A season of service.
In one of the reports on an Annual Conference business item they talked about a survey that they sent out to many in the denomination asking them to describe the Church of the Brethren. The one thing that came back the strongest is that we are a denomination that believes in service to others. While some would be at a loss of words to describe why this trait ranks so high, I would offer an important yet simple explanation. I think that whether we would say it this way or not, the Brethren have figured out that it is through acts of service that we experience and embody the presence of Jesus. Serving others allows us to be the face of Christ to others, improving this world. And,at the same time we experience the presence of Christ in others, our lives are changed and enriched in the process.
It’s not surprising to me then that at a recent service commission meeting we found ourselves struck by all of the many acts of service that people in our congregation have been doing this summer and will be doing in the coming month or so. In particular we noticed that there are three events that our congregation, or individuals from our congregation have or will be participating in that are all happening within about a week of each other in the month of August.
August 5th is the *Convoy of Hope. This is a yearly event that organizes free access to school supplies, shoes, medical care, dental work, family pictures, prayer, and many other services for thousands of people. The demand has been so great that they have opened a second site at McAdams Park this year and are needing more volunteers. If you are interested please contact Stacie Cathcart at firstname.lastname@example.org . Then, on August 6th we begin our next week of hosting Family Promise at our church. Previous families have graduated and now we have families with many young kids, so the need for more hands is important. Then, on August 11th the Greater Wichita Ministerial League (The League focused on the African American community in Wichita) will be holding a banquet to honor the recipients of a brand new scholarship called the Hope Scholarship. It is aimed at helping minority kids go to college and trade schools. Our church has decided to sup-port this scholarship by buying tickets for 8 people to attend the banquet.
It was striking to the people at the Service Commission meeting how these opportunities to serve our local community are coming together in August. The more I thought about it, however, the more I was struck by all of the different ways that our church serves people in our community and around the world. Very quickly many different acts of service came to mind.
We continue to support a group of girls in South Sudan, enabling them to go on to further their education through the Second Step program of the New Community Project. Our church continues to support rebuilding efforts in Nigeria in the wake of the attacks by Boko Haram. This summer we even sent Curtis Rink to Nigeria to work with them and learn about their situation.
This summer, as in the past, we have sent people out to serve around this country and around the world. We sent Colby Patton and Mira Coulter on a service trip to Nepal. Todd Flory helped to lead a summer work camp.and Molly Stover-Brown attend a work camp this summer.
Even more indicative of our commitment to service are the many ways that people come together to serve others with little to no fanfare or recognition. I think of people who help a church neighbor or distribute food to those in need. Or, I think of those who come through the church office in need of a Dillon’s gift card or a meal out of the little red wagon. Or, I think of the many people who simply help someone in need because “it’s just what we do” and never tell another soul about their good deed.
Service is clearly one of the spiritual disciplines of our congregation. It’s a way that we form a community of believers, grow closer to the Spirit of God, and become more like Jesus. For this lesson in following Jesus I continue to be deeply humbled and grateful.
For two of the Sunday’s in June I’ve preached on the topic of being missional. Being missional is fundamentally about seeing what God’s mission is for the whole world and then getting involved with that mission. A key part of that, however, is shifting how we see ourselves and our role as everyday Christians. For many years missionaries were the people that the church would send overseas to some other place to do the work of connecting with new people and sharing the Gospel with them. These days, however, the mission field has become our own city and neighborhoods, which also means that each of us now must take on the work and the role of being a missionary. This shift also means some fairly significant things for what it means to gather together as the church. While there are many things to learn about doing this work, allow me to share one that effects most everything else that we do.
Cultural distance. Imagine that you’re a missionary dropped into a foreign culture talking with someone for the first time. Obviously, there are many differences between the culture that you were raised in and the culture of the per-son you’re talking with. Your goal may be to communicate the Gospel to them in a way that they understand. The problem is that every single one of those cultural differences provides a barrier to effective communication and under-standing. And each one of those barriers takes a certain amount of work.
In this image, imagine that you’re the person standing at M0 and the person you’re talking with is standing at M5. Each one of those lines represents a barrier that needs to be overcome. One might be language. One might be class. One might be race. One might be assumptions about family life. One might be age. One might be gender, and so on. While there are plenty of similarities that we can connect with, these different barriers between cultures do exist and they do take some work to overcome if we are to have meaningful understanding and communication of the Gospel.
One of the most basic and primary tasks of being a missionary is to overcome these cultural differences. When we think of overseas missionaries, this is the bulk of their work. What is important to realize is that while these differences might be obvious when thinking about overseas missionaries, the reality is that there are just as many of these cultural differences between those of us on the inside of the church and those who are out there in the world.
We might not always be aware of it because it is so familiar to many of us, but much of the culture of being and doing “church” is actually very strange to most other people. For example, singing a 4 part harmony hymn together as a group is a completely foreign and bizarre cultural artifact to most of the world. Singing hymns, and many other things we do in church, might give us warm fuzzy feelings, but for someone walking in off the street we might as well have started speaking in a foreign language. There is actually a significant amount of cultural difference between the church and the surrounding world. And that difference means two important things for us.
