Laura and I stood at the back of her apartment complex, located just behind the church I serve. Fast food wrappers from nearby establishments had caught in the long grass and settled on a tired old couch leaning against a dumpster. “Pastor, there’s a lot of darkness around this place,” the single mom with three kids said with a sigh. “It could use some light.” Laura and I had met to discuss ways the church could reach out to the people living in her apartment complex. “How about starting with a picnic?” she suggested.
For several months I had been thinking and praying for some way to engage with these apartment dwellers. I knew they lived differently from most of my church members. Police cars monitored the youth who congregated in the apartment complex’s parking lot on summer evenings. Renters from the complex who needed gas or food at the end of the month frequently requested help from our church, and once word got out that we assisted, there were more who wandered over. It did not take long to realize that these were hard-living folks trying to get by on very little. Most did not attend church services although they lived a half block from three good-sized churches, one of which was ours, the Kimball Avenue United Methodist Church in Waterloo, Iowa.
How could I convince the church to begin to develop relationships with these folks? How could we actually live the gospel in relation to those who don’t look or act like we do? Is this really what the church is to be about? Most members drive to our church to participate in worship and other activities. A few live in the neighborhood, but not many. Why should we venture beyond this safe and predictable place where we are familiar and comfortable with our space, relationships, and routines?
The Seed of Mission
My interest in doing church with our neighbors began when I started studying and reflecting on the missional church concept. In this model the church sees itself as a mission outpost placed in a particular neighborhood, ready to share the good news of Jesus Christ from both personal and social perspectives. I had shared some of these thoughts in sermons and Bible studies, but nothing seemed to be grabbing hold of enough members to warrant some kind of intervention.
Then Laura and her three children showed up in worship. Prior to her visit the church had helped her purchase diapers. She attended two or three worship services before I made a visit to her home. During our conversation she hit upon one of the transformational themes in the biblical narrative—moving from darkness into light. This, along with other biblical transformational themes (chaos to creation, barrenness to fertility, wilderness to home, scarcity to abundance, and death to life) have guided my own spiritual journey and my ministry. When she started talking about darkness and light, it seemed evident to me that it was time to proceed. Her suggestion of the picnic—where we could break bread (and hamburgers and hotdogs) together—sounded like something Jesus might do. I was certain God was speaking through this not-so-ordinary church visitor.
French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault once said that transformation occurs when erudite knowledge is combined with “disqualified” knowledge.1 Foucault used the term disqualified to describe the knowledge of those who have learned from the experience of their personal struggles but have been shut out of the conversation—or “disqualified”—due to their lack of book learning. When I first read this, I thought of Rabbi Jesus. He was learned. He knew the Hebrew Bible, yet he hung around with people who appeared to be “disqualified.” What if we, as the church, listened to knowledge gained from previous struggles? What insights might we gain? What impact would it have on our mission? How different would God’s creation look? I decided I wanted to do church this way, to actually practice the discipleship Jesus modeled, to develop relationships with widows and orphans in order to glean their wisdom, and to give them hope as described and lived by the one who called himself the Light.
The Passion for Mission
Around the same time that I was discussing the idea of a picnic with Laura, the stewardship committee was trying to think of another yearly theme to get people excited about giving to the church. We had experienced a decrease in giving during 2008, and a few years ago a considerable portion of the church’s savings was spent on the purchase of a new parsonage, so abundant savings were no longer available. Income needed to match expenditures, and the church was falling behind.
Autumn approached as I met with two of the younger members of our trustee and finance committees. We considered the finances, talked about next year’s budget, and discussed the possibility of starting a campaign to put a new roof on the building. I then asked them if the re-roofing of the building created excitement about church. They both looked at me and shook their heads. “We get excited about programs and mission, not a new roof,” they said.
