We are entering the season of Epiphany. This is the time in the church year when we celebrate the revelation, or epiphany, of Jesus to the nations. It is a celebration of the gift of Jesus becoming public and known to all. How might your congregation live into this spirit of Epiphany, seeking to celebrate the presence of Jesus in the public squares of our lives?
A local congregation’s ability to celebrate the presence of Jesus in the public square hinges on its ability to practice accompaniment with their neighbors. Although it might seem like a simple thing, it has actually proven to be incredibly intimidating.
We have seen many leaders and congregations struggle to initiate and sustain this practice of accompaniment beyond their church walls. There are many reasons why this happens.
- It’s scary to move into spaces and relationships that are new and unknown to us.
- It’s counterintuitive to encounter someone with the sole purpose of getting to know them rather than actively gaining something from them (i.e., a commitment to visit or join the church, information about what they want from the church, etc.).
- It feels unnatural because we don’t want to come across as pushy or too aggressive.
- It’s time consuming and none of us have extra time to do this intensive and slow work.
- It seems overwhelming and we don’t know where to start.
Accompaniment can be intimidating, but it has never been more necessary.
We were recently interviewed on the ELCA Youth Ministry Network’s 3rd Tuesday podcast. Rev. Adam Butler, one of the hosts, articulated the necessity of accompaniment this way:
“There seems to shift right now from ‘We won’t have churches anymore if we don’t get people in the building’ to ‘we won’t have churches anymore if we won’t go out of the building.’ And that is an anxiety producing thing to say. It feels like the opposite of what we’re supposed to be doing. But we can’t exist anymore as churches if we don’t have an outward focus.”
Pastor Butler nailed it. But we have to remember that we aren’t practicing accompaniment in order to ensure the church’s existence. We practice accompaniment because it is true to who God is, it is true to who we are as God’s creation, and it is how we honor our neighbors.
At the Riverside Innovation Hub we love Ezekiel’s vision of the river of life in Ezekiel 47. In her commentary on this biblical text, Elsa Tamez claims the river in Ezekiel’s vision to be a metaphor for God’s jubilee. A jubilee that can only be proclaimed if it becomes specific in ending actual suffering. She says,
When one speaks of the jubilee, it is essential to have before one the concrete situation that one is experiencing: debts, poverty, unemployment, violence, discrimination, exclusion, conflicts, sorrow, dehumanizing consumerism, the lethargy of the churches. For the jubilee is the good news that supposedly puts an end to that reality of suffering and dehumanization. . . If we speak of jubilee in a generic sense, the injustice is hidden, and the jubilee loses its power and ceases to be jubilee.
But it’s scary and intimidating to do this work!
Yes, it is. We get that. We also know that it isn’t your neighbor that you fear but failure or “doing it incorrectly.” There are plenty of wrong ways to practice accompaniment, but there is no one right way. Use common sense, humility, and compassion and you will avoid most of the wrong ways. One resource we like to direct people to is One-to-One Relational Meeting guide published by the Episcopal Church. We especially like the list of sample questions to ask with neighbors and people who are not a part of your church.
But it’s counterintuitive to do this work just for the sake of getting to know people when what we really should be doing is trying to get them to join our church!
Yes and no. We believe this is actually the intuitive work we should all be doing. The church exists to speak and act the good news of Jesus into peoples’ lives. If we don’t know what their bad news is, then we won’t know how to speak the good news to them. Again, we cannot proclaim the good news and jubilee of Jesus in the lives of our neighbors if we are unaware of their concrete situations and experiences. This approach might feel weird because it isn’t the approach we’ve taken, BUT it’s the approach we should have been taking all along.
But we don’t want to come across as being pushy or aggressive. (whispered softly so the people in the booth next to us don’t hear)
If you stay humble and compassionate and make use of the One-to-One Relational Meeting guide, then I don’t think this will happen. People will experience you as being invested in them rather than invested in trying to sell them something. And – sometimes – our desire to not come across as pushy or aggressive leaves us coming across as aloof and uninterested.
But we don’t have the extra time to do this!
I hear ya! We are all spread so thin right now. But this work still needs to be done. So, what can you let go of in order to pick up this new work? I imagine there might be some models and tasks and duties and meetings occupying your congregation’s time that are outdated and no longer necessary. Maybe you can let go of some of these temporarily to make more time for accompaniment. And maybe you will realize that temporarily isn’t long enough! We are putting more time into maintaining institutions that a growing number of people do not find necessary and this is preventing us from putting time into learning how we might still proclaim the good news of Jesus into their lives.
But it’s so overwhelming and we have no idea where to start!
Here are some ideas:
- Identify key institutions in your congregation’s neighborhood – a school, a coffee shop, a parks and recreation center, city hall, etc. – identify a key leader from each of these institutions and schedule a time to have a one-to-one relational meeting with them. At the end of the meeting, ask them who else they think you should meet with in the neighborhood.
- Identify key individuals in your congregation’s neighborhood you think you should know – a principal, a local story-teller, that neighbor who volunteers for everything, the woman who always puts fresh tomatoes out on the curb for people to take during the summer, the elderly man who is always down at the community garden – and schedule a time to have a one-to-one relational meeting with them. At the end of the meeting, ask them who else they think you should meet with in the neighborhood.
- Start with people you already know. Spend some time with folks you already know but might not know well. Ask if you could spend some time asking them some questions and getting to know who they are and what their hopes and dreams are for the neighborhood. These could be your neighbors, co-workers, barista, etc.
- Identify some “listening posts” in your neighborhood. These are places where people are already gathering to discuss the issues that are most important to them. These could be coffee shops, dinner, cafes, or bars. They could be neighborhood association meetings or school board meetings. Find a way for members of your congregation to be present where these conversations are happening so you can listen to your neighbors express their hopes and dreams and concerns for their community.
These are just a few ideas of how you can begin this work. You can read more about accompaniment and find additional resources in The Artform of Accompaniment blog.
We all want to be known. We all want to have hope and good news spoken and enacted into our lives. If the church keeps sitting back waiting for people to enter our buildings, then I’m afraid we are giving up. People may not be coming back to our churches. If we believe we have something good to share with them, then we will need to find ways to encounter them where they live their lives and we will need to find ways to share that good news with them in those places.
This is not an act of desperation. This is how we live in a way that is true to who God is and true to who God has made us to be. Becoming public and practicing accompaniment aren’t last ditch efforts to save the church. They are exactly what God has made us for. Accompaniment is who we are!