Elaine A. Heath: God's people, gathered, blessed and sent out

Photo courtesy of Elaine A. Heath

Small missional communities, anchored to a local congregation, offer a different way of being church, one that offers hope for renewal and new life, says the evangelism scholar.

At their core, small, missional communities such as the one that connected a Houston congregation with African refugees are about a different way of being church, said the Rev. Dr. Elaine A. Heath, co-founder of the Missional Wisdom Foundation.

“The idea with missional ecclesiology is that our identity as the church is to be God’s people who are gathered together, blessed and then sent out,” Heath said.

Rather than imagining the church as a people who meet inside a building every Sunday, this broader notion of church is about “carrying on the work of Christ in the world,” she said. “Christ is missional.”

This way of being church has a Eucharistic element to it, Heath said. “We become the bread and wine that God gives to our neighbors and to the world.”

While serving as the McCreless Professor of Evangelism at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, Heath helped her students establish several missional faith communities in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In 2011, she co-founded the Academy for Missional Wisdom to teach others how to start new types of faith communities beyond the traditional church, yet linked to the institutional church in various ways.

The Rev. Hannah Terry, associate pastor of Westbury United Methodist Church in Houston, studied at the Academy with Heath when Terry was forming a missional community for Westbury and a ministry with refugees from Africa.

Last month, Heath was named the next dean of Duke Divinity School. She will succeed Ellen Davis, who has served as interim dean since August 2015, succeeding Dean Richard B. Hays.

Heath’s scholarly work integrates systematic, pastoral and spiritual theology in ways that bridge the gap between academy, church and world. She joined the SMU faculty in 2005. She has a B.A. from Oakland University, an M.Div. from Ashland Seminary and a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Duquesne University.

Heath spoke with Faith & Leadership about missional communities, both broadly and at Westbury UMC. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: Give us an overview of the Academy for Missional Wisdom.

When Hannah Terry attended, [the program] was called the Academy for Missional Wisdom; now it’s called Launch and Lead. It’s a two-year program for clergy and laypeople to learn how to launch and lead new kinds of faith communities that are beyond the walls of, yet still connected to, the traditional church.

We started the program in 2011 in response to the number of people who were coming to Dallas to learn about our emerging hub of experimental communities. More and more people were coming, so we developed Launch and Lead as a more systematized way of answering their questions.

It is a hybrid learning system, with several short online classes that are accessible to laypeople but still challenging for clergy, because of the theological work. The program also has several short training retreats where people gather together, usually Thursday night through Saturday noon, with each retreat having a specific focus, such as community organizing, missional imagination and so on.

The participants have a coach, who is trained and certified and a knowledgeable practitioner in missional ecclesiology. And a spiritual director works with the cohort throughout the program, which is an essential element, since we teach people to live in a contemplative stance.

Q: Tell us about the missional communities that you and others created around Dallas-Fort Worth.

The communities began as learning initiatives that I started with some of my students who felt called to do ministry beyond the walls of the church but still connected to the institutional church. They felt called to go and do something entrepreneurial out in the city, where people are suffering.

I started the first two communities eight years ago. One was a New Monastic house with three women students living in it, and one was a missional house church.

Q: What exactly is a missional community, and what’s involved in creating one?

When we speak of being missional, it is helpful to remember that the Latin word missio means “sent out.” The Greek word for being sent out is, literally translated, “to be apostolic.” The idea with missional ecclesiology is that our identity as the church is to be God’s people who are gathered together, blessed and then sent out. We are distributed by God to our neighborhoods and schools and workplaces to be a blessing.

Missional ecclesiology has a Eucharistic element to it. We become the bread and wine that God gives to our neighbors and to the world.

So instead of imagining the church as a gathered people who meet inside a special building with a lot of programs -- though that is part of how we’ve experienced church -- the core identity of being the church is carrying on the work of Christ in the world, which means being sent out. Christ is missional.

These microcommunities are small faith communities that can be started by laypeople or clergy, but really, laypeople can do this. They do it with several people in a team. And missional communities can happen almost anywhere. The established, traditional church can become an anchoring congregation, which anchors these missional communities located in different parts of the city or out in a rural context.

It’s similar to the ancient Celtic cathedral model, where you have a gathered church, but the purpose of the gathering is to equip people to send them out. The real work of the church is the work of the people as they return to their neighborhoods, schools and workplaces.

Q: Are the missional communities always anchored to a local congregation?

