Friday, July 6, 2012

Lessons in Mission – Part Two

In the previous post I ended by asking the question, “How did we miss the mark?” A simplistic answer would be, “Well, we do what we United Methodists know best – build something!” Herein lies the conundrum; we are more adept at going into the world and perpetuating the false materialistic values of our Western culture utilizing our well-honed construction techniques than engaging authentic ministry that affects the quality of life issues of those mired in generational poverty. So what do we do about it? We keep on doing what we know to do best – build.

Clearly, this is no longer a valid solution to the needs of the world (if it ever was) to be undertaken by the church. Don’t get me wrong – I love to build things. But I am coming to see the real danger associated by well-meaning and well executed undertakings of the church that fail because nobody adequately discerned if this was God’s will for we should be doing in His name.

Likewise, I question whether there was adequate discernment when the decision was made a few years ago to use walk-on football as a vehicle to boost enrollment at Lon Morris College. The resultant explosion of the student population generated a scramble for acquisition of near-campus housing, precipitating an even greater debt service for the already strapped institution. It was the impending foreclosure of this same housing which triggered the decision to file for bankruptcy earlier this week. Clearly, more (buildings and associated debt service) is not better, but that’s what we continue to pursue in the name of doing mission and ministry.

One definition for insanity is the continuation of doing the same thing over and over again, each time expecting a change in results. One thing that is not changing; we’re still closing churches. So my question is, when will the madness end? When will we turn from the ways of this world, seeking to apply secular solutions to spiritual and social justice issues? When will we begin seeking God’s before we go out in mission and ministry instead of simply walking in the natural and materialistic ways of man? 

Just as Jesus set the world on its ear with his counter-cultural teachings and ministry so too the church is called to stand apart from the ways of the world and follow in his footsteps. By acquiescing to the value system our dominant culture and its materialism there is little remaining to distinguish the church from that culture. There are a growing number those who are looking for an alternative to the disappointments they’ve discovered in the empty value system of our Western culture and are now seeking a spiritual experience. In the meantime, we’re still closing churches…

There is an incredible irony found in the Gospels: Jesus was a carpenter who built things with his hands. But in searching through the New Testament I have yet to find where he actually built anything here on earth except for the beginnings of the church. This was a church without buildings made entirely of people. And in everything he did he first discerned the will of the Father. This is the model he left for the church. To deviate from it is not just unchristian, but madness.

Lessons in Mission – Part One

While enroute from a mission trip in the Navajo Nation of Arizona this morning a colleague forwarded to me the news of Lon Morris College filing for bankruptcy. We both have a pseudo-interest in the future of this school since we have until this point dutifully attended our CoS classes there and apparently were in the last LLP class to graduate from the campus. This year’s LLP class (2012) was conducted in a single week at Lakeview and our CoS fall semester has been moved to 1st UMC, Jacksonville. These developments coupled with my experiences while on mission gave me valuable insight as to some of the causes of our decline in the UMC. The events precipitating the decline of Lon Morris are chronicled in the previous post so I won’t rehash that here but merely refer to it for comparison. 

 Our mission trip was well organized and executed, as one would expect from a people called Methodists. We enjoyed a wonderful teambuilding experience as we worked, fellowshipped, and broke bread together during the week. For all but one of our party, we were each returning to solidify kindred relationships formed on previous trips to the reservation. And, overall it was a good experience for both the missionaries and the Native American brethren we interfaced with. So, what’s the problem? 

 My son asked our client one day if he could work on one of the many derelict vehicles in his yard and maybe get it running for him, thinking that by doing so that might help his impoverished situation. He did, and in short order got it running and the client’s grown children took it for a drive. During the course of their excursion it stalled multiple times after the engine had warmed up and lost what little compression that it had. You see, the engine was in dire need of an overhaul. And while, yes, the vehicle ran and could technically be driven, its lack of reliability made it practically worthless if it lacked consistent power to reach its destination.

We really hadn’t  done the client any favors as the repairs required were far in excess of his financial resources. We had merely exposed another reality of the generational poverty in which he lives and gained some personal awareness in the process. It is from that new-found awareness that I write these words. We were there on the reservation to build an addition that would include the first two rooms equipped with indoor plumbing in our client’s home, in addition to plumbing the sink in the kitchen. This would enable them to wash and dry clothes without necessitating a trip to the Laundromat, bath and wash dishes inside and probably most important of all, eliminate that early morning hike to the outhouse. The work was completed ahead of schedule and with beautiful results. We celebrated our success and never ceased to praise the Lord in our endeavors. Speeches we made, thanks given, pictures taken, and hugs were given all around. And then we left. 

 By all measures this appears to have been a highly successful mission trip. There is just one glitch: our client does not have the financial reserves to have water connected to his home nor does he have electricity to operate a washer and 220 volt dryer. Yes, we added greatly to the square footage of his home, but is it useable space? Did we bless him in our endeavors or did we merely obligate him to meet yet another financial hurdle with the meager resources available to him? One thing that is glaringly obvious; by giving him more material resources that require paring his already limited family budget to utilize without addressing the systemic condition of generational poverty that he lives in was like getting that derelict vehicle running – we really didn’t do him any favors. 

 No matter how good we might have felt by our accomplishment we merely perpetuated our false secular consumerist values in a situation which required social justice action undertaken by the church. The paradox is that we were going forth in mission as the church. So, how did we miss the mark?