CLOSE THEM DOWN!

Recently, both my wife and I has parishioners in the large regional hospital 2.5 hours away. Our pastoral calling made a trip to the city necessary—and practical considerations made going together in one car a good idea. The fact that we would have some uninterrupted time together while we were doing our respective jobs was a blessing. The five hour drive wasn’t such a great blessing but we were at least together.

On the way back, we stopped for coffee and groceries—whenever we pass near a larger centre, we plan our shopping trip to take advantage of the lower prices and greater selection. While we were having our coffee break, a friend we hadn’t seen since our last stint in Kenya noticed us and came over to sit with us. We had a good time catching up with what was going on in all of our lives.

Except that one part of the conversation upset us both a bit. Our friend knew we were back in Canada but didn’t know what we were doing so we had to do the story of which churches we were serving. It took a while to get across the idea that between us, we serve nine different churches. We had to go through the explanation of how many worship services we do each Sunday; how many people there are in worship; how many in my pastorates go wherever the worship is and so on.

After we got that part done, our friend made the profound observation that it would make a lot more sense to close a lot of the buildings and save everyone a lot of time and effort. At that point, I sort of began looking at my watch, wondering if it we could graciously break off the conversation and head for the groceries and then home.

Our friend’s observation, delivered with such conviction, was the perfect example of armchair pastoring. I am not sure but I suspect that his comments about closing buildings were delivered as if I had never thought of that. He likely felt that he was giving me some important advice that would change the course of my ministry.

Certainly, on the level of simple logic, closing buildings makes perfect sense. But the practical realities of closing get twisted together with social, cultural, personal, family and theological ties that create a knot with deep and powerful roots. Closing church buildings isn’t an easy process—it is a Gordian knot that even Alexander’s chopping solution won’t work for.

There are valid reasons and effective processes for closing church buildings—but the process is long, slow and inefficient to the extreme. And that is because the process doesn’t involve economics and efficiencies and logic. It actually involves feelings and traditions and hopes and dreams and a bunch of other non-logical and hard to measure stuff. Any pastor who approaches the process of closing a building steps into a mindfield protected by lasers, machine guns, trained attack scorpions, dive bombers and super ninjas—and that is just the normal level of protection. Threaten the building and the people really get serious about its defence.

I learned a long time ago that ministry in rural areas and small churches is going to have to be done in the context of too many and too much building. The demands of buildings are going to consume lots of time and energy and money. Long term, some of them must and will close. But in view of the difficulty and poor return on time and energy investment, I decided to ignore buildings and focus on ministry. I use the buildings, I appreciate the history, I even try to take part in repaid and clean up days—but the building isn’t the focus of my ministry. The people are—and if they want to continue with too many and too much building, that really isn’t a big issue for me. I will encourage them to look at their building status, I will encourage them to think seriously about their buildings, I might even suggest that the church isn’t a building—but I will do that in the context of trying to remember which building we meet in this week and which building is going to need repairs this week and all the rest.

My friend’s suggestion was a much too simple solution to a much too complicate issue that I generally choose to ignore because there are better ways to spend my ministry time.

May the peace of God be with you.

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SAD NEWS

In that past couple of weeks, the news from our denominational office has included obituaries of two pastors. Both of them were second career pastors, people who had sensed God’s calling later in their lives and were willing to answer that call. Both of them attended the seminary where I was teaching at the time and both were in my classes so I knew them fairly well.

There are not the first students from my teaching days to have died. Several students from my times teaching in Kenya have died—but given the realities of life in Kenya, those deaths, while sad, were not a total surprise. There have even been some students from my time teaching in Canada. A couple of students died as a result of existing medical conditions and so again, their death, although sad, were not unexpected.

These last two, however, were a bit harder for me to process. Both were older and their death were ultimately the result of accumulating enough years that their bodies simply wore out. What makes these more difficult is that neither student was that much older that I am—well, one was a fair bit older but the other was much closer to my age than I realized.

I am saddened by their deaths. They were students but because of the nature of my teaching style and the relatively small size of the clergy community in our denomination, they were also friends. I didn’t see either of them all that much beyond denominational events but we could and did talk and share and were concerned with each other’s lives and ministry. It is sad to think that I won’t see either of them again this side of eternity.

