Leslie Newbigin wrote:
The question that has to be put to every local congregation is the question whether it is a credible sign of God’s reign of justice and mercy over the whole life, whether it is an open fellowship whose concerns are as wide as the concerns of humanity, whether it cares for its neighbors in a way which reflects and springs out of God’s care for them, whether its common life is recognizable as a foretaste of the blessing that God intends for the whole human family.**
I read that yesterday from JR Woodward’s introduction to his Creating a Missional Culture. That’s the first book assigned in the Doctor of Ministry program of St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City that I’ll begin in January. It is also indicative of why it is that I’m entering this program…at a time of great transition for our family as we move to Seward, Alaska…at a time of great transition for both the church I leave in Girdwood after 12 years and the churches I’ll be headed to in Seward and Moose Pass.
This is a big step. This is not something I’ve entered into lightly. It’s something I’ve been considering for many years and with greater intensity for 4-5 years. But, during this time, I found my commitments to itineration (visiting churches, soliciting support) and General and Jurisdictional commitments would have meant far too many weeks away from the people of Girdwood and my family. And, because there has been a change in the program, moving from a community-based “cohort” system to one of more individual study, I struggled with whether or not I still wanted to make a three-year commitment. It’s not everything that got me pumped about the program in the first place.
But I loved school…High School AND undergraduate school AND seminary. I loved it and did well at it. I love the challenge. I love the intellectual exercise. And, at this point in my life and ministry, it seems that my work in the church and my theology have been coming together to make this a wonderful opportunity. I feel I have so much going on in my head and my heart and my faith that this program can guide me and guide my ministry as all of this comes together.
I believe our churches are to be that foretaste of God’s kingdom in today’s world…in our communities…in our neighborhoods. I believe that our churches need to be turned “inside out,” engaging the culture and offering shalom, and grace, and mercy and life to those around us. I believe this is what Jesus did. I believe this is what our God wants of us as persons of faith and as congregations.
This is something that I’ve been living into over the past 12.5 years in Girdwood, Alaska. Even as we’ve been growing a church (numerically) and growing a church (physically, through construction) we have tried to increase our engagement with the community. We’ve talked about having a porous boundary between the church and world. We’ve been asking what type of difference do we make in our little corner of the world. We’ve been questioning the spiritual and communal practices that shape us into being those types of people, those types of Christians, who offer God to those around them. We’ve been questioning what it means to be a mission outpost for God’s kingdom. We’ve been tossing around words–“missional,” “missionary,” “missio Dei,” “attractional,” “incarnational,” “community,” “neighborhood,” “Kingdom,” “Jesus-shaped,” “Gospel”–words that pull us outward, beyond ourselves.
All of this has had a profound effect on me. John Wesley might have said, “The World is my Parish” but I’ve taken this to mean that my parish, while it may extend to the whole of the world, begins with my little corner of it…Girdwood. In many ways, this has been easy here. I’ve been, for the most part, the only pastor in the community. It’s easy to fall into the role of “town pastor” when…well…you’re the town pastor. It’s also been easy because this congregation was full of persons who were heavily engaged in their community before I ever got here and they had made it known that it was of utmost importance for their pastor to be heavily engaged in their community as well. It has also been easy because Holy Communion, one of the primary ways we are shaped into being a community, was taken seriously and practiced weekly prior to my arrival and has continued through this day. This was the “perfect storm” for all of this going on in me.
As I’ve lived this out over the years, as I’ve read authors like Hirsch, Woodward, and David Fitch and read all the missional blogs I could get a hold of, I’m convinced that this, this outward, missional focus, is what is needed in our churches. And I believe it is possible to take existing churches and change their culture so that they are part of the mission of God in the world and so that they become an incarnational witness to the presence of God in their communities and in the larger world. And while there are many who believe this is best put into practice through new faith communities and new church starts, I truly believe that our smaller congregations, with lower financial overhead and greater organizational agility, can embody the presence of God in their communities in this way. Plus, with so many, many small congregations out there, there is a great opportunity to revitalize churches and neighborhoods in powerful ways. Could this help grow our churches numerically? Sure. Could it help us grow as disciples? Definitely.
I want to talk about this.
I want to pray about this.
I want to learn about this.
I want to preach this.
I want to practice this.
I want to be used by God in this way.
This is why I’m entering into the Doctor of Ministry program at this time.
**Leslie Newbigin, Signs of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980)