Striving No More, Part 5b, Or Why I’ve Started Talking About Mill City Church

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I’ve now spoken at quite some length about the road that has led us to this point, where we’ve started connecting with Mill City Church. If you haven’t read the first five (!) parts in this series, I highly encourage it. It’s impossible to fully understand what I’m about to say without at least some knowledge of why I keep talking about Circle of Hope, how I’ve come to understand that “without worship, we shrink” (in part because of the influence of Keith Green and Rich Mullins in my formation as a person, and a person of faith), why I keep talking about House of Mercy but we have struggled to connect with that community since returning to the Twin Cities, and why I’ve come to reluctant acceptance of- but hope not to have to talk too much more about- 3DM. All of that background is, at the least, very informative.

I should mention that we didn’t wind up beginning to connect with Mill City Church because we were “church shopping.” I’ve long been critical of that type of consumeristic approach to church, as if it were a religious “good or service” one received in exchange for money, attendance, etc. Usually I’ve made this critique self-knowingly, aware that like a good USAmerican I have a tendency to treat church in just this way. But that’s not what happened in this case. As I’ve said, though it’s true that we were struggling to connect with House of Mercy like we might hope to, we were trying to figure out a way to make it work. In the midst of that, I came across Mill City Church very unintentionally as a result of my participation with Mile In My Shoes (MiMS), the running group I’m a part of in which I’ve been running with folks experiencing homelessness once a week. There are several posts on this blog about MiMS from earlier this year. Anyway, one of the leaders of MiMS is part of Mill City Church, and one of the pastors of Mill City Church, Stephanie, came along with that leader and ran with us for the Torchlight 5k. Also, Stephanie’s fiancée, J.D., made a documentary about homelessness here in the Twin Cities that one of Mill City Church’s missional communities helped host a screening of, which Samuel and I attended. This is how Mill City Church (MCC) entered my awareness. You might imagine just from the above that I was intrigued.

So I started doing some homework. I already knew MCC had missional communities, and so as you might imagine if you read my previous post in this series, I was wary. Still, I wanted to know more. You’ll hopefully recall from my last post my growing conviction of the importance of listening and “getting on board” with what God might already be up to in a local community. This has long been important to me theoretically, going all the way back to seminary when I read books like Lamin Sanneh‘s Translating the Message and Leslie Newbigin‘s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Sanneh’s book, especially, blew my mind as I was invited to consider that when the gospel is first translated into new languages, those languages sometimes already had a word for “God,” which sometimes then gets used to talk about the Christian God.

There’s much to unpack there (and, probably unfortunately, debate), but my point is that God no doubt was already at work, already doing something, before Christian missionaries arrived with the (hopefully) good news about Jesus, and this dynamic has been at work throughout history and even in Scripture itself (see Paul preaching on Mars Hill to the worshippers of the “unknown god”). Newbigin adds to the discussion by inviting USAmerican “Christendom” to realize that “missions” isn’t the exporting of U.S. civil religion to other lands and cultures (if I’m not putting words in his mouth); rather, it’s something that happens within each of our USAmerican homes, hopefully, but then especially when each and every one of us who would follow Jesus step out our front doors and start trying to love our literal neighbors. Newbigin listened to USAmerican culture after returning from a lifetime’s worth of missionary service overseas and realized that the greatest missional challenge the USAmerican church might face going forward was right in front of it, at home in its own rapidly changing culture. Here’s a sermon from one of MCC’s pastors, Michael Binder, in which he talks a bit about Newbigin. It’s worth a listen. Binder quotes Newbigin:

“If the gospel is to challenge the public life of our society…it will only be by movements that begin with the local congregation in which the reality of the new creation is present, known, and experienced, and from which men and women will go into every sector of public life to claim it for Christ, to unmask the illusions which have remained hidden and to expose all areas of public life to the illumination of the gospel. But that will only happen as and when local congregations renounce an introverted concern for their own life, and recognize that they exist for the sake of those who are not members, as sign, instrument and foretaste of God’s redeeming grace for the whole life of society.” (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 232-233)

Hmmm…recognizing that the church “exist(s) for the sake of those who are not members” sounds a lot like the “the church exists for those yet to (become a part of it),” doesn’t it? In any case, Sanneh and Newbigin helped lay the foundation in my understanding that God is present and active everywhere at all times, even in languages that the gospel is being translated into for the first time; so therefore our responsibility is to do the hard work of listening and paying attention to what God is already up to so that we might join him in what he’s already doing.

