Discovering Our Context for Mission
by RON HARMON
Twenty-first century Community of Christ congregations are navigating familiar and unfamiliar territory. What is familiar is the ancient call to journey with God into an unknown but hopeful future. What is unfamiliar is not only the future but the present. What once worked for the local congregation is increasingly ineffective. As a result many congregations have experienced decline in membership.
There are many descriptions, such as, postmodern and post-Christian attached to this time of transition we are living in. No matter what we call it, things have significantly changed. There is uncertainty and confusion about how to engage with our culture and how to live the gospel through relevant discipleship and mission. This is not a new challenge. Engaging the culture in relevant ways was a challenge for the first-century church and it is our challenge today.
Doctrine and Covenants 162:2e states this challenge in contemporary terms:
Again you are reminded that this community was divinely called into being. The spirit of the Restoration is not locked in one moment of time, but is instead the call to every generation to witness to essential truths in its own language and form. Let the Spirit breathe.
Context (i.e., the circumstances that form the setting for ministry) impacts all areas of life, from having a simple conversation to engaging in mission. Context is the congregation’s and each disciple’s setting for ministry. It is critical for the congregation and disciples to understand their context. Understanding contexts is one way the congregation and each disciple becomes aware of their surroundings so they are open to how, when, where, and in what forms God is leading them into relationship with others. Through study and experience the congregation and each disciple can become more skilled at communicating, providing ministry, and engaging in mission in a specific context. Disciples and congregations who pay attention to their contexts see that their contexts are opportunities to follow God’s movement in the lives of people.
Why does context matter? Why should all church leaders pay attention to context? The simple reason is we are encountered by God in the world (our context). It was in response to “our” context that Jesus declared his mission, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19). The context was poverty, captivity, suffering, hunger, and all forms of injustice crying out for God’s shalom. “If we take the incarnation seriously, the Word has to become flesh in every new context.” (David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1991, 21.)
Section 162 counsels the church to proclaim and live the gospel in ways relevant to the specific context. It is in today’s context the congregation seeks to provide ministry. For example, the congregation can have a fuller understanding of the message and mission of Jesus by studying Jewish culture in the first century. Yet, how does the congregation translate its understanding of Jesus and first century culture into incarnational ministries needed for today? This means the congregation’s language and forms of invitation and mission must speak directly to the specific circumstances of those it is sent to serve.
Congregational leaders must be aware of the particular context for their leadership, communications, and ministry in the congregation and in the neighborhoods where the congregation carries out its mission. Leaders must become students of these different contexts if they are to understand how to communicate, lead, and minister in effective and relevant ways in various situations.
There are numerous ways to learn about contexts. This article will explore ways to learn about the congregation’s context for ministry in the United States. Where do we go to learn more about our changing context for ministry and how it impacts the ministries of the local congregation?
There are several excellent sources from which to learn about context:
- Percept—Since its beginning in 1987, Percept has supplied thousands of churches and hundreds of regional and national denominational agencies throughout the United States with demographic data to help them engage in mission within their particular contexts. Percept adds value to its demographic information by integrating data about the religious attitudes, preferences, and behavior of the American people. Community of Christ has a license with Percept. Congregations in the United States can request data based on zip code or a specified radius around their congregation or the neighborhoods where their members live. Contact your president of seventy, apostle, or mission center missionary coordinator for help with an analysis.
- “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, Religious Affiliation: Diverse and Dynamic,” (Feb. 2008) (http://religions.pewforum.org/pdf/report-religious-landscape-study-full.pdf, accessed July 6, 2011). This is one of the most extensive demographic and preferences surveys conducted and provides significant national and regional data. This study is helpful in understanding national and regional religious trends and practices. See www.pewforum.org.
- George Barna, Revolution, (Carol Stream, IL: BarnaBooks, Tyndale House, 2005). This book provides interesting trends for the unchurched population and implications for the local congregation.
- Ronald Rolheiser, Secularity and the Gospel: Being Missionaries to Our Children, (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2006). This book explores the forces shaping religious thought, attitudes, and behavior in the 21st century.
Although the implications for congregations may seem a bit overwhelming, the first step toward relevance and missional effectiveness is understanding context. Understanding the data and trends is one way to learn the congregation’s context. Data and trends, however, are no replacement for motivating the congregation to interact with real people and hear their stories of struggle and hope.
