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Map, Message and Mission

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Beth Utley

The answer is contemporary worship. That’s what people want. That will bring people into the church. And, for some, it did. Until it didn’t.

The answer was mega church. Until it wasn’t.

The answer was emergent church. Until it wasn’t.

The answer is missional church. The jury is still out…

I think the answer will be the same. Mission alone won’t save God’s church.

Most of our congregants have lived through a religious anomaly. In our lifetime, most everyone belonged to a church. Folks who didn’t were looked upon with pity or suspicion. Every politician, every businessman (gender purposeful), every good mother and wife belonged to and participated in a faith community. Protestant was privileged at the time, but if you had to be Jewish or Catholic, we could understand, though we prayed for you.

This was our world. This shaped our assumptions and our understandings of who we were as church people and how we interacted with our neighbors. It’s not our world any more, thanks be to God. But, it’s no wonder we don’t quite know what to do with our declining churches.

Being a disciple of Christ had a particular focus in the first century, quite a different focus during the reformation. The in-our-face-challenge today involves being part of a people who were “trained” in one religious culture but find themselves neck deep in a different one.

We may feel like we are at the beginning of a Mission Impossible movie. “If you choose to accept this assignment,” the tape says, only we really don’t have a choice — not if we want thriving, meaningful communities of faith.

The answer will not be some kind of magic evangelism…but we are learning to ask the questions. We are better understanding our current culture and its need for God’s good news of transformation, redemption, and reconciliation.

It will take all of us in the conversation, all of us committed to exploring the issues, all of committed to “throwing spaghetti against the wall” until we discern God’s will and way in our time.

We invite you to come and throw spaghetti with us at the National Gathering.

Map, Message and Mission is offered on Monday during workshop block 1 of the 2017 National Gathering.


Beth Utley is the director of Christian formation at Forest Hills Presbyterian Church in High Point, NC. She has worked in faith formation for almost 20 years. Her work with skeptical youth and young adults and her congregation’s commitment to evangelism honed her knowledge and skill. 

2016 National Gathering Keynote: Bob Lupton

Bob Lupton, author of Toxic Charity, presents the first keynote of the 2016 National Gathering.

 

Bob Lupton has invested over 40 years of his life in inner-city Atlanta. In response to a call that he first felt while serving in Vietnam, he left a budding business career to work with delinquent urban youth. Bob and his wife Peggy and their two sons sold their suburban home and moved into the inner-city where they have lived and served as neighbors among those in need. Their life’s work has been the rebuilding of urban neighborhoods where families can flourish and children can grow into healthy adults. Through Focused Community Strategies Urban Ministries – a non-profit organization which he founded – he has developed two mixed income subdivisions, organized a multi-racial congregation, started a number of businesses, created housing for hundreds of families and initiated a wide range of human services in his community. Bob’s new book, Charity Detox, draws on his many decades of experience, and outlines how to structure programs that actually improve the quality of the life of the poor and disenfranchised.

Re-Imagining Short Term Mission

At the 2016 National Gathering, Ellen Sherby led a workshop called “Helping or Hurting? Re-Imagining Short Term Mission.” Here you’ll find the description of her workshop and an associated resource on planning short-term mission projects.

Short-term mission trips are a mainstay for congregational mission, but often seem like “voluntourism” or a “mission-cation.” How can we, as mission leaders and church staff, shape our congregation’s understanding of mission trips, breaking from old models to embrace news ways of being in service together with others? Explore ways to engage in short-term mission with long-term vision and context-appropriate, mutual service. Learn about helpful trip-leader tools and resources.

Changing the Culture of Connection

by Jessica Tate

There are times and situations in which we must learn what no one can teach us. We cannot turn to others who have gone ahead because no one has been in front of us on the journey. We cannot point outside ourselves. We learn—teach ourselves—as a “community of practice.” [i]

 — Gil Rendle

Over the last few months, NEXT Church has been quietly undertaking a listening campaign about experiences of transformational mission. We are on track to have fifty listening sessions with five hundred Presbyterians by the end of January.

