Relational engagements outside the church

From Our Leaders

January 30, 2019 | Opinion | Volume 23 Issue 3
Dorothy Fontaine |

This past week I attended a cluster meeting with a small group of pastors from southern Manitoba to talk about mission and church engagement in their communities. The pastors talked about the work that their congregations are doing locally and many voiced the need for more resources and support for their mission committees and the members who serve on them.

There is, after all, much to think about around mission, and there many differing opinions:

  • How does one do church mission?
  • Is there a right or wrong way?
  • What do we hope to accomplish?
  • Is the goal to evangelize and get more people to church on Sunday mornings? Or are we to simply serve, pray and trust that the Spirit will lead people to where they need to go? What if the answer depends on the circumstances: How does one discern then?

I’m not writing this with the intention of answering these questions. In fact, if I had one take-away from that meeting, it’s simply that we need to be asking them. If we don’t, our lack of discernment will impact on the way we engage. One pastor, for example, noted that, when it comes to local mission, we often gravitate towards indirect kinds of engagement, such as fundraisers or bake sales, rather than relational engagements. 

This was an interesting observation, and at first blush I wondered if the pull towards indirect engagement was related to time constraints; after all, it’s much easier to write a cheque for someone than to enter into long-term relationship with the person.

Relationships are messy, and you never know where they’ll take you. They also require an emotional investment that takes a different kind of toll. Interestingly, though, the pastors of this cluster group noted that relational engagements between church members and the community actually happen with frequency through volunteer programs outside the church. In fact, we spent a good deal of time talking about how churches can serve their community through the connections that their members make when volunteering for outside organizations. 

But this doesn’t get to the question of why churches sometimes lean towards indirect engagement, and I think it’s important that we ask this. Perhaps, as already noted, it’s because we haven’t done enough discernment around local mission, so we default to things we know are safe, or we aren’t comfortable with our missiology. Or perhaps at some level we feel that church mission actually prevents us from forming meaningful relationships! 

That last one would be ironic but not unthinkable. When I was growing up, I attended a church where a lovely, well-meaning Sunday school teacher would ask us to report on the number of people we had witnessed to each week. Although I was too young to put words to my “dis-ease,” I resisted that kind of engagement. I wanted friends and genuine relationships; I instinctively knew that that was not the way to go about it. 

Whatever the reasons, and I am sure there are many, I believe that, as we extend beyond ourselves into the wider circle of God’s love, we, too, will grow. After all, God’s mission is to gather us all in (Ephesians 1:9-10). 

Dorothy Fontaine is the director of mission for Mennonite Church Manitoba.

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