Where our ministry makes an impact

This is going to be a really long quote masquerading as a post.

Michael Mather at Broadway UMC in Indianapolis posted a really interesting comment on Dan Dick’s blog about his vision of impact-making ministry.

I found it so interesting, that I wanted to share it here.

I really appreciate the opening post and the comments on it. I’m grateful to Dan for writing about these issues and inviting us to think with him. I will touch on something that is a part of the original post that has gone unremarked upon, so far. Dan I like your example of the two congregations – one offering a food pantry and the other offering meals. But I’d like to suggest another way of thinking of these things. And I want to tie it to comments that I see reflected in some of the other comments on your original post. I want to say that while our congregation has all the human foibles and troubles of most human communities – I am overwhelmingly in awe of the ministry that I see in and through the lives of the people of our congregation (imperfect as we are). From my point of view the central ministry of our church is not what we do in programmatic or (so-called) mission efforts as a congregation – but what the people of our congregation live out in their daily lives, work, home and communities (some of which may be things that happen in and around the life of the church building – food pantries and feeding programs for example). My experience in over 25 years of professional service to the church in low – income urban communities has led me to believe that the “feeding ministries” that I have been a part of have done very, very little in terms of feeding the hungry (actually in talking with our local hospital we discovered that there is no one that they see from our neighborhood – or our city for that matter – for starvation — but that they seem a very large amount of people for diabetes – which the food pantries I have served have often made worse). So, what does it mean to “feed the hungry” in places where our problem is not that people don’t have food, but that overwhelmingly the food that people have (including the food we often offer) is crappy (i.e. unhealthy)? And if we are going to adopt “the clearer mission” it seems hard to improve upon witnessing to “blind eyes seeing, the deaf hearing, the dead being raised, and good news to the poor.” I worry that we have downsized our expectations from “good news to the poor” being a recognition of the amazing real gifts of those who don’t have much money to that of providing a free meal once, twice, three times or more a week (which is not bad news – but I’m not sure it is the good news of which Jesus speaks).

If worship would spiritually, intellectually and practically be effective (I don’t really see these as separate – but for the sake of conversation in our culture I’m going to write about them in this way) I think it would “feed” the ministry and witness to the Gospel of the people of our parishes in ways that would encourage and strengthen the ministry of our folks out in the world. Let me give you an example. Seana Murphy is a woman in our congregation who runs the 21st Century Scholars Program for the State of Indiana. This is a program for low-income young people and their families – they sign up in middle school and if they meet a series of benchmarks by the time they graduate they will have a significant part of their college education paid for. Now running that program is not her ministry. It’s the way in which she does it. She really sees and believes in good news in the lives of the poor. When ever a job opening comes up (and there are lots of jobs in this program) she hires a parent of a young person in the program. She has invested in the imagination, talent and passion of the parents – and they hold gatherings of parents several times a year – that are run by, planned by, and carried out by – completely – the parents (these low-income parents that folks are so often demeaning as “irresponsible” and “bad examples” – etc… – my experience of bad parenting is that it has very little to do with income levels). All of this is to say that this ministry of Seana’s is doing more to support the power and presence of God’s Spirit in the lives of the people of our state – than the tutoring programs and summer programs, etc…that we have run for generations.

Our neighborhood has a remarkable amount of programs run by several congregations – some have received national recognition and large scale investment. Most of these efforts including our own have been going on for 40 plus years. And yet the facts on the ground have changed very, very little – and to the extent that they have changed – they have gotten worse. That’s embarrassing. And when Dan challenges us to make an impact – I think one place to really focus some attention is moving away from structures that focus primarily on the ministry of the church in programming – and starts focusing on the ministry of the church in the lives of the people who call themselves followers of Jesus Christ. And who gather for worship that inspires, encourages, shines a light on, blesses, and gives us eyes to see a whole new world.