(Note: Yesterday’s and tomorrow’s entries are taken directly from the address Tim Soerens gave during the Inhabit Conference I attended last weekend. The three main points in his address during the Leadership in New Parish Symposium on Saturday afternoon are what I’ll be thinking through)

Please tell me you’ve seen the “Missionary Impossible” episode of The Simpson’s.

For those that haven’t, here’s the general idea: Homer makes a $10,000 phone fund-drive pledge (which, naturally, he doesn’t have) to save a PBS station. Upon finding out he’s broke, Betty White & her cohorts chase him and he runs for sanctuary in Springfield’s church run by Reverend Lovejoy. The reverend hides him in a bag of letters to be sent via cargo plane to a church in “Microasia” and Homer becomes a missionary. This is in spite of the fact that his lack of understanding of his religion to the degree that he refers to Jesus as “Jebus.”

After dropping in on the indigenous population’s peaceful and happy lives of slow-paced, South Pacific island life…

…he introduces a casino.

This makes a mess of things. Alcohol and violence come to the formerly peaceful island. Homer decides to build a chapel to say he’s sorry. Then they ring the enormous church bell to call everyone to worship but the reverberations cause an earthquake, which releases molten lava all over the island.

All in all, it’s pretty funny. Well, if it weren’t such an example of the current view of the American church’s propensity for colonialism. This is the second “siren” warning that Tim Soerens highlighted in his Saturday symposium.

And, I’ve seen it in real life. My former church has a sister church in Haiti. We worked in partnership with a church-planting mission group over 20 years ago and I had the pleasure to visit. It was nice to see brothers and sisters in Christ where we’d developed a relationship over the last two decades…they sent members to visit our congregation and the works. All in all, it’s a positive on both sides.

But on my trip, I couldn’t help but notice the efforts of the Americans who planted the church had crept into this church in a city of 16,000 people on the extreme western tip of the southern isthmus of the nation. For example, where did these folks surrounded by jungle get electric guitars and amps? Why were they wearing suits to the main service on Sunday when there wasn’t a suit anywhere else in the town? Why were they singing American/Euro hymns? Why did they sit on pews?

Now, don’t get me wrong. These aren’t necessarily negatives but I did wonder about the Homer Simpson effect. I mean, what were the instruments they used before we showed up? Surely they had some. It’s a Caribbean nation…why were they wearing suits? What were their normal clothes, or even what would they have worn to a more formal occasion before we showed up? Could they write songs of praise in their more local style? I even inadvertently threw them for a loop as the pastor when some of our teens played some of theirs in soccer and I joined in to even up the teams. The field was soon surrounded by locals who were pointing and laughing…apparently, in their culture, men don’t run. Especially not pastors. They’d never seen a grown man run for such a long period of time. I wondered if that affected their view of what a pastor should/could be. That might not’ve been the best thing if later on, someone said that Christian men play soccer and put that pastor at odds with his culture. Granted, none of these things are really big deals and we did our best to discover their customs and rhythms. For example, we had an idea to give the church enough money to, more or less, make sure families got rice & beans through an outreach program we would provide. Their leadership suggested more of a co-op approach where we provided seeds for plants and those that used them for a garden had to replace two cups of seeds after the individual garden harvest as it fit their society better (apparently, “welfare” has a negative connotation to them, and their way would allow those that got seeds from the church a better reputation in the community).

Sure, that’s the “macro” sense of colonialism.

But we do it in small ways, too. Tim used an example of a big suburban church had an outreach event in an urban neighborhood. There were bounce houses and a large grill for hot dogs and hamburgers and kids with face painting and balloons and the whole deal. The church had the best of intentions and came back a few weeks later without all that stuff to visit those they’d built relationships with. They heard from several moms about how their kids were discontent now. They’d never had hot dogs before and now they wanted hot dogs (which she could not afford) all the time. The kids weren’t content riding bikes anymore because they wanted to go to a climbing wall or blow-up obstacle course. They wanted to paint faces and they couldn’t afford the paint. You get the idea.

The best of intentions can have downsides if we aren’t careful.

And that goes for anywhere or anytime.

See, the way we “do church” or the “spiritual life” might work well for our context. For example, a megachurch might have some negatives, but it seems to fit the rhythms of my subdivision. I mean, you can do church without power point and electric guitars with pop music, but folks are used to power point and pop music is what they listen to. Most everyone is educated formally and graduate degrees aplenty, so the lecture format for learning is one folks are used to (yes, we can debate the effectiveness, but that’s another blog). We’re used to commutes and big buildings and parking lots and dropping our kids off and specialization. So, it works.

But in other contexts, the same thing would be detrimental. Say in the inner city where you don’t have any place for a nursery since you’re in a home or maybe meeting in a community center with one room. To try to implement all those same features would be a mistake, no? We’d need to talk to them about the unique features of their community, no? So, if folks didn’t have money for breakfast, it’d be tough for them to come and pay attention so maybe we’d need to supply breakfast for them. Maybe we’d need to design a time together differently. Maybe different music. Discussion instead of lecture/power points. Different music (if we even used music at all).

You get the idea, right?

See, this plays into my “dreams” entry a little bit. I know the rhythms of my community since I’ve lived here so long and one thing I’ve noticed is that our architecture keeps us from meeting/knowing our neighbors. Our desire for structure keeps our kids from having a place to hang out. We attend churches where we zip in for (at-best) three hours a week and it takes a very long time to develop deep relationships. We’re busy folks so you can’t add much to anyone’s schedule so new programs are resisted unless concessions are made to that reality. The idea of hosting neighbors in your home hurts two ways: You gotta clean up to host, and then you can’t cocoon and decompress from the day. Which is why I think a GREAT “3rd space” is needed and would work here. But I’m not sure it’d work in other settings…nor would it even be needed.

So, for discussion today…
How have you seen colonialism in a “macro” or “micro” sense?
Do you agree that it’s a warning the Church needs to be aware of?
Finally, how do you see the nature of your “place” helping your spiritual growth? Hindering it?

Have at it, patrons!