Sunday, March 06, 2011

mission in a quakezone

My current vocation in life is to reflect on the shape and nature of the church’s mission. I primarily do that in South Australia, which involves a lot of thinking about appropriate mission in the suburbs of ease and affluence which dot Adelaide.

But my heart remains firmly in Christchurch, in which suburbs that were formerly affluent now lie broken and twisted by nature’s force. What might be the shape and nature of the church’s mission in that city?

The dilemna is that I am now an outsider. I think from afar. So I risk being like the two old men in the Muppet Show, nothing more than a empty voice.

But I also have some space and distance and so perhaps one of the few things I can do is think. So when we discovered that the church we turned up to visit today, which according to their website was open, was actually meeting at another time and somewhere else, I tried to capture some thoughts.

Mission in a quakezone
On February 22, Christchurch was hit with a major earthquake. While Christchurch is a small city by world standards, it is predicted that the quake will be the largest ever insurance event in the world history. Further, it is being suggested that the quake is the worst ever to hit an urban area anywhere in the world. (A claim based not on the size of the earthquake but because of the quake’s shallowness and closeness to a city.)

Mission in the first 10 days
It has been fascinating to watch Facebook and Twitter and see how local churches have been become active in the first ten days following the disaster.

The main effort seems to have been focused on acts of mercy. Thus one of the larger churches, Vineyard, is claiming to have fed 1,000 people a day.

The church I used to pastor, Opawa Baptist, has turned itself into the South Community Support Centre and become a hub, seeking to facilitate networks of care. On Twitter comes news of people arriving with gifts – offering to fix computers, check buildings, pray, listen and donate – while other people are leaving with gifts – of nappies, of food, or plastic bags for toilets still not working. On Friday the church ended the week with a free community barbeque and over 300 people turned up to eat and talk.

With regard to mainline churches, here’s a summary of the last ten days from Martin Stewart, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Christchurch.

  1. Parish Twinning – linking west wide churches with the east side harder hit ones.
  2. A Mobile Minister – having a minister circulating among the east-side churches – offering support and being a conduit between need and help.
  3. Emergency and relief accommodation – receiving many offers of accommodation for people in need from all over the country.
  4. Linking with all churches – linking with the inter-church group who have significant people and skill resources able to be directed to where there is need.
  5. Building damage – attending to the processes of having buildings inspected by structural engineers. Sadly, St George’s in Linwood has already been demolished. We anticipate that the St Paul’s Trinity Pacific, Berwick Street, and St John’s in Lyttleton churches will also be demolished, and there are serious issues with the Knox, Mt Pleasant and North Avon churches.
  6. Caring for the carers – encouraging Sessions and Parish Councils to encourage their ministers to attend supervision, take appropriate time off each week, a weekend a term, and also to have at least a week of leave on the near horizon.
  7. PCANZ appeal – the Presbyterian Church has launched an appeal to support our churches.
  8. Messages of Support – the PCANZ website has also listed many of the letters of support from around the world.
  9. Stories – the Archives Department of our church has also been offering informative material about what is happening here along with things of a historical nature.

Mission and context
Some five years ago Martin visited my house. It was winter and we huddled around a fire and talked about new forms of church. At the time, Martin was experimenting in Dunedin. With society self-absorbed, with a church stuck in historic patterns of worship, new forms of church seemed to offer a way to call the church to mission. It was an energetic and hopeful conversation.

If Martin visited today, by necessity our talk of mission would be vastly different. Now is no longer the season to talk new forms of church.

Perhaps this is because of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which portrays human needs in the shape of a pyramid. The largest, and most fundamental, are at the bottom, while the need for self-actualization exists at the top.

In other words, the most fundamental and basic four layers of the pyramid contain what Maslow called “deficiency needs”, esteem , friendship, security, food and shelter.

Applied to Christchurch, when people have food and shelter, the mission task was focused around community for the broken-hearted, and self-actualization for the spiritual seeker. Hence the talk about community engagement and new forms of church.

But with the earthquake, mission for the church in Christchurch must take a vastly different shape. First it must focus on food and shelter, accompanied by space to tell stories, process trauma and fear, grieve over loss.

Mission as relief
In the last 10 days, help has poured into Christchurch. Specialist skills, portaloos from all over Australasia, food, water, blankets. This becomes mission as relief.

This brings an important question: what should Christian mission as relief look like? As the church also feeds and helps and distributes, it does so alongside many other providers. Should the church simply act in an echo of these efforts? Or might the story of Jesus invoke different patterns and behaviours?

