When I was in Little League I was scared of the ball hit or thrown into the dirt. If I was playing on the infield and a ground ball was hit to me I would freeze–try to play it from the side–don’t get in front of it. Coach after coach would yell at me, would demonstrate the proper technique. I never mastered it. Not in Little League, not in high school, not even in two years of collegiate baseball. My instinct was always fear, and my instinct almost always won out over what my brain and my will were trying to force me to do.
Can you learn new instincts? Can you replace fear with confidence? Churches have instincts: take care of the members, protect the property, sympathize with the suffering. If we learn that an instinct that worked in another era holds us back now, can we change it? How? Motivation? Coaching? Repetition?
I play softball once a week now, and I still freeze when ground balls come my way. They deflect off my wrist and glance off my leg, and I despair that I’m too old now to overcome the instinct that has controlled that activity my entire life.
Four years ago a colleague in the presbytery sent an email to a bunch of folks suggesting a collaborative junior high mission project. I was the only one who bit, and our two youth groups did four half days of service projects. It was fun.
A couple of weeks later I sent out my own email to this colleague and a bunch more: wanna do a confirmation retreat together? Five of us put together a weekend program of talks, worship, and small groups that went well enough for us to want to do it again.
We’ve now done that junior high week four times and the retreat three times. This summer we did a high school mission trip together. We’ve got a name and a swanky logo, and we’re not stopping any time soon.
This is the most energizing thing in my ministry right now. Everything Tapestry does is fun and enriching. I’m working with seasoned youth workers and interns, men and women who love working with students and who teach me valuable stuff all the time, including how to laugh.
It all started with one email. Who will you email today?
Somebody called the church office yesterday just to talk. I didn’t know them, and they had never been to our church. This person found the number for a church somehow and cold called us. To talk.
I kept waiting for the plea for money but it never came. Instead there was a brief story breathlessly told several times over about abuse and rejection from family, about unemployment, about a breakup, and the absolute lack of anyone to talk to. “I just need someone to talk to. I just need someone to talk to. Every day.”
I listened for over 30 minutes. I offered to pray that God would provide someone to talk to every day. We prayed. The conversation was over.
I don’t know where that person was calling from. I don’t know if they will call the church again today (or ever). I don’t know what else the church can do to minister to that person. I don’t know if listening on the phone and then offering a prayer did any good.
So much of ministry is things you don’t know.
Community is a bad goal. If you’re trying to “build community,” you won’t upset anyone, but you won’t change anyone either. You might actually do some harm.
Our church is always trying to build community among the families in our preschool. We invite them to church (of course), we rent a bounce house of the kids, we offered a weekly parents; playdate. Their reaction to these things is a pleasant “Oh that’s so nice!” as they head straight for their cars.
I’ve heard time and again from people in this group that something is missing from their lives, and there is a perceptible longing to connect to something bigger than their busy family calendar. Yet when we offer connection and community nobody comes. Why?
My friend’s answer is that community is a byproduct of other things and that the most meaningful way to create community is to provide something that helps people connect to each other without trying to, well, connect to each other. “What if it was about food?” my friend asked. What if building community were a secondary outcome to the primary purpose of focusing these families on food–child nutrition, family meal strategies, gardening, and so on. Maybe a menu (ahem) of resources about food will serve as a community building tool for those who value it.
Building community for community’s sake doesn’t really work. Communities bond over shared interests and–even better–shared purpose. What are we producing that people in our neighborhoods can use to connect to each other?
But this week HPPC’s session approved a $7.8 million settlement with Grace to end the dispute. Pastor Bryan Dunagan–mere months into his call–explained the decision to the congregation in a video:
HPPC is one of the largest churches to leave the PC(USA) for ECO, the 18 month-old denomination formed in response to the former’s allowance of ordination for openly gay men and women. We wrote about their departure here.
The pledge-based budget is a limited tool for getting things done. It can probably pay for what we got done last year, what groups like ours normally get done, but it’s not great when we want to get new things done. New projects probably need new money and new ways of getting it.
When a church group launched a project to make 20 Mothers’ Day gift baskets for residents of a domestic violence shelter, they bought all the items themselves and were reimbursed out of a special mission fund. They then made worship announcements to invite contributions to pay back that special fund. They got it done.
A group has built a mission partnership with Peruvian churches for five years without once putting it in the budget. They sell hamburgers on one Sunday and trinkets at an alternative gift market on another, and that pays a share of airfare to Lima at least once a year. It’s getting done.
Several colleagues and I are building a regional youth ministry organization that can’t depend on our respective youth ministry budgets for funding. Students have to pay towards the costs of our retreats and mission trips. That’s a blunt funding instrument that limits participation by default to those who can pay. Or, in our case, it doesn’t limit participation and instead racks up a deficit.
We need a strategy to support our new project. Sponsorship? Could we invite churches and mission committees and individuals to sponsor our projects in the coming year to enable broader participation from all students?
If your church didn’t have its own youth involved, would it sponsor a project like this?
How else do new projects find the new resources they need to get done?
“We declare to you . . . what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes” (1 John 1:1).
The things we have heard do not motivate us as much as the things we have seen. Seeing changes everything. Hearing that a football player hit his fiancee engenders indignation and a slap on the wrists. Seeing him do it sparks outrage and public disassociation. Seeing changes everything.
Leaders of faith communities must point to the violence and poverty and injustice at work in the world and invite people to observe it first hand. God observes peoples’ misery, and so must we. This is why we take people on mission trips, to see up close the kinds of realities we hear about from afar. I’ll never forget the stupefied silence of a group of high school students beholding the border wall in Nogales, Arizona. We’d been telling them about it for weeks. But when they saw it . . .
And yet . . .
Communities of faith must also be forces that hold the line on testimony. All manner of wickedness thrives where resistance depends upon visible proof. If a victim must furnish video evidence before her assailant is stopped she will not soon cease to be a victim. Courageous words of accusation and protest demand a hearing, and churches must continue to be places where victims’ voices are heard.
Seeing changes everything, but let us not forget how to listen.