August 13, 2023
The Great Commission
Jesus’ command in this passage to go out and make disciples of all nations baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that he had taught them is often called “The Great Commission.” The important words here are “go out.” Jesus didn’t expect his followers to stay in Jerusalem and minister to and support one another. It was time to expand beyond the borders of Israel, beyond their comfort zone and outside of their community.
When we have our own community, it’s easy to get focused on what’s happening within the community and forget Jesus’ command to go out and make disciples. Often this happens without our even realizing it and soon we’re focusing on managing the needs of different members of the congregation, different personal dynamics, and even buildings that are in need of renovation. It’s easy to forget what the mission of the church ought to be – to go out and make disciples, to be present in the community and be a visible example of everything that Jesus teaches us to be. Even Worcester Fellowship has faced this challenge by becoming too insular and losing sight of its original mission.
Several years ago, I was the Prison Ministry Pastor for Worcester Fellowship. I’d like to share the journey of Worcester Fellowship; how Worcester Fellowship started, how it lost track of its mission and then found its way back again. Worcester Fellowship was founded by two women, Liz and Mary Jane, who started their ministry walking the streets, handing out socks and granola bars and connecting with the homeless community. After several months of connecting with the community, Liz and Mary Jane let people know that they would be having worship on Worcester Commons on Sunday afternoons. They had their first worship service on Easter Sunday 2007. No one came, but they continued connecting with people on the streets and started partnering with churches in the area to provide bag lunches. They began to provide lunches and socks each Sunday prior to worship. People started coming for lunch and eventually a few people stayed for worship. Volunteers from the churches that brought lunches started staying. Soon a small community began to form consisting of people without housing, people at risk of losing their housing and people who were comfortably housed and had never experienced homelessness.
As the community of Worcester Fellowship grew, they defined their mission as a church among men and women without homes that is dedicated to ending isolation through pastoral care and nurturing community.
As a core community began to form, members of Worcester Fellowship asked to start various groups. The pastors supported these groups because it was a good way to empower people who really didn’t have a lot of control over their lives. When I first got involved with Worcester Fellowship, there was a Prayer Team, Fund Raising Team, Leadership Team, Art Group, and then we started a Prison Support Group. Because the members of Worcester Fellowship didn’t have a lot of leadership opportunities in their lives, there was a lot of conflict over who should lead these groups and how they should be led. Eventually a lot of the pastors’ time was taken up by attending group meetings and refereeing conflicts. The focus became more on managing these groups and less on providing support and community for people on the streets. As a result, Worcester Fellowship became insular and lost the connection with the homeless community that Liz and Mary Jane worked so hard to build. Even the people who came for lunch but didn’t stay for worship began to feel to feel disconnected. Worcester Fellowship began to be known as the organization that hands out lunch and sock on the commons.
When Warren, the new pastor and executive director, joined Worcester Fellowship, he realized that Worcester Fellowship had become too focused on leading groups and had gotten away from its mission of providing pastoral care and nurturing community to at-risk adults. So we stopped running groups, and started spending more time on the commons. We also started Thursday Café, a day shelter open every Thursday afternoon that provides food, companionship, rest and hot coffee for people on the streets. Thursday Café started off small, but at the end of its second season, it had close to 75 people coming each week.
Spending more time on the commons on Sunday afternoons and providing the Thursday day shelter helped us to become more connected to the community that we were trying to support and helped us to fulfill our mission. We still didn’t have many people stay for worship after lunch, but Thursday Café continued to grow and our presence in the community that we served continued to grow, and make a difference in people’s lives. There were times when someone I hardly knew came up to me after we hand out lunches and said, “You guys are awesome” or we arrived on the commons to set up for lunch and worship and someone who’s never come to worship says to me, “I’ve been waiting for you.” These things remind me that our presence was needed out in the community and on the commons. We made a difference in people’s lives by being visible and present. By showing people that community is possible even when their lives are chaotic and unstable.
Of course we lost some people along the way. We lost people whose main interest was leading groups because it was the only opportunity they had to be a leader and it made them feel important to lead a group. We lost people because they moved on and didn’t need us anymore. Our core group that came to worship shrank, but the number of people that we supported overall grew.
I’ve had people from indoor churches ask me how to get more people to come to church. I always say the same thing. Get out in to the community. Be a visible presence. I’ve come across churches that were struggling to find their direction. Once they discovered what their mission was and stayed true to that mission, they grew. Some grew in numbers of people coming to church on Sunday, but not all. But all of them grew in their purpose and their existence became more meaningful for both the members of the church and the community.
There are some basic commonalities that these churches have. Allen Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk talk about some of the characteristics these churches have in their book “The Missional Leader.” One characteristic is that these churches have re-established traditional Christian practices, such as daily prayer, discernment, and hospitality. Hospitality is an ancient church practice of welcoming the stranger. Today, a stranger can be the person next door, someone from another country, or young people who feel disconnected.
Hospitality doesn’t involve expectations or agendas, but creates a space to listen. This is especially important today when there is so much noise and so much competition to be heard.
People today are longing to be recognized and included. This is one of the most important aspects of Worcester Fellowship’s mission. We would go out into the community and see the people that were so often invisible to the public. We recognized them and gave them worth. Not all church missions will be to provide hospitality or support to people on the streets or in prison, but there are many people disconnected and alone in all of our communities. We just need to discover who they are, listen to them, and find out what they need and how the church can support them.
It’s also important to stay focused. There is so much need today that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the different groups of people that need support and community. On common aspect of missional churches is that they have a specific mission and they stick to that mission. As the experience of Worcester Fellowship shows, once you lose sight of the mission and try to include too many projects, it’s easy to lose focus and get overwhelmed.
Most importantly, these churches are open to where the Holy Spirit leads them. This is why Jesus included the Holy Spirit is his commission. Through prayerful listening many church communities have been guided to where the greatest need is and have been able to stay focused on what their true mission is.
I invite you this morning to consider what the needs are of your community today. How can you listen to what your community is saying it needs the church to be? How can you as a church respond to those needs?