Overcoming Scarcity Thinking in Post-Christian Mission (A Lesson from Gandalf)

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Gandalf: I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.
Bilbo: I should think so—in these parts! We are plain, quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty, disturbing, uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them…
Gandalf:  You’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back.
Bilbo:  You can promise that I’ll come back?
Gandalf:  No. And if you do, you will not be the same.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

Tired and Homesick on Mission

Regardless of whether it’s been a good week in ministry or not, something about the work I do always feels like it takes more than it gives. Something about it feels dangerous, depleting, unsustainable. So I often find comfort in watching Tolkien movies. There’s something comfortingly familiar about the drooping shoulders of a tired and homesick hobbit.

This week I saw my story in a new way. I can over-focus on what I’ve left behind and what it’s costing me. So I had to wonder: Have I spent as much time considering what I am actually invited into?

What if it’s something like an adventure?

One approach questions the abundance of God—while the other lives with desperate awareness of our reliance on it.

For me, this lesson took place over a Thursday conversation with a missionary, a Friday NPR podcast, and a Saturday night spent watching The Hobbit. By Sunday I had more hope and energy for post-Christian ministry than I ever had. Let me share how that happened.

How Two Conversations, a Podcast, and a Movie Helped Me Name the Lie of Scarcity

Over the course of the past 3 years, I’ve watched Leslie listening to the call to overseas work. And now, as I sit with her, I see a courageous young woman doing the hard work of raising support to step deeper into the hard work of bringing the gospel to post-Christian contexts. She’s leaving behind childhood, the comforts of her first culture, her family and friends, and a regular paycheck for the sake of something else. And when I share words of encouragement with her, she relishes every single morsel. Maybe the reason I noticed it this week was because my most recent conversation with her came on the heels of a very different conversation.

I had just met with a young man who is around Leslie’s age and has been here about as long. About once a month, I hear he’s been saying how lonely he is here, how little the church is providing a home for him. Every time I meet with him, I leave feeling depleted and defeated. I’m pouring myself out here, trying to shape a space that is nourishing. Why is it never enough?

The next day I listened to NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast, an episode on “Scarcity.” In our congregation, we’ve been very careful not to take on a scarcity approach to our financial and physical resources. But as I listened to these stories of scarcity, I saw for the first time: There are other ways that ministry can grow from scarcity.

When every week leaves us feeling depleted, it’s easy to feel there’s never enough energy to do this work.

When members of our community still feel lonely, it’s easy to feel Christian community is mere crumbs to starving people. It’s easy to believe there’s never enough comfort or belonging to go around. It’s easy to believe that the description of the Church as a home or family is just a platitude.

The podcast described how a mentality of scarcity begets scarcity, how the anxiety that grows from scarcity switches off our ability to think longterm or imagine other possibilities. It makes us into reactionary creatures in survival mode, only digging ourselves deeper into our own despair. This description reminded me of how we are when we get wrapped up in ongoing conversations about how to belong here, how to find home with one another, even when we’re not feeling it and the ongoing conversations are sapping all our energy.

It wasn’t until I got lost in Peter Jackson’s depiction of Middle Earth on Saturday’s family movie night that I looked back on my conversation with Leslie in a new way. The way she relished every morsel of encouragement and connection reminded me of how a fellowship of friends works when on an adventure. They may have just one piece of bread between them and there may be Orcs on the horizon and there may be a storm brewing but they’ll shelter under whatever tree they can find and gather around that piece of bread. That food and that fellowship will be treasured for whatever comfort it can offer, because they’re in a place that feels very unlike home and they need one another.

Leaving the Shire to Join the Adventure

For many of us ministering in post-Christian contexts, we’re no longer in “The Shire.”

The Shire may be childhood—the safe stage when there was always someone else to take care of things. It may be a more sheltered or more homogeneous context where we weren’t stretched by diversity and discomfort. It may be a more stable, traditional place where we can count on things always being the way they’ve always been.

And the folks you minister to are often in the process of leaving their Shire. They’re transitioning from a suburban or rural context into an urban context. Or they’re transitioning from childhood to adulthood. Or they’re transitioning from a Christendom context to our post-Christian context. Or they’re feeling the upheaval of the culture and the church. Or they’re stepping into more ownership of the mission. Or all of these things at once!

All of the places they’re leaving felt safer, more secure. They’re leaving behind places where folks were more alike, more like them—socio-economically, culturally, philosophically. There was less expectation to change or be part of change, less expectation to step up into challenge.

As leaders in those places, we may also be feeling the pain, the lostness, the loneliness of these contexts. How can we feel that in deeply personal ways and still offer something to those entering it?

We certainly can be a place to name that grief and to help folks grow in their resilience, perseverance, and sense of adventure.

But we can’t be the Shire.

The Shire is a real place, but it’s not this place.
The Shire does not always understand the brokenness, the diversity, the complexities of the broader world. But we have been called on mission to the broader world. The Shire is part of reality, but it’s not all of reality.

So the kind of comfort we can offer is the kind you find on adventure, when a band of friends gather around to share a few crumbs in the middle of a storm, and it’s the best thing they’ve ever tasted.

We offer the kind of solace found in Rivendell—come, find rest and healing, weary travelers.

We speak the kinds of words spoken by Elves—these things have long been foretold, you’re part of an ancient story, you have resources beyond your own understanding.

We offer the kind of encouragement given by Gandalf—I can’t guarantee you’ll always be safe but you’re not alone. We’re part of something here that’s bigger than all of us.

We do this through offering space for community building, teaching people to own and step into mission, offering spiritual comfort, learning to pray against powers, telling the same story over and over, learning to be in relationship with folks who are different, teaching daily practices of life together and personal spiritual disciplines, figuring out how to share the Gospel in a place that has hardened its heart against us.

