What is Area Ministry?
In 2008, Diocesan House staffer Monica Burden spoke with the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe to ask him to explain more about Area Ministry. Here are some excerpts of that conversation.
What is Area Ministry?
Area Ministry is a mission strategy for reimagining the church and getting us back to our missional roots. That mission does not take place only in our church buildings or in isolated parochial communities, but rather in the neighborhoods and among the people around us. Area Ministry is also a strategy for evangelism to underrepresented groups in our church, particularly young adults, and to connect with the multicultural reality of our mission environment. The best way to make those connections is by cooperating with one another. We need to open the doors of our churches and look and engage outside. If we’re looking outside of ourselves, we’ll see one another as well. This is our area.
What do you mean by cooperation?
Most Episcopalians experience church inside our congregations, and that’s an important aspect, but there are many other kinds of institutions that are part of our historic mission, such as Episcopal Charities, Good Samaritan Family Resource Center, and many other groups. Area Ministry is about connecting people, so it’s also important to be in cooperation with our neighbors and their concerns.
What kind of mission do you see parishes undertaking through Area Ministry?
One thing we might do is to walk our talk a little bit more, and get to know our neighbors and find out what their concerns are. We need to bring the Good News to them, not just by preaching the word but by actually bringing witness through relationships and ministry. What do people need? What do they want? What are their aspirations? Some of it might be social service ministries, and a lot of it might not that far different from what we do already. We’ve been learning from an English priest, Ian Mobsby, about the Fresh Expressions movement in the Church of England, which is finding new ways of being the church. It’s not about worship, the way we Episcopalians usually think, but rather going to where the people are. One church in England went out to a skateboard park, but rather than trying to bring those young people to the church, they built relationships with them. Over time what’s developed around them is really like a church, where instead of a nave and pews there’s a skate park. Fundamentally, Area Ministry is about not being passive. I think we’re pretty good about opening our doors and then sitting back in our pews and saying “ya’ll come”; we’re not so good about opening our doors and then going out and finding where people are and bringing the church to them.
But many parishes in the Diocese of California are struggling—membership is dwindling, their buildings are falling apart, and they have trouble getting enough people to run coffee hour. What do you say to a parish like that about mustering up the strength to do this kind of work?
One of the things that Jesus talked about is the reality that the more you give something away the more there is. The quickest way to lose our faith is to conserve it so much that nobody else has it, including ourselves. The quickest way to build strength and energy and faith is to give it away. It’s debilitating to put all our energy into maintenance. If all we ever did in our homes was to keep the drips from overflowing and plaster from falling in, we’d never be able to enjoy our home and it would be a dreary life. The essence of church is not the building or figuring out how to pay a staff; it really is about our lived faith out in the world. Area Ministry isn’t about figuring out ways to get more people to come in so we can keep the status quo. It’s far more subversive and radical, going back to our roots of not the gathered community, but the dispersed community, bringing the good news of God’s love to all.
What kinds of resources do you envision being shared by Area Ministry teams?
We live in a consumer society, and we’re all consumers. Some families, for instance, might choose the megachurch that offers programs for them and their children rather than the small Episcopal church down on the corner. We don’t want to be like the megachurches, but how can we meet the needs of these neighbors who are looking for that variety and size of programs? Through cooperation! We could, for instance take the small youth groups at several churches and make a single more active and vibrant youth group that might meet our neighbors needs better. If we think of ourselves as one large group rather than individual churches—that is, if we really start think of our areas, and the whole diocese as being the basic unit of ministry rather than the congregation—we have the resources of the strengths of a whole group of churches. Congregations might also share administrative tasks and resources, together hiring one or two gifted, full-time staff members at just wages rather than a number of part-time personnel each working alone in a specific church.
How do those kinds of changes help people get out into the communities?
