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A Mission Outpost

Reversing Decades of Decline at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church

A Bias for Action
Postliberal theology, the theological movement that has most influenced me, frequently speaks of “imaginatively entering the world of the biblical narrative.” I hope that’s what my preaching helped us to do.

But this language can imply that entering the world of the biblical narrative is something we do with our minds alone. The gospel does not proclaim that we enter the world of the biblical narrative but that we’ve been welcomed into the life of the Triune God so that the mission of the Triune God to redeem a fallen humanity and restore a broken creation—a mission made known to us through the stories, poems, and images that make up the Bible’s narrative landscape—can shape our living. As New Testament scholar Stephen Fowl notes, when Paul says to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5), he didn’t mean “mind” in a narrow, rationalistic way. He meant, “Let the same way of thinking, feeling, and acting be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

Duke Memorial, over the past five years, has been learning to have a bias for Christ-shaped action. That doesn’t mean, though, that we became aimless busy-bees.

About two years into our pastorate, I began to worry that we weren’t doing enough and that our ministries weren’t well focused. I started saying that we needed an annual mission theme to focus our action in the community, a theme the whole church could rally around. Since my gifts include thinking things up but don’t include making things happen, I went to our minister of adult discipleship and witness and said: “Make this happen. We’ve got to get the community’s attention; make a difference; do something. ”

He thought about that for a while, and then said, “Maybe we should do it the way Jesus did, by spending time with our neighbors, by learning to simply be with them.”

So we launched our first annual mission theme: “Who Is My Neighbor? Living, Learning, and Listening with Our City.” That theme moved us away from the paternalistic assumptions that we know the hopes and needs of our neighbors and that we are the ones who could show up and do for them—assumptions that drove so much of 20th-century mission work. Rather, we hosted dinners where we listened to the hopes and needs of our community. We sponsored a local Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope where we learned about the ongoing legacy of racism in Durham and our part in that. We had cookouts on the lawn to which we invited our neighbors so that we could begin living with them without an agenda. Our action was not simply a hubbub of activity but a response directed by God’s choice to be with us in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

A story illustrates the effects of this new focus. One Christmas our men’s morning small group volunteered to give toys away at the rescue mission’s annual Christmas toy distribution. At the event, the men (all white) from our church stood behind a plastic orange fence handing toys to parents (mostly African-American and Hispanic) who couldn’t afford to buy Christmas presents for their children. The parents weren’t allowed to choose the toys; we distributed them according to each child’s gender and age. Many of us left feeling uneasy. Our “service” seemed to be replicating the divides of race and class that have plagued Durham, and we remained strangers to those we thought we were helping.

Six months later, Reynolds Chapman D’11, our adult discipleship minister, suggested an alternative to participation in this Christmas toy giveaway. He said we should host our own Christmas market. Members of the church and community could donate new toys, and we would set up a market at the church, selling them for very little so that our guests could have the dignity of choosing and purchasing toys for their children. Because we’d been listening for several months to the community and imagining a different way of mission, the congregation quickly embraced the idea. We collected thousands of gifts, and local agencies referred families to the market. Our youth played with children while parents shopped. Others helped to wrap the presents. Over 180 children had someone shopping for their presents, and members of the church had the chance to get to know some of the families. All the money raised was given back to the organizations that referred the families. And the agency and dignity of the parents was honored. Best of all, there were no orange fences.

A bias for action can easily devolve into what Parker Palmer calls “functional atheism”—the unstated belief that if anything good is going to happen around here, it’s up to us to do it. But this year of listening and learning created the space for us to discern how God’s Spirit was leading us to embrace actions that might, by God’s grace, become sacraments of the kingdom.