An Undervalued Mission Skill
by Richard Gahl*
Richard Gahl served congregations in Indiana and Pennsylvania before accepting the call from the Ohio District to serve as its Executive Director in 1981. He retired in 2005. During his district service he served as Chairman of NAME for five years, co-edited the two editions of the Congregational Stewardship Workbook, and co-authored LCEF’s initial versions of the demographic material, Linking Congregations and Communities. He was also one of the national trainers for the Faithful Christians: Faithful Congregations project. The Gahls reside in Westlake, Ohio.
Of course, the Church in mission proclaims the Good News of Jesus Christ for all people. After all Paul describes himself as one who proclaims Christ the crucified. But Gospel proclamation gets derailed by proclaimers who take little heed to the settings in which the audience lives, the culture of the environment, and the situations in the lives of those who are meant to hear the proclamation of Christ crucified. In the rush to proclaim Good News the need to understand the audience is overlooked.
The purpose of this article is to focus on a needed skill, the humility of listening, of asking questions, throughout the mission process. The assumption that the audience is just like the one proclaiming the Good News pretty much guarantees limited mission success. The Good News is simply not heard. Few people are exactly like me! (Some would say: Thanks be to God.)
Over the years of parish and district ministry this writer has experienced a series of teaching moments on the road to better listening. The reader is invited to walk with me to review some of those teaching moments. Perhaps some will sound familiar and others will provide insight into previous experiences. Hopefully there will be a growing realization that the road to better listening by the proclaimer of Good News is a life long process. It simply never ends.
1. Vicarage in San Mateo, California was a growth experience – as it was intended as the third year of seminary education. One of the light bulbs switched on that year came via conversations about the early settlers of California having to lighten the load to get their wagons across the mountains. Church leaders compared this to the 60s phenomenon of many people leaving the practices of the faith behind while moving west. This probably had something to do with leaving family and friends behind – family and friends that had been a significant influence in keeping connected to a congregation. I later learned that if someone who moved did not make a church connection within 6 to 8 weeks of moving to a new community time that had been filled by church was now filled with other things. Excess baggage had been left behind.
2. The first call for this Chicago raised preachers kid was to a year old congregation meeting in a storefront in Huntertown, Indiana with the assignment to begin a second congregation in the Leo/Grabill north of Ft. Wayne, Indiana. The city kid got to know Huntertown people who were basically rural. That was a new way of life to be sure. While the Leo/Grabill community had more of a commuter character the setting was in the middle of a significant Amish-Mennonite community. Very quickly two building programs were underway leading up to dedications in January and June of 1969. One process was a joy and actually took a year less to complete than the other. The other was a struggle from day one. The same pastor was doing the same things with differing results. What accounted for the differences? Looking back has brought the realization that the culture of the two congregations had a subtle difference and I had not picked up on that at the time. I had made some assumptions that did not account for the differences in the two faith communities.
3. Lancaster, Pennsylvania was the next stop on the listening journey. One surprise was the different way the Sunday offering came about in households native to Lancaster and those who moved into the community. The natives all placed cash in their offering envelops. Those who moved in used checks. There was a significant difference in the “innovation tolerance” between the two groups.
4. Joining the Ohio District staff in 1981 with the expectation that half time would be devoted to missions accelerated the learning curve about listening. The national LCMS conversation was talking about the phenomenon of “cross-cultural” mission – a term I never remembered hearing in Bill Danker’s mission course during my fourth year at St. Louis. The implication of the national conversation with district mission leaders was that entering a new mission field in the United States required learning the language and culture of a new community just like the foreign missionary. New understanding of language and culture in mission exploded with the large variety of ministries in inner city, suburban, African-American, deaf, Hispanic, Appalachian, rural settings and campus ministry settings.
5. A number of “surprises” emerged in those early district years. One of the first was what I called “Lutherans in Exile.” Lutherans who had relocated to West Virginia from Texas and Michigan were attempting to recreate the culture of their home congregations in the Charlestown area. They missed their home churches. But recreating Texas and Michigan in West Virginia was not working! (Right now my heart is breaking with the current news of water pollution in the area from a leaking chemical waste tank, a produce of the coal industry. I know those people.) About this time the realization came that programs written by St. Louis staff did not automatically work in congregations. Programs needed to be customized to fit the various cultural and geographical settings of individual congregations. Congregational size became a new factor to add to the mix. Lyle Schaller initiated the understandings that taxonomy of size accounted for the different ways congregations functioned. Now we recognize Family, Pastoral, Program, and Corporate congregations and the transitions that need to be worked through – both growing larger and smaller.