Most stewardship campaigns begin with some kind of kickoff. So, armed with Laura’s remark about light and darkness, my conversation with the two young church leaders, and my heartfelt belief that mission is what the gospel is about, I brought Laura’s idea to the administrative board. I suggested that we begin our stewardship campaign with a picnic in the apartment complex courtyard—mission combined with stewardship. (Isn’t this what stewardship should be about?) In my next sermon I shared the idea for the kickoff and asked for anyone interested in helping to organize the picnic to meet me in the front of the sanctuary after worship. I had no idea how many would come. To my surprise, thirty people filled the front pews and we started brainstorming ways to pull off what was dubbed the Holy Picnic.
We gathered for the picnic on a warm Sunday afternoon in October. Laura had agreed to take flyers around to all the apartments. Fifty apartment residents joined fifty church members in the grass courtyard where Laura and I had had our first conversation. We met all kinds of new people and witnessed many children lining up for some good Iowa picnic grub. Church members wandered around greeting and meeting members of the apartment community. One longtime church member and resident of Waterloo remarked that he hadn’t even known the apartments existed.
During the picnic a man asked if his wife could sing something. She stood and sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Her powerful song echoed through the complex. Then a young man with Down Syndrome ran to fetch his harmonica and played a duet with a church member. If there were any doubters prior to the impromptu solo and the harmonica duet, they were believers by the end of the mini-concert. It felt like the kingdom of God had broken out among us. As we took tables, chairs, and grills back to the church, folks were discussing their experiences and where it all might lead.
Within twenty-four hours of the picnic, practically before I’d had time to wipe the mustard off my mouth, Laura called to inform me that she was being evicted from her apartment. Without any notice, planning, or committee organization, ministry immediately began. Earlier in the year, people from three churches, including ours, had formed a ministry action team, a circle of support for someone coming out of prison. We had not yet received our “friend,” so the circle began its ministry with Laura. The group has since been working with her weekly to help her find employment and shelter. As the circle of support has come to know her, members find themselves immersed in a world that does not match up with anything they have experienced in their own lives. Laura’s issues are layered and serious. Her success will not happen overnight. But she has not yet missed a meeting. She tells us
these weekly meetings bring hope to her and her family.
Clifford Gertz, an anthropologist, encouraged his students to become aware of the “thick description” of a community’s context.2 My understanding of that idea is that it’s important that we not just interact superficially but really get to know each other and begin to develop relationships. A thick description takes in all of a particular context. The church is a part of that thick description, as is Laura’s apartment complex. Our weekly meetings with Laura have opened us up to a very thick description, but part of that description also means that we need to know all our neighbors, not just Laura and the other people living in the apartments.
In that vein, the church has extended its hospitality by inviting the neighborhood homeowners association to conduct its monthly meetings at our church. At least one church member volunteers to attend each meeting. Unfortunately, when the homeowners gather, they see the renters in the apartment complex as a threat to the value and safety of their properties. When the renters gather, they express inadequacy in relation to the owners and sometimes have unkind things to say about those who live in single-family dwellings. Can the church play a role in bridging the gap between the two groups? What could happen if the owners and renters ever met and got to know each other? This is just one of the challenges we have yet to explore in our new missional way of doing church.
The Rewards of Mission
We have entered into the thick description with Laura and some of the other apartment dwellers we met at the picnic. Interestingly, by trying to come to an understanding of the thick description, we created a thin place where the kingdom could break through. That thin place first showed up at the picnic, where we experienced the divine as we gathered together with our previously unknown neighbors, and it continues to reveal itself in new and wonderful ways. Transformation from darkness to light is occurring. However, it is scary to journey further into unknown and unpredictable layers that truly might create unity in the neighborhood.
For instance, another couple from the apartments who participated in the Holy Picnic has come to the church for worship as well. Like Laura’s, their issues are also numerous and layered. They don’t always make good decisions. Another apartment dweller, a woman who heard about our immersion program, has contacted the church seeking support for employment, drug addiction, and mental health issues. Forming more circles of support for these and other people would make sense. How many circles of support are needed, we wonder. And what if, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we could be led to form as many circles as are needed? Can we share the unconditional love of Jesus Christ and walk with our brothers and sisters from darkness to light?
