The Challenge of Empowering Congregations for Mission

by Gentry McColm

There is an obvious disconnect between the resources being disseminated on the topic of mission, and the actual mission-izing of local churches. Publishers continue to make printed resources available, and conferences and seminars are regularly offered. 

There is an obvious disconnect between the resources being disseminated on the topic of mission, and the actual mission-izing of local churches. Publishers continue to make printed resources available, and conferences and seminars are regularly offered. 

And yet, there continues to be a slide in worship service attendance within both mainline and evangelical Protestant churches (Chaves 2011). The Pew Forum recently reported on the rise of the “nones” as a religious category, but almost everyone else declined. Southern Baptists have experienced a six-year decline in membership and baptisms (Worthen 2014). This is in spite of serious, well-intentioned efforts to energize their congregations. 

The slide in attendance is not the evangelical Church’s greatest problem. What is really threatened is the possibility of positive influence on American culture. We are not only shrinking in size, but are increasingly marginalized. Polling shows that the majority of Americans are entertaining views at odds with typical Christian ones such as homosexuality and gay marriage. Even in those instances of congregational growth, the wider culture is not being influenced. This is a greater cause for concern than how many people are attending our Sunday services.

The burning question is, Why is this happening? There is no lack of resources available. But it is time for us to ask whether many of the resources readily available for local churches are in fact resourcing at all. Are we willing to face the possible truth that many of our conferences and seminars—though well attended, well run, and staffed by experts—are not helping? 

While “blame” is a strong word, it is obvious where the fault is often placed: on individual Christians who aren’t sharing their faith, or on pastors and other local church leaders who have an “ingrown” mindset. Is that fair? As a response to the Task Force on SBC Evangelistic Impact and Declining Baptisms, Thom Rainer, president of Lifeway Christian Resources and former dean of the Billy Graham School of Missions and Evangelism at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, said, “I am grieved we are clearly losing our evangelistic effectiveness” (Worthen 2014). Is this really the problem? Is it possible, rather, that we are losing our resourcing effectiveness?

In this article, I attempt to look at the disconnect between resources and the local church by going to the root: the resources we use to energize mission. Through the lens of two disciplines, empowerment theory and social location interpretation, I hope to offer a helpful (and overlooked) perspective on the problem.

Empowerment Theory

First, let me share some concepts and definitions. Empowerment refers to “the process of gaining influence over events and outcomes of importance to an individual or group” (Foster-Fishman et al.1998, 508). When individuals or groups have the power to make a choice that helps them influence or change a problem, they may be said to be empowered (World Bank 2007, viii). How does one gain that kind of power? 

Empowerment theory says that you need certain “assets” and “opportunities” that can enable those effective choices. By assets, I mean one’s (or a group’s) beliefs, money, education, information, relationships, networks, and so forth. By opportunities, I mean the structures we live or work in that influence whether we’re able to make effective choices. Empowerment, then, is the ways in which we help people find the assets and opportunities they need to influence their lives and situations more effectively.

What research has discovered is that “the process of gaining influence” can mean different things to different people or groups (Foster-Fishman et. al. 1998, 508). The ways we empower people to effect real change will vary according to various factors. Using the terms introduced above, the assets of various groups, even various individuals within those groups, will vary significantly. The opportunities surrounding congregations will also vary. This means that the empowerment strategies will need to be more nuanced.

Let’s apply this to local congregations or other Christian groups and their mission behaviors. It will be nearly impossible for resources created outside local contexts to succeed in empowering effective evangelism and mission without some tweaking. Without this tweaking, they will be too general. And I’m suggesting they will be disconnected from the start. The reason is because the assets and opportunities of each congregation are different. Moreover, the author of the typical evangelical mission resource emphasizes just one asset, namely, knowledge. This is an important asset, and some congregations need a build-up in that area, but others will be left out. 

What many current authors on the subject of mission (or conference organizers and speakers) may not realize is that they are attempting to empower mission around their definitions of empowerment. And consumers in the local churches are reading their books or attending their conferences joyfully, yet not being empowered to affect our desired outcomes in our own communities. Empowerment is very contextual (Alsop, Frost Bertelsen, and Holland 2006, 19). It is impossible to say from a distance what kind of empowerment initiatives will “work” on the targeted group.

From the perspective of empowerment theory, one possible reason for the failure in mission and evangelism may be that local church leaders are subbing out the development of their congregants as missionaries to influences unable to truly account for the unique and multiple contexts and cultures within their congregations. The result is that their people are informed, but not empowered. 

It is important to say again that the good intentions or orthodoxy of the author of the latest evangelism training book is not enough to guarantee an empowered individual or churches. Local church leaders must get personally involved in empowerment initiatives.

I’m not arguing against the publication of more books on mission and evangelism. I’m not impugning the motives of authors of those books. But I have been attempting to show that even with many good resources highly available to churches, evangelical denominations are suffering a severe
delinquency in mission and evangelism. This is undisputed. 

