More than ever before, churches must join together to fight against a culture that focuses mainly on financial success, often at the expense of others, said Derek McNeil as the annual Inhabit 2019 conference got under way.
“Do we really believe that only the Spirit of God leads to transformation?” asked McNeil, who is president of the Seattle Pacific School of Theology and Psychology. “In many ways, our civilization is in a state of collapse. The old ways aren’t working. New life is needed.”
Drawing a wide variety of mission leaders and workers, including many from the Christian Reformed Church in North America, Inhabit 2019 was all about finding and sharing ways in which churches and various ministries are seeking to bring God’s love, justice, and mercy into places where, as McNeil said, “the old ways aren’t working.”
In a series of storytelling sessions and workshops Apr. 26-27, presenters spoke of finding unique ways to use church space to address needs of neighborhoods, providing assistance to refugees and other groups, and creating and supporting partnerships between churches to expand the mission of God.
Tim Soerens is a pastor at South Park Neighborhood Church (CRC) in Seattle, Wash., and is the leader of Parish Collective, the group that sponsored Inhabit. He said the conference highlights those places and people of faith who are trying to change a culture in which people are becoming increasingly strangers to one another and success is measured in things you possess.
Inhabit is — and has been since for several years — all about highlighting how the church can remain relevant, bring people closer to God, and grow, even when statistics show a steep decline in church membership and an increase in church closures.
“We bring people from diverse places here to see how they can partner to reconstruct and reform and renew how to be the church in everyday life,” he said. “We are here to listen to God’s dreams and discern the practices that can sustain us for the long haul.”
Going Local on Vancouver Island
Kelli Sexton, a pastor at Nanaimo CRC on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, came to Inhabit 2019 for just those reasons. She is new to her position, having come to Nanaimo — a port city of about 90,000 people — from First Cutlerville CRC in West Michigan, where she served as a discipleship and youth pastor.
Charged with more responsibility, including preaching, she wanted to learn how others are responding to the many pressing needs and challenges that churches face in an age in which belief in God remains, but faith in the church is lagging.
“I’m seeing here a bigger vision of how God lives out justice and mercy, especially in our neighborhoods,” she said. “We see how the church is not called to be just four walls, but needs to open up its imagination and energy to the community. . . . We are reminded that not everyone can hear about Jesus in the language” that many people in the church are accustomed to using.
A graduate of Calvin Theological Seminary, Sexton said she is eager to bring Go Local to her church. Go Local is a Resonate Global Mission initiative that works to equip and send church members out to join in the work of God in the area in which they find themselves. It seeks to give a church a new language and fresh approach to following the Spirit into ministry.
“Our church is on a busy intersection on the fringe of downtown. There is a large homeless population. We regularly have people sleeping on our front porch — and we want to find the best ways to reach out to them,” said Sexton.
Reaching out to Refugees
Several Inhabit presenters have CRC connections (see accompanying story ), while others brought stories and challenges of ministry from other settings. For instance, Chitra Hanstad, executive director of World Relief Seattle, a refugee resettlement agency, spoke of the falling number of refugees coming into the United States.
“The U.S. was welcoming 200,000 refugees a year when Ronald Reagan was president. That number dropped to 22,000 last year,” she said.
But that doesn’t mean the refugees already in the country, as well as those coming in, don’t need services — and her organization, with the support of many churches and other organizations, continues to respond.
They help provide housing and job training, trauma care and legal services. They also work with refugees who are in detention, said Hanstad.
“It breaks my heart to see what many of the people have to go through, but that is what gets me up in the morning,” said Hanstad. “We need to be innovators as a church. We need to be trailblazers. Without vision, people will perish.”
Putting down Roots in Harlem
The son of a Pentecostal preacher, José Humphreys is now pastor of Metro Hope Covenant Church in East Harlem, New York. He founded the church in 2007 as an eclectic mix of people representing God’s kingdom in one of the poorest sections of the city. “It was a diverse, evangelical, Pentecostal, Baptist, agnostic, Catholic church plant,” he said.
Many of those who have joined the church are artists, musicians, people living in the neighborhood, and small business owners.
“The Word of God became flesh, and we moved into the ’hood in East Harlem. At the time, it was the end of the world as we knew it. But now it is being gentrified with cupcake shops” and other upscale enterprises.
Since the time of its planting, the church has been “committed to tap into the root system in our neighborhood,” said Humphreys, author of the recently published Seeing Jesus in East Harlem: What Happens When Churches Show Up and Stay Put.
“We have worked hard to inhabit and dwell together with everyone in our neighborhood. As we pour out into the community, we also need to be poured into” and nourished by root system they see as their community.
As a church, they have partnered with a group that ministers to people coming out of prison; they have sought to connect with programs that break down racism; and they have held events for which church members are encouraged to flock to an area business to spend their money for a period of time.
They do this to help bolster the health of small businesses in the area, believing that keeping them healthy will protect against their being overtaken by an outside entity.
“As a church, we see our neighborhood as sacred ground,” said Humphreys. Also as a church, they believe it is important to reflect a new way of living and interacting.
“When we do this, people in the neighborhood are perplexed and wonder why we are doing this,” said Humphreys. People begin to pay attention to this group of grace-filled Christians.
Other speakers included Randy Woodley, a professor and author who works with his wife, Edith, on an organic farm in Oregon.
A member of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma, Woodley spoke on “Ending the Reconciliation Paradigm,” in which he asked if the movement toward reconciliation of which churches have been a part for the past several years is legitimate. Does it “reflect the heart of Jesus, or is it a cover for something more sinister?” he asked.
True reconciliation, he said, emerges from a form of hospitality practiced by many Native American peoples for years, said Woodley.
“Universal hospitality is an ancient Native American secret. . . . Native leaders went out of their way to welcome their white guests,” he said. “When you take someone into your home, that one act changes everything.”
Answering the Call from Home
Shalom Agtarap Shalom, an ordained United Methodist elder, serves her church currently as an associate director for the northwestern U.S. region in the area of innovation and vitality.
Across the region, she works in various ways to keep people in their communities. “We don’t seek to take people out of their places — to go elsewhere so they can be who God called them to be,” she said.
Through various curricula and programs, she helps people grow and develop right where they are. “We try to make sure that those who live on the margins can move to the center,” said Shalom.
“We ask people to reflect on what are they hearing from God. We talk about what it means to be a resurrection people in a Good Friday world.”