But their deaths also opened a door that I have pretty much been avoiding. I am getting older. Normally, I am not overly conscious of being 66 years old, unless of course it is one of those days when my much older knees are protesting and complaining. I am not sure exactly what age I perceive myself but it is definitely younger than 66. But as I was reading the obituary of the former student who was pretty close to my age, I realized that being 66 has some serious implications. I am in pretty good health, according to my personal observations and my GP’s evaluations, but the basic statistical reality is that I am closer to my death date than I am to my birth date. And since the latest scientific research suggests that the upper limit of human aging is about 120, by that most optimistic standard, I have lived well over half my life.

I deal with death as a regular part of my work. The pastor is one of the first people called in rural areas when death occurs. But most of the time, there is a professional wall between me and the death. I am concerned with helping the people I pastor work through their trauma and grief and so on. Without question, some of these deaths touch me and affect me—my professionalism isn’t something I use as a defence against my own grief.

But these two students dying of essentially age related causes at an age that I can identify with because of its proximity to my age—well, I really can’t professionalize that. To start with, I am not the pastor in either of those situations. I am just one of the many who knew them and who grieves their loss. And without the professional focus to distract me, I look at their loss more personally—and I also recognize the implications of their deaths for me and my context.

Their deaths are sad—I will miss them. Their deaths also point out to me that I am getting up there and could be closer to my own end that I want to realize. But in the end, I really can’t live well if I pay too much attention to the statistical realities that come with my present age. I know that I will die some day. I do take care physically—eating sort of right, sleeping enough, doing some exercise. But I am not really interested in living with the fear or dread of my death. The reminders of the potential that my former students death’s brought are real—but I think that in the end, I decided a long time ago to live until I die, without too much worry about when and how that will be.

May the peace of God be with you.

OCCUPATIONAL HAZARD

Although I am the pastor of small churches, both the pastorates I serve are active with a variety of events going on. Besides the regular and expected activities like worship and Bible Study, we also have a lot of special events. And because of our unofficial denominational traditions or deeply rooted cultural traditions, special events require food as part of the process.

Normally, the special events that we do in the separate pastorates happen at different times and so my attendance at food events is staggered, allowing me some time to work off my indulgence before another one happens. I could, I suppose, set severe limits on how much I eat at special church events but the reality is that I pastor two pastorates full of really good cooks and food events are therefore one temptation that I really can’t resist. Both the old favourites and the new offerings are all so good that I struggle to resist going back the third time. Some separation between the pastorate special events is therefore a blessing.

However, the inevitable happened recently. Both pastorates had special events on the same Sunday—and both events were special enough that we had to have food. The first event was a community blessing service at the local wharf, followed by a potluck lunch at a community hall. That was followed by a hymn sing at the other pastorate, which included a pot luck supper. I did manage to get a break between the two, long enough to bring home one set of church stuff and dishes, take a quick nap and grab the second set of church stuff and food for the second service.

The services went well. The community blessing did bring a few community members to our service and hopefully raised our profile a bit in the community. The second, the hymn sing, was a regular part of our church schedule there and was well attended, including people for whom the hymn sing is an opportunity to check in with our congregation.

The first potluck was everything I expected: a new dish from an experimental cook that was both interesting and delicious; a soup from another that was great; some salads that fit well with the warmth of the day and some tasty deserts. In spite of my well thought out plan to pace myself in view of the next potluck, the table temptation won out and I had more than I needed—but it was really good.

After the quick stop at home, I was off to the second. As the sanctuary filled up, the hall also filled up with tantalizing smells and appetizing dishes. As I ran around between the sanctuary and hall doing all the stuff that pastors do before a special event, I can’t actually say that I was feeling hungry but the smells and visual presentations were interesting and actually tempting.

The hymn sing was good—everyone enjoys the opportunity to sing their favourite hymn and experiment with some new ones. And after the hymn sing, as I pronounced the benediction and the blessing, we headed for the hall. As usual, I hung back to greet people and do some pastoral stuff and that sort of thing. That is normal—but this time, there really wasn’t all that much pull to the food table. But eventually, I got in the line and grabbed a plate.

