Sunday, May 18, 2008

Park View at 55: A Vocational Reassessment

Pastoral reflections at the start of a sabbatical
Various texts

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This fall, Park View Mennonite Church turns 55 years old.
Old enough for senior discounts.
Not old enough to retire.
In church years, still young.
A couple sister congregations around here are pushing 200.

But it seems like a good time for us all, and a good time for me,
to lean back and take a look at ourselves.
In my last Pastoral Ponderings I wrote some of my thoughts
on reaching the ripe old age of 12 years, as pastor at Park View.
Since this is my last Sunday with you before my sabbatical
and study leave this summer,
I’m going to take some of those thoughts,
and push them out a little more—
thoughts about vocation, ours and mine.

I begin where we ought to begin, with scripture,
the book that shapes and defines us as a people.
The fact that we have a vocation, that the church even exists,
is due entirely to this book.

We just heard a series of declarations from scripture—
declaring what God has been doing in the world.
Ever since human sin started to undo God’s good creation,
God has been on a mission to heal what was broken,
to save, redeem, and restore humanity and all creation.
But God chose not to do this saving work by Divine fiat,
by single-handedly zapping things back into order.

Instead, for reasons known only to God, I suppose,
God always chose to work through a people.
Fallible human beings in community.
People bound together, bound to God, by a covenant.
Started with Abraham and Sara and their descendants.
Continued with Jesus and his band of disciples.
And it continues today through the church.

God’s partner in mission in the world today is the church.
But not church in the abstract—church in the particular—
the believing community gathered in particular places,
and particular times.
God called our community of disciples, here, into being
to be partners in God’s saving work in the world.

We find it everywhere in the Bible.
The community of believers gathered together
in covenant,
in communion,
around the scriptures,
is the agent of God’s mission activity in the world.

This is a bold statement. But I believe it.
God called Park View Mennonite Church into existence
for one reason—
to carry out God’s saving and healing purposes
here in this place, and throughout the world.

Our only reason for existence is the mission of God.
That is our vocation. Our calling.
Our vocation is not to provide religious goods and services
to the community of the saved.
Our vocation is not
to carry out programs that benefit and inspire our own people,
to provide exciting activities for children and youth,
to run small groups that will lift our spirits
and draw us closer to each other,
to support our institutions of education, healthcare,
relief, and service.
We can do all those things, but our vocation—
our one reason for existence—
is to honor God by participating in the mission of God.
Call it our missional vocation.

But we have something working against us.
Our own interests, legitimate as they are.
The interests of this congregation we like to call “our church.”

It’s hard to have a large and complex organized church,
with all its obligations, and needs, and infrastructure,
and still be focused on our missional vocation.
It’s hard. Very hard.

We have the same temptation the people had in Genesis,
in the land of Babel,
when they built a big tower to reach to the skies.
They could not trust God enough to scatter over the earth,
like God told them.
Too risky.
The tower gave them security.
A feeling of being in control of their own destiny.
They wanted to be like God.
To make a name for themselves.

Every congregation I know fights that same temptation.
To build their own tower.
A fortress to defend themselves against the encroaching world,
when God said to scatter all over this world God loves.

It’s hard to invest lots of time, energy, and people
in God’s mission of healing, saving, and restoring creation,
when we have a church institution to preserve, to protect, to grow.
It’s hard to fully embrace our missional vocation,
when we have... my salary to pay... and 9 others, full or part-time;
when we have a building debt to eliminate,
a parking lot to repair,
a foyer to refurnish,
an organ to tune,
educational materials to buy,
electric bills to pay,
Christian school tuition to support,
and the list goes on.

There’s a reason why Jesus sent out 72 disciples on a mission
and said to go without a purse, or bag, or even sandals,
told them to go out like lambs among wolves.
He didn’t want them relying on their own resources,
didn’t want them to be encumbered by anything
that would distract them from their mission.

It’s hard to be responsible stewards of the rich resources of the church,
and at the same time, take radical risks for the mission of God.
It’s hard. Extremely hard.
But I’m naive enough to think it’s not impossible.
And I’m convinced that we simply must find a way to do it,
if we want to be faithful.
Because our missional vocation is job #1 for the church.

So I’ve been wondering...
if a large complex institution like ours has trouble taking risks
and becoming a radically missional community,
maybe we need to give space in our church,
for new and non-traditional and non-institutional
expressions of missional communities that might emerge,
within us, or alongside us, or beyond us.
And maybe we could not only allow them to emerge,
but actively help them along—
plant, water, and fertilize them.
Maybe we could put our resources and commitment equally behind
the institutional church,
and the emerging missional church at the same time.

