Do you have Un-Neighbors?
Our words should align with our mission. This is true of individuals, and it applies to organizations and churches. While our self-view is important, according to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, we have incomplete information if that self-view is not also, "compared to an external appraisal – how other people see us or against objective data." (HBR, Research: We’re Not Very Self-Aware, Especially at Work, March 12, 2015)1 According to HBR, it is essential that we benefit from an external appraisal. Only then can we experience transformation from"self-knowledge" to an empowering "self-awareness."
When we try to listen with community-ears, we may not hear what we want or expect to hear. Possible discomfort must not deter us. Spirit and heart work is hard work. Growth is typically accompanied by pain. Leadership requires courage. Individuals and organizations cannot learn and grow in a silo of self-knowledge. The silo (or sanctuary) may be emotionally comforting, but it could also be emotionally stunting. A deeper listening requires an on-going practice of paying attention, both to our own words and how our mission is being heard by our neighbors.
Jesus' mission disavowed insider - outsider words. Jesus disrupted brokenness and reconnected humanity with the Creator and between ourselves.￼ Though Jesus was labeled and excluded because of the neighborhood he came from, Jesus did not exclude anyone. Jesus was in the disruption business, disruption of what was not authentic and life-giving.2 The Gospel is the revolution, not the status quo. Silos or walls, whether of the temple or of the spirit, must be torn down for new connections, listening, and transformation to emerge. If your mission is rooted in God's love and hopefulness, you will eliminate words that disrespects or dismisses or devalues the community at large. The other, the stranger, those outside must remain so no longer.
Mission Vocabulary Matters
People are not ministry targets. The community is not merely a mission field. Those not gathering with us in our places of worship are not the unchurched, either. This disparaging and unfortunate term is often used to describe the other.
I realize we use words like unchurched with good intentions. It's time for us to think more deeply about the words we use and consider how our mission is understood by the community at large. Since our neighbors are people that God loves, we must carefully consider the impact of our words and our behaviors.
Diversity, generally understood and embraced, is not casual liberal tolerance of anything and everything not yourself. It is not polite accommodation instead, diversity is, in action, the sometimes painful awareness that other people, other races, other voices, other habits of mind, have as much integrity of being, as much claim on the world as you do...We are meant to be here together.
-William M. Chase, “The Language of Action”￼3
Some in the church may (unintentionally?) use the term unchurched as a kind of shorthand to describe outsiders. I get it. But we can stop it, too. The self-referencing label "un-churched" is disparaging and is an irony of sorts since insiders presume that outsiders want to be insiders or churched to begin with. Test your assumptions. Using our unchurched words implies that our goal is to convert the unchurched into churched individuals. Is that really our mission? Is transforming outsiders into insiders the transformation of lives, congregations, communities, and the world we seek? I don't think we mean that at all. We want our communities to experience God's transforming love through Jesus Christ, but this experience must be on the community's terms, and words they hear and see in action must be welcoming, hopeful, respectful, and empowering.
Jesus himself did not try to convert the two thieves on the cross; he waited until one of them turned to him.
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer 4
Won't You Be My Neighbor?
Our communities are neighbors, not others. Of course, it is sometimes difficult to feel this neighborhood connection when so many of us live a distance away and drive in to church. We may feel more emotionally at home with the church building or its history than with the people whose homes are around the church. It is understandable that in our sincere desire that others discover the abundant life we have found through Christ, that we assume others would discover hope and experience God in the same way, and in the same place, we do. We would be wise to test our assumptions.
“If trust is essential for building relationships and making enterprises run effectively, then we have to find a way for outsiders to become insiders. Recipients must become dispensers, authors of the rules, builders of community.”
Robert Lupton, Toxic Charity5
As satisfying as our church experience is, (or perhaps more accurately, as satisfying as we remember our church experience to have been), others may not share that experience. What's more, they may have chosen long ago to stop connecting the search for a "a meaningful spiritual life" to the church experience solution. We have a persistent, well-practiced, behavior of us and them language. If that's the case, then no wonder many recoil when they hear our references to reaching the unchurched, or the lost, no matter how these terms seem to fit our theological biases or aspirations.
I'm connfident that our neighbors do not want to be churched in the first place. Could we simply stop using this off-putting term, and others like it? Our mission should not be undermined by our langauge. If we knew our neighbors better, we would discover they are human beings, too, deserving of our respect, hospitality, and gratitude. We don't have "Un-Neighbors" but we do have Neighbors! Transformation begins with the church. When we put our love in action with our words, the entire community can receive a blessing.
"A city becomes great when the righteous give it their blessing; but a city is brought to ruin by the words of the wicked."
I believe the most promising opportunity ahead for existing, emerging, and emergent faith communities is about building new networks, and collaborating with community assets, remembering that the impact of our ministries must be evaluated by the communities we serve.
Let's stop labeling our neighbors as "un" anything, and instead affirm that they are citizens and members of a community that God loves.
To God be the glory, to the earth be peace, to the city be hope, and to the church be courage.
Homework: 10-Steps To Put your Mission Words Into Action
- Put diversity and love into action by honoring other’s giftedness.
- Be a cheerleader for YOUR neighborhood! (God is.)
- Connect people to the resources they need, not just what you hapopen to have available to offer.
- Pay attention to your inner-self and wellness. Know your stressors, and your resources. An unhealthy or impaired ministry cannot be effective in building the community's health and wellness, spiritual or otherwise.
- Take responsibility for your choices. Allow others to take responsibility for their choices.
- Provide a safe, welcoming place for conversation, worship, witness, mission, and growth. Does your community recognize your ministry as a safe place? If not, this must be a priority for remediation. Seek assistance from your regional association.
- Lovingly connect.
- Actively listen.
- Generously engage.
- Watch your language! The community is listening.
- Dierdorff, Erich C., and Robert S. Rubin. Research: We’re Not Very Self-Aware, Especially at Work. Harvard Business Review - Ideas and Advice for Leaders. Harvard Business Review, 05 Mar. 2015. Web. 13 Mar. 2015. <https://hbr.org/>. ↩
- See Reciprocity In Action. ↩
- William M. Chase, “The Language of Action” The Workbook, 19/1 (Spring 2004). ↩
- Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, and Eberhard Bethge. Letters and Papers from Prison. New York: Macmillan, 1972. Print. ↩
- Excerpt From: Robert D. Lupton. “Toxic Charity.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/DUB0z.l Lupton, Robert D. Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse It). New York, NY: HarperOne, 2011. Print. ↩