Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Intertwined With the Poor: What the Missional Movement Lacks

by Lyndsey Graves

“I read the Bible, but I forgot the verses
The liquor store is open later than the church is”
- Macklemore, "Neon Cathedral"
“Our doors are locked all but four hours a week. If our neighbors think about our church at all, it must be as a place where dressed-up people gather to do... who knows what?
- removed from my report to University Church regarding Outreach ministries

neon, open, sign, bar
We don’t want to offend anyone. Let’s take it out.”

I tried to argue for a bit. I mentioned that some others who read the draft had specifically mentioned that they found the sentence powerful. “More to the point,” I said, “this is not even an insulting statement; I’m just trying to be frank here.” And that is where I shut myself up.

As I spoke those words, I realized: to some of the powerful members of an upper-middle-class, white church situated in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood, the truth, frankly-stated, is itself offensive.

I don’t want to characterize my church unfairly. I believe the Holy Spirit is moving there: they are highly committed to social justice (and more so every day), and their hospitality to me has gone far beyond ordinary politeness. If I thought they were committing a heinous or unique sin, I wouldn’t bother to blog about it. Frankly, though, this “institutional blind spot”, represented in thousands of churches, contributes to the alienation of huge groups of people and, for some of these churches, their own demise.

To be clear, the blind spot I’m referring to is not necessarily the fact that people dress up on Sunday morning. I have no feelings about that one way or the other; every group of people follows norms that newcomers don’t expect or understand. What I take issue with is the fact that churches evaluate themselves on all sorts of scales, statistics, surveys, and checklists, but they rarely evaluate themselves from the perspective of the poor.

More importantly, churches sometimes evaluate their institutions from the perspective of the poor. Or they’ll demonstrate “Point #5 of our Strategic Mission: Commitment to Social Justice” by doing a Service Project once a month. But the people? They are afraid to look in the mirror, loath to ask themselves, “How do I welcome the poor into my church and my life?”

silly, church, starbucks, son bucks, coffee shop, yuppieOnce, a woman asked me with wide eyes, “Why don’t the young families come to church anymore? How come church is no longer their place to connect with other people?” A few weeks later she said to me, “I like to entertain people, but I can’t just throw open my home to the whole church any more. Some people - like [one of the poor single mothers in our congregation] - I’m just not comfortable around.” I still wonder if I should have confronted her about it.

Last week, I helped another coffee-shop-church in our neighborhood distribute flyers about a block party. Kind as they are to sponsor a neighborhood event, I wonder which of these poor people they expect to join a church that meets in a place of business where everyone else around the table cradles coffee at $2 a pop. They eschew sermons in favor of conversations, vaguely referring to God once in a while, in an effort to attract millenials and postmoderns. I wonder how many of these conversations revolve around matters with any connection to life in Syracuse’s Near East Side.

The thing about all this is, I care about the old people who love dressing up and listening to organ music. I care about millenials and postmoderns. And I care about the people of the Near East Side. Am I supposed to choose one group to belong to or minister to? If being “missional” means reinventing “church” and tailoring it to the tastes of any particular segment of society, it seems impossible to ever bring the college students together with the lifelong welfare recipients in this neighborhood.

I admire the missional movement and the coffee-shop-church, the desire to go out instead of holing up and daring others to come in. My church needs more of that. My church needs to at least unlock the doors more often. But sometimes, we get so caught up in movements that reimagine how we do ministry, we can lose sight of what we’re doing and whom we’re here for.

I do not know the answers to all this, but I do know one thing that law students and welfare recipients have in common: they are human, and we humans are desperate to be loved. We need to belong. We just want someone to take an interest in us and our well-being.

doors, church, open, light, beauty, SYMBOLISMWe know when someone only wants to collect our tithe, or add us to their Sunday school tally, or give us food so we’ll go away; but we also know when someone genuinely cares for us. And when we meet that person to whom we finally matter, it turns out we don’t really care how they’re dressed or what they look like or whether their organization implements a cool graphic design strategy.

I hope we learn to just love people, even if we’re afraid that they’re too dirty for us or that we’re not cool enough for them. May we ask God to reveal God’s love for every person to our own hearts, that we might reveal it all over again to them.

May we emerge from our self-imposed loneliness and open the doors even to those who might mistake us for a liquor store, that we may encounter new facets of that love every terrifying new day.

Lyndsey lives and works in Syracuse, NY. She majored in theology at Lee University, which is like eating cake or listening to thunderstorms - too enjoyable to be called work. Also, no one will pay you to do it. You can follow her on Twitter @lyndseygraves and you can find more of her writing at her blog To Be Honest.

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