In the wilderness: the church’s identity crisis and the need to go local

Kara Carter, pastor of Wellesley Mennonite Church in Ontario, picks flowers at her daughter’s flower farm. — Kara Carter Kara Carter, pastor of Wellesley Mennonite Church in Ontario, picks flowers at her daughter’s flower farm. — Kara Carter

It’s a busy summer for Kara Carter, pastor of Wellesley Mennonite Church in Ontario. She defended her doctoral dissertation on pastoral leadership in June and will speak at Mennonite Church Canada’s Gathering 2022 event in Edmonton, Alberta, July 29- Aug. 1.

For her doctoral research, Carter interviewed pastors about their experience of leading in mission. Through their stories, Carter identified barriers that keep congregations stuck — and strengths that reveal how they are ­joining God’s work in their communities.

Carter describes Wellesley’s ministry as community-centered. It hosts a preschool and shares a live nativity each Christmas. With area congregations, it launched a community food cupboard to help families who struggle to send their children to school well fed.

Carter spoke with MC Canada about her thoughts on where the church is headed and why ministry centered on building relationships within a local community is so important.

What are the currents of organizational change you’ve seen regarding pastors’ experiences?

The church is experiencing an identity crisis. Prior to the pandemic, church leaders were already aware that the church was in a liminal (“in-between”) space, though that term was not specifically named. Congregations are asking: Who are we now? Who is God calling us to be? Who are we becoming? In my conversations, pastoral leaders and congregations often drew upon the metaphor of wilderness journeying to describe the current unsettled time.

The church that many pastors were trained to lead no longer exists. Structures that once served the church well are not serving the church effectively, and yet a replacement structure is not clear. Changing attendance trends and aging demographics impact congregational community and create challenges for committees and lay leaders charged with pastoral care because they don’t know the folks in the pews.

The days of “build it and they will come” are gone. And yet this story lives on and can be heard as “let’s ramp up music, let’s ramp up children’s and youth ministry,” with the assumption the community will come.

There is still a belief that the community knows what the church has to offer and that our neighbors will be the risk-takers, walk through the door and engage with the church.

Some congregations equate community engagement with increased attendance rather than building relationships for the sake of relationships.

What does a more realistic picture of church look like?

Pastors are trained according to a chaplaincy model of ministry, which focuses on the needs of the congregation — pastoral care, worship, preaching, programs. Some fear that turning outward will involve a loss for the congregation. But in my interviews I heard about the value of building relationships with community partners to address things like affordable housing, climate change and food insecurity.

Being “separate from the world” served our Anabaptist forebears well amid 16th-century persecution. Today, separateness can be a barrier to neighborhood and community connections.

The church was already experiencing significant cultural change prior to the pandemic. The pandemic just accelerated it. I believe the post-pandemic church will look very different. It is vital for congregations to be present within this liminal space until their identity becomes clear.

Can you explain what it means to “go local” and give an example of what this looks like?

At the core of mission is the conviction that God is ahead of us in the local community. This process is grounded in Luke 10:1-11. “Going local” is becoming attentive to the movement of God in our neighborhoods. Living with curiosity and openness to the Spirit of God is a transformative process.

A recent example is a conversation I had with a congregant. They met a neighbor who has a beekeeping/honey business. Just weeks before this, the congregant had spoken with another community member who is deeply interested in creation care. The congregant extended an invitation to the beekeepers to share with our adult Christian education group, with hopes of sharing the class more broadly in the community.

Are there things about the traditional understandings of witness or evangelism that your church community has let go of or embraced more fully in its journey toward local mission?

For some Anabaptists, evangelism comes with heavy baggage. One research participant related this to tent meetings, typically fire and brimstone in nature. Another identified how shame impacts how their congregation shares faith. Another reflected on how excited young adults are about social justice issues rather than meeting ­budget and other institutional values.

My missional focus has been directed toward building relationships for the sake of relationships. It is helpful to take a stance of curiosity and openness and to reflect upon God’s presence in personal interactions. This leads to personal transformation and growth as disciples. And as we build authentic connections, the hope is that others will see and hear something different in our lives: hope, joy, love, peace.

We can no longer assume that our neighbors share an understanding of Scripture or of church words like sin, salvation and redemption. Rather, let’s ask: Do our neighbors understand the purpose of the church, its missional call, the value of community and ongoing spiritual transformation?

Something sacred occurs when we share our lives with others and relate at deeper levels. Opportunities arise to share one’s faith and be open about our walk with Jesus.

The church needs a new story. I believe as we journey together a new story will become evident.

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