I'm running a bit behind on this, but on April 17-18th I had the great privilege of attending Inhabit: Faithful Practice in the New Commons at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology in Seattle, Washington, as part of my study leave. As the name suggests, the conference was all about how churches might better “inhabit” their neighborhoods and communities in ways that are not only mutually beneficial, but also mutually transformative. From non-profit investing, theology, community gardening, to national campaigns for equality in public education, the conference had something for everyone to help them reimagine what it might be to look like the church and be a blessing in our time and day. You can find part 1 here.
Peter Block on Abundant Community
The second day of the Conference was the first full day. It began with a Skype talk given by Peter Block. Peter Block is a former consulting guru who has turned his attention to the work of revitalizing neighborhoods. He works often with John McKnight, and wrote a book together called The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods. Peter Block has also done a little side work with one of my favorite theologians, Walter Brueggemann.
In the talk, Block essentially argued that neighborhoods have all the resources they need to be vital communities. But it is going to take a reimagining of who people are and how we connect together to change how things are done.
One insight Block gave that caught my attention is this: we (churches) often see neighborhoods and outreach in terms of what people need. And we give it to them. Which is not always bad (the Sonshine Lunch Club is an example). But Block argues that we should actually look at people as assets rather than needs. That they have gifts, strengths, skills, talents and all sorts of other things to contribute. Rather than harnessing people’s gifts for the common good, we tend to create imbalanced relationships of power over people and dependency from them.
I left that talk wondering if the charitable model (we give you things or do things for you) is the only model of Christian witness for the broke and the disadvantaged. Sometimes, Jesus’ relationships were one-sided encounters where he gave. But more often than not, Jesus would see things in people that other people did not, and this would transform their lives. Is there a difference between doing that and "helping" people? If so, what is it?
Alan Roxburgh on the Future of Denominations
Alan Roxburgh is well known as a consultant and author, coining the phrase “missional church.” Alan gave a talk on the future of denominations (i.e. the United Church of Canada, the Anglican Church etc.). Alan is a great speaker, and funny too.
Alan was asked a question: “how can we save denominations?” His answer was “don’t.” Which I can say is a huge relief for me, as I stress about the decline of the mainline churches all the time. He said that they are not fixable, and we will get burned out trying to take on the gargantuan task of repairing some of the least nimble institutions.
On the other hand, Alan also said that the only way denominations can be fixed is through vital communities of faith that are engaged in transformative ministry. Which was a double sigh of relief. Essentially, Alan argues that we will only revitalize our denominations by paying attention to what God is doing in people’s lives at the local level. Which means: we are free to do awesome ministry together!
And finally, Alan said that denominations will not die. Because they have God’s story in their DNA. There are traditions that have lasted for hundreds of years that come through in what we do as congregations. That is still there to harness.
If you’re a relative newcomer to St. George’s specifically or the United Church more broadly, what has drawn you to our community of faith? We might discover the DNA that’s part of a larger, vital tradition.
The Art of Neighboring with Dave Runyon
I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting much out of this workshop—the one I wanted to go to was full! But I was so pleasantly surprised by a funny, engaging, and enlightening presentation.
Dave Runyon, a former pastor in Colorado, talked about his book the Art of Neighboring, which asks the question, “What if Jesus meant for us to love our actual neighbors?” The concept of the book comes from Jesus' command to love our neighbors as ourselves. The argument the book makes is that we are so alienated from our real neighbors that we barely know them. He gave us a magnet with a 3x3 grid (pictured) and told us to see if we could name the 8 neighbors directly around us. He said only about 60 percent of people get more than three. I’ll admit it—I only got three (you also have to know last names and the name of both spouses if they are there). It was pretty pathetic. But it did illustrate well how disconnected we are.
Nonetheless, Dave suggested there was a real opportunity there—his church was challenged to get to know each person in their grid. It’s not only a way to get to know each other better, but a way for Christians to live their faith by deepening their relationships with the people around them. Rather than getting to know people with “ulterior motives” (like getting them to be Christians or go to church), Runyan argues that “living at depth with other people” can change lives. And, when you are in relationships with people, before you know it you are talking about things that matter most to you (“ultimate meaning” over “ulterior motives”).
The video below gives a good outline of the whole book. I grabbed a copy of his book and a magnet. Perhaps it would be a great exercise for the congregation in the near future.
Stay tuned for part III...