Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places – Mike Mather interview, pt. II

I shared part I of my interview with Mike Mather last week. Here’s part II.

Take this as a short teaser for his outstanding new book, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places. I highly recommend that you buy it, read it, and if you are part of a church leadership team, consider reading it together.

Also, if you’d like to listen to the full interview, here’s the audio for streaming or download:


Teddy: So (in the first part of the interview) you mentioned DeAmon and you mentioned young people asking questions. Say a bit more about this whole roving listener, how long you’ve been having roving listeners and how this came about.

Mike: So the local development corporation contacted us from our neighborhood and said they were going to do a strategic plan and they wanted us to partner with them, which meant they wanted money. And we said, “Well, we’ll partner with you on this, but we have three conditions. One is you won’t do it by doing a need survey. You’ll do it by doing a survey of what people have, not what’s missing from people. The second thing is we get to choose the person who leads it. And the third is we get to supervise that person, because though their lips said, “yes, yes, yes,” their eyes said, what are you talking about? 

And so we went to DeAmon, who lives in our neighborhood and would walk down and see me every day. And he was a member of our church and he would talk to me about, “Oh, I just met this guy who lives at the corner of 32nd and Park. And he plays chess on his porch every afternoon and all the kids gather around and he’s teaching them about life when he does this.” Or, “I just ran into the Buddha boys, this local gang at the corner of 31st and Broadway and one of them’s a poet and one of them is a mechanic and one of them loves science.” And he would tell me these things.

So we went to DeAmon and said, “How’d you like to get paid for what you already do?”

Teddy: That’s a good deal.

Mike: Yeah, and he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, you seem to recognize the giftedness of people, and so we need you to do that for this strategic planning process.” So he began to do that. So again, when I had come back to Broadway, we had been running the summer program the same way as when I left at the end of ’91. So now it’s 2004 or ‘05. We’re still running the summer program basically the same way. It wasn’t bad, it wasn’t doing anything destructive. But from my perspective and from a really practical perspective, it wasn’t really changing anything.

Somebody once talked about discernment by nausea, where you know something has to change and it’s not going to be fun…  So we took a couple of days off, we prayed together, we talked with one another. And what we decided to do out of that was to build on the work DeAmon had been doing by hiring young people who live in our neighborhood and paying them to meet their neighbors.

They do three things. They name the gifts, talents, dreams, and passions they see in the lives of their neighbors. They lay hands on them and bless them. And they connect them to other people who care about the same thing. So if they find gardeners, they connect them to other gardeners. If they find cooks, they connect them with other cooks… people who love business. And then the gift of the church is that we can connect them to people who are outside of the neighborhood and care about the same things.

But then people aren’t meeting about needs. They’re meeting about, “Oh, we all cook,” or “We all garden.” So when they get together, they’re not talking about “what can I do to help you?” They’re talking about, “So what’s your favorite recipe? What kind of flour do you use for this? What are the tools you use in this gardening project? How did you start your business? Let me tell you how I started mine.” And then people are meeting each other, as we would say in the church, as sisters and brothers. 

Teddy:  Oh, that’s great! Mike, was it you who had the tee shirts or the signs that said, “I See You.” Or am I thinking of someone else?

Mike: And we also had the sign that said, “I am more than you see.” Is that what you’re thinking of?

Teddy: I think so. 

Mike: We did have “I see you” stuff, too, and we talk about that a lot. It’s a greeting in South Africa when people greet one another. They say, “I see you.” And the response is something along the lines of, “It is good to be seen.”

It is good!

Teddy: And that seems just the premise that runs through all of this – bringing people together in those settings where they can really see and be seen.

That’s not just an unconventional approach to your neighborhood. It’s in the rest of the ministry, too. I was just telling someone a few weeks ago as we were talking about youth ministry that I talked to a guy who hired a youth minister and said, “If you create a youth program, you’re fired.” That’s one of my favorite quotes from you, because I think it illustrates how this mentality is something within your church’s ministry, too.

Mike: That’s right. Inside the walls and outside the walls.

