Life from the Missional Web

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By:  Rev. Shannon Youell 

Donning rain coats and boots, my husband and I went on a rainy day guided hike in one of our local parks boasting old-growth 800-year-old Douglas Fir, a multitude of resident creatures and an incredible diversity of understory plants. Our focus was on mushrooms – Marvelous Mushrooms as the hike was titled.  We expected to learn and identify mushrooms but this was so much more. We discovered mycelium!             

Mycelium, a vast network of fungal threads, are something like the root and digestive systems of the mushrooms.   These networks are what is going on underneath the top layer of soil. They are formed from the mushroom’s mycelium, a web like network that makes its way beneath the forest floor connecting to other lifeforms.  What we see on the surface and recognize as mushrooms are the fruit of the fungi.  

Surprised as we were by that discovery, it was the symbiotic relationship the mycelium has with the forest trees that brings Marvelous Mushrooms to this blog.  Called mycorrhiza, this under the surface relationship is crucial to the health of the trees and of the forest ecosystem and of course for the support of the mushrooms themselves.

The short version is that mycorrhiza from the mycelium weave around the underground roots of trees to nourish and protect them.  They help trees absorb their needed nutrients and helps to protect them from absorbing toxins that could affect the health of the tree.  Mycorrhiza also connect trees in the forest, via the mycelium web network, to one another and help the trees sense when one of their ‘community’ is struggling.  Once those ‘sensors’ are triggered, healthy trees will divert their own nutrients to help the struggling trees, even trees of different species.  Current research being done at the University of British Columbia has discovered that these ‘connections’ go even deeper: ‘mother’ trees, through the web, can detect when one of their own ‘baby’ trees is struggling and divert energy and nutrients to help foster their growth.  They will prioritize the nurture of their ‘own’ over another tree! 

My apologies to any mycologists out there, I am just learning and excited to learn more about how all life is connected.   

Let me get into more familiar territory.  What do mushrooms and their ‘web’ have to do with how followers of Jesus, and specifically communities of followers of Jesus, participate in the support and nurture of one another’s communities?

This blog has often touted the benefit of partnerships for the establishment of new expressions of the gospel in our communities.  Both past and current plants are the beneficiaries of partnerships with already established churches (small and large), and in fact, those partnerships are necessary to nurture those plants and crucial for their ability to grow into healthy gospel communities of their own. We also encourage symbiotic relationships in these partnerships – a flow back and forth as needed for the health and discipleship of both communities. 

We need more of these symbiotic relationships as an eco-system for all our churches. Would more of our existing churches be willing to risk planting new expressions of the gospel if they knew they would not be on their own but supported by the ‘underground network’, communities of Christ ‘mycorrhiza’? Can we operate as an eco-system of communities even while distant from one another, so that we naturally respond to the struggle’s others are having, diverting some of our own energy and nutrients to support them?  If Jesus were talking to nature folk rather than agrarian folk, would he have told the Parable of the Mycorrhiza?  The kingdom of God is like……? 

I think of this in supporting gospel communities both new and existing. How might we, as our vast geographical network of churches, live symbiotically, nurturing one another for the health of the whole.   Can we be more active and involved in the health of one another’s communities in our common mission of joining God in his work of revealing the Good News wherever we live, work, play and pray?  Think about it.  (Paul writes about it in 2Cor 8)

There are new communities right now that you can nurture and encourage by your connections with them.  Contact me at syouell@cbwc.ca for how you can join the web of life that connects all of us to God’s creation and to God’s mission in and to this amazingly interconnected and interdependent world he created.    

Engaging Mission with Coaching and Cohort Opportunities

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Wow! Fall is looming up before us already and most of us are making plans for how we can be salt and light, the Church, in our neighbourhoods in this next season, whatever it may hold for us in the ongoing changing landscape of life disrupted by a pandemic and other world events!

It also means deadlines for engaging in some of the amazing opportunities and pathways available to you and which you can read more details about HERE including the contacts for registration.

This past year (September through March) two of our CBWC churches participated in the Year One Course From the Centre for Leadership Development – “Forming and Reforming Communities of Christ in a Secular Age. One of those churches was where I attend. Five of our leadership team took part in reimagining engaging in mission right in our own area. This has benefited us greatly in understanding together how we can move deeper in shared practices within our church community and engage more relevantly and meaningfully by discovering where God is already at work bringing his presence, his shalom, into our neighbourhoods. The good work we did in that course and the consultation with Tim for our whole Leadership Team (board, elders, staff) is now being fleshed out with a larger group of our folk as we endeavor to discern together how God is forming and reshaping us to engage in his mission. Registration is open now for a mid-September start!

