Tuesday, September 02, 2014

It's All About Context: Ministry that Goes with the Flow

The Rev. Jason Cox
In 2006, I spent a summer studying at the College of the Transfiguration, the Anglican Seminary in Grahamstown, a university town of about 70,000 in South Africa’s Eastern Cape.  I was taking a course called “Contextual Theology” and I wrote a paper about doing ministry in context, based on my observations of two very different church communities in the town. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it turns out that the community that tried to understand and respond sensitively to the surrounding context was vibrant and growing. The community that ignored the context wasn’t working. My summer in Grahamstown convinced me that our calling isn’t to create the church in our heads that we think ought to exist--that doesn’t work.  Instead, our calling is to listen for where the Spirit is already at work, and do our best to join in that work.

Just the names of the two communities I considered tell you most of what you need to know: The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George, and the monastery of uMariya uMama weThemba. The Cathedral was a neo-gothic fantasy of English superiority thrusting up from the center of town, beautiful on the outside but dead on the inside (literally--Sunday morning attendance at the main service was perhaps twenty in a building that would seat five-hundred). The monastery, run by the Anglican brothers of the Holy Cross, was modern and unassuming, on the edge of town.  But every Sunday their chapel was overrun with visitors, mostly impoverished black children and youth, many of them orphans of the AIDS crisis.  

What was the difference between these two church communities?  The Cathedral simply ignored the fact that it was in the center of a medium-sized African town struggling through a devastating public health crisis. There was no sense of service to the surrounding community, no attempt to understand the reality of what was happening. And the worship inside, like the building and the name, was resolutely, and ploddingly, English. (I have nothing against hymns that are well played and anthems that are well sung, but these were not.) The brothers of uMariya, on the other hand, were expert community organizers--they showed up, they got to know the people, they learned what the problems were and what was needed. They connected the dots and ended up with a school serving children, including orphans, through grade three, besides many other pastoral ministries in the community. And their Sunday worship was a joyous mix of Gregorian chant and South African gospel singing. 

Please don’t conclude from this that the answer for your struggling community is more South African gospel music and starting a school for orphans. The point isn’t to replicate someone else’s successful ministry--the point is to figure out your own context and try to build a ministry with the people there that is relevant to them and responds to their needs. We’ve all been in the position of trying something that doesn’t work--I certainly have, many times. And I’ve found, in almost every case, that my attempt failed in part because I was trying to impose on the situation what I thought should have worked, instead of spending the time to discern together the work we were being called to. See where the energy already is in your community--what are people excited about, or scared of? What would really help them live more balanced lives that connect deeply with God’s Spirit? Go there first, start small, see what grows, and keep watering.

The Rev. Jason Cox is the Associate Rector for Youth Ministries at St. Columba's.