“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
The theme of the last synod assembly was, “Ambassadors for Christ: Knowing Our Congregational Neighborhoods to Do God’s Will.” This is the third in our three-part series of newsletter articles that continue the journey into our neighborhoods. The first article focused on the neighbor in the neighborhood-really getting to know the people God has placed around us. The second article suggested ways that our Christmas activities might lead us more deeply into relationship among the people and partner institutions around us. This final article will suggest four ways we might re-imagine our congregational vocations in our neighborhoods.
When I meet with congregations and ask about their community engagement, they often list the services they provide. This is important-but don’t stop there! Read on for four ways to re-imagine your congregation’s vocation in the community . . .
1. Service Provider
As just noted, congregations often provide important services in our neighborhoods-serving meals, building Habitat for Humanity homes, helping homeless neighbors by providing a safe place for them to sleep, etc. In fact, Lutherans have a particularly rich tradition of doing these sorts of things. Lutheran Services in America (LSA) comprises one of the largest health care and human services networks in the United States, supported by local congregations.
Take a moment and list the services your congregation provides in the community. Typically, we work very hard to deliver promised goods and services. Find a way to celebrate each one of these activities! Now challenge yourselves to move BEYOND providing that nutritious meal or delivering backpacks to the school. Our God of love focuses on people and relationships. Relationships can be built while goods and services are provided. Our congregational resources are stretched and, in many cases, dwindling. Perhaps it’s a good time to widen our vision to WHO as well as WHAT. What we can provide is important. But who we are together as givers and receivers of God’s grace and generosity is equally important.
Many congregations are living with uneasy fears about the future. Budgets are tight. Too many pews are empty. How long will we survive? Yet, we are different than a business that is driven by a financial “bottom-line.” Our “bottom-line” is the unlimited grace and mercy of God. That’s what we’re here to share! This reality can allow us, even in the middle of our own challenges and changes, to look around and ask, “What problems exist that need the kind of compassion that Jesus has given us?”
Members have ideas about this. “Pastor, I understand the prison would like someone to provide worship services . . .” or “Pastor, I hear the pre-school in town needs people to read to the children . . .” I know one congregational staff that, on bitterly cold days, bundles up and knocks on neighborhood doors with packets of hot chocolate mix-just to check on their neighbors and make sure everyone’s all right. In the hot summers, they load up wagons with bottles of cold water and do the same thing . . . Since we are not a profit-driven enterprise, what new thing might flow into your community from God’s limitless grace within your congregation?
Sandra, a pastor I know, faithfully attends local county board meetings every month as an observer. She wants to know what’s going on so she’s aware of the impact on her congregation and community. Through her developing relationships with these local leaders, she has become more comfortable and able to participate in community life.
When a little girl’s dog was stolen, Pastor Sandra and several congregational members supported the girl in bringing her concerns about safety to the county board community meeting. This is an example of advocacy for personal issues.
On a larger scale, Pastor Sandra knew there was tremendous need for a residential senior living facility. Her congregation organized local churches and other organizations to address this need. They advocated and fought for a $1 million dollar project, which culminated in the dedication of a senior living facility nestled in the hills outside town. This is an example of advocacy for public issues.
Whether personal or public, what are the local issues that might present opportunities for your congregation to advocate for things that embody God’s love and care for all people?
4. Values Guardian
Jesus traveled the cities and villages of Palestine. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them.” (Mt. 9:36) One congregational member, who is a teacher, rode the school bus to discover where the children in her school lived. She was surprised and saddened at what she observed, but it helped her address the challenges (both personal and educational) of her students.
Invite one or two other congregational members and do a “windshield tour” around your community, street-by-street or county road-by-county road. Really look around you. Go out more than once-at different times, different days.
The values guardian category opens our eyes and our hearts to neglected people groups within our communities-people in poverty, people formerly or presently incarcerated, migrant farmers living temporarily in a makeshift trailer park, forgotten elderly languishing in sub-standard living conditions, and the like. Values guardianship requires noticing groups of people that are often invisible or struggling in our communities, taking their situations to heart, and finding ways to accompany them toward the flourishing life God wants for all.
Service provider. Innovator. Advocate. Values guardian. What’s your community vocation? Whatever it might be, it is certainly an adventure in God’s “deep and wide” compassion!