More than a decade ago when I was an Associate Pastor at another church, I brought some our leaders to an event brought to Victoria from The Forge Missional Network and facilitated by our own Cam Roxburgh (who I did not know back then). This opportunity was sponsored by our City-Wide Ministerial, and leaders from a wide range of churches and denominations in Victoria attended this workshop/course Friday and Saturday. It changed and began to reshape my understanding of evangelism, discipleship and mission, and gave words to what had been a growing passion in myself and the leaders who attended with me. Fast forward to today and we have The Discovery Project pathway to begin the conversation with your church and leaders. “Many leaders have gone through some missional training and are asking how they might help their people to “discover” some of the exciting opportunities presented to us as followers of Jesus in these difficult days.  The Discovery Project is one response to this question.”  Registration for this pathway is flexible as is church specific but don’t delay as space fills up!

For our churches who are already exploring what it means to be the Church in our day as missional engaged people, The Neighbourhood Project is here to help! This pathway brings together cohorts of groups to explore, equip and implement what the Spirit is leading them to. This pathway is filling up so fast, its now added a second and likely a third cohort and there is still some room so don’t delay!

Again, you can access more information and contacts for registration HERE

Don’t miss out on these great opportunities as we all desire to participate in the advancing of God’s kingdom here on earth!

Connection Embodies Content

By: Shannon Youell

Full disclosure:  I love content and information.  I thrive on it.  I’m a good researcher/writer and will spend inordinate amounts of time on a subject or concept looking at it from every angle available.  I say that just so you recognize, with me, that I can get lost in that.  As a person at the tail end of the baby boomers, I was taught in a system where content was king – it led to knowledge and I like to ‘know’ and be current and ‘informed’.  Memorize enough content and you can do anything!  Know enough ‘stuff’ and you will be successful at whatever you do in life.  You’ll be considered widely-read, knowledgeable, and everyone will want you for a Trivial Pursuit partner.   

Nothing wrong with that in principle.  I’m naturally a teacher and teachers teach, well, content.  Don’t they?  But I also chafe when the content has no application.  No ‘legs’ as I often phrase it.  Content without legs remains just content, information, storage.  Content without legs fills us with good (or bad) knowledge but not necessarily wisdom or even the tools we need to embody that knowledge. 

Jesus spent a lot of his time teaching his disciples how to embody that which they already knew about God and God’s mission in the world.  He doesn’t seem to ever lead a bible study to increase the amount of content people can retain, notwithstanding that he was mostly speaking to people who had been raised in the Jewish faith and had some understanding of the content.  For these he usually corrected how they embodied (or not) that content. 

What he did do frequently was help his disciples put legs to the content – to understand what it looks like to be salt and light in a harsh and resistant world, and to recognize the ways in which the knowledge of the content of the scriptures hindered people from entering God’s kingdom action in the world to redeem, reconcile and restore all creatures to God’s good creation as he created it.  And they lived it out as a community of people – most often as a community of 12.   

A strong sense of community is what draws people to the content.  Community is the ‘legs’ of it. This type of community comes by connection and relationships that are personal and transparent.

“CONTENT ALONE WON’T CUT IT. COMMUNITY AND CONNECTION WILL.” Carey Nieuwhof

One of the things many churches are learning in this season of online church is that regardless of how good our offerings are via the internet, most people are yearning not for more content but for more connection.  Our caution is to realize that this will not be entirely resolved when we can meet in person again – this isn’t a result of Covid-19 – however the circumstances have exposed what was already there in our churches and in our communities.  

 Jesus embodied the Good News of God’s kingdom – he put ‘legs’ to the scripture content in ways that transformed lives and communities.  In the dislocation that Covid has caused, the Spirit is reminding us of this with renewed yearnings for connection and relational discipleship – where followers not only know the story (content) but embody it in ways that draw people to experience God-With-Us in back yards, work places, parks and maybe even church buildings. 

God is Always at His Work

By: Shannon Youell, Director of Church Planting 

Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.”

