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About the Author
Sarah Cunningham is the author of Dear Church: Letters From a Disillusioned Generation and the founder of the blog and web resource found at www.sarahcunningham.org. Sarah received her Masters in Administrative Leadership at Concordia University, taught at-risk urban high schoolers for almost nine years, and this year began full-time ministry in the Christian conference world. She is currently a member and occasional Sunday morning speaker at Rivertree, a Wesleyan church plant in Jackson, Michigan. Sarah lives with her husband, Chuck, their son, Justus, and their manic Jack Russell Terrier, Wrigley.
Read an Excerpt
How to Take Your Church to the Community
By Sarah Cunningham
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2013 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Origins of a Portable Faith
"The church?" The middle-aged woman behind the desk at the local bond office asked incredulously, tucking a stray strand of silvering-brown hair behind her ear. "I don't see how 'the church' would change anything about a community. There have been churches here since before the city was chartered."
The woman, although saying things that felt inflammatory to my seasoned religious ears, was difficult to dislike given her gentle-flowing tone and the weathered, mom-of-many smile lines that framed her eyes. I could imagine her bustling about a kitchen in a flour-covered apron, basting a turkey and offering me a tall glass of milk on Thanksgiving.
"There's at least a dozen churches within a four-block radius of here and that doesn't change anything." She gestured at the surrounding area almost sympathetically. "The city is the same as it's always been. Same problems, same hardship, same cycles. Churches hold weekly services for anyone who wants to come, but I don't think there's any reason to believe they impact people beyond their own buildings."
This was the comment, offered as nothing more than matter-of-fact observation, that set the course for the next five years of my life and influenced the way I would look at the world and faith for many years to come.
It was 1999.
I was a bold-to-a-fault, save-the-world twenty-something raised on a diet of communion and Sunday potlucks. And I was the wrong person ... or maybe I was exactly the right person ... to offer this comment to because it instantly and deeply offended me in a way that changed my life.
As I drove home from that day's round of interviews, which aimed to collect suggestions about how local churches could serve our city, tears stung the corners of my eyes. Not because I believed the woman's words to be purposefully assaulting or antagonistic, but for exactly the opposite reason. I could see on the woman's face, in her eyes, that she believed what she was saying in the deepest places of her being.
She assessed the church to be empty and void ... dead.
And she was okay, even disturbingly at peace, with that.
But I was not.
The muscle-less, impact-less church secluded behind four brick walls this woman depicted was not the church I knew. It was not the community of believers envisioned by the Jesus I knew, or the one championed by the first-century followers of God I read about, either.
The most infuriating thing about the woman's commentary was that it was not wholly without merit.
Certainly, the faith community impacted our city in ways she didn't observe. I knew this for a fact. I'd seen the hearts of some churches melt for our community.
But it wasn't a mystery how the woman came to this conclusion. Most churches in our community had adopted a model that seemed, at least from outside appearance, to be based on "coming"—coming to Sunday services, Wednesday night services, small groups, vacation Bible schools, even softball games. And that meant the city residents most likely to be directly impacted by these churches were the people inside the church buildings.
Here is the church. Here is the steeple. Open up and see all the people.
Despite the popular children's rhyme and despite growing up as a pastor's kid and logging hundreds—maybe thousands—of hours in church pews, I knew in the sinking, what-is-true part of my gut that "coming" was not the verb Jesus had used in his parting shot to the disciples. "Come join us" was a decidedly different invitation than "go into all the world." And "inviting ones" was almost the polar opposite identity as "sent ones," the term attached to those first believing "apostles" who bore the message of Jesus.
The more I thought about the verbiage we lived out as churches, the more intensely I squinted at one of the core values of my own local church, which proclaimed "All People Matter to God."
All people. Inside the church, outside the church. People like the majority, people unlike the majority. All of them.
I was sure in my soul this was right. That all people mattered to God. Though I wasn't sure churches always knew exactly how to demonstrate how much we, and our God, valued the residents of our communities.
In my own small city, estimates claimed one out of six people were "churched." That meant about 16 percent of residents were thought to have a regular connection to a local Christian congregation. Churches, of course, knew how to demonstrate this 16 percent mattered. We spent all week crafting sermon series, designing graphics, churning out bulletins, creating children's programming, and hosting events for the one out of six people who would be inside our buildings each week.
But was this 16 percent supposed to be the only or even main group we intentionally built relationship with? And what was the best way to divide our focus between the one out of six people who showed up on Sundays wanting to know Jesus and the five-sixths of our local "world" whom we were specifically told to "go" and reach?
This of course is part of the timeless challenge the church or any institution faces. How do you rotate multiple priorities—church and community, coming and going, infrastructure and vitality—around the burners with enough regularity to keep every pan warm? Nevertheless, this challenge of learning to practice a more portable faith, individually and as a church, gripped me.
