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Creating Intentional Communities Where Bold Conversations Thrive

Dr. Jeffrey Haggray


May 3, 2017

The Borders I Cross is a series of reflections from BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz members and friends about their peacemaking journeys. This particular series focuses on the many borders crossed for peacemaking, which include physical borders as well as those such as language, culture, race, religion, nationality, generation, class, and sexual orientation. These essays come from people from all walks of life; those who cross borders as students, in their paid professions, in their volunteer time, in their family lives and/or in retirement. We hope you enjoy this series from BPFNA!

A version of this sermon was delivered as part of the Bold Conversations conference sponsored by Massachusetts Baptist Multicultural Ministries in August 2016. I attended that conference and heard that sermon and immediately asked Dr. Haggray for a copy. I often hear people express a desire to be part of a multicultural faith community – yet many are also reluctant to abandon their current (usually monocultural) churches. The idea shared here seems to me to be a brilliant and actionable one that could be pursued by almost anyone anywhere to create a transformative multicultural community. -- LeDayne McLeese Polaski, BPFNA ~ Bautistas por la Paz Executive Director

Acts 2:44/ All who believed were together and had all things in common; 45/ they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46/ Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47/ praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.  

In the story of the inauguration of the First Church of Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, we see people who did not hesitate to have Bold Conversations about their religious experience with the internationals who were gathered in Jerusalem. When thinking of Jerusalem in the first century, we should think of major cities such as Boston, San Juan, Atlanta, Toronto, New York, Chicago, or Mexico City; since Jerusalem contained the attributes related to internationalism, migration, commerce, pluralism, and so on that we find in modern cities. When speaking of multiculturalism in the church, it is always worth pointing out that on day one of the Christian Church’s investiture, it became a multicultural fellowship. 

To accomplish diversity within the Church that mirrored the diversity in Jerusalem, God miraculously granted to the Church the gift of Communications so that it could speak to multicultural and international population outside the church’s doors.

The ability to speak to speak in the native languages of those outside church was deemed by the Holy Spirit to be the foremost tool needed in their toolkit. The Holy Spirit gave the believing community a practical tool that was used to relate effectively to their world. By mystifying the ‘gift of tongues’ as we have, we have actually robbed God’s gift to the Church of its real and symbolic power. Though considered a spiritual gift, the gift of tongues was quite practical. 

In our divided, polarized and hostile world, we don’t emphasize enough the identity features of those in the crowds who gathered from what Luke describes as “every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem.” Quite simply they were drawn to the sounds of the Bold Conversation coming from the believing community, and what caught their attention was this fact:

“Each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.” 

And notice the diverse nations gathered, “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Cyrene, Rome, both Jews and Proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.” We mustn’t overlook the huge representation in the crowd from the Mediterranean and Arab world. And by the way, many of the people listed in the book of Acts would be denied access to the Church in America today due to Donald Trump’s travel ban.

God was bold, forward thinking, inclusive and welcoming from the start. These above attributes were not afterthoughts or add-ons but were embedded in the very development of the global church. Intentionality was embedded in the composition of the first Church in Jerusalem from the start.

Today the church of Christ in America is confronted with numerous ideological and tactical considerations regarding how best to share and celebrate our faith with persons from all walks of life who represent diverse social, cultural, and generational identities. 

Our world still needs the Good News that Jesus offers. The Good News of Jesus is timeless. In every generation both the Message of Christ and his messengers need to be liberated from geographical and cultural trappings that would limit God’s unconditional love, faith and hope according to whatever prevailing categories have been set by the dominant culture--whether those categories are just or unjust, fair or unfair, right or wrong, necessary or uncalled for.

Operating within the limits of their social contexts, local churches, associations and denominations, like all other human organizations, often inflate the value of the things we do, prefer and enjoy, as though our preferences are rooted in some kind of Divine mandate. Nevertheless, we should acknowledge head-on that so many of our preferences related to church programs, worship, leadership styles, outreach and missional strategies, education and discipleship emphases, and social customs, are simply that, our preferences. 

When ‘our’ ideological and social preferences loom so large that they exceed the outstretched invitation and the unconditional hospitality of Christ, while also discouraging, dis-incentivizing and limiting participation in the community of faith on the part of newcomers and emerging populations, then it is time for a correction within the local church or community of faith for the sake of God’s mission.

  • Social and cultural mores change over time, across the generations, and across space, yet the Good News of God’s reconciling love for all people remains constant. Do we equate God’s Good News with social and cultural mores?
  • Music styles and forms of worship may lose their appeal over time, and yet the Message of God’s unfailing love for persons living in the margins and on the undersides of distressed communities remains urgent in its appeal. Do we attribute equal weight to forms of worship as we do to the Message of God’s love?
  • The times for meetings, worship, study, or congregational discernment can change to suit the life-styles of the community, and yet the mission we are called to perform is no less important. Have we ever suggested in any way that our regular worship or meeting schedules hold greater importance than our mission to the community?
  • The formats for disciple-making, whether
    • Sunday School or conversation cafés on weekdays
    • Wednesday night study or everyday webinar
    • First Sunday communion during worship or Friday evening wine and crackers accompanied by cheese
    • Candlelight Musical on Sunday evening or caroling in the town square
    • Seven last words service on Good Friday, or Seven distinct acts of mission conducted across the city instead.

