How do you reach your neighbors? Creating “small actions to produce far-reaching effects”

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Tom Albright, traveltip80@hotmail.com
Minister of Community Outreach, Whitehall (PA) Mennonite Church

We went up to the neighbors’ house, not for the yard sale that brought us there last time. This time we walked up their steep driveway on a mission. “We’re here to invite you to a brunch at our house,” we said. They smiled, so we continued, “We’d like to have some people get together to talk about following Jesus.” They stopped smiling and backed away. The visit ended.

The idea had its roots in a challenge from Franconia Conference to its churches to explore and brainstorm how we can connect in meaningful ways with our communities, to “experiment” with missional ideas. Whitehall Mennonite Church sent us out into the local community to meet with those people who never make it to church and, more importantly to find out how to reach out to them.

Our family had a plan. We would hand out invitations in our neighborhood to anyone without a church. We asked the members at church to hand out invitations to anyone who might be interested. The invitation was hand-delivered, mailed, and stuck underneath the doors of those that would not open up:

Come join us for a time of food, questions, and discussion. We will focus on your life experiences and how we can find and make space for God in everyday life. Is God relevant to you? What does following Jesus really mean? If you have questions like this about life, if you are feeling too busy and disconnected, come join us. No question is too simple, and all viewpoints are respected. We will not have all the answers, but, hopefully, we will get a better understanding of living life as if Jesus meant what he said. We call this gathering “Ripple Effects;” even small actions can produce far-reaching effects.

We asked for prayers and wondered what would happen. We were hoping it would be like Mark 6:7-13 where Jesus sends out the 12 in pairs. He sends them with authority and power over evil, tells them they don’t need lots of special equipment or a lot of money, and that they are everything they’ll need, that life can be radically different. That was our prayer, the verse we read before each meeting.

A few people came to the first brunch, and more wanted to talk on a one-on-one basis. We continue to meet on Sundays leaving lots of room for people to share their stories. Sometimes we share stories from ourselves and from God. We met in New York City as a part of a trip planned by one of the members. We have been invited to meet at the home of another member. No one has said they want to make a change in their life to follow Jesus, but perhaps the Spirit’s work is happening at a level we do not see. People continue to come and I sometimes ask, “Why?”

I am changing and God is teaching us. Some of those lessons have begun to raise questions; about long-held concepts of “church,” about comfort zones, and about loving neighbors. How much are we willing to do in order to be Christ’s disciples? Will we go back and apologize for scaring people off? Will we trust the Spirit to move in lives where our motion has seemed to muddy the waters?

Jesus sends us out to the places where we live and work. He commissions us to be Saints of the Shopping Mall and Fast Food Joint. He says, “Don’t get caught up in the training series and watch out for the books; read The Book.” Many have proposed new ways to bring people into the church, but we hear him saying, “Don’t just invite them to church. Be the church and go to them.”

Ripple Effects is small. Our insights are new and incomplete, and often confusing, but there is a new excitement in our ministry. Ultimately, ripples happen when we are open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. This new kind of action-through-obedience takes time and a change of mind. It takes a love that comes from God. The father of the boy in Mark 9 asks Jesus if he can do anything to help his hurting child. Jesus replies, perhaps with a joyful laugh, “If?”

train.jpgThere are no “ifs” among believers. Anything can happen. Our family believes more and more in the power of God’s “anything.” Anything can happen when one is willing to be sent; not with a lot of equipment, but with a freeing, healing message that life can be radically different. We went back to the home up the hill. “Without an agenda,” we told them. I don’t know if they believed it, but a few weeks ago they called asking if we could get together sometime. Anything can and seems to happen.