Reflection: Beyond the Walls

August 11, 2019

Mark 2: 13-17; Mark 6:6b-13

Imagine it’s a Sunday afternoon, and you are standing about halfway up a sage-covered hillside, in a little clearing, waiting for others to arrive for an hour or so together. As you wait, you chat with your leader: a tall, athletic woman with short hair, glasses, and a down-to-earth manner. When all have gathered, she reads you a short passage from a spiritual teacher. Then she sends you out to wander the bluff in silence for about half an hour, with those words sounding in your head and your heart, and your eyes and ears and all your sense open to the world around you. You are invited to pay close attention to everything that happens around you, and to any spiritual wisdom that may arise, or any emotional stirrings that may come. At the end of the time, you all meet up together, gather in a circle, and you’re invited to share a few words about your experience if you wish to do so. The leader gathers up those experiences and offers a prayer, then a blessing. And down the bluff you go. Church is over for the afternoon.

Yes, this is church: “Wild Church” as it’s called. It’s a new initiative from Rev. Leanne Blackert and St Paul’s United in Kamloops. It is part of a movement across North America and Europe sometimes called “Fresh Expressions” , that encourages us Christians to “do church” in different ways, outside of conventional church settings. If I were to attach a colour to it , I might choose a rainbow of lego blocks – because it takes as many different shapes as there are ideas and communities to try them out!

The one thing that most of these new projects have in common is that they are OUTSIDE of the church building. This is missional church – sending out Christ’s people to share his love and mercy with those who may never be a part of what we think of as a “normal” congregation. The conviction of those who share this vision is that the church exists primarily for the sake of others – and that what happens in the wider community is far more important than what happens between these walls. It is a marriage of the evangelical fervour of that first type of theology we talked about – that conviction of the saving love of Jesus – and the outward- looking focus of the early social Gospel movement.

When I came to Gordon United, you had a visioning document called “Ministry Beyond Our Walls” – a call to move the church into the community. Unfortunately, when it came to implementing it, there wasn’t a whole lot of capacity in the congregation to make the shift at that time. Over the years we have moved somewhat “beyond our walls”, by partnering with other churches and individuals to bring services to the community: the community dinner, Messy Church, Westshore Community Outreach. But we still do most of our mission within these walls – and that, missional church says, is a mistake. Church buildings are foreign territory to most of the people of Greater Victoria. To meet people in Christ’s name, we need to go out. The majority of Jesus’ ministry happened in other people’s homes, on hillsides and besides lakes, and in public spaces like the Temple in Jerusalem. He had no building to invite people into – no programs, no social events, no fundraisers. He took the Gospel to the wider world – that was his church. Missional church would say that is where we need to be as well.

Some Christian groups will run a café out of a store front – there was one in View Royal for awhile. Others will hold jam sessions at a local hall. Some have built community gardens. Some have done fascinating video projects, inviting their neighbours to tell their stories and then sharing those stories in a shared public space. Affordable housing can be missional church, when done with a mission focus. Online/virtual church and Christian blogs can also be missional. You may have heard of “Beer and Bible” discussion groups in pubs and restaurants. Visible attendance at community events such as Victoria Day celebrations or Pride or Remembrance Day or multicultural days – or maybe even a Show and Shine? – is also missional church – and those big events we see West Village Church holding for families across the street at Ruth King Elementary? That’s missional church too.

The more we invite un-churched people to join in on events outside the church building – such as Lunch Bunch – the more that becomes Missional Church too. Hiking groups, community kitchens, social enterprises like the beer and elixir-making projects of the Emmaus community in Fairfield or the bee-keeping, honey and beeswax -producing of a Presbyterian Church in the US. A social enterprise is where the “financial bottom line” is balanced by a commitment to the “environmental and social bottom line” – ie, profit is secondary to providing a benefit to the community. Churches will often provide space, seed funding or even run such a project themselves as a way to put “love of neighbour” into action. Fresh expressions of Christian living are being born all over.

In the United Kingdom, “fresh expressions of church” has become the leading growth edge of the mainline church over the past two decades. These fresh expression do not begin with “build it and they will come” mindset. Rather, they begin with listening and relationship building in the community. From there, they move to engagement and service (this is where social enterprise comes in), they intentionally seek ways to share the gospel and finally, build a potentially new form of faith community. (Rob Dalgleish, United Church staff for EDGE network, in “Around the Table” blog)

How are they Christian? How are they church? In the cases of the small non-profit or for-profit enterprises, they sometimes follow the ancient teaching that all labour should be dedicated to God, so that work is done mindfully and prayerfully. Proceeds go to supporting the spiritual community or to their in-community programs. They often model values like environmental sustainability and employment of marginalized peoples – that echo many Christian teachings. Some are explicitly Christian – like “Beer and the Bible” groups – and others are about “anonymous Christianity” – being the “hands and feet of Christ’ in the world, without overly publicizing why they are doing what they are doing.