And then, well, that looked really good and I know this is always good and I have to try that and isn’t that interesting and is that really curry—and before I knew it, I had a plate full and was wondering if there was room for just a bit of that, which of course there was. Once again, I celebrated the giftedness and generosity of the people I serve—or I gave in to temptation. I prefer the first version of events, although I know there are some small minded people who would insist on the second explanation.

I did actually spend an hour on the exercise bike when I finally got home. That really didn’t erase the effects of the two potlucks but it did help me feel a bit more virtuous after the indulgence. Add to that the fact that the next potluck is a month away and that will only be one and I should probably be okay.

May the peace of God be with you.

SEND ME

Years ago, our denomination was beginning a new, improved, streamlined approach to some part of our shared life. They needed people to help the denomination understand the process they were developing. And because this was new thing, they needed not just anybody but specific, respected, articulate, capable people to be a part of this process. They weren’t advertising the new volunteer positions—they were targeting very carefully chosen people whose wisdom, experience and gifts were identified after careful thought and discussion. Given the importance of the new program, that was the only way to really deal with the recruitment process.

As recruitment attempts go, this was one of the slickest that I have been a part of. Instead of trying to use guilt to motivate people into taking part or issuing a blanket call and hoping someone good would show up, this was an attempt to make the potential recruit feel special and important and valuable and significant. When I clearly told the recruiter no, I watched the dismay and surprise flash across his face—how could anyone turn down such a well planned and well executed recruitment process?

I have often been the focus of denominational and other recruitment drives. Some, like this one are slick and polished. Some are sloppy and unconvincing. A few still try to use the guilt process. And some come smacking of desperation. Because I have spend my career working in and for the church, I haven’t had recruitment attempts that come with financial incentives, although now and then the process has included coffee or lunch.

What they all mostly have in common is the assumption that it is God’s will for me to be involved in this process. Whether through the careful study process or the grace of God in a sloppy process, somehow, the recruiters are being used by God to call me to what must be God’s will for my life. There are no shortage of calls in the life of a pastor or other religious leader.

I believe that God has called me. I believe that he has called me to ministry in general and to specific expressions of that general call to serve. But I don’t believe that everything that claims to be a call from God is actually a call from God. And since I generally can’t actually depend on the person seeking to recruit me to help understand God’s calling on my life, I have to find other ways to testing to see whether this great opportunity is a calling from God or a distraction from my real calling.

For me, it is important to recognize that not everything that claims to be a call from God is actually a call from God—or at least it isn’t a call from God for me. God may well be calling someone to serve him through the new and improved denominational program—but the fact that God is seeking to call someone doesn’t mean he is specifically calling me to be involved. The fact that the recruiter is convinced that God wants me there isn’t the same as God actually wanting me there.

And so I have to look carefully at each claim, prayerfully considering it. I sometimes discuss it with friends. Now and then, I will check with the church. But mostly, I evaluate a potential new call in the context of the present call from God. If it is clear that God has called me to something like being a pastor, anything that threatens that call is probably not from God, unless it includes something from God that makes it clear to me how the new call and the continuing call fit together.

I am committed to following where God leads me. I have spend my life doing just that. But for me, part of this commitment to following also includes a commitment to knowing when God isn’t calling me. I think this part of the commitment has saved me and my primary calling a great deal of pain and hardship over the years. I have passed up some “tremendous” calls over the years—but in the end, if it isn’t actually from God, can it really be counted as a call from God?

May the peace of God be with you.

HERE AM I, LORD

As a pastor, I have discovered that I often end up dealing with things from a variety of perspectives. Sometimes, I am a student, discovering as much as I can about a topic. Sometimes, I am a teacher, explaining the issues to students and parishioners. Sometimes, I am part of a larger group that is seeing to do something on a larger scale. But the truth is that most of the time, as a pastor, I am dealing with stuff one on one, as someone struggles to figure out how their life deals with whatever happens to be coming their way.

At those times, I draw deeply on all my education, my research, my training, my talents, my gifts. I have been called by God to help this person in this area—and as much as possible, I work to give them my best for God to use in their life process. Whatever the person is dealing with, I have been called by God to used everything I have to help them make the connection with God that will enable them to find the divine resources to deal with whatever comes their way.

