’t be mastered by the intellect.  Imagination must be inspired and sparked.  Being open to the imagination and acting on it requires effort and courage.  It’s always much easier to go to the default setting: what did we do last year (or last century)?

While it might not be possible to train the imagination in the same way we study the contents of the Book of Order, it is possible to give the imagination a workout.  One of the primary ways of doing that is telling and listening to stories.  That’s why storytelling is central at all our NEXT Church gatherings.  We listen once again to God’s story in scripture, and we share stories of what God is up to in the church and in the world now.

Healthy small congregations are a rich source of stories to spark the imagination.  We offer a great deal of “scope for the imagination,” to the church at large, to use Anne of Green Gables’ expression.   Now that the mainline church finds itself pushed to the sidelines, it makes sense to listen to the witness of small congregations that have always lived and served on the margins.  We know that it doesn’t always take a program and money and big buildings to answer the call of God.  We know—or at least we’re learning—what it means to live simply and sustainably by radical dependence on God.  We know how to rise to the challenge of operating creatively within limits.

In his new book Imagining the Small Church: Creating a Simpler Path (Alban), PC(USA) pastor Steve Willis shares many sights, sounds and stories from the world of the small church that can bless the imagination of the whole church.  He writes, “Imagination is the prayerful interior work that helps me see what is really going on, not so much dreaming things up but rather being open to what could be” (p. 105).  The eye of imagination allows him to see God’s upside down wisdom at work in the lives of the people and the congregation.  Through imagination he sees both the wonder of what is, and the wonder of what could be.

Two other books from Alban that offer imagination-sparking stories from the small church world are In Dying We Are Born by Peter Bush and Born of Water, Born of Spirit, by Sheryl A. Kujawa-Holbrook and Fredrica Harris Thompsett.  Bush explores why dying and rising with Christ is the way to new life for every congregation, regardless of size.  Writing out of their experience in the Episcopal tradition, Kujawa-Holbrook and Thompsett tell story after story of small congregations finding new life when the whole people of God begin to see themselves as called to ministry.  You can find links to reviews of these books on the resource tab of my blog, The Mustard Seed Journal.  Note that these books both reflect on what it means to be born again, which is the theme of the NEXT Church national gathering in Charlotte in 2013.

Imagination is prayerful work indeed.  It is altogether fitting that we also promise to pray when we promise to serve with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love.  Come upon us all, Holy Spirit to spark, empower and guide in all these essentials, so that it may be with us as it was on the Day of Pentecost: “In the last days, God says, that I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, Your young will see visions, Your elders will dream dreams” Acts 2:17 (CEV).


Mary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church  near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another,  Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  She is amazed at the God whose  foolishness is wise, and whose power is made perfect in weakness.  Visit with her online at The Mustard Seed Journal,  where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.

Seasick Church

by Mary Harris Todd

Lately the story of the storm at sea in Acts 27 has been much on my mind.

Storm at Sea Flickr-6676320505Paul and his shipmates were caught in a violent storm that just went on and on and on, tossing the ship up and down. The text says that they didn’t eat for fourteen days. My hunch is that everybody had to stick close to the rail. Even pastor Paul was dreadfully seasick. Perhaps that’s why he couldn’t resist reminding the crew that they should have listened when he told them much earlier that they needed to do something different. Moreover, the passengers and crew were disoriented. Verse 20 reads, “When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days, and no small tempest raged, all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.”

Our congregation is traveling through a stormy time of grief and loss and uncertainty and fear, plus we are downright bewildered about how to reach people beyond our current boundaries and incorporate them into the life of the family of faith. We are experiencing up-and-down worship attendance, and a few Sundays have been painfully low. On one of those Sundays one of our ruling elders reports feeling literally nauseated.

Yet there are also hopeful signs to give thanks for. God is bringing us into contact with new people, including a flock of children and their families. It was a joy to spend Tuesday afternoons this summer with some of them in a VBS-like experience in one of the children’s homes.  On a recent Sunday evening we had a service of evening prayer focused on anointing and laying on of hands for healing, and communion.  So many people came that we had to move from a smaller room to the church fellowship hall.

Wow! Talk about going up and down with the waves!