Let me get specific about ways I could see this happen.
And I think Park View might be uniquely suited to do this.
Because we have a healthy, and vibrant, and growing
traditional church here.
This would not be something to do out of desperation
because we’re in crisis, like many traditional churches are.
We are not.
Many good things are happening here.
Our children’s and youth programs are in a boom phase.
There was one baby born this past week.
There are six more on the way.
Worship and music is alive and varied.
Leadership is stable and working together well.
We are active in missions and service.
Praise God!

We have strength and resources we can extend beyond ourselves.
And there are many people—a growing number, really—
who cannot and will not connect with
the life of a traditional church,
no matter how good the programs.

So I see both a need, and an opportunity,
to connect with other expressions of church—
new missional communities, if you will—
that are already emerging around us,
or to help plant seeds for even more
new missional communities.

There is a congregation in formation
just a couple miles from us,
which some of us are becoming more acquainted with.
Led by Ron Copeland and a group of others,
they have a thoroughly missional vision
of helping a Christian community develop
in the area around N. Main St.
They intend this church to be the living presence of Jesus
in the neighborhood,
among people struggling with alcoholism,
drugs, and other addictions,
homelessness, hunger, loneliness.
They don’t have dreams of a huge program.
They just want to be present, available, open,
and share the love of Jesus with people in tangible ways.
Sharing meals, shelter, and friendship.

Some of us already are building some connections with them.
I would like to see the Park View congregation
be more intentional in making connections,
for our mutual blessing.
There aren’t many models out there,
of a big institutional church with many resources,
forming a partnership of equals
with a small missional community working on a shoestring,
without being the patronizing big brother or big sister.
But I think we have gifts to offer that would be a real blessing to them.
They have gifts to offer us that could potentially bless us,
and transform us.
I would love for some of us at Park View
to engage that emerging church community
in conversations around how to bless each other.

And there are more existing missional communities out there
with whom we might partner.

Or... I think there is plenty of need in the Harrisonburg area,
for new missional communities to be planted.
Call it church planting, if you want.
But I don’t mean church planting in the traditional sense,
where you pick a strategic location, invest money in leadership,
and develop plans for programs and structure and a building.
I mean like planting a garden.
Sowing seeds in the neighborhood where you live,
and seeing what God will grow.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful move of God’s spirit,
if a couple households from the Park View congregation,
who already lived near each other, or moved near,
would start learning to know their neighborhood in a deeper way?
If they discovered where the neighborhood wounds are
that need healing,
learned to know who was lonely and alienated,
and started having neighborhood potlucks,
or discussions, or Bible studies?
or found some troubled or deteriorating corners
of their neighborhood,
and began to be a healing presence there?
If they started intentionally breaking the American suburban habit
of keeping ourselves invisible from our neighbors?
What might happen?
I have no idea. But I’d like to find out.

Or... I think we could form more missional communities right here,
among those of us fully engaged in this traditional congregation.
We know about small groups.
We’ve done small groups since they became fashionable in the 70's.
But I mean more than a group of church friends who get together
for the primary purpose of caring for each other.
That’s legitimate. That’s important,
especially in a culture where there is so much social isolation.

But I mean a group whose primary purpose
is to fulfill our Christian vocation,
to help each other be formed into faithful disciples of Jesus
in this community and this world.
Who will encourage each other, push each other,
toward engaging our neighbors and community and world,
toward developing missional habits and practices.
Who might choose to engage in some missional action
as a group.
And who get closer to each other as a natural side effect.

I invited some groups at Park View to try it,
as part of my Doctor of Ministry project last year.
45 people decided to join in, which was wonderful.
Some existing groups, and some new groups.
They were intentional about developing practices
that strengthened both their communal and missional lives.
Out of those groups came many stories of transformation.

In one group of seven,
three of the women spent several weeks being part of the
“Free Food for All” Soup Kitchen.
One of them canned a bunch of tomatoes and other veggies
from her garden,
and took them along to the soup kitchen.
A couple of them learned to know one particular homeless man,
and one felt led to give him a good heavy wool coat,
that had been in her family.
Meanwhile those women started meeting together
outside the regular small group meetings,
and shared their lives more deeply with each other.

In another group, three couples decided to all
read the Bible in a year, on the same schedule,
and they met weekly for a while
to discuss what they read that week.
That same group also made a commitment to each other
to take better care of God’s creation.
So they each took an area of “creation care” to learn about,
and share what they learned.
Their life practices changed in significant ways,
and made ripples outside the group.
They encouraged this congregation to change some habits—
they started composting our coffee grounds, for instance,
and started writing a creation care column in the inView.

Another small group of three women,
also decided to read the Bible together and discuss it.
Because of the Bible reading and discussion,
and noticing how much God had to say about the poor,
one of those women volunteered to coordinate Park View’s week
hosting the HARTS homeless shelter.
She did it as a direct result of what that group of three were doing.
They were being a “missional community.”