6. Then we met Rick Warren and his descriptions of starting a congregation called Saddleback. He actually went through the community asking questions. His first was a screening question: Are you actively involved in a local church? Another question related to the interviewee’s understanding as to why people did not attend church. But the one that caught my eye was: What advice would you give to a new church that wanted to help people? He concluded that if there was a significant need in the community and meeting that need matched the gift mix of the emerging congregation, it was worth a try. The Gospel ministry of a congregation connecting to the spoken needs of potential members was a risky concept. Or was it just better listening?
7. At the beginning of the 90s LCEF began to roll out demographic material for congregations seeking construction loans. National Decision Systems provided the data together with their marketing segmentation process called Microvisions. The point of this psychographic material was that this is the way people in this cluster tend to live. With my colleague David Hoover we began to develop a way for congregations to make better decisions about their outreach efforts into a community. LCEF called the customized materials Linking Congregations and Communities. Beginning in 1998 LCEF commissioned a study of religious and life-style activities that was revised a number of times over the following years. The initial national survey had 11,000 responses making for a high level of reliability across the various segments or life style descriptions. Areas included affordable health care, raising children, spiritual well being, jobs, friendships and loneliness, purpose for living, etc. In the training events for congregations and district leaders we stressed that this overload of data suggested trends. While it was based on Zip Code + 4 and thus had a high level of predictability, asking local questions was critical. We encourage congregational leaders to get out into the community and verify or refine the computer generated statistical trends.
8. At the time Hoover and I were developing the congregation process for working through demographic both of us were doing extensive studies on the Book of Acts based on the work of Ben Witherington. One day we had one of those Aha! Moments with regard to the preaching of Paul in Like’s account. Those sermons each had a different character that appeared to have much to do with the intended audience. We began with the oration in Athens in chapter 17. It was easy to spot that ways Paul connected with the understandings and practices of the audience that asked him to speak. Then we realized the different character of Acts 13 in the synagogue setting, Acts 14 in pagan Lystra, and the believing elders of Ephesus in Acts 20. Paul obviously had taken time to account for the understandings of his listeners in those sermons. Was this a clue? We started our training events with this foundation and were delighted that no one questioned the value of demographic marketing material after that.
9. The work on generational studies advanced by Strauss and Howe also added to the journey of understanding. Many others have followed their path with the recognition that cohorts of people, generations, are significantly influenced by things happening around them during their formative years. Builders, Silent, Boomers, Busters, and Millenials are now concepts that have the potential to enrich our proclamation. It also complicates things. One sermon has to connect with multiple audiences within a single congregation.
10. Without going into detail, it is important also to note that most strategic planning processes include “environmental scanning” as an integral part of developing any plan. What is happening in the area around the church sit needs to be taken into consideration in any plan. As an illustration, one congregation in an apparently affluent suburb just learned that 28% of the students in the local school district qualify for free or reduced cost lunches. That was a big surprise to many.
Reflecting on this journey surfaces a number of highlights. First, whenever the church begins to talk about the mission of God clarity of focus of who is to be reached with Good News is critical. Recognizing that the culture of the outsider can be significantly different than the culture of the insider. I am continually haunted by the question first posed by colleague Dwayne Mau: Who speaks for the unchurched? The church usually begins with a different question: What would we like to do? The answer to the latter questions seldom takes us out of our comfort zones. The answers seldom come directly from books. Books can point us in a better direction helping us to ask better questions. But we have to get to know, build relationships with those getting who are not involved in the church. This means keeping at asking questions of people in the community.
One of the most important conclusions from my mission service is the recognition that every call to a new congregation is a cross-cultural experience for a pastor. The new congregation is like no other place one has been before. There may be similarities, but there are also differences – many of them significant if left unrecognized. The start up time is a time for asking questions about the new congregation. Find out the vision of the congregation founders. What are some of the positive things that have happened over the years? What are some of the negative events? What has changed in the congregation and/or community in the past 10 -20 years?
Some of the questions about the mission field to ask people from the community might start with these queries:
- What are the key issues or needs in our community at this time?
- What are your dreams for our community?
- What advice to you have for a church that wants to make a difference in this area?
Of course, these questions are asked of a cross section of community leaders, business leaders, and new residents and old timers. Work hard to understand what’s behind the responses that you get.
But all questions should be asked in a humble spirit. A few years back I was engaged to screen candidates for a missions track at our seminaries. One of questions had to do with a typical way the candidate engaged in conversations with people who were unchurched. I recall vividly an interview began on a hopeful note when the person indicated he spent a lot of time a coffee shops chatting with others. He also confessed a passion for apologetics. The primary goal of the conversations was to correct the faulty thinking of his new acquaintances. Ouch! Asking questions – yes. Humility – No.
The point of this essay is to remind those who proclaim Good News that to be heard, i.e. understood, requires that the proclaimer be tuned in to the lives of those who are intended to hear the message. This suggests a life long activity of listening and asking questions in a spirit of humility. The prologue to John’s Gospel is a description of this listening. The Word became flesh and lived among us. The results are breath taking. And we beheld His glory.