Why Learning Communities?

Alan Roxburgh

God’s New Direction

The Spirit is bringing new life to the church in North America, United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand calling us into a radically new imagination. Our conviction is that God changes the world through men and women in the local communities where we live and work. Neighborhoods are the places where God is calling us to live out the mission of Jesus. Some of the most hopeful ways we can be God’s people are also the most obvious ways of being human.  In the ordinariness of our neighborhoods the Spirit is transforming the world. We believe there are some key questions that must shape the direction and energies of leaders desiring to join with God today.

  1. Congregations: How do we go on a shared journey, discerning what the Spirit is doing ahead of us in our neighborhoods, in order to join God’s work in the world?
  1. Pastors/Leaders: What are the skills and capacities we need to form congregations that engage in this shared journey with the Spirit?

These two questions sound deceptively simple but require a deep change in the imagination of what congregations are about and what leader do. This is the disruptive, hopeful journey into which the Spirit is calling churches. This journey calls for leaders to discover new skills and capacities to lead their people. Paul Sparks, Tim Soerens and Dwight Friesen in their book, The New Parish, put it this way:

Everywhere we go, we find the Spirit working miracles of transformation through shared life together in the parish. The consistent storyline is so encouraging. When these faith communities begin connecting together, in and for their neighborhood, they learn to depend on God for strength to love, forgive and show grace like never before. We’ve also been inspired by the way these groups reach outward in love and care toward the neighborhood at large. The gospel becomes so much more tangible and compelling when the local church is actually a part of the community, connected to the struggles of the people and even the land itself (13).

The language these leaders have chosen to use is parish. Here’s the explanation they give:

By crafting a life together in a definable place, the parish becomes a platform for a whole new way of being the church… the word parish …refers to all the relationships (including the land) where the local church lives out their faith together. It is a unique word that recalls a geography that is large enough to live life together (live, work, play, etc.) and small enough to be known as a character within it.

Parish … also functions as an action word because it calls us to the telos or purpose of the church – living out God’s dream, and caring for the place we are called. Proximity in the parish allows you to participate in God’s reconciling and renewing vision in ways you really can’t do as an individual. We are convinced that what may seem at first like a subtle shift actually has the capacity to transform your entire experience of what it means to be the church.

For too long a time our congregations and paradigms of leadership have been framed around different perspectives:

An Ecclesiocentric Default: Congregations driven by internal questions of making church work.

  • How do we make our church grow?
  • How can our church be more attractive to people?
  • How do we get people out there to become like us in here?

These questions have had the best of intentions but their primary energy is focused inward on what is happening inside the congregation. Initiatives tend to be inwardly directed (ex: improve church communication, develop a Welcome Center, design better meetings, create a food pantry, develop better ways for people to get to know one another, plan “Back to Church Sunday”, etc.). This focus can be a barrier to discerning what God is doing out ahead of congregations in their neighborhoods. The shift in imagination is about how congregations discern what the Spirit is doing ahead of them in their communities and developing actions to join with God in these places.  This calls for experiments in engaging neighbors, receiving hospitality, listening to the other and discerning the Spirit.

Service/Help Challenge: The Spirit is inviting us to move from doing for to being with, from helping to listening.  Usually congregations think about engaging their communities within defaults of doing something for their communities and giving help to meet needs (outreach programs, food pantry, giving help etc.). We need experiments shaped by being with people as listeners to discern what God is already doing ahead of us. While helping and serving are important, they become defaults that leave us in control by doing things for others. This has become a barrier to discerning the ways the Spirit is inviting us into mission in the rapidly changing contexts of our congregations. The primary work is learning to listen and discern the movements of the Spirit in our neighborhoods. It requires is to leave our “baggage” behind and sit at the table of the other (Luke 10).

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