“What is going on underneath our feet?”
On January 21, 2016, Rob Bell shared an interview with Diana Butler Bass about her book, Grounded, on his weekly podcast. To say it caught my attention is an understatement.
Here’s what Diana Butler Bass notes in the conversation,
“There is a little island called Tangier Island, in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay. It is one of the pieces of geography in the United States that is sinking fastest under the threat of global warming and rising sea levels. Now, Tangier Island has been settled since the 1650s. On Tangier Island is this amazing Methodist Church. It started out as an Anglican Church and when the Methodists came along about 150 years after its beginning it became Methodist.
At this little church, which has been in business for almost 400 years, is the oldest Methodist class meeting in the whole of North America. It has been going since the time John Wesley himself was alive. This church is still vibrant. It serves everyone on the island. They have an amazing prayer meeting. They reach out to their whole community in need. In other words, it is an ancient congregation, full of wisdom, and faithful[ness]. They’ve been proclaiming the gospel all this time. Been doing exactly what they are supposed to do. It’s a great church.
But, the island is sinking.
And, when I realized that you can have the best church you can possibly have, but if the whole island is going underwater, it is not going to be worth anything. That image of a church on a sinking island became for me the urgent image that’s behind Grounded.”
Instead of just talking about what constitutes a good church, as I had been for so long, I decided I needed to figure out what we were going to do about the ground. What is going on in the ground underneath our feet? For me, that question always and necessarily involves theology, a question of God.”
A Mini Diversion
Oh. My. Goodness. The above story is not in the book. But, she notes, it is what the book is about.
Here’s what I wanted to know: Why I haven’t I heard of this United Methodist Church? Can I go visit?
Wait. Stop. That’s not the point.
But, I had to check it out. (Forgive the minor diversion, real content follows.)
It’s a ninety-minute ferry ride and this little island. The island is only 1.2 square miles and has 727 people. The name of the church is Swain Memorial United Methodist Church. So how do you find out about a little piece of our connection?
You go to Google, right? I suppose I already knew what Google told me. It’s marker, in the middle of the bay, was difficult to track down. When “Find a grave” showed up right above Swain Memorial’s Facebook page on my Google search, I had to laugh. A sign of the times, perhaps?
A Few Reminders
While all the details of this little church are lacking, Butler Bass’s image offers reminds me of the following:
While the history and practice of our congregations may be faithful to what has been and desire to serve those who are there, there is something much more foundational going on around us. The ground beneath us is moving.
- What will we do about it church?
- What’s going on underneath our feet?
- We can do all the right things to make a great church, but, if the image of a church on a sinking island calls you to attention, what is shifting?
Butler Bass offers one primary shift. She notes the shift from a three-tiered universe understanding of the universe (heaven, earth, and hell) to a horizontal understanding of the universe. Again, I offer this based on listening to an interview and look forward to reading her book.
When I’ve read Grounded, I’ll have more to offer, challenge, and invite you into. For now, what do you say? “What is going on in the ground underneath our feet?” And, how will we respond?
Missional Leadership Challenge
My studies in missional leadership and the purpose behind this website, is to address the very question Diana Butler Bass raises with the above metaphor. I can sense in the depths of my soul, the ground beneath my feet moving. I don’t know about you, but, I can’t sit idly by waiting for others to catch up with the reality staring us in the face.
In the coming months, more will be shared on each of the items below. For now, I invite you to reflect on the following four characteristics of missional communities.
Characteristics of Missional Communities
- Incarnational presence is about embodying the love of God we know in Jesus.
- What does God’s presence in your life look like? Is God “up there” in heaven? Emmanuel, God with us? Somewhere in between? Something different?
- Relational ministry flows from presence. Building new relationships and maintaining current relationships takes time, energy, and a whole lot of love.
- What do your relationships look like? Are you meeting new people every month? How are you nurturing current relationships?
Service with others
- This idea builds on relational ministry. Gone are the days where I do something to you. Gone are the days where I decide what you need. What is needed needs to be determined by the people and done with the people who are receiving the perceived benefit.
- What types of service are you engaged in as a person of faith? Giving money? Monthly activities disconnected from people? Ongoing, relational ministries with people who are living in need? Combination? Something different?
- Both of these words can sound cliché. Think about where you live. You live in a neighborhood, community, city, and/or building. Your local community is where it begins. If you are going to embody the love of God in relational ministry with people around you, you need to do it where you live.
- Do you know your (literal) neighbors by name? How are you partnering with people, businesses, and resources in your community to celebrate, collaborate, and address ongoing assets and challenges?
Perhaps embodiment and exploration of our values and effectiveness, both as a congregation and as a community, will help us understand how the ground beneath our feet is moving. Understanding is the beginning place. Changing our actions will bring about sustainable change.
Is the Ground Sinking?
Tangier Island is literally sinking. It is a reality for the 727 people living on the island. For you and me, the metaphor speaks a powerful message to those of us who lead the church. “What is going on in the ground underneath our feet?”
Thanks, Diana Butler Bass and Rob Bell, for interrupting my Saturday morning with a question that just might move us forward as the body of Christ. I look forward to reading Grounded to reflect, question, and explore what we might do about the ground that is shifting beneath our feet.
Listen to episode 67 of Rob Bell’s podcast, “Grounded with Diana Butler Bass” The above quote starts at 10:49.