redeeming the fence

Last night I hung out with a large group of neighbor youth and kids, about 25 to 30 in all. The older boys played basketball. The younger kids mostly played on the swings and jungle gym. Two girls dressed in traditional Muslim head coverings invited me to play volleyball with them. I took my place alongside one of them. The other girl stood on the opposite side of a chain link fence. We bounced a small beach ball back and forth. I bumped the ball to my partner and she hit it over the fence. Most of the time. We smiled and laughed a lot.

The fence which was intended to distinguish boundaries and separate has become a tool for bringing very different people together for common purpose: doing life together as fellow humans. Relationships forged in the crucible of time spent together.

It takes time and proximity, this endeavor to build community and melt cross-cultural chasms. It takes love and humility, a willingness to listen well and open our hearts to others, especially when they ignore or hate us.

Often the gains are small and can even seem like failures. But press on. As if loving the Lord, himself. Because that is the reality (Matthew 25:34-46).

people skills in evangelism: forgotten and ignored

The purpose of Christ’s church is to worship God and to make disciples of the nations. We’ve spent over two thousand years figuring out how to do this. Each generation has had its challenges in the process, often forgetting or ignoring two important elements: love for God and love for others. While there have been beautiful seasons of God’s movement on the hearts of people throughout church history into the contemporary period, there have also been prevalent lethargy and even outright apostasy. My point here is to highlight how a lack of people skills has impacted our efforts at evangelism, resulting in a demonstrable failure to show love to others.

Much of the older Christian generations in the West have been weaned on the idea that evangelism is kind of like salesmanship. You tailor your approach for the needs of the target audience. Some might woo them, wine them, dine them, all the while pointing out the need for salvation and the wonderful multi-faceted features of getting saved. Others more often simply state the requisite information,  kind of in a professorial way. They may know the person they are speaking with; they may not. They often feel their duty is done once they have given the talk. Still others engage in roving evangelistic piracy (that’s gonna get me some stern emails, I just know it!), roaming sidewalks, shopping malls, workplaces, schools, and even church foyers, looking for people who show evidence of not being in, and then pouncing on them with  zeal, letting the chips fall where they may (usually alienating people from the gospel for years to come; yes, I have had this happen to me, although I was already a believer and mature enough to avoid any bitterness, and also despite the fact it was years before I decided to cut off my shoulder length hair; what can I say? I was follicly blessed!).

I am all for evangelism. You know, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, his bodily suffering and death on the cross in our place for our sins, and his bodily resurrection which signalled the defeat of hell and death, plus the power of sin. I am also for social graces. Evangelism has a very bad name in the real world where people live. Why? Well, it would require a book to list all of the reasons, but chief among them is a pervasive and profound lack of people skills. We simply do not do a good job of relating to people. Oh, sure. On the whole, we may be sugary sweet at first. But when we close the deal, bringing them into the fold, the energy we originally invested in the person tapers off into casual disregard for their ongoing discipleship and our friendship with them. This is not true for everyone. But it is common enough to merit concern. We launch people into the smoothly running machinery of our church systems, assuming that relationships will continue to blossom, when in fact they more frequently wilt. Maybe this is why graduating high school students more often than not check out of the church and faith?

If we approach or befriend people with the primary motive of wanting to evangelize them, our desire to continue that friendship will naturally fade if and when they convert, or if they prove resistant to our efforts. It begs the questions: will we continue to love them and foster friendship with them after they convert to Christ? Will we nurture friendship even if they never choose to follow him?

Proclamation is important. No doubt about it. Relationships, particularly in people groups which are exceedingly difficult to penetrate with the gospel, are paramount. Relationships with no other agenda than to love in the way of Jesus Christ. Not to close an evangelistic deal, prove a theological argument, win a philosophical or political debate, or leverage social authority in a community. Each of those elements can destroy seedling relationships within a community.

Some plant. Some water. God brings in the harvest (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). Are we willing to be patient enough to allow God to do his work in his way even if it means the chief harvest will not occur until after our season of direct personal influence has passed?

graffiti on broken hearts

It was a quiet Saturday afternoon last year when I took these photos in Portland’s lower Central Eastside. Home to industry, railroads, and graffiti  painted on broken hearts, the area isn’t much different from other industrial zones in Portland, but it is more readily accessible and offers interesting subjects for photography.