The congregation’s contexts are always changing and the call as disciples and leaders is to be fully present and awake to our surroundings. Becoming more intentional students of the scriptures and our neighborhoods, new insights will emerge and one will inform the other. The faith journey is a continuation of the journey that began with the story of Abraham. The moment the congregation risks new relationships and reaches out to new places, it can trust in the Holy Spirit that new opportunities for ministry and mission will emerge. When the congregation immerses itself into its context, it will discover surprising ways to fulfill Christ’s mission.
According to author and theologian Alan Roxburgh, “This is about getting outside the walls of the church and leaving behind our assumptions about what people need to attend to what is really happening among the people in the neighborhood. To be very blunt, this is not a matter of buying demographics and studies that tell you about people; it’s about entering their lives, sitting at their tables, and listening to the way the Spirit is inviting a new imagination about being the church in that context.” (Alan J. Roxburgh and M. Scott Boren, Introducing the Missional Church: What It Is, Why It Matters, How to Become One, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009, 85.) This quote is not meant to suggest there is no value in demographic studies. Demographic information is helpful and provides part of the picture when seeking to understand the congregation’s context. Beyond studying raw demographic data and report findings there are simple and effective ways to begin to more clearly understand one’s context. God being with us, never abandoning us, knowing us, coming to us is the theological basis for why entering people’s lives is important. The following practices have been developed, field-tested, and found to be helpful to congregations seeking greater understanding of their context:
- Walking the Neighborhood—a practice of prayer, listening, and engagement in relationships in a defined geographical area.
- Third Place Ministry—a practice of listening and engaging in relationships in a preferred third place of gathering in a town, city, or neighborhood.
- Listening in the Spaces—a practice of creating space in the rhythm of our day to be aware of God and our surroundings.
- Panes of Perspective—a practice of planning and discernment that utilizes trends that impact ministry and mission.
Although practices provide helpful suggestions and habits of discipleship, being fully present in a particular context requires intentionality. Being aware of context is like having eyes, heart, and ears wide open to people. A stop at the gas station becomes an opportunity to interact more deeply with a clerk at the counter. An evening at the bookstore provides opportunity to learn more about people and their stories. When fully present in their surroundings and open to the leading of the Holy Spirit disciples see things they did not see before.
Following are simple but effective ways for congregational leaders to help the congregation learn about its neighborhood:
- host or attend a community festival
- meet-the-neighbors walk
- develop a neighborhood scripture garden
- develop a community garden
- vacation Bible school with a celebration evening for adults
- special interest classes at the congregation
- neighborhood survey
- install outdoor recreational equipment (e.g., basketball goal)
- host a blood drive
- take part in a community choir
- invite guest speakers from community-based organizations
- partner with a neighborhood school
All of these activities and many others create opportunities for people to gather. When congregations engage fully and are open to the leading of the Holy Spirit they have opportunity to make meaningful connections. Making connections is about extending Christ’s invitation and hospitality. Congregations invest in relationships with others because of their deep conviction about the worth of every person.
Leaders can best help congregations understand their context by engaging with people outside the congregation. Jesus modeled the way as he crossed every economic, social, and religious barrier to bring persons together in the family of God.
- How do we as leaders make sense of all the trends and data? How can we best use data and trends to understand what is going on in the neighborhood and broader community?
- In reviewing the chart in the Panes of Perspective practice, how can we respond to key trends in how we gather for worship, fellowship, and education, and how we engage in mission in our community? Specifically, how would our congregation look different if it planned each activity and ministry through these lenses?
- How can we, as congregational leaders, help people understand key changes needed to rethink how to engage the specific contexts of our congregation’s, members’ and friends’ neighborhoods?
- What principles or truths from the life and ministry of Jesus Christ give us clues as to how we can navigate in a changing environment?
|Walking the Neighborhood|
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To learn to listen and pay attention to what is happening in the lives of people in your community in a familiar setting. Additionally, it is an opportunity to discern ways you and your congregation can respond to the needs and opportunities where God is moving in your neighborhood.
Many times people in the neighborhood watch us come and go to our church facility. Often there is very little conversation with those in the neighborhood but God is moving in their lives and we are being invited to connect with where God is moving.
The foundation for this practice is one of our enduring principles, the Worth of All Persons. We engage with people because we are called to be in relationship with others and discover the blessings of relationships and community. This is not about engaging in relationships with a motive other than connecting with other people and being open to what God is up to in these relationships.
Take a family member or go with a friend and begin walking in your home neighborhood or in the neighborhood around your church facility. As you walk, pray about each home and the blessing of God in the lives of the people who live there. Also, if people are out in their yards or on their porches, greet them and wish them a good day.