No one has been unaffected by the events of the past eleven months.  No one.  Individuals, families, businesses, governments, weddings, funerals and places of worship.  All have experienced the effects that a pandemic can have in our world.  

Our churches have shifted and responded from no gathered meetings, to partial gathered meetings and back to no gathered meetings.  Through all of this we have been prayerfully asking God to reveal himself at work around us so we are encouraged to continue being missionally and faithfully present in our neighbourhoods and in encouraging and discipling our churches. 

 We are all hearing stories of churches both adapting to the challenges and struggling with the challenges and changes.  And some of those stories are surprises – we can’t always assume which churches will be struggling and which will find new ways to thrive and flourish.  Some of those stories are within our current new churches/plants.  Here are some of their stories. 

Greenhills Christian Fellowship-Winnipeg-East 

GCFWE is our newest plant launched from GCFW.  This faithful and passionate group of Filipino church planters began training and discipling their core group in 2019.  When Covid hit they were just ready to officially launch and had begun to gain some traction in their target area.   

If you have the pleasure of hanging out with Filipino people, you will know how they evangelize – they eat together, have parties, bbq’s in the park and with the Code Red restrictions in Winnipeg it became very challenging to build neighbourhood relationships and do evangelism.  

Yet, this past summer they celebrated baptism of new believers and as Pastor Arnold Mercado notes, in terms of people studying the Bible and learning the deeper truths of God, they’ve had more opportunities and people are growing in their faith.  He reports that the best way to describe their planting community right now is in how God is building them, noting that ten months ago they hardly knew one another and now are growing together deeper in their relationships with Christ and with one another.  They feel better prepared to saturate their neighbourhood with the Gospel once restrictions are eased. 

This past fall they had their official launch from their sending church.  Where God is at work and his people join him, even a pandemic cannot stop the work of the Spirit among the people! 

Hope Church of Calgary 

Pastor Mouner and this community of Arabic speaking believers are finding the challenges of Covid, well, challenging.  Like all of us, they are deeply missing the opportunities to gather and be together.  One thing I’ve learned about people from the Middle East countries is how excellent they are in hospitality.  We may consider ourselves a nation of warm friendlies, but compared to our Middle Eastern friends we are really not that great in the area of hospitality!   

Everything they do is around food and tea and visiting.  Take those out of the equation and our brothers and sisters at Hope are discouraged and not adapting well to the online meeting applications.  But even in the midst of these challenges, God is still at work.   

Pastor Mouner faithfully delivers to each congregant’s home the elements of bread and cup for shared online Communion.   An important element of Communion for them is the actual shared loaf of bread.  It gives him an opportunity to have a safe-distance, non-virtual conversation with his congregants.  

A new preacher among the congregation is being raised up.  A blessing for the Pastor and congregation.  Mouner has also begun an online connection with other Syrian ministers around the world and the testimonies from other places are exciting and encouraging.  There are many testimonies of an amazing revival among Iranians and Kurdish peoples.   

Even in the challenges and struggles, Mouner and Hope Church see God at work amid the chaos of Covid. 

Makarios Evangelical Church  

Pastor Jessica of MEC is an innovator.  Like the rest of us, she has had to pivot and adapt multiple times in the past eleven months.  This new plant, launched in 2018 has been very intentional in both the spiritual formation of the community of believers who gather at MEC and in their mission field of international students who are housed and schooled right across the street from their church building location.   

Using social media, apps, zoom and other creative vehicles they are staying connected on a daily basis with one another and the students.  This is vital for the students, already isolated from home, culture and family and now isolated from activities and relationships they were beginning to build in this foreign land.  Meeting with the students via online can be challenging as they are already ‘online’ for all their classes, yet Makarios has found places that resonate with the students.  One of the practices the church has been doing all along is to cook dinner together with the students and then eat, fellowship and talk about life, school, family and faith.  Most of these students would be eating alone and this has been a very popular event for them. 

Now restricted to their dorms, they eat alone, so the church is now ‘eating’ with them via zoom.  Now that’s looking at your context, at the needs of your neighbourhood and finding a way to engage in spite of Covid! 

Emmanuel Iranian Church 

With Pastor Arash and Pastor Ali leading this growing, thriving community of Iranian people, discipleship is a key focus.  A large percentage of the congregation are new converts to Christ and with hundreds of baptisms since they launched in 2018, there is a LOT of discipleship happening every day (and night!). 

