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.

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TWO LOSSES

Earlier this year, I was saddened by two deaths that happened around the same time. Billy Graham died and his death was followed by that of Stephen Hawking. Given the fact that these two men had what appeared to be vastly different spheres of influence, very few reports that I saw made any connection between the two. But I admired both of them and both were influential in my life and the two death coming so close together had an effect on me.

I really don’t know if there was any real connection between the two—my speculation is that each at least knew of the other but probably didn’t spend a lot of time reading each other stuff or pondering each other’s teachings. In fact, given the misguided assumption on the part of many in the modern western world that science and religion don’t mix, there are more than a few who might suggest that Hawking and Graham would likely have been enemies, since they were widely recognized as leaders in their respective spheres.

But for me, well, I didn’t see a conflict. I am a science nerd and a theology nerd. And in truth, there have been lots of times when I have found myself working hard to wrap my head around both men’s ideas—and more than a few when their ideas have come together in that confusing mix in my mind and created a theological-scientific thought process that resulted in a headache and more confusion.

Unlike some, I don’t approach theology and science with the expectation of conflict and tension. When I struggle to read Hawking on time and the origin of all things or when I read Graham on faith and salvation, I don’t weigh one against the other to see who is right. Thinking about heaven and the afterlife seems to naturally lead into thinking about time and what it is—Graham leading to Hawking. Thinking about the Big Bang naturally leads to thinking about who and why—Hawking leading to Graham.

Both have had an effect on my thinking and my theology. Both have troubled and inspired me. Both have confused and irritated me. Both inspired agreement and disagreement . Both have helped me understand more about myself, my place in creation and my faith. And as a result, the deaths of both left me saddened and feeling like my world has shrunk a bit.

I didn’t spend a lot of time reading and studying the writings of either. I own and have read books by both and enjoyed them. Mostly, I was content to know that they were both there, both doing their thing and both accessible through their writings and so on should I ever decide to really follow up on their work. Honestly, I sometimes felt the Graham’s stuff was a bit too easy to understand and Hawking’s was a bit too hard to understand—but that didn’t stop me from buying and reading some of their work.

I am never going to be an evangelist like Graham nor a theoretical scientist like Hawking but I do appreciate their work—and have never felt a need to decide which body of material was more valuable to me or to the world. Each did their thing and each did it well and both taught me important stuff about God, creation and even myself.

I am not interested here is moralizing about their lives, choices or spiritual fates. That isn’t my job. God in his grace makes those kinds of decisions. Me—well, I admired both, I read both and I learned from both. Their lives and their work and their personality were and are important to me. I can and will continue to appreciate the contribution both have made to me personally and the world in general. And most of all, I will not fall into the trap of seeing these people as representations of sides in some mythical and mystical eternal battle.

These were two people who gave themselves completely to their callings and in the process of chasing their dreams and visions, showed the rest of glimpses of deeper and higher truths that we can all benefit from. So, to Stephen Hawking and Billy Graham, I say, “Thank you—I will miss you.”

May the peace of God be with you.