Tag: meaning

A New Model Merges Pastoral Care and Social Action

I am speaking tomorrow at Duke Divinity School to students in the Rural Ministry Colloquia, a monthly gathering of students involved in, or interested in, rural church ministry.  I have been asked to tell our story of how we started a community center, community music school, and several other projects here in our small town of 1300 people.

In addition to telling our story, I’m also going to share some very quick thoughts about the role of small churches in rural areas.  I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the theology and practice of pastoral care in a missional church, and how that is different from pastoral care in traditional churches.  I think I’ve come up with a least a few questions, if not fully-formed answers.  Here’s some of what I’ll share tomorrow:

  1. Missional theology and praxis calls for contextual, incarnational engagement with the community.  How does “the care of souls” fit into the missio Dei and our part in it?
  2. Why is pastoral care largely ignored in the on-going conversations about the tranformation of the church?
  3. Given the social structures of rural society, and the aging populations of small town and rural America, shouldn’t “the care of souls” be a part of our intentional ministry, and not just an afterthought during times of crisis?
  4. Considering the rampant poverty, increased alcohol and drug abuse problems, lower educational levels, and other social issues affecting rural areas, shouldn’t our care of people also include care for the community, and the transformation of communal issues?

I am also proposing tomorrow a new way to look at pastoral care and social action (which is not a term I like, but I can’t think of another more descriptive).

The typical pastoral care model is a dyad of both the spiritual and psychological care of a person or family.  The typical “social gospel” model (or social action model) is a dyad of  spiritual and sociological engagement with a community, or group in a community.

I am proposing a new model that is a synthesis of both pastoral care and social gospel — a triad of the spiritual, psychological, and sociological concerns addressed by both individual approaches to care, and communal approaches to care.

In the Bible, salvation is often seen as coming to a people, not just individuals.  Certainly, the salvation of Israel was not thought of as future, but as a present reality that God could, and often did, provide.  This does not diminish the importance and necessity of a personal response to Jesus’ call to “come and follow me” but rather it broadens that call to include the salvation of social systems and communities.

I believe that “the care of souls” is going to burst into our theological imaginations in new and exciting ways.  Some of those will be that care will be more relational and less educational; and, more contextual and less general.

The “care of souls” will also fill the gaps in the social fabric of rural communities who have lost much of their social framework to chain stores, increased mobility, and the loss of public spaces.  I am convinced that we need to see our communities, not just as potential additions to our membership roles, but as “sheep without a shepherd.”

Creating networks of caring, training spiritual directors, offering healing solutions to intractable social problems — these are some of the new ways in which pastoral care in the missional church finds new expression.   One of the primary tasks of churches is to make meaning out of life’s stages and events.  By viewing our communities, and the individuals and families within them, as in need of Christian care, I believe we change the tone and effect of what we are doing.

What do you think?  How has your church, small or large, had opportunity to express care both for individuals and the entire community?  How have you brought about community transformation through “the care of souls?”  I’m really interested in gathering examples of churches doing this because I think it’s the next new awareness of the missional movement.

What business is your church in?

A probing question companies ask themselves in planning is, “What business are we in?”  You might think it would be obvious that a newspaper, for instance, is in the print news business.  But, not so, according to a popular journalism blogger.

Steve Yelvington says that newspapers are in the business of helping other companies sell their products.  In other words, if it weren’t for advertisers (companies) placing ads in newspapers in order to sell more products, the newspaper wouldn’t have the financial support to stay in business — which is exactly what’s happening to newspapers.

Yelvington’s point is that newspapers either forgot or never understood that they were primarily in the business of helping others sell their products, and that’s why they’re in trouble.

Ask that question of churches, “What business is a church in?” and you’ll get several diffferent answers, as follows:

Churches are in the worship business. But, isn’t that getting the cart before the horse? Why do people worship? Who or what do people worship?  And even if you narrow it to the worship of God, then whose god and how should he/she be worshipped?

Churches are in the teaching business. If we could just get people to learn about God, Jesus, Christianity, doctrine, and so forth, we’d be successful.  Most discipleship programs are built on knowledge transfer.  Christian education is wonderful, but knowledge, even about God, is not the business we are in.

