I went to a workshop in Houston last week called “Being Missional in Your Church Context: Meeting the Real Needs of Your Neighbors.”
Houston? In July? Really?
When it was time to introduce myself I told the group I was from Richmond, Virginia, and that when I walk to church on Sunday mornings I sometimes pass people sitting on their front porches, reading the New York Times and sipping lattes.* “I’m sure they have needs,” I said, “I’m just not sure how to identify them” (I mean, really, do you want to interrupt someone’s newspaper reading to say, “Hey, got any needs?”).
The workshop leaders didn’t get around to that question right away, but they did say some good things which I jotted down in my notes. Here’s just a sampling:
Dick Hamm mentioned that people over 65 tend to experience God through the institution of the church, and that the object—for them—is to get people to join. People under 65 tend to experience God outside the institution. For them mission is about relationship, and mission work is usually short-term and hands-on.
Gary Nelson said that in Canada, where he lives, a lot of people were going to church in the fifties. The decline started in the sixties, and now only 12 to 16 percent of the population attends church with any regularity. He talked about this as the “come-to” model (some would call it the attractional model) and asked what happens when people don’t come to church? How do you engage?
He talked about “institutionalism” in the church, and said that it uses up a lot of energy and resources. “How do we free people up from the institution so they can engage in mission?” he asked, and followed it with some thoughts about governance. He said church committees were created in the 40’s and 50’s** and that since then millions of church members have served on committees. He asked how much of our members’ time is taken up with church governance, and joked that in some places “it takes a village” to govern a church. If we could spend less time governing the institution, could we spend more time engaged in mission?
Finally, George Bullard addressed the question about how to identify the needs of our neighbors: “Talk to bartenders,” he said, “bankers, real-estate agents, social workers, counselors at the neighborhood school. Talk to anybody who spends time with your neighbors, listening to their questions and concerns.”
So, I may need to walk down to Starbucks this afternoon and talk to one of the baristas there about my neighbors. “Who are these people? What are their needs?” And while I’m there, gathering information, I may just have to order a latte.
*for the uninitiated, a latte (pronounced lah-TAY) is a kind of a tall, frothy coffee beverage made with espresso and steamed milk. It’s delicious.
**I’m taking his word for it, but it makes me wonder to what extent the church in America mirrored the nation’s efforts to win World War II. Wasn’t it all about new departments and agencies and strategies in those days? Did we think our success in war could translate into success in mission? Did it?