I am not always comfortable with this calling. There are times when it is extremely uncomfortable and even scary. There are times when I feel like I am walking on a tightrope in a still cross wind. There are times when I am sure that I am wasting my time but have to try anyway. There are, of course, times when through the grace of God, everything comes together and the person overcomes. More often, the person makes a step that diminishes the problem a bit and sets up the process for another step down the road a bit.

Some of the things I deal with one on one would be a lot easier to deal with in a different socio-cultural-political climate. Some of the stuff I help people agonize through would be a lot easier if things were different on the macro scale. Helping survivors of childhood sexual abuse, for example, would be a lot easier for the survivor is there weren’t the social stigma and reluctance to admit the problem exists let alone the serious long term consequences that it brings.

At times, I think that someone should do something about the big stuff. Occasionally, I toy with the idea of starting something to deal with the big picture. And now and then in my ministry, I have actually been involved in some of the big picture stuff, working with others to bring about changes. But mostly, I have spent my career dealing with one issue at a time, one person at a time, one day at a time.

It isn’t that I don’t see the big picture. Intellectually, emotionally and vocationally, I am hard wired to seek out and understand the big picture. I am comfortable with the big picture and generally have no problem relating the specific to the general. Part of my ability to help in the specific is tied to my ability to grasp the general.

But for all that, I spend most of my time working with the specifics. And that, I think, is tied closely with my calling. I have been called to be a pastor and teacher. My calling, at least as I have seen it up to this point, is to be the one who can help people mobilize their faith to find what they need to deal with whatever part of life they are currently dealing with. A smaller part of that calling is teaching those not in the specific to understand and be ready for the specific when it happens to them or they are called to help others deal with it.

I sometimes tell people who want me to become involved in the big picture stuff that I am too busy to be involved. And that is pretty much the truth. I have a calling, a calling to be a pastor and teacher. To carry out that calling properly takes significant time and effort, time and effort that I willing offer to God and others. When God calls me to the big picture stuff, it has always been in the context of caring for the specific first and then using spare time and energy to deal with the big picture.

I am grateful for those called to deal with the big picture—someone needs to do it. But someone also needs to deal with the specifics and that is where my calling has tended to take me. Here I am, Lord.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEGINNING AGAIN

September has arrived. The days are noticeable shorter and even though they can still be quite warm, mornings have a fall feel. The air is cooler and sometimes, there is a vague hint of frost in the air. Summer is over and for most people, the year is drawing to a close. We look ahead to the coming of really cold weather, snow and winter. The next big bump in the year is Christmas and then it is over.

Except for me and many other clergy, September really marks the beginning of the year. For many of us, the church year actually runs from September to May or June. I make my plans based on that year and most of the people I know in ministry follow the same pattern. So, for me, that means the coming of September means the start of a new year. The programs and groups we shut down in May or June start back up. The new initiatives and plans start to unfold. We will turn on the engine and get things moving as we begin another church year.

This is generally a hopeful and enjoyable time. When Bible Study starts up, we will reconnect and rekindle our exciting process. The new ideas we have been planning for get brought online. Our numbers stabilize after the summer fluctuations—summer visitors go home, regulars come back and preaching can focus on more in-depth themes. For the next eight or nine months, we will be full steam ahead, being the church the way we interpret God’s calling on us, with the Christmas shift and the anticipated snow days.

I have been involved in the September New Year activities for a long time—I began serving churches as a pastor a long time ago and consider myself a seasoned veteran of the church New Year process. I have made a few changes over the years to cater to cultural shifts and ministry trends—we start a bit later in September than I used to because of the summer creep that has pushed the summer slump further into September. Some programs have disappeared—when there is no Sunday School, there is no need to plan and push the Sunday School opening.

I have generally approached September with a positive outlook. I work with the church leadership to make plans for the new year which will help us as a church. I see each year as an opportunity to help the church become more and more the church. Sometimes, we are using our new year to clean up and repair some problem whose time has come. Sometimes, we use our new year to look at ourselves and explore God’s leading and grace. Sometimes, we are looking beyond problems and using the new year to try something new and different that will help us become what we feel God is leading us to become. Every now and then, there has been a new year when we haven’t had to do clean up and haven’t planned new initiatives—those have been rest years, something like the Jubilee year the OT sets for the people of Israel.

