Forming Church, Forming Mission

By Branson, Mark Lau | International Review of Mission, April 2003 | Go to article overview

Forming Church, Forming Mission


Branson, Mark Lau, International Review of Mission


In 1985, a new pastor arrived at the Rockridge United Methodist Church and noted that only about 15 persons attended worship. Most were elderly, lived miles from the church, and had already voted to close the church. Ten years later, 80 people participated on Sundays, and the average age of the adults was closer to 30 years old. No one was moving to those distant suburbs, and a dearth of children and a lack of ethnic variety had been turned into an abundance of kids in a congregation with no ethnic majority. (1) Financially, the church of the mid-1980s was spending the last of the monies acquired from selling the manse and other properties. In 1997 a budget was proposed, passed and subsequently met that was higher than a tithe (10%) of the income of all the member families.

Worship had changed from a rote, formal and somewhat tired obligation to a time of creativity, participation, beauty, tradition and spiritual engagement. While the church's United Methodist tradition had previously offered institutional structures, increasingly the congregation had re-engaged the Wesleyan narrative, including resources in its theology and practices. Previously the church's administrative council had focused on institutional survival; now energies were increasingly directed to the congregation's spiritual formation and missional engagement.

This is not a case study of a mega-church; that kind of phenomenon was not attractive to us. The church was not part of any of the newer denomination-like movements; it was United Methodist with roots in the Evangelical United Brethren. We were not located in a sprawling suburb; rather, the location was urban Oakland, California.

The narratives and reflections here will focus on the years 1986-1996, and provide a window into some of the formative years of change. (2) I do not intend to present a sequential history or a strategic plan; instead, I will examine how specific characteristics developed and synergistically recreated the congregation. The topics of congregational, spiritual and missional formation are interwoven. By congregational formation, I refer to the character and practices of our "life together", including the work of being a "community of interpreters". (3) By spiritual formation I refer not just to those classic disciplines like prayer and Bible study (although these are essential) but to a whole range of personal and family practices that form us affectively, cognitively, conatively (4) and in skill development. By missional formation I have in mind how we interest peoples and powers around us in being attentive to God's reign and gospel invitation. (5)

Tell and retell historical narratives

Rockridge United Methodist Church had been in decline for many years. From 1980-85 there had been four pastors. At one time, with several hundred members, this had been the flagship church of the Evangelical United Brethren denomination (EUB) for the San Francisco Bay area. The mid-1960s merger of the EUB with the Methodist Church had created the new United Methodist Church (UMC), but "united" was more a structural description than an accurate relational one. The remaining scars and differences were still very present. The kind of change some of us at Rockridge envisioned would require layers of remembering--bringing into our conversations those congregational memories about values, hopes, divisions and successes. We needed to bring these memories into conversations about theological and biblical narratives. We had noted how often biblical narratives referred to previous social projects, indicating how God's initiatives toward forming covenant communities met with cooperation or resistance. (6) If we were to be re-formed into a viable congregation, we needed the stories that had already shaped this people.

We invited ourselves into the homes of the seniors, or invited them to ours, and we sought their memories. "What happened on Sundays? …

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