The Innovation and Vitality team I work with is commissioned to “New People, New Places, New Leadership.” We have defined “New People” and “New Leadership” through community, neighborhoods, young leaders, and leaders of color. It hit me the other day that we really have not defined what “New Places” looks like.
Where do they meet?
What does inclusion look like?
What does worship include?
What are the new spaces for Methodism in the Greater Northwest Area?
Almost all of us in the Greater Northwest Area (GNW UMC) agree that change has come upon us through change in culture, denominational decisions, and local identity exploration. There is a new expression of Methodism that is coming, has been coming, is here, and is also on its way.
This new expression of Methodism seems to begin with a wholly different posture towards marginalized communities. Methodism was birthed and has been sustained through a missions model of ministry. This model has placed ourselves at the center while seeing difference as “other” in need of something we have. The missions model of ministry has been willing to “help” others even if we do not force our religion upon them.
But sometimes “helping” just unearths the privilege and supremacy paradigms that we may not realize are there. Consider this. We use the word “helping” differently when thinking about and applying the idea to a peer or neighbor versus someone who is poor or “other.” Ingrained patriarchy within our faith contexts sees inferiority in others who experience need.
Jesus played an entirely different song. Jesus lifted up the voices of the margins to be at the center. He affirmed the humanity of everyone. A new expression of Methodism must invite the voices from marginalized communities to be at every money- and decision-making table while demanding of those at the power seats allow a broader range of leadership voice. This moves our ministry model from “mission” closer to liberation.
This can only happen through relational equity. The “mission” or colonial style of ministry sees poor people, women, those who identify as queer, and people of color as those who need “help” or “saving.” If these marginalized people are invited to the table at all, it is in a transactional relationship. For example, people of color may be given access to leadership or funding, but it is often in exchange for access to their communities, the precious stories represented in the community, or an opportunity to “save” or “help” them.
This relational inequity allows the powerful to feel good about themselves while reminding the marginalized who is really still in charge.
Therefore, a new expression of Methodism must have a deeper and wider understanding of inclusion. The GNW UMC should be commended for its continued stance in support of LGBTQ+ clergy and lay leaders. However, it is time for an equally robust stance on white supremacy and the engagement of people of color. This will only come from the realization that similar forces are at work to oppress women, people who identify as queer, and people of color within the system.
A deeper level of inclusion needs to have tangible outcomes in how dollars are allocated, who sits on boards, who is empowered into new leadership, and who is making the formal decisions about how the GNW UMC moves following the 2019 Special Session of the General Conference.
This plays out at local levels as well. For instance, the UMC body of laity and clergy are 94% white. This number is astounding. This level of white supremacy takes intentionality to both create and maintain. Our worship is a primary place where that white supremacy is maintained. Most white communities are unaware that their practices, ideas, and norms are culturally white. The norms of organization, worship, and administration in our churches are culturally white. We must de-culturize our worship from whiteness. We must be intentional about a non-monocultural worship expression.
How do we go about this? It takes new leadership from nonwhite communities and radical community engagement in the neighborhoods and communities of our church. It does make one wonder… how is change at this level possible with guaranteed appointments?
Sociologically, it will be impossible to change with a system that continues to advance and perpetuate the status quo. Not only will Guaranteed Appointments continue to place non-diverse leaders throughout our region, it is also expensive. Perhaps a revamped guaranteed appointment system could begin to make promises to ministers based upon the goals and directions that we know the denomination needs.
A new expression of Methodism for the Greater Northwest Area will need to make some guarantees to those talented leaders from marginalized spaces that can take our denomination where it needs to go. This should be celebrated. For too long, monocultural expressions have created the decline that we have seen. An empowered, diverse, and new expression of Methodism may see less buildings sold, new community initiatives created, new theological explorations into liberation, and churches growing with multicultural worship expressions.
Rev. Dr. Leroy Barber serves as Director of Innovation for an Engaged Church for the Greater Northwest Area of The United Methodist Church. This post originally appeared on his blog on the Voices Project website where you can also find his full bio.
This year the Greater NW Area Innovation Vitality team has expanded its summer internship program to different cities throughout the region.
Young leaders of color are getting the chance to develop leadership skills while exploring the intersection of faith and social justice in various community settings.
This summer, instead of being based in the Portland area, the group will expand to Boise, Salem, Tacoma, and Seattle.
Read the profiles written by the individuals chosen to be leaders and learners this summer through a joint venture with the IV team and The Voices Project:
Portland Coordinator: Nicholle Ortiz is an incoming co-pastor at Tabor Heights United Methodist Church. She is originally from Tacoma, Washington but now calls Portland her home. Nicholle graduated from Warner Pacific University where she began to actualize her dreams of community development, ministry, and artistic expression. Nicholle is a connector, an includer, a performer, an artist, a spouse, an advocate, and a friend. Nicholle wears many hats but all in the name of justice, inclusion, and love. She chooses to enter spaces that are uncomfortable because she believes in sharing her voice so that other people may feel inspired to share theirs. Nicholle is a Black, Puerto Rican, Plus-Sized Woman who enjoys wearing funky glasses, laughing loudly, talking about recycling and telling jokes that don’t make sense.
