Disciple: Mission Out in the World
Rethinking ministry through re-establishing relationship
By the Rev. Audra Abt and the Rev. Dr. Chantal Morales McKinney
Our Risen Lord Jesus Christ calls us to “Go,” and when we do, we can trust that Christ is out there ahead of us, beckoning and saying, “Come.” When we choose to step out of our church comfort zones and take some risks to be part of ministry in the world, we find that God blesses us and those we meet in amazing ways. This is what we’ve experienced at two mission sites in our diocese: Christ’s Beloved Community/Comunidad Amada de Cristo in Winston-Salem and Comunidad Puerta Abierta in the greater Greensboro area.
For the past several years, we’ve been blessed to be part of the ministry teams engaging the community in these areas. Though the ministries took different shapes, they share an approach that centers on building relationships with people outside of church membership and discovering their gifts and resilience as the keys to revitalizing church ministries.
CHRIST’S BELOVED COMMUNITY / COMUNIDAD AMADA DE CRISTO
The sign out front of the A-frame church building on South Main Street in Winston-Salem says “Christ Lutheran Welcomes Christ’s Beloved Community,” but other than that it may not be immediately apparent how God has been dreaming a new creation there. Through basic one-on-one conversation and deep relationship building since 2014, God opened doors again and again for this new church to be formed. A small, aging Lutheran congregation opened its space by way of permanent agreement, and it was transformed into a bilingual, Episcopal and Lutheran neighborhood-based congregation-under-development.
From the parking lot, one can see neighbors’ homes and can imagine young people coming after school to play on the new playground set or tending a community garden that could take shape on the land before coming inside to do homework, access the internet and share the good story of Jesus and God’s holy people. Inside, the ministry team continues to renovate the church building, creating a community center that includes a bilingual food pantry, fellowship hall, youth space, children’s space, and adult and community meeting spaces. Months of listening to their neighbors shaped the church’s vision, and it is the neighbors (many of them youth) who helped to paint, pass out flyers, install a swing set and more. Area churches, neighbors and the growing congregation work together to pray, play, create and build this new church into existence. Leadership, visioning and mission are all shared. With this approach, people are invited into a communal experience that is ultimately what church is about: living into a shared love and a shared commitment to each other as the beloved community of Christ.
It is built on a foundation that began with approaching people with vulnerability and a simple desire to know them, to discover Christ in them and to understand the neighborhood through their eyes as a place of lived struggles and lived faith. During the ministry’s first 12 to 18 months as a street ministry, the missioners focused entirely on meeting neighbors and staying as open as possible to them and the movement of the Holy Spirit. Being vulnerable meant studying the Gospel of Mark and the way Jesus sent out his disciples two-by-two with nothing to protect them and, therefore, with nothing to keep them at a distance from the people they would soon meet. Like Jesus’s disciples, they discovered the Kingdom of God was very near to them, and they walked away from encounters with neighbors inspired by what God was doing in their lives. Mutual prayer and conversations about the blessings and challenges of living in Southside, Winston-Salem, led to praying and dreaming of how they might all work together to create a community of faith and a community center open to using people’s gifts in the neighborhood and serving those who walked through its doors.
PUERTA ABIERTA AND THE NORTH GREENSBORO CORRIDOR
Puerta Abierta, a bilingual house church in Greensboro that gathers for worship once a month and for various community events, also has its roots in listening, exploring and deepening relationships within a community. It, too, began in 2014 in answer to serving a few Spanish-speaking parishioners of St. Andrew’s, Greensboro, who faithfully attended the English-language services but missed the language and worship style of their home cultures. When a Spanish-language Eucharist was offered in St. Andrew’s chapel, more than twice the expected number of people attended. Watching native Spanish speakers, English speakers and bilingual worshipers bridge the language gap, the idea formed of radical welcome by stepping outside of church walls to be the church in their Greensboro neighborhood.
The model for house church community focuses on gatherings in neighborhoods and homes. Deeply scriptural, it features lay-led Bible study, prayer, table fellowship and local service to others. Priests serve as travellers, presiding at home Eucharist, offering ongoing formation for lay readers, and delivering news of other house churches.
As the house church community grew, those in attendance included not just a mixture of Spanish and English speakers, but Lutherans, Catholics and even a few “nones.” It became a reflection of the community it called home.
Further connecting with lay and clergy leaders of several churches in Greensboro led to the creation of a collaborative missional venture that includes prayer walks, asset-based community engagement and a collaborative approach to ministry. Church of the Holy Spirit, St. Francis and St. Barnabas, all in Greensboro, work and venture together to discover how the Holy Spirit might use their gifts to turn outward and into their neighborhoods. Some of this discovery takes place during prayer walks, where parishioners gather, reflect on Scripture and then go out, seeking to pray with one another and the neighbors they encounter, deepening their relationships with the community around them. As they go out, they pay attention to where there might be a yearning for God. They also allow the neighbors to pray for them, making it truly mutual. Those participating in these prayer walks acknowledge they receive as many blessings as they might give. They are wide open to the ways that God will move and shape their missionary efforts.
Though they look very different, Christ’s Beloved Community and Puerta Abierta were built on a similar approach: meeting neighbors where they were, and focusing on listening to what they had to say instead of trying to be a provider of answers. At no time did we start out with an intention to “fix;” the focus was on being vulnerable and humble, and staying open to discovering the gifts in those we met.
As we oriented our ministries toward the world, we kept the emphasis on relationship rather than programs. We came to see that the notion of “worship on Sunday at 11 a.m.” wasn’t always the best time for those in our communities. Worship and service during the week was every bit as important — if not more so — than the traditional format. Though we kept close our sacred teachings, we did not let tradition get in the way of following Jesus and hearing what our neighbors had to say.
We emphasized prayer, always staying rooted in Scripture and remembering how Jesus equips us to go out in the world. As we met and prayed with our neighbors, we returned to knock on their doors again to pray, to invite them on our journey and to accept invitations to walk with them on theirs.
We took the time to talk with each other after going out, sharing stories of who we met and the stories we heard. It helped everyone involved to start seeing what God was trying to reveal to us in the people we encountered.
And we were patient, always understanding that genuine relationships cannot be rushed; they take time, just as God’s dream or vision takes time to unfold.
ENCOUNTERING GOD IN CHRIST
When we leave the church walls and step outside into the world, we enter into a more missional way of life. At that point, we are likely to experience the challenge of wanting immediate results in a perfect form. And yet that is both the burden and the blessing of being missional. Missional engagement with the world requires that we rely on God to lead us to people in the world. We rely on God’s timing to open doors to new possibilities. We rely on the Holy Spirit to guide and guard us. And we rely on the missional call that God places in our hearts as we follow God’s lead. The journey itself becomes the means to encountering God in Christ.
The Rev. Audra Abt is the vicar at Holy Spirit, Greensboro, and the former diocesan missioner for Latino/Hispanic ministry. The Rev. Dr. Chantal McKinney is the church planter and founding pastor of Christ’s Beloved Community, Winston-Salem.