Each of these approaches to the new year has its excitement and requirements and blessings and setbacks. Each requires pastor and church to focus and work and gives us a direction and goal to properly harness our energy. Each helps us define and express our nature as believers and churches. Each helps shape not just our present ministry but also our future ministry.

As pastor, I have a vital part in the whole process. I am paid to focus on the church. My calling and my position give me the luxury of being able to focus most of my time and energy on the work we are doing together. I become the cheerleader, the analyst, the encourager, the teacher. And so the new year always brings new demands, new directions, new things to do and try. Since a healthy church isn’t just doing the same old stuff every year, my role as pastor means that each year, I have to be looking at new and different stuff, challenging myself and the church to make the best of the year to come.

I know that by the middle of next May, we will all be ready for a break—but right now in September, we are at the beginning of a new year, filled with excitement and possibility. Happy New Year!

May the peace of God be with you.

HONESTLY

We were discussing a possible addition to our church’s official board. One possibility was mentioned. Since I was relatively new and didn’t really know people, I let the others carry the discussion. In the course of the conversation, one of the people suggested that we not include that person because they had two personal habits that might cause problems: they liked to gossip and liked even more “telling more than they knew.” I suspect these days, they might have been described as purveyors of fake news.

I do have to be careful here. I am a preacher—and preachers make a lot of use of stories. I confess to tailoring my stories to some degree. Sometimes, details need to be obscured so no one recognizes the people involved—because most of my ministry has happened in a limited geographical area that is a big consideration. Sometimes, though, I edit the story to make it fit better with the sermon theme or to make me look a bit less inept or stupid. There is truth in the story as presented but how much depends on the sermon needs and how much sleep I had.

There have always been issues with personal honesty, even within the church. People make claims that are blatantly false to anyone in the know and go on to defend those claims vigorously, even to the point of attacking those who disagree. I like to think that some of the people doing this sort of thing aren’t actually lying—they are just mistaken and because of their personality, they need to defend what they believe it right.

But there are others whom I am pretty sure know what they are saying is wrong and keep saying it and defending it because doing so advances them. They might gain power, followers, notoriety, money or some other benefit. When the person doing this is an advertiser or a politician, I can almost understand the dishonesty. They are getting paid to be dishonest and most of us don’t actually believe what they say anyway.

When it is a member of the faith doing this, whether pastor or layperson, I tend to be more upset and even angry. Honesty is one of the basic requirements of an ethical and faithful life. If we can’t trust a person to be honest about one area of their life, how can we trust them to be honest about their claims about their faith?

But the painful truth is that our whole culture suffers when people are knowingly dishonest. No matter what the purpose of the lie, it undermines the basic trust that a culture depends on. When a culture allows whole groups of people to lie with impunity, it allows itself to drift into a state where anything goes. Soon, we come to the place where we prefer the lies to the truth. We want to be lied to, since the lies are generally prettier and more comforting than the truth. We might know that it is a lie, but it is a nice lie and we begin to prefer the lie to the truth.

When people who speak the truth become the targets of anger and even persecution; when those who knowing lie are seen as heroes; when right becomes an inconvenience to be hidden behind a more convenient lie, we are all in trouble. The lie works in the short term, but eventually, the sea will rise, the air will choke us, the economy will collapse, the preacher will be caught in immorality, the victim will demand revenge, the pyramid scheme will collapse, the partisan manoeuvring will be seen for what it is.

While more painful and difficulty, honesty does work better. The Truth is not just one of the foundations of the Christian faith—it is also a foundation of a healthy culture. Unfortunately, our western culture seems to have abandoned both the Truth and truth itself, preferring the temporary comfort of the lie and the liar. We are paying for this, we will pay even more for it. The price we pay and will pay isn’t worth it.

When liars become our leaders and when lies become our vision, we are doomed. Whether it is the church, the club, the local council, or the nation, when we build on lies, we are building on sand and what we build will collapse. As cliché as it might sound, long term, honesty is the best policy.

May the peace of God be with you.

ANONYMOUS

I am not particularly surprised by what the guy in my office is saying. He and I have disagreed on many aspects of my ministry since I began working for the church. He doesn’t like some of what I am preaching and teaching. But the reason for this particular visit grows out of a complicated situation that I have been providing pastoral care for. He doesn’t know the whole story and feels he should. Furthermore, he says, there are a lot of people in the church who feel the same way. “They” are saying that I am a problem and that I am going to cause serious harm to the church. “They” are talking to him because he stands for right and I don’t.

