mission

Exploring the Inhabit Conference: Part II

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.

Day 2:

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

Alan Roxburgh

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...

Exploring the Inhabit Conference: Part I

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 a gathering of practitioners and theorist one the theme of 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.

The conference was really enlightening for me. There was so much going on, however, that I thought I would break down my reflections in to four parts that I'd share over the next few weeks. Here's part one:

Day One:

The whole conference took place at the School’s campus in downtown Seattle, only blocks from the waterfront. While I was excited for all the potentially interesting ideas, I was initially worried that the urban emphasis of the conference might be harder to translate to our less urban/more rural context in the Comox Valley.

Nicole Baker Fulgham

Nicole Baker Fulgham

The context issue became even more apparent with the first two speakers. The first speaker was Nicole Baker Fulgham on “Educating All God’s Children,” and was about churches banding together for advocacy initiatives for the sake alleviating the disparities in American schools. While we have our own challenges (the continuing erosion of public education) and racial disparities (especially when it comes to First Nations schooling), generally the Canadian education system is not facing the same large challenges of the U.S. system. Not only that, but I wondered if Canadian mainline churches have the same energy or influence to take on such large-scale advocacy efforts.

Nonetheless, the work of her group is inspiring in terms of the amount of change they have been able to generate through lobbying various levels of government. I was caught by her phrase when she described the church—the people of Jesus—as “people who know what’s possible.” If we truly believe in a God that is at work healing our lives and mending the world, why shouldn’t we believe that justice, mercy, and equality in the public sphere is not only possible, but part of God’s divine dream for creation? Somehow, we as the church have bought in to the scarcity mindset—that there is never enough to go around—rather than the abundance of the Lord’s Table.

Alexie Torres-Fleming

Alexie Torres-Fleming

I had similar contextual questions about the second speaker, Alexie Torres-Fleming’ talk “Building the ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven’ in Rural America.” Torres-Fleming has an incredible story about growing up dirt poor in the Bronx to a Puerto-Rican family and finding her way out of the neighborhood and into the world of high corporate finance. The most interesting part of her story was the point that she made that kids growing up in poor and immigrant neighborhoods are encouraged to leave those neighborhoods as the way to success. This leads to a distorted self-image on one hand, and a drain of talented young people leaving the community on the other. Torres-Fleming, however, found herself lured back to her neighborhood by Rev. Mike “the Fighting Franciscan” Tyson, a local parish priest who convinced her to come back to work in and behalf of her own community in her own neighborhood. With the passionate heart of a preacher, Torres-Fleming inspired by pointed to Isaiah 58:12 as an image for the Christian vocation in neighborhoods like hers:

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
   you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
   the restorer of streets to live in.

While it’s not the same context by any means, I couldn’t help but think of our own issue in the Comox Valley—that for many of our children, “success” will be found only in leaving our community due to the perceived lack of economic opportunity. How can we create opportunities for people to find roots that benefit the common good—faith and otherwise—in this place that we love? How are we called to further “inhabit” our community to act as “repairers of the breach” and “restorers of streets to live in”? It sounds something like our vision to be a "beacon of God's hope and light in our community," if you ask me.