In 2009, after twenty-three years at a church I had witnessed grow from 100 to 2000 people, I discerned it was time to move on. It was a very complex decision, fraught with fear and struggle, and there is not space here to explore all that. What compounded the difficulty of the decision was that I had also served as the founding youth pastor, and sensed it was time to part from a ministry I had poured my life into for the past fifteen years. I moved on to the Free Methodist church in my town, and very slowly found a loving church community there.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but this transition took a long time for me to work through; in fact, I did not feel emotionally ready to step back into church ministry for three years. Nevertheless, I started feeling a subtle shoulder tap at that point, and slowly dipped my toe into the waters of discernment and prayer. Here I am Lord; send me!
A group of about eight of us formed, and we began to pray about surrounding neighborhoods where our church was not connected. Wanting to take the call to “love your neighbor” seriously, we spent some time in Luke 10:1-12, and collectively practiced Lectio Divina in our reading and listening of the text. For months, we read over this powerful passage, in which Jesus sends out seventy to go ahead of him. Learning from his directions, we sensed the call to take nothing with us, to seek out people of peace, and to wait to be welcomed in. Despite thirty years of ministry experience, I had never taken such a big leap before. I was accustomed to coming well-prepared with programs and plans, full of initiative and confident energy. Bring nothing with me? This would be a vulnerable step of faith. I had gone on loads of short-term mission trips over the years; but I realized I had not really ever been “missional” in this way.
I should also note that we were stepping into a neighborhood very different from our own experience. Over the months of Lectio Divina together, our group grew to about twenty people, most of them having recently graduated from college. We were (and still are) a group of well-educated, affluent folks who had grown up for the most part in the evangelical church. Only two miles away from our church was a neighborhood called the “Westside,” that was 70% Latino, a third of whom lived in poverty, all of whom had some affiliation with the Roman Catholic Church. Most Westsiders spoke Spanish at home, and only a handful of us spoke Spanish conversationally at best. Nevertheless, we wanted to love our neighbor, so we determined to go on mission to the Westside and see what God had in store.
We had communicated these ideas to church leadership, and by June 2013 the lead pastor was excited to commission us for the new ministry! We had not trumpeted our plans with the congregation up to this point, though we did not hide them either. When the time came for us to be prayed for up front, there was surprise and frankly, a little bit of … dismay? While this church community had heartily supported missions for decades (and even sent out some home-grown missionaries to other parts of the world), there was some fearfulness and unfamiliarity in having a group stay in town but still “go on mission.” Weren’t we going to negatively impact the church by “taking” these leaders from the church? Wasn’t there plenty of ministry to do at the church? Wouldn’t these young people do better in trying to reach out to their hipster, Millennial peers?
Perhaps these responses were summed up best in a question I received after the commissioning service (and let’s be clear, this was asked in affection and love): “Why are you leaving us?”
Each time some form of this question was asked, I responded the same way: “We aren’t leaving; we are going.” As InterVarsity Christian Fellowship used to tell us when we were seeking to reach out to our friends in the dorms, “How can you go across the world when you won’t even go across the hall?” Despite the fears of some of our fellow church members, we happily forged ahead.
Since then, these last three years have been an adventure. Many times we have been excited and encouraged as we have experienced true miracles. Other times we have been baffled and nearly broken by setbacks and division in our midst. But through it all, we have most definitely experienced what Shane Claiborne describes in The Irresistible Revolution: “It is a beautiful thing when folks in poverty are no longer just a missions project but become genuine friends and family with whom we laugh, cry, dream, and struggle.”
I believe the great challenge for the American church in the 21st century will be to understand that we don’t have to “leave” to go on mission; we just have to go, and live out the simple power of Galatians 5:14, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”