It removes us from all the work that has to go into maintenance. If the vestry or bishop’s committee is suddenly freed from worrying about yet another search for a one-eighth time administrative assistant, they might have time to think about how we’re going to go out and be the church in our neighborhood. We spend a lot of time on things that most of us don’t go to church for. People don’t say they love to go to church because they love those meetings to decide how to pay for the pipes that just broke. Instead they could talk about: Gee, I really like being part of the Episcopal church because I’ve developed a set of relationships that otherwise wouldn’t have happened, I’ve seen my own life and the life of my family transformed, I’ve seen a slight dismantling of the consumerism that is the bane of our existence as my kids and my family discover new ways of relating to people that don’t have to do with stuff but with love—those are the kind of things people could talk about. Being freed from worrying about maintenance allows us to reconnect with what makes us excited about being Christians.
How will Area Ministry affect membership?
We’re going to grow because of this. Growth doesn’t come because we have the best theology or the finest liturgy; it really comes through relationships. Many of us come to church because we are invited into it by people we admire or are friends with. We care about them and are in relationship with them, and we learn from them that their faith is part of who they are. That’s intriguing to us and that brings us in. Relational evangelism is something I think Area Ministry is going to really support, so we’re going to grow.
How will Area Ministry be implemented?
If you’re in a congregation that seems to spend too much time just keeping things going, if you’re fatigued because there aren’t enough people to go around and there’s too many tasks to do, you’re probably ready to start turning outside. Any church that’s ready to turn outside itself is ready to start exploring Area Ministry. We’ve identified some characteristics of churches that might be ready, for instance, churches that are in search processes for new clergy or going through other big transitions, churches that are already cooperating with other churches, churches in areas that are experiencing enormous population growth. Bishop Marc and I have spoken to nearly every parish in the diocese about Area Ministry, and we’ve identified some areas that seem particularly ready. But every church in the diocese is now or soon will be ready for Area Ministry. No one is being forced into joining, but everyone is being invited into Area Ministry.
What will the experience of an individual parish be?
The first thing is to accept the invitation into relationship with other churches and ministries. Then, together — through formation, through prayer, through ministry together — you will begin to understand the area and neighbors in the area. Out of that comes a discernment about new kinds of ministries and fresh expressions of the church. Every area is going to be different, as the people in every area are different. The team might begin by gathering basic information and finding out about the area. The team in east Contra Costa County, for instance, is talking to real estate people, school teachers, hospital administrators, people moving into the community, and also looking statistics and demographic information. Bringing the church into the neighborhood is also important. One of our churches is having one of their small groups, called a covenant group, not in the church but in a coffee shop, bringing their faith into a public space. Area Ministry becomes a genuine discernment model, that we’re in a deeper engagement with our neighbors so that our neighbors are telling us what they need. It’s not just a social service model, either. As Ian Mobsby reminded us in our recent workshop, spiritual poverty is as great an issue for many people in the contemporary world as other kinds of poverty. Read about one parish's experience.
How do you do spiritual ministry without bringing people into the church?
There’s no real magic to it. Most people don’t respond to authoritarian people saying, “This is how it’s going to be.” It happens through my getting to know my neighbor and sharing my own experiences and feelings, and how my faith has helped me during those times. It’s by way of sharing my life with them, not by telling them this is the kind of belief you’ve got to have.
How is Area Ministry different than community organizing?Area Ministry uses many of the insights of community organizing, and Area Ministry teams will receive training in community organizing. But the primary goal of Area Ministry is not to organize the community around some project; it is to be agents of the Good News, to invite people into relationship with God and one another. If my goal were to teach you how to play basketball, I could teach you the rules of the game and some skills for playing, and then I could say well done, and I can leave and move on to my next student. But if my goal is to play basketball with you, I will still teach you the rules and skills for playing, but I will continue to play basketball with you, and I would never leave you. We want to share our vision and experience of the Beloved Community with others. Area Ministry is a way for us to proclaim that the Beloved Community already exists, to see aspects of the Beloved Community outside the church, and to turn everyone’s attention to one another through God.