Pope Francis is calling Catholics to embrace missionary discipleship as our new operating system so as to reach those on the margins and peripheries with the saving love of Jesus. I need help in this foreign territory. There’s no map, at least none that I have found. And by help, I mean help of real people in the context of community. Podcasts and books and blogs are just not cutting it for me anymore.
The gathering was eclectic and encouraging. The setting was St Mark’s Episcopal Church in a quaint and lovely neighborhood setting on Capitol Hill. The crowd was a bunch of kingdom-hungry, justice-seeking, responsibility-taking Christians. I’m pretty sure that out of the 200+ in attendance, I was the only Catholic - let alone priest. Everyone was welcoming, but many were surprised and some thought I must be a real subversive.
I loved hearing new categories and terminology. As missional practitioners, these people have names for things that in Catholic circles are often lacking. Perhaps this is due to our deficit in missional training and experience. For example, I do not typically hear terms like 'mutual submission,' 'communal discernment,' 'compassionate curiosity,' 'polycentric leadership,' and the quest for 'embodied Christian practice.' My understanding was really broadened.
This is post megachurch ecclesiology with a bias for the local, the grassroots, and the relational. Fed by the conviction that God is already at work in neighborhoods and individuals, we are called to go forth in mission to incarnate the gospel and ourselves, engaging in embodied practices within actual contexts. We are called to listen, befriend, accompany, and share life as we seek to partner with what God is doing in the renewal of all things in given places. This becomes the essence of discipleship.
There is a real desire to return to basics in order to minister and disciple as Jesus did in the gospels, especially in gathering a core team of committed disciples who eat, drink, and share life together.
Here are a few personal takeaways:
Overeducated, Under practiced
One lead pastor threw out this term and it really packed a wallop for me. In fact, it perfectly captured where I feel I currently am at. He was describing his background ministering in a megachurch, and how his growing desire for a more missional and relational church experience led him toward church planting. He read and read but finally realized that he had to take some real-life risk and step out in faith. After praying and fasting, he invited some friends to join him in discerning a call to go in a new direction. He is beginning to see some really cool fruit.
Social God, Sending God
I find this terminology really helpful. God is a Trinitarian communion, relational by nature. The Father sends the Son on a saving mission to redeem us, and the Son in turn sends out His Spirit to empower existing disciples to go forth and make new ones. A church should look like its God. There is a continual back-and-forth rhythm between social relationship and sending that takes place in a healthy church. If this is lacking, we need to ask why our church does not look like our God.
One of the most striking presentations was by A.J. Swoboda from Theophilus Church in Portland. He talked of the hidden wounds, fears and pathologies in pastoral leaders. Lack of self-awareness can sink a pastor and a congregation. He spoke of leading out of vulnerability and the perils of the unchecked narcissistic ego. I loved how honest this guy was. Most impressive was his observation that in the end, there is no substitute for spending quiet time in the Presence. No technique, book, program or podcast can cover for a spiritually and emotionally malnourished pastor.
This is a principle of Catholic social teaching which insists on de-centralization and doing things on the most local and personal level possible. You will probably never hear the word outside papal documents, and unfortunately, it is a principle found more often in theory than in practice. Ironically, I have rarely seen subsidiarity in action so much as at this conference of non-Catholic Christians. These are responsibility-takers who are not waiting for “the church” to act. They are the church, and they are acting.
The Gospel does not float around as an idea that goes from mind to mind. The real Gospel begs for embodiment in people, contexts, places and neighborhoods. There has been a tendency to devalue place within hyper-mobile suburban American culture. When reduced to ideology and method, the church becomes a colonizing strategy rather than a renewing force for the neighborhood partnering with the good work God has already begun.
The crowd was refreshingly diverse, and many presentations dealt specifically with issues of reconciliation and justice. I have to admit, I usually cringe and check out here because even in church I’ve come to expect the world’s shrill ideology and harsh invective here. That’s why I was so surprised and delighted to hear GOSPEL PERSPECTIVE on things like Black Lives Matter. In my world, we tend to just ignore unpleasant issues around race and gender. I was convicted (in a good way) to ask anew: Who is my neighbor? And… What is my responsibility towards the other? Man, there is A LOT of work to be done here.
Nobody mentioned it, but I could not get over the fact that we were blocks away from the nation’s Capitol planning Kingdom breakthrough during the thick of election year. I could not help thinking we are part of God's subversive plan to renew the country His way, gathering in this unassuming church under the shadow of the Capitol where most eyes are focused.
This was a provocative and challenging conference. I am grateful for the organizers, and eager to see how the Lord uses it to bless me and those with whom I serve.
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