In the Hinterlands

One of the key components of the Intrepid strategy is that we (TEAM) are an international missions organization. We want to be true to our DNA and values. That means we get to think and act like missionaries ... here.

As one who is wired for obscurity and desiring to see church planting efforts in the off-the-beaten path kinds of places, I am asking the question, “what does it mean to plant churches in these kinds of communities?” The hope is that my strategy answers that. Then recruitment, assessment, training, coaching, and mentoring is towards that end. But first, what would, could, or should it look like to plant churches in this moving target of the new frontier?

Meet Oakridge, Oregon. Population: 3,200.

Why Oakridge? What about urban neighborhoods and districts? Again, as a mission’s strategy we’re looking at areas and among people under-reached, marginalized, or under-emphasized at this point. Oakridge certainly qualifies. Also, I view the community like I do an urban neighborhood. My current neighborhood in Portland has under 2,000 people. Smaller towns are almost like geographically separated urban neighborhoods.

Oakridge is located about forty miles southeast of Eugene. It’s storyline is similar to many boom and bust communities whether their economy was dependent upon mining, oil, fishing, or in this case logging. The latter half of the twentieth century saw the mills close down and the community spiral downward economically.

Since everything is connected, what happens to a community economically then impacts its citizens socially. When more and more workers are laid off what happens? Domestic violence goes up. Drug and alcohol abuse rates skyrocket. Poverty amasses more people and the downward cycle spirals faster. This is the same in places like inner-city communities like Detroit or South Chicago. Most of the community were blue collar workers working in the auto industry, steel mills, and so on. As those sites began closing their doors and relocating to the suburbs or overseas in its wake it left thousands upon thousands of workers unemployed. They had a skill set, but there were no places to use it.

So often when we look at communities and see gang violence, drugs, prostitution, higher rates of domestic violence, and poverty, it is easy to be smug and point fingers. But what do you do when your whole livelihood is torn from you? What do you do when your whole neighborhood crumbles when the mill or plant shuts its doors? It is more complex and nuanced than we realize. Those who can get out, those who can’t then are stuck.

While Oakridge is a small rural town in Oregon, there are similarities between it and inner-city America before gentrification set in. When the community’s economic well dried up it sent shock waves through the town. This beset problems. However, there were visionaries within the community that envisioned a different future. Rather than one of decline and desperation, they began discerning how the town can reinvent itself to capture tourism dollars and ultimately more investment. Enter mountain biking.

Much has been written on Oakridge and this transformation. From mountain bike magazines like Bike to online articles to university-led research projects, more and more people are taking note about what is happening in this rural Oregon community. Not only is this happening in places like Oakridge, but in other like communities across North America. This is where we intersect with not only church planting, but the implications of a Father-Kino-approach to church planting in the expanded role of doing more than simply launching worship services. There is an economic and social component as well to all of this.

Ultimately this conversation is about our understanding of not only the mission of the church but the nature of the gospel. Christopher Wright asks these poignant questions, “Do the people of God have any responsibility to the rest of human society in general beyond evangelism? What content do we put into biblical phrases like being a blessing to the nations, or seeking the welfare of the city, or being the salt of the earth or the light of the world, or doing good (one of the common expressions used by Paul and Peter)?” The way we answer those questions determines everything about our approach to mission, the gospel, and yes, church planting.

I can make the case that what distinguishes Father Kino’s story and approach from that of the modern day church planter is how one views the nature of the mission of the Bible which ultimately gets us to the thrust of the gospel. To answer the question “what is the gospel?” or “what is God’s mission?” will reveal much about how we go about not just our daily lives, but our how we conceive of and engage in church planting, gospel proclamation, and gospel demonstration.

Circling back around then to places like Oakridge ... what should then our role be in these kinds of communities? Yes, we need to share the gospel, disciple people, gather for worship and instruction ... AND along with that we need to look for ways to demonstrate the gospel and seek the betterment of these communities.

ReflectionsSean Benesh