Posted by: jaimemwsanders | July 27, 2013

Sustainable Mission

If we think, as I do, that the mission of church is to discern what God is doing and join in, there is by definition always opportunities for ministry.

But our particular church may not be well equipped for its current missional opportunities.  This might be due to many factors.  Maybe the people in it don’t see the surrounding community and its needs as something they should care about.  I think this is a lot more rare than we might assume.  We might assume that if a congregation is not engaged in mission in its community, they need more vision or compassion.  I think more often they need some way to see a way in which the resources they perceive they have can connect with the needs they see Jesus as caring about. 

What resources might a congregation have?  What resources does a congregation need to engage in sustainable mission?

 A congregation’s principle resource is its people.  Its paid staff, if any, including the priest, but even more its laity.  It is the laity who tutor children and staff food banks and lead Vacation Bible School and arrange flowers and sing in choirs and show up on Sunday to be renewed for caring for ailing parents and build houses and pledge money to support the mission of the church. 

So what makes a congregation’s laity a renewing rather than depleting resource? 

Some of the factors are internal, and those are what we ministers tend to focus on.  Is the worship God-centered and life-giving?  When people are ill, do they know they are loved and cared for?  Is conversation respectful?  Do people have a clear sense of mission?  Is faith shared and nourished with appropriate education? 

But some of the factors are external.  What is happening to the city, county and neighborhood around the church?  If family-wage jobs are disappearing, if the schools are in trouble, it is highly unlikely that the church will attract those elusive young families no matter how good the Vacation Bible School.  If a freeway cuts the church building off from the neighborhood in which its congregants live, those already committed may take the extra trouble to get there, but their new neighbors are unlikely to join them. 

Median income has shrunk in the past 10 years in every county in Western Oregon, and over a third of people spend more than 30% of their income just on housing.  When we teach that church membership involves tithing, we may increase the strength of discipleship of the people in the pews – but we may also be reinforcing the belief of those outside that they can’t afford to belong to a church.

Some of the factors are internal but difficult to change.  It is hard to change the words we use to worship with, but it is easier to change the words than it is to change the pews, and easier to change the pews than to change the layout of the sanctuary or the physical relationship of the sanctuary to the education rooms.  Few restaurants that exist today have the same physical layout and aesthetic as they did in 1955.  The ones that survive have invested in physical maintenance and upgrading.  They employ architects and interior designers.  But we somehow think we shouldn’t have to invest in the physical renewal of our faith places of hospitality.  If we put on a coat of paint, or replace a roof, it is a major issue – and the paint color is chosen by a committee rather than a professional. Perhaps the astounding thing is not that some of our churches are failing, but that any are surviving! 

Some of the external factors are evident now in their effects on sustainable mission.  But bigger ones may be coming.  Many of our churches here in Oregon were built in the 1950’s and 1960’s, as part of the expanding auto culture.   They were built when electricity was cheap and global warming was unheard of.  As we look at the physical resources for the church’s mission, we need to think about not only how people get around today but how they are likely to be getting around in 2040.  Are we investing in buildings accessible by light rail?  Pedestrian and bicycle routes?

I have confidence that God’s mission cannot be derailed by the imperfections of any human institution.  But I don’t think we get any guarantee that any particular church will be part of the future of that mission.  Like relay races, the batons will be passed to the organizations that have the resources to carry the mission forward.  Whether my church will be one of those depends in part, I believe, on decisions we make now with the resources we have.

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