My understanding of how to do this best, of how to listen and pay attention to what God is already up to somewhere, was bolstered as I encountered Christian Community Development and the “three R’s” that guide it: Relocation, Reconciliation, and Redistribution. Especially for people who want to follow Jesus but are products of white privilege like myself, “relocation” from literal places of privilege to the places that very privilege literally affords you the ability to flee from is vital. As I’ve heard them say in the Christian Community Development Association, after all, “God (in the person of Jesus) didn’t commute from heaven every day.” No, he relocated from his place of power and privilege to our place of struggle. Likewise, those who want to serve disadvantaged communities do it best when they literally make such communities their own. They will be most active at working to change struggling inner city schools, for example, when their kids go there too. If you want to really listen to and understand a people, their culture, and their problems, try living among them. Reconciliation, between humanity and God of course, but especially racial reconciliation is just as important, and redistribution of wealth is too. For all the misguided, ignorant attacks of the current President for even approaching a discussion of redistribution of wealth, this is something deeply rooted in scripture, and I, for one, believe Ta-Nehisi Coates is right, but I digress.

Anyway, I had encountered Christian Community Development probably first with Circle of Hope, but especially later when I met Duane Crabbs and his family in Akron, who have so faithfully lived out the principles of Christian Community Development. Duane’s story is worth telling again, and I’ve re-told it here, here, here, and here. In any case, it was in a sermon of Duane’s that I first heard the unattributed quote that has since been so important to me: “If you’ve come here to save me, don’t bother, but if you’ve come here because you understand that your salvation is wrapped up in mine, then let us labor together.” When you relocate to live among a people and do the work of really listening to them with an eye for what God might be up to already among them, then you begin to understand that there is work to be done, together, to live into the goodness of God’s kingdom in which peace with justice are the lived experience for all, not just some.

So as I’ve come to learn more about Mill City Church, I’ve learned that this- listening and getting on board with what God is already up to- is central to their approach to being the church. In fact, the pastor I mentioned above, Michael Binder, writes extensively about it. He says, first of all, that they assume…:

“…that God is at work in our local context, and has been working long before we have been there. God is out ahead of us in the neighborhoods where we live, inviting us to participate in the things he is doing. If God is out ahead of us, then two questions guide our participation in his mission: “What is God doing?” and “How can we respond to that?” These are simple questions, but they can be hard to answer. Yet asking them is the first step in learning. They put us in a listening posture. They position us to become “divine detectives” in the neighborhoods where we live, work, and worship.”

He then goes on elsewhere to describe this “divine detective” work as one of their “core commitments.” He says:

The first core commitment (of someone wanting to become a covenant member of Mill City Church) is to a spiritual practice of daily discernment, where each covenant member daily asks, “What is God up to?” and “How does God want me/us to respond?” By committing to this practice, covenant members seek to approach each day as a chance to be part of what God is doing in whatever setting they find themselves in.

This is a commitment that they not only ask the individual covenant members to commit to, but is something they commit to together as a church. Mill City Church’s website and smartphone app both offer access to podcasts of their sermons and even some “trainings” they offer, and over the past month I’ve probably listened to close to a dozen such sermons/trainings, such that they’re starting to run together in my mind/remembrance. Nonetheless, it was in this sermon that I heard that Mill City Church is committed to team leadership at every level. This is important, and reminds me of Circle of Hope, as two of Circle of Hope’s proverbs are that “A leader is always part of a team, is always a mentor, and is always preparing his/her successor,” and “Leaders listen to the body and to God; their function is discernment as much as direction.” Likewise, in that sermon I linked to above Stephanie said that for Mill City Church “the purpose of leaders in our community is to equip other people, not to decide things for them.” She says that “We don’t give everybody all the answers; we help us together ask good questions, and seek after what God might be doing.” She adds, “We have 5 pastors who see everybody as having influence, and everybody having the opportunity to listen and respond to God. We don’t have more pastors so that we have more people listening to God for you, but more people listening to God with you.”

