‘God is up to things’

Presbyterian Global Fellowship meeting focuses on moving into neighborhoods

August 31, 2009

SOLANA BEACH, Calif.

Attendees who made it to the pre-conference workshop of the Presbyterian Global Fellowship gathering here Aug. 21-22 got a taste of what was to come the rest of the weekend.

But instead of listening to an outline of what speakers the Rev. Alan Roxburgh and the Rev. Mark Lau Branson were planning to say, the audience experienced a role reversal.

Roxburgh and Branson asked attendees what they’d like to talk about during the conference, held at Solana Beach Presbyterian Church as one of PGF’s regional gatherings. The theme of the gathering, hosted by the Presbytery of San Diego, was “Moving Back into the Neighborhood.” The goal was to identify practical ways for congregations to make gospel connections with their communities.

Among the responses voiced from the crowd:

  • Once we move out into the community, then what?
  • What are some suggestions for working with a community that’s hostile to the church?
  • What are some examples of successful mission activities in communities?
  • How can we create change without screwing it up?
  • How can you tell the difference between patience and inaction?
  • What is the definition of mission?

PGF seeks to reclaim the missional purpose of the church and works to transform mainline congregations into missional communities following Jesus Christ.

One of the problems often seen in church programming is a reliance on set definitions, said Roxburgh, vice president for Allelon Canada, a movement of missional leaders. We have been acculturated to believe that once something is defined, we have control of it and can then manipulate it to get the desired effects.

“Definitions are not what you get when you go into the Scripture,” he said.

Drawing on a statement made by Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, Roxburgh said that the Bible doesn’t define — it suggests.

“You are being invited into something that is going to mess with your imagination,” he said. “That creates a kind of anxiety.”

Roxburgh did offer a history behind the word “missional,” dating it back to about 10 years ago. He was working on a book with a group who saw that God has a mission, which is seen as something that is done over time with other people. The church is for mission, so missional seemed like a good description.

“One of the reasons we made this up is because it’s ambiguous,” he said.

Branson, a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, spoke about rhythm of “call and send.” Mission isn’t a matter of strategy, but a matter of what story we live into. He compared this idea to the concept of vocation — in the New Testament, vocation is used as a calling for the church, not just for individual pastors.

Jesus shows that our understanding requires action, not just concepts and definitions.

“If that’s the limit of our participation, we really don’t know him,” Branson said.

Branson and Roxburgh then asked the audience to share what they see as factors of disconnect between churches and communities.

Among the responses:

  • Cultural and language barriers
  • Mutual fear
  • Fragmenting of social networks
  • How the church is culpable in wounding
  • The value placed on individualism
  • The lack of necessity of needing one’s neighbors to survive
  • Being solely goal-oriented

When working to be missional, churches must ask themselves their reasons for doing so, Roxburgh said.

“The God of the Gospels is not primarily interested in getting people to come to your church,” he said.

Most of the time, people want to be told more effective ways to make church work, but this might not be the best approach.

“It’s about discovering what God is up to in the neighborhoods, in the communities, where we live,” Roxburgh said.

Going into a situation with a strategic plan doesn’t allow this to happen, Branson said.

One audience member asked how not to let the structures of church get in the way, and Roxburgh answered that they don’t have to. We’ve been trained to think it’s all about structure, he said.

Branson then gave an example of mission working without structure. A woman at his church noticed that many people were homebound and in need of meals. His church is largely Japanese-American, but Meals on Wheels does not serve Japanese food. The woman got a group together to deliver sushi, not only providing cultural food but time for conversation. The church has no budget for this, but the women didn’t let that stop them — they just did it.

“As people start caring and loving neighbors and friends, the structures can be malleable for whatever God’s up to,” Branson said.

Roxburgh added to this: Don’t start at the level of structures — start with experiments, he said.

“Most folks in our church really want to do this stuff, but they find themselves caught in their imagination,” he said.

People have a hunger for God, no matter how long they’ve been involved with church. Maybe they don’t know how to vocalize that hunger, but everyone has stories. We’ve been socialized to think that our stories don’t have anything to do with reaching God, Roxburgh said.

“Missional isn’t about turning from inward to outward,” he said, adding that being missional is about seeing that God is at work in the world, not just “over there,” but right in our own communities.

“God is up to things in the ordinary churches and the ordinary everyday places where you and I live,” he said.

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