Outside In: Long-term pandemic lessons about context, social location, and ministering from the margins.

As we enter the Lenten Season for the next few weeks, The Ministry Collaborative staff will be inviting you into conversation with us on topics that we’ve seen bubbling under the surface of our work and experience as ministry leaders. Our goal is to use this time of spiritual repentance, sacrifice, risk taking and reflection to talk about issues we tend to avoid. With that in mind, can we please talk about…what’s really happening in black churches and white churches around racial justice.

Over the next several months, congregations all over the country will navigate an incredibly unique and complex set of transitions. Based on our engagement with a diversity of pastors and congregations over the past year, we are convinced that it will be crucial for congregations to consider not only how their own systems and structures that may need to indefinitely change, but also about how the experiences of other Christian communities can be instructive for those long-term changes.

One of the most “revealed and accelerated” dynamics we’ve seen over the past year is the (sometimes vastly) different ways in which historically marginalized and historically “centered” faith communities have responded to the multiple crises of 2020 and 2021. We’ve been continually struck, though perhaps not terribly surprised, by how communities formed by different social locations, economic contexts, and institutional assumptions have adapted… or not. And we think it would be valuable for us to share some of what we’ve seen and learned.

Margin-shaped resilience

Many faith communities across our network who historically inhabit the margins of society have disproportionally suffered from the multiple crises of the past year, and yet they have also navigated much of these crises with much greater resilience, adaptiveness, and institutional capacity.

A rather indicative example is Zion Spring Baptist Church, where Adam Mixon has served as pastor for 20 years. This 95-year-old black Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, has displayed incredible creativity, resiliency, and faithfulness this past year.  The church has a rich history as a “mass-meeting” church during the Civil Rights Movement, and today sits in and serves an east Birmingham housing project.  In the first year of Adam’s service there, the sanctuary (which is a historic building) burned, and the congregation spent the next several years worshipping from house to house and gathering in the neighborhood school in order to stay connected as a community. These experiences nurtured deep hopefulness and a capacity to navigate seemingly insurmountable challenges.  And now we are amid the worst pandemic and perhaps the worst political climate we’ve seen in our lifetimes, through which Zion Spring has proven to be faithful and resilient.

This is not an isolated narrative. In our work with pastors and lay leaders in historically marginalized communities, we are struck by the resiliency, and that many of these faith communities are not persevering in-spite of our struggles, but rather because of them. Their histories, frequently marked by slavery, segregation, gentrification, poverty, and disenfranchisement, have prepared, and nurtured a capacity for patterns of crisis and injustice. The identity shaping stories of subsistence, scratching, and scrimping to make ends meet – the ability to manage the margins with – make congregations like Zion Spring grateful, creative, and durable.  The crucible of suffering forges a persistent joy rooted in the hope in a God who is present with his people in trials and who promises that troubles won’t last always – that there is a future that will outshine the past.  Adam puts it in brief: “We were built for this.  Our stories of redemption and resilience are the stories that brace us in these troubling times and allow us to embrace joy and sorrow as two sides of single coin that are part of what it means to be human. This is the dark lens that our dark skin provides us… We are the blues and the Gospel.”

We’ve heard this type of reflection from pastors all over the country who are serving in such contexts. To be abundantly clear, the “Black Church” and other communities of faith implied by this narrative are never monolithic. Yet there are common threads that run throughout many of these communities that display a stark contrast to how other communities mine meaning from these crises, a contrast often defined by our different social locations.

Unity, yes. But unity around what? Around who?

At the same time, many American church traditions perceived as “normative” or “centered” in our society, including a wide variety of predominantly white mainline and moderately evangelical (i.e. neo-evangelical) traditions, have come face-to-face with issues of identity, theology, and institutional assumptions that have necessitated hard conversations and difficult decisions about the place, role, and viability of these traditions moving forward. This is not merely a hot take based on numerous surveys and data from the past year; it’s the overwhelming sense our team has gotten from facilitating workshops, multi-month cohorts, and other conversations with pastors who have expressed strong desire to push harder on these challenges and navigate the assumed risk of doing so in more privileged ministry contexts.

Many common threads have emerged: What does a pastor do in these more socio-economically privileged contexts when it becomes jarringly obvious that their congregation includes people whose sense of unity revolves around cultural and political ideology, a desire for “getting along,” niceness and orderliness, or a combination of Christian faith and nationalism, seemingly more than the person and cross-bearing way of Jesus Christ? What will it take to recover the radical nature of Christian unity that puts a question mark next to unity that assumes the status quo, that is biased toward everything we’ve become accustomed to?  What does a pastor do when parishioners weaponize “unity” by demanding that they not preach or teach about common good, social ills, systemic sin, or the painful parts of their congregation’s history because it will be too “divisive”? What is at stake in these contexts? What is the risk? The cost?

As the pandemic and additional crises have once again highlighted the deep need for justice and equity across a wide variety of systems and structures, historically “centered” congregations have had to consider whether their understanding, witness, and practice of the gospel intrinsically expresses God’s justice. Compartmentalizing such matters theologically, and subsequently sequestering them to one individual program, committee, or intermittent project is not only an unviable long-term strategy for 21st century ministry, it’s also an extraordinary privilege to even have the very option of doing so. Communities on the margins simply do not have the privilege of deciding whether or not they will be civically engaged; it’s a given that do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly has daily, concrete, real-life implications.

One of the concrete ways this dynamic has played out can be found in recent studies about congregational perspectives on race, and especially on preaching and teaching about race. Comparing 2020 to 2016 parishioners are becoming less tolerant of preaching and teaching that addresses race and racism, and pastors are less likely to engage in those topics. This corresponds to the incredibly unsettling data from White too Long author Robert P. Jones suggesting that racism among white Christians is higher than among the nonreligious.

How will these congregations take cues from the Kingdom of God emerging from the margins? What will be the risks? The costs? What will be the risk of not taking those cues?

Ministry from the outside in

Last week, we released our podcast interview with pastor and professor Dave Barnhart from Birmingham. In his book about house churches, Church Comes Home, Dave writes, “House churches are a signifier of that divine movement of moving outside in order to create a new inside, of intentionally moving toward those outside the walls. We move to the margins in order to find where Christ is truly the center” (23). Dave captures well what we envision for congregations ready to move forward in Spirit-led ways. It’s very much along the lines of what Adam Borneman wrote just a few weeks ago, that too many Congregations that “are still looking for answers inside their own systems and limited perspectives, wondering why there don’t seem to be any new answers. But as Steve Blank says, “there are no facts in the building,” meaning that learning, curiosity, and discovery must be seen as fundamental to our identity.

Much of the work that lies before us involves what twelve-step programs conventionally call making “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” And to do this, we need to look up and out at what God is doing beyond our typical lenses and outside our accepted periphery.

How will congregations start to look “up and out” at the world around them and learn from unexpected people, places, events, and resources?

What is the Spirit doing “out there” and how will we attend to it?

What can you and your ministry context learn from what other ministry contexts have adapted, innovated, and created?

What are you learning about things like resilience and courage from contexts totally different from yours?

What has God been doing in other ministry contexts that puts valuable question marks next to the deepest theological and institutional assumptions of your own context?

What is the Spirit doing to draw out a fuller expression of the gospel from your community faith?

Where is Jesus’ kingdom coming through the margins? How will we receipt and participate in it?

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