On Building a Community of Practice

Participants in the Faithful Innovation Initiative gathered on February 16
photo: Canon Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale

by Canon Kristin White

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’

 But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’

–Luke 10:25-29

 From Vincennes to West Lafayette to Martinsville to Richmond, and many points between and beyond, it has been a real blessing over these past months to begin to know the people who live as the Body of Christ we’re called to be, here in central and southern Indiana. I am grateful for your willingness to share your hopes for the future of the churches you love, and also your fears about what that future may hold.

One of the best teachers I ever had regularly encouraged her students to ask good questions. Since I joined you in October, I have found myself returning to Jesus’ conversation with the lawyer in the gospel of Luke. The lawyer begins by asking Jesus what he has to do to live forever. But he ends by asking Jesus who is his neighbor.

Who are our neighbors, in the 48 churches that make up this diocese? Many of them have changed, probably, in the time that many of us have been members. Businesses have closed and opened. Communities have contracted and expanded. The people who were our neighbors 20 year ago may look very different than those who are our neighbors now.

Do we know them, those neighbors of ours, today? Do they know us? Do we grasp the hopes and joys and fears that are real in our communities? Can we live in ways that are both humble and curious about how God might already be at work, right here in our neighborhood?

After worship at Grace Church in Muncie, about ten years ago, Phill Wills noticed people asking for money to buy food from the McDonald’s next door to the church. Phill asked around, and he realized that there was no feeding program available in the community on Sundays. So he and some other members at Grace Church started one. Every Sunday afternoon, they host a meal they call Gathering Grace. They feed hungry neighbors with homemade food – including freshly-baked cake. Their website extends the invitation to everyone: “Stop by any Sunday afternoon, share a meal…and meet our neighbors.”

“You shall…love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus says to the lawyer. In order to love our neighbors, we have to know our neighbors. We have to be vulnerable enough to meet people we don’t know, welcoming them into our midst and being willing to be hosted by them. We need to ask questions that we don’t already know the answers to.

Trusting that God is already at work in our midst, we can look for stories to confirm that trust. And then we can consider what we have seen and heard, seeking ways to share the Good News of Jesus that is ours to tell.

This is a new way of being church. It’s not easy. It’s not familiar. And it takes practice. It requires curiosity and honesty and courage. But we are not alone. We have each other to share in this effort, people willing to practice: to talk about what we notice and what we’ve tried and what we learned and how we will try again. And we have a God who promises to be faithful – the same God who asks us to love with our whole heart and soul and strength and mind.

While we find ourselves as church in a time without easy answers, I am grateful that this diocese is using several tools to build a community of practice. Evangelism with Integrity offers us the opportunity live as beacons for Christ by finding a vocabulary of faith that fits us as Episcopal Christians. Faithful Innovations encourages us to go into our communities with curiosity about how and where God is already at work in our midst. Pathways to Vitality nurtures healthy conversations and practices about money, both individually and as church. Beginning in 2020, the College for Congregational Development will bring together teams of lay and ordained leaders who will help their churches become more faithful, self-renewing, responsive and sustainable.

Bold witness and radical welcome, two of our core diocesan priorities, become real when they are rooted in community and relationships. When we look with curiosity at the places where we live and work and worship, when we pray and ask questions about how God is present in this time and space, when we take the chance of having real conversations with our neighbors just because we want to know them, I believe that we begin to re-connect the tether between our congregations and our communities. When we do these things, we make a faithful response to what Jesus commands us to do, and we will live.