Missionworks 2012 Keynote Presentation by Ruth Fletcher

When I was in the fourth grade, my congregation held a School of Missions. It was a week-long event that began each evening in the fellowship hall with a meal. Each night, there were exotic foods on the menu from the country we would be studyingΓÇöCurried Rice, Pad Thai, Pupusas.

Presented at Global Ministries Missionworks event, October 25, 2012

When I was in the fourth grade, my congregation held a School of Missions.  It was a week-long event that began each evening in the fellowship hall with a meal.  Each night, there were exotic foods on the menu from the country we would be studying—Curried Rice, Pad Thai, Pupusas. 

On the first night when I went to my class, my teacher gave me an offering box.  He told me that the coins I put in there would support the mission work of our church.  Back in those days, that mission work was carried out by some especially dedicated individuals who were called by God and sent by the church into foreign lands. 

Every once in awhile, those foreign missionaries would visit my church—the Corporans, the Kamikawas.  They’d tell about their lives, about difficult living conditions about cultural challenges.  I remember listening to their presentations.  I was impressed by their stories.  And I was just a little bit glad that they would be returning to the dangers of the mission field while I would go back to putting my change in the offering box in the safety of my own home.

Of course, that was a long time ago and the world’s changed.  If I were to ask you, you could name lots of things that are different now; but for our purposes tonight, I want to lift up four ways the landscape around us has shifted.

  1. Over the last forty years, globalization has reduced both geographic distance and time.  Now, it’s possible to buy a Coke in both Kansas City and New Delhi, to shop at The Gap in both Seattle and Shanghai.  A computer made in Indonesia may be shipped to a British customer and serviced by a technician in India.  When revolutions take place in the Middle East, news sources all over the world simultaneously receive reports and photographs from individuals communicating via their cell phones.      
  2.  National borders have become less significant.  Today, no one nation or group of nations controls the market.  Multi-national corporations outsource work wherever they can hire skilled employees for the lowest wage.  A debt crisis in one country affects other countries as well.  The economy has gone global and as a result 850 million people are suffering from hunger.  Three billion people living in poverty.
  3. And of course, there’s technology.  We’ve become a world that’s networked.  Now that we can chat, blog, post, and tweet there are all kinds of ideas and opinions coming to us from a whole host of sources that may or may not have any truly useful wisdom to share.  It is hard to sort out where there is truth in the midst of so many voices.  Sometimes there’s more information made available in one day than we can meaningfully process.
  4. And then there are the ecological shifts that are taking place.  In the current decade, we are beginning to see the end of non-renewable planetary resources such as drinking water and fossil fuel.  In spite of our denial, global warming is changing our planet.  Deserts are encroaching.  Weather related disasters are increasing.  Draught is affecting millions of people.

So all this is to say, that if we ever thought that the mission work of the church was out there, over there, somewhere else for somebody else to do, that assumption is no longer true.  We live in an interconneded, interdependent, world.  The mission field really does begin at our doorstep and stretches out into our neighborhoods and beyond to the ends of the earth.  Now, congregations find that they are the ones who are being called and sent into the world, ready or not. 

It’s a little scary.  Most North American churches haven’t had a lot of practice at doing mission.  Oh, they may have gone on some mission work trips, they may have done some mission projects—but being missional congregations?  Most of our churches don’t even know what that means.

But our Central American Partners know.  When I traveled there with Global Ministries in the spring of 2011, I saw congregations that have a lot to teach us about being a church in mission.  Tonight I want to share with you some of the principles I saw at work in that place—and then I want to tell you the story of how those same principles are guiding the missional work of one small North American congregation: The First Christian Church of San Jose, California. 

The principles I saw at work in Central America are these: 

  • Mission is Relationships
  • Mission is Walking With 
  • Mission is Building Capacity
  • Mission is Working with Partners

So let’s go first to the principle that “Mission is Relationships.”  Notice, it doesn’t say, “Mission Involves Relationships.”  It equates Mission with Relationship.  Mission is not about fixing, advising or setting others straight.  It is not about imposing our good idea on someone else’s problem.  It is not about doing for others what they can do for themselves.  It is not about assuming we’re the only ones with something to give.      Mission is about deep listening.  It’s about having conversations with strangers, at the Laundromat, at the grocery store.  How else are we going to understand our neighbors’ needs, their joys, their worries, their hopes?  

            Most of our Mission Partners just begin by noticing—by playing detective.  They look around their neighborhood in order to discover:  Who lives here?  Who works here? What do they do? What languages do they speak? Where do they gather?

            Then, they may do even more research by reading the local paper, learning about the local history.  They might even use census data or demographic information.

            Next they begin to ask questions.

That’s how First Christian Church began its journey to becoming a missional congregation. They set up interviews so they could listen to people in their neighborhood.  They wrote down a few questions they wanted to ask and then they went out two by two to talk with store clerks, servers in restaurants, business owners, social service agents, government officials, school principals, health care workers  (Well, they practiced first.  They tried out their questions on each other before they left the church building so they’d feel a little more confident about what they were doing.) But then they went out and talked with people--not about the church—but about what was happening in the neighborhood.  “What keeps you up at night?”  They asked.  “What are your concerns about this community?  What’s the greatest need in this neighborhood?”

