A happy discovery for congregations of all shapes and sizes in the first year of the pandemic was that new people sought them out for online worship, book discussions, and other activities. These people joined in for any number of online offerings, yet they remain largely unknown beyond their occasional virtual presence. Now what? How does a church board get to know – and more importantly, understand – these new drop-ins?
One of the hardest things to do in ministry is to plan for, give resources and attention to, prioritize (dislodging other established priorities) a constituency not yet present.
Most likely, the question “who are they?” is not on your church board agenda right now, given the complex and pressing decisions you are facing on a weekly basis. But this question might be just what your church board meeting needs most. It is an invitation into a different kind of thinking and seeing. This question invites you to imagine how to offer the best of God’s love and hope to folks who may know very little about how to find that love or that hope in a church.
Here is a set of questions that may help your board take up the imaginative challenge of the question, “who are they?”:
- Who is your next possible “walk-in” (or drop-in) participant? What can you describe of her outlook, her hopes and dreams, needs, and wants?
- What is the story she told herself—about the world, her situation, her take on life—before she met you?
- How do you encounter her in a way that she can trust the story you tell her about what your faith community has to offer?
- What change are you trying to offer her – her life, her story?
The theme of attending to the stranger is a constant in scripture, but we need to be clear about where in scripture to look when asking, “who are they?” Trying to listen to and understand ‘a constituency not yet present’ is much less about leaving the 99 sheep to go look for the one lost sheep. That doesn’t capture the careful listening and seeking to understand the story of a new constituency. More on point is Paul’s visit to Athens in Acts 17. Paul does here as he always did on his journeys—he gets to a new place, goes to the synagogue, and preaches Christ crucified and risen. But in Athens, Paul then goes to the marketplace. He looks and listens, and finally sees an idol to an “unknown God.” Being a savvy cultural interpreter, he begins talking about the Risen Christ through that new cultural category. Same message, but delivered with an understanding and appreciation of the story the Athenians were already telling themselves about their life before Paul met them.
In his classic poem “Theme for English B,” Langston Hughes turns the table on this question. Where your church board may be wondering “who is this person?”—“this person” likewise has a perspective looking back at “the institution.” Hughes captures some of the challenges in seeking to be a new constituency. And he reminds us that asking someone for their story is not as simple or innocent as it sounds.
Theme for English B
By Langston Hughes
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?
I am twenty-two, colored, born in Winston-Salem.
I went to school there, then Durham, then here
to this college on the hill above Harlem.
I am the only colored student in my class.
The steps from the hill lead down into Harlem,
through a park, then I cross St. Nicholas,
Eighth Avenue, Seventh, and I come to the Y,
the Harlem Branch Y, where I take the elevator
up to my room, sit down, and write this page:
It’s not easy to know what is true for you or me
at twenty-two, my age. But I guess I’m what
I feel and see and hear, Harlem, I hear you.
hear you, hear me—we two—you, me, talk on this page.
(I hear New York, too.) Me—who?
Well, I like to eat, sleep, drink, and be in love.
I like to work, read, learn, and understand life.
I like a pipe for a Christmas present,
or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach.
I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like
the same things other folks like who are other races.
So will my page be colored that I write?
Being me, it will not be white.
But it will be
a part of you, instructor.
You are white—
yet a part of me, as I am a part of you.
Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me.
Nor do I often want to be a part of you.
But we are, that’s true!
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.
Again, one of the hardest things to do in ministry is to plan for, attend to, imagine, or understand a constituency not yet present.
How is your church board going to set off down this rewarding if challenging path?
In ‘Theme for English B,” why is the assignment not as simple as it sounds?
What path might your next “constituency not yet present” take to get to you?
What path might you take to meet her?
What priorities are you willing to rearrange to do so?