This approach of listening and responding to God- together- is absolutely crucial, and is something that gives me hope. It gives me hope particularly because of what it has meant for Mill City Church. It means, first of all, that members of Mill City Church are, like those of Circle of Hope, covenant members. Michael Binder writes that a simple question posed by someone already involved in Mill City Church, “Why should I become a member?”, challenged him to realize that “membership was largely a formality” for Mill City up to that point in its young life (as it is for all too many congregations, I would argue). Binder says he was “ambivalent” about membership up to that point because he “worried it reinforced a consumer mentality about church.” He reflects about health club memberships and says: “you get a lot for the money you are paying. As a member, you have the right to all these different goods and services any time you want to come. That wasn’t the attitude we wanted to cultivate among the people seeking to join the life of our church.” Realizing that “something had to change,” he says: “Ultimately we decided that we wanted membership to describe a way of life, not merely what we believed or what we “got” for being in the club. We wanted membership that demanded something of people.”

Over the course of a year, then, they worked to discern what membership should look like and came up with covenant membership. Obviously, they came up with a covenant too, one that is marked by three core commitments. The first is “daily discernment” as noted above. The second is loving their “community” (defined both as the church community and their neighborhood) . He says: “We commit to connecting with fellow members throughout the week and seeking out relationships with new people. We want to connect with people who are different from us in age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, and socio-economic background.” Regarding the third and final core commitment, he goes on to say that:

“Our last core commitment describes our desire to serve Northeast Minneapolis, where we worship and where many of us live. This includes active service with our local partners, as well as prayer for the life of the school where we worship on Sunday. Serving locally is an essential part of what it means to be the church for us.”

And boy have they served locally! Binder writes elsewhere that:

After some time of walking the neighborhood, going to neighborhood meetings, meeting neighbors, and learning what the local community cared most about, we received an invitation from a director at the home for people living with HIV-AIDS. They wanted us to put together Christmas gifts for the residents. God was up to something. After having the chance to provide Christmas presents, we asked for permission to start holding meetings in the conference room of this building. Week after week local pastors starting meeting in this space, receiving hospitality from the people in the building. Next, people from our church asked if they could throw monthly birthday parties for residents, and relationships continued to grow.

Consequently, he says, “Over time, our church became connected with the people in this place, and the neighborhood knew it.” This was evident when the local neighborhood association “had money available to spend on something the neighborhood cared about,” but found that “they were having trouble getting input from people who lived in two local complexes: one large low-income housing unit and a building that was home to people living with HIV-AIDS.” This was the very HIV-AIDS housing unit Mill City Church had already been involved in loving and serving as described above; so the neighborhood association decided to throw a party which they hoped would “be a safe place for us all to gather, have a good time, and complete a survey on how to spend neighborhood money.” Binder says:

Over the course of just a few years, the neighborhood had learned that our church cared about those living in these spaces. We had become people who had enough relationship and credibility to invite them to a celebration where their voice could be heard by our wider community. This was an incredible opportunity. So we said yes, and we threw a party.

But that probably isn’t even the best example of how Mill City Church has been loving their neighborhood, and how that love has started spreading throughout the city. Mill City Church meets in Sheridan Elementary School, a local public elementary school in Minneapolis. This was and remains a very intentional decision. Binder writes:

We meet on Sundays in a public school, like many new churches. Despite the expectation of many that we will move into a worship space we own, we have decided to stay in the school for as long as we can because of the relationship it fosters between the church community and the school. This means forfeiting the comforts of our own space for the sake of relationship.

