Engaging Outsiders

June 12th, 2012

Many of us have heard the saying, “Children are to be seen, but not heard.” There are many issues with this statement. One of them is that congregations are applying this statement not only to younger folk, but to outsiders. The idea behind this statement is one day your time will come, but until that day be satisfied to be seen. When is that day? Congregations have to become more collaborative in working with those, inside and outside of the church, who have no real voice. Whether you are younger and never have any “real” input into the lived faith of the congregation or an outsider not really welcome in the faith community, a congregation that is more collaborative is a welcome change from the status quo.

Many of us forget that Jesus, according to Luke 3:23, was in the thirty-something age bracket. Jesus also was not from the “right” family. Jesus, like many younger people today and/or people not blessed to live in certain places, was not always warmly welcomed by the elders in the community. They ran Jesus out of town (Luke 4:28-30), they questioned his practices (Luke 5:33-34), and they even disapproved of his willingness to forgive others (Luke 5:21- 22). Jesus was not a part of the insiders because he brought new ideas and ways of doing things to the table.

It is one thing to read the Gospels and side with Jesus as an insider in the church—which we all do. It is really eye-opening to read the Gospel and to think of Jesus as an outsider and those of us in institutional churches as the insiders opposing new ideas and practices. Think about how difficult it was for the Pharisees and scribes to embrace Jesus. Is this any different from us embracing those in the post–civil rights generations coming with new ideas and practices? Is this any different from us embracing those in the community where the church resides who do not live in our neighborhood? We often interpret these questions in a way that makes Jesus a part of the religious establishment and point out that we are talking about individuals who are truly outside of the church.

This line of reasoning is not helpful for institutional churches, because it ignores the fact that, while Jesus was a part of the Jewish tradition, Jesus never bought into the practice of making certain individuals invisible in the community. Jesus did not promote a mentality of “I am blessed and you are not.” In Luke 13:10-17, Jesus heals a woman who is crippled on the Sabbath day. The leader of the synagogue is a witness to this healing and admonishes Jesus for healing on the Sabbath and not on another day. Typically we read this text and cheer Jesus for standing up to the leader in the synagogue. We (in many institutional churches) usually do not read this text and consider that we are the leaders in the synagogue admonishing those who seek to do new things even when they are not opposed to the gospel.

My point is that Jesus did not settle for being seen and not heard. Jesus did not want others like the crippled woman to be invisible either. Jesus lived and proclaimed a gospel that was both challenging and a blessing for everyone. The gospel was not just about a few being blessed at the expense of others. A part of the challenge of the gospel is setting a table where all are welcome and have a voice. This requires authentic invitation and authentic hospitality.

Jesus realized that the religious establishment during his day was not always willing to extend authentic invitation and hospitality. Therefore, Jesus called twelve disciples who were willing to interpret God’s calling on their lives differently from others and especially those in the establishment. These twelve were to be the start of a community that challenged not only cultural practices, but the institutional practices of the day. They were called to work collaboratively as a community to point people to a new way of existing.

Becoming a missional church requires rethinking the belief that outsiders and some insiders should be seen and not heard. It means reinventing one’s congregation to become a place where everyone has a voice and not just a few. On his 1999 CD Nastradamus, Nas drops these words: “He who has ears, let him hear and he who has sight, let him see / Those who know don’t talk and those who talk don’t know a thing.”8 These lyrics are a challenge to many congregations to start seeing and hearing the voices of those not included in the dialogue. This requires a shift from privileging a few to seeking the insights of various voices. Doing this will impact congregations in the following ways.

First, it will redefine relationships inside of the church toward becoming more collaborative. This means congregations will be more intentional in developing a leadership style that includes the voices of all generations. Certainly this assumes a congregation has multiple generations. If it does, then taking the insights of those in the post–civil rights generations seriously is critical— and not just on “special days”! The voices of all generations will be heard in determining the shape of worship, finances, and all other activities of the congregation.

The Civil Rights generation protested against discriminatory practices that did not give them a voice in the process. For example, laws that deterred African Americans from voting were challenged. The goal was not to destroy the process but to be an active part of the process. By analogy, post–civil rights generations want to be a part of the process in congregations. They are not trying to destroy the congregation, but want their voices heard. Congregations have to be willing to hear their voices or be boycotted.

Second, it will redefine relationships with those outside of the church toward becoming more collaborative. This is where the rubber hits the road because this is where many of our congregations struggle. They do not perceive the need to be collaborative with those outside of the congregation. This form of collaboration requires listening to why those on the outside do not perceive the congregation as a viable place for their spiritual journey. It does not mean promoting some watered-down version of the gospel.

One of the fascinating themes in the gospel is that often after Jesus heals someone he sends them to the temple and priest (for example, Mark 1:40-44). These individuals were excluded from temple life before the healing because of their condition. If someone was physically imperfect, then they were not allowed to go into the temple. One can interpret Jesus as sending a message that those in the temple were missing the point by ignoring those outside of the temple who were disconnected from the community. The powers that be were ignoring those who had no voice because they believed they had nothing to add to the communal life. They were not blessed!

Many congregations are operating the same way as those in the temple and ignoring those on the outside because they believe they have nothing to add to the life of the congregation. One of the realities of the gospel is that the congregation is called to engage these individuals in a way that may reshape congregational life. By collaborating with those on the outside a congregation can begin to hear how it really needs to change its hospitality and the way it integrates folk into the life of the believing community. The perspective they bring is not the same old way of doing business, but the perspective of those who have been ignored for whatever reason.

Stevie Wonder is one of the giants in R&B and came into prominence during the late sixties. Stevie Wonder collaborated with Busta Rhymes on a song called “Been Through the Storm.” Stevie Wonder has every right to be picky about whom he collaborates with musically, and Busta Rhymes is not the first person that may come to mind to work with Stevie Wonder. Stevie Wonder has done many such collaborations over the years. Congregations can learn from these collaborations that it is possible for different generations to work together and for those who are revered insiders to work with those outside of their genre. It pushes both sides to learn and expand their understanding of reality.

Becoming a missional congregation means learning and expanding one’s understanding of reality in the midst of sharing the gospel. Missional congregations are willing to open themselves up to outsiders because they are not afraid of change. They do not change for the sake of change, but they are willing to be in conversation with the voiceless. Turn the tables and think about becoming a part of a community where you have no voice.

Congregations need to ask, “Why would I attend or become a part of a community where I am not valued?” Congregations are called to think about this question and to answer honestly. Think about it! Are we a place where people are seen and heard? Are we a place that perpetuates an insider (Pharisees) mentality? Missional congregations are always looking for opportunities for collaboration with others that allow for more than one voice to be heard.

Excerpted from New Wine, New Wineskins: How African American Congregations Can Reach New Generations by F. Douglas Powe Jr. Foreword by Olu Brown. Copyright © 2012 by Abingdon Press.

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