This is a guest article written by Dr. Mary Sue Dreier, one of our keynote speakers from the 2015 Virginia Synod Assembly. Dr. Dreier is the Associate Professor of Pastoral Care and Missional Leadership as well as the Inerim Associate Dean of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary School of Theology.
After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.
At the Virginia Synod Assembly in June, each congregational group conducted a brief demographic study as part of the theme, "Ambassadors for Christ: Knowing Our Congregational Neighborhoods to Do God's Will." This is the first article in a three-part series over the next three months which will continue the journey into our neighborhoods.
I teach a course at Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (LTSS) called, "Foundations in Christian Mission." The focus for the course is the mission field right here in North America, right here in our own backyards. Every congregation today is on a mission field. The students taking the course are placed into small groups of 4-5 people, and sent out into the community to study a congregation of their choosing throughout the semester.
As they go out, I tell them they are "detectives of divinity" with the two questions that I posed at Synod Assembly: "What is God doing?" and "What is God calling this congregation to be and to do?" Part of their "detective work" involves gathering demographic data like you or members of your congregation did during the Assembly. Another part is interviewing. They interview members of the congregation and they interview members of the surrounding neighborhood.
There are often two big surprises that come out of the neighborhood interviews. Surprise #1: People in the neighborhoods often know little or nothing about a congregation-even if it's been there for many years, perhaps 100 years or more! Students may walk up to a person on the street, talk to someone in a neighborhood cafe, or stop at an auto parts store or beauty salon. They frequently hear things like, "Hosanna Lutheran Church? I think I've heard of it but, no, I really don't know much about it." Surprise #2: People in the congregation are usually surprised that people in the neighborhoods don't know much about them! It's easy to assume that others are aware of who we are, what Sunday worship is like, and why our congregations even exist. But they often don't.
Perhaps you'd like to do some "detective work" in your community and, in the process, get to know some neighbors-and have some interesting new conversations. Here are the types of questions students in my class ask:
- How long have you lived and/or worked in this neighborhood/community?
- Tell me a couple things you really like about this neighborhood/community.
- Tell me a couple things that concern you about this neighborhood/community.
- What two or three community organizations really contribute to the well-being of this community? In what ways are they helping?
- How do the churches in this area connect or contribute to the community? Are there particular churches that do so? What contribution(s) do you feel each is making?
- Are you familiar with (name of your congregation)? Can you tell me anything about it?
- If our congregation could connect or contribute well in this neighborhood, what suggestions would you have for us?
My husband Gary and I were mission developers of a new congregation in Minnesota. One day we were gathered around a small table with a few other folks, trying to figure out how to reach the people in the community who did not already go to church. Helen, herself an infrequent participant in churches, said, "You really want to know how to reach out in this community?" We leaned forward with great interest, "Yes, Helen. Please tell us." "Just talk to people!" she replied.
Just talk to people. I'm a lifelong Lutheran-and, honestly, her answer scared me. I was better at designing brochures, writing ads for the paper, leading small groups, and making plans for our first worship service. Just talk to people? Pretty scary stuff, really.
Now you've gathered important demographic information. A good next step is to find out what that data looks like "on the ground." Getting to know our neighborhoods also means getting to know our neighbors. Just walking around and talking, showing you care about the community, is a good next step. Here are a few suggestions:
- Get curious. Pick a few of the questions above-or design your own-that you would really like to ask some folks in your area.
- Find a partner. Go out in pairs like the disciples in the Bible. It's more fun (and less scary) that way!
- Think small. Pick a small area, plan to go out for just an hour or so, and try to talk to just a few people.
- Watch for God. Pray, trust that God is guiding you, and enjoy God's goodness in the community around you.
Earlier this fall, a congregation in our area of Columbia was wondering how to connect with its neighbors. Then the October floods came. They started going around the neighborhood, knocking on doors, asking if people were all right and if they needed anything. They got to know their neighbors.
You don't need to wait for a crisis like that. In "The Freedom of a Christian," Martin Luther suggests we think about life like this: "I will give myself as a Christ to my neighbor . . . since through faith I have an abundance of all good things in Christ." This is the month for Thanksgiving. Getting to know our neighbors is a good neighborhood way to celebrate Thanksgiving for God's faithful love among us all!
By: Dr. Mary Sue Dreier