Conference paper presented at Urban Life Together: Inhabiting Our Neighbourhoods, October 17-18, 2014, Urban Seed. Published online November 12, 2015.
Mangere is a south Auckland suburb of about 40,000 people, spreading from Auckland Airport to the iconic Mangere Mountain that descends to the shore of the Manukau harbour. Notable for its Māori history and for the market gardens that flourished in the fertile soil in the shelter of the mountain, the area underwent dramatic change in the 1960’s and 70’s with residential development, including major state housing provision, taking over some of the market gardens, and through demographic change largely consisting of significant immigration from the Pacific nations. Mangere today shares the experience common to many urban communities of high unemployment, low levels of education, inadequate accommodation, poor health, and high rates of crime and gang-related activity. And yet Mangere is one of the most churched areas in New Zealand. At weekends, hymns, songs, prayers and preaching ring out from over a hundred churches, school halls and other public buildings, mostly in the languages of the Pacific peoples who comprise over 70% of Mangere’s population.
Mangere Baptist Church was founded in the 1960’s in what was then a growing suburb, and it flourished for a number of years. Like other largely Euro congregations in the area, however, it began to experience numerical decline as the demographic composition of the neighbourhood shifted, and at the end of last year the small group of seven or eight remaining members had to decide whether—and if so, why—the church should continue. This group, comprising for the most part people who had felt a call of God to love and invest in the Mangere community, came to the decision that we would look for someone to join the group and serve as pastor, but not in the conventional sense.
John takes up the story:
As the new pastor of Mangere Baptist Church I had some choices to make at the beginning of my ministry. A strong resolve that emerged was to build my ministry around the metaphor of missionary. This threw up a number of missionary questions such as “What shall I do?” The most pressing answer seemed to be to engage immediately in praying for the community. I formed two resolutions. One was to spend the mornings walking around Mangere praying, and the afternoons doing everything else. The other was to lead the church on a parallel journey, with the metaphor of the missionary being our guiding and organising principle.
The prayer ministry yielded fruit on a number of levels. First, the spiritual engagement with God was a fruit in itself. Second, I found a very strong sense of vision for the community developing as I sensed the Spirit inspiring specific prayers and dreams for different sectors and groups. But third, the constant exposure to and preoccupation with the community displaced the church as my centre of attention. This helped to lead me and, I believe, the church through a paradigm shift. Instead of starting with the church as our main focus and concern, we started with the community.
When we do this we find ourselves asking different questions. Instead of, “How can we grow our church?” we ask, “How can we transform our community?” Instead of asking in a vacuum, “What shall we do to reach out?” we engage constantly with the community in prayer and relationship and see what God throws up. Instead of “growing the church” centrifugally but adding more and more ministries, programmes, staff and buildings, we pray for and support groups in the community, looking for them to be themselves transformed and able to carry out their own kingdom mandates. The churches in the community become spiritual sponsors rather than primary protagonists.
A few months ago our church started to pray for our local marae (the centres of Māori community life). I then met the manager of the marae closest to our church building and discovered that, just after we had been praying, she had begun to have dreams from God and had become a follower of Jesus. She has a strong sense that her kaupapa (mission) is to lead her people on the marae into faith in Jesus and into serving the community from that perspective. Our role, instead of “reaching out,” has become to encourage this “church plant” and explore with them what it means to express authentic faith and following of Jesus in an authentically Māori way (a difficult topic in New Zealand).
It soon became apparent to me pragmatically and spiritually that our church of fifteen people was not going to be the saviour of Mangere! So once again the “start with the community” principle changes our attitude and interactions with other churches. To us every church and every believer in Mangere is as relevant and important as our own church as stakeholders of the vision for transformation. This is reflected in our prayer life as we ask God for the strengthening, purifying and empowering of all our hundred plus churches in the community. Because our vision is not for our church but for the community, more than one church can embrace it. I have been able to begin building relationships with other churches in the area and, for the first time in twenty years, local pastors have begun gathering together, specifically for the purpose of praying for our community. Once again God has gone before us as the passion our other pastors displayed immediately was quite unexpected and has even grown through our early meetings.
The common conundrum of holding together the eternal and temporal aspects of salvation has proved to be no problem in our setting. One of the first prayers I felt God leading me in was simply, “Salvation in the community.” By this I mean repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Jesus, baptism, and the infilling of the Holy Spirit. But if we take seriously the imparted righteousness that begins with the giving of the Paraclete, then we see the possibility of social change as people gain new loyalties (to Jesus and his way), new values and new behaviours. So, like a flower, the root is “salvation” and the fruit is social change. This of course is not the whole story regarding social development, but personal conduct must play a huge part in it.
The vision that grew was, in summary, of Mangere as a light to Auckland. This could be extended to the nation and even internationally. Mangere is the location of New Zealand’s foremost airport and as Mangere residents who work there interact with passengers, so the grace of God may be poured out upon all sort of people from all sorts of places. The responsibility for this vision lies not with me, or us, but with God and all the believers in the community and is achieved firstly through laying a very deep foundation of prayer. This may or may not take years.
The practice of prayer as our primary “outreach” tool brings some interesting reflections on the missio Dei. As we sense God giving us prayers to pray for all manner of people and organisations in our community, we are not immediately propelled into programmes and activities, but primarily into more prayer. This puts the brakes on our activist tendency to rush into what seem to be good ideas, and accordingly it leaves room for God to demonstrate what God has begun to do about the things that we are being stirred to be concerned about. The experience recounted above with our local marae is just one example of being led in prayer for an area of concern and finding out later that God has already been at work. When this happens, the way forward is much clearer, as we are responding to a specific divine act and so are able to synchronise our support more naturally. It’s like joining a game of sport that is already in progress—it’s pretty clear what you need to do as you come onto the field.
On Sunday the missionary metaphor directs our services. Instead of regular “expository preaching,” the talk is often about one aspect or another of our community. This serves to keep Mangere before the eyes of the congregation and beating in our hearts. When we have “visiting speakers,” they are people from the community, such as the police or our MP. The climax of the service is intercessory prayer, fuelled by the information and exhortation we have just received. Pastoral care and Bible teaching does occur and will grow in the future, but because the Sunday service is so significant for setting the culture of the church, it has been crucial that our Sunday gatherings are shaped by the mission mode, community focus and emphasis on prayer by which we participate with God in his saving transformation of the community that we love.
Image: Nancy Gowler Johnson, Flickr (Creative Commons)