We’ve been celebrating the stories of new believers and baptisms since then.  One might wonder how this can continue during a time of gathering restrictions, yet Pastor Ali reports that lives are being transformed on a weekly basis.   

Many of us are experiencing congregants weary of zoom meetings (if they liked them at all) and disengaging with an online version of community.  Certainly, EIC has struggled with that as well, yet Pastor Arash said that lately more people are getting used to this new way of meeting and it’s now become ‘real’ to people.  In a recent evening prayer time, people reported, for the first time, experiencing the presence of the Spirit virtually connecting the participants spiritually and emotionally together!  There are even people coming to Christ on their zoom meetings, so new people are engaging with the community, sense the presence of the one true God and raise their hands to commit to Christ.   

EIC is currently praying and discerning another plant in the Surrey area of the lower mainland.  Many new immigrants settle there and their desire is to serve in that community in a multi-cultural context with both Farsi and English speaking services to serve and train 2nd and 3rd generation young people.   

Pray for and Celebrate Together  

These are incredible testimonies and a reminder that God is certainly at work amongst his churches despite any restrictions placed upon public gatherings.   We can choose to riff on all the barriers to ministry we are trying to navigate through, or we can allow our thinking and creativity to forge us into finding new rhythms and ways of being the people of God, called to be both salt to one another and light to those struggling in dark places.  Yes there are challenges and some of us are really struggling to find our way.  Let our stories of God-at-work among us shed some light into our own darkness and grant us encouragement to persevere through our trials. 

Pray for each other.  Pray for these new churches and for the churches in your area.  Pray for light to breakthrough in the least expected of places.  God has promised to never leave us nor forsake us and though it may seem like it some days, he has not done either but rather is stirring us up to join him in his work of bringing his kingdom come here on earth as it is (already) in heaven.    

Expressions: Blended Ecology

By Shannon Youell

“In a smaller church we sometimes look at our barriers rather than our assets.” Jill Beck, Co-Pastor, Wildwood United Methodist Church

During our Assembly workshop “Staying is the new going,”we began our conversation around the question, “What barriers do we have that hinder us from participating in local mission right where we are?”

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Jill and Michael Beck remind us that only looking at and identifying our barriers, and in particular, the barriers of being small churches or of an aging declining congregation, can negate looking at what assets we already have to overcome those barriers.

Blended Ecology is the path this congregation took that both takes care of the saints who have long and faithfully laboured and invested into the church and also sends them out right where their own lives take them.

Pastor Michael says it this way, “Our church is no longer defined by just the ‘root stock’ or just the ‘tree’ but now people in our community experience us in all these different ways – their church in the tattoo parlour, the park, the walking club.”

One of their parishioners who has gone into the neighbourhood observes “Our church is growing and a lot of the growth is coming from people accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior.”

Praise God! So many new expressions are attractional to already believers and the big disappointments for many mega church plants is when they realize that though they appear successful in all the usual ways, their growth is between 96 and 98 percent transfer growth – already believers!.

Here we have a small, aging, declining community being intentional about continuing the work that God put on them in the early days and stepping outside their known understandings of traditional church and their comfort zones to engage in the community in a way that is bringing growth and flourishing to all.

Pastor Jeff concludes that in all aspects there is a bountiful and fruitful exchange that’s life giving and he credits it to “an inherited mixed economy (when) you release the mission force that’s sitting in your pews every Sunday.”

Some of our CBWC churches are leaning into blended ecology mission. Northmount Baptist Church realized their barriers and their assets and determined that to continue the legacy of the faithful who had invested themselves faithfully in the work of the church, they needed to become reacquainted with the neighbourhood in which they found themselves. You can read more of their story here.

At Wildwood, the folk of the church looked at where their own passions were, where they spent time in pursuing those passions and then began to build community in those places. You can read all about them here.

New life brings excitement and rebirth and an ecology shaped around resilience, mission and faithful presence. What might God be saying to you and your congregation? Ask the questions, be quick to listen and slow to disregard or discard out of the box ideas…you could be the next tattoo parlor ministry!