That relationship has blossomed, and one result is The Sheridan Story:

The story began in 2010 when the school administration at our namesake, Sheridan Elementary School, discovered that students were stealing and hoarding food on Fridays so that they would have something to eat on the weekends. After learning of this need, The Sheridan Story was launched as a project of Mill City Church and Woodridge Church. In our first month in Fall of 2010, we provided a bag of non-perishable food each weekend to 27 students. Two years later we were able to open the program to all students at Sheridan School reaching over 300 students. Spring of 2013 brought our first expansion into another school, Delano Elementary, increasing our impact to some 350 children.

By 2014, “The Sheridan Story operated in 29 schools reaching nearly 1800 children and by Spring 2016 we served some 4,000 students in 96 schools.” Here is a map of the schools The Sheridan Story operates in now:

 

If you’re not tearing up, check your pulse.

Again, it is listening to what God is already up to in the particular neighborhood of NE Minneapolis that Mill City Church is being rooted in, and responding to it as faithfully as they can, that has brought Mill City Church to where it is now, and it is why we are being drawn to them. Michael Binder also writes: “We try not to create any ministry that already exists in our local area, encouraging people to join the work of non-profits and other churches who are already doing work our people want to be involved in.” They’re not re-inventing any wheels, but are instead glad for whatever momentum existing “wheels” already have and choose to chip in and do their part to keep them going. Take their youth ministry, for example. Mill City Church recognized that while there were 52 churches in Northeast Minneapolis, there were only 2 full-time youth leaders. So Mill City Church partnered with those other churches to create Northeast Students:

So listening to God, together, and responding to what he’s up to in the community that many of Mill City Church’s members have relocated to in order to make common cause with those they want to serve is why Mill City Church has covenant members at all; it’s why thousands of kids throughout Minneapolis but especially from Sheridan Elementary are a little less hungry on the weekends; it’s a big part of why Mill City Church has team leadership at every level; and it’s why Mill City Church is made up of missional communities. Michael Binder writes:

Just a couple years into our life as a new church community, I started to realize that the structure of our church’s life (Sunday worship, small group, service projects) did not fit our vision of helping people participate in God’s mission in their local neighborhood. I realized someone could be coming to worship, going to small group, and serving at the food shelf or school without necessarily having to engage with anyone from Northeast Minneapolis that wasn’t already a part of our church. It became clear we needed a different structure for the life of our church if we were really going to equip people to “love our community in the name of Jesus.”

We began to explore the idea of creating “missional communities,” groups of 20-40 people who would see themselves primarily as missionaries to a particular neighborhood or group of people. This model seemed to create an environment where engaging with people outside our church was not optional but a necessary part of participating in the life of the group.

There was just one problem. We had a lot of people participating in small groups. We decided that killing our small groups and asking everyone to form missional communities would have been too drastic of a change. Instead we piloted one missional community and discipled leaders who could help lead future missional communities, while still supporting small groups. People sensed the change and there was some resistance to it, but the disappointment came at a reasonable rate. We spent two years in this experimental phase before we were ready to offer more people the opportunity to participate in these missional communities. Those two years felt like an eternity, especially for a young church. But it was really a relatively short period of time to make such a significant change. And because we advanced at a slower pace, we were able to make the transition without minimal disappointment and resistance.

Today Mill City Church has 8 missional communities, with more on the way. And in fact, it’s in part due to the work of one of them, the one focused on loving people experiencing homelessness, that my family and I began being drawn to Mill City Church at all. Here’s a little about Mill City Church’s missional communities:

Again, it’s because- and I should add only because- Mill City Church’s missional communities came about as a result of all that good listening and responding to what God’s already up to in their local community that I feel able to humble myself a bit, try to really discern a little too, and join in myself. As I have said elsewhere in this series, at some point had to conclude that if God is real and Jesus is worth following and my experience of community that you get called into when you try to follow him- if any of that is at all legitimate, then God has to be present and active everywhere at all times, always calling us to join him in his work and to do so together, if we’ll only pay attention and get on board. Read this post again. I think it’s clear that this is precisely what is happening with Mill City Church, and I’ve seldom been so glad for anything in all my life.