Photograph by Glen Alan Woods

This road is SE Holgate near SE 26th as it passes over the railroad tracks. Not much to see in this view, although the discerning eye can barely make out Oregon Health Sciences University in the West Hills beneath the ominous clouds which threatened to dump heavy rainfall on me (a threat they soon executed with relentless force). The photos below depict various sights as I looked over the bridge railing down to the railroad yard. See the engine in the distance? There is  a certain kind of beauty I perceive in industrial environments. Wierd, I know. But then, as shown in the bottom photo, I noticed something else…and I wondered…

I wondered about the lives of those who tagged this wall. Gang members marking their territory? Kids wanting to express themselves? Creatives seeking alternative art installations? Most likely, the first two options are closest to the truth insofar as they go. I suspect it is graffiti on broken hearts. Who knows what plotlines drove them to this point? What are they expressing? Anger? Rage, even? Lust? Jealousy? Gang colors? Threats of vengeance? Brokenness in the midst of despair? Portland’s urban neighborhoods reveal much beauty, industry (as in these photos), creativity, colorful history, wierdness, and cultural diversity. Beneath the surface, however, there is revealed a pervasive brokenness in us all. The graffiti is merely a symptom, not the root problem. 

We paint over walls incessently, but ignore the call of people like Donald Miller and his Mentoring Project to mentor the fatherless. We attend committee meetings to complain about the homeless, but refuse to follow the lead of people like Steve Kimes  who pastors Anawim Christian Community (a community church for the homeless and the mentally ill and interested middle class folks in Portland, OR) or Ken Lloyd  who ministers and does life with the homeless downtown, and countless others who labor in obscurity by engaging the homeless intentionally and compassionately. We whisper about problematic neighborhoods which have pervasive crime, such as North Portland, Lents neighborhood in SE Portland, and Rockwood in Gresham, but we are content to watch tacitly as a few (e.g. Compassion Connect in Rockwood or The Bridge Church in North PDX) engage the culture in the way of Jesus’ love. 

We may even write blog posts like this one and then log off, thinking we somehow have made a difference while going on with our day, doing things which prevent us (intentionally, I suspect) from actually doing life with real people in the margins. You know, the people Jesus misses most. Whether they are homeless or forgotten in their homes; poor, middle-class, or wealthy, yet still marginalized from authentic community.  Shame on us. No, correct that. Shame on me for my selfishness. I’m far better at writing a good plot than living it. And that isn’t saying much. Time for me to go get real with God and do life with him even as I learn to do life with others. Pray for me. I will pray for you, too.

Don’t tarry. The clock is ticking…

into the margins

I seek to inhabit the margins of my city because obedience to Christ’s mission demands it of me. I do not go as a rescuer or self-appointed sole arbiter of truth or instructor on preferred ways of doing life. No, I desire to go as a fellow sojourner: to live life alongside my friends in the neighborhood; to open my heart to them; to reveal my brokenness and humanity while still testifying to the hope Jesus gives me because of his work on the cross; to die to self so that Christ may increase through my life and witness, and in the relationships I develop in the community. The words may sounds pretty on this blog. Applying them is messy and hard in real life. It would be far easier to stick with writing about it and to put off continued intentional application for a vague future date.

But that is an unacceptable option.

Relationships take work. They require me to stop talking and start listening so that I may better understand my new friends. And when I do talk, it should be in a posture of humility, not bombastic certitude.

Therefore, I intend to find fellow collaborators in my faith community to pray with me and for me and to do life in similar ways among the marginalized so that we may develop long-term relationships which are transformative and hopeful as a witness to God’s love. I am praying it will stir hope for the kind of change that can occur in a community when Christ followers actively seek to love people in the way of Jesus.

I love all kinds of people. The margins are teeming with the poor, to be sure. But from a certain point-of-view,  the affluent often also inhabit the fringes of church life by virtue of  a lack of relationships with Christ followers and with God. When opportunities present themselves, I seek to know them as well.

Yet, the opportunity set before my local church primarily is with lower income apartment dwellers. So, off I go into a strange counterintuitive journey. The trailhead is barely visible. The undergrowth is daunting. It won’t be pretty or easy, but by God’s grace it will be beautiful as a witness to his love.

Break camp and advance…

Five Ways to Learn the Culture of Your Neighborhood

Photo By Glen Alan Woods, September, 2011

Outreach without a foundation of relationships invariably leads to misunderstanding. Unfortunately, this is too often the norm for churches attempting to impact the neighborhoods in which their campuses are located. Good intentions are derailed by a failure to become a contributing part of a neighborhood. From the perspective of residents, we can seem like interlopers who zip in to hand out a track or give a show, and then zip out, leaving them to do damage control because of the distant nature of the outreach approach. No relationships have been nurtured. But hey, we got our photographs and our stories to share with applauding admirers in the church building, right?

But no relationships with the lost outside the walls our campus. One urban missionary says, “If you are not going to stay, please don’t come.” Sounds harsh, I know. But he has a point. Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way.