These may all take on a different style, time, format and choreography in light of who makes up the current gathered community. The decision to do things differently in order to increase their impact for the greater good ought not to become a wedge that separates us in the church.

In what ways have we suggested that our liturgy holds greater value than God’s love? That our methodologies have priority over Christ’ mission? That our forms matter more than the contents of God’s love story for the whole world? That changes to our communal customs and traditions somehow threaten the authenticity of Christ’s witness to the world?

Our personal preferences for what we have traditionally understood or enjoyed ought never to loom larger in importance than God’s overwhelming concern for reaching the generations, or take precedence over God’s concern for the health, the well-being and quality of life for all people, as articulated by Jesus in Luke 4.

The transmission of God’s Good News—of Release from Captivity in all its devastating and crippling forms, the promotion of Healing, Liberation, Reconciliation and the Forgiveness of Debts--to the generations are timeless obligations that ought never be limited by the personal preferences and tastes of the long-term members, or by the control needs of a few people, or by social customs that do not yield to God’s reconciling and redeeming love for the whole creation.

As we participate in Bold Conversations may we take seriously our need to transmit our living faith to emerging generations—persons under the age of 35--from all walks of life, most not presently represented inside our congregations. 

A good “boldness-measure” for our Conversations going forward may very well be our ability to capture and hold the attention of emerging generations—who, in so many instances, accept as normative for daily life so many of the ideological, moral and social propositions that we regard as questionable or suspect. Emerging generations live, move and have their being every day in schools, communities, and workplaces…not just in the gray areas, but in the multi-colored areas that we hypothesize about. 

Modes of Conduct and behavior once regarded by the church and society as deviant are today considered simply a part of the human condition, and not given a second thought. For so many young people, they are genuinely at a loss to understand why “Our religion feels ‘any kind of way’ about their lifestyle choices while simultaneously, ‘You people’ do not seem concerned at all about fundamental issues of freedom, justice, quality education, and our economic well-being.”

So, for now while it is necessary to practice Bold Conversations with those who we know at the denominational level, another wind summons us to begin Bold Conversations with emerging generations who are numerically under-represented in our congregations.

In order to transmit our faith and begin Bold Conversations with emerging generations that are unrepresented, or under-represented, we will need to be intentional. Thus, I recommend that we become intentional about designing faith communities that reach beyond those gathered already to encompass those who are currently unrepresented and under-represented. 

Here the issue is not one of overlooking those who are present, but rather it is asking out of a sense of mission and evangelism, “What is God’s expectation of those who are present for transmitting the message to those who are absent?”

Sincerity in asking this question will require church members like me who are over the age of 50 to recognize that persons younger than ourselves must also be invited and empowered to develop some of the strategies, initiatives and priorities that most stand a chance of reaching their generations.

The “Change of the Guard” is not a novel concept. It is something that has been happening throughout human history. 

This language evokes military imagery and pageantry. It is thoroughly exciting to eyewitness any ceremony wherein a change in the guard occurs. It may be that this happens more routinely in the military and without incident because there it is built into the system; it is not personal, nor is it voluntary. Typically, it just is the way it is, and someone other than those standing guard actually makes the decision as to the timing for the change. 

Not so in the church, where participation is voluntary, and where over time we develop a sense of ownership, with specific likes and dislikes, preferences for what we care about and are outspoken about the things we care less for. 

Changing the guard at church is not easy. 

What is it that we can contribute toward these aims? I want to propose first of all, that we:

Set out to create some Intentional Faith Communities that consist of diverse persons drawn from across our local communities. 

Initially, these will be experimental communities. Or, call them pilots or models. Here is an example of how such a model might work. Persons from the same geographical area, say they live within a 20-30 mile radius of one another, would be invited to participate in an intentional worship & study community that will extend for minimally a year, possibly longer.

You would make sure that the group is not dominated by any majority. Keep mixing it up. The Beloved Community ought to reflect the wider community in which it resides in terms of socio-cultural and economic diversity. In the course of a year, members will be invited to practice being the body of Christ together. It is probably advisable that they enter into a covenant concerning their common life. 

Whereas this is an alternative worship and study setting they will agree to a fixed time and location that does not conflict with their regular church schedule. What makes their faith community an intentional faith community is a range of identity markers, diversity with respect to race, first language, age, gender, laity and clergy (not all clergy), sexual preference, class, nationality, cultural identity, among other factors. Many of these identity traits will not be known initially. 

