Some Concrete Ideas

Michael Metzger

A reader last week asked for concrete ideas on how churches could collaborate. I have a few. So does a friend of mine, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy—an institution that instills collaboration.

Last week I said human flourishing is our ticket in. Lead with faith and you attract mostly people of faith. Lead with flourishing, you likely attract a wider array of leaders.

One reader (“hl”) asked for concrete ideas on how the faith community could collaborate on the issue of housing, but noted that “convincing some/many of the congregations to begin to work together into the city is difficult.”

I think I know why it’s difficult. And I have a few suggestions for going forward.

First, I wouldn’t start with the faith community. A 2014 McKinsey report describes the nonprofit sector (including churches) as deficient in collaboration. Exceptions include Lawndale Community Church in Chicago. It has collaborated for decades with city leaders in turning a blighted part of the city into one with new businesses, improved local schools, rebuilt infrastructure (utilities, streets, security), and affordable housing.

In most cases, I’d start with local experts to address the housing problem—developers, investors, urban planners, zoning experts, and homebuilders. In scripture, hands on experience gives someone expertise, making them an expert. We generally don’t have hands on experience like those in new urbanism for example. Start with the real experts.

I would investigate what Steve Case and Revolution is doing on building flourishing towns and cities. Easier to join an existing and effective network than try to start one. Of course, the faith community would have to be viewed as an asset in order to get in. Take the housing problem. What assets do we bring to help solve this problem?

Finally, I’d research the United States Naval Academy (my wife Kathy and I live three blocks away). The Academy has a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal): Leaders to serve the nation. Men and women are immersed in a four-year environment where collaboration—laying down your life for one another—becomes second nature.

But don’t take my word for it. I asked a friend of mine, Brad McDonald (1977 USNA graduate), to describe how his four years at the Academy shaped him into a leader. Here is Brad in his own words:

“July 9th, 1973. 0800 I report to the US Naval Academy to begin my journey as a midshipman, with a toothbrush, wallet and ID in my pocket and my appointment letter in my hand. Within nine hours everything I was wearing, plus those pocketed items, was in a box being mailed home – EVERYTHING. I was wearing exactly the same clothes, shoes and hat and sporting the same haircut as my 1,492 new classmates, mostly eighteen-year-old boys from all over the USA.”

“I was shown to my barren, sweltering room and met my two roommates, the two teenagers with whom I would live more closely than ever I had with another human being. One was black, one was white; one was straight out of high school (like me) and one had a whopping year of enlisted Naval service under his belt; one had a Navy father (like me) and one had no father. We quickly realized that one thing we had in common with each other and all of our classmates was that every sense of self and identity we brought with us had been taken away and sent home to Mom. And when we gave up what we thought was “me” the only thing we had left was each other – we became part of a bigger body, left our old selves behind. Race, religion, creed, beliefs – irrelevant. We had neither the time, luxury, space nor convenience to discriminate against or exclude some classmates because of those things. The key to survival was being part of the team and relying on each other.”

“Forty-five years later I look back and realize what a great thing that painful experience was. It was the complete equalizer for fifteen-hundred young men. We forged bonds that will last ‘til death do us part.” Brad McDonald

Few churches strip away our Americanized sense of self and identity. In fact, the most popular ones appeal to expressive individualism. Few churches have a BHAG like human flourishing, an aim so expansive that it requires collaborating with people of different races, religions, sexual orientations—you name it. We should steal a page from the Naval Academy. They have rigorous communal liturgies, or practices. Over 4,500 midshipmen recite the same stats and share the same meals. In similar fashion, two-thirds of the worldwide church recites exactly the same prayers each week and ponders exactly the same scriptures. Over time, with enough practice, “I” dissolves into “we.”

Of course, these communal liturgies revolve around the central image for the church. I’ll describe what it is and why it’s the main metaphor next week. Stay tuned.


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  1. And let us not leave out that vast number of so-called “orthodox” Christian communities who judge and exclude those who they unworthy and broken and because of their sexual identit, thus cannot participate as leaders or doers. How much skill, how many gifts, how much expertise is left wasted because of this peculiar theology of “orthodox”exclusivism? This is the elephant , or at one of them along side racism, that is huge stumbling block to collaboration in the model of the naval academy….or an even better one: Jesus.

  2. Coincidentally(or devinely) Oswald Chambers My Utmost for His Highest Feb 5th devotional asks, “Are you ready to be poured out as an offering?” Phil 2:17

    Also, reading about the USNA reminded me of Retired Admiral McCrary’s book, Make Your Bed! In that book he tells the story of his experiences as a Navy Seal and Seal Training and how they would not have made it through the training without teamwork and collaboration.

    The true collaborative churches, like the one I attend, Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium, MD are ready to to collaborate and move the humnan flourishing ideals to instituted ideas.

    The way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Young Life Baltimore City is an example of that, patiently and methodically making a dent. Helping Up Mission is another. There are so many more, and the idea of collabortion is one who’s time has come.

    Baltimore City has the largest (or one of) murder rates, human trafficing rates, heroin death rates.
    The answer to all this is to coordinate and collaborate ALL the 1600 churches in the city into 1600 projects of human flourishing!

    I believe God has that BHAG(Big Hairy Audacious Goal) covered and the time is now!

    Ron Morley

  3. Hi Ron:

    I love your spirit. Might I make one suggestion? The answer is to coordinate with as many of the city’s institutions as possible, not just the 1600 churches. Think civic, businesses, education, the arts. If we consider “center” institutions (those most influential in bringing about human flourishing in a city), we’d probably add at least another 100 institutions to your list.

  4. Good piece on collaboration, especially the bit about urban housing.

    While your anecdote about your Navy friend is no doubt well-intentioned and instructive, the “stripping away of all sense of identity” (perhaps good for a plebe) is how cults work. I’m not sure we want to advocate that for the local church. We need to see how our uniqueness and giftedness can be integrated into God’s big plan, which is maybe a little different approach.

  5. David:

    Good point. I don’t think Brad meant self in the absolute sense. I think he meant stripping away all the Americanized sense of identity.

  6. Nobody attempted to take away my sense of who I was, my family, my upbringing, my religion, my beliefs. In fact I was encouraged to call and write home frequently, attend chapel services of my choosing and maintain a clear mind that would understand orders as well as obey them. What was taken away were the external trappings that previously had served to enable discrimination and exclusion. The result was a dedication to team beyond self and an outlook that if we were teammates we were brothers.

  7. New forms of collaboration are popping up around the country. The Stanford Innovation review would call some of them Collective Impact ( Church + business + government is making a huge difference on some of the toughest social issues we face and cities. A new effort called Together Chicago ( addressing violence, education, Church Unity, and joblessness on a South Side neighborhood.

  8. Over the next four years as a Midshipman, I marched in countless parades, generally a couple every week. Like every other Midshipman to pass through the gates of Annapolis, I hated it.

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