Monday, August 11, 2008

Unreached tribe discovered in Shamokin

Many of us have been reading a lot over the past few years about the missional church and how to reach our culture. It is obvious that things are changing rapidly, and we are lurching farther and farther away from the type of church we grew up in. We are clearly at the place where we must be true missionaries who bring the gospel to unreached people, rather than trying to return the culture to a church they never really knew.

In light of this new reality many have spoken of the tribalization of our culture. We are no longer a homogenous "American" culture, but rather a panoply of tiny and distinct tribes. From skaters to goths and from Nascar to NY City arts types, not to mention the many ethnic groups, we seem to be coalescing around fairly narrow personal interests and affinities. The trend is accelerating. The church is seen as a separate subculture all it's own, with numerous sub subcultures. This has profound implications for us in pastoral ministry as we move away from a purely attractional model.

Mountainside began a bold experiment (bold for us, anyway) this summer as "Faith in Action" was born. We morphed a successful in house small group ministry into a team mission approach to reach our own community. The tiny group of 8 who began with us a few months ago has swelled to as many as 32 as we branch out every Sunday night to perform acts of service for whoever needs help. The focus is on the unreached, though we help church folks too. There are no strings attached, and we have not pushed or promoted our church at all. We do pray with people (they almost always cry grateful tears when we do) when we are done, but prefer to wait for them to ask us why we are doing what we are doing. We have had some visit our services, and one single mom has already surrendered to Jesus. Teams then gather at a local eatery to discuss our excursions and share what God did each night.

This past Sunday I took a small group of teens to do some street sweeping and trash pickup at a local playground. As we drove up we were surprised to find a large group of about 35 teens and younger kids gathered on a grassy patch. They were cheering and we noticed two shirtless teens wrestling in the middle. At first I thought they were just wrestling (Shamokin is a wrestling town), but as I spoke with some of the boys, I found out it was their own version of "Ultimate Fighting". There is no punching, but choke holds are allowed, and you either pin your opponent or they have to "tap out". They alternated matches between older teen and pre-adolescent boys. There was not an adult in sight.

I have an extensive history in amateur wrestling and I am not a big fan of the more brutal forms of the sport. Much like missionaries to Africa were forced to overlook the nakedness of primitive tribes in order to be accepted by them I had to withold my criticisms and safety concerns in order to engage the members of the tribe in conversation. I was able to meet a few members of the tribe and set the stage for a return visit in a few weeks.

Shamokin is a difficult mission field. The city is facing bankruptcy and everything good is shrinking, while negatives abound. We have seen 4 churches close in the past few years, with many others holding on for dear life. The situation is dire.

Any strategy to see this community transformed must be long term or we should really not bother. Single events or splashy presentations will not make a ripple. Missions work is not for the faint of heart or glory-seekers. If we had been holed up in church that night we never would have discovered this "lost" tribe. Now we must pray for an open door for the gospel. The need for our being there is acute as we seek to gain their confidence and provide a redeeming presence.

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