However, even these “anonymous” folk are ready to share how their faith has brought them to that ministry when asked. They’ve got their “elevator speech” ready – their short, succinct explanation of who Jesus is and what Christianity is to them. They’ll also be ready to listen – to the curiosity, the hurt, the wonderings, the prejudices, that others carry about Christianity – listening without judgement or defensiveness.

When people criticized Jesus for hanging about with people that didn’t make him look good – prostitutes, tax collectors, drunkards, people labelled sinners by his society – he said, “you don’t call a doctor if you’re healthy. I’m like a doctor – I came for the people who need me, not the people who are perfectly OK”. (I might add, “THINK they are perfectly OK”, since how many of us really are?) Jesus went where the people were who needed him the most. That’s what missional church is all about.

The key difference from the understanding of Christianity we talked about last week is the direction of movement for the ministry. Instead of inviting people in, where words like “welcome, hospitality, inclusion, affirmation, acceptance, invitation” are key, the movement sends Christ’s people out, to meet other people, and words like “send, out, serve, discipleship, witness, work”, and of course, “mission” are hugely important.

One of the gifts of this model of church is that it is brilliantly adapted for this point in time – when the majority of the population will not be found in any place of worship at any point in the week, while at the same time there is a spiritual hunger, especially among our elders, as they face end-of-life issues, and among millennials, who are trying to figure out what life is all about Those folk may not be able to attend a regular church service, or may not ever imagine it as a place for someone like them to be. Meeting them outside the church is likely the only way to introduce them to Jesus and his Way at all! This is high-commitment, engaged, energetic ministry – something very appealing to younger Christians who want to be a force for good in the world.

It is also seen as a “third way” for those who have an evangelical theology but also a deep concern for the world around them. The Baptist, Pentecostal and Alliance churches among others have taught their children well in terms of how to share news about Jesus with others. Now those children have become adults, and they see that the world needs Jesus’ love as much as ever, but communicating that love will take more actions than words. Many of those adults absolutely place the cross of Christ at the centre of their faith – but don’t share some of their elders’ social conservatism and just want to get out there, and as they would say, “love on people” in the name of Christ!

A danger for the missional church, is losing its roots – becoming so involved in the project or the experience, whatever it is, that we forget that it is, truly, meant to be an expression of the church, the Body of Christ. I’ve seen this challenge in planning Messy Church – trying to find that balance between being so religious that no-one will come and being so little religious that there’s no distinction between us and a play group or arts and craft club. It’s extremely important, in this model of church, for the leadership and the participants to take time out to reconnect with Scripture, with prayer, with silence, with the music of the church, and with the churches or denominations with whom they are affiliated, to keep connected to the trunk of the tree whose roots go deep into the soil of historic Christian faith. Those offshoots need the strength and resilience of that tall tree to flourish. Staying connected with traditional church provides the missional church the support it needs.

I believe many Christian groups are afraid to go the missional route – in part because it’s so new to many of us! This model of church is really exciting for some, and really scary for others – perhaps it’s an extrovert-introvert thing. Yet think about those early disciples, being sent out – never alone, you’ll notice, always with another to support and share the load. Think of them going into communities to preach and even – amazingly! – to heal and cast out demons! Compared to that tall order, maybe this missional church thing isn’t that hard after all! After all, no-one is asking us to perform exorcisms or heal someone’s cancer by the laying on of hands (or at least, I don’t often get asked to do that!) On the other hand, we are being asked to speak and to live Christ’s love against a backdrop of religious extremism, growing bigotry and prejudice, and latent if not overt hostility to anything labelled “Christian”. To be church at all, and to be missional church in particular, takes immense trust in the One who sends us out – that Christ will not abandon us as we week to live in his Way.

When Jesus commissioned the disciples before his post-Resurrection time on earth was done, he said “Behold, I am with you always.” We really have to put our trust in that, and let it take away a spirit of timidity and replace it with courage to do what we might not otherwise ever venture.

Does this vision of church strike a chord with you? Then take heart, have courage, and know that there are others who share that vision – and as you seek to make that vision a reality, know that Jesus was there before you, and will be with you always. Amen.

If you’re interested in hearing what other churches are doing, you might want to check out the Edge network of the UCC and the Embracing the Spirit program (http://www.edge-ucc.ca/) – the United Church’s answer to the Missional Church movement.

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