It may feel unsettling and unsafe, we may be tempted to flee, it may feel like a place of scarcity—but this place on the edge of the culture is where we’re called to be. Why? Because the Spirit is already on an adventure here, and he draws us into that adventure.

It may feel unsettling and unsafe, we may be tempted to flee—but this place on the edge of the culture is where we’re called to be. Why? Because the Spirit is already on an adventure here, and he draws us into that adventure. Click To Tweet

And we should know by now the way that Spirit provides in wilderness places—the way of manna. Everything we need, he provides like manna—not only our physical resources, but our personal and spiritual and relational resources. Enough energy and ideas for today. Enough courage and comfort for today. Enough vision and answers for today. Always enough to attend to the very ordinary adventure of showing up here every day to watch the Spirit of the Living God at work.

Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Gandalf

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9 responses to “Do We Still Need “Home Visitations” in Post-Christendom? by Ty Grigg

  1. Nice post.
    I’ve done home visits and received them. The ones I’ve done were awkward and unremarkable. The ones I’ve received were the same.

    Yet, they were memorable and therefore, I suspect, had the impact that was intended.

    Some of the people I visited I am still in relationship with even though both of us have left the church that originally brought us together. Some of the people who have visited me (and who I’ve lost touch with) are still esteemed as people who cared for me and I’m sure, if asked, would resume that care.

    All that said, it’s given me a new attitude towards anyone who knocks on my door. From the kid selling candy bars, to the roofer looking for work, to the church-lady inviting me to a “special annual event”. Each person had to work up quite a bit of gumption just to knock on the door. They should at least be treated with respect for that.

    And with that attitude who knows? Maybe *I’m* the one preaching the Gospel…

    1. Hi Bob,Thanks for engaging with the post. In your opinion, what was it that made visits to people’s homes awkward and unremarkable?

      Just to clarify, I wasn’t thinking it would be an unannounced visit but I think that is another interesting dynamic to explore – the difference between “just dropping by” versus a scheduled visit.

      1. They were awkward because they were for a distinct purpose and unnatural (it may be more hip to term this “inorganic”). The visit wasn’t a beginning of a longer term relationship. It was a task the two parties had to accomplish. Forced.
        Sometimes these work out and develop into real relationships. Sometimes they don’t. But the “first date” or the “first day of class” is frequently unremarkable and awkward. When the relationships bloom, the parties look back with fondness at their beginnings. When they don’t (bloom), they simply don’t.

        Nothing earth-shattering here. Just the reality of human socialization.

    1. Thanks Brian! I enjoyed your post and understanding it from your context in Iowa. In preparing this post, I found it interesting how different the expectations are generationally (i.e. older generation has much higher expectation of a visit in the home and that its from a pastor). Younger generations have expectations too – just different. I imagine the expectations between urban, suburban, and rural contexts differ greatly as well. It seems like the task is not to push these expectations away, but see their value, and redirect/reform these older practices for God’s mission.

      1. Ty, I just had an older pastor say that one thing he would do differently if he was starting over again in ministry would be to visit newer participants/neighbors more, but not by simply making home visits. He suggested that for generations younger than 60, the home is no longer a comfortable place for initial visits from a stranger (i.e. the pastor)–especially among much younger adults. For this pastor, an invitation out to coffee or lunch is a much better starting place for first-time visits or visits to distant, unfamiliar members.
        You named this shift from home to public, Ty, though I can’t tell if your encouraging pastors to shy away from the public coffee visits, or simply naming the new trend and urging balance. I would like to think both places of visitation are needed together given these new realities (plus a third sphere at the workplace).

        The older pastor didn’t go on to say as much, but I think as you do that the home visit does still hold great value. For older members as well as newer participant who you’ve already met with at least a few times in public, a visit at home lets see a more of the unvarnished elements of life (which you call “paying attention to people’s lives”). Sure, if you schedule ahead for a home visit they can always tidy up, take a shower and tell the kids to behave, but even so you can learn a lot by the type of neighborhood and house they have, the pictures of family on the walls, their manner of speaking to spouse and kids, their practices of hosting, etc. I suppose this is precisely why younger generations (like ours) would prefer to meet the pastor in a public setting–it’s more controlled, less vulnerable, tidier, safer. And precisely why we still need to carry out both venues of visitation.

        But I’d like to offer a third vital place for visitation: the workplace. You say, “A house visit is vital for blessing lives in their everyday context,” and I would add that showing up at someone’s workplace for coffee break or lunch is yet another crucial angle for “blessing lives in their everyday context.” This can also build rapport, as the worker can see that we are also aware of and care about the vocational element of their lives (since church participants often believe that by showing up on Sunday mornings, they’ve seen into our’ entire work lives)!

        Thanks for your thoughts on this very practical and earthy aspect of pastoral leadership (and your mulling over who among multiple pastors or lay leaders best visits whom). As I noted on Brian G’s blog, as lone paid pastor of a large congregation, I have lots of reasons to be including my deacons and other leaders in all forms of visitation!

        1. Nicholas, thank you for enriching the discussion. Yes, the home vs. coffee shop was more of an observation – not a judgment necessarily. I think both are fruitful places (and I love that you have included the workplace – yes, a place to bless the everyday gift of work and vocation!)
          I had one pastor friend say that he felt a little awkward inviting himself over to people’s houses (implying I think that the invitation was not extended). To make it easier, the congregation or board put out a sign-up sheet during his first year for families to have the pastor over. He said that made the process of being in people’s homes so much easier.

  2. […] up than previous generations.  (I was reminded of an item we linked to here on Saturday, about pastors no longer doing house visits, and wondered if there was a connection between this and our need to visit freestanding counseling […]

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