Teddy: So what does that mean, “If you create a youth program, you’re fired”?

Mike: One of the things is—studies have shown this—that youth groups don’t do a good job of developing people who then are part of the faith later on in life. So one thing is we keep doing something that we know practically doesn’t work. But the other thing is how does it reflect what we really believe? So I can’t remember if I told this story in the book. Did I tell the story about how Methodist Hospital started in Indianapolis?

Teddy: I’m not sure.

Mike: So over 100 years ago… Again, let me stress this, over 100 years ago, a group of young people from around the city who were Methodist came to the Methodist conference and said, “There is not a hospital for poor people in this city. So give us $1 million. [This is over 100 years ago!] And we’re going to start one.” And they did! I mean, they were young people, like 17 to 29 years old.

Now, what we ask for our young people these days is to go on the stage at Annual Conference and jump up and down and clap!

But we believe that… In most cultures in the world, when you’re 12 years old, you’re expected to be making a contribution. So we believe people have something to offer and that God’s at work in people.

So one of the things that we did with that was we would organize individual meals around each young person. (We do this for young people, both in the church and outside the church.) We would go to the young person’s home or in some cases, very few, but in some cases, the young person didn’t have a home, so we would go to a restaurant. The young person’s family had to be there. The young person could invite whoever they wanted to be there. 

And then we would invite a couple of extra people. We’d eat together, and then when the meal was over, we’d ask everybody there to tell the young person what gifts they see in that young person’s life. And so people go around the room and do that. And then we ask the young person to speak to us about what he or she thinks their calling in this life is going to be and is. And then after that young person speaks about that, we turn to everybody there and say, “Does anybody here have anything to offer to the gifts of this young person, to what this young person thinks they’re going to do with their life?”

Now how many of us are doing what we thought we’d be doing at 15? Not very many of us. But that isn’t the point. The point is people recognizing and affirming that God is moving in our lives. That we have particular uniqueness and a call and a giftedness. So the first couple of young people that we did this with, we had them come and talk to the Governing Council of the church and after they left, the people in the Governing Council asked, “Why are we just doing this for young people?”

So you know, actually the most recent thing we’ve done with that is we’ve started doing it for shut-ins. And we did that because somebody felt the call to be with older folks, and we said, “Okay, well how about doing this?” And it’s been great! It’s the church caring for each other and doing what we can do like that.

Teddy: And you’re beginning to answer one of the other questions that I had for you, because you’re in a different setting from a lot of folks who will read this book. You’re sitting in a neighborhood that’s considered impoverished by the city around it and has different groups coming in all the time to try to improve it. I wanted to talk some about if a church in the middle-class suburbs asked you, “How do we change what we do?” What would you tell them? And I think you’ve answered at least a part of that. I wonder if there’s anything else you would say.

Mike: We do a couple things with that because we do get this question. And one of the things we’ve come to say to people is, take one of the things that you’re already doing and try an experiment.

So let me give you a couple of examples. One was a church that comes in and does a meal every Sunday for people in the inner city. So they said, “How could we do something different with this?” I said, “Well why don’t you try and make this as easy as possible? Don’t make it really complicated.” So you have somebody in your group who listens well. I’m sure there is. Because in every group there is somebody. So for the next two months, just ask that person to hang out with people who come to the meal and listen. And then at the end of that two months, have that person come and talk to your whole group and ask them, “What did you hear? What did you notice? Is there something we can build off of here?” So that’s one thing.

Another thing is, say you’ve got some program you’re doing in the inner city. One of the things we’d like you to do is try and identify one or two people who you’re serving who have similar interests as the people in your group. If you have people in your group who like to knit or if you have people in your group who like to do carpentry, what you’re looking for is somebody who you meet who has that same love for that. And then do something together. First of all, just get together for a meal and talk together about that. And then what we ask the pastor to do is to show up and listen and not say anything, which is sometimes hard for them.

Teddy: No doubt.