Another group has been challenging each other
to share their faith more.
In another, people have been more intentional
in sharing their resources and skills with each other,
and with others in the community.

And there are many more stories to be told.

These people didn’t make these changes in their lives
because I asked them to.
Forget my doctoral project.
That’s not why they did these things.
All I did was give an invitation to people,
to gather together regularly, with intentionality,
and loving mutual accountability,
to develop whatever communal and missional practices
God seemed to be leading them to develop.
They did these things because they felt drawn to them.
They felt God’s call.

That’s what happens, I believe,
when any of us gets serious about living as a disciple of Jesus,
within a community of disciples.
When we have a genuine desire to live the life we were made for,
God will do the acting, the drawing, the transforming.
Being part of this kind of missional community,
is exactly what Jesus had in mind
when he commissioned his disciples
to go into the world and make more disciples.

I believe God would be pleased if Park View Mennonite Church
took on with new vigor, and new vision,
this singular vocation of forming communities of disciples
who are deeply engaged with the mission of God in this world.
That’s really all that God is calling us to do as a church.
That’s the whole point.
That’s everything.

But, if we fully embrace that vocation,
if we start investing in the lives of missional communities,
that are already out there,
or starting new ones,
or transforming our own small groups
into missional communities,
you know what that might lead to, don’t you?

It might lead to a church that is not single-mindedly focused
on growing our church institution here at 1600 College Ave.
It might mean we will pay more attention
to the quality and health of our life together,
and the level of our engagement in God’s mission,
than we do on the growth curve of our membership,
or our Sunday morning attendance numbers,
or the size of our budget.

Some of these missional endeavors
might even draw dollars and support away from our institution,
and toward efforts in our community
that don’t bring our institution any immediate benefit.
Is that something we could celebrate?
Or would it be a threat?
That is a serious question without an easy answer.

If we make it part of our vocation to support
the work of missional communities
that might make it harder to grow our institution.

What if some missional communities from “our church”
start occasionally gathering on Sunday morning,
to do their work of worship and mission
in their homes, or in a public place?
What if their participation in and financial support of
the programs we run here at this location,
start to decline because they are more involved
in missional activity in the community?
Is that a loss, or a gain, to this congregation?

And if Park View made the radical commitment
of organizing ourselves around this one missional vocation we have,
how might it change the way we are structured?
the way we spend our money?
the work we expect our pastors to do?
If we were organized around our missional vocation—
and I believe every church ought to be—
would our worship look any different?
would our small group life look different?
would our fellowship meals look different?
would the way we fund, maintain, and steward
our physical plant look different?
would our support of mission agencies look different?

I realize, from the standpoint of institutional stability and security,
I’m talking crazy talk.
We can’t grow our institution by giving ourselves away.
But the kingdom of God is often an upside-down kingdom.
Jesus got himself in big trouble by talking this crazy talk,
criticizing his own faith community
for investing more in their temple and tithes
and rituals and regulations,
than they invested in the lives of the poor, the sick,
the lost, the disconnected.

But like I said earlier,
I’m naive enough to think,
that it’s possible to be radically missional in our vocation,
and still maintain the health and vitality
of what we have going.
Because as I said, we have a good thing going, here.
Wonderful, even life-changing, things happen here in this place,
that looks like an institution.
Much of what we are doing is already missional.
We don’t have to stop it. We shouldn’t stop it.
We might just need to look at some of what we do
from a different angle,
so we realize its missional.
Or change some things to make them more missional.

I don’t know where this journey will take us.
But this is the direction I feel called, as your pastor, to lead us.
The specifics will be up to all of us working together.
But the direction is where I believe God is calling me and us.
It’s probably not fair for me to lay this out,
on the day that your ballots are due
to invite me to a fourth term as pastor.
Some of you already cast your ballots before hearing this.
If you’re having second thoughts,
it’s probably not too late to rescind your vote,
if you act quickly.

But whether or not we move toward anything
new or different or risk-taking,
does not ultimately depend on me.
It depends on us, working and discerning together.
So even while I’m away on sabbatical this summer,
I hope what I’ve said sparks some conversations.
I hope Sunday School classes and small groups talk about
how they might engage the mission of God
more intentionally in their own life.

I still have two more full weeks in the office,
so you can also come and talk to me directly, or ask questions.
Or if you want to engage in conversation immediately,
I know the Logos class is going to be discussing the sermon today,
and you’re welcome to join them.

But mostly, I hope all of us start opening ourselves
to new and imaginative ways to be in missional community.
God is at work among us,
to heal, to save, to redeem, and restore all things.
May God forgive us for times that God’s mission
got submerged by our own interests and agenda.
And may we have hope, and courage, and confidence
that God will be with us to give us all that we need
to continue our missional journey.

—Phil Kniss, May 18, 2008

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