This means that the majority of the ordinary people who fill churches and consume these resources are not being empowered to “live on mission” or share their faith. I have been suggesting that from the empowerment theory perspective, the message of the books and conferences are not “landing” because they cannot truly address the multiple and unique perspectives that make up local congregations.

Location, Location, Location

The underlying assumption which we have noticed in the previous section was that context was key in understanding empowerment. When planning ways to empower people, organizations must keep in mind that empowerment means different things to different people. 

Empowerment theory is not alone in its appropriation of those insights and assumptions. Interpretation of biblical texts is part of what churches and individual Christians do. We derive our behaviors, both personal and corporate, from our interpretations. Even not behaving in certain ways may be said to derive from interpretations. If there really is a failure in local church mission and evangelism, then we could gain insight into this problem by looking at it from the perspective of how we interpret our Bibles.1

Situation-located Interpretation

Situation-located interpretation asserts that we all approach scripture with pre-conceived ideas as to what they will teach us (Kinsella 2006, 8). It is not that we are never self-critical, but we readily bring formed notions or answers to texts, often before we have heard the questions. These pre-conceived ideas are generated through our involvement in culture (Ibid.). The challenge for Bible readers is to allow the texts to speak into their ideas with its own questions. However, this is very hard to do. Pastors and church leaders should not assume their people are doing this regularly. 

From the situation-location perspective, we can begin to see why many great resources are “falling on deaf ears.” Academic Michael Barram argues that “biblical scholarship is healthiest when the processes and products of interpretation are rooted in the ongoing life of believing communities” (Barram 2007, 49). 

There is a real distance between the world in which the products are being made (books, seminars, conferences) and the world of the Christian reader who struggles to connect his or her faith to real life. The concerns of the author may not be the concerns of the reader. Even when the resource is produced by well-meaning people, there is a real chance its concerns will be irrelevant to the community life of the readers (Barram 2007, 49). This is not to impugn the integrity or sincerity of the producers of great missional material. It is simply to recognize that everyone has standpoints from which they approach scripture, and while a standpoint may be right, it is still conditioned.

Hans-Georg Gadamer introduced the idea of a “fusion of horizons” into the discipline of interpretation (Gadamer 1989, 302). By this, he meant that from our own particular standpoint, we may see a meaning in a text, but because it is a standpoint, it is necessarily limited. So we have a horizon in front of us. But we must broaden our horizon, and we do this by “fusing” others’ horizons into our own. Others are asking different questions of the biblical texts, and we need their questions as well as the answers they are receiving to enhance and develop our own approaches to those texts.

It is certainly a good thing for us to be exposed to the “horizon” of qualified, sincere producers of mission and evangelism materials. However, could it be that we are fusing with their perspectives at the expense of fusing with the horizons of those closest to us? Could it be that what qualifies a person to write a book is not necessarily an endorsement of his or her horizon? Could it be that the horizon of the writer is more aligned with the desires and social location of the publisher than with the reader? Could it be that we might become more active in mission and evangelism by fusing with the local horizons of those in our churches who share similar lives, and even more, by fusing with those in our communities who are without power and voice?

This may be the best argument for not uncritically accepting resources created outside local congregations. Personally, I have been challenged by reading books on evangelism and mission. However, the real challenge I must be exposed to is found through “reading” those (or, better, “listening to those”) whom God has sovereignly placed around me. It is through those personal interactions that I can begin to question my own interpretations of texts in self-centered ways, and begin to open up to the “other.” 

If the modern evangelical Church needs something now, it is an openness to the “other,” particularly the “other” who is the marginalized in society, those without a voice or the social capital to improve their own lives. 

Suggested Ways Forward

It is clear that we need another vantage point from which to consider the very real delinquency in missional living in the average evangelical church in the United States. We need a cross-disciplinary approach. That is what I have tried to offer here. Let me conclude with seven suggestions for improved congregational involvement in mission and evangelism arising from some of the insights of the two disciplines of empowerment theory and social location interpretation.

1. Local church pastors must begin to model the behaviors they are looking for in their congregants. One key finding in empowerment
research in the field of community-building efforts is that involvement of residents is increased when they perceive stronger neighborhood leadership (Foster-Fishman et al. 2007, 103).

2. Local church pastors must help their people “name” those outside the church they are interested in reaching. We must remember that our “horizons” are limited, so we must be actively attempting to broaden them by involvement with others. Putting a name to the people we want to reach goes a long way in inspiring action. I have found it helpful in my pastoral ministry to answer “How can I be better at outreach?” with a question of my own: “What is ____ like? What does ____ hope for? How does ____ think about life?” (I ask them to tell me names of their co-workers or friends, and I fill in the blanks with those names).