Mike: But then try to figure out, where did you see the spirit moving in that, and how can I invest in that? Asking people to change the ways completely they do things is crazy. It’s impossible. But asking people to begin to look at this and try to do it step by step… try to connect, get the gardeners together, get the cooks together, get people who love poetry together. It doesn’t matter what it is, and it’s idiosyncratic to every group of human beings you have.

But just one step at a time.

Teddy: It’s humbling to listen to you talk and to read your book because, like I said near the beginning of this conversation, so much of it feels like it should be intuitive. But it’s only when I hear you say it that I go, “Oh, this shouldn’t be that difficult!” It’s really just taking small steps.

Mike: Well, again, the reason it isn’t difficult is because it’s the way we already believe. The difficult thing is figuring out what it looks like to actually do it. Because all our practices are built around scarcity.

Teddy:  Say another word about that. Is there anything about this work that you’re talking about that’s unique to the gospel? That is, there’s a lot of it that we could call humanitarian, even spiritual, but is there anything that you would say makes it unique to the Christian faith?

Mike: Well, I would say a couple things about that. One is that I have what people would consider a realized eschatology. In Matthew 11, John the Baptist is in prison and he sends his disciples to go talk to Jesus and say, “Are you the one?” And Jesus says, “Go back and tell John, the blind see, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news, and blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” I believe those things are already true. I think the poor have good news. And I think what’s uniquely Christian is that we can see this when nobody else will.

I think that Jesus heals more people of blindness than he heals of anything else because that’s our biggest problem. Think about the story of the man born blind in John 9. That’s a really long story, and we know if we read the story, at the end Jesus is talking about the blindness of the religious leaders. But early in the thing, he heals the guy born blind and the guy goes back to his village, and it says that many did not recognize him. He was blind! He wasn’t disfigured. But they could only see him for what he was missing, for what was wrong with him.

And so I just think over and over again…  Blind Bartimaeus! There are more stories in particular about Jesus healing someone of blindness than of any other particular thing. There’s like nine instances of Jesus healing somebody from blindness in the gospels.

Paul talks about this in Corinthians when he says, “Now remember who you were dear sisters and brothers, for from a human point of view, few of you were wise or powerful, from high social standing, but God purposely chose what the world considers foolish in order to shame the wise, and God purposely chose what the world considers weak in order to shame the strong, and God purposely chose what the world looks down on and despises and thinks of as nothing in order to destroy what the world thinks of as important.”

I think what is uniquely Christian here is this recognition that God in Christ has done these things and has changed the world unalterably and forever, and we can act like it, or we cannot. 

And it doesn’t change what God in Christ has done. What it changes is, are we entering into that joy that Jesus talks about in John 15 when he says, “I came that you may have joy and that your joy may be full.” I think it’s that! And I think it’s over and over again. I think I wrote in the book that in John 6 at the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus tells the disciples to gather up the scraps. And it says, “They gathered up baskets full.” When he says to them to gather up the fragments, it’s the same language, it’s the same word that he uses in John 10:10 to say, “I came that you may have life abundant.” These fragments are the abundance. It’s all these pieces that are present right now. That’s what I think is uniquely Christian about this.

Teddy: That’s a great realized eschatology laid out in full.

Mike, I could talk to you all day. I hope you keep writing, because you’ve just shared a lot that didn’t make the cut in this book. I think there’s a lot more to go. Thank you. I really appreciate this.

Mike: Thanks for having me, Teddy. 

Teddy: Having Nothing, Possessing Everything. I especially loved your subtitle, “Finding abundant communities in unexpected places.” That’s just right.

Thank you so much for this time. I told you earlier I’ve already bought a good half dozen of your books, and I’m probably planning to buy another half dozen more to send to different people. And that’s the first time I’ve done that in a few years. I don’t do this often, but I really think this is valuable, and I appreciate you writing it and doing what you’re doing. So thank you, Mike.

That’s all for my interview with Mike. Now go buy his book. Get a copy for yourself and a copy for a friend. And consider sharing this interview so some other people can be exposed to it, too.

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