Let me start to come to a close by talking about this sermon that Pastor Stephanie of Mill City Church recently gave. There’s a lot that’s notable about it, especially for me, as it’s largely about community, and about listening to God in the midst of it. First of all she says that “rugged individualism is a cultural norm in North America, but deep community is a part of the counter-cultural reality of the kingdom of God that God invites us all to be a part of.” She says that community is so important for Christ followers in part because “God exists in community” as Father, Son, and Spirit. As I wrote in May 2007:

“Love…doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Love is something you do, and this idea has long been my best explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity, which as I see it is merely an attempt to understand God’s relationality. So God is love in God’s self because God exists relationally in three parts, but that love isn’t insular. It’s outward focused, which is why ours must be too.”

She goes on to say that “the #1 mistake in reading the Bible” that USAmerican Christians make “is that we read the bible individualistically.” She says “these books (of the Bible) were written to groups of people almost exclusively” and that “almost every place in Romans, for instance, where the word ‘you’ is said it’s actually you all.” Sound familiar? This was one of the biggest revelations for me all those years ago when we became part of Circle of Hope and then again when I was in seminary, and I’ve written about that elsewhere in this blog series. Following the Bible, not to mention Jesus, “is a group project,” as I keep repeating. What really got me, though, was her reminder that listening to God is a group project too. She says that (your awareness of) “the fact that God might want to be saying something to you that you’re not even asking him comes down to whether you are listening to God with other people in your life.” I realized recently I largely haven’t been. I’ve been trying not only to follow Jesus, but to listen to him, on my own. She adds, “when Paul says we’re ‘testing and approving’ what God’s will is, that’s something that is done together; it’s not something we can do, completely at least, on our own.”

Stephanie then gets at a theological notion without speaking of it directly. It’s the notion of living “between the times.” This idea has to do with the “already/not yet” paradox of the kingdom of God- that it’s already upon us because of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus- but is not yet fully realized, as we can so readily tell by the pain and suffering that still daily surrounds us. Thus, we live between those two times, between the inauguration of God’s kingdom and its final fulfillment. Because this is so, Stephanie says that “we can’t ever be totally 100% sure of what God is saying to us,” but “the model is clear for us that we should try (to listen), and we should do that in community, the way that God exists in community as Father, Son, and Spirit” (as noted above). She says listening to God in community “gives us the best chance that we’re (going) to be transformed by God’s voice so that there’s a renewing of our mind communally and individually,” and therefore “that we’ll be able to, together, test and approve (that something is) God’s will.”

Michael Binder also encourages us not to go it alone in a recent sermon we heard him preach. He speaks generally of the worship experience when the living church (remember, the church is not a place but is instead a people) gathers on Sundays. He says the purpose of coming together not just in communities but as a whole church is to have their stories reshaped, including the common story that is unfolding among them. For this reason he says the worship experience is more than just “four songs, some announcements, and a sermon.” He says “Worship is us remembering our story, encouraging each other, admitting our brokenness, receiving forgiveness, sharing in communion, becoming friends with each other, and sending each other out into the world to become  part of what God is doing.” He says, “I don’t know of another concrete way to keep reshaping your story, than to keep worshipping God.” He adds: “that (reshaping your story) is what this (the worship experience) is designed for, and if we don’t do it, it isn’t that God is mad; it’s that you can’t become the person that God created you to be without worship in your life…” Again, as I keep repeating, “without worship, we shrink.” I’ve been shrinking for a while now, and the chance to start moving in the other direction again is another reason why I feel drawn to Mill City Church.