After Paul got the urge to say, “I told you so” out of his system, he went on to tell his shipmates, “Keep up your courage! There will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. The ship is going to be wrecked, but we are all going to be safe.” Then later, when some of the sailors were tempted to abandon the ship and sail away in a lifeboat, Paul called out, “Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved.” The soldiers on board then cut away the lifeboat and set it adrift. Everybody ended up staying on board.

Then, just before daybreak on the day of the shipwreck, Paul urged everybody to take food. He took bread, gave thanks, broke it, ate, and gave it to others. Holy communion!

Hours later, the ship ran aground and began to break up. Everyone headed for shore. Some swam, while others floated on pieces of the ship. In the end, all reached shore safely. Not one person was lost.

There’s a word from the Lord here for the storm-tossed, seasick church. While the institutional vessel may be wrecked and broken, God is going to get us safely to the shore. And while we mourn the loss of the vessel as we knew it, the Church of Jesus Christ lives. Even now, God is inspiring designs for new vessels, and building is underway. Not one to waste anything, God may well be reclaiming strong, seasoned lumber from the wreckage and repurposing it. In fact, I’m sure of it.

Take heart, seasick church! Over the sound of the storm, above the waves of queasiness and waves of exhilaration, a voice calls, “Take. Eat. This is my body, broken for you.”


Mary Harris ToddMary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church  near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another,  Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  She is amazed at the God whose  foolishness is wise, and whose power is made perfect in weakness.  Visit with her online at The Mustard Seed Journal,  where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.

Back to What’s Next …

by Mary Harris Todd

As we discern what’s next for the church, let’s take time to visit our ancestors in faith who struggled to discern what God had in mind for them next.  Let’s revisit our mothers and fathers in scripture, and let’s also take another look at church history and our congregations’ histories.  Here is a story from Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church, the small congregation in which I grew up.

Morton PresbyterianWhen the church was founded in 1876, the Kirk’s building was literally perched on a cliff in Spotsylvania County, Virginia—hence the name. By the dawn of the twentieth century, however, the congregation had migrated away from the community in the neighborhood of the building. It would still be years before cars made rural travel easier. And since people still depended on horses and buggies and their own feet to get to church, the people of the Kirk had a problem.

What did they do? The congregation decided to move the building closer to where the people actually lived. In 1911 new land was given, and they went to work. They dismantled the church building piece by piece, loaded it onto horse-drawn wagons, moved it to its present location and reassembled it. With the exception of some bricks and a few boards, every piece survived intact. The congregation more than survived. Today the church is still called Kirk O’Cliff even though the cliff is ten miles away and covered by the waters of Lake Anna. As I think about the passion, the commitment, and the sheer sweat that dismantling, moving, and rebuilding required, I marvel.

When it comes to what’s next for the church in the twenty-first century, I wonder what God is planning to “dismantle,” “move,” and “assemble” in a new way now. People who need the embrace of Jesus have in many ways moved out of range of the church, so we are now called to move. Knowing where and when and how is going to require prayerful passion, prayerful commitment and prayerful sweat.

If you’re looking for more stories from our great cloud of witnesses who discerned what was next in their day, I recommend Diana Butler Bass’s book A People’s History of Christianity: The Other Side of the Story.

There you can visit with some well-known folk like Augustine, Luther and Calvin.  But more importantly, you can also visit with a host of lesser-known witnesses, many of whose names are unknown, who simply did the best they could to follow Jesus, loving God and neighbor in their place and time.  For example, you can begin to get to know the Beguines and Beghards of the late 1100s, Spirit-led women and men who formed semi-monastic communities whose purpose was to care for the poor and people with infirmities.

Let’s dig into the church’s stories and mine them for more examples of people exercising imagination and courage to move in faith towards what was next.  We are here now because a great cloud of witnesses along the way asked, “Gracious God, what’s next?”  Thanks be to God for them, and for the opportunity that is now ours.  New stories of faith are developing every day.  Let the wagons roll!


Mary Harris Todd  has been a Presbyterian all her life.  She grew up in one small congregation, Kirk O’Cliff Presbyterian Church  near Mineral, Virginia, and since 1990 she has served as the pastor of another,  Morton Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  She is amazed at the God whose  foolishness is wise, and whose power is made perfect in weakness.  Visit with her online at The Mustard Seed Journal,  where you can find lots of resources for small church ministry.