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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.