Archive for July 2015

Different and Beautiful

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       Prior to planting The Mission Church, I had always worked in established churches. Most of these churches were in a suburban context, and the one rural church I worked in, still operated in very suburban ways.
       Because these were established churches, there was a certain way we did things. I grew up in the church, so this culture was familiar to me. You go to church early, before Sunday School to help set up, then you go to a Sunday School class divided by age, afterwards you might have a coffee break, then you go to church service, where you sing, pray, take offering, and listen to a sermon. Many churches had Sunday night service, where you'd come back for more songs, prayers, another offering, and sermon. I knew what potluck meant (gathering for lots of food prepared by many hands). Midweek service was either youth group or some type of kids club. Summer had a week long Vacation Bible School.
      This was the culture that I grew up in. It didn't seem weird, or out of place. From the time I was tiny, I could sit still through church, and my mom says I sat through bible stories in the nursery before I was a year old.

This is me (back middle) my little sister and some friends in our church when I was in High School

       The past few weeks have opened my eyes to how very strange this culture is to people who have not encountered church on a regular basis. The culture of church is beautiful and varied, but very difficult for young people in particular, who have never interacted with church before.
        When we attempted to do Vacation Bible School, we discovered it was not written for our context, urban and unchurched, an issue I never ran into before, because i was working within the context of a church culture. Sitting still for 20 minutes is a challenge, singing songs seems out of place, listening to bible stories is a new thing, and there is 0 understanding of what missions is, let alone raising money for a missions project.
     The reality we are dealing with, is that these kids don't even know if they can just walk into a church building. One kid asked "Do we just walk in? Or do we have to have our invite with us?" They are timid and wary of our building. They are unsure of what they are to do, and the whole experience is alien to them.
       We talk a lot around here about redefining church to culture. That we have to illustrate what the church is outside of our walls, if we ever want to see anyone come inside of them. But a large part of that work, is redefining church culture to ourselves. Reorienting ministry to look different than we've done it before, and realizing that it's okay to do things different.
        When we stepped outside of the Vacation Bible School format, amazing things happened. Kids opened up. They were laughing, they were comfortable, they were open. They felt okay coming into the church. All because we scrapped what we thought we needed to do, and replaced it with something organic and beautiful. You can't force someone to become a Christian, or to come into a church, anymore than you can force someone to be your friend or to love you. That's not how relationships work, and that's not how Jesus works.

       Jesus stands at the door and knocks, he doesn't bust the door down. If we had busted doors down, we would have missed the grace of the Holy Spirit at work.
       So today, as I was working on a few projects at church, I heard "Pastor Robbie! Hi!" In small excited boy voices, and a smile broke out over my face, and I called to all of them by name. This time they weren't timid about coming into the church and asked "Can we help you with anything? We want to help." I gave them something to do, a small project that was done in just a few minutes, but they felt a part of something, and I did to.
      I felt a part of this great movement of the Holy Spirit. The Kingdom of God is here. It's present. Sometimes it looks like a church that's been around for decades, with established youth groups and programming, but sometimes it looks like sweaty neighborhood boys chasing soccer balls in the yard. Sometimes it looks like open hearts looking for a place to belong. Sometimes it looks different than what we ever dreamed or imagined it could, and it's beautiful.

North Heartland Missions Trip

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     In ministry, and in life, it is incredibly important to be flexible. To meet people where they are, and to be able to live life among people with grace and humility.
     Last week we embarked on a great experiment, Vacation Bible School. Since we have only been here for 1 year, and since last summer was filled with cleaning, painting, and more cleaning, we didn't have time to even think about trying something like VBS.
    When deciding when or if we should do a VBS, we opted to schedule it while a missions team was here. This would give us added hands. During the day we could do the prep work and work on other projects, and in the evening we could run VBS.
      We had no idea what to expect.
        As I was preparing all of the plans for VBS, I also was planning for our last teen group of the summer from North Heartland Community Church in Kansas City. It's always an adventure planning for a group, because everyone is different, and I was full aware that I was asking them to embark on a huge adventure with us.
        They were a great fit for our adventure. I told them when they arrived that we had never hosted VBS before. That while we had sent out lots of invitations, and had told people about it, we could still end up with no one, or we could end up with 100... but we prepared supplies for 25.
       We had great conversations about being open to whatever would happen, and being open to the ways the Holy Spirit was moving in our neighborhood.
       So Monday we set up for VBS not knowing what to expect. The teens set up crafts, games, and decorated. We also worked on a variety of projects around the church grounds.