I offer below five simple ways to begin learning the culture of our neighborhoods. It is foundational to creating understanding. Rather than assuming we fully know the perspectives and needs of others, we should seek to learn them from the people we intend to reach. How might we do this? We should:

  1. Visit community events: Parades, fairs, carnivals, open air markets, flea markets, neighborhood discussions, movies in the park, sports events (especially for kids and teens), etc. Be present. Contribute. Ask questions and listen. Share in the local life and economy with no agenda other than to represent Christ with his love and kindness.
  2. Visit local restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, speciality shops, parks, and so on. Do life with people. Always listening. Always gracious.
  3. Identify local conversation partners. Ask permission for an interview. Assure them you are not wanting to preach at them, but that you do want to learn from them. To the level of their comfort, ask about their lives in the community. What is the ebb and flow of local life. How do they perceive the church? Is it considered a part of community life as a positive influence or do they feel it is separate, closed off? What are their immediate concerns, worries, hopes, joys?
  4. If it is available for your neighborhood, do an online demographic study. For churches in the USA, the website www.census.gov provides a large quantity of data relevant to the needs of local neighborhoods. Compare the data with that of your church attendance roster. How is it different? How is it similar? You might be startled at some of the findings. But don’t worry, God isn’t surprised.
  5. If you live in the neighborhood, try to do life with others outside the walls of your home. Go on long walks, particularly in the warmer months. Take time to visit with the woman watering her lawn or the man scratching his head over how to put on the wiper blade. Ask the young couple about the baby in their stroller. Admire the new haircut for the toy poodle who simply will not stop yapping for someone to throw his ball…. You know, life. Do it with them. And listen.

In this process, and undoubtedly through other means you might create, you will begin to recognize themes emerging. Phrases. Words. Cries from the heart. Previous to this, for example, you could not have known that about 50 percent of mothers within the neighborhood in which your church campus is located are single. The reasons vary, but how might your church respond in a loving, caring way? Just an imaginary example, based on real research from my doctoral dissertation.

So there you have it. Five simple things you can do to begin learning the culture of your neighborhood. Be sure to focus on listening rather than talking, and caring rather than thinking up ways to refute incorrect doctrine. If you do so, you will gain something of far greater value than a photo-op and a heroic story to tell. You will gain friends. Only then will you begin the process of learning how to offer a gospel witness into the local culture. Off you go. Your neighbors are waiting.

What do you think of this post? Do you agree? Disagree? Sound off here or find me on twitter.com/glenwoods.

the beauty of simplicity

Beauty is what happens when a smile and a kind word are given, even though you don’t feel like it. You lift someone else up and they respond. Despite your weariness, your heart recognizes the importance of the moment. So simple, this beauty.

It is tender in its sensitivity, yet resilient in the face of hardship. It seeks the best for others, preferring their comfort to your own. Because of this, the orphan glimpses hope for a future because of your smiling countenance. The widow begins to believe she has not been abandoned to a life of loneliness and hardship. The prostitute is confronted with genuine godly love, possibly for the first time ever. The addict begins to recognize that no amount of acting out will bring lasting fulfillment.

It is in the ordinary moments, the sovereignly appointed encounters we each experience daily, that the beauty of simplicity finds expression. With our guard down, we live out who we really are. And to the degree that our hearts beat in tune with Christ, we exemplify his heart toward the world around us. In simplicity. In beauty. Usually in the ordinary, seemingly forgettable, moments which foreshadow his promise of redemption for a lost and dying world.

Ministry is Local

My pastor occasionally states that ministry is local. That is, ministry happens best at the local level, where there is face-to-face contact on a regular basis. Although there is nothing wrong with having a broader reach through whatever means God provides, such as the internet, print, radio, television (although an argument can be made against the helpfulness of many television ministries in the last number of years) or events such as conferences and network meetings, the foundation of ministry happens right where we live in our daily routines. Pastor Phil has a vital coaching and consulting ministry through which pastors and churches from around the country call on him for his expertise and experience. Yet, clearly the local church is his priority. I appreciate that about him. He is grounded, yet visionary concerning how God is working here and abroad.

I once spoke with a former professor who had spent much of his adult life in denominational leadership, consulting with churches throughout the USA and helping to strengthen them. An important ministry, to be sure. Yet he lamented the fact that he had never spent a substantial amount of time in one ministry location. He had no local church to call home. He felt that was one of the biggest downsides of having traveled for much of his ministry career. He did not experience the joy of growing older with a consistent group of people, while watching the younger generations grow, too.

This is an explanation of why I do not seek an expanded ministry platform beyond the reach of what God has planned for me. It is a cautionary tale, reminding me of my place in this world. Continue reading