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Generosity Beyond Congregations

Resource from Insights Newsletter
Resource Library

Generosity Beyond Congregations

Insights Article

Written By Melissa Spas

John Wesley said, in reference to his ministry as a priest in eighteenth century England and the colonies, “I look upon all the world as my parish…” This expectation pushed him beyond the established confines of Christian ministry in his own context, and perhaps, today, we need a renewed understanding of what, precisely, he was indicating. 

I look upon all the world as my parish; thus far I mean, that, in whatever part of it I am, I judge it meet, right, and my bounden duty to declare unto all that are willing to hear, the glad tidings of salvation. This is the work which I know God has called me to; and sure I am that His blessing attends it.  Great encouragement have I, therefore, to be faithful in fulfilling the work He hath given me to do. His servant I am, and, as such, am employed according to the plain direction of His Word, ‘As I have opportunity, doing good unto all men’…’

Wesley was acting against the convention of the church as it was established, and he received criticism and rebuke from his fellow priests and civil authorities, who perceived him as encroaching on their territory, or taking on mission beyond his call or authority.  The Wesleyan movement grew, with lay leaders preaching and teaching, and a consistent focus on the poor and those at the edges of society,   despite that parochial impulse toward limiting ministry to the assigned context. 

Wesley’s expanded understanding of parish was no doubt derived from an evangelical impulse, and that raises questions in our contemporary world about our own frontier, especially if our desire to care for neighbors expands beyond the “glad tidings of salvation” that motivated Wesley.  In an era of digital connection, with a constant stream of new information, perhaps we are called, not only to an expansive global view, but also toward a new understanding of parish as the local context for religious community.  This local focus may be the counter-cultural frontier for faith communities today. 

A new imagination for parish in our own era of fragmentation and disconnection from our neighbors may have implications for generosity well beyond the congregation.  There are real implications for our self-understanding and practice in community. 

When people of faith consider what it means to have a healthy or vital congregation, very often our measures are primarily internal, focused on the programs, initiatives, or relationships between people who choose to form a faith community together.  We measure what we value, and we also value those things that we measure – attendance or participation, revenue or giving, the inputs and outputs of our programs of service or faith-formation.  We see this in the NSCEP – congregations, whether they are growing or contracting, are spending money on their staff (49% of budget, on average) and facilities (an additional 23%, on average). Congregations are also directing resources beyond the congregation, spending on average 11% of the budget on “missions” beyond the congregation.  Additionally, 84% of congregations provide at least one type of social service, and nearly all of these are provided in partnership with other organizations or non-profits. 

While this attention to the outward-facing activity of congregations is encouraging, when considering a parish model, there are expressions of community that extend far beyond the conventional or traditional congregation, and interest in these expressions is only growing.  Casper ter Kuile and Angie Thurston of Sacred Design Labs published “Something More” in 2019, and through ten case studies they note that “…religious innovation is happening all over America. We hope institutions will be curious enough to see it, and brave enough to let it transform them.”  Seeing the ways in which faith communities can develop beyond congregations will open up space to imagine faithful generosity that does not rely on inherited patterns of giving and receiving.

Expanded Perspective

Written By Rafia Khader

Religious innovation is indeed happening all over America. I take particular interest in the innovation happening in American Muslim spaces. For years, houses of worship, across faith traditions, have been the center of religious communal life. At least that has been the common narrative. My own experience shows however that this may not be the case, if it ever was, especially for the diverse American Muslim community. While the mosque continues to be the top recipient of US Muslim giving, according to a recent study on American Muslim Philanthropy funded by Lake Institute, Muslims, young and old, are increasingly turning to “third spaces” outside the local mosque. By “third space,” I refer to an organization or institution that “seeks to fill the gaps where the traditional mosque is unable to meet a community’s particular needs.”

What are the motivations behind third space American Muslim communities, such as the Women’s Mosque of America (while the organization has the word “mosque” in its title, it is not a mosque in a traditional sense. For one, prayer services are offered only once a month, as opposed to five times a day in a typical mosque. Second, it is a women-only congregation)? Why are these women drawn to the Woman’s Mosque? Is the local mosque not fulfilling these womens’ religious and spiritual needs, or could there be another motivation? Furthermore, are these newer forms of religious communities complementing the mosque – or do they end up supplanting them completely, even if they do so unintentionally? What does this mean if the mosque is no longer the only communal space where individuals congregate to seek the divine? These are all questions I hope to answer in a future research project.

Leaders of congregations, regardless of faith tradition, need to be cognizant of the religious innovation happening outside of their doors. This does not necessarily need to be a moment of crisis, of trying to win back congregants. The two organizations do not have to be mutually exclusive. However, what can leaders of congregations learn from these innovative communities? I contend there is much that we can learn and in the process, as Melissa suggested, open up space to imagine faithful generosity.

DATE: November 12, 2019
TOPIC: Theological Reflection
TYPE: Article
SOURCE: Insights Newsletter
KEYWORDS: Christianity, Generosity, Islam
AUTHOR: Melissa Spas, Rafia Khader