Ethos in a Small Outer-Urban Church

In the coming weeks I will be exploring new ground (at least for me) concerning the life and ministry of small churches and what this might imply for children’s ministry, both on campus and in terms of our support of parents as they learn how to teach their own children intentionally. I believe it begins with this question of ethos. It is not enough to introduce a new program and say, “Have at it!” Underlying assumptions of how people perceive their roles must also be considered and addressed. Plus, we need to allow people the time to process not only what we are asking them to do, but why. If they buy into the rationale, then they will opt into the suggested course of action, adding to it their own helpful feedback for improvement.

Consider my church. It is located in the Lents neighborhood of southeast Portland, Oregon. This community experiences an uneasy balance between the outer urban neglect so typical of eastside neighborhoods and the sporadic suburban shine of commercial development striving to revive rundown areas without engendering gentrification. Shiney new retail outlets provide new lighting for ubiquitous 82nd street prostitutes, not that they want the additional glare. Meth neighborhoods and gang activity co-exist in close proximity. New residences also are springing up, although the building has come to an end for now due to the housing market crash.

Into this milieu the church attendees come from a variety of areas, mostly outside of Lents, but not entirely. Some are thoroughly suburban in lifestyle and perspective from all over the tri-county metroplex. Others live in rural areas. Many drive in from the denser urban core of Portland. There are apartment dwellers, single-family home owners, condominium owners, and so on. They are conservative Republicans, liberal Democrats, Independents, and non-registered. Some are actively Pentecostal and charismatic while others have no interest in charismatic theology. There are a mixture of philosophical worldviews, including elements of modernism and postmodernism. Some swear by Obama, and care about green initiatives and social justice, while others lament his presidency and the rise of big government (while also caring about social justice just as much as their counterparts). We are a hybrid mutt of a faith community which worships Christ Jesus together, not relying on our own strengths, but on God’s alone. The ebb and flow of our interactions give expression to our collective ethos as a small outer-urban church. The dictionary defines ethos in the context of sociology as follows

Sociology. the fundamental character or spirit of a culture; the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, or practices of a group or society; dominant assumptions of a people or period: In the Greek ethos the individual was highly valued.

ethos. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1). Random House, Inc. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ethos (accessed: March 24, 2009).

The push and pull of the varied experiences and beliefs which comprise our individual backgrounds forms–at least in part– the basis for how we make decisions, and how we generally choose to interact. Obviously (or is it obvious?), we seek God and pray alone and together to understand his leading. But our backgrounds play a profound role in how we understand each other, how we interpret mutual communication. The assumptions of our separate backgrounds intersect in such a way that they are either affirmed, refined or set aside based on how we choose to respond to different ideas, both through Scripture reading and prayer, and through interpersonal and group conversations.

Ethos is a singular potent force for good or for bad in the life of the church. This is true for churches of any size, but this blogpost seeks to explore the unique needs of the small church. It raises a few questions. Who affects the ethos of the church? Why? While opinion leaders clearly have a marked impact on the overall sociological dynamics of a congregation, I suggest that groupings of people also are important. Families. Social networks within the community of faith. Elders. The marginalized. Children. Parents. Tithers. Vocal complainers. Power-brokers. Humble elderly widows.

Going a step further, what are the assumptions of your church? What are those beliefs and behaviors which truly reflect the character of your people in their everyday lives and not just on the weekend? Is there cause for concern? Is there reason to rejoice? Do people engage in Christ-honoring ministry on their own initiative separate from the direct oversight or initiative of church leadership? If not, why not? Do people tithe and give joyfully? Who is expected to teach children the content and practical application of following Jesus? The church? Parents? Both? Is this a cause of tension in your church? If yes, why? If you are not sure, what are you doing to find out?

In one sentence, how would you describe the ethos of your church? Not your mission statement. Not wishful thinking of a preferred future. Rather, what describes the character of your church’s people and the content of their behavior and conversation without the benefit of any marketing filters which would edit reality? Is it harder than you thought? Easier? Would a fair and unbiased unchurched community member near your church agree?

More to come soon as we engage the conversation  concerning small churches and their ministry to children and families.

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