Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Healthy Congregations Focus on Mission

“Go out and train everyone you meet, far and near, in this way of life, marking them by baptism in the threefold name: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” Jesus, paraphrased by Eugene Peterson in The Message (Matthew 28:19)[1]

“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.” Yogi Berra[2]

Congregations are not algae or bacteria. That is to say: congregations are not single-cell creatures, concerned solely with their own survival.

Congregations are marvelous, complex, purposeful living bodies. They’re made up of many “cells” (disciples) who invariably want to accomplish more, make something new, and create fresh possibilities. Healthy congregations have a “life force” within them—the Holy Spirit--that frees them to focus on more than individual survival. Unable to help themselves, they simply have to reproduce, propagate, grow. When congregations stop doing these things, they die.

Have you noticed how when a congregation is first created we call it a mission church. If you’ve been part of a mission church you know how exciting that can be—building a congregation from scratch, rounding up seekers, forming community, starting programs and ministries, looking ahead to a first building project. There is also a keen sense of connection with the wider church—both the denomination (which may invest dollars) and neighboring congregations (which may encourage their own members to “seed” the mission church). The atmosphere is “electric” in a mission church.

Then, once the mission church is successfully planted and self-sustaining (hmmm—is a congregation ever self-sustaining?) we stop referring to it as a mission church, as if being and remaining a mission church wasn’t the goal. Now it’s one more “real” congregation that has somehow “arrived.” Over time, it may well lose the palpable sense of purpose and vibrant life with which it began. Maintenance of the status quo replaces risk-taking mission, costly service, and imaginative outreach.

What if our synod thought of itself as having 270+ mission churches? What if we kept calling congregations mission churches for as long as they live? What if we all realized that the only way to survive is to stop focusing on survival only—to turn our churches inside out, giving ourselves away as freely and lavishly as Christ gave himself for all?

Recovering a lively sense of mission is one of our most critical callings in these early years of the 21st century. Realizing that a congregation is more than just a place where religious folks gather to “do their thing,” is crucial. Reorienting ourselves to understand the church as a people sent on a mission is essential.

How does this happen? Often it’s triggered by a crisis or turning point. A tragedy forces us out of familiar patterns. The old ways simply aren’t working any longer. New opportunities rise to meet us.

Recently some of us visited Pelican Rapids, courtesy of Pastor Laurie Skow-Anderson and other leaders at Trinity Lutheran Church. This rural, “lakes country” town has been receiving many new immigrants from African and Hispanic cultures, attracted by jobs in a local food processing plant. What might seem like a problem is being perceived as an opportunity to make friends, offer care, and share Christ’s love. Mission questions keep popping up, and missional imagination is causing creative juices to flow. Folks at Trinity and other area churches are pondering what God might be calling them to do with all these new, fascinating neighbors?

It would be a mistake to suggest that “focusing on mission” is a piece of cake. No. This is hard work—clarifying and redefining God’s purposes for us in the thick of cultural transformation. Resistance from lovers of the status quo is real.

It usually helps if we at least take a stab at stating what we think our mission might be. A mission statement (or purpose statement) is simply a way for a congregation to define itself, to articulate its reasons for living and moving and having its being. Lutheran pastor and counselor Peter Steinke likes to say that a good mission statement
* Is no more than a single sentence in length;
* Is easily understood by a 12-year-old; and
* Can be recited from memory at gunpoint!
Such a mission statement can be “confessed” regularly (in worship and other places), even as it guides the leaders of a congregation in making choices and establishing priorities for the coming years.

Please consider your congregation’s mission or purpose statement a working document, though. Poke, prod and revise it regularly. It will change as surely as your mission will change in this constantly-changing world. If you’d like to help your congregation get in touch with its mission or purpose, please take a look at a book, Living Lutheran: Renewing Your Congregation (2007, Augsburg Fortress), written by Pastor David Daubert, who will be one of our major presenters at synod assembly, May 16-17 at Concordia College.

Your partner in God’s mission,
Bishop Larry Wohlrabe

Questions for reflection and discussion:
1. What are some ways God has been turning your congregation inside-out for the sake of others?
2. When did your congregation experience a crisis or turning point that led you all to taking another look at your purpose for existing as a church?
3. Can disciples in your congregation articulate your purpose or mission in a single, understandable, memorable sentence? How could you help your congregation to define its purpose or mission?

[1] Scripture taken from The Message. Copyright 1993, 1994, 1995, 1995, 2000, 2001, 2002. Used by permission of NavPress Publishing Group.
[2] Quoted by Peter Steinke in Healthy Congregations training materials, p. 37.

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