Portland Coordinator: Forrest Nameniuk is the incoming co-pastor at Tabor Heights United Methodist Church. He is a graduate of Warner Pacific University where he served as student chaplain. He has been with the UMC for the last year, serving in different capacities under the Innovation Vitality Team, and he is currently pursuing his candidacy for ministry. Forrest’s two greatest passions are the church and theatre. He believes that the church should be the greatest instigator for justice and healing in our world. He sees his call as creating spaces where weirdos, misfits, and wanderers can be their true selves and encounter the gospel in new and creative ways. On his time off, Forrest can usually be found at his stolen desk writing stories, with his cat and a cup of coffee close by.
Salem Coordinator: Jess Bielman is the Associate Director of Innovation for the Greater Northwest UMC. He has spent the past two decades investing in the lives of young folks and empowering them spiritually and academically. For 17 years he served as a professor and the campus pastor at Warner Pacific University. He loves the Pacific Northwest, having lived along I-5 his whole life. Jess loves baseball, sushi, 90’s era music, and John Wesley. He is married 17 years to Candi with two daughters.
Boise Intern: Destiny Miteg is a Portland native who now resides in Salem, Oregon. Destiny is excited to be a part of UMC’s the Voices Project because of its intent to help young people of color see how the church can become more tangibly present in their communities. She is eager to see how faith and community intertwine together in people’s lives outside of just the spiritual. Destiny is studying Ministry and Community Engagement at Warner Pacific University. After graduating, she hopes to do work at a non-profit that centers around serving those in need. When not in the classroom, Destiny can be found eating Top Ramen or spending time in the library.
Tacoma Intern:Rachel Taylor is originally from Tacoma, WA. She is studying for a BA in Christian Ministries in Portland with the goal of working with nonprofits. Rachel chose this internship because she is passionate about equity and wants to learn how she can best help others. She enjoys writing and experimenting with makeup while drinking large amounts of coffee in her spare time. Rachel’s favorite part of the summer is spending time with the kids in her life.
Portland Intern:Monivoi Vataiki is of Pacific Islander and Caucasian descent. She is from Vancouver, BC, Canada. Monivoi recently graduated from Warner Pacific University with a Bachelor’s degree in Music and Ministry. She chose this internship because she wanted to be apart of making room at the table and to be apart of the change she hopes to see in the church/world. Monivoi sees this internship as a way to create space for those like her, especially as a woman of color. Monivoi’s hope is to continue to help in the rebuilding, redefining, and redirecting the church. Fun facts: Monivoi sings and writes music. She also plays soccer, rugby and loves to travel.
Tacoma Intern:Akéylah Giles is from Tacoma Washington. Akeylah attends Warner Pacific University and is a Criminal Justice major. She also serves as a Spiritual Life Coordinator on the Campus Ministry team where she is a worship leader and a leader among her peers on campus. Akeylah chose this internship because she wants to be involved in work that is meaningful for herself and others. For fun, she enjoys singing, worship flag dancing, and swimming.
Portland Intern:Asia Austin is from Portland Oregon. She is a Music Performance major at Warner Pacific University. Asia is the Vice President of B.S.O (Black Student Organization), a proud HOLLA Mentor, and a Spiritual Life Coordinator on her school’s Campus Ministry team. Asia applied for this internship to help further her education, and to empower her voice so she can prevent injustices in her city. In her free time, Asia loves to play guitar and watch Netflix.
Portland Intern:Chidozie Kenneth Urom (“Chi” for short) is currently enrolled at Concordia University and is majoring in Psychology. Chi grew up in Nigeria with his grandparents before moving to Portland. Chidozie looks forward to working with fellow interns and further identifying his leadership abilities. In his free time, Chi loves to cook and write music. He even has a Youtube channel where he shares his musical creations.
Salem Intern:Juan Pedro Nicanor Moreno Olmeda is a proud first generation Mexican American. He was born in Hillsboro Oregon, and his family comes from Guadalajara Jalisco Mexico. Juan is a current student at Warner Pacific University studying Business Administration with an emphasis on Sports Management. Juan has always been passionate about sports, and in his free time, he likes being active outdoors or at the gym. If you give him a soccer ball he could have fun for hours! Juan also enjoys music; whether it’s listening to it, making it, or even dancing to it. Juan also loves video games, whether they are retro or new, he’s always looking for a nice challenge. Juan chose this internship because he believes that it can help him obtain and polish his abilities and help shape and form a career he is passionate about. Juan would also like to amplify and learn more about spirituality, and how he can use those skills and apply them to life. Juan believes that if we put our heads together, we have a real chance of making a difference.
Boise Intern:Eveline Okonda-Kapinga is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. She is currently attending and pursuing her bachelor’s degree in Theology with a concentration on Christian mission, youth ministry and a minor in business administration at Seattle Pacific University. Eveline is currently a Senior and is set to graduate in the fall of 2019. After graduation, Eveline plans to start grad school at SPU but is still deciding on her major. Eveline’s goal is to attain a career where she can use her specialized theology skills combined with a strong business background to help churches, as well as business organizations, implement information that will help communities achieve their goals and help them become more efficient and effective. Eveline has a calling in ministry and is currently serving at her local church, Open Door Church Ministries, as an interpreter, a singer, and as a youth leader. As a youth leader, Eveline guides students in their faith journey and imparts teachings of faith through prayer, events, activities and mission trips that appeal to youth while encouraging them to be faithful followers of Christ. Eveline believes the knowledge that she will acquire in this internship program will enable her to become a better leader.