Churches are in the helping business. This has several variations, such as serving, caring, loving, and ministering.  But if that’s our business how are we different from the local charity, foodbank, or clothing drive?  Churches may help, but that’s not our core business.

Churches are in the salvation business. This also has several nuances such as eternity, soul, conversion, and transformation.  Of course, the big problem here is that the vast majority of people who live around the world are not looking for salvation, and don’t see the need to be saved from either hell, the devil, sin, separation from God or eternal punishment.  Nor do many see the need to be saved to heaven, eternity, unity with God, and so on.  So, if we’re in the salvation business, we’re in big trouble.

What’s the answer to the question “What business are churches in?”  Here it is:

I think churches are in the meaning business — the meaning of life, the meaning of my existence, the meaning of family, the meaning of love, the meaning of suffering, the meaning of  a thousand other experiences that can only be explained by God.

How do we stick to our business?  By focusing on the answers to the big and small questions of life like, Why am I here? Who is God? What am I supposed to do?  How can my life have significance (meaning) in a world where so much is meaningless?

Those are the questions we should be answering each week, each Sunday, in every worship service, in every small group, and with every person.

Churches are in the meaning business — because if we aren’t nobody is.  That really is the point of religion, isn’t it?  To help people find meaning in all of the confusing, conflicting, crazy stuff of life.  Of course, those of us who are followers of Christ have found meaning in Jesus.  For us, Jesus is the key that unlocks the mystery of meaning.  But our experience of Christ began with some kind of search for meaning.

What do you think?  Agree, disagree, or have another answer?  I think this is a really important question and we need to know the answer.  What business is church in?  What do you think?

In the church as abbey: Why rituals are important

celtic-crosses.jpg In the Celtic Christian abbey, the compound was open to all who needed food, lodging, or care. As the monks’ pagan neighbors entered the abbey, they were greeted with many familiar sights — monks or nuns preparing meals in the kitchen, stacking wood for the fire, copying manuscripts, or working in the fields. But, they also encountered the unfamiliar — strange rituals like making the sign of the cross, breaking bread and sharing a common cup, kneeling, bowing, and prostrating oneself.

Learning How to Be A Christian

These were the rituals of Christianity, practiced by monks and nuns in the abbey, and taught to their pagan neighbors who wished to become Christians. Pagans literally learned how Christians acted by seeing, practicing, and repeating these strange behaviors. These behaviors became so ingrained in the life of the convert that they became part of his or her daily routine.

When an Irish convert needed courage, instead of an incantation from their druid past, they prayed a prayer to Christ. The famous breastplate of St. Patrick is the most outstanding example of this type of praying. The Carmina Gaedelica is a collection of everyday prayers from Celtic life — prayers for starting the fire, washing one’s face, sweeping the house, and working at the loom.

Other rituals, such as making the sign of the cross, became automatic responses to the happenstances of primitive life. Celtic Christians learned through words, patterns, and symbols what made them distinct from their pagan Druid kinsmen in actions and belief.

Loss of Rituals in the 20th Century Church

Fast-forward to the 20th century. New church models suggested that people came to Christ most easily if we removed “religious” symbols. This strategy worked well to attract new people to these churches without symbol, but unlike the Celtic abbeys, some of these churches never introduced new Christians to the actions, behaviors and symbols that signify the Christian faith.

Many church buildings were constructed without baptistries or baptismal fonts because baptism was practiced in swimming pools and lakeshores. Communion was not observed in the largest worship services of many churches, or it was relegated to a special service outside the regular pattern of worship. All of this was done because it was thought that symbols and rituals obscure the gospel message. But just the opposite is true.

The Importance of Ritual

Rituals, practices, and symbols are important because they give us external behaviors to express internal commitments. We learn how to “act like a Christian” by doing the things Christians do. So, new converts participate in baptism, receive communion, and are catechized as part of learning how we act in this strange new community called the church.

Without ritual, patterns, and symbols our practice of the Christian faith is stripped of actions that cause us to remember and draw strength from our interior faith. Rituals give us behaviors, individually and corporately, that reinforce our common beliefs. The missional congregation particularly seeks to be distinctly Christian in its behaviors, symbols, and practices — whether ancient or contemporary — because that is part of what makes us a contrast society.

I have adapted this post from the original, which I posted at Amicus Dei last year.