Prior to attending the week-long intensive course on Holistic Mission, my wife and I were living two counties away from Milwaukee, in the comfortably quiet and rural village of Slinger, Wisconsin. In God’s providence, after nearly ten years of living in Slinger, we realized some changes to our comfortable and quiet lifestyle were needed. The denominations in town didn’t go out of their way to fellowship with each other, and every church seemed almost too good at minding their own business, which easily quenched the Spirit’s work.
After the course on Holistic Mission—spending one-on-one time with Wes Baker, and other students, discussing our assignments together, hashing out the ideas we learned in order to put them into practice—my vision for a distinctively Christian mission was clearer than ever before. I finally understood the ways in which my family and I could, and should, serve our local community. Even though I had been exposed to bits and pieces of such a vision in my past, the liturgy and life of the Christian Church now made perfect sense to me.
After the course was finished, I firmly believed that what happens inside the Church—its rich biblical liturgy, its merciful leadership and patient discipleship, its accessibility and relevance to the needs of others—shapes what happens in the world outside. If what I learned in class was true—that the Church is the life of the world, whether the Church withdraws from the world or not—I needed to come to grips with the reality that the Church is shaping the world around her either directly or indirectly. Because the Church is an institution that is inescapably influential in any given culture, I now believed it ought to be unashamedly missional within it.
Fast forward six months after the course on Holistic Mission was finished. Instead of the comfortably quiet home an hour outside the big city, we now lived in downtown Milwaukee with all the noise and busyness that accompanies city life. Now all sorts of new concerns surrounded us, too. In the neighborhood we live in (called Riverwest), crime, addiction, mental illness, poverty, racism, violence, and broken families are common. But we knew all of this before moving into the neighborhood.
Even though there are plenty of large churches in Milwaukee spreading the buzz about being a “city church” and making the entire city of Milwaukee their mission field, our vision was different. Our family was interested in a more localized and integrated mission within the city—a mission to our neighborhood of 13,000 unchurched people with real needs and no Christian presence to love and serve them—not some far-fetched outreach to the entire city of 1 million people.
In God’s providence, we were also fortunate to find a local parish within our neighborhood that shared our vision and had already begun the work. Even though my wife comes from a non-denominational background, and I come from a Reformed one, the Lord lead us to a small Anglican church (ACNA) whose vision is to be native, rooted, faithful, and beautiful within its local neighborhood.
Looking back in time and comparing the community we left to the community we’re now invested in, it’s difficult to describe how valuable it was for our family to go outside our comfort zone to intentionally fellowship and worship with Christians outside our denomination. That was another lesson I learned from the course on holistic mission:There is a lot of wisdom in looking beyond one’s own immediate denominational limits, in order to start developing prayerful, worshipful, and supportive relationships with other Christians. It is never too late to do that, and the Body of Christ needs each other if they are indeed the life of the world.
Since moving to downtown Milwaukee, the Lord has opened up all sorts of opportunities for us to be a distinctively Christian witness within our neighborhood. It’s still a work in progress, and we have our regular ups and downs, but God has provided abundantly above what we could ever have asked or imagined while living in Slinger. For example, because we live six blocks away from another neighborhood of 10,000 people (called Harambee), many of whom live in chronic poverty, a significant amount of opportunities to connect our neighborhoods together have arisen from their basic need for food during difficult economic times.
Through the collaborative efforts of local churches, caring neighbors, and a central meeting place within the community–in our case it’s the Riverwest Food Pantry (riverwestfoodpantry.org), which is a very faithful Catholic organization–hundreds of volunteers team together regularly to develop a community of generosity. Many aspects about the Christian vision within our community are unique, but one which stood out to me at first is that our volunteers don’t just hand out food in order to do their good deed and quickly forget about their neighbor afterward.
