BUSINESS MEETINGS

I don’t like meetings. There are a few that have been tolerable, many that have actually been important and a whole lot that could have been shorter, tighter and more effective. Generally, given an even choice between attending a meeting or going to the dentist, I would pick the dentist, except for the fact that going to the dentist is a lot like going to a meeting.

I don’t dispute the need for meetings. They are important and significant and are a necessary part of church and denominational and even normal life. I am not an anarchist, a dictator or a megalomaniac. Getting people together to talk about stuff is often the only way we can discover God’s leading and figure out how he wants us to do the work he has called us to do. Over the years, I have become very good at enabling meetings to become places where people have the freedom and encouragement to share and grow and develop ministry. I have also tied to teach other church leaders how to make meeting more effective and more a part of the process of discerning God’s leading.

But for all that, I don’t actually like meetings. So, when a new year rolls around, I brace myself for the wave of annual meetings I have to deal with—these days, that means anywhere up to a dozen different meetings by the time I count finance meetings, deacons’ meetings, congregational meetings and pastorate meetings. Sometimes, I am the chair of the meeting and other times, someone else chairs the meeting (I prefer someone else to be the chair).

Typically, church business meetings have been somewhat restricted to church members but because of the nature of our churches, we have been having open meetings and specifically inviting our non-members to be part of the process. I jokingly tell them during the announcement of the meeting that they are really a part of our fellowship and if we members have to endure the business meeting, they should have to as well.

One pastorate just wrapped up our season of annual meetings. And in spite of my antipathy to meetings, I felt that all the meetings in the process had a positive flavour. We did more than look at financial statements and hear reports. We spent time together, sharing about family and friends, passing on information about absent people, joking about who did what when. We were comforted by the fact that we didn’t go into debt over the past year and that we actually did some good stuff over the past year.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses—we talked about those who had died or had to move in the past year. We wondered how our aging creaky membership could look after our aging creaky buildings—none of us is able anymore to grab a hammer and fix the rotting sills that make the floor sag around the front door. But there are ways to deal with that, especially since we do have some money in the bank.

As pastor, I had some good things to report. Our churches grew over the year—not so much in numbers but definitely in faith. We have a sense of confidence in our churches. We have a developing understanding of how we are being salt and light in our communities; we are seeing some positive response from the community to the ministry we are doing; we have encouraged and enabled people to try a variety of things; we have experimented with worship and mission; we have shared life and all its triumphs and crises with prayer and support and casseroles. We have been the church.

So, I still hate meetings. But this meeting cycle has been worthwhile because it allowed us to take a look at ourselves and see where God has been working, what he has been doing and how he is leading us into the future. We have a bit of money, enough for our needs. Our buildings need some work but we can handle it. We have grown in a lot of ways—and we can all see it. We might have seen all that stuff without the meetings but then again, without the meetings, we wouldn’t have had the chance to get it all together at the same time. I won’t actually say “Thank God for meetings” but I will thank him for what he has shown us through the meetings.

May the peace of God be with you.

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COUNTDOWN

I have to have some surgery in the near future. All surgery is invasive and brings a variety of risks, some of them potentially serious, as the surgeon explained. However, the benefits of this particular surgery clearly outweigh the dangers and so I am waiting. Because of various factors beyond my and the surgeon’s control, the wait has been longer than either of us anticipated when we began this process.

Essentially, that means I have spent the past few months delaying and postponing and tentatively scheduling things, especially in my ministry. For a while, it looked like the date might fall around Easter, which meant I was tentatively planning our Easter services, half-expecting (and seriously hoping) someone else would be doing them. Then, it was winter vacation—we weren’t sure our winter trip to kids and grandkids would work out. Eventually, both Easter and the vacation happened.

And best of all, I got a date—as solid a date as one can get in any medical system. So now, I find myself dividing life and ministry into before and after surgery. When we talk about doing something in the churches, we need to decide if we can do it before or after my sick leave. Some stuff, like the ministry planning meeting for one pastorate, I would like to do before I am off, so that when I get back, we can jump right into work.

Some stuff, like the meeting at the other pastorate to discuss buildings and related stuff would be nice but can be put off—although the reality is that if we put it off, it likely won’t happen until fall because my sick leave likely ends at about the time most people stop wanting to have meetings because of the summer.

So, the churches and I find ourselves making ministry decisions based on the date of my surgery. For me, that is an interesting place to be in. Normally, my time and situation aren’t a big factor in the decisions we make as far as dates are concerned. As I jokingly tell church people, I am getting paid to be there and so unless the meeting falls on my previously scheduled vacation, I will be there. Many times, even my vacation has been scheduled around church events.

Decisions are made based on which deacon has to be away; how many regulars can’t make the meeting; who is going to have family visiting; which couple is having a significant celebration on the day we want to have a church picnic and so on. Those are all legitimate reasons to consider when scheduling a meeting or activity, at least as far as I am concerned. But as pastor, well, I am paid to work for the church and generally, that means my schedule flexes more than the church schedule.

I don’t have a problem with that—that’s why I get the big bucks. Well, actually, it is part of my calling. I committed to serving God through serving the churches and that involves a certain amount of flex in my planning. It is generally easier to make my plans flexible than it is to try and flex plans for half a dozen or more others.

But for now, everything seems to hang on my surgery and recovery. The churches aren’t going to be on hold for that period of time but we are dividing stuff up into before surgery and after surgery. Now, as a committed pastor, I should probably write that I feel guilty about that—but I actually don’t. I would prefer not to need the surgