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Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Church in the City

Retired pastor and writer Eugene H. Peterson reports that when he first went he was sent by the Presbyterian church to plant a congregation in Maryland outside of Baltimore he discovered nothing but corn fields. Those corn fields became houses and streets and stored and schools called suburbia. Inevitably some of the people who moved into those houses went looking for a church, and Peterson’s church grew and became a living faith community.

There is nothing particularly remarkable about this story with the exception of the event of suburbia itself. The post war era was a time of building: roads, cars, sewer systems, towns, utility wiring and pipes. The last half of the 20th century brought a taxpayer subsidized lifestyle revolution, requiring an unprecedented amount of wiring and piping and pavement per capita.

Churches adapted. New churches were planted for these new suburban communities, and others followed their parishioners out of established urban neighborhoods, abandoning old church buildings to newcomers. The suburban megachurch model was born as well.

For many years tropes like affluent suburbs and impoverished inner city had traction and contained some truth. The events in Ferguson, Missouri, this summer reveal that suburbs are quite a complex social reality in and of themselves. And some of the wealthiest, expensive and most sought after zip codes are in what we once would have called inner city.

The geography of our lives, and of the church, is changing. No longer can we look for the next corn field to be turned into a suburban town and plant a church there waiting for people to come. We can no longer afford the taxpayer subsidized infrastructure demanded by suburban development. And the people who might live in those houses can’t afford to heat, cool, and care for that much space. Furthermore, the generation coming into their own today, the 80 million strong millennials, prefers walking, biking and public transportation to cars, has fewer children, and would rather live in smaller housing units than sprawling suburban McMansions with big yards. In short, they prefer the city and the lifestyle of spending time, not at home, but in cafes, bars, restaurants, parks, theaters and concert venues. And perhaps churches.

Whether you find this development hopeful or not, it does have precedent in the church, even in the early church. Christianity was an urban movement in its earliest days. In the ancient cities of the Roman empire people lived in tight quarters, with the exception of the very few wealthy, and spent most of their time in the marketplace and other settings where they rubbed shoulders with other people. Public space was critical to the growth of the early church. This social activity, not the building of new subdivisions, was the infrastructure through which the Holy Spirit worked to grow the church.

Today the most exciting new church developments (which are more likely to be new campuses of existing churches) are in cities and are driven by urban social energy. Many such churches are adept at using social media and technology for bringing people together or telling their story but the energy is tied to an urban sense of place.
Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Congregations as the Center of Mission, Part 3

I began a five-year tenure working with short-term mission programs at Mennonite Board of Missions in 1994. At the time, MBM was in the middle of a project called Cana Venture, an effort to adapt to the shifting terrain of denominational missions. The behavior of church members was changing relative to their congregations and to church wide agencies.

After doing intensive research and study, MBM concluded that congregations and church members were no long interested in paying experts to do mission on their behalf. They wanted to be involved directly. MBM understood that its value was not in “doing” mission on behalf of the church, but linking congregations with other congregations doing mission around the world. Partnership became the operative word around the office. When the two largest Mennonite bodies merged in 2001, the new combined mission agency called itself Mennonite Mission Network, emphasizing this networking aspect of bringing people together to do mission rather than doing it on their behalf. Properly speaking then, Mennonite Mission Network is not the mission agency for Mennonite Church USA. Congregations are the agents for mission. Mission agency happens at the congregational level.

In 2006, Mennonite Church USA learned that it was over-structured for its size, with too much bureaucracy and an oversized budget. The phrase “congregations are the center for mission” comes from Mennonite Church USA itself. Churchwide leaders recognize that our future health and vitality will rely on congregations engaging directly in mission, rather than looking to conference and denominational institutions to provide the impetus. 

Marty Lehman internalized this value, moving from her position as Associate Executive Director for Churchwide Operations, to Administrative Pastor here at College Mennonite, taking a significant pay cut to do so. For Marty this was a move to the center, where the action and excitement is, and where she could have the biggest impact for the mission of Mennonite Church USA.

Mennonite Disaster Service has excelled in this work of linking congregations in mission. The work of several congregations here in the Goshen area building homes locally, in Minnesota and in New Orleans, partnering with local churches in each case is an exciting way to work, and puts the accent on relationships.

Increasingly, it is congregations that are planting churches or adding sites as they become multi-site congregations, and not conferences or churchwide agencies. In our interconnected world, congregations are using direct personal links to build relationships with others around the world, working together in mission.

College Mennonite Church is one of the largest and most resource rich congregations in Mennonite Church USA. We have both an exciting opportunity and an obligation to grow as a center for mission. If we don’t do it, who will? Here we are Lord, send us!
Thursday, July 10, 2014

The End of the Suburbs?