3. Local churches should organize themselves into smaller groups of their members, and urge these groups to ask “located questions” (Barram 2007, 58) of the Bible when they study it. We must teach our people that the goal is understanding, not merely knowledge. And understanding arises from assessing our own location, and interacting with texts so that they speak into those locations so that we change. For instance,

Does our reading of the text challenge or baptize our assumptions and blind spots? How does this text clarify what God is doing in our world, in our nation, in our cities, and in our neighborhoods—and how may we be called to be involved in those purposes? (Hunsberger 2011, 316)

4. Local church pastors must be encouraged to realize that their social location is very often much nearer that of their people than the producers of missional resources. They need not feel inadequate to lead their people to missional living (and effectiveness) just because they could never write a book or lead a conference. Their very position in their people’s lives gives them a stronger vantage point for activating people’s capacity and readiness for mission than they may realize. To put it bluntly, we pastors must resist “subbing out” the work of empowering people for mission to outsiders, even when these outsiders are noted authors.

5. What, then, should local pastors and church leaders do regarding evangelism or mission training? By all means, read good books! I have not suggested that we ignore the many good resources available. But as we break the material down into lessons or sessions, one thing we should plan on is supplementing that material with real-life stories of our people who are attempting to enact what they are learning. We are looking for stories of failure, embarrassment, and success. This sort of approach is akin to an experimentation lab in which ideas are tested, accepted, and improved, or tested and rejected in favor of better ideas.

6. Church leaders should consider using a variety of methods simultaneously to empower people for evangelism and mission. We must resist the temptation to think that if people do not come to evangelism training classes then they do not care about evangelism. It may be that evangelism training classes are not a pathway to empowered mission for everyone. It is our job as pastors and leaders in congregations to know what pathways to open up to our people. Thus, a training class may be fine as long as it is coupled with print resources developed by the church, encouraging one-
on-one conversations from leaders along mission themes, social or mercy projects which make the gospel tangible, and so forth. Use your imagination, as leaders who know your people!

7. Finally, missional living becomes activated as multiple horizons are fused. Therefore, churches should be much more proactive at working together, even across denominational lines, in the larger purposes of God. Plan to meet with one to two area pastors and share your vision for cooperating together in reaching the people, and reshaping the communal life of your city. 

Endnote

1. It is beyond the scope of this article to explore the myriad details in biblical interpretation. And the perspective introduced here is not the only consideration bearing on this issue. However, it appears that this perspective has been rarely applied to the missional behaviors of local congregations. Michael Barram notes that “current trends in both missiology and biblical studies suggest that the time may be especially ripe to explore hermeneutical issues in earnest. In particular, the ongoing conversation regarding the Bible and mission would do well to exploit the recent emphasis on social location” (Barram 2007, 57-58, italics mine).

References

Alsop, Ruth, Mette Frost Bertelsen, and Jeremy Holland. 2006. Empowerment in Practice: From Analysis to Implementation. Washington, DC: World Bank Publications.

Barram, Michael. 2007. “The Bible, Mission, and Social Location: Toward a Missional Hermeneutic.” Interpretation 61(1): 42–58.

Chaves, Mark. 2011. American Religion: Contemporary Trends. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Foster-Fishman, Pennie G, Deborah A Salem, Susan Chibnall, Ray Legler, and Courtney Yapchai. 1998. “Empirical Support for the Critical Assumptions of Empowerment Theory.” American Journal of Community Psychology 26(4): 507–536.

Foster-Fishman, Pennie G, Daniel Cantillon, Steven J Pierce, and Laurie A Van Egeren. 2007. “Building an Active Citizenry: The Role of Neighborhood Problems, Readiness, and Capacity for Change.” American Journal of Community Psychology 39(1-2): 91–106.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. 1989. Truth and Method. Trans. Joel Weinsheimer and Donald G. Marshall. New York: Continuum.

Hunsberger, George R. 2011. “Proposals for a Missional Hermeneutic: Mapping a Conversation.” Missiology 39(3): 309–321.

Kinsella, Elizabeth Anne. 2006. “Hermeneutics and Critical Hermeneutics: Exploring Possibilities within the Art of Interpretation” Forum: Qualitative Social Research 7(3).

Rolin, Kristina. 2009. “Standpoint Theory as a Methodology for the Study of Power Relations.” Hypatia 24(4): 218–226.

Worthen, Molly. 2014. “Did the Southern Baptist ‘Conservative Resurgence’ Fail?” Accessed July 9, 2014, from www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2014/06/01/did-the-southern-baptist-conservative-resurgence-fail.html. 

. . . .

Gentry McColm is the founder and current pastor of a Presbyterian church outside of Houston. He has authored a book on the spirituality of church planters, and is currently pursuing his DMin in urban ministry.

EMQ, Vol. 51, No. 3 pp. 318-324. Copyright  © 2015 Billy Graham Center for Evangelism.  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMQ editors.

 


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