As a community of Christians working together, we are committed to going outside our comfort zones, beyond the “hi’s” and “bye’s” of forgettable (and somewhat expected) politeness, by meeting with people and getting to know their story, getting to know how our Christian community (of Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, Assembly of God, Baptist, and other churches) can help the needy around us and be helped by them. After getting to know many people in need within our community, I was surprised to learn that many of them don’t simply want a hand out; many of them want to be part of a community; and they don’t just want any community; they want to be connected with a community in which they can help others too, where they are valued, where they can give as well as receive. I truly believe the presence of a welcoming and supportive Christian community is vitally important for the life of every city in the world.
Here in our neighborhood downtown, we are also attempting something else, which, as far as I know, is unheard of in the rural areas of Wisconsin. Through connections with the homeless who visit the food pantry, we are helping them by investing in their lives whenever possible. Of course, that’s not possible with (or even desired by) every homeless person we encounter. But when it is possible, we welcome them into our homes, eat meals together, fellowship with them, learn from their life-stories, while nurturing them in the context of our Christian community. By making ourselves available to them in practical ways on a regular basis, true friendships develop, as well as invitations to visit their camp sites hidden strategically down by the river.
Within the last year of moving downtown, by being a part of this distinctive aspect of mission, I have seen the Lord bless our efforts by welcoming some of the homeless into the life of the Church. By inviting the stranger and widow and orphan into our lives—to pray, worship, and participate in the life of the Church—they receive something that the world cannot offer. Instead of offering programmatic bandaids of temporary relief, which happens far too often in secular organizations, we make ourselves permanently available to their community with no strings attached. The Church’s doors are always open to them, and that message resonates with many of them because so many doors are slammed shut in their face or locked tight before they even arrive to ask for help.
Another distinctive aspect of our vision is to develop community gardens throughout our neighborhood. By building food forests and growing tons of healthy food locally, our hope is not only to create a context in which our scattered community can work together and get to know each other better, but also to produce enough gardens throughout our area to relieve portions of government aid and produce a more self-sustaining vision for the future of our community.
In addition to these efforts, our parish is also working with the local Roman Catholic parish and the staff of the Riverwest Food Pantry to help certain people directly who are living in poverty by providing them with basic life and workforce skills. Plans are even in the works to develop a distinctively Christian-based hub of transitional housing within our neighborhood to help individuals and families recuperate and rebuild their broken lives.
All of these ideas for a distinctively Christian mission are new to our neighborhood, and admittedly, not every aspect of it has been as successful as we hoped; we’re still in the infant stages of development. But I firmly believe it’s what the Church needs to be doing because the Church is the life of the world. Instead of handing over the entirety of our neighbor’s welfare to secular institutions, or encouraging further division within the Church by competing with other denominations, we collaborate with and learn from the best of them in order to develop our own distinctively Christian mission; and Lord willing, in due time, to produce more influential ones.
Instead of growing to the size of a megachurch, we collaborate with multiple churches regardless of their size. Instead of focusing all of our energies on toppling the ungodly institutional structures from the top down, we work with the poor, the outcast, the widow and orphan in our midst from the ground up. We work to build a community from the ground up because that is what the majority of Christians are called to do (and can do, if they’re willing to make that sacrifice). And, best of all, most Christians don’t need fancy credentials or a college degree to engage in this distinctively Christian mission. (This is another lesson I learned from Wes.) At its most basic level, all it takes is a commitment to carry the burdens of other people in the name of Jesus Christ.
Prior to taking the course on Holistic Mission at the Theopolis Institute, my Christian life had little to no effect on my local Slinger community. Now, it is hard to imagine my life apart from the church’s presence in Riverwest. My children are growing up in a context where the health of the church is measured in part by the health of our surrounding community. If our neighborhood is thriving, then Christ’s body is thriving. Through communion with the larger Body of Christ, by partnering with the Riverwest Food Pantry, serving in the neighborhood gardens, and befriending those in need within our community, Christ is transforming me, along with the neighborhood, into a new Creation. He is making all things new.
Jonathan Sedlak is a licensed master electrician and certified electrical contractor in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a student at Theopolis, and a member of Christ Redeemer church (ACNA).