A few years ago, I was involved with some theology students who were connected with a large established urban congregation. The congregation inhabited an older building that had originally been located in the thriving downtown core of the city. It was an influential congregation in the city and the denomination for many years. It was so important that students from the theological school I attended were regularly invited to seminars to help us better understand how to do ministry in an urban setting. It was so important in the city that the chief of police was willing to come to talk to us theology students–and quite willing to suspend local no parking ordinances for the theology students.
But as with all things, the neighbourhood and church underwent serious changes. The church membership got older; the building began to fall apart; the neighbourhood became less desirable. Parking became both more and less of a problem–less of a problem because there were more and more empty spaces and more of a problem because cars parked near the building were probably going to be vandalized. The building doors were locked and alarmed and visitors were carefully scrutinized.
Eventually, the congregation made a decision. They would have to move. The downtown location was no longer desirable and with safety becoming a significant issue for the increasingly older congregation, the future of the congregation was at stake if they stayed where they were. They bought land in a much safer suburban location and began planning the relocation process that was vital to the future of their church. The downtown core just wasn’t safe anymore. How can you worship God when some street person is going to break into your car looking for anything that will help them buy drugs, alcohol or food?
The new location would allow the congregation to flourish again. They could do real ministry, rather than hide behind locked doors. They could invite friends to special events without warning them to bring the old car and make sure there was nothing of value in it. They could have a new building from which to really affect their community. They could get back to the serious business of ministry without having to worry about pan-handlers, street people, vagrants and prostitution.
Of course, this is a preacher story–this has never happened. No church would ever think of ignoring the needs of people just outside their doors. All churches want to do ministry. All believers see every individual as a person loved by God and in need of a tangible expression of the love of God through the efforts of the faithful. After all, we are called by God to be servants to God and to people.
Except that we don’t always do a good job of being servants in the messiness of life. I think we sometimes see mission and ministry as involving only those people who would fit well in a 50s TV sitcom–hard-working, wise father; stay-at-home mother always dressed like a fashion model; 2.5 mischievous but high achieving kids and one slightly less than perfect friend who says “darn” a bit too much. We can do serious ministry in that context–why, the work is pretty much done anyway. Even that “darn” kid will dress up as a shepherd for the Christmas concert and will likely become a pastor.
Jesus, of course, wants these people to know about his love. But what we forget too often is that Jesus also wants to street person breaking into a worshipper’s car to know about the love of God as well. He wants the model family to become part of the faith–but he also wants the teen run-away who is into drugs and prostitution to be a part of the faith as well. And his plan for reaching the model family and the street person and the teen addict is the same–he wants to use the ministry of the faithful expressed through the church.
As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Real ministry is messy”. And whether our church is located in a deteriorating downtown core, an up and coming affluent suburb or a dying fishing village, we need to open ourselves to the Spirit who will lead us into the best way to ministry and serve those around us. Moving the building to get a better class of sinners doesn’t quite seem to follow the pattern that Jesus gave us.
May the peace of God be with you.