Then they came back to the church.  They shared their information with each other.  Before long, they began to discover that their upscale downtown neighborhood had a lot of invisible people living there—people with mental health challenges, people who were hungry, who were unemployed, who were homeless. 

What could they do?  At the very least, they decided they could provide some food for those who were hungry.  So they began to fix dinner in their kitchen and to open their door to the public.  Soon they were serving 650 meals a week.  But God had even more in store for them.

Before long, they began to learn about the second principle of mission:  Walking with—(accompaniment.)  The root of that word is “com” which means with and “pan” which means bread.  So walking with our neighbors is really about sharing bread together—about “being with” more than “doing for.”  Sometimes coming alongside our neighbors in that way means risking our own comfort, our own security.  Yet, we know, the times we choose to act with courage, to walk with our neighbors in their struggles are often also the times when learn the most about ourselves, when we grow the most in faith and discipleship.  

That’s how it was for the people of First Christian Church. When they first began the feeding program, their kitchen counter was like a wall between the people with housing and a little bit of money in their pocket on one side dishing up the plates and people on the other side with no housing who were on public assistance.  Then, one day, that shifted.  One of the members of the church began coming in two hours before the meal.  She set out art supplies for anyone who wanted to paint or draw.  The pictures went up on the wall.  They became topics of conversation and of personal pride.  Hey!   “That’s my artwork up there!”

Then a man from the church began playing cards with guests who came in to eat.  Before you know it, stories were being shared.  People were getting acquainted.  Pastor Dana said, “Our meal was no longer a food factory of long lines of sad people.  When we came out from behind the counter, friendships began to develop.”

But with those friendships also came some pain.  Because you can’t always solve all the problems you hear about.

One day, the congregation held a funeral for Roger.  He was 59 years old when he died on the sidewalk outside the church.  “We knew him well,” Pastor Dana said.  “But he drank himself to death and it broke our hearts.”  It was that incident that turned the church in yet another new direction.” 

Capacity building is about investing in people, not just in programs.  It treats individuals as subjects rather than as objects of charity.  It addresses the root of the problem, not just the symptoms.  Capacity building involves education, skill building and financial growth that allows for paying it forward.  It’s about asking not just “what” but “why.” 

In Nicaragua, capacity building involves distributing seed packets so families can grow their own food, so they can add vegetables to their diet and produce a crop they can sell.  In Guatemala, it involves taking applications for micro-loans for women who want to start their own business.  In San Jose, it involved asking new questions when Roger died. 

  • What changes do we hope to see in our neighborhood?
  • How can we leverage our resources to effect those changes?
  • How will we fund the mission?
  • What next steps will we take?

First Christian Church had heard about a place in Seattle called the Recovery Café that serves meals five days a week but that also offers a process for breaking free from substance abuse.  Several members of First Christian Church went to Seattle to see what they could learn. 

The Recovery Café is a members’ only organization.  That’s intentional because most of the people who show up there have never belonged to anything in their lives.  But there are some requirements to get into this club.  You have to have been clean and sober for 24 hours.  You have to be willing to attend a circle of accountability each week and you have to contribute in some way--to do some chores around the place.  Wash dishes.  Wipe tables.  Clean the bathrooms.  In return, the Recovery Café provides meals, connections to counseling services, housing resources and classes in life skills, art, spirituality and recovery.

This fall, First Christian Church in San Jose is opening its own Recovery Café.  The congregation hopes this new step will allow them to do more than just feed people for a day.  They hope it will help those they serve to stand up and walk on their own two feet.  But they’re not embarking on this new mission all by themselves.  They’ve found partners to help them. 

At first they formed a Local Organizing Committee with two other downtown churches.  They joined People Acting in Community Together—a faith-based community organization with lots of experience in getting things done.  Then they offered  space in their building to the Downtown Streets Team.  In return, that organization secured grants that allowed them to remodel their vacant Sunday School rooms and their restrooms so that one wing of their building could provide transitional housing for nine people.

When our congregations are small, we may feel helpless to address the great needs of the world; but our mission partners will tell us that mission is never done alone.  It’s always a collaborative effort.  When we work together, we are stronger.

So thank you, Global Ministries for helping me learn something about how to strengthen our congregations here in the United States for mission.  Thank you for helping us see how to turn outward to the needs of the world instead of inward to our own survival.  Thank for showing us how to build relationships with our neighbors.  Thank you for teaching us how to serve with the integrity and humility of Christ.  Thank you for helping us remember that we never go it alone.

It takes courage to become a missional church.  We may lose members.  Our own physical well being may be put at risk.  We may have to set aside our own comfort, our own preferences.  But when we answer God’s call, when we allow ourselves to be sent on God’s mission we will be transformed.  Jesus put is this way, “Those who want to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”  May it be so.  Amen.


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