…the Lord commissioned seventy-two others and sent them on ahead in pairs to every city and place he was about to go. He said to them, “The harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest. Go! Be warned, though, that I’m sending you out as lambs among wolves. Carry no wallet, no bag, and no sandals. – Luke 10:1-4, CEB
I have the privilege of being the pastor of Farm Church, a congregation that meets on a farm and leverages its resources to address food insecurity, all in the name of continuing the feeding ministry of Jesus.
Farm Church is still a fledgling congregation that is transitioning from being a founder-run startup to a congregation-run church. That natural and irresistible evolution has provoked many questions for the good people who are have come to call this church their spiritual and community home. In our dialog, several concerns have surfaced that are worthy of deeper reflection. Concerns such as: why does our congregation (which is almost entirely white) not look like our neighborhood (which is historically black)? How do we get more people into our congregation who are food insecure? How can we better understand food insecurity? These are really important questions born out of healthy passion, heart-felt intent, and hope that our church and every church will look more like the Kingdom of Heaven.
My wife graduated with a Master of Public Affairs (MPA), which is the non-profit equivalent of an MBA. She was recruited to be a fundraiser for a Jesuit school for Native American children in South Dakota. She was reluctant for a number of reasons, but the recruiter asked her to come to the school and just see it. So, she went. When she came back, she was both surprised and convicted. She said, “I just spent two years (in graduate school) reading case studies of how NGOs have gone into developing nations and elsewhere and have either had no impact or made the situation worse. This organization is the one case study where they are making a difference. They really get it!”
What she taught me is that all those NGO’s that failed to have an impact failed largely because they went to “help.” That is, they went to provide solutions to problems they thought they understood but actually did not. They did not go to build relationships or to learn with humility and openness from the people present. They assumed that the people present did not fully understand their own problems and therefore wouldn’t, even couldn’t, understand the solutions. These outside groups assumed they knew better and were better resourced. They believed they could fly in, put quick infrastructure in place, teach new techniques, resource the operation, and back away, leaving the people present better than they found them. But their mission failed because their organizations didn’t get it.
A good example is from a youth group which was planning to go to Central America for a weeklong mission trip. They fundraised to get basketball goals and basketballs donated and shipped abroad to install outdoor basketball courts for kids in villages. When they arrived with all the new equipment, they realized that there were no flat areas in the villages for basketball courts, but they did the best they could and installed the goals anyway. By the time they got the basketball goals installed, the local children had discovered the basketballs and were playing with them… except they weren’t playing basketball. They had never heard of basketball. They were playing soccer. What they needed were soccer balls and goals.
Good intentions often have little interest in relationships, or at least, little interest in making relationships the first and most important part of the mission.
The sending of the seventy-two (Luke 10:1ff.) is a cautionary tale. Jesus sends everyone to someone else’s village. He does not invite everyone in those villages to come to him. Second, he sends disciples out in pairs, not alone. When it comes to community engagement, when it comes to the mission of bringing the Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven, when it comes to making relationships the most important part of the mission, don’t go alone. He also explicitly tells them to take nothing with them – no money, no extras, no suitcase, no basketball goals. Just go, the two of you, and meet people. Talk to them. Get to know them. If they are friendly and invite you in, then stay for a while. Give them a blessing of peace. If not, move on. Leave everything as you found it, even the dust. No problem. The harvest is plentiful.
We all know of (and have perhaps been a part of) churches that are concerned with their aging population. “We need to get young people in here” is a well-known refrain. More than one church has hired a young pastor with a family in hopes that the youngness and the family-ness will be contagious and lead to young adults and families and children dribbling in by osmosis. But it isn’t, and they usually don’t.
What is more compelling is relationships where both people feel known, understood, valued, and cared for in all seasons of life. That is what the church offers that no other institution in our society offers. It also happens to be what all of us are starving for because of an erosion of community in our society and because those precious things are not accessible through social media.
But for the spiritually hungry to find our church, we have to find them. Because the truth is, everyone in our community who wants and is actively seeking what our church provides has already found us on their own. Our church already has all of those people. In that case, it means that we have to leave the walls of our church and enter the neighborhood and know those folks; know their stories; know their children’s names; know their eyes; know their living rooms… and they ours. It means that we have to put relationships first.
Our church, like many churches, is concerned that we are too homogeneous; that we don’t know our neighbors; that we look like visitors, or worse, tourists, in the neighborhood. Our church is concerned that while we talk a good talk about food insecurity, we don’t really know what that means and really don’t know anyone who is actually food insecure. Why is that? Because we are still in the process of making relationships the first and most important part of our mission.
There is a group of people from our neighborhood who have created a neighborhood food co-op and have developed it with the resources from the neighborhood. They only invite people to participate who are invested in the neighborhood and who have built trust and “street cred” in the neighborhood. If you are from outside the neighborhood, you may not donate; you may not volunteer. Only folks from the neighborhood. This sounds aggressively protective, and it is. It is because for too many decades folks with good intentions who look different than the folks in the neighborhood have been coming in to “help.” This neighborhood has realized and taken a stand about “help.” Their invitation instead is: If you want to join our neighborhood and embraceits challenges as your own, then you may join us in addressing its solutions. That is the resounding voice on the frontline of our neighborhood.
The path to this kind of invitation only comes after a long walk over the curve of the earth with someone who is not like yourself. It is to meet them on their terms, on their turf, and to arrive with nothing – no money, no offers, no agenda, no assumptions. It is to go because you were sent by the Lord Jesus, and you don’t go alone. You go into the neighborhood with your friend, whoever they may be; who is not from your church; who is not from your social class; who is not from your gender identity; who is not from your racial-ethnic group. You go to learn. You go to join. You go until you are welcomed and blessings of peace are shared. Then… maybe then… a magical door will open where enough trust, enough understanding will have been achieved that you can say… “Hey! You said the neighborhood needs a supply of produce for the co-op… Our church has a little garden… Would that be useful?” That is the precious moment where mission becomes reality! That is the moment when your church begins to have a chance to look like its neighborhood, like the Kingdom of Heaven. That is the moment when the voices on the frontline of the community get amplified!
Rev. Allen Brimer is the pastor and co-founder of Farm Church, a congregation that meets on a farm in Durham, North Carolina and leverages the resources of the farm to address food insecurity in the name of continuing Jesus’ ministry of feeding.