Seattle Intern: Nyob zoo, kuvlubnpeyog Dawci Herr. Dawci Herr (She/her/hers) is Hmong and a first generation student at PCC (Portland Community College) working towards her AAOT (Associates of Arts Oregon Transfer). In Dawci’s spare time (when she’s not studying or working), she likes to go out to try out new foods and restaurants with her family and friends. At the moment, Dawci’s favorite restaurant is Taste of Sichuan. To satisfy her sweet tooth craving, Dawci likes to get a bubble tea drink in Beaverton or Portland. When the weather is great, Dawci also enjoys hiking trails in the Pacific Northwest. Dawci chose this internship to further her college learning and to find ways that the church and community can connect.
Salem Intern:Josiah Mendoza was born in Salem, Oregon. He currently attends Warner Pacific University where she is majoring in recreational sports medicine. Josiah chose this internship to develop and identify leadership skills within himself. He also seeks to find more ways to help his community.
Tacoma Intern:Eunice Langbata is from Washington State. She loves to take risks, go on random adventures, go hiking, spend time with her family, and just chill and watch “Friends”. Eunice can be shy and quiet but is actually an outgoing person and sometimes can’t stop talking! Eunice chose this internship because she wants to learn different leadership skills. She understands the difficulty that comes with being a leader but she wants to gain new experiences and learn things that might be outside of her comfort zone. Eunice is currently a student at Warner Pacific University, and over this past year, she has learned to be patient with life, listen to herself more, and to pay attention to what is visible around her. She realizes that things are placed in her life for a reason. Eunice knows that the more she is open to learning new things, the more she learns about herself. She is excited for the opportunities this internship will create for her to try something new.
Des Moines, Wash. – Last weekend, over 60 leaders from the Alaska, Oregon-Idaho (OR-ID), and Pacific Northwest (PNW) Conferences gathered to continue conversations on how they could marshal resources toward vital mission and ministry across the Greater Northwest Area. The Vitality Stewards Summit 2.0, as the name suggests, was the second formal gathering aimed toward this task, expanding the circle of those who met in September of 2018.
The event began by orientating new and returning “stewards” on the aspirations of the summit and some of the resources that the area has available to it. An opening devotional by Rev. Shalom Agtarap, centered on the story of the early church in Acts, emphasized the opportunity and challenge of sharing. Agtarap asked, “How can we move from a transactional economy to one of kinship?”
While denominational conversations often center around scarcity, leaders were encouraged instead to recognize the significant assets under their care. Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky shared that we often don’t consider these assets or remember that radical growth is in our DNA. “If we pool our resources, share a common vision, couldn’t we do more if we focused on a few big things?”
Stanovsky addressed the elephant in the room as she talked about the impact of General Conference upon United Methodism. Instead of being a roadblock, she framed it as an opportunity not to repeat the mistakes of the past. To avoid old behavior, we need to invite “younger, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people to the table to help shape what is coming.”
This call for more diverse leadership echoed throughout the meeting.
Stanovsky also advised that the work of the meeting be considered provisional in anticipation of the challenges, and opportunities for greater inclusion, in front of us. Drawing upon the biblical story of the crossing over into the Jordan, the bishop offered, “It’s time to leave the wilderness. Not everyone is going to cross over to the Jordan.”
Next up was Eric Walker, who is serving as a special assistant to Bishop Stanovsky, charged in part with organizing the Summit. A lay person from Vashon UMC with non-profit management experience, Walker helped to keep the event moving, reminding participants of its goals. Those goals were:
Developing a good understanding of vitality work across the area.
Creating the first draft of Area-wide funding criteria.
Arriving at a basic agreement on the kinds of projects that would excite Area-wide funding.
Sparking movement towards a culture of Area-wide collaboration.
Walker offered a big picture look at the challenges and opportunities facing the Area as it seeks to have more churches engaged in vital ministry. Sharing that a significant number of churches are in some stage of decline, he framed the goal of innovation and vitality work across the area as bending bad trajectories toward more positive possibilities.
Inclusion is the Starting Point
Rev. Dr. William Gibson followed Walker by sharing some of the learnings of the Innovation Vitality Team (IV Team). After one year together, the team has landed upon the understanding that Inclusion, Innovation, and Multiplication are crucial practices, and measures, of church vitality. More recently, they have begun to understand inclusion as foundational to the success of the other two practices.
Participants next engaged in a presentation from Kristina Gonzalez, Rev. Dr. Leroy Barber, and Gibson on Intercultural Competency and its effect on the IV Team’s work. Gonzalez gave an overview of Intercultural Competency reflecting on her own choice to be a United Methodist. “The United Methodist Church appealed to me because of its emphasis on practical divinity, and the use of practical tools like Intercultural Competency to effect change.”
Barber shared how some of his work, specifically internships and revivals, had embodied these principles of inclusion in making deliberate connections between the Church, persons of color, and younger people. Some of the participants in the first cohort of interns are now being tracked to provide leadership in local churches.
Gibson concluded the IV Team’s report by sharing how they have developed new guardrails to better steward monies allocated to church plants and other revitalization projects. Experience has helped them to understand that there is no necessary correlation between age and innovative ability and that some churches “aren’t interested with changing to pivot in the moment.”