I have always had a very strong response to anonymous reports. On the one hand, I do like knowing what “they” are saying. Any organization, including the church, has a background level of discontent that generally doesn’t often become serious enough that people feel obligated to take a stand but it serious enough that they talk about it, as long as “they” don’t have to become identified with the talk. Part of my pastoral responsibility to the church is being aware of this background discontent. That generally only happens when someone tells me what “they” are saying. Sometimes, people tell me what “they” are saying as a favour because I need to know and sometimes, as in this particular situation, because the person speaking somehow hopes that what “they” are saying will reinforce their comments. Whatever the reason, I think it is good for me as pastor to know what “they” are saying.

However, I am also very aware of the reality that whatever “they” are saying isn’t important enough for them to take any real risk. “They” generally want to be able to complain without dealing with the responsibility that comes from taking a stand. Comments like this may sound serious and may even have a serious base but in truth, when “they” lack the conviction or courage to make their comments openly, I have difficulty taking them seriously and even more difficulty basing my actions on what “they” are saying.

I am aware that there are some times when being anonymous is necessary to protect the life of someone. I can understand that and approve of that. But in general, anonymous comments, no matter how strong or how pointed or how serious don’t overly affect my decisions. If I hear that “they” are upset by the new tie that my daughter gave me for my birthday, I am not going to stop wearing it.

So, back to the session we began this post with. When the guy told me that there were others who agreed with him and that “they” were equally upset with me, I responded in the way I learned a long time ago. I told him that I don’t respond to anonymous comments made by “they”. If “they” had something they think I needed to hear, “they” needed to come to me personally. If and when “they” came to see me, we could and would talk about their concerns openly and directly. But until then, I would listen to his complaints and respond directly to his concerns but I would neither listen to nor respond to any comments from the anonymous “they”, no matter how many of them he claimed there were.

Eventually, “they” showed up in my office. “They” consisted of this guy’s wife, who had already made it clear that she agreed with her husband. There were no other “theys”, or at least there were no other “theys” concerned enough to take a public stand. And if “they” were not willing to stand openly for what they were saying, I have no obligation to take them seriously.

Being anonymous allows too many people to say too much too often without having to be responsible. Hiding behind anything or anyone means that I don’t really have much invested in my stance—I have courage enough to say it anonymously but not enough courage to say it in my openly. But if I am not willing to say it openly, how committed can I really be to what I am thinking and saying?

May the peace of God be with you.

THE CHURCH MEETS

I am sitting in a coffee shop with a friend. He is drinking real coffee but I have been good and ordered a decaf so I don’t have to pay the extra price of regular coffee later. We have been friends for a long time but haven’t connected for a while so the conversations hops back and forth, covering a variety of topics as we try to catch up and move along at the same time. Because we are both believers and both fairly heavily involved in the work of our respective congregations, part of the conversation concerns our church life and our faith.

I have had this meeting a great many times with various people over the years, in several countries and two languages. And somewhere along the line, a question about the nature of the meeting popped into my mind—not during the meeting because the conversation is too free-flowing and jumps around so much that most of my attention is required to keep up. But after some meeting somewhere sometime, I began to wonder about the nature of the time together.

I wondered if I could properly say that the two or three of us sitting there drinking coffee and sharing and talking could be called a church. On one level, the answer is easy: No way. We were people drinking coffee and talking. We have none of the commonly recognized attributes of a church. There was no order of service, no sermon, no offering, no singing, no membership list. We don’t meet regularly, we don’t have an administrative structure, we have never developed a constitution and bylaws. We have never developed a program, run a Sunday School, conducted a baptism—although in fairness, I do have to say that at some point all of those things have likely been topics at the coffee shop.

That isn’t a good enough answer for me—I tend not to like pat and quick answers. Actually, to answer the question, I needed to ask another question, “Just what is a church at its most basic?” That is a question my analytical, research loving self can really dig into. Obviously, the best place to start is the New Testament, where our faith is explored and described and explained. There must be somewhere where there is a simple, clear definition of what the church is.

