Classes resumed at Murrysville high school near a Pittsburgh one week after a student stabbed or slashed 22 others while rampaging through a hallway with knives. I contacted Redstone Presbytery following the tragedy to extend our presbytery's prayers and support. While everyone is shocked and saddened by the violence at the school, resources in the community were called upon to serve the needs of those affected. Churches can be an incredible presence of hope and support when tragedy strikes. We continue to pray with and for those in Murrysville.
In my conversation with the Redstone Presbytery executive presbyter, the Rev. Skip Noftzger, I learned that the ministries of several Presbyterian pastors, along with leaders from other faith communities, were deeply appreciated following the violence. The neighbors most welcomed ministries offered from pastors that were present in their communities all year long, not just appearing in a time of crisis. Some churches that evidenced weak connections in the community prior to the event experienced fewer opportunities to serve. They just didn't establish trust with their neighbors. Opportunities were lost.
But ministries that earned trust by cultivating relationships and establishing connections over a longer period of time enjoyed many opportunities to respond and serve. These leaders modeled consistent connection behaviors that were expressed with intentionality, humility, and authenticity.
Of course, connections can be made inside the church building itself. Hospitality and other welcoming ministries, educational gatherings, in addition to worship, witness, and service experiences, can provide meaningful contexts for connections. But we shouldn't expect the community to simply come to us, or to participate in our programs.
The connections that build trust occur as followers of Jesus connect with their neighbors, co-workers, and students outside the church walls, through involvement in community projects, civic and sports activities, and volunteer organization participation. Congregations with an outward focus will create and celebrate these external connections. The 1001 new worshipping communities initiative promotes innovative "out in the community" connecting. (You will be encouraged by the stories at www.onethousandone.org.)
Vital congregations have found that their neighbors are more trusting when positive shared relationships accrued value over a period of time. When the unexpected happened, like school violence for example, these leaders and their congregations were poised to express God's love with special spiritual, emotional, and physical resources. Their connecting and readiness to engage made a huge difference in the community of Murrysville.
Being Spiritual Connectors
The book of Acts, named for the spiritual activity of the early followers of Jesus, tells how the indwelling Spirit connected believers to Jesus' resurrection power and to one another. The Holy Spirit makes connections. Believers are therefore, spiritual connectors.
The narrative in Acts 11:19-21 recounts the sometimes hostile reception believers faced, even death, as in the case of Stephen. It is curious that the text adds detail about their social behaviors, noting that, they were still only speaking and dealing with their fellow Jews (Acts 11:20). This internal focus was not a bad thing, it could be understood to be quite normal and understandable given the possibility of conflict. Internal focusing is easier, more comforting and nurturing, and is developmentally appropriate at various seasons and cycles. But, a persistent internal focus is not optimal or consistent with the external focus expressed by God's love for the world, Jesus' incarnation, and in Jesus' commission to go and tell and make disciples in every nation. You can't fulfill what we refer to as the Great Commission with a persistent internal focus.
The text goes on, however, to say that not all the believers were inwardly focused. Then some of the men from Cyprus and Cyrene who had come to Antioch started talking to Greeks, giving them the Message of the Master Jesus (Acts 11: 20). In sharp contrast to the sisters and brothers who huddled together within a mono-cultural experience, believers from the island of Crete and those citizens from Cyrene across the Mediterranean Sea made new connections, ventured outside familiar and comfortable relationships. They became cross-cultural and their social behaviors made a positive impact. God was pleased with what they were doing and put his stamp of approval on it—quite a number of the Greeks believed and turned to the Master. (Acts 11: 21).
External Focus Pleases God
The mission of the church is not only to gather people in the worship of God. The mission is also to send people out as spiritual connectors. Mono-cultural connecting is good. Cross-cultural connecting is awesome. Its not always easy to build relationships with those who look different, have a different birth language, express different values and preferences. Diversity must be welcomed in the family of faith. Even sought after as those from Cyprus and Cyrene would tell you.
A community-connected congregation does not happen automatically. In fact, every new church that was started emerged out of interpersonal relationships of neighbors in the same community. Over the years, ordinary life changes and circumstances often resulted in its members relocating a distance away, making it increasingly difficult to be connected in meaningful ways. Demographics and economics in a community also change over time, leaving many congregations in North America looking like strangers to their neighbors. It doesn't have to be this way. Just ask the folks from Cyprus and Cyrene.
What did they do? They listened. They talked. They shared. They served. They responded. They connected in authentic and intentional ways to their neighbors from across the world and across the street. No doubt, they had to adapt and modify their social behaviors to meet changing needs as they traveled about. They were open to new opportunities, contexts, and challenges.
How do we know their connecting was authentic? Simple. Their connecting resulted in meaningful social interactions, many expressing faith in the Master. And God liked it so much, as the text says, it received God's stamp of approval. You can't do better than that.
Spiritual connections must be authentic and persistent to have the most impact. Community Connections matter, as well. The only way to be certain your connecting is working is to ask your neighbors what they think, observe how the neighborhood responds. When neighbors in the church community connect with the greater community, deeper relationships of trust result. What's more, when congregations are connected to Christ, they experience growth. When those connected congregations are connected to their communities, again, growth, life, and hope result.
Murrysville, Pennsylvania was blessed because the followers of Jesus in Murrysville explored new and improved ways of being spiritual connectors. God is, no doubt, pleased.
Celebrating Spiritual Connections
What new connections are you making in your community? What have you found that really seems to work in your context?
Thank you for being a spiritual connector! God is pleased as we become spiritual connectors in our neighborhoods, cultivating connections with the Master, Jesus.