There seems to be a rather predicable path that congregations -- and their leaders -- go through, in growing to be missionally mature. Think of it as developmental stages maturing into more Christ-like missions. (Doug Anderson first draw my attention to this, so I want to give credit where credit is due.) While a leader or a congregation can get stuck in any class along the way in the Graduate School of Ministry, here are the stages: (1) Oblivious, (2) Awareness of people's needs and of God's call, (3) Gestures of Mission, (4) Transformational Relationships, and (5) Justice Ministries.
As I briefly sketch each of these stages, try to determine where you might place yourself and where you might place your congregation's leaders.
The first stage is that of being generally blind to the needs of people in our community. We just don't see them, nor do we have a sense that God is calling us intentionally to look for them. Persons in this stage are more focused on their own needs and perhaps on the needs of others in their church family. If they see the needs of those outside the church family, they cross to the other side of the road and hurry on by. Most of the congregation's caring energy is focused on its own membership. The congregation is having little or no Kingdom impact in the community.
Awareness of needs and of God's call to serve:
This stage has two components; either might develop first. There is an awareness of people's needs: childhood hunger, homelessness, persons going through divorce, hospice needs, pregnant teens, child abuse, a frail elder neighbor -- the list could go on and on. In addition to becoming more aware of persons with particular needs, there is also a sense of call, a sense that as disciples of Jesus Christ we ought to do something to help these persons and perhaps to alleviate the conditions that cause their suffering. Our integrity as followers of Jesus demands that we respond with compassion. In this stage we are aware that we ought to respond, but have not yet done so.
Urged on by an awareness of need and a sense of call, people try to do something. They hand out burritos to homeless persons on Saturday, they take a food basket by someone's house during the holidays, they take up a collection of shoes for the poor one communion Sunday, they knit pink and blue blankets for newborns, they give out gas vouchers. What all of these good deeds have in common is that they are responses to perceived needs in others. They are attempts to do something to help in Jesus' name. They are also rather distant, even anonymous; at best they alleviate suffering for a short time. Because they do not grow out of genuine relationships, they may actually make the doer feel better than the receiver.
In the midst of missional gestures, transformational relationships may develop in which prejudices break down, depth of understanding evolves and mutual appreciation grows. It is primarily in the context of such relationships that Christ's love is communicated and lives are changed. In transformational relationships not only are acceptance offered and received, but persons share their God-given gifts with one another. Everyone is blessed and blessing. Many of our efforts to help fail to have a lasting Kingdom impact because they do not grow out of genuine relationships. Consequently, theses efforts do not respect persons as fellow Children of God with God-given gifts; rather persons are seen largely in terms of what they do not have or their brokenness. Out of the context of genuine relationships, we can discern how to be of help in ways that are sensitive and caring without cultivating dependence or resentment.
Out of the depth of understanding of transformational relationships, it may become obvious that there are policies and laws, cultural mores and prejudices that set people up for being treated in ways that are less that equal or just. As these understanding emerge, not only do we need to address the suffering of individuals, we need to address the root causes that make their suffering more likely. This may involve lobbying at the state or national level, or addressing city ordinances, or speaking to institutions about changing their policies.
The point of laying out these stages is not to make anyone feel bad for where they are, but to help all of us see the ways in which we might take the next step in becoming more like Jesus in our ministry to others. For example, you may decide that most of what your congregation has done comes under “Missional Gestures” and as a next step begin looking for intentional ways to build genuine relationships with those you feel called to be in ministry.
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Dr. Jeff Stiggins
The Center for Congregational Excellence