In this I find instructive the work of Soul Banquets: How Meals Become Mission in the Local Congregation (blogged about a few days ago), which begins with an exploration of how the church in New York responded to 9/11. It then turns to the story of Jesus to suggest a number of unique contours that shape Christian aid. These include

  • serving graciously with human contact, expecting each volunteer to find ways to encourage eye contact and genuine conversation.
  • setting tables, serving food, eating in patterns and places that speak of God’s abundance and creativity.
  • encouraging role reversals by finding ways for all, helper and hungry, to contribute through a diversity of gifts.
  • committing to a long-term, intentional project, a willingness to continue in relational, gracious, relational care, because in that good things will happen.

I am not suggesting any of this will be unique to the church. I am simply suggesting that as the church acts, it wants to act in ways shaped by the story of Jesus. These provide accounts of action in grace, of abundance, of equality and of transformation. This should shape the way that Christians are in and among an earthquake zone.

Mission in the next 10 years?
A few days ago, the search for survivors shifted to become a search for bodies. Slowly power is returning and water is being switched on. This signals a shift, in which people begin to consider not just short term survival, but long term rebuilding.

What has happened is a crisis. But might it also be an opportunity. Perhaps it is not enough to just return things to what they were. Amongst the rubble and the stench from portaloos might there be a chance to search for redemption?

Historically different sections of the church have emphasised different aspects of mission.

For some, the emphasis on mission should be on words, the talking of the Jesus story. Beyond survival comes the need to consider questions of destiny and relationship with God and neighbour.

For others, the emphasis on mission is deeds, the practical helps of listening well, of offering mercy, of seeking justice.

For others, the emphasis on mission should be prayer, whether in monastic patterns of faithful prayer, or of worship performed in representantation of a hurting world, or in “power evangelism” in which the sick are prayed for.

In more recent times, a fourth dimension of mission has also become a focus. This involves refusing to separate sacred from secular. In so doing, workplace mission comes to the fore. To be Christian is to join with Nehemiah in rebuilding broken walls, to follow Daniel who gave himself to just administration, to echo Dueteronomy and seek to build cities of refuge. Mission becomes societal rebuilding.

It seems to me that mission in a quakezone in the next ten years will need to include all four dimensions. Perhaps like a 3-D triangle, in which the church will seek to act in word and deed and prayer and societal renewal.

In Christchurch in the last 10 days it has begun with deeds.  In these deeds it needs to remain faithful verbally to the story of Jesus, to speak of the God to whom Christians are crying for help, who animates our passion, who invites us to place the needs of others before our own.

In these deeds and words it needs to keep open the prayerful space, both individually and in providing sacred spaces and worship in lament, petition, intercession and thanksgiving for life.

This includes providing mechanisms for lament, the oncorking of anger and guilt, confusion and despair, released in order to help us be fully human and as part of facing tomorrow.

And the church needs to be a voice in the rebuilding. This might include the courage to call for a new tomorrow, to seek for the redemptive opportunities that lie in the ruins. When church buildings crumble, one option is to faithfully rebuild. Another is to reflect on the needs of a modern city, built for cars not for horses. And to ask what should be the shape of buildings for that future.

This will also include the need to actively look for partnerships beyond the church. Amos Yong, Hospitality and the Other: Pentecost, Christian Practices, and the Neighbor suggests that one way for the church to practice hospitality is to engage in shared mission projects. This involves looking for areas of common need, in order to partner with any and all, whether secular or of different religious. Christians do this because the Spirit is at work in our world and so we will partner with any who look, whether by accident or design, to be carriers of change. This is the fourth dimension of mission.

In sum, when times change, the church needs to ponder again it’s mission. Mission in disaster, mission in Christchurch must be different. As the immediate task of finding and burying the dead turns to the long work of rebuilding, I am suggesting the church needs to embody the four dimensions of mission: to act, speak, prayer and transform. All animated by the story of Jesus, grace, of abundance, of equality and of transformation.

May God give the church strength, discernment, wisdom and long haul clarity in the coming days.

Posted by steve at 04:45 PM


  1. Thank you Steve. I’m left moved and breathless reading this. But I also feel up-lifted by what is there – for reading, reflection and prayer.

    Comment by Bruce Grindlay — March 7, 2011 @ 8:48 am

  2. Amen!! (she typed as a little quake rumbled by) I read this with tears in my eyes…. feeling moved, and supported…

    Comment by Jan — March 7, 2011 @ 4:59 pm

  3. Thanks Bruce and Jan,


    Comment by steve — March 7, 2011 @ 6:52 pm

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