The afternoon continued with reports from several District Superintendents and, separately, the lay leaders of each Conference. Erin Martin, chief missional strategist for the Columbia District, has been asking her district to consider what it would mean “to envision ourselves as a community of United Methodist Congregations.” A success story she shared involved the arrival of the Rev. Alan Buck, a gifted Native American church planter from Oklahoma, who is helping to revitalize Wilshire UMC, recently renamed Great Spirit UMC.
Rev. Rich Lang spoke about three practices found to be present in early Christianity, but often absent in the churches he serves in the SeaTac Missional District:
The Practice of Non-violence
The Practice of Self-emptying
The Practice of Giving Away
He shared how funds from recent church closures were being reinvested in other churches to provide multi-ethnic leadership teams toward the goal of fostering multi-ethnic communities. Lang named Valley and Mountain, soon to give birth to a third iteration, as an example of excellent ministry incarnating inclusion and innovation, leading to multiplication.
Seven Rivers Missional District Superintendent Rev. Mary Huycke offered a non-urban perspective as she serves a region stretched across the central part of Washington from the Canadian border down to Oregon. The district has intentionally invested in laity with the understanding that “clergy come and go, the laity are the ones who stick around.”
A number of the churches in her district are very small. Helping some of those churches to end their ministries gracefully, while finding creative ways to extend the life of others with alternative leadership structures, is a portion of the work. A lack of diversity, and inclusive practice, is a challenge many are wrestling against.
Offering her perspective on the OR-ID Conference, lay leader Jan Nelson shared that many laypersons there are unaware of the work of the IV Team but not incapable of embracing innovation. She pointed to the example of the Open Door Churches in the Salem area while advocating for more leadership training to make use of laity who feel under-utilized. “We need a better structure, or system, to engage laity.”
PNW Conference lay leader Nancy Tam Davis also noted the absence of leadership development among lay people in her conference. She added that Certified Lay Ministers were often serving in challenging appointments but lacked the same network of support afforded to clergy. “Morale is low,” said Davis. “How do we bring lay leaders together for support?”
Jo Anne Hayden, lay leader in the Alaska Conference, named some of the same concerns. On a conference-level, there are efforts to train local church leaders underway through Zoom with hopes to expand the number of groups soon.
How we are working together already
The second day began with a presentation by the Area treasurers detailing some of the resources available for vitality work and some of their other projections. Currently, expenses for shared work are split between conferences – PNW (54%), OR-ID (40), and AK (6%) based on conference size and budgets.
Disaster response leaders in the OR-ID and PNW Conferences shared how they have been collaborating because it makes sense. Jim Truitt began serving in March as Disaster Response Coordinator for the Greater Northwest Area, leading a pilot program building upon years of collaboration between leaders in OR-ID, PNW and Alaska.
Truitt, along with Kathy Bryson (PNW) and Dan Moesler (OR-ID) shared with the group how clear common goals, shared practices, and trainings have made collaboration work for them. Programs like “Connecting Neighbors” embody some of the vitality practices of developing intentional partnerships beyond the Church.
Next up was a presentation by Revs. Karen Hernandez and Gregg Sealey, and layperson Lynn Egli. As superintendents of mostly rural districts, Hernandez and Sealey shared their excitement for the Rural Church Engagement Initiative’s promise to translate Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) training for a rural context.
Egli, described as the “Energizer Bunny behind all of this,” helped to explain how he has applied his background as a CPA for Hewlett Packard to the design and implementation of the pilot program. “We have to be demanding, to expect performance,” he shared. “It’s going to be tough for local leaders to put together a team.” He expects to learn from the pilot, and adapt subsequent iterations based on that learning.
Three cohorts (including 14 pastors and local church teams) of the Rural Church Engagement Initiative are already meeting together monthly, sharing learnings and support for each other.
Representatives of Committees on Native American Ministries (CONAM) offered the final presentation on shared ministry and collaboration across the Area. Duane Medicine Crow (OR-ID) shared a desire to do more. Sharing when “we get money, we give it away,” he talked about a recent project supporting a Nez Perce intern at Wallowa Lake Camp.
Rev. Charley Brower (AK) offered some historical context on Christian missionary outreach to Native American populations in Alaska and how some denominational decisions years ago continue to impact the mission field today.
Finally, Kristina Gonzalez shared how the PNW was inviting a Native American developer from OR-ID to evaluate three ministries in the conference which have been struggling.
Proposals and Next Steps
Much of the remaining time was spent in small group exercises to determine how leaders might collaborate together on projects besides the IV Team and how those projects might be funded.
Revs. Mary Huycke and Kathleen Weber helped to surface some evaluative measures after small groups had defined individual lists of priorities. The next step was the hearing of “pitches” from several individuals who had submitted Concept Notes.
In addition to funding pitches from Lynn Egli (Rural Church Engagement Initiative) and Jim Truitt (Disaster Response), five other short presentations were received and evaluated using the evaluation criteria previously identified. These were:
Multicultural Hubs, an innovative urban initiative presented by Rev. Dr. Leroy Barber of the IV Team;
A Land and Housing Coalition designed to build knowledge for wise, social good with property assets presented by Rev. Erin Martin;
Latinx Ministry in the Cascadia District presented by Rev. Tim Overton-Harris;
The Awesome Project, a lip dub designed to help the Area rebrand itself after General Conference 2019 presented by Rev. John Tucker;
A Dreamworks and FailFest proposal designed to encourage bold innovation by Rev. Overton-Harris.