Expressions of Gathered Communities of Disciples on Mission Together

By Shannon Youell

A friend of mine, who would be considered a successful church planter, was lamenting recently on their success as new churches. He expressed that though they have great services with most age groups present, missional community  groups, a vibrant youth and children’s ministry, and quite a few baptisms, the congregations are composed of all  people who were already or previously churched. He concluded that most people who are not yet followers of Jesus don’t wake up on a Sunday morning and say to themselves, “I think I’ll go to church today.”  Rarely happens.

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From our “churched” perspective, these people under this pastor’s leadership are doing a great job of gathering believers together and have been intentionally discipling and training those who would engage that way. But the result is that the heart of their mission–to reach people in their neighbourhoods and communities to communicate the Good News of God with and for humanity–has been ineffective.

It is noteworthy that this pastor’s lament is from within the context of thriving churches.  What about the growing number of churches that are struggling to continue keeping their doors open at all? Do communities of believers in a neighbourhood need to reimagine church? Reimagine how they may move and thrive as local missionaries to the cultural context of those they are to engage?

What things do we need to rethink and reframe to move into our particular local mission fields to be able to share the life giving way of Jesus and God’s kingdom Shalom?

What kinds of gatherings would an unchurched person perhaps venture to engage with?  There is no one correct way to engage as local missionaries. And, though the Sunday gathering will always be a deep and meaningful rhythm of people of faith, how about gatherings where we can engage those who are not just showing up at our church facilities?

This next month or so, we want to explore some different expressions of gathered community, who, on mission together, are experimenting and exploring unique ways to connect with people who see no need to step inside a church building and if they do venture in, find no connection to that community’s practices.

Perhaps something will spark with you as you read these. Perhaps you already are practicing out-of-the-norm-church gatherings (can you share your stories with us please!).  These are but four examples of groups who are making an impact by living and sharing the Good News of God-With-Us and for us where they are.

Over the next five weeks we will be sharing stories and videos from four churches that dared to reimagine church.  These are not “models” to copy, but rather explorations of how joining God who dwells (faithful presence) in neighbourhoods by also being neighbourhood dwellers who live with and among the people of our neighbourhood and discern how to engage, connect and build relationships with them in their ways.

Re-Engaging a Community: Northmount

By Shannon Youell

A few weeks ago on this blog, I told a story of a pastor stunned to discover that people in the neighbourhood, for which their very large and active church lived, did not know what the building was or what went on there, even though scores of people came and went every week. 

Many of our own good and faithful pastors and congregrants recognize the disconnection between what they engage in as community inside their building and the neighbourhood around them. Recognizing and acknowledging this fact is the beginning of leaning in together to discuss, pray, listen and perhaps to lay down some things so that our church communities can re-imagine what it means to be relationally engaged with those around us.

Northmount Baptist Church in Calgary engaged in this conversation a few years ago. They came to realize that God was calling them to rediscover their own neighbours and how they can join them where they are at, while also joining God in what He is already doing.

So they took the risk, assessed their own strengths, weaknesses, limitations and barriers, and plunged in faith into hiring an Outreach Pastor with the mandate to engage with the surrounding neighbourhood.

“At Northmount we are looking for new ways that we can come alongside the community.”

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Stampede Breakfast

Pastor Gabriel Alalade was hired and he started by first getting to know and understand the people in their neighbourhood. What are their passions?  Their dreams? Their hopes for their immediate community and the people who live in it? He connected with new immigrant families, youth and young adults, families with young children and began to engage relationally with them. He began intentionally discipling the youth and young adults towards what it means to live as missional disciples in everyday life.

He and some of the young people from Northmount began hosting a coffeehouse once a week where people of all ages, both within and beyond the church came to be wonderfully served by the team. Northmount has also planned and executed neighbourhood BBQs and Stampede Week Pancake Breakfasts that literally drew hundreds. Pastor Greg Butt said it was kind of like the loaves and fishes story….somehow the food kept feeding the crowds that came! Those have been great opportunities for the people in the neighbourhood to meet the people who gather in the church and rediscover what the building is and the warmth and hearts of those from within it. 

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Young adults Gabriel is discipling.

A key focus has been on discipleship–the intentionally relationally engaged, living all of life as Christ’s missional disciples, kind of discipleship.

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Gabriel (far left), Greg (second from right) and volunteers.

“We long to make disciples and leaders that multiply into the world. Everything we do and everything we say reflects this vision that God has placed on our hearts.

Gabriel reports that “Things have been moving steadily in terms of some of the discipling initiatives.”  He is seeing growth with those engaging in Bible studies, social engagements and prayer. 