Except there really isn’t. It seems that the New Testament is based on several assumptions about the church: it will be made of believers, the believers will join together, they will have problems and they will be filled with the Holy Spirit. The New Testament has a lot of good advice for the church but no real definition of the church, which probably goes a long way to explain the incredibly diversity in churches around the world and throughout history.

But there is one place where I think we have something that comes close to a basic definition of the church. Matthew 18.20 records Jesus as saying, “… where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” NIV And maybe that is what I am looking for, a basic, elemental definition of the church, stripped of all the cultural, theological and ecclesiastical qualifications and requirements and all the rest.

The church exists when two or three people come together conscious of their shared faith. Their shared faith means that they aware of the presence of the risen, living Christ with them and that makes them the church or at least a church. For that time and that space, they are a church, a part of the universal gathering of God’s people of all time and space. I think this provides a very important definition of who and what we are as a church. It takes no more than a couple of people coming together conscious of their shared faith to be the church.

So, whether we need to share a consecrated Cup of wine, a blessed single serving of grape juice or a cup of coffee (even decaf), we can be the church. In this definition, the church is much more widespread, much more pervasive and much more involved in the world than if we see it as only a specific gathering meeting in a specific place conforming to all the specific requirements.

Two or three conscious of the presence of the Spirit—that gathering becomes a church. I like that lot. I will have to give that idea some more thought.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT MAKES A CHURCH?

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day that touched on my career as a pastor. I have spend my whole ministry career working in small congregations—and given the realities of my age, ministry gifts and so on, the chances of my being called to be the pastor of a big church are about as slim as the chances of either pastorate I serve mushrooming into a mega church. I am deeply aware that God can and does do great, wonderful and unexpected things so I can’t really close the doors on either thing happening but practically, I will in the next few years be retiring, having spent most of my ministry pastoring small congregations.

And that isn’t written with a tinge of sadness or wistfully wondering “what if?”. Being the pastor of small churches has been good for me for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons I appreciate is that I have learned a great deal about what the church is and can be because I have always worked with the church at its most basic. We who live in the small church are sometimes forced to be much closer to who and what we are called to be by virtue of the fact that most extraneous stuff is stripped away.

We don’t have much money so we can’t simply buy ministry. We don’t have many people so we can’t do stuff just because someone else is doing it. We often lack gifted people so we have to be selective about what ministry we do. We share our leadership with every other group and organization so we have to limit the demands we make on our member’s time. We are generally located in the midst of people who know us and our church from way back so we can’t do generic evangelism. In older congregations such as I serve, our history is well known, so we can’t pretend to be better that we actually are.

Within those real constraints, along with many others, we work at being the church. We work at being the embodied expression of God’s people here on earth. Because we don’t have the trimmings and options and bells and whistles, we have to learn how to be the essential church. And the real essence of the church is a group of people who share faith in God through Jesus Christ seeking to use the presence of the Holy Spirit to relate to each other and the world in ways that are congruent with the faith we proclaim.

And because we are small and live in the reality of the wider community, we need to do this in a context where everyone is aware of our failure to actually live up to the claims that we make. In small churches, our sins are more visible and more quickly pointed out. I joke with my churches that when something bad happens in our churches, it is being talked about in the local coffee shop before the benediction is finished. The talk may not actually get the story right, but that isn’t the issue—the issue is that we live church much more publically and openly when we are a small church living in a bigger community.

I think at our best, we in small churches learn about giftedness early—when there is only one person who can actually sing a solo in the congregation, that gift is seen, appreciated and valued. When there are only two people who can actually minister to pre-teens, they have an assured ministry spot.

We learn about grace and forgiveness—when the sinner is also a friend and a family member, it is harder to shun and condemn. It can be done and is done in some small congregations but more often than not, we discover the reality of grace and love and forgiveness as we grapple with the pain of our shared imperfection. Not many of us are willing to cast the first stone when we know and are known as well as we are in small churches.

We learn that effective evangelism doesn’t involve a program or a canned speech. Instead, it comes as a result of our hesitant and uncertain attempts to live and share our faith in the wider community. Both our successes and our failures are part of our evangelism.

I am not suggesting that large churches can’t learn these things—rather, I am saying that as the pastor of small churches, I have learned these things in this context and have tried to help others learn them as well.

May the peace of God be with you.