Well known pastor-author Eugene Peterson writes about starting a Presbyterian church in the midst of cornfields outside Baltimore. Eventually those cornfields became suburbia and the church grew to about 300 souls.

Twenty or so years ago a group of United Methodist Churches in Elkhart banded together, closing their doors in the city, to build a new church in the suburbs at County Road 17 and US Route 20. At the time a group of Mennonite churches in Elkhart reaffirmed their commitment to the city, and their resolve not to abandon it for the suburbs. I remember feeling proud to be a Mennonite at the time: we weren't going to leave the city for the dreary suburbs. In retrospect, I remember those days with a sense of shame.

Whatever we think about it, for more than half a century most Americans have lived in suburbia. It has been our missional context, and for whatever reason, with few exceptions, we have chosen not to be missionaries to our own country's dominant culture, even as we sent missionaries all over the world. Tragically, we Mennonites missed an opportunity for mission. We had something to offer suburban souls.

Leigh Gallagher observes in her recent book, The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving, signs that the age of suburbia is coming to an end. Most Americans still live in suburbs, but the cultural trends are moving the other direction. Here are some of Gallagher's observations. In 2011, for the first time in 100 years, urban population growth outpaced suburban growth. We can no longer afford low density suburbs, which require a disproportionate amount of government spending for infrastructure. We can no longer afford the time and energy of longer commutes. Members of the millenial generation hate the suburbs, and this group is bigger than the baby boom generation. Seventy-seven percent of them prefer to live in urban areas. The suburban lifestyle is automobile oriented (heavily subsidized by public funds for highways), milleniels prefer to walk. In 1980, 66 percent of 17 year-olds had a drivers license, twenty years later it was down 47 percent. Gallagher's introduction is worth the read if you can get a hold of a library copy.

The upshot is millenials want higher density walkable neighborhoods like downtown Goshen and nearby neighborhoods. They want smaller houses closer to shopping, coffee shops and restaurants. Communities like Goshen with our vibrant, revitalized downtown, are precisely the sorts of places studies show millenials like. When they move into their own homes en masse, housing arrangements locally and nationally are likely to change.

This strikes me as a call to mission for the church. Now that the end of the suburbs may be upon us, I'm excited about what comes next, and the opportunities it holds for the church.
Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Congregations as the Center of Mission, Part 2

David Brooks had this piece in the New York Times this morning, observing the significance of peer to peer economic transactions, such as Uber and Airbnb. Both these services rely on people connecting with each other with the minimal assistance of a broker, in these cases a simply smartphone application.

This is yet another instance of social and economic structures bypassing brokers. This phenomenon is increasingly the norm in the church world as well, including here at College Mennonite Church. We manage our own relationships with outside parties, whether it be for purposes of mission and outreach, or resourcing for ministry.

Examples include sister church relationships, connections with local ministries here in Goshen, Vacation Bible School, flood relief for Indonesia, large churches seeking resources together, and support for international mission where we have a personal link. Churches of all types are bypassing brokers like conferences (known in churchy lingo as middle judicatories), mission agencies, and denominational resourcing, when it makes sense to do so. It isn't that we don't like these brokers, or that they haven't done good work in the pasy, but why add another layer of communication and bureaucracy when you don't need to?

I am particularly interested in the implications this has for leadership in the church. For much of the twentieth century, Christians looked to churchwide structures for leadership in mission, ministry, and articulating vision. Now we are at a time when congregations are the leaders. If Mennonites are going to be effective in mission, outreach, ministry and articulating vision, the energy and vitality will have to come from congregations.

This makes sense for Mennonites, with a long history of congregational polity. This polity will look different in the coming decades than it has in the era of churchwide institution building. As a pastor, I am excited about what is going to happen in and through congregations in the years ahead.

Marriage Equality and Faith in the News

You may have heard the news last week that a federal judge declared Indiana's ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. Eventually a higher court issues a stay on the ruling until the decision could be appealed. I noticed two responses from clergy or groups of clergy in the media.

In one response a conservative Protestant mourned the decision, suggesting the purpose of the United States Constitution, and the judicial system meant to uphold, existed to defend Christian values. Because newspaper quotes can be misleading or inaccurate at times, I will leave the name and church of the pastor out of this post. Growing up in a secular part of the country I always managed to be shocked by this brand of God-and-country-ism. Don't they teach high school civics in Indiana? Furthermore, as a Mennonite pastor, the idea that the state should serve the bidding of a particular religion, or worse, tell churches how to practice their faith.