    When time came for VBS we waited. No kids arrived. It was disappointing, but I was impressed when the teens and leaders said "we'll just think of another plan." So they went out flyers in hand to invite kids to VBS for the rest of the week. 

      Tuesday arrived, and some of the leaders were able to accomplish one of our projects that's been on our list since day one (thanks to some help from our friends at Fairmeadow community Church of the Nazarene in Munster). We removed the last sign from the old non-profit!!! It made us feel like we now are fully able to have our own identity and to start completely fresh. Over the past few months there has been some confusion from people on whether or not we are new, and this has already helped us to redefine ourselves!

     Then VBS time arrived again. We had no idea what to expect, and we waited hoping to see some kids arrive. The teens made some bigger signs, and we attached some balloons to them, hoping that we'd be more visible.
      After a half hour of waiting 2 kids showed up, but they were nervous to come inside. That's the reality of redefining church to culture, starting over in an old building, and urban ministry. So I looked at the Northheartland group and said "If they won't come in, we'll go out. We are going to scrap everything we have planned, build a bonfire, play games, and have s'mores and snacks outside." 
        That's exactly what we did, and it was a great night. A few more kids showed up, and as the night went on, they started to warm up to us. 

 (Another project the teens accomplished was painting our walkway ceiling. It was a big project and it looks AMAZING now)

     Wednesday we switched up our schedule. We had the great opportunity to serve at Free the Girls in Chesterton, Indiana. Free the Girls is a great organization that helps women who are survivors of human trafficking by creating micro-economic businesses using gently used and new bras. 

      Since we were already in Chesterton, and the kids had worked so hard all week, we took some hours off and explored Indiana Dunes State Park. We climbed sand dunes, swam, played marco polo, it was a great way to celebrate all that God was doing, and take a break. 

Instead of planning out all of VBS on Wednesday night, we decided to start with games and snacks outside. The kids that were there on Tuesday night showed up again, but this time, they came with friends, so we had twice as many. Towards the end of the evening they approached me and said "Pastor Robbie, we heard there is a skit, can we see it?" Despite what we thought, they were approaching us about doing more with VBS. 

Night 1's skit was performed, and I told the bible story about Joseph, and even had an opportunity to pray with the boys who were there. It was awesome to see how the Holy Spirit was at work. 

     Thursday was the teens free day in Chicago. While they were gone our first ever missions team stopped by to say hi and sing some songs for me, since they were in the area (I'll make a post about that later this week). The teens came back in time for VBS, and we are so glad they did, because kids came from everywhere.
       We had 16 kids come to VBS on Thursday night! We went from 0 monday to 16 on Thursday! 

      We did a craft, we heard a bible story, we had a snack, we sang songs, and we played games. It was a really great night, and everyone had a great time! It was so amazing to see how when we meet people where they are, on their terms, and allow the Holy Spirit to work, things happen. 

      Friday it was time to say goodbye to our new friends from North Heartland. Group hugs were given, and promises to stay in touch. We are so grateful for all of the work they have done and the seeds they helped sow here in Hammond. They helped us to reach our neighbors, and were humble and gracious while doing so. We learned a lot together about being people who are flexible and grace filled, and on Friday night (our last night of VBS) despite the teens already gone, we still had 8 kids for VBS (a few of whom were new). 