As I drove home from the day of interviews, I determined in the way messily passionate twenty-somethings do, that this goal of going to the "all" in "all people" would be one I would stake my life in. Thus, I set out to imagine new models. To figure out what it meant for me to live and be church in our community, first alongside the local church where I worked, and eventually by getting the chance to speak into many congregations beyond it.
As my determination to serve our surrounding community grew, my lead pastor and the board of elders invited me to develop our church's first-ever full-time staff position designed to build relationships with people outside our building's four walls.
This job was a blatant gift—perhaps one of the most important and generous of my life—and an ideal proving ground to test my hypotheses about living and being church. It provided a steady laboratory for learning how to practice faith again as a going community. That is not to say it was easy to inspire cultural and priority shifts in an already established church. Some days it wasn't. But in the everyday gains and setbacks attached to this new role, I developed a striking sense of confidence that the challenge of going to society's margins was not one that would or should be localized to only our church or our community.
And so, as our church forayed into new territory on the home front, I quietly began writing articles about "finding the all in all people" for denominational magazines. The content, I quickly found, seemed just as relevant and just as needed in Presbyterian materials or Evangelical Free ones as it was to my local nondenominational community.
As a result, over time, while interacting with other churches and denominations, while making plenty of mistakes and benefiting from lots of gracious counsel, my fellow attenders and I learned a few things about how to live and be church and how to invite other like-minded believers to do the same.
The following pages contain the practical how-tos of how we learned to embed seeds in our church's programming that, over time, grew a more portable definition of faith. I've told pieces of this story before, wedged into the larger narratives of my first two books, Dear Church: Letters From a Disillusioned Generation and Picking Dandelions: A Search for Eden Among Life's Weeds, but most of this book is unshared content I was inspired to make available by audiences I've interacted with since 2006, when the first edition of Dear Church came out.
While traveling and speaking about my books, it didn't take me long to start wondering whether I'd written the wrong titles. After sweeping into a town and passionately delivering my thirty-minute spiel about why it was not okay that my generation was searching for truth everywhere but the one place Jesus appointed to dispense it, I would often allow time for a Q & A.
And this is the type of question that would arise. Almost every time:
"In the middle of the book, you mention that you offered single-parent car clinics. How did that work?"
My first answer was almost always philosophical, like the books. "We identified single parents as a group of people who sometimes felt marginalized by the church," I would say sweetly. "We then set out to value them by hearing their needs and caring for them."
The questioner would nod patiently, waiting for me to finish. "But what I want to know is how you did it. I mean, did you put up posters? How did you find the single parents? Who performed the work? Did the church underwrite any expenses?"
It was then I would often stare dumbfounded at the questioner, who now sat with a pen poised on top of a piece of paper, ready to write down my verbal instructions.
And I would realize maybe it would've been more practical to write a book that not only told the story of why I wanted to learn to live and be church outside the building's four walls but a book that also suggested a few ways for how others might do it as well.
Here, my friends, is the book and corresponding web resources I perhaps should've written in the first place.CHAPTER 2
Reflections on the Meaning of Church
For those of us who grew up over a lifetime of Sundays, weekend services were often seen as the happy climax to the church's spiritual week.
This was especially true in my case.
Sundays were noticeably elevated from the rest of my week. They were mysterious, sensuous, full of ambience. The wooden pews, whose ends curled into elegant swirls of carved wood, smelled faintly of Murphy's oil soap as they cushioned me in deep teal fabric. I felt enthroned on them. Poised for something important.
My foot would rock methodically as live music swelled to fill the sanctuary, sending drumbeats and vocal riffs floating to the glossy knotted pine rafters. My fingers traced the goose-bumped cover and translucent, tissue-thin pages of ancient Scripture. The rows of black and sometimes red print held story and wisdom worthy of its gold-rimmed pages. Even to a child, the reading was hearty and satisfying. An indulgence as sweet as chocolate and as filling as a Sunday roast.
By some great feat of architecture, even the church building itself seemed enchanted, as if positioned to pull in the high noon sun. And so just before the invitational hymn drew the audience to their feet, loose streams of sun would pierce the colored windows, painting a kaleidoscope of reflections onto the floor and walls.
The carpeted aisles people solemnly walked during altar calls were also known to hum with a sort of electric, person-to-person warmth as well. This collective charm was robust and nourishing, the type that resulted only when you gathered a familiar community from vantage points around the city to some pew or foyer or other holy meeting ground.
And in some rare moments, I remember, the room fell into a beautiful silence, as if some faint and sacred voice was whispering to everyone in attendance, entreating us to listen carefully. Taking us gently by the chins and lulling our minds into reflection and solitude.
It was a holy shushing.
At first, then, my definition of church was firmly rooted in childhood Sundays. So much so that it was difficult to imagine how a congregation might express faith outside of weekend service grandiose.
Initially, my ideas were thick with systems.
I focused on building formal partnerships between a lumbering religious institution and other organizations in the community. To benefit these local organizations, we started programs. And most of the programs—if I am honest—barely differed from our in-house teams and ministries. Attenders did little more than exchange the one or two hours they'd previously spent in small groups or Bible studies for one or two hours of equivalent time at a soup kitchen or public park.