In the ones that we started, we promoted pretty heavily the idea that churches -- or even Wesley Foundations and other campus ministries -- should anchor these missional initiatives, rather than starting missional faith communities and ignoring the rest of the church.

We favor doing both together, because it will bring renewal to an established church that’s trying to find its vision and mission again. And it will bring stability and accountability to the missional communities that are out there doing ministry beyond the walls of the church.

Q: So a missional community, which at first glance seems anti-institutional, actually feeds back into and strengthens the church?

Yes. In his book about Franciscan spirituality, “Eager to Love,” Richard Rohr said the genius of St. Francis was staying on the inside edge of the institution. Not disconnecting from the institution but staying on the inside edge, going out to the edge but staying firmly connected. And this is good both for the institution and for the communities.

Q: What questions should a congregation ask itself as it considers creating a missional community or entering into relationship with marginalized people or groups? What should they be thinking about?

The first thing that has to happen is that the pastors and the lay leaders have to do some teaching and call forth missional ecclesiology from the congregation.

When you ask, “What’s the first step?” I always suggest that pastors and lay leaders ask themselves, “Where are our people in terms of their understanding of the meaning of the church?” You want to do some preparatory work -- teaching and preaching about our identity as the church -- so people understand that we’re the gathered-and-sent people.

Larry Duggins and I wrote a book that came out in 2014 that answers these very questions: “Missional. Monastic. Mainline. A Guide to Starting Missional Micro-Communities in Historically Mainline Traditions.” The first half is about how we started the communities in Dallas, and the second half is a field guide for how to do this in a local church.

So you begin with the teaching and the preaching. Then, if you pay attention, you’ll notice people -- not in every congregation, but in quite a few -- who really aren’t interested in being on committees or sitting in a Sunday school class or the other traditional things that we try to get people to do when they join the church.

But these people are the first ones who sign up for any activity that involves reaching out to suffering people. Or they’re interested in staying connected to the subculture that they are a part of, whether that’s bikers or people who practice yoga or some other subculture.

These are people who have compassion and good people skills and care about others, and they’re interested in making a difference in the world. That’s the group that you want to begin working with, providing training and so on.

It’s usually not effective or even a good idea to try to get all the church board members doing this, for example. They’re on the board because they want to be on the board, and that’s their gift.

Some of the best missional leaders who emerge from congregations will be people who aren’t drawn to what they consider “status quo” church. They feel drawn to do something on the edge.

As you gather a small group of people who seem like good candidates for this kind of ministry, work with them to develop their missional imagination. Help them learn to do cultural exegesis in their own contexts. Out of this formative theological work with them, vision will begin to emerge. They will need their pastoral leaders to keep nurturing this vision and equipping them with resources, skills and confidence to finally step out and begin the new ministry.

Q: You said the threshold question is to explore the congregation’s understanding of church. I sometimes wonder whether every congregation needs to do that, and revisit the basics -- Why are we here? What’s the pastor’s role? What’s a church?

Yes, at least once a year, it is a good idea to have a short sermon series and a leadership development retreat in which the focus is on missional ecclesiology. Our congregations need us to remind them that this is our call, this is our vocation as church, to be God’s sent-out people, and what does that mean for this congregation at this time?

Then small reminders about missional ecclesiology can be naturally woven into the life of the church through the rest of the year.

Q: You’ve spoken very openly in many settings, including the 2011 Wesleyan Leadership Conference, about your own childhood, growing up in poverty, one of five children, leaving home at 16, not starting college until your early 30s. How does your own story shape your understanding of and approach to missional community?

Oh, I am certain that my vocation has grown out of my own life journey. My experience of real Christianity from time to time as a child happened because laypeople -- usually it was laypeople -- behaved in a missional fashion toward me and sometimes other members of my family. They became the face of Jesus to me, even before I had language to talk about it this way. And I was drawn to their love and their respect for me. It meant so much to be welcomed and included in their activities as if I belonged with them.

Sometimes those activities were religious -- you know, going to Sunday school from time to time. Sometimes they were not religious -- it was, “Would you like to come to our house and play a game?” or, “Would you like to climb the tree and pick some cherries and take them home?”

It was this sort of hospitality and respect that I experienced.

And then also, the rootlessness that I experienced as a child, moving around and around. Everybody else had cousins and grandmas, but I didn’t, because we were far away from any relatives. Even longtime friendships were not there, because we moved so frequently.

