A month ago I wrote a summary of my first Superintendent's Address that I gave at annual conference in June. (If you missed it, read it here.) It was an abridged version outlining the six points I emphasized and I promised to expound on each of them at a later time. That time has come. For the next six weeks I will be sharing my thoughts on each of the six aspects of mission and ministry in Alaska that I am deeply passionate about. My prayer is that you would catch the passion and share in the vision.
If your church closes its doors today, would your community notice it?
This question was my biggest take-away from a Rethink Church workshop we had a few years ago. It underscores the importance of our call to community engagement. We are called to reach out to our neighbors as the hands and feet of Jesus. Is our church's existence in the neighborhood impactful enough that closing it would be detrimental to the community as a whole? Or is our church visible only to its members and our neighbors don't even have a clue that we are there?
Here's a 5-minute video by Lovett Weems, Jr., Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership about the Why Community Engagement Matters.
I call us to know and engage our mission fields.
Who are the people in our neighborhoods that God is calling us to reach? Who and where is our mission field? How are we reaching them? What are the ministries we are engaged in that are truly impacting our neighbors in real and positive ways?
We already have churches who are positively engaging and impacting their communities and I celebrate that! The stories are heartwarming and I challenge you to keep it up! But sadly, we also have churches who can't seem to look past themselves and their own concerns. I challenge you to step it up and reach out beyond yourselves to the communities God has planted you in and calls you to reach.
The Dead Sea
Ever wondered why the Dead Sea is dead? It's because it is too salty. No creature can live in it because the salinity of the water is too high. And that, in turn, is because the Dead Sea has many river and stream tributaries that flow into it but has no outflows. It receives and receives but doesn't give.
A quick look at healthy, vibrant churches would yield that they have both a strong inflow (nurture programs and ministries for members) and a strong outflow (outreach ministries and missions to their communities). Are our churches healthy bodies of water or dead seas, always receiving, never giving?
Small Steps: What if...
What if all of our churches had signs in our doorways as we go out or in our parking lots as we drive out saying: "You are now entering the mission field!". What mindset and behavior change would this simple act do?
Recognizing that we cannot do it alone, what if we partner with organizations and groups in our communities to bring about change and lasting positive impacts. What are the things already being done in your community by other groups that you can partner with? There is no sense reinventing the wheel or even duplicating efforts. Or what can your church do to augment and/or complement an already existing ministry in your community? Perhaps there's a segment that's not being met, or maybe a gap somewhere where your church can fill-in.
Not being challenged
In a recent study, one of the top reasons people are leaving church is not pastoral leadership or worship styles or preaching. It is the lack of a sense of mission. People are leaving church because there isn't a mission bigger than them that they can be a part of (or at least its not communicated to them in a very compelling way). Many people feel that the church is all about institutional survival instead of its mission of making disciples for the transformation of the world. And that, sadly, is turning them away.
I heard a United Methodist lay person who works with a prominent, cutting edge film outfit recently say about their church, "I haven't been challenged in 30 years. I just come out of obligation."
What if beyond nurture, we work on challenging our members for mission. What if we look at each member of the congregation as a missionary and so every Sunday becomes a commissioning service for everyone to go out into the world and be the hands and feet of Jesus?
Friends, its time we come to terms with the reality that our mission field is out there, outside the walls of our sanctuary; out there, among our neighbors; out there, among the people God is calling us to reach. In the reading of appointments at annual conference this year, we made a small language change that would hopefully make a big impact. Instead of naming just the churches where the clergy were being appointed to, we also named the mission fields (i.e. St. John UMC in the Anchorage Mission Field). We were trying to send the message to our clergy and lay leaders that the ministry of the Alaska United Methodist Conference will not be confined to the walls of its church buildings.
It is my hope, my prayer that our churches would become mission outposts where significant outreach and community engagement can be launched from. May we truly be the hands and feet of Jesus in our communities, allowing us to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Your fellow disciple,