Before a concluding conversation, Eric Walker presented five possible ways to fund Area-wide projects: Tithe, Syndicate, CrowdSource, Pathways, and Pledge. Some of the approaches were familiar to existing practices while others have shown potential outside of the Church.
In a final conversation with Bishop Stanovsky, several participants expressed feelings of being stuck. They named the need to be bolder than we have been in embracing a future together. Other comments were made to remind the group that too few of those named at the outset—younger people, people of color, and LGBTQ+ people—were present in the room.
In her closing remarks, Stanovsky embraced the idea that we should allow something to surface from the time spent in conversation together. She suggested that we work toward funding the most popular Concept Notes—the Multicultural Hubs and Rural Church Engagement Initiative—work out the details of contributing 10% of their funding to a shared area-wide Vitality fund, and begin thinking about how our leadership makeup is more apparently young, people of color and/or LGBTQ+
A date was set for another gathering in September with the explicit goal that at least 50 percent of those in attendance will be young, people of color, and/or LGBTQ+. She asked leaders to covenant together to invite these new voices into meaningful decision-making.
Patrick Scriven serves as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.
For the second year, the Greater Northwest (GNW) Innovation Vitality Team is partnering with the Parish Collective in presenting the Inhabit Conference, April 26-27, in Seattle. The conference is intentionally designed to “engage, encourage, and empower innovative, missional practitioners as they go about practicing the way of Jesus in place.”
“Inhabit is focused on community engagement” says Rev. Dr. Leroy Barber, GNW Director of Innovation for an Engaged Church. Joining Barber as a presenter at Inhabit this year is the Rev. Shalom Agtarap.
The GNW Innovation Vitality Team is offering a special pre-conference session on Thursday, April 25, the day before the two-day main conference. Clergy or lay people interested in planting new churches and bringing new vitality to existing ministry are encouraged to attend.
Pre-conference attendees will learn from Melvin Bray, an Emmy® award-winning storyteller, social entrepreneur and author. Bray is the author of a United Methodist Women Reading Program 2019 book pick, “BETTER: Waking Up to Who We Could Be.” Melvin will help participants examine the role of various forms of power in moving from critical analysis to better practices.
The pre-conference is designed to equip leaders for building better connections within their communities, specifically with those on the margins and people of color. “This is core foundational work” says Rev. Dr. William Gibson, GNW Director of Innovation for a New Church. “This is work that needs to be done to prepare to engage with diverse communities.”
The pre-conference will be held at Seattle’s First United Methodist Church, April 25 from 9 am. to 4 p.m. As a bonus, the first 25 registered for the United Methodist day will receive free admission to the two-day Inhabit event. The Greater Northwest Area’s sponsorship of the Inhabit Conference provides this opportunity along with all costs of the pre-conference except for a modest $10 registration fee which includes lunch on Thursday.
You know this, but I’ll say it anyway. Culture is always emerging.
You get what that means, right? That the world and ways around you are always shifting — always innovating. The introduction of new things and new methods continues to happen every moment of every day, whether or not we are willing to embrace it. The larger question lies in how we choose to respond. Do we welcome the uncomfortableness of the new or do we double down with a comfortable existence in the world?
Regardless, shift happens.
Am I allowing this shift to happen in me? Always for the good? Always letting go of the old me in order to make room for the new, less comfortable me? I have to be honest with you for a moment: Every morning, I wake and have to check myself because it feels like the ground beneath my feet continues to shift. I feel compelled to regularly address the question: Who am I?
Around our country, overt hate and xenophobia have stepped out from behind a thin veil in a sprint to become the new norm. It’s bolstered by unapologetic fearmongering and outright lies. And, it’s insane. I refuse to allow it to gain a foothold among the space Christ calls me to steward in the world — a place of peace, hope, and justice. I simply refuse. Being a United Methodist demands that I “do no harm,” “do good,” and “stay in love with God.”
How do I allow myself to be undone and recreated by the grace of God? There’s enormous value in the process of unlearning my cultural identity as an American Christian and relearning what it means to be a follower of a rogue revolutionary, un-American, Middle Eastern-born person of color, represented in Jesus the Christ. Secondly, how does my personal undoing become a part of a corporate rebirth — shifting from individual to community?
I am always drawn to Matthew’s telling of the Sermon on the Mount, which you can read in chapters five through the beginning of seven in the Gospel of Matthew. There, you have this 30-something newcomer, sitting on a hillside near the Sea of Galilee, with disciples, followers, and the curious gathered around. Among people who have been shaped for generations under the Law of Moses, Jesus calls into question everything that had defined their perspective of the world. He basically said in varying ways, “You have heard the law that says _______________. But now I say _______________.” Jesus was rewriting the Torah on the fly! Surely people were reflecting (maybe even out loud), “Who does this guy think he is?” Can you imagine the internal struggle going on within those listening to Jesus? He called into question their cultural formation and challenged them to see the world — including the “other” — through a new lens. The lens of Christ.
This unlearning and relearning process can be painful, but it is a necessary part of spiritual growth and re-formation. It inescapably remains at the core of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. And if the statement “culture is always emerging” is true (and it is), then how are you I emerging as part of the Body of Christ within the neighborhood, community, region, nation, and world? How are our individual actions creating space for a fresh, communal voice to rise up above the bombastic noise we (and others) are hearing?