So I think the natural God-given longing for community, for family-like friends, has definitely been part of my deep awareness of what people need. We live in a really fractured society, in every possible way.

I know from my own journey, and from people that I’ve pastored or been friends with or helped in other ways, that being a part of a genuine and healthy Christian community, where everybody has a place at the table, where everyone really knows each other, can heal wounds and bring integration to a person’s life in ways that nothing else can.

I believe in therapy. I believe in other forms of taking care of ourselves and healing, but there is something about life in community that God uses to bring wellness to us in a way that nothing else can. And I think it’s because humans are made in the image of a God who is a community. The Trinity is a community. We were made for this.

All of that plays into my sense of call and my passion around ministry and community and helping the church be a community that’s God’s gift of love to and for the world.

Q: You mentioned briefly that when you were a child, neighbors would take you to church?

Yes, sometimes. We moved a lot, so we’d live in one place, and a neighbor would start taking us to Sunday school -- not every Sunday, but enough that I had a sense of what Sunday school was. And then we would move, and that would be the end of that one.

It was hit or miss, but it was enough to touch my life. The Sunday school experience -- I don’t really remember that much in terms of curriculum. I liked going, because it was a different place, and I liked the Kool-Aid and the graham crackers, and there were often fun activities.

But really, the experiences of Christians that went deep, deep into my soul were these experiences of hospitality -- to be welcomed into people’s homes and to be a part of their family community.

From that lived experience comes my passion for my own home to be a site of hospitality, where we welcome strangers, where we welcome our neighbors. Our kitchen table is a place where we can sit and pray together as well as share a meal. Our home is a missional community where much hospitality happens, where people gather for evening prayer, and where all sorts of people find conversation and a place of peace.

Q: What you just described is what these missional communities are supposed to be, right?

Yes. To me, this is the normal Christian life. It should be normal for our church members to be people of hospitality in their neighborhood.

Q: Does a missional community need to be a certain size or a certain arrangement? I was struck that the intentional community at Fondren Apartment Ministry doesn’t live in one house together but in several nearby apartments.

There are many ways to be in community. Several families can live in the same neighborhood, each in its own home or apartment, and yet they can gather for evening prayer or for a community meal once a week, and do some things together to be a blessing to the neighborhood.

Q: So is it really the practices that make it a missional community? Though the intentional community at Westbury live in different apartments, they meet at 6 a.m. every day for prayer, and they have dinner together and they pray together.

Yes. And they serve their neighborhood, and they follow a common rule of life. That’s a very important part, having common spiritual practices.

When people are starting a new community and they’re trying to figure out how to structure their community, I suggest that they have a threefold rule of prayer, hospitality and justice.

They can flesh out those three areas in ways that make sense in their context. A good rule of life is simple, and it helps us to tell ourselves the truth about how we’re living and how we want to live. A good rule of life helps us be more honest about what it means to follow Jesus.

Without a rule of life, communities tend to lose focus, and their energy dissipates.

Q: At Westbury, as the intentional community began engaging the African refugees, they were caught off guard when the people wanted to attend Westbury rather than a house church or a new church plant. What do you do then?

Bring them to church, of course.

Because Hannah and her community were listening well, they heard what their new neighbors wanted and needed, which was a connection with the established church as well as the gatherings in the apartment community. Their new neighbors wanted both.

Missional ecclesiology is all about showing up to your neighbors and really listening and paying attention and supporting them as they journey toward God and with God.

What Hannah encountered in Houston, and what we’ve encountered here in Dallas, in our community with refugees, is that they appreciate an established institutional church such as the United Methodist Church, because it’s a reliable institution with a solid structure and accountability for leaders and finances. Our immigrant friends do not have the skepticism about traditional religious institutions that our American millennial friends have.

What we’ve discovered, and I think Hannah’s discovered, is that folks enjoy the smaller fellowship that happens in the apartment complex, where we’re gathered around a meal and worship and prayer and Bible study, but they also like to go to the big church. They want to be a part of the big church, too.

On the other hand, I know quite a few people who want nothing to do with the sort of churchy church they grew up with, but they really like meeting in these smaller communities in a not-church space, and doing everything that church is as far as the gathered community. We eat together, we pray together, we celebrate the Eucharist together, we serve in ministry together, but in the smaller, intimate community of a house church.

The important thing is to notice what it is that people need in order to connect to God, and then be there with them and help them in that process.

