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Church from the Outside-In

When the insurance company rep showed up and said it would pay for all of the damage caused by a recent storm, all the volunteers left happy.  And why wouldn’t they be now that their Sunday afternoon was free and everything would be fine at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Clifton.

But Reverend Rich Jones – who looks more like an urban hipster than a traditional priest – saw an opportunity lost.  Rather than coming together and building deeper rich-profile-pic-150x150relationships during a time of crisis, his congregants could now go back to their daily routine.  Rich wondered if this is why we have so much polarization in the world, our collective prosperity eliminating nearly all need to work together to survive.


 In Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger discusses how human beings have, until very recently, always worked together in small bands to stay alive, healthy and happy.  And while most of us don’t feel this sense of tribe in our lives, those in the military and experiencing crisis still come together out of deep necessity.  From these deep relationships come healing, as PTSD vets experience when they re-connect with community after typically experiencing the tragedy of isolation upon return.  During times of crisis like hurricanes and earthquakes, all class distinctions removed, people help each other as if they were family.

 Rich Jones sees this happening all the time through his church—people feel like a tribe because of their religious common ground, so they show up at church and to volunteer and do whatever their tribe needs.  But Rich knows that the real healing needs to occur out in the community beyond the walls of his well-endowed congregation – with people who are isolated and lacking the resources to successfully live the life of personal self-sufficiency and isolation that Americans have come to idealize.

 So Rich sees his church as a unique vessel of deeply interconnected people that has the strength to break down the centuries-old boundaries between church and surrounding community.  In other words, why continue the separation between believers and non-believers when what God really wants is for all of us to create relational force in the world – the ever-growing power of human beings to care for each other.

 Rich sees success when his congregants walk out of church and see people around them as neighbors with whom they seek adventurous conversations that lead to authentic friendships outside of church.  Why?  Because the community around them needs healing, and because intra-community conversations become dry, impotent cycles without new relationships to feed them.  Rich wants his community to use its tribal force – the safety of deep interconnectedness – as the rootedness that allows individuals to take the personal risks required to break boundaries and build new relationships.

But this isn’t proselytizing to get new converts; the point is to first build pointless relationships, connections for their own sake that may or may not lead somewhere.  This notion runs contrary to American ideals of productivity and measured success, where everything we do needs to make an “impact”.  But Rich knows that if you are selling something, people often aren’t buying, and that the right impact can only emerge organically from the relationship, not some preconceived notion of right action.

So Rich and his congregants are experimenting with how this boundary-busting might happen.  One who is a Clifton resident simply asks people walking by if they would like to come by his cookout; once he simply asked “What do you love about Clifton?”  He found the cookout a life transforming moment simply be being himself and being open to what everyone had to bring.  Another local Clifton resident hosts a once a month soup and wine night—again, no agenda, but some lightly directed conversation about their community, just to build the right context for further collective inquiry and growth.

For his part, Rich knows he can’t push his people where they don’t want to go, so he’s going slow.  Upon arrival several years ago, he spoke to people about his vision for the church, but then backed off to listen and get curious about what they see for the future.  He brings in speakers to stretch everyone’s thinking, then backs off to see what emerges naturally.  He applies some basic principles to everything they do – why does it matter if we have 12 or 20 kids in the summer program, aren’t we providing an experience that transcends numbers?  Does it really matter if we grow the number of congregants if we are building new relationships by inviting “outsiders” into the church for coffee—and conversation about how the church can be an asset to them?

It’s a slow-burn movement, but the first step is always simple and local, simply crossing the street and being present with someone very different from us, whether politically, ethnically, racially or economically.

The second step, according to Rich, is to “let go”.  Jesus “reformed his church” over two millennia ago because it’s structure was getting in the way of building relationships and mutually supportive community – the Jews had lost their sense of tribe.  In addition to letting go of the physical separation that a church building imposes, Rich believes that he and his congregants need to let go of the “right-ness” of their religion.  For Rich, “righteousness” is about living right relationships, and whatever gets in the way of building new relationships needs to be held aside, especially dogma.

This letting go is necessary to clear the way for something new—disassembling their church as Rich says, not to abandon but re-assemble in response to a greater context.  And when we let go, we can truly be present with people, to hear and understand them as people before creating a new program to serve their needs, or before criticizing their beliefs.

Rich knows there is common ground to be found in any potential relationship, in our sense of tribe.  Rich Now each of us must grow their tribe one relationship at a time. Rich and his people are using the connection of church to ground them through the risk-taking of relationship building.  It’s a slow process, but one that might help end our political polarization; maybe we wouldn’t have a candidate Trump if more of us knew the joy of tribe, whatever the source.

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