As you become a regular presence in the neighborhood, begin to have conversations with the neighbors. As you walk through your chosen neighborhood, ask God to lead you to the people with whom God wants you to share in conversation. Listen for where God is moving in their lives. Consider offering the following prayer as you walk in the neighborhood: “God, who’s out there that you want me to trade stories with? I need to listen to their story and they need to hear mine. God, bring me together with the people you would like for me to be in a witnessing relationship with. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.”
Be creative by taking some cookies to offer to people on your walk, or some freshly picked vegetables—anything you can offer them as a way of sharing God’s love in a practical way. Listen for what God is doing in their lives or what their experiences have been in their individual walks of faith. Between walks share with your partner in prayer and conversation about the people you meet and where God may be leading you in mission.
Now… “step out” in faith!
Process Tip: Read Doctrine and Covenants 161:3, 4.
|Third Place Ministry|
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To learn to listen and pay attention in informal settings to what is happening in the lives of people in your community. This practice will help you and your congregation discern ways to respond to the needs and opportunities that surface when you pay attention to meaningful conversation.
According to Ray Oldenburg, an American sociologist who first coined the term, third places, “Third places are those environments in which people meet to develop friendships, discuss issues, and interact with others.” He points out that home is our first place, our place of employment is a second place, but the place where we most learn what’s going on in the community around us is a third place. Communities of faith have incorporated third place ministry in their missional focus. Here are ideas for disciples or congregations to start a third place ministry.
Start by asking, “In our community where do people gather for informal conversation?” Consider some of the following: local coffee shop, bookstore, park, convenience store or other places where people sit and visit. Then go to one of these places regularly with the intent of getting to know the names of clerks and frequent visitors.
After a few visits, take a book you’re reading or your scriptures. Place the books on your table and be open to people engaging in conversation about them. Invite friends to join you and talk about issues or interests going on in life. Be open to inviting others to join your conversation. Listen to what is important to them. Ask yourself, “What is God doing in their lives?” “What is the invitation from God about their experience?”
- Visit a local school to talk with the principal or guidance staff about needs they have for their students. Do they need someone to sit and have lunch with the students? Do they need tutorial help? What is the need that God is inviting you and others to be part of in your community?
- If you have a group of people skilled or interested in knitting, do a prayer shawl ministry in a public place like a local coffee shop. This ministry could become an ecumenical ministry where knitters from different faith communities give shawls to local domestic violence shelters, hospitals, assisted living centers, or nursing homes.
Process Tip: This practice requires genuine investment in relationships and time. This practice is not about “inviting people to church.” It is about helping us better understand what God is up to in the lives of people in the community by using an informal setting. If your community doesn’t have a meeting place, that’s an opportunity for the congregation to create and develop a third place experience for the community!
|Listening in the Spaces|
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To re-center ourselves during pauses or transitions throughout the day so we become more aware of God’s presence in the world around us. In Joan Chittister’s book about Benedictine spirituality, Wisdom Distilled from the Daily (New York: HarperCollins, 1990), she explains that members of the community stop outside the chapel for a few minutes before entering for prayer. “The practice of statio is meant to center us and make us conscious of what we’re about to do and make us present to God who is present to us. Statio is the desire to do consciously what I might otherwise do mechanically. Statio is the virtue of presence.”
Using this Christian practice, we can reframe the many transition times and places we experience during the day. Instead of regarding them as wasted periods, unavoidable delays or inconveniences, we can see them as divine invitations to stop, to re-center ourselves, and to become more aware of God’s presence in the world around us. We can use transitions as opportunities to contemplate what matters to us, to give thanks for all the gifts from the Creator and to connect with our loved ones.
Here are suggestions on how to weave a sacred pause or statio into your daily life:
- Pause outside your door as you leave for work or school. Say quietly to yourself: “This is a day the Lord has made. I will watch for God’s presence in my life today. I will stay open to the grace of God.”
- Before leaving your car, train, bicycle, or bus say a silent prayer for all those you have passed on your journey that they may know health, happiness, peace, and well-being. Repeat this statio practice as you leave a restaurant or a store.
- When entering your workplace focus on your day. Say a prayer of blessing on your work, the service to your employer, and the world at large. Think about the people you will meet during the day and give thanks for their support and creativity. If you are in conflict with a co-worker, ask that you may be forgiving and forgiven.
- Before entering a doctor or dentist’s office for an appointment or the gym for your workout, thank your body for being such a faithful and constant companion. Know and accept that God cherishes every hair on your head.