As we move toward a CrossOver Year in the Greater Northwest Area, beginning this Advent season, these questions could never be more important than they are now.
Shift happens. While making room for others, how will you respond in the midst of it and cross over to life? A new season is dawning. Let’s make the road by walking into the new.
Rev. Dr. William D. Gibson serves as Director of Innovation for a New Church for the Greater Northwest Episcopal Area including the Alaska, Oregon-Idaho and Pacific Northwest Annual Conferences.
Across the northwest, rooms filled with ordinary people are putting their trust again in an extraordinary God!
This video provides a snapshot of the ‘Love Thy Neighbor’ Ordinary Revivals as they crossed the Greater Northwest last summer, seeking to inspire new connections between faithful people and the communities they live in. These revivals remind us that God is indeed at work outside the church and that there is strength in diverse communities that keep their hearts open to cries for justice.
Keep your eyes open for information on revivals coming to Boise (ID), Anchorage (AK) and Tri-Cities (WA) in the spring of 2019.
The church has been making headlines as of late but not for the best of reasons. On the unsettling political front we hear conservative political pundits (along with some conservative evangelicals) using Scripture to justify some of the administration’s most divisive policies. And now with the formation of a Justice Department task force announced this past week by United Methodist and US Attorney General Jeff Sessions, devotion to defend religious liberty has reached new heights.
The Trump Administration is doubling down on building walls between people and protecting white privilege. Amid a war on immigrants and people of color, families have been torn apart, causing irrevocable psychological damage to many young children in the process. And while many progressive churches are fighting back and organizing strategically, much of Evangelical Christianity continues its slippery slide into alignment with an administration, trading the Church’s responsibility to act as a force for the common good for political access and gain.
So, in a season when like-mindedness, political affiliation, and fake news represent skewed affinity, what is the Church’s responsibility when it comes to its own culpability? After all, we have built an Empire on affinity. And, as I have argued before, we need to check ourselves and reconcile the church’s role in building a culture of exclusion.
Much of the existing strategies for congregational development across our denomination elevates the consideration of affinity between pastors/leaders and the mission field/communities to which they are appointed. However, I want to de-emphasize this notion. And, yes, I am aware that there will be folks who disagree. Regardless, here is my argument.
First, strategies around leveraging affinity groups are based on the Church Growth Movement (CGM), which came into view in the 1960s. The 1950s and 1960s represented years of significant upswing in church attendance and engagement. The CGM was actually birthed by Donald McGavran at Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon. I find it ironic that the CGM was given life in our context; what is today (as you now know) called the “None Zone,” where there are more people outside of the church/Christian community than anywhere in the United States.
Essentially, in the 1960s, alarm bells were going off around the exiting of young adults from the church, much like today. In the midst of a twentieth-century crisis there was a struggle for Christian identity, which found devision among races. During these years, and in the midst of a fight for civil rights, white supremacist hate groups, most of which undauntedly claimed a legacy of Nazism, radically promoted their belief that white Christians were God’s chosen people.1 Though the ideologies of these groups varied, history shows that these groups primarily directed their vindictiveness toward Jews, homosexuals, and other minority persons of color, especially African Americans.
Upon this backdrop there grew strategic considerations for church growth within Evangelical Christianity. Resulting from scientific principles and set on 30 years of missionary experience in India, McGavran founded the Institute of Church Growth around the vision that congregations must be formed from homogeneous groups of people, and that it was important for folks to feel comfortable and “at home” with others. People with similar skin color, beliefs, priorities, fears, hopes, etc. would successfully grow in community together. McGavran expressed his theory on the sociological implication of Christian community development, by stating:
“[People] like to become Christians without even crossing racial, linguistic or class barriers… It has been found that where cultural obstacles are recognized and new converts nurtured in churches of their own culture, the evangelistic efforts are far more effective…”2
The base premise was that because people indeed have prejudices, that these biases should be used and made as an aid to Christianity, drawing individuals together in comfortable and like-minded groups.3 This was based on the idea that church growth professionals believed that in the struggle for Christian identity, and the overall Christian movement, most opposition in society was not theological, but instead sociological. A broad example is that Sundays contained the most segregated hour of the week.
There are several “church growth” models, many of which are present still today in strategies for congregational development. These bear witness to the CGM and include the following examples: mega-church, cell church, Alpha course, Natural Church Development, seeker sensitive, soul-winning, and other similar programs and methods. It is absolutely true to state that our natural human tendency is to be drawn to others who are just like us in every way. We have what Parker Palmer calls an ancient fear of “the other.” This is embedded in our humanness, so it would make sense to leverage this for some sort of gain, right? That is what the CGM proposed to capture; a formulaic approach for the Christian movement. And, as the CGM began to cross from the twentieth to the twenty-first century, methods leveraged our dominant American consumer culture, drawing upon marketing and sales strategies.
As good as this sounds, when we consider embracing the “Good news that will bring great joy to all people” (Luke 2:10, NLT), sacrificing the theological position over sociological truths is contrary to the gospel. The gospel subverts such a posture. The gospel reaches cross-culturally and reflects the “kin-dom” of God, representing all races and ethnic groups equally. The gospel breaks down the barriers that divide us, for “there is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. For we are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NLT).
