I write these words just after our Easter service, so there are a few alleluias still ringing in my ears from our hymns, prayers, and proclamation. Easter is the “center” of the Christian year, and the celebration of resurrection and new life is the constant rhythm underlying all of our religious observances. We are a people shaped by great hope!
Sometimes, though, that great hope seems a bit distant. We live in the midst of a challenging time as North American Christian congregations are largely in decline. Nevertheless, First Baptist has a unique opportunity to “practice resurrection” (poet Wendell Berry’s provocative phrase). Indeed, there are congregations just like First Baptist who are experiencing new life, even though the trends and experts would say otherwise. In part, this change is due to a willingness to look out at the unknown and start rowing towards it.
Last year, Ron Carlson from National Ministries introduced us to the concept of the missional church. Missional churches are congregations willing to look at their ministry with new eyes. “Mission work” becomes less of a line item in an annual budget for ministry in places elsewhere (global or national, but not “right here”) or the occasional provision of emergency benevolence funds or assistance when persons are in crisis. “Missional churches” are contrary minded enough to know that the measure of a congregation’s health is not attendance numbers at a service on Sunday morning. Rather, a congregation flourishes when the persons who are part of the congregation become involved in the issues and needs of the community where they are located. We become the “hands and feet” of Christ in the world.
Such congregations also realize that they do not need to depend on their own resources and people alone. Partnerships and creative networking will move a congregation forward when they want to get involved in their community. Congregations who become “missional” in their outlook begin to find themselves proclaiming the faith in a new way. Not just through Sunday morning worship or occasional acts of benevolence, but in ever deepening and creative ways.
Bits of this way of thinking are already showing fruit in the life of the congregation. This winter, the deacon board heard of the need in area schools for warm socks. Many children in our schools go through the winter without “winter weather appropriate” socks. A school nurse mentioned this, and the deacons began working on finding quantities of socks. In the end, shrewd shopping netted enough socks that three schools, rather than just one, received socks for children.
A missional approach to this scenario might look like this: congregants from First Baptist agree to learn more about the school children’s needs in Bennington area schools. They meet with school officials to learn what sorts of needs can be met (one early learning: school nurses need underwear as well as socks for children). Talking with social service agencies in town will build partnerships, so that whatever First Baptist helps coordinate is not redundant to already existing efforts. Congregants invite others that they know who would be interested in joining the effort: persons from other religious groups as well as persons who are not necessarily religious but feel some “common ground” or affinity with this project. The project becomes more organic than institutional: an effort began by First Baptist multiplies far more broadly than if just left to our own resources.
Missional ways also enhance the way that we share the gospel with other people. St. Francis of Assisi wisely said, “Preach the gospel always. Use words when necessary.” We still worship each Sunday to the glory and praise of God. The missional way, however, allows us to connect the faith we proclaim to the world in ways that will be as diverse as they are many.
Grace and Peace,
The Rev. Jerrod Hugenot