First, we need to remember that crossing those cultural differences takes work and that it’s our responsibility to do that work, not the new people we are hoping to connect with. Often we think about what we can do to attract new people to come here to our congregation. But what we of-ten forget is that when we do that, what we are really doing is asking them to do the hard work of crossing those cultur-al barriers, which means that we’re really asking them to do the work of being a missionary coming to us. That is not how it should be. We are the ones called by Jesus to go out and spread the word. We’re the ones motivated by our faith. Which means we’re the ones who have the responsibility to go out and do the work of crossing cultural boundaries.
The other thing to remember is that it is our responsibility to help new people navigate the culture of our church. On the off chance that someone has actually mustered the courage to cross those cultural boundaries and walk into this church, not knowing what they will expect, we need to remember and respect that they are attempting to navigate a foreign culture. This is why it is vitally important that when someone new shows up for a worship service that we help them navigate their way through the culture of church. A handshake and a smile is nice, but someone to sit with them and help them navigate the worship service is essential.
I have often said that the church, and in particular our church tradition, is strange…..and that’s a good thing! We’re supposed to be different than the world. That’s what makes us interesting, and salty (Matt 5:13). But at the same time, we need to recognize how we are culturally different than the world around us and be very intentional about crossing those cultural barriers and helping people navigate through those cultural difference so that we can share the Good News of the Kingdom of God.
Alan Kreider was a special man. When I knew him he was a relatively tall skinny man with grey hair, a near perfect match to his wife Eleanor. Alan was many things over the course of his life, but was primarily a professor and a missionary. He was an excellent scholar of church history, focusing primarily on the time period from the time of Jesus to about 400ce, a period known as the Early Church. He taught at numerous schools here in the U.S. and in England, most recently at AMBS, which is where I came to know him. In London, England he and his wife spent about 25 years as Mennonite missionaries. Now while it might seem hard to connect these two parts of Alan’s life, they are in fact intimately woven together in a profound way.
After Jesus lived and died, the movement that grew after him was one that lived on the margins of both Jewish and Roman society. It was often shunned, if not outright illegal. It was this loose network of house churches that collected a wide range of people from society. Between 300ce and 400ce this changed. In a period of about 60-70 years, Christianity went from being illegal to being the official religion of the Roman Empire. This shift marks the beginning of something called Christendom.
Over the next 1700 years or so, Christendom spread in many forms throughout Western Europe and around the world. Christendom can be seen in many ways. Sometimes it is a geographical region (think of Robin Hood saying, “in all of Christendom…”). It’s also an all-encompassing religious institution that exerts control over every aspect of life. It determines the social norms for all of society. Also, for the majority of that time, Christendom was the merger of the church and the government. This meant that, among other things, your taxes supported the church and church doctrine was enforceable by local law enforcement. It should also be said, however, that even though Christendom uses the language of Jesus and the Bible, in reality Christendom may or may not look anything like the Jesus of the Bible or the first followers in the Early Church. And in fact, our Anabaptist ancestors said that Christendom looked so little like Jesus that we needed to break away from it. More on that in a bit.
England is one of the places in the Western world that was dominated by Christendom for 1500 years. While there are certain vestiges of it still around, England is also clearly one of the places where Christendom has completely fallen apart and no longer holds the power and control over society that it used to. As missionaries in that landscape, Alan and Eleanor were confronted with trying to answer the question of what it means to be the church in a world where the church is no longer the center of society and must figure out how to live on the margins again. Fortunately, Alan knew a thing or two about another period in time when Christians and Christianity was not the center of society or the world.
Alan had a deep and scholarly knowledge about the Early Church, but the pursuit of that knowledge was not merely academic. He had a conviction that Christendom is falling apart. This system of dominance of Western societies (and many other societies for that matter) is crumbling, and do-ing so quickly. For Alan, the question was not how can we prop up this crumbling system, but rather how can we faith-fully be the church of Jesus Christ on the margins? When answering that question, he applied what he knew about the first Christians who were very good at doing just that.
What’s more, Alan drew wisdom from our Anabaptist tradition as well. Yes, the Early Church knew how to live on the margins of society. However, for about 500 years or so now, our Anabaptist ancestors have rather boldly claimed that Christendom, in reality, did not match up very well with the Jesus we find in scripture. It is our tradition, and was one of the first in the modern era to say that this all-encompassing merger of church and state and society is actually a distortion of Jesus and his Gospel and not a fulfillment of it. All of this put together means that we might not only welcome the downfall of Christendom, but that we have very good reasons to think that our tradition in particular has something very meaningful to contribute to the new landscape of Christianity that is being ushered in.
Alan was a man who knew history well, but who also understood how it can inspire us and energize us to be agents of the amazingly good news of Jesus Christ right in our own neighborhoods and workplaces and coffee shops and schools. He was a man who was infectiously hopeful about the world that we inhabit and supremely grateful for every minute that God gives us to take another breath.
As I’ve been remembering him in the last several weeks, I’ve been going back to watch some videos of him speaking, reading through some old notes from classes, and even beginning to read his last published book. As I’ve done this I have been shown just how much his worldview has shaped mine. I have also been inspired once again for the work of being the church. I have been reminded of just how exciting and life-giving the calling is, that every sin-gle one of us as disciples has to go out into this world, build relationships and invite people into another way of living.
If you want a taste of Alan, you can follow this youtube link to an excerpt from one of his presentations. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2T7yb3WQ3G8
Each month for our newsletter Pastor Alan writes a short article on a variety of topics. At times he will also create a video version of the article.