It was a shallow trade-off that did little more than move our chess pieces from one place to another.
These ministry attempts didn't foster long-term relationships between people in our church and people outside of it. And they only filled small, designated windows of time during other days of the week, rather than inspiring a 24/7 lifestyle of being and living church.
In hindsight, the shortcomings of these initial attempts should not have been surprising. Getting at people's "insides" is an altogether bigger, more profound, and harder-to-measure undertaking than plugging them into mission trips or service projects. It is easy enough to slip attenders a schedule for preparing meals for the homeless every other Saturday from 2:00 to 4:00. It is much harder to inspire living, breathing humans to carry faith in their everyday breath and movements, everywhere they go.
Thankfully, though, our church continued learning and refining (not to mention making more mistakes) and eventually discovered more transforming ways of relating to our community.
The pages to come, then, are not designed to serve as a how-to manual, but to provide food for thought as you search for how to best live and be church in your community. As you read, I hope you will find principles to borrow from, build on, or take to a new level. But please take only what is useful and discard all that doesn't fit well in your context.
The ideas in this book are designed to be compatible with conventional church; to work alongside tradition without diminishing it or trying to show it up.
Church buildings are respected as important refuges of worship and learning, as sacred fixtures of community that preserve truths and ideals across geography and time. They house gatherings of people who—like the apostle Peter—know Jesus as the Christ, the son of the living God.
At the same time, the coming pages acknowledge faith existed in the deserts of Israel even before the Tabernacle or Temple were constructed. And that similarly, in Jesus' day, he didn't find the strongest belief in the synagogues, but on the margins of the New Testament world, in both people and places where it wasn't expected to surface.
This book suggests that faith, while often celebrated in churches, can still retain its portable qualities today. That it can rise in the warm, ambient lighting of a woodworked sanctuary but can just as validly seep through brick and mortar to grow up between people on a hillside or city street. That we can carry it wherever we go.
What you're about to read, then, doesn't seek to dismantle what you call church but rather to inspire wonder around how the ancient notion of going might deepen the way you live out your faith in God.
The phrase "church outreach" has been purposefully omitted from this book's title because the terms used by those in full-time ministry are too often dismissed by mainstream church attenders. Books labeled "outreach" too often only find homes on the shelves of church staff members who oversee outreach or evangelism programs. Or are only read by those perceived as "radicals," people who lead protests, lobby politicians, and leave the suburbs to live in the inner city.
But I firmly believe that when we treat the practice of the Great Commission like an assignment that belongs only to church staffs and social zealots, we do the rest of the people who follow Jesus a massive disservice. That we may, in fact, cheat ourselves out of the broader communal life God intended for us.
Portable Faith speaks to the development of belief itself, of how a person—any person, anywhere—wears faith in the normal routines of his or her life. It's an invitation for people of faith—social workers, soccer moms, capitol protestors, cubicle dwellers, activists, suburban home owners, white-collar workers, blue-collar workers, everyone —to imagine new ways of living and being church together.CHAPTER 3
Insights on Being the Portable Church
Alas, we were not around in the first century to foot the hillsides with the disciples, arguing over whether it was polite to shoo away the children loitering around Jesus or whether it was reasonable to boot the hungry crowd to the nearest village to find their own bread.
Nor were we present for the holy hoopla of the early church, for the flaming tongues of fire, or for the fine dining and loot-sharing of Acts 2.
We don't know firsthand what the church looked, felt, or smelled like during the persecutions of Rome, the endorsement of Constantine, or the introduction of monastic communities. We didn't personally experience how it changed during the Great Schism, the Reformation, or the heyday of Puritanism. And we narrowly missed, by a couple hundred years, the circuit preachers and traveling revivalists of the Great Awakening and Second Great Awakening.
Somewhere in the twentieth or twenty-first centuries, the ecumenicals, fundamentalists, and charismatics broke onto the religious landscape, and in the long course of their rise to prominence, our generation and its church models were born.
We do, of course, know a few things about how we arrived at today's Western church models, mostly thanks to scraps of history passed through textbooks and church records.
We know, for example, that churches didn't meet in homes until designated spaces for worship became legal and even privileged under Constantine. That it wasn't until the eleventh century that a wave of cathedrals and parish churches started to surface across Western Europe. And that in the sixteenth century, the Catholics developed a taste for ornate churches with marble sculptures and gold fittings while the Protestants exchanged ancient altars for communion tables and pulpits.
Excerpted from Portable Faith by Sarah Cunningham. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Who This Book Is For,
How This Book Is Organized,
Chapter One: The Origins of a Portable Faith,
Chapter Two: Reflections on the Meaning of Church,
Chapter Three: Insights on Being the Portable Church,
Chapter Four: How to Train the Portable Church,
Exercises for the Portable Church,