- When returning home pause before entering your home. Be aware of the moment’s importance as you move from the outside world into the space of your home. Leave on your doorstep any stresses, problems, or unfinished business of the day. (You can always pick them up again the next morning!) If you share your home with others, remember what you are bringing to them—the fruits of your labor, perhaps, but most important, your loving presence. Use this refreshing pause to prepare for a blessed reunion with them.
Be patient as you develop the skill of pausing and taking the time to see and hear God in the world around you. It will take time and practice to stop, listen, and observe moments often taken for granted. It will take practice to release daily cares so you do not fill these moments with worry and planning for the day…these should be moments of statio.
|Panes of Perspective|
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To design and plan activities, ministry, and mission by use of current trends that impact ministry and mission.
Use the following “Panes of Perspective” chart to imagine each trend as a glass pane in a window that helps us see more clearly how to connect with younger generations. Use the following questions as you plan ministry and events:
- Is this ministry or event something we could empower someone or a group to design and implement?
- Does this ministry or event foster a process of shared discovery and collaborative planning rather than being tightly defined?
- What relevance does this ministry or event have to the real problems people face in their neighborhoods and world?
- How do we connect with those who find it physically difficult to get to church? Are there ways, other than being physically present, for them to connect to the congregation’s ministry? (Are virtual communities, such as Facebook, possibilities?)
- How does this event or ministry cultivate genuine opportunity for meaningful relationships to develop?
- How does this event or ministry reach a diversity of backgrounds (e.g., ethnic, social, economic, age, single, family)?
- How does this event or ministry help create an alternative future of hope and healing?
- How does this event or ministry connect individuals for opportunities to make a positive difference locally or globally?
Remember to frame the ministry and events under one of the five mission initiatives (Invite People to Christ; Abolish Poverty, End Suffering; Pursue Peace on Earth; Develop Disciples to Serve; Experience Congregations in Mission).
Panes of Perspective Chart
Implications for the Congregation
Generational Changes in Leadership
Younger generations have leadership in other organizations. They have a different approach to and expectations of leadership. They are collaborative, fast paced, and insist on sharing in solutions.
In general, congregational processes are often slow, can be hierarchical, and not as participative in decision making. Younger adults find this frustrating when compared with their professional careers and organizations.
Clashing of World Views—Modern and Postmodern Perspectives
Although difficult to define precisely, “postmoderns” see the interconnectedness of all of life (people, environment, religions). They don’t draw lines between sacred and secular, Earth and heaven, etc. Spirituality is a journey—not indoctrination or holding a set of beliefs. Questions are as critical as answers because they lead toward beauty and truth.
Congregational life tends to be an indoctrination model to promote beliefs. Churches and denominations in the U.S. have become more about having right beliefs than a way of life that impacts the world. Sunday mornings in many congregations don’t foster exploration and only allow dialogue within tightly settled doctrinal boundaries. The congregation’s tightly defined worldview does not match reality for many younger adults.
Dismissing the Irrelevant
Younger generations have little patience for institutions more concerned about tradition, rituals, and self-preservation than responding to real human need and suffering in the world.
The average congregation for many younger adults seems out of touch with what is going on in the world. Real neighborhood, national, and world issues are rarely discussed in light of the good news. There is often a serious disconnect between Jesus’ radical message of the kingdom and the activities and ministries of the congregation.
Impact of Technology
Younger generations are connected to what is going on and are used to quick access to information.
Congregational delivery systems are slow and often in only one mode. For example, education is often only delivered in workshops or classes.
Deep, authentic, and meaningful relationships are critical.
Most congregations don’t programmatically foster meaningful relationships. Congregational space is often not relational space (e.g., pews, hard chairs, sterile buildings). Older generations are often hesitant to disclose personal concerns and are uncomfortable with the knowledge younger adults share about one another.
Many if not most neighborhoods are changing with a significant increase in ethnic, cultural, and economic diversity.
Congregations are not prepared to relate to changing neighborhoods. There are significant needs and opportunities that require more language skills and new levels of cultural awareness to relate effectively to a changing population.
Participation in Creating Reality
Being a part of the solution is important! Younger generations do not want to accept the status quo. They want to participate in meaningful change.
Congregations are often set in their ways. Many are happy with things as they are and don’t understand why things need to change. Some would say, “it was good enough for me, why is it not good enough for them?”
Meaning and Connection
Overall, younger generations are seeking to be part of something where they find meaningful connection with others who share common interests and values.
Many congregations don’t have a clear focus or mission. Most efforts seem to be directed toward making Sunday morning happen. Many members have drifted apart over time and there is not a sense of common purpose and community that once was present.