The group might decide to follow the common lectionary for planning their monthly worship time. The content for the worship time might pertain to Classism, War and Peace, Sexual Orientation, Ending Violence, Ending Poverty, Racism, or Immigration, or Faith sharing with persons who are not Christians. We might pray about the issues we discuss.  Offer specific approaches, or solutions to difficult challenges.

A different person should be assigned the responsibility to lead worship each time they meet. Each encounter might have a brief time of sharing, prayer requests, testimonials, Bible study, a brief meditation or homily, holy communion, followed by fellowship, light refreshments, and conclude within about 90 minutes – two hours. 

The group may decide from time to time to substitute their monthly time with a mission or service trip that moves them to engage their community, or to attend a conference or seminar such as this one together. In each instance or gathering they are strongly encouraged to allow quality time for reflection on their shared experience. Reflection and Conversation time is sacred time. That is when the faithful share with one another and listen to each other, learning from each other.

The idea here is that within regional life, especially within a local community or municipality, we can potentially take Bold Conversations with persons who are different from us to a radically deeper level through the act of continuous meeting. 

When you belong to a congregation, you have a degree of continuity that you don’t find at the Regional level. You have continuity with persons that you have already chosen to be in fellowship with, and with whom, even in the most diverse congregation, you share a common bond of fellowship. And if that congregation is predominantly Asian-American, or Haitian, or African American, or Hispanic, or Euro-American, there is a certain caucus quality, a security, a safety net, a sanctuary quality if you will—that most of us enjoy in the congregations we have chosen for our memberships. 

I am proposing the creation of Intentional Communities that meet for worship and Bold conversations with the permission of a host church. I strongly encourage holding these worship meetings inside a local church building, preferably the same building each month, to minimize confusion for the participants around where they are meeting from month to month. The goal is not about fairness, or sharing meeting space as much as it is about establishing a continuous worship community routine that resembles the routine that any church would normally have that meets weekly in the same place at the same time. 

A church building is preferred also because this is a monthly worship service. Participants should not get consumed or distracted by household and hospitality concerns such as whose hosting this month, or decorating their home, or finding parking in the neighborhood. Better to find a church building that is conveniently located, with adequate parking that grants permission for this year-long, once-monthly mission project. 

Notice you get to go to church minus the distracting and often menacing concerns of buildings and grounds, church business meetings, budgets, calling a pastor, elections of officers, etc. You don’t even have to collect an offering; and if you do, it is purely for a mission purpose, or to donate to the host church. Just think: monthly worship that edifies, and that includes prayer, confession, spoken word, Bold Conversations, Holy Communion and fellowship.

A word also about why I recommend regular worship above a regular mission activity…worship in many cultures does not simply transport persons into God’s presence in some abstract sense, but it also leads to increased intimacy with other worshipers—especially when personal prayer requests, confession and testimonials are encouraged—that we don’t readily achieve with one another in acts of service or mission. Acts of mission service are often focused on some objective need or other persons with whom we might not engage in follow-up or ongoing interaction. When others become the focus of our mission service rather than God and the image of God in one another—as can happen in worship—the work of our hands in making a difference can substitute for the work of our hearts in growing closer to those with whom we are serving. And by all means, when worship leads organically to mission service, that is a profound and beautiful development.

Herein is the question: 

Can we practice Bold conversations with diverse people in a continuous gathered community that is not limited to the worship community we chose long ago that meets our spiritual needs? 

What is needed up front is a Covenant for the year, that you are going to commit to this to the extent possible, recognizing that emergencies may occur from time to time.

Part of the challenge we face in denominational life is the difficulty of gaining momentum or traction in our conversations, which can give the false impression that we don’t appreciate the urgency of our faith and witness for our larger world. 

We really do need consistency in these conversations. We really need to connect. Turn up the volume. Turn up the frequency. Turn up the urgency…because we are becoming further and further removed from the generations who are failing to see the relevance between their lives and what is taking place at church.

Would we have a story to tell outside our fellowship if we consistently practiced bold conversations?

The intentional community makes time first to form authentic community with each other, and then they discover that mission to the wider community develops organically. The Beloved Community consistently seeks to widen its circle through invitation. The Great Commission inspires us to seek, invite and welcome others—whatever their status or identity, whether visibly broken or whole, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, weak and strong--and share Good News that God reigns, and God loves all people. More and more the Beloved Community, the Church, is needed to support an expanding ministry in the world as an expression of God’s reconciling and redeeming love. There are no limits on what that looks like.

If we pursued these intentional, multicultural communities with vigor, what might the future look like? Perhaps, with God’s blessing, it might begin to reflect something like this:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.  

Dr. Jeffrey Haggray is the executive director and C.E.O. of American Baptist Home Mission Societies and Judson Press.

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