In short, Jesus desires to subvert these natural human tendencies in us, nudging us toward “the other” with whom we, more often than not, do not share a common affinity.
Is there a time when this makes sense? Yes. I believe that affinity is most important when it relates to persons of color who find themselves in a dominant white culture. Cultivating a safe space around affinity in this instance is absolutely appropriate and very much needed in this current season. And, white leaders in the church need to not only become advocates and allies, but we need to use our privilege to equal the playing field. As leaders, if we do not allow Jesus to subvert the tendency we have in our own lives to default to what’s most comfortable, and then model what it looks like to step into unfamiliar relationships with others, how do we expect our communities of faith — new and old — to do the same?
While affinity appears natural in developing safe and courageous spaces, I do not believe it should, today, be a primary consideration for how we foster Christian community. Instead, I believe that we should more readily embrace intercultural competence as the primary lens through which we understand ourselves and then see and engage the world around us. This is an inside-out move that would begin to provide visible evidence of an invisible grace working within each of us.
How will you allow Jesus to subvert what might be hidden deep within, so that you can be more effective at breaking down walls? The lives of your neighbors depend on it.
1. John Butler, Grant Wacker, and Randall Balmer, Religion in American Life: A Short History, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 443.
2. Martyn Percy, “How to Win Congregations and Influence Them: An Anatomy of the Church Growth Movement,” Modern Churchman, 34 (1992): 25.
3. Ralph H. Elliott, “Dangers of the Church Growth Movement: Is it possible to maintain our identity as the church and to be a ‘successful’ institution as the same time?” The Christian Century, 98 (August 1981).
Don’t you think it’s about time to embrace innovation, for a change? Actually, what we sometimes forget is that innovation is about change. Culture is always emerging — the ever-ticking clock ticks — and it would be an understatement to say the church doesn’t do well to keep up. “The times they are a-changin’,” — always — to reference the poetic genius of Bob Dylan. If you can stomach it, simply look at your news feed for glimpses of the upside-down world of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and the minute by minute, widening political and theological divide.
No misunderstandings intended here; I am not inferring that the church is suppose to become culture… What I am saying is that we — as the church — have been slow to engage culture, move beyondthink-out-of-the-box conversations, and actually do more that would accurately reflect innovative ways to influence culture. In our current climate, we’ve got to shift beyond carving out “safe space” and now create more “courageous space,” to riff off one of my ministry team partners, Kristina Gonzalez.
So, what does it mean to be innovative?
One of the most influential books I read as a young, rookie business entrepreneur was Peter Drucker’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship: Practice and Principles (Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc. 1985). In the opening chapters, Drucker explained that entrepreneurs can’t help but be innovative. Entrepreneurs innovate. Period.
From Drucker’s perspective, innovation wasn’t a technical activity. It was economic or social. In other words, innovation was wonderfully nuanced by the emotional temperament of humanity. It engaged the deep recesses of our creativity (both producers and consumers), which was often suppressed by sensibility and certainty.
Over the years, the church has tried to embody innovation through the business phrase “best practices.” For the business world, “best practices” were about maintaining quality and establishing benchmarks. In the church, however, we’ve had a tendency to see “best practices” as program options that will ensure our success. If they worked in thatchurch, then surely they will work in our church. A tempting argument.
The problem — as I have alluded — is that the church is not as adaptive as Corporate America. We don’t like change. We are drawn into it kicking and screaming. Or, at the very least, we are so guarded that our fear of change keeps us from operating out of the box.
In 2011, I stumbled upon a valuable little book written by Stephen Shapiro. In Best Practices Are Stupid: How to Out-Innovate the Competition, Shapiro argues that the time has come to be more innovative about the way we innovate. His core argument rests upon this premise:
“Following in the footsteps ofothers is the fastest way to irrelevancy. Instead, create your own path. Find new and creative ways of staying ahead of the competition. Only through repeated, rapid, and efficient change can an organization survive and thrive in today’s volatile marketplace” (pp. 6).
Neither Shapiro or myself are saying that we should ignore “best practices;” not at all. In fact, it is extremely important to understand what is working in a particular context and why it is working. There are always nuggets that may spark something that works in our setting. But… It’s a mistake to think that a “best practice” is a silver bullet answer for a declining church that lacks creativity and innovation. We’ve got to move beyond a “plug and play” approach to “best practices” and start focusing on what I call contextual problem solving. This is the more robust pathwaytoward creativity and innovation in ministry.
“It’s a mistake to think that a ‘best practice’ is a silver bullet answer for a declining church that lacks creativity and innovation.”
Many argue that “best practices” for the church allow the church to at least do something. This is true. However, we want to move us from “at least doing something” to actually advancing the mission of the church; to make disciples for the transformation of the world. I desire to make a difference; to change the crazy world in which I find myself. My hope (and assumption) is that you do as well.
So, what would it look like for you and I to be more innovative in our work? What would it look like to engage culture, elevate the gospel above the noise of this world, and challenge ourselves (and others) to change? That will take a very different and practical approach. It’s risky. It’s kind of like… No; I would say it is exactly like “walking by faith.”
I hope you’ll check out our web presence on the Greater Northwest Area website. You’ll learn more about the values undergirding our work and can find resources and ideas to spark movement in you and your mission fields; ideas that help shift your work toward being a contextual problem solver. If we are going to create new places for new people, especially considering our current political and theological climate, then we are going to have to embrace such a time as this. It’s time to innovate for change.