Doing church like this just might bring light to the church as well. Large financial outputs are not needed for this type of ministry, just time and a willingness to engage in transformational work. The church can easily be stretched socially and spiritually while working with these families. Most of our members are middle-class Midwesterners who were taught to take care of themselves and work hard, so it is sometimes difficult for them to relate to families who need assistance. Yet, when these members share their own stories, they recall times when they have received care and assistance along their own journeys. This creates great opportunities for church members to share with one another and with others what God has done in their own lives.
The Holy Picnic has rewarded our congregation with blessed and sacramental gifts. The woman who sang the impromptu solo has a son who is interested in using our gym for Saturday morning basketball leagues in the neighborhood. Six weeks after the Holy Picnic, three children who attended the picnic (one from his mother’s womb) were baptized. Invitations were extended to our apartment friends, encouraging them to come to a Christmas Eve soup supper and to join us in fellowship at our Christmas Eve candlelight service. An older member of the church who serves on our outreach committee suggested the church host the Holy Picnic every year as a way of communicating to our neighbors that we are in this for the long haul.
There’s work to be done, of course, to find our way in this new terrain. We wonder, for example, how our worship can reflect this new type of ministry we are engaged in. How can we engage the spiritual with the new relationships we are forming among our neighbors? At the moment, we seem to be very focused on helping them work their way through various social systems but sometimes fall short on the spiritual side. But we pray in our circle of support with Laura, and she says she prays a lot, too. Beginning a Bible study with renters and church members might be interesting. What is their understanding of the scriptures? How do they engage the holy in their lives? The answers could be transformative for us all.
I would like to tell you that we had a great influx of projected income for 2009 because of this stewardship drive—that pledges hit an all-time high and the offering plates have been overflowing. But economic times are tough. Although more than thirty families increased their giving, there was no increase in the total giving. There may be scarcity with our finances, but we have experienced an abundance in relation to God’s just kingdom that has no end. It is our greatest hope that our neighbors, the ones across the parking lot in back of the church, have experienced God’s kingdom and received abundantly as well.
Our public immersion brought us in contact with a marginalized family. We have immersed ourselves into the darkness. Will the light of Christ, represented by the church, assist in bringing about transformation for these children of God we seek to help? Our faith informs us, and we believe, that through the resurrection, God’s abundance overcomes death-oriented social, political, and spiritual scarcity. We carry on, then, with the beginnings of understanding stewardship in new ways and dependent upon God’s grace.
1. Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, Harper Collins, 1973), 6–8.
2. The reference to Michel Foucault’s “disqualified knowledge” comes from Gloria Albrecht, The Character of Our Communities (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 141.
Questions for Reflection
- There wasn’t a lot of planning in developing our missional ministry. We did not conduct workshops on the missional church concept. What are the chances for success with this approach? Should we have waited a year and studied the situation before conducting the Holy Picnic? Could study and planning have better prepared us to be ready to work with the people who are now coming to us for help? How does being prepared fit into what being church is all about?
- Missional church is very demanding. It can be challenging to keep up with the newness of it and at the same time be pastoral to longtime faithful members, many of whom have never done church in this way before. Does the whole congregation need to buy in to a missional approach to ministry, or can a few members begin this type of ministry?
- What are some ways worship can reflect this type of ministry? How can we engage the spiritual with the new relationships we form in our communities?
- My understanding of a theology of the cross is that God came down and entered into the suffering of the world and redeemed it. God overcame death. Is it too much to assume that the church can enter into death-oriented contexts and bring about transformation?
- What effect do the transformational themes in the Bible have
on the church and its ministry? Where is the chaos in your community? Where is the scarcity? Where is the wilderness, the barrenness? What might take place if we became aware of these situations in our communities and used the Holy Spirit to empower us into action and transformation? Is there scarcity, wilderness, and barrenness located right in the church?