It has happened again.
Getting out into the community is a game-changer.
For several years, I have been working with declining churches that are trying to regain a vision and with teams of people who want to start new works of ministry. What they all want are the instructions for exactly how to do something that is guaranteed to work – and to work quickly. I can’t do that. Because all ministry needs to be contextual.
So, in just about every training I lead, I set up a time to go out of the fellowship hall, the sanctuary, the meeting room – and walk around the community outside the church doors. I teach people how to listen to the deeper story of the community. Then, I send them out to do it. Many people walk out the door hesitantly, sometimes even belligerent about having to do this exercise.
But the thing is: everyone walks back in the door animated, energized and wanting to tell the stories of the people they met and the needs they uncovered.
This week I was in Puerto Rico working with a group of church leaders, pastors and presbytery staff. We met in a camp, but for part of the day we left the camp and went into a nearby town. What did we learn about that town?
- People knew the Presbyterian Church had a building, but one guy said he had never known them to be in the community, only in the building up the hill.
- The police shared they are desperate for the church to have a presence in the community.
- There were people who were open to inviting us into their homes so we could pray with them.
- The people in the bakery were shocked that the church was willing to pay attention to what the community actually needed. They said they had never seen that happen in all the years they have been on the same block as the church.
When we returned from just two hours of walking the town, the church leaders were convicted. One woman wept as she relayed the conversation she had shared with someone in the community and how it had opened her eyes. Because of that walk, the ministry priorities are changing, the kind of pastor they are searching for is changing and the spiritual practices of that congregation are changing.
We Presbyterians love to ruminate on missional theology. We love to study, talk about, discuss, plan ministry programs. But we get skittish when we are encouraged to go out the door and just be with people who aren’t part of our church culture. However, my experience is, when we are willing to lay aside our own comfort, open our ears and our hearts, and step outside… we will be amazed with the ways God begins to speak to us and open our eyes.
All of us are busy keeping ministries going.
Sessions are busy with countless decisions that must be made.
Pastors are busy juggling meetings, pastoral care, programs and the relentless return of the Sabbath.
Leaders are working 60-hour-a-week jobs and in their “spare time” trying to organize ministry events and lesson plans.
But what if one of the most important things we can do is take the time to actually go into the community and pay attention? What if what we really need to do is evaluate whether all of our “doing” makes sense in the particular context in which we are called to do ministry? Does all the energy we are pouring into the ministry that exists make sense given what the needs are all around us and given the way our community is changing?
If you are used to just running into the grocery store to pick up your gallon of milk and then keep going with your day, I urge you to take the time to go out into the community without your to-do list, your agenda. Take the time to go out into the community and just pay attention to what/who God wants you to see. Listen to what God needs you to hear.
And don’t be surprised if the experience is a game-changer in your ministry.
Shannon Kiser is the director of the East Coast Presbyterian Center of New Church Innovation based out of northern Virginia. She is field staff for the Office of Church Growth, and parish associate at Riverside Presbyterian Church, a church planting church in Sterling, VA. She is involved in the 1001 New Worshiping Communities movement, and works with presbyteries, existing churches, and potential planters to fan the flames of new, creative ministries. Shannon lives in Springfield, VA with her husband and two daughters.