I recently attended the NEXT Church Conference in Baltimore. There were several other members of Chicago Presbytery—attending and leading and as part of the leadership of this group. The conference has been held for several years now—maybe as many as 7?—and I have been to four of them. There are thought-provoking keynotes, interesting workshops, and, as always at big Presbyterian gatherings, worship that inspires and challenges.
There are also presentations called “Ignite.” These have greatly improved over the years that I have been attending. In the past, several of them felt like they were advertisements for someone’s business venture. There was nothing like that this year. The title tells you what these presentations are designed to do: ignite the attendee’s own thinking about their own ministry.
This year that was exactly what two of them did for me. They were presentations about ministry being done in Baltimore—sometimes by churches and sometimes by other kinds of not for profits. You know that Baltimore has been a troubled city in the past few years. Violence of many kinds has revealed a deep sense of hopelessness among many of its citizens. The two groups who presented talked about helping ministries—addressing the multiple issues of other citizens of their city as a way of being of help. That sounds like a lot of what Presbyterians do on a routine basis. We send money here, send a one week mission trip there, volunteer at the soup kitchen one Sunday afternoon a month, have our children make something to send to someone who is lonely.
Here is what struck me about the presentations. They both talked about staying with the individual being helped until the problem was solved. In each case, there is a group of people (in one case it was called a family) that stayed with a person who was experiencing homelessness and unemployment and other issues that led to hopelessness until the person was on his or her feet. It is not “parachuting in” to help for a minute; it is not “volunteer tourism” that makes us feel good but leaves problems behind. It is seeing the person in need as a whole person with gifts and hopes and the image of God on their face.
When my husband and I saw “The Book of Mormon” a few years ago, the audience all around us was laughing uproariously since much of the show is very funny. I realized my husband (who sometimes laughs so loudly in a movie that I want to move to another seat) was getting quieter and quieter. Afterwards he said it made him sad. It reminded him of his three trips to Kenya where his church has started a home for street boys. Each time he has left one or more of the boys has asked if he could come with my husband. That has not been possible or practical. That is the barb, the indictment of well-meaning Christians, that is a part of the show. We feel good when we come home from the soup kitchen or mission camp or clothing closet. But the same people will need those services again next week because we have not made a lasting change for them.
What if your congregation found a way to make a lasting change for the people to whom they are drawn in mission? What would it look like? What if the presbytery stopped giving a little money here, a little money there, and truly adopted a mission strategy that had us staying with people until the problem they are facing was solved? What might God be calling us to do?
Presbytery of Chicago