     As we were playing games Friday night with the neighbor kids, they said "this is the greatest church ever", and I couldn't agree more. But what was illustrated this week, is that the Church is more than just this local place, in this neighborhood, it's all of us together. 4 local church congregations were a part of our week, The Mission (us), North Heartland (who came to serve), Fairmeadow Community (who let us borrow their ladders), and Duneland Community (who hosted us as we served with Free the Girls). Together we can do great things, and we did great things. 
      Ministry rarely goes as planned, but the Holy Spirit is at work, and if we are open and willing to listen... the unplanned is usually better than what we ever could have planned or imagined. 

Can Anything Good Come from Hammond?

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      I went on a 7 mile bike ride the other day. I used to ride bike daily, but didn't ride much in the last suburb we lived in.
     Hammond has a significant number of bike trails. 1 of them runs a short distance from our house, and it is incredibly easy to access. It weaves through a wooded green space, along the bike side of many houses, and connects to other cities and towns in the area.
     As I was riding down the path I was reflecting on Hammond as a city. It isn't a place tourists flock to, it doesn't have the allure and glamour of a big city, it doesn't have the security and comfort of a small town. It's this small city, with big issues.
     From what I understand it used to be amazing, when the steel mills were still running. Much like Gary used to be a place of middle class people. Then when the steel mills closed, and people were out of work, the landscape started to change.
    The businesses that were once here, left. Many of the people fled to different areas.
     It doesn't take a long drive through the city, to see some of its issues. The dilapidated houses, the empty store fronts. The beauty that is downtown Hammond, gets lost at times, in it's ghost town feel. In fact, while taking a missions trip team to walk through the downtown, a couple of older gentlemen informed me there was really not much to see anymore. Then went on to tell us some of the history of the buildings, a great history, that is worth exploring and preserving.

    I see all of this. The 25% poverty rate, the lack of amenities that the surrounding communities have, the trash in the alley ways, the pot holes that seem to never be filled. 
    I know it's there. I know that many people wouldn't refer to this as "real America", the America that Anthony Bourdain visits, where he interviews natives and talks about a great future, or a great present, or both. Where he sits down at a table with delicious food and talks to a local chef about the delicacies. I can't picture Tony sitting at Nick and George's over a plate of liver and onions, though I think he'd get more than he bargained for there.
     Because despite what people see, or what people say, or even what I see, there's beauty here. I saw it that day riding my bike along the back side of houses. I saw people riding bikes with their kids and laughing. I watched for a moment as an old man was doing Thai Chi along the green space, and marveled at his movements. I smelled the burger joints that are still going, despite odds stacked against them. I witnessed people out in their gardens, sitting in their lawn chairs, and mowing their grass. And I thought, it's a real shame that people don't come here, that Anthony Bourdain won't sit down at Nick and George's, that tourists won't sit on Adirondack chairs eating giant ice cream sundaes from Dairy Belle, that people say things to me about how I like Hammond with a follow up of "well you know, we really mean Munster and Highland.".
      I get that. I get that it's easy to see the crime rates, and the poverty levels, and miss the beauty of real people, living real lives, in real ways. I'm not so naive as to think it's all roses (a 16 year old was shot on her front porch the other day, because she just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time). I'm not so naive as to think that this is the best place in the world to raise kids, or to be "safe", or to start a business.... but I think in our rushing around to get to the next "cool" place, the next up and coming location, the next best thing.... we miss the beauty that is here now. 
      Sometimes I wish I could have seen this city in its hey day. Back when there was optimism and the streets weren't lined with pay day loan buildings, but then I wouldn't get to see it now. With it's grit and determination to be something more.
      To see these beautiful kids who sacrifice a lot, and work a lot, just to graduate high school. Who have faced tremendous odds and come out of it OK. To see men doing Thai Chi along a green-way, to see kids laugh as they race their bikes through my neighborhood. 
       If this isn't real America... a place where people have gotten sucker punched time and again, but still get up each morning and head to the only job they could find, I don't know what is. 
      People asked of Jesus if anything good could come from Nazareth. People ask me that question about Hammond too (tongue and cheek of course). Can anything good come from Hammond? 
    My answer... good already is, you just have to take the time to see it.