Among other things, Northmount is currently working on a vlog and blog series shaped as a roundtable discussion for Christians, seekers and agnostics and making better use of a community Facebook page they began to connect neighbours to neighbours.  

Re-engaging our neighbourhoods means re-examining each of those areas where we live, where we work, where we play and where we pray, as places where God desires Shalom to exist for the benefit of the dwellers.  It is never a short engagement, but a long, committed, love-inspired relationship. 

Communities like Northmount need our collective support to continue forging, in faith, into this reconnecting and re-engaging with their neighbourhoods. The investment is long but the return is eternal, as we learn from one another as churches and as followers, missional disciples, of Jesus, our Lord and our Savior, fresh ways to engage our own communities.

Community Engagement

I love stories! I love to tell them (and I always seem to have one, much to the eye-rolling of some who graciously wait for the point of a discussion while I tell it); but I equally love to hear them. I love to hear the ways God is working through people and communities and neighbourhoods all through the CBWC. Stories inspire me, bring me to raucous laughter and tears of compassion, empathy and delight. I remember stories because I’ve connected with them. This month we are featuring some of the stories we’ve been hearing that have inspired us and others. Hopefully they will inspire you as well and cause you to celebrate along with us how God uses ordinary people in ordinary places in extraordinary ways as we join Him on His mission.

Our first story comes from Victoria, BC, and we highlight it as it demonstrates what can happen when we take the time to invest in what is important to those who live, work and play in the communities beyond our church spaces and join them. Our modernist approach has mainly concentrated on inviting people to come see what is important to us, yet—as the story shows—when we engage in what is important to others, relational trust is established and doors are opened for engaging together. ~ Shannon Youell

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David Dawson & fire Chaplain Ken Gill

Community Engagement
by Pastor David Dawson, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Victoria BC

Often, church members do not live in the immediate neighbourhood of their church building. At Emmanuel Baptist in Victoria, people travel from many locations to attend church services and events. Yet when a church is grounded to a particular location through a building, it is important for the church to be connected to the more immediate community. This responsibility often falls upon church staff and the volunteers.

At Emmanuel we have a long history of reaching out to students because we are located near the University of Victoria. More recently, we have been making more of an effort to connect with our neighbourhood and municipality. In the last few years a couple of doors opened for us through the use of our building.

In connection with the Oak Bay fire chaplain ,who attends the Peninsula Mission Church, we have been able to host a couple of appreciation dinners for local police and fire personnel. We have used our building and hospitality skills to bless our emergency personnel with a first-class banquet. This has also allowed us to connect with our mayor and council, who attend these banquets as well.

Another door was opened for us as local neighbourhood groups have asked to host events at our church building. These town hall meetings on such things as urban development and emergency planning have been ways in which I, as lead pastor, have been able to meet people in our community.

On one such occasion, we were planning to host an event which had to be cancelled on short notice because of a power outage. A few people from the immediate neighbourhood still came out to the event and hung around for conversation. Out of this conversation, a local neighbourhood association was born and Emmanuel was able to support this group through printing their newsletter and offering free space to hold meetings and luncheons. Through these connections some of our neighbours have even begun to volunteer time gardening and helping with our student dinners.

It is been a pleasure to build relationships with those in the church’s immediate neighbourhood. We have been able to create positive connections through providing rooms, a few pots of soup and the use of our photocopier.

In an age where community members are not making it a strong priority to attend church, we have found a way to make connections through simple involvement in community activities. We hope that God will use our physical assets to build friendships and help us to create a good reputation in our community.

Organic Structure

by Cailey Morgan

God is amazing. He’s so creative. I don’t know why I haven’t introduced more people to Him—I’m pretty sure they’d think He was epic if they got to know Him.

Miracle Beans

I planted some green bush beans in a pot on my front deck a couple weeks ago. It began rather anticlimactically: I took dried up little beans out of a paper bag, I put them into some dirt, and I walked away. But in a matter of days, tiny, beautiful, broad-leafed plants began popping up all over! Now when I go out to my deck for my morning coffee, I get so distracted by this miracle, this sustaining power of God being shown right in front of me. Incredible.

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My beans.

