Authentic Community Engagement
WHAT AM I LEARNING?
1. Church planting in a public housing estate, I discovered that my excellent historical theology had to become ‘this minute, today’. First, casting myself on the mercy of God to catch me, I learned with their kind help and support for my Oxford ways, to respond today to the leading of the Spirit. Second, we did things only in the way that the locals did, and required of the denominational rules that they be the ones to conform. Thirdly, we learned to live the beauty of a healed and holy life, not the harshness of holiness. So, a small church flourished, miracles happened, lives were changed and new music was born.
2. Commencing a new beach mission up the coast, the team were good at praying and preaching, not great at agreeing theologically, and lousy at connecting and sharing with holiday makers. I think we were so busy that we spoiled everyone’s holidays. As a leader I had to find a way to empower their hearts for authentic witness. We did it by accident. Our efforts at exercises that actually helped would later become ‘Makes You Wonder’. We cut down the programme and made spare time, rather than add one more programme and then another. By our second year, we had more adult conversions than all other WA beach missions put together. This approach would later empower people in 22 languages of Australasia and the Pacific. It is still working.
3. Hanging around street kids and mothers groups, seniors lunches and business breakfasts, everyone without exception loves to be heard on their deeper yearnings. Most people also value a positive word of reframe and encouragement for their journey. It must be done such that their autonomy is respected, e.g. “it is up to you what you do with this but what I am hearing is this…” but it must simply offer help for the journey.
4. At a Stolen Generations Conference one year, one of the Aboriginal elders asked for me to close the national meeting in prayer. It triggered a traumatic response, based around the abuse of the missions to which most of thousands of children were taken. Later she said that she had asked for prayer because she had recently decided to forgive the church for what they had done to her mother and her siblings and herself. I told her she had made my day, made my decade in fact, I was standing on holy ground. Seven years of walking together in compassion and justice without asking for a right of reply, had proven my heart, and I was not too proud to represent the church saying thank you for forgiving us.
5. In the desert, the majesty of the stars and horizon is very present, and people feel both small and special at the same time, cherished and at risk. Life is on the edge, not of the abyss of European thought but of the fullness of fragile life. The current almost universally held ecological meta-narrative is a great opportunity for us that the New Age was not. Connecting with Creation and Creator removes the consumption addiction, sets up the bigger intimate questions and scripture answers those personal questions with a personal invitation, another question if you will, and not with objective proof. People are enlarged into this good news, not judged. In a pluralistic environment the lived life of Jesus can easily hold its head up above the rest without having to be try hard or a put down.
6. We were surprised to receive a modest bequest for evangelism, so we decided to do something of lasting experimental value. We would run a Christian Information Service advertising for enquirers in the newspapers. We tried all kinds of ‘relevant’ approaches e.g. ‘do you want to know the meaning of life?’, ‘are you troubled by something’, etc and each of these approaches received some enquiries. We printed colour booklet which was itself a very popular outcome from the experiment. Then we tried ‘do you want to understand Jesus?’ and the response rate immediately doubled. Being both human and God, both historical and present, he is already relevant and accessible. There is the main focus. Not church, not a better life, nor the various idealisms of the liberal elite. I cannot overstate this – our goal must be NOT to be like the church BUT to be like Jesus. Speak like Jesus about Jesus. Live with all the passions of Jesus.
7. Even when people are empowered for witness, all is not well. The task of evangelization belongs to all of us and other parts of the church have other gifts of service. One essential role, as both Scripture and Basis of Union attest, is the gift of the Evangelist. Church people can learn to witness in their own words with their own faith in their own world – if they are willing but reach their limit. They need an evangelist in their midst not visiting from interstate! Two questions: How will you find yours? What will you do to form them into maturity? On the latter, we have a course work outline below, but as usual it is not the reading that forms them. More exposure and experimentation is required. Methodists have profited from organising ‘Lay Witness Weekends’. On finding those ten percent of Christians who might be evangelists, they are hard to find:
· firstly because they prefer not to be with the church people, but with the yet-to-be churched people.
· Secondly they are not patient of the casualisation of church, preferring adventure and enthusiasm to procedure and caution.
· Thirdly, the Uniting Church has so privileged caution and concensus that now no one’s gifts are named and formed. Blend is our recipe and bland is our style.
· Fourthly we have too narrow an image of what an evangelist is. – a ‘Billy Graham preacher’ or someone who corners the unsuspecting into a prayer of repentance, or… Anyone who helps others to find faith in Jesus or to commence the path of Christian discipleship. Look for anyone who is enthusiastic, outlooking, expressive, hospitable and centred in Jesus in their personal life.
8. I am a bit shy. I do get around though and a lot of my contacts are valuable, appreciated but too brief. I resolved to resource the ongoing conversation by starting a web site or two that was resource-rich and introductory. Here is the outcome, and let you be the judge:
Chaplains’ Web: www.spirituallife.uwa.edu.au
Ian’s Blog: www.wa.uca.org.au/uwachaplain
Max Doubt: http://maxdoubt.wordpress.com/
Interfaith Online http://www.symbaloo.com/mix/uwaucafrontpage
They get over a thousand hits each year., which is more than I expected.
9. In our small presbytery when I was first ordained, in the first decade there was only this – let us not attract more people like us, let us evangelise and church plant as our first funding priority. In ten years the denomination tripled in size. So, because I am still concerned to mirror the mission of Jesus, I know that healthy growth can happen.
I conclude by asking honestly what will review MY evangel? I am not very good at this. I see too few conversions. So what has been my response?
· I pray that God will lead me each day to someone with who I can share his influence in my life. And he does.
· I see very many conversations with lots of community contact. They are food and drink to me, as to our Lord in John 4.34. There are times when I run dry and start again. Perhaps join me in that prayer- “Please God lead me today to someone with who I can share your influence in my life”
· I know it gets through to some. Every month someone says to me something like: if I had known you earlier in my life I might have been a Christian (to which I say ‘it is time for us all to start fresh’).
· Within me, I have a very divided mind but I have cultivated by spiritual discipline a heart that is deeply passionately simply for Jesus. That is my essential base for avoiding secondary issues. My daily, weekly, annual calendar reflects that cultivated task. I would be dangerous without it.
· I would like to be supported by a church that spoke up that Jesus was not a white man and repented of the atrocities of the enlightenment and colonialism.
· I would like tools that I didn’t have to invent all the time.
· I would like congregations, to take people to, which are not glorified singalongs.
· I would like to have confidence that my colleagues are not going to let me down and water down either the blessedness or demands of discipleship.
I see the different parts of the task rejoicing together: John 4.34-38. The Message
34-35 Jesus said, “The food that keeps me going is that I do the will of the One who sent me, finishing the work he started. As you look around right now, wouldn’t you say that in about four months it will be time to harvest? Well, I’m telling you to open your eyes and take a good look at what’s right in front of you. These Samaritan fields are ripe. It’s harvest time!
36-38 “The Harvester isn’t waiting. He’s taking his pay, gathering in this grain that’s ripe for eternal life. Now the Sower is arm in arm with the Harvester, triumphant. That’s the truth of the saying, ‘This one sows, that one harvests.’ I sent you to harvest a field you never worked. Without lifting a finger, you have walked in on a field worked long and hard by others.”
That’s my church.