Using the vivid example of creative problem solving featured in the movie Apollo 13, the Rev. Dr. William (Bill) Gibson offers a fresh look at the feeding of the multitudes in Matthew’s Gospel discovering a message for today’s church. Gibson argues that too often in the church, we allow our anxieties to shift our own thinking away from “what God is already up to” toward what he calls “the scarcity of the moment” to the detriment of what is possible.
There is no question, that in what is emerging as a post-Christian America, that there are challenging times for the church.
But it’s in these anxious moments when we’re trying to navigate a 21st-century landscape of how to do church differently that we become anxious; we talk about what we don’t have rather than what we do have. We say we don’t have enough money, we don’t have enough people, we don’t have the right facilities, it’s not possible. We get caught up in the scarcity of the moment rather than the abundance of God.
I’m reminded of this story – I don’t know if you remember this or not, Apollo 13. Now if you are a movie buff you probably seen the movie with Tom Hanks in it, right? This is a mission to the moon, and on the way to the moon they have this problem with the spacecraft.
After the famous words, “Houston, we have a problem,” Gene Kranz gathers all the NASA engineers into this room to begin this problem-solving exercise. All this chaos ensues and everybody’s arguing about which problem should take priority. There’s just this lots of noise that it’s an engine issue, it’s an oxygen issue, it’s all these kinds of things.
And finally Gene Kranz says, “cut it out! Just be quiet. Can we start with what on the spacecraft is working?” And once they turn their attention away from the problems and issues to the assets on the spacecraft they begin to problem solve in a way that became one of NASA’s greatest accomplishments. They brought three astronauts safely back to Earth.
The same thing happens in the church. We get caught up; our anxiety drives us to begin to think about what’s not possible and it turns our attention away from the things we’ve been blessed with.
Matthew chapter 14 also is a story where Jesus is there on the side of the shores of the sea of Galilee and this large crowd has gathered. And it’s getting late and the disciples come to Jesus and they say, “Hey, I don’t know if you’re aware of this, the sun is going down. We need to send these people home. You need to ask them to go home because they’re going to have to eat.”
And Jesus said, “That won’t be necessary, you feed them.”
The disciples look at each other, like, “he’s crazy, right?” And they say to Jesus, “That’s not possible. I don’t know if you are aware of this but we only have these two stinking fish and these five loaves of bread.”
Jesus, in that moment, recognizes a teaching opportunity. He says, “bring them here.” So Jesus essentially says bring me what you have and he takes what the disciples are offering and he blesses it and it multiplies enough to feed a multitude of people.
Our anxiety causes us to turn our attention away from what God is already up to. It causes us to focus on the scarcity of the moment. What if we were to turn our attention to the abundance of God? What if we were to bring Jesus what we have?
Rev. Dr. William D. Gibson serves as Director of Strategic Faith Community Development for the Greater Northwest Area of The United Methodist Church.
This episode of insideout explores the essential role of deep listening in fostering true innovation, and what that means for a church often fixated on ‘best practices.’ According to Rev. Dr. William (Bill) Gibson, “it’s a mistake to think that a best practice is a silver bullet answer for a declining church that lacks innovation and creativity.”
Over the last fifteen plus years, the Church has tried to embody innovation through the phrase best practices.
In the business world, best practices were about maintaining quality and establishing benchmarks. In the Church, we’ve had a tendency to see best practices as a program option to ensure success. If they worked in that church, then surely they’ll work in our, right?
But here is a major problem. The church is not as adaptive as corporate America. Often, by the time we implement a best practice, we are behind the curve in a world that is changing before our very eyes.
It’s important for us to know what is working in a particular context, and why it works. But it’s a mistake to think that a best practice is a silver bullet answer for a declining church that lacks innovation and creativity. Rather than a plug and play approach, we should be focusing on contextual problem solving. Instead of trying something that will attract people in our doors, we need to step outside of our walls and engage in deep listening with real people, not just guessing what they want.
Think about this. Jesus was innovative in how he talked. He engaged the cultural language while also, likely, having the ability to speak three languages: Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek. This allowed him to draw upon a number of cultural methods in order to convey his message. Jesus captured the attention of his populist audience through overstatement, hyperbole, pun, metaphor, proverb, paradox, poetry, irony, and the use of questions. Through these devices Jesus connected with people in very powerful and personal ways. He used every tool in his toolbox. He helped people to unlearn and relearn what they have been taught their entire lives. See the Sermon on the Mount.
In fact, in Matthew Chapter 5, de demonstrates this unlearning and relearning activity by saying things like you have heard the law that says this, now I say this. I love verses 43 and 44. Jesus says, “You have heard the law that says ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you.” Now that’s a verse that some Christians just simply want to ignore.
We sometimes forget that innovation is about change. The late Steve Jobs was famously quoted saying, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” The next time that you’re tempted to plug-and-play a best practice, what if, instead, you learned from it? Then, stepped outside your doors, engaged the very people you want to reach, and listened carefully for what they don’t know they want. And then you show it to them.
That is innovation. What if you simply showed them faith, hope, and love. Faith, hope, and the greatest of these, love.
Rev. Dr. William D. Gibson serves as Director of Strategic Faith Community Development for the Greater Northwest Area of The United Methodist Church.