Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Missional Tension

This is the entry that I said I'd post the other day. I've been sitting on it for a while.. It's rank with my own hypocrisy and in that regard it stings to read. But maybe that's why I should publish it.

I've had a couple really rough phone messages lately. The other week, a woman called asking for help to meet rent. Her family is facing eviction. I listed the usual list of pros and cons in my head: cash might not make it to where it needs to go, do I trust someone with the information on a personal check, why doesn't the church have a separate account for this sort of thing, etc. I sat on that message for a week before calling her back, apologizing for taking so long and that I had no money to offer her. I did pass along an agency's phone number--a number she's already familiar with--and there wasn't much more that I could do. More accurately, there wasn't much more that I was willing to do. During this conversation she shared that her stepson had been recently diagnosed with leukemia as well, so medical bills would push this struggling family to inconceivable limits.

My head sank to the desk after I hung up. The church, of all places, didn't have anything readily available for this woman. A UCC church, on top of that, where according to national rhetoric justice is purported to roll down like water, didn't have anything readily available. And now I wonder: did she find help? Does she still have a home? Will her stepson get the care that he needs?

By now, regular visitors know that I've developed quite the fascination with all things emerging/emergent church. I'm fascinated by how much these groups push traditional and institutional boundaries and by an ecclesiology that is so malleable to the specific context in which each church finds itself. I'm fascinated by the thought of meeting in theaters and rented office buildings and living rooms and conversely I'm fascinated by the lack of attachment to a pretty building that sucks up money in order to remain pretty (not to mention the plaques adorning everything and the committee vote that needs to be taken before moving the furniture). I'm fascinated by how flexible and moveable these churches are.

But it's the ecclesiology and that word "missional" that fascinates me the most. "Missional" is the anchor term for these groups and informs the notion that a church is to be mission-focused (rather than pastor-focused, budget-focused, etc.) and how proactive a missional church is called to be within the community through service and evangelism.

And I'm looking toward my own denomination's 50th anniversary. And I've reflected a lot on the last time I attended their national gathering. And people are getting on board with what I wrote the other week about moving the gathering to New Orleans. And Claiborne's book really unnerved me, more than I even presently realize.

And I keep hearing that man at Synod saying, "We are the people we've been waiting for."

Waiting to do what? To declare something? To have a party and then report to our local congregations on how great the party was? To pass a few more resolutions from which the media might choose the most controversial and that the vast majority of our churches won't care about?

We are the people we've been waiting for.

General Synod delegates don't need to hear that. Entire churches need to hear that, each in their own context; their own communities. I'm discovering more and more that it's better to appropriate beliefs and practices to local conditions. THAT is what people are waiting for. Hardly anyone is waiting for another statement. But homeless people, welfare mothers, the hungry, the lonely, the depressed, the hopeless are all waiting for action. Not a statement, not more rhetoric, and not for us to finish congratulating ourselves.

People are waiting for churches to be permeable, moveable entities that aren't overly preoccupied with their survival and internal maintenance. People are waiting for churches to enact mission according to local needs rather than targeting a market to burst through the doors according to how attractive our buildings or our message is. People are waiting for somebody to do something rather than pay lip service.

I've decided that I'm never going to seek another term as a delegate to General Synod. By the time this term is up I'll be 30, so people will be scrounging for some other 20-something pastor to meet quota anyway. In the meantime, I think I'm discovering something about how I can be a better steward of my own time and resources and how my church can do the same. It doesn't involve spending a grand or so on a plane ticket, hotel, and meals to play prophet for a couple days in some far off city. It involves developing something that will help build God's kingdom here, where we find ourselves.

The United Church of Christ is where I first learned that the local church is where it all begins and ends. The emerging conversation helped amplify that.

I think that I can say I finally get it.


Anonymous said...

Why not submit this as an editorial for the UCNews -- or at least find an even more public way to bring your thoughts into the discussion about changing General Synod away from an every-two-year social gathering?
And I think I am slightly dismayed at your pledge not to become a GS delegate again. It seems that this type of voice is exactly what GS needs - whether you are a quota filler or (perish the thought) a middle-aged, WASPish clergyperson that doesn't fill one of the GS quotas for minorities.
Why can't GS strike a better balance between what the church IS TODAY and what the church IS TO BE? How do we missionally minister in the present otherwise?


Anonymous said...

Jeff: Again, a big AMEN.

I think the challenge you are raising is the most critical for our denomination.

Just as our denominational leaders, I too have been guilty of focusing on the controversial issues instead of mission. I also tend to to get caught in the trap of thinking globally, not locally (i.e. divestment, Sudan, etc.). There are so many things we should be focusing on that are within our reach - just as your post notes.

Will supporting or opposing divestment make a difference in the Middle-East? No.

Will reaching out to "the least of these" that are in our own backyards make a difference? Yes

I don't know about dropping out of GS though. I was always encouraged by your voice of reason and moderation and wished there were more delegates like you. On the other hand, the last General Synod proved to me that the delegates power is pretty limited if the national office wants specific language in a resolution.

Another problem I see emerging is the refrain from UCC national leaders that the criticism they receive is "the cost of discipleship". A statement like that literally handcuffs any meaningful progress. Every major faith in the world has extremists that believe they are doing the will of God... and have also rationalized this "cost".

Missional Jerry said...

Changing a denomination is a tuff challenge.

But I believe all denomination face major choices in the years to come.

I trust you can be a force of missional change.

Jeff Nelson said...

More than anything else, the comment about never seeking another GS term was in passion. But really, I spend roughly $1000 each time, but what am I really doing? What are any of us really doing when we travel to GS and spend so much on these gatherings?

But I get the "needing the voice" part. With both my involvement in GS and my nomination to Association Council, I need to prayerfully consider if God is making that my call and cause. You people aren't making it easy to say it isn't.;)

Anonymous said...

In another 20-30 years, when you are General Minister and President, you'll be glad you had these experiences...

Jeff Nelson said...


One of our Association ministers once told me that the only way you wind up in a judicatory position is when you see absolutely no alternative; that it's truly a call. That's the only way I'd even consider that silliness.:)