Our desire in setting out on this listening campaign was to give leaders in the denomination a relational tool for discerning God’s direction for our future. Rather than surveying for ideas or asking for opinions, this listening campaign invites Presbyterians into conversation with one another around their actual experiences of mission to mine what we can learn from those experiences on the ground. Bonhoeffer said we must listen long and patiently to others. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others and finally not even notice it…the death of the spiritual life starts here. Gathering together to share stories strengthens the fabric of faith and our connection to one another.

120-next-20140402-114712Through the campaign, we are hearing important experiences from congregations engaged in missional activities. This is often inspirational, but more than that, as we listen to these experiences we start to draw conclusions (or at least common themes) that can inform our collective work – be that in cooperative work locally, in our presbyteries, or perhaps even the future directions for the Presbyterian Mission Agency and our national church structures. Through the sharing of stories, we bring to the level of consciousness the insights and wisdom from experience of mission on the ground. We become a “community of practice” and teach ourselves by bringing to conscious awareness what we have learned from our own experiences.

Out of this listening campaign we hope to identify leaders at the local level who we can resource and connect together for common action that can inform the future leadership and direction of the Church. We have the power to change the way things are when we engage energized leaders who are connected to one another.

Each of our meetings followed a similar process. A leader was trained in this listening process – a tool we have experienced powerfully in the work of the Industrial Areas Foundation. They then pull together a group of 10-15 leaders for conversation. Opening with a prayer and sharing the purpose of the listening session, the bulk of the session is spent with each participant sharing a response to this question:

Can you share a story from the past five years where your congregation engaged in mission with those outside your doors that was transformational in some way?

After everyone has shared, conversation ensues as the facilitator probes more deeply into the stories and begins to unearth some possible points of commonality or difference. At the close of the hour, next steps are shared – namely, that the facilitator will summarize the conversation and report that back to NEXT Church leadership for synthesis and insight and that all participants are invited to the NEXT Church national gathering in February when we will share what we’ve heard across the country.

In the coming days, we’ll be sharing some experiences of these listening sessions here on our blog. You can participate in an online conversation as part of our January Church Leaders’ Roundtable. If you would like to host a listening session, it’s not too late to do that. Please be in touch with me for more information. We look forward to sharing these learnings and in so doing, helping to strengthen the future of the church.

[i] Rendle, Gilbert R (2010-10-01). Journey in the Wilderness: New Life for Mainline Churches (Kindle Locations 293-295). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.

Update: read Andrew Foster Connors’ latest blog to learn more about what a listening session at his church was like. 

YAVs Connecting with Community

By Marranda Major

The Washington, D.C. Young Adult Volunteers have been living in Brightwood Park for eight months but we still do not fully integrated into our community. They know us at the corner store and nearest coffee shops. As we were driven outdoors for most of the spring by a bedbug infestation, we’re now on a first-name basis with most of our porch-dwelling neighbors.  And finally–finally!–the bus drivers recognize us and will wait when they see us sprinting frantically towards them.

But there’s something missing…

Our relationship to this place feels tenuous, especially as the end of our year is rapidly approaching. While we prepare for the transition ahead of us–for some, seminary, and others, moving and applying for jobs–we are struggling to remain fully present. We’re trying to think creatively about ways in which we can connect more meaningfully with our neighborhood while we are still here. And we hope that in beginning to develop these relationships, we will establish a network that will help the next DC YAV class to feel at home more quickly.

A few weeks ago, during our community day, we took a walk around Brightwood Park. We established what feel like the boundary of our neighborhood, and decided to extend the perimeter a few blocks from the official border:

We scouted for places where our neighbors congregate–shops, restaurants, bus stops–and tried to discern Brightwood Park’s anchoring institutions: places like schools, hospitals, and community centers that hold power.

