2-12-12 Cooperative Ministry: Reaching Beyond Ourselves

Mark 1:40-45 A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” 42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 45 But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.

February 12, 2012                        Cooperative Ministry: Reaching Beyond Ourselves

Several bright tattoos stood out on the arms of the grocery store clerk as she packed the bags of a customer.  The customer admired the tattoos and started talking about how she wished she was brave enough to get one. That got the clerk talking! She obviously had thought carefully about her tattoos and was so pleased that someone appreciated them.

The next person in line, however, was a nurse, who quietly snorted at the conversation of the two in front of her. She thought tattoos were silly and just this side of dangerous, a bad way to treat your future self. As it came her turn to be served, she made a little louder sound of disgust in case they had missed the first one.

The two women shared the last of the moment of connection with each other and tried to ignore the judgment of the nicely dressed woman behind them.  They felt like they would never gain the approval of a person like that.  But in that moment they recognized in each other a kinship and a desire for a different kind of dressing up.

I don’t mean to glorify getting a tattoo. I know I would not be excited about my own son getting one. I mention it for several reasons in relation to our scripture reading this morning about Jesus healing of a man with a skin rash.

Leprosy was the name used for all kinds of skin rashes in the first century, and they were rather prevalent, contagious, and difficult to treat. Jesus famously touches the man, daring to heal him and to become unclean himself. We don’t have a lot of leprosy in our time, and if I showed you more graphic pictures, you would be more disgusted than the person in the line with the women talking about tattoos. Following Jesus can be a kind of messy, uncomfortable experience however. We find our nice set boundaries challenged as we are called to reach out beyond ourselves. Jesus certainly put himself into places that challenged the boundaries of the religious people of his day. He was willing to interact with and touch people most of his society looked down upon.

If Jesus touched people with contagious skin diseases, how can we self-righteously isolate ourselves from our brothers and sisters with skin piercings and skin decorations, which are not nearly as contagious? This is just one of the risks we take in cooperative ministry.

We are considering working together with other congregations on the Main Line specifically to help each other reach out to new people, beyond the boundaries that we have put up that keep people from hearing the Good News which we say we want to proclaim. Last week, I described briefly the cooperative ministry that I experienced in Philadelphia in the 1980’s, the Frankford Group Ministry, or FGM.

Today, I’d like to talk about some of the pluses and minuses of cooperative ministry, since we are going to be deciding whether and how we might want to try it out in our area. The great thing about cooperative ministry is that it automatically reaches past our usual boundaries.  When we work closely together with other churches, we inevitably work with people who do things differently than we have always done them. Each church in a cooperative ministry gets challenged to think about why they do things certain ways, and to open themselves to doing things a little differently.

Moreover, new ministry is possible when churches pool their resources than when they try to work separately. In the FGM, they would advertise church events for all 4 churches at once in the local paper. Often they had the events together, but sometimes they were advertising things that happened at the churches separately. When they pooled their people resources, they felt like they could do more than any of their churches could do by themselves. Their vision grew bigger as they thought about the whole community – the community between their churches, not just the community within their church,

So the wonderful thing about cooperative ministry is that it pushes people to think bigger and to reach beyond the boundaries of the local church. Conversely, the drawback of cooperative ministry can be that it takes on a life of its own and does not pay enough attention to the needs and dynamics of each local church. I remember there was always a little tension in the FGM between the work of the whole and the folks who were concentrated on the needs of the local church.

I would like to say that the FGM created tremendous growth in the local churches of Frankford and solved all their problems.  For years, the group ministry increased the effectiveness of the outreach of those local churches. At its height, the FGM had million dollar budgets and major influence over almost anything that happened in Frankford.

The local churches benefited greatly from those efforts and I think they grew through those ministries, but they still struggled and today, they are going through the same kinds of struggles as other churches in attendance and growth. The glory days of the 80’s and 90’s are in the past for them.  They had a great run, but the key leaders of that ministry moved on and it has been hard to sustain the success of those early years.

So, we are talking about cooperative ministry with a bit of a different twist. Instead of just combining the work of 4 different churches, we are talking about having one of the churches, Narberth, by necessity, close its doors and merge with one of our other churches. Their new church start called PlumbLine Fellowship, will continue as its own ministry and we will use the resources of the closed church to fund that ministry to focus on outreach and mission in all of our cluster churches.

In other words, the group ministry will itself be a church, not a mission arm of the four churches together. The other churches in the cooperative will support that new ministry and that new ministry will create alternative future possibilities for those churches. I think it is a great opportunity for us a church, but it will definitely challenge us, and make us stretch beyond our comfort zones. We might find ourselves relating to someone with a tattoo. We might find ourselves offering support to people with skin diseases or AIDS or cancer. We might find ourselves making closer connections with people living in poverty.  Jesus would be pleased.

This is God’s good news.