Some days it seems like the American church only knows how to relate to our neighbors by giving something away. Like an absent father who has lost touch with his kids, the only way he knows is bringing another toy back from another business trip. We’ve forgotten how to relate to our communities, so we try to figure out what we can offer them instead.
One of my first roles in ministry was the missions director of a 1200-member United Methodist Church. I was responsible for all the outreach ministries of the church, including the discretionary fund. To this day, I’ve never met someone who enjoys running one of these funds.
The Discretionary Fund
For those of you who don’t know, most churches have some kind of discretionary fund, a monetary account designated to help folks in financial need. In my two years running it, I processed requests to help with rent, water bills, electric bills, gas, food, heat, diapers, and more. I had a limited amount of money to disburse and an unlimited stream of requests.
When I was first hired, it felt good to help people out. I could swoop in like a superhero and save the day. However, the thrill quickly wore off. The requests were never ending. I would get calls at all hours from frantic people, saying their heat was about to be cut off. One night a man called, fighting tears and begged me to wire him money for his sick child in another city. When I told him that was not possible, he quickly shifted from desperation to violent threats. I didn’t sleep that night.
After a while, I noticed the same folks coming back every couple of months. We were helping them in the short term, but making little impact on their lives in the long term. I was rapidly burning out, questioning everything I knew about ministry to the community. Surely there was a better way to support our neighbors.
Take Nothing for the Journey
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus offers another way. It says, “He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts.” Jesus sends out his ragtag group of uneducated, underprepared fishermen and tradesmen into the villages completely empty-handed. What in the world was he thinking?
Craig Greenfield, founder of Alongsiders International, points out, “In stripping your team of their basic resources, Jesus is forcing you to rely completely on the local resources of the villages you visit as you do ministry. He is forcing you to empower local people by your posture of dependence.”
When you approach your neighbors with stuff in your hands; you’re saying that you have what they need. However, when you approach them empty-handed; you’re saying they have what they need. Our neighbors are gifted, loving, creative, and intelligent. Yet we approach them like they are needy, destitute, and void of God’s gifts—as if God has only blessed the people in your church.
An Empty Handed Movement
All around the world there is a movement rising up in the church, a movement of empty-handed ministers of the gospel. International empowerment ministries like Alongsiders and the ZOE Ministry, the New Monastic movement in the United States, and countless others are transforming communities with the good news of the Gospel without ever giving anything away.
Empty-handed ministry is far less expensive than relief-based ministry, but far more costly. It is not quick, it is hard to measure, and you cannot complete it in a weeklong mission trip. Half of the time it looks and feels like you’re just hanging out with people. It might take years to see any fruit and when the fruit does come it’s pretty obvious that it was not because of you. It’s focused on building relationships the old-fashioned way, by talking to your neighbors. You will not feel like a superhero; you will feel more like a friend. Empty-handed ministry is slow, humbling, but absolutely transformational.
Fresh Expressions is a form of empty-handed ministry. It was birthed in post-Christian England, where established churches facing dwindling congregations began forming Christian communities in unlikely places. Fresh expressions are forms of Church established for the benefit of people who are not yet members of any church. They come into being through principles of listening, service, incarnational mission and making disciples. They have the potential to become a mature expression of church shaped by the gospel and the enduring marks of the church.
Another Fresh Expression is Born
I’m rounding my second year as the minister of a network of Fresh Expressions in a college town in the mountains of North Carolina. The only things I have given away these past two years are some Bibles, a few meals, and a couple of beers.
Instead of approaching people with the answers, we approach people with questions. Our gatherings look at a passage from the Bible, the leader asks a few questions about it, and the group proclaims the gospel together. It’s beautiful, empowering, and freeing. As the community forms, the chains of brokenness are slowly broken.
Our newest fresh expression is at the homeless shelter in town. One of the directors there asked if I’d be willing to be a pastoral presence at the shelter. I jumped at the opportunity. Over the past month, a church member and I have been going to the shelter every Monday night. We eat dinner together and head over to the conference room where a handful of the residents come to discuss a passage of scripture.
We don’t bring anything with us, except Bibles. We don’t show up with clothes or food like the other churches in town; in fact, we eat the food the other churches prepare. Instead, we show up with empty hands, ready to learn from our neighbors, ready to hear the gospel proclaimed through the lives of those whom God loves. It’s not glamorous, I don’t walk away feeling like I saved anyone; in fact, I succeed most when I have done nothing but watch the group build each other up.
Our little fresh expression of church is slowly forming, slowly pushing each other a little closer to Christ, slowly putting our trust in the God who loves us, slowly forming a holy community that one day might bear the marks of a mature expression of church.
Photo credit Caitlin Regan
Luke Edwards is the Associate Director of Church Development for the Western North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church and a trainer for Fresh Expressions US. He was the founding pastor of King Street Church, a network of fresh expressions in Boone, NC. Participating in local, regional, and national levels of the Fresh Expressions movement has given Luke a unique perspective into the future of the mainline church in a post-Christian society. You can follow him on twitter at @lukesedwards or check out his blog Faithful Community at www.faithfulcommunity.com