How can we learn from the “DONEs”- those done with the institutional church but not done with Jesus? I recently sat down to talk about this and our call to mission in the community with Duke Vipperman. Duke has been an Anglican priest for thirty four years, and served at both Little Trinity and Church of the Resurrection (The Rez) in East Toronto.
Sean Davidson: Duke, I understand that you’ve been having conversations with people who have walked away from the church. What have you been learning?
Duke Vipperman: I’m amazed at how much has changed since I started out in ministry. The shift from Christendom to whatever we call this age has had profound effects, and we can find ourselves estranged from the neighborhoods around us, with no clue how to get rewoven into the fabric of the community.
So, after departing the Rez last November, I wanted to spend more time beyond the walls of the church and explore what the DONEs were doing. Their critiques cut to the heart of the institution many of us are trying hard to preserve. This can be intimidating, but they have really important insights. We have much to learn from them.
SD: That rings true in my experience too. I find some of the best insights come from friends who love Jesus but no longer go to church. We want to be people of mission, reaching out with the Gospel, but it’s difficult to know what that really means when we’re so immersed in institutional life. What are some concrete practices that can help to break the mold?
DV: There are a few things that I think are crucial:
First, spend ample time with Jesus in His word. Our God is a missional God, always moving into the neighborhood and partnering with his people. Good teaching and preaching is a must. This helps to open up the discussion.
We need to get out of the box – the building – and listen. That can start with walks-about, prayer walks and conversations, wherever you can find them. For clergy this means being known in your community like 19th century parish priests were once known.
Having a missional coach is helpful too. The success of an experiment is not whether it works as we expected, but what we learn. One of my pastor friends calls himself the “lead learner” in his church. I like that. Change comes very slowly, but the encouragement of a coach can yield fantastic new life.
Related to this is adopting a posture of continual discovery. We need to shift away from being knowing-it-alls. And we need to learn how to “reach with” others in community. The older idea of reaching out can be patronizing.
SD: Reaching with—that’s a really interesting idea. Can you give an example or two of what that might look like? What have you seen?
Early in my ministry at Little Trinity, I was part of a missional small group that was eager to build relationships with the St Lawrence community just to the west of us. One day, we met some folks who were trying to organize the St Lawrence community annual festival but were short of volunteers. We joined them, and between us had enough volunteers to pull off a party for 20,000 people. That was an amazing experience.
I also think of Rev. Julie Golding Page who enrolled her daughter in the Montessori School at St. Columba’s, a building the Rez took over for a time. She offered coffee to the teachers, parents and guardians of the children. Gradually morning conversations developed over a good cuppa. Some parents used to do church but weren’t anymore. Every Christmas the Rez gave out Christmas Star Boxes for local families. The coffee drinkers saw the boxes, asked what they were, and took on the task with enthusiasm. One woman picking up a set of boxes to deliver suddenly stopped and cried, “Oh my! These children go to my kids’ school. I had no idea there was such need in MY neighbourhood”.
SD: I love when the walls come down like that. So “reaching with” is about joining with others who are already active in community or allowing new friends to take your projects further than you could alone.
DV: Yes, that’s it. It works both ways.
SD: Recently I’ve been challenged to think of how small groups can be more missional in focus. Something tells me that your advice above goes a long way to answering that.
DV: I think you might be right. Getting out into community; learning with others; building relationships; reaching with. Of course, institutional control is a quick and easy way to organize a large group of people, but it is terrible way to do mission. It suppresses the impulse and imagination of the people who are best positioned to see the openings for involvement in their worlds – the extraordinary ordinary people of God. Small groups can more easily engage in mission if they’re freed up to do so.
And they can help foster genuine community. I don’t know who first said it, but it’s brilliant. You can’t create community unless you waste time together. What if missional-minded Christians were inclined to waste more time with neighbors in small group settings -to eat together, to laugh, to build friendships, to share life? Who knows what might happen?
SD: That’s so good. And think of how that relates to “reaching with”. Small groups seem best suited to go along with others to take part in rather than initiating new projects of their own.
DV: Yes, I think that’s exactly right. And this can take on a variety of expressions:
During my time at the Rez we tried to encourage a regular missional edge for our small groups. Sometimes that meant taking up a special project, but often it was a matter of helping people to recognize that their 9-5 work held missional possibilities of the “reaching with” kind. Rather than add another assignment to such a group, we would encourage them to see their gathered time as mutual support in mission.
We also found that when special missional projects arose, an ad hoc group of people from many different groups and some with none would naturally form to respond to it. I am thinking of the Sleep out for Syrians event (Fall 2015). It was a massive community effort supported by many Rez folks who willingly leapt at the chance. I think if we had centrally laid the task on a few groups it would not have had nearly the profound effect on both the Rez community and the neighbourhood.
Again, this works well when small groups know they’ve got permission to experiment—whether they are long-standing ones with stable routines or new ones formed organically around emerging projects. The important thing is for people to be freed up to explore the possibilities.
It’s difficult to remember, but God is at work in the world, present to us by the Spirit, and he is inviting us to share in an abundant life together across all the lines that would separate us—including the institutional ones. I can’t think of better motivation for practicing hospitable community wherever it can be found.