Even all this, of course, doesn’t begin to tell the full story of who and what Mill City Church is and what they’re up to. From what I can tell, Mill City Church is mostly white and is fairly young, but I’ve seen people of all ages there and there’s even some socioeconomic diversity, including at least some participation on the part of folks experiencing homelessness, or at least folks who at one time were. And while Mill City Church may, based on my cursory observations, be “mostly white;” it’s not exclusively so and I have seen some people of color around too. More to the point, I know Mill City Church is working to be an anti-racist congregation, though they may not use or be familiar with that language. In the wake of recent events in the country and around the world, Mill City Church had a sermon series called “Gospel and Race” in which they explored the idea “that we need to cross racial and ethnic boundaries in order to understand and live out the gospel. We believe this is not an option, but a necessary part of what it means to be a gospel person.” Thus, I was glad and relieved to listen to this “traning podcast” which was a roundtable discussion among some of the pastors and several biracial couples that are part of the congregation. I’m aware that Mill City Church may not be very far along just yet on the path to fully representing the diverse, multi-cultural “new humanity” God calls us into, but I know full well that many churches seem to utterly lack awareness that this is what they’re called to. They’re not even having the conversation. The fact that Mill City Church is, gives me hope.

In the early days of Circle of Hope there used to be a lot of talk about “gravity.” It was a metaphor that was another way, I think, of getting at what it’s like to be part of a people on a mission together. When you’re around the folks that make up Circle of Hope, you can tell that stuff is happening. Vacant lots are being cleaned up to make way for community gardens. Blighted buildings are being bought and rehabbed to be turned into thrift stores and art venues and worship spaces. Baby and children’s goods and clothing are being exchanged. People are getting to know Jesus even if they don’t “believe in him” just yet. There’s an energy and vibrancy that is compelling, that draws you in. Read my first post in this series again or check out their website to learn more. Speaking of gravity, I just can’t escape (see what I did there?) the idea that I’m having the same kind of experience, that same sense of inexorably being “drawn in” to Mill City Church. As I told Kirsten in the car a little while ago, I may have done so (been drawn in to what God is up to among Mill City Church) “kicking and screaming” (at least on the inside) at first, but it’s happening. I’m sensing that same sort of vibrancy I described above.

Among the people of Mill City Church, hungry kids are being fed. Refugees and people experiencing homelessness are being loved and served. Relationships are being built with those who’ve been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Neighborhood churches are working together, pooling resources to better love the youth among them. And I haven’t even talked about what they’re doing with kids Nathan’s age. Among other things, they’re using the Jesus Storybook Bible, our favorite children’s Bible and frankly the only one we can tolerate, to tell the “big story” of God’s “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always, and forever love.” I love this Bible because it distills for 5 year olds what I incurred massive student debt to learn in seminary, that the Bible is best understood as story, for starters; that it’s the big story of God’s love, God’s wooing of humanity through the ages; that while the Bible has heroes and rules, it’s not just about learning how to live like those heroes or following all the rules (I’ve long said that “rules are for relationship”); and it’s not even really about us and what we should do. It’s about God and what He’s done. When we learned that this is what Mill City Church would be working on with Nathan’s age group, we breathed a big sigh of relief, as if a heavy burden we’ve been carrying alone for a while had suddenly been lifted.

As all this is happening among the people of Mill City Church, much work is being done also to listen to God and to do so together, and that’s why I’m willing to risk trusting these people. Because they’ve done so to this point, they’ve begun to move with God in many of the same ways that I’ve felt drawn to. Thus we are affirmed that God’s movement in us was not a solitary vision, not a call God made to some people some place else that we missed out on when we moved away. Hence, it seems that God really is living and alive and active at least among these people in this place, and so we’re excited about the prospect of joining them. I have been striving, often alone, or at least that’s how I felt, to be part of a people on a mission together. Clearly, that’s not something you can do by yourself, and so I despaired. Today, I’m hopeful that my solo striving is over. Tomorrow, we’ll meet up with the folks from Mill City Church in NE Minneapolis where there’s so much “gravity” for our life these days anyway. Mill City Running is there, where one of the managers is the founder of Mile In My Shoes. The Herbivorous Butcher is there. The “I Like You” store is there. Rusty Taco, a D/FW favorite, is there, and Glam Doll Donuts is opening in the neighborhood. That’s a lot of gravity. Most of the draw, though, comes in the form of this family God is gathering to love this geographical community, this neighborhood, and the hope that we can be a part of it. Sign us up.

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