This morning as I was watching my beans mysteriously soak up water from their soil, I got to thinking about a quote from a Mandy Smith article I read awhile back on the molecular or yeast-like nature of God’s Kingdom:

“Organic” has become a catchword in recent years, to describe new (old?) ways of doing church. In some settings it’s code for “unprofessional” or “disorganized.” But organic things certainly have structure and bear fruit—it just seems mysterious to us because we can’t always predict or control it.i

I’d have to agree with Mandy that the level of structure in our churches is an important point of discussion. We need to always be examining our traditions to ensure that they are producing—not hindering—spiritual growth, and constantly exploring a broad range of ways to be the Church for the sake of reaching every subset of our diverse neighbourhoods. But I’m concerned that sometimes we’ve gone too far and brushed aside structure, misunderstanding the very definition of “organic” and cutting off the Body of Christ at the knees.

I can’t make my beans grow, or predict which ones will pop up at which time. But what I can do is create the best possible environment for them to flourish as God intended. He’s the one sustaining them by constantly holding this universe together in the structure He knows will work best: keeping the earth on its axis and its rotation around the sun, allowing water and nutrients and amazing biological processes to all mix together and somehow produce delicious veggies for me to stir-fry. And the way I contribute to that environment is through structure: planting the seeds at the correct time of year in a firm pot that contains a specific amount of the right soil at the proper density and following up with regular, scheduled times of watering and care. In that context of macro and micro structures, these little organic shoots can flourish.

Suffocation and Skeletons

I’ve been guilty of commiserating with my millennial compatriots about the seemingly hyper-structured nature of the Western Church:

“Why all the denominational rigamarole? I can’t stand this bureaucracy!”

“It feels so constricting when I’m expected to be at the same place at the same time every Sunday morning, or am told what to study or given guidelines for shared prayer.”

“Can’t the powers-that-be stop suffocating me and just trust me to be mature enough to sort out my Christian growth on my own?”

Well, no. Because that actually is impossible.

Christian growth is growth together (cf. Acts 2. In fact, cf. the whole Bible. You won’t find anything in there about “letting Jesus into your heart” or “a personal walk with the Lord”). Christian maturity means things like love, selflessness, encouragement, patience, kindness, leadership, forgiveness, hospitality, speaking the truth—none of which I can practice on my own. I do talk to myself about how awesome I am sometimes, but there’s nothing spiritually mature about that!

Fact is, as we grow into Christ’s Body—together—we need Him as the Head to guide us, but we also need a skeleton to keep us strong, give us the ability to move as one, and actually exist as something more than a soggy pile of organs and muscles on the floor.

The Body is not in existence for the sake of the skeleton, but the skeleton is an integral tool for the Body’s existence and thriving. God designed it that way, in the same way that He designed my beans with the structure to be able to get water to all their extremities through capillary action. Health requires structure.

Take for example our Canada Day BBQ last Saturday. I anticipated it to be a time of organic relationship-building and fun. But what if my friends and neighbours had responded to my invitation with, “Dude, don’t force me to come on Saturday. You’re cramping my organic style. I’d rather show up when I feel like it.” Um. I guess you’re missing the party then?

Or what about the signs I put up to show people where the bathroom is and what to do with their dirty forks, or the sticky name tags I asked people to wear. The well-defined structure and preparation of the event is what allowed for new relationships to flourish organically, not to mention allow for me to not spend the whole day telling people how to get to the loo.

The way the day played out may not be everyone’s favourite—some people were more partial to a different flavour of chicken than what Kyson offered them on Saturday or think the trivia questions should have been more relevant to their subculture—but the point of the whole event was relationship, not personal taste, and I’m pretty sure all of our guests understood that intention.

We Need Us—Including You

The reality is that the structures that shape our shared life as God’s people won’t always feel comfortable. I get that and feel that and wrestle with that; I’m speaking to myself here as much as anyone. We all have different personalities, ways of learning, ideas of how to make mission more effective. But I’m begging us—especially the entrepreneurial, inspired young generation around me—to not give up on the community because it cramps our style.

Come to the table and bring your offering! I know sometimes existing leaders have a hard time making space for us, but they have wisdom and experience and a depth of relationship with God that we need to learn from, as well as roadblocks they need us to help eliminate. Choose to humbly engage and eventually you’ll be asked to pull up a chair. Learn, listen, and the time will come to lead.