Q: Speak some to the tension between being a missional community and working for systemic change. How can you be in deep friendship with people on the margins and help them in their current situation, and also work and advocate for changing the systems that put them in this position?

One of the brilliant aspects of eating together is that it breaks down all these barriers that we put between ourselves and other people. This is how Jesus gets his work done in the Gospel. He’s always eating with people. That’s where he has these great conversations, and healing happens, and people get upset because he’s challenging their Scripture interpretation and so forth.

Eating together is foundational. Eating a meal together, where we share our hearts and our spirituality with each other, is actually sacramental.

Out of the relationships that form from eating together and gathering in friendship, we begin to learn what’s going on in each other’s lives. We become part of each other’s story.

When we form friendships across cultural lines and economic lines and class lines and racial lines, pretty soon we become aware of systemic injustice at multiple levels that we may not have understood before.

It is very different to read a story in the newspaper about slumlords than to have a friend whose plumbing is broken and whose landlord will do nothing to fix the problem. It is different to read statistics about how 1 out of 4 children in Texas go to bed hungry every night than to share a meal prepared by families for whom hunger is a real threat.

Out of friendship formed at the table, we want to be there with people who are suffering, and we begin to want to use whatever resources we have, both to alleviate immediate suffering and to change the systems that keep hurting our neighbors.

Here’s an example from our work here. Our community that has refugees and former refugees became aware that an unscrupulous used-car dealer was selling immigrants bad cars. The cars would break down after a few weeks and he would refuse to fix them, and threaten the buyers if they didn’t keep making the payments. They did not know whether he could make good on his threats.

This guy was making life miserable. People’s cars would break down, and then they couldn’t get to work, and then they would lose their jobs. There were concentric circles of problems because of this man.

So in our little community, which usually has 15 or 20 people on Sunday evenings, there’s a woman who’s an attorney. We asked for her help, which she gladly gave. She took legal action on behalf of the buyers and got their money back and put the dealer on notice that he wasn’t going to get away with this anymore. It also became an educational opportunity for our friends who had been victimized.

So that was a series of events where we were able to practice justice, which is about changing unjust systems. We were able to offer support and mercy to the people who had an immediate need for transportation, and we helped with other support when they lost their jobs.

All of this flowed right out of our table fellowship, where we get to know each other from week to week.

Q: So it’s not “either-or” but “both-and.” One leads to the other naturally. You eat meals together; you become an advocate for change.

It’s inevitable. We pray together, we practice hospitality together, and out of this we become involved in seeking justice together.

And this can happen in any neighborhood. It’s not just among poor people. There are justice issues and there are people who are lonely and hurting and in need of community in every kind of neighborhood.

But it is good for us to remember that when Jesus said, “The poor will always be among you,” he was assuming we would always be a community of mixed incomes. He assumed we would have friends from income levels different from our own, and that these would be real, mutual friendships.

Q: We touched on it earlier, but speak more about the benefits that can accrue to an anchoring church that establishes a missional community. In what ways does the missional community feed back into and shape the congregation?

It encourages other people to take discipleship seriously, and it sparks people’s imagination about what they can do. A good example is the relationship between Grace United Methodist Church in Dallas and the Bonhoeffer House, which is one of our Missional Wisdom intentional communities.

The men at Bonhoeffer House are engaged in ministries of hospitality and friendship with the neighbors, many of whom are unhoused people. The men at Bonhoeffer follow a Wesleyan rule of life; they do a community meal once a week, and they hold a weekly Bible study or book study.

Because they’ve built up relationships with the unhoused people over the years, the guys who live under the stars help cook and serve the meal, and they help lead the Bible study. They’re very much part of the rhythms of that house’s practice of prayer and hospitality.

People from Grace UMC also participate in the Bible study and the community meal at Bonhoeffer House.

So Bonhoeffer House has become the bridge where real relationships happen between people who are not homeless and people who are, people who are from different social classes and races and other kinds of diversity. Bonhoeffer is a place where everyone gathers around the table, literally, and where everyone now has something to offer.

The people in the church also get to hear about and watch and participate in how the men in the Bonhoeffer House practice daily prayer, how they practice hospitality, how they get involved from time to time in justice issues that affect homeless people in Dallas.

That’s how that works. Bonhoeffer House takes the church beyond the walls and the programs of Grace United Methodist Church, and it becomes an extension of Grace out into the community in a very beautiful way. The men within the house are also part of the congregation. It is a beautiful, dynamic relationship.