Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Connecting The Church In Mission

I recently spent five days in Columbus, Georgia at Pierce Chapel United Methodist Church with 13 other "missionary units" as we each spoke about our call to mission, the work that we are doing now, and how their church could walk along side us. I was sought out and invited by one of the pastors at Pierce Chapel who previously served as a US-2. I went down to Georgia (I wasn't looking for a soul to steal) with some pre-conceived notions in my head. Primarily, I thought I'd be there with 13 other missionaries from the General Board of Global Ministries. Instead, I found out that out of all the missionary units there were only 3 of us connected to the board. This was very educational to me for I had assumed that in the United Methodist Church that missionary meant Global Ministries. Pierce Chapel showed me that missionary could also mean "mission society" (won't get into the history of the board and them but we're all nice and friendly now and that's what matters), it could mean "mission on the move", it could mean the local church decided to act, and most importantly, it could mean people who serve without any formal title of missionary in the first place.

While the General Board of Global Ministries is the official agency for sending out United Methodist missionaries it is not the only one. And while the board's slogan is "connecting the church in mission" I really think that should be adopted to the whole church (maybe replace the word "church" with "world" in the slogan". See what I learned at this event was just how connected we all are. Let me explain these connections in some detail (if you don't like hearing how awesome the church is at connecting us then you should skip down to the end. I'll put some "!" down there so you know to start reading again).

The first missionary I met at Pierce Chapel was sent out by his local church to serve the youth of the Navajo Nation. He liked to talk about how the closest Walmart to him is almost 100 miles away in Farmington, New Mexico. As it should so happen one of my fellow US-2s works with the women of the Navajo Nation in Farmington. In fact she lives right by that very Walmart. Two United Methodist missionaries have been serving the Navajo and, at times, been fairly close to one another without every knowing it.

One of the Global Ministries missionaries serves as the regional auditor for Central America which means she works in a lot of countries overseeing lots of missions. But she lives in Costa Rica. While I was in Georgia I saw that my home church back in Michigan was sending a team down to Costa Rica. I told her this and she knew they'd be going to one of two places in the country. She was right of course since she is the one overseeing these ministries.

The other person connected to Global Ministries is a deaconess who works for UMCOR. I asked her if she knew the deaconess that works with us young adult missionaries and of course she knows her even if one is in NYC and one is in Louisiana.

Two missionaries, a husband and wife, that I met will be heading off to India on July 1st where they will live out the rest of their lives. I thought I had heard all the best bits of their story by the fourth night of being in Georgia when I found out I was completely wrong. It turns out that the husband had previously been to Ghana, which if you don't know I have been to as well. After his talk I went up to him and the conversation went something like this:
Me: "You went to Ghana!? I went to Ghana too! Where were you at?"
Him: "I spent my time in both Accra and Kumasi"
Me: "That's where I was! When did you go?"
Him: "I was there in 2007"
Me: " I was there in 2007! When exactly were you there?"
Him: "I was there for the month of May"
Me: "I missed you by two weeks. I arrived in the middle of June."

Sunday morning they had George Howard, the new Deputy General Secretary for Mission and Evangelism of the General Board of Global Ministries (whew, what a title) give the sermon. Now, the way I like to phrase it is that George is my new bosses, bosses, boss at the board. So it was nice for me to get to meet him since he only came on four months ago. But what was more was George told his history in mission and before he came to the board he had done a lot of awesome things. Most recently he helped start a church in Columbus, Ohio called The Church For All People. My ears perked up at that point because I knew one of my fellow young adult missionaries came out of that church. Unfortunately I wasn't able to talk to George after the service and he had to fly back to New York. Fortunately (for me), George wasn't able to leave that night and instead had to leave early the next morning. We were driven to the airport together. So I decided to ask George if he knew Brittany. I said "Do you..." at which point he started to smile at softly laugh "know Brittany?" Of course George knows Brittany. He knew the question before I even asked it.

While I was in Georgia I stayed with a lovely family who treated me excellently. The two boys in the family have both been to Red Bird Mission in Kentucky which I have been to on three occasions. I asked them if they knew my friend Bob. They didn't remember names so I pulled up a picture of Bob and showed them. They definitely know Bob as I thought they would. It was awesome to stay in the house of people who start off as strangers and find out that you know some of the same people.

Another missionary I met works with Henderson Settlement, a part of the Red Bird Mission in Kentucky. While I have been to the main campus of Red Bird I have never been to the Henderson Settlement. But I knew that my home church has sent teams to Henderson so I decided to ask her if she remembered anybody from my church. This is where things get a little bit crazy. There were two stories she really liked to tell to show how spending a week at Henderson could really change the lives of the kids she serves. The first story was about work that Pierce Chapel youth had done with her kids. But her other story was about a church that taught her kids financial management skills. Things they never learn otherwise including how to order off of a menu at a restaurant. When I told her that my home church was the First United Methodist Church of Birmingham Michigan her eyes got big and she said "that's the church I've been talking about!" Seems that my church back home has been able to provide the kids at the Henderson Settlement with real life changing experiences that get shared with other churches. I just happened to be in the audience to hear about the great work my church is doing.


So now that we've covered the connectionism of the church let's get to the coolest part of my time in Georgia.

On Sunday night Pierce Chapel held a worship service that they call their "life commitment service". It was a touching service in general but at the end of it the congregation filled out these cards that let them check off some options. There were a number of options and when you filled it out you were to bring it to the front and place it in one of two bowls. However, if you had checked off "feeling a call to service but you still need to discern what that call is" or if you checked off "feeling called to full-time missionary service" you were to hand your card to the senior pastor. After everybody had come forward the senior pastor called up each person who had handed him a card. Over a dozen people had checked off one of these two options. Half of them were college-aged or younger.

These kids were incredible. From the 7th grader still going through confirmation to the college students figuring out where they want to take their lives. From one of my host families kids to the PK who came forward to the 15 year old who would be moving to Kenya right this moment if he only had a plane ticket. This church was full of young people who want to be in mission. And as the youngest missionary there, who was there to show the youth that the church has space for them to serve, it was an incredible sight to see.

One last thought. Shortly before I went to Georgia I preached at a church in Albany. I preached about the importance, and the Biblical nature of doubt when God calls and how I think we as the Church like to encourage a vision that discourages those who doubt from following their call. While at Pierce Chapel the missionaries repeatedly told the congregation one thing. "We are nothing special". We are super-people being called by God. We're the same as anybody else. So when I was meeting with the youth group Saturday night and a member of the youth raised her hand and asked "Do you ever doubt what you do?" I could unashamedly tell her "all the time". A young person was brave enough to ask about doubt because even in a church where mission is held up so high and a five day event is put on to show off mission and how you could indeed be a missionary too, there was still a question of whether or not doubt was ok. So take with you that to be a missionary you don't have to be anything special, you don't have to be 100% confident. You can doubt and drag your feet but what ultimately matters is that you say yes, even in the midst of doubt. And when you do you'll find that you can travel 1000 miles away to meet complete strangers and learn that they aren't really strangers after all.