While trying to read our context with fresh eyes, we also looked for places where we could volunteer. Each of us chose a location where will spend an upcoming community day doing service–the Fort Totten community garden, a local senior center, the library, etc. Each of us will take on the responsibility of brokering a relationship with one of these community groups.

We hope that these service opportunities and relationships will help us to feel more fully a part of Brightwood Park. I’ll post in a few weeks to report back about how it goes!


 

Marranda MajorMarranda Major is a YAV in Washington, D.C. serving with NEXT Church. 

2015 National Gathering: Linda Valentine

Linda Valentine provides testimony on the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

2015 National Gathering Testimony: George Srour

George Srour provides testimony at the 2015 National Gathering about his organization, Building Tomorrow.

We’d also encourage you to read this response to George’s testimony from Becca Messman.

I Saw Those Eyes and I Just Knew That I Knew You

ROSMY_CMYK_small2By Jessica Rathbun-Cook

During my last year of seminary I had the opportunity to intern with an organization called ROSMY that serves LGBTQ youth, ages 12-20. Since that time, I’ve continued to volunteer in various capacities, and often think the way in which ROSMY’s staff and volunteers embody the organization’s simple goal of “helping youth be themselves” would serve as a powerful model for the Church. I am constantly amazed and inspired by the transformation that comes as youth are given the tools to explore and articulate who they are, and know that they are honored and respected no matter the baggage they carry or the scars they bear when they come in. Every day the cinder-block building that houses the organization becomes a sacred space where lives are transformed through conversations that offer the youth something that many of them cannot find anywhere else: the opportunity to belong.

I recently attended ROSMY’s annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner, where folks who serve with ROSMY are given free food and a big “Thank You” from the staff. I was sitting at a table enjoying a meal and conversation with a handful of regular group facilitators who help lead conversations at any one of several programs that go on throughout the week. Included at the table was Betsy, a 64-year-old former drama teacher who, I would soon learn, has been volunteering with ROSMY since 2001. At some point a relatively new facilitator, Justin, approached an empty seat at the table and asked if he could join us. As we went around and did our introductions, Betsy’s face lit up with a flash of recognition and excitement. Their words were muddled together as Betsy and Justin embraced in a joyful hug. As it turns out, Justin was one of ROSMY’s youth a decade ago, and Betsy was one of his facilitators.

“Oh gosh, it’s good to see you,” Betsy said. “I saw those eyes, and I just knew that I knew you.” The moment blew me away. Given the number of youth that come in and out of ROSMY’s doors in any given year, and that Betsy has been there for over a decade, it’s a safe bet that she’s led conversations with hundreds, if not thousands of teenagers during her time as a facilitator. I was humbled by the level of respect she gives the youth, by how very present she must be at every conversation to be able to recognize someone, even after a decade apart.

I saw those eyes, and I just knew that I knew you.

In the midst of a world that is largely unkind and a Church that moves between antagonistic, indifferent, and complacently silent, ROSMY offers LGBTQ youth a chance to to be honored, heard and known. ROSMY’s approach is pretty straightforward: create a space for people to articulate who they understand themselves to be, give them the opportunity to safely explore that identity, and celebrate the diversity of personalities that make a community unique. This simple act spurs transformation, enabling youth to empathize with one another, to hold each other accountable, and to honor every person who comes through the door. Time and again, youth come to ROSMY and bloom, empowered through a process of self-discovery to open up to the world around them, building friendships with one another and serving as leaders and mentors for new youth who come in. The community that is built provides a foundation not only for individuals, but also for future leaders. A number of youth, like Justin, come back as facilitators, offering not only support, but also a model of life beyond the current muck many are trudging through, as if to say: “Yes, I have been where you are, and I know it’s tough, that it sometimes feels unbearably painful; but, know that you are not alone.”