Please, please see the inefficiencies and deficiencies in the structure of your church not as reasons to leave or start your own thing, but as opportunities to grow in maturity and Christlikeness. Embrace the frustration and roll-your-eyes moments that come with being a family, and offer your needed input in the midst of love and participation.

The Christian movement has survived because of where it exists—in human hearts—in the relationship between God and human, between one human and another…You are one small piece of something beautiful and active and powerful.ii

—–

i. Mandy Smith, “The Church’s Transformative Power is Molecular” (March 8, 2017): http://www.missioalliance.org/churchs-transformative-power-molecular/

ii. Ibid.

Listening to your Community as Social Agency

By Scott Hagley

listening-is-missional-300x300.gifLast fall the Pittsburgh “Latte Art Throwdown” was held in my neighborhood. Baristas from coffee shops all around the city gathered to compete with one another in creating elaborate latte designs on demand. The organizer called baristas forward, rolled a die with different latte-art designs, and then invited the barista to make the design with a single shot of espresso and steamed milk. I’ll admit I went because the sign said “free lattes,” but I stayed because the social scientist in me wouldn’t let me go. An entire city sub-culture emerged within this small, crowded coffee shop.

It wasn’t just the disproportionate number of mustaches and beards, tattoos, piercings, and skinny jeans; it was the fact that so many in the room seemed to know one another. It was like I had stumbled into a chapter of the Pittsburgh Barista Association and then given a free latte and dessert.

I watched and listened to the conversation around me buzzing with hopes and dreams. I began asking questions. I learned that the man on the sidewalk selling tacos under a tent recently moved from another city and hopes to build a client base and open a restaurant. His vision is sustained by a secret family recipe and a carefully-plotted strategy. Later on, I listened to the owner of the coffee shop counsel a young entrepreneur who plans to open a café in the next couple months. She offered not only advice, but resources like plates and cups to aid with the start up. At one point in the evening, I asked someone about the origins of the “throwdown,” and I received an impassioned plea for community and the important role that the neighborhood coffee shop plays in building such community. It was an education. And great fun.

It was only after I got home, however, that I realized how little I talked throughout the evening. I was, of course, a stranger at the margins of the gathering. However, I found many people more than willing to tell me about themselves, about their event, about their entrepreneurial plans. As I listened, I not only learned a lot about one part of my community, I also discovered a place at an event where I clearly did not belong (insert obligatory Sesame Street song here). Listening, especially when we are operating at the margins, provides a place or a standpoint within a community. Listening connects us.

We often don’t think of listening as a form of social action or agency. It is not a medium for us to offer our ideas or to change people’s minds. It is not a way for us to be memorable or to change our world. But changing people’s minds and shaping our world might not be the immediate thing God has for us. Perhaps it is to learn to listen.

Several years ago, Nancy Ammerman wrote a book called Congregation & Community, where she studies congregations in changing neighborhoods. After studying more than 20 congregations, she concludes that congregational health is linked to its ability to connect with the spiritual energies of a neighborhood. Ammerman’s book was published as the “missional church” literature began to take off, and seems to agree with the many models available to help churches become ‘outwardly focused’ and activistic regarding justice or evangelism. Most of the time, we equate ‘missional’ with studying a neighborhood so we know how to engage it. However, I wonder if much of our missional activism misunderstands the basic requirement of cultivating relationships, of what James Davison Hunter calls “faithful presence.”

I would amend Ammerman’s argument to say that congregations need to learn how to join their neighborhood as a people of shalom. This is true especially if our neighborhood starts to look and feel different from what it used to be, and we feel like we are at the margins of someone else’s party. The first thing we need to do is find the free lattes and turn up our hearing aid. Learning to listen is a profoundly missional activity. Ask questions, and listen . . . we just might get in on the party.

Dr. Scott Hagley is assistant professor of missiology and also works with the Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative and teaches in the MDiv Church Planting Emphasis program as well as the new Church Planting and Revitalization certificate program. He previously served as director of education at Forge Canada in Surrey, British Columbia, where he worked to develop curriculum for the formation of missional leaders in hubs across Canada.

“Listening to your Community as Social Agency” first appeared on the Seminary’s blog March 16, 2017. The Seminary offers multiple programs for those interesting in church planting including the Graduate Certificate in Church Planting and Revitalization, Master of Divinity with Church Planting Emphasis, and the Church Planting Initiative. Learn more about these programs online.