Another response came from the Catholic Bishops of  Indiana. The bishops are aware of the establishment clause in the U.S. Constitution, and, rather than assume the federal government existed to do its bidding, they appealed to the common good, arguing that it is good for society as a whole for marriage to be limited to one man and one woman for life. This, of course, raises the bar for the bishops, requiring them to make a case for just how such a limitation actually benefits society as a whole. That's leads to a worthwhile conversation, and one in which a Mennonite pastor might actually want to participate.

The other contrast between the bishops statement and the kinds of assertions made by Protestants of all stripes is that they make no appeal to scripture. They appeal to law and nature, expanding the conversation beyond those of Christian faith. But they also appeal to the authority of the church and to church teaching through the ages. This is not to say they do not value scripture, but that interpretation of scripture happens in and through an historic community which is authorized to discern its meaning.

Oddly, this latter position makes change both harder and easier. It's harder in that change is up against tradition, easier in the sense that the church has authority to change, and is not bound to do things the ways things have always been done. This model has strengths and weaknesses, but I find it helpful as I reflect on how we deal with controversial issues and the possibility of change as Mennonites.
Thursday, June 19, 2014

Congregations are the Center of Mission

In a television advertisement with variation iterations, a one-year old child trades stock and bonds electronically using an e-trade app on a computer or mobile device. E-trade not so subtlety pushes the idea that even a baby doesn't need a broker to invest on Wall Street. It's that easy!

Alas, we will always have brokers with us. But increasingly we are able to cut them out of our lives and build relationships directly with, say Wall Street, or whatever or whoever we want to connect. And so it is that the church too is racing into a future where brokers (churchwide agencies, conferences, denominational structures) will play a different role. In this new age, as Mennonite Church USA makes clear, congregations are the center of mission. Brokers do not do mission and ministry on behalf of congregations anymore, but must equip and empower congregations as expressions of the church's vocation. Brokers will no longer have networking as their primary raison d'etre unless they can add value to relationships.

I expect Clinton Frame Mennonite Church, rural Goshen, to announce their intent to leave Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference at our annual sessions beginning tomorrow. Rumors fly that others will join them. For many local Mennonites, emotions are running high. But as I reflect on this decision, it occurs to me that my personal relationship wtih Clinton Frame, and my local congregation's relationship with Clinton Frame will change little. In particular we will continue partnerships in mission with Clinton Frame around, BAR Retreat, Amigo Center, Bethany Schools, Goshen College, Michiana Mennonite Relief Sale, conversation about being a large Mennonite church, and other mission and ministry locally, and perhaps beyond. Indeed, we already partner with local Mennonite congregations that a not part of our conference. CFMC will become another one.

In many ways institutions are no longer necessary for networking. Clinton Frame is a local example. Technology enable us to expand that circle, making connections without brokers. It seems we really do believe congregations are the center of mission, at least we are behaving as as such. And this fact is going to reshape the church.
Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The End of the Age of Church Bureaucracy?

This post begins an occasional series of posts on the church as we move further into the 21st century.
A friend of mine recently provoked my thoughts suggesting that, when the history of the church in the 20th century is written, scholars will see that bureaucracy was the defining theme of the century. The energy and vitality of the church expressed itself in bureaucratic institutions, vehicles for achieving the mission of the church in an age of institution building in the broader culture.
For Mennonites, Albert Keim’s biography of church statesman Harold S. Bender describes this age as it emerged in the first half of the 20th century. John Sharp’s coming biography of Orie Miller book ends the age by telling the story of another of our great institution builders. The alphabet soup of Mennonite institutions filled many of us with a sense of identity and clarity about what it means to be a Mennonite.
Mennonite Central Committee and its bureaucracy changed my life, introduced me to my wife, and served as a door for me (and countless others) to the Mennonite church. I cannot repay this debt. These institutions shaped many of our lives and have touched millions with the love of Christ. These institutions enabled our gifts to flourish and bless the world. These institutions were necessary for the vitality of the church. Yet my friend suggests the age of institutional bureaucracy is history, belonging to the 20th century, as institutions leave the scene to make way for the vitality and mission of the church to express itself in new ways.
Another friend, a conference leader, told me about Marco Guete, Conference Minister in Southeast Conference, who deliberately downsized the conference as a matter of vision, recognizing the conference would not support conference bureaucracy beyond the need for work with pastoral transitions. Whether or not you agree with this vision, it represents the kind of decisions facing us in the years ahead. What is the purpose of conferences, denominations and accompanying agencies and institutions? For Mennonites, the movement of congregations and conferences in and out of Mennonite Church USA during the current crisis will likely crystalize and hasten these decisions.

These times challenge us, calling us to a willingness to let go of what may no longer be useful to the mission of God, and open ourselves to the new things God is doing and will do among us.