What might the Church be like if we used ROSMY’s model as an approach to ministry? What would happen if we focused first and foremost on making a space where all people knew that they were welcomed, honored, and loved – that it was safe to show their scars, to bear one another’s burdens? Would giving each other the space to articulate who we understand ourselves to be give way to empathy, trust, and accountability, and community building? What might the church be like if we look each other in the eyes often enough that, even after a decade apart, we might see one another and be able to say, “I saw those eyes, and I just knew that I knew you”?

ROSMY’s website can be found at www.rosmy.org.


Jessica Rathbun-Cook blogs regularly at clatteringbones.com.

Mission Shift in Christian Education

children_youth_1By Jen James

In the conversations about what is next for the Church, I hear a lot of talk about new ways of worship, different methods to engage the community in mission, how to reach young adults, and ways to build new worshipping communities.  What I don’t hear a lot about is how this conversation affects Christian Education.  Some pastors wish their over-zealous educators would take it down a notch and just dissolve their dwindling Church School ministry that seems to be draining energy and resources.  Some churches long for the days when education classes were bursting at the seams – a time when people were “serious” about their faith and were committed to reading the Bible.  For those of us who work in Children, Youth, and Adult Ministries, it can sometimes feel like the Church is on the move and we are grasping for a seat on the train.

The reality is this area of ministry can be the very catalyst for change within a church and its community. Educational ministries are geared to reach the very heartbeat of our communities – its children, youth, and young adults. But, authentic outreach is not going to happen with the best Vacation Bible School in town, or a flashy Sunday night Youth Group complete with a band and a super hip Youth Director, or by purchasing the next great curriculum that guarantees children and youth will love learning about God by bringing the fun back to Sunday School. While these ministry tools aren’t bad, the problem is we tend to think these will attract flocks of people to our diminishing churches. At best, these programs serve those in our churches.  At worst, they are attracting Christians from neighboring churches where the programs aren’t as grand in a twisted sort of membership poaching.  If we are honest, these attractional tools aren’t making authentic and lasting connections with the community.

One place I have witnessed the most authentic community partnership is with local schools. Christian Education is built on a foundation of loving and caring for children, youth, and young adults. Our very DNA is built to be in this kind of partnership. In my current ministry context, the church I serve has embraced that part of our ministry with children and youth is to reach out to local schools. This is not just a once a year partnership like providing food baskets at Christmas. This is an ongoing relationship that takes years to build. It is continuing to support the needs of the schools until the school community recognizes that the church genuinely cares about its students, staff, and families.  It means loving families for the sake of the community and not for the sake of church membership.  There is no better place to reach every child in your community — regardless of race, religion, or socio-economic status — than in a local school.  Perhaps if we allow ourselves to be transformed by those relationships, the transformation of our churches will follow.

Intrigued? Here are some ideas to get you started partnering with a local school:

  • Sign up for the school e-newsletter to read about upcoming events, needs, and volunteer opportunities
  • Have a member of your church join the PTA
  • Tithe your Christian Education budget and set aside that money for the needs of local schools
  • Volunteer at the school either for an ongoing need or for a special event
  • Support school fundraisers (our church buys our mulch each year from the booster mulch sale)
  • Sponsor a Booster Ad in in the Drama Club program or a seasonal sports program
  • Attend sporting events, concerts, and shows as a church
  • Send a note of appreciation from your church on Teacher/Principal Appreciation Week
  • Schedule a time to meet the Principal, just to say hello and let them know the church is there if they ever have a need
  • Advertise for upcoming school events in your church newsletter and bulletin
  • Donate grocery gift cards for school counselors to keep on hand for when families are in crisis
  • Become a sponsor for school programs
  • Get involved in a high school Baccalaureate – if they don’t have one, offer to host and help organize one
  • Volunteer at the All Night Grad Party
  • Offer to purchase yearbooks for those students whose families can’t afford one.

jen_jamesJen James is the Director of Family and Adult Ministries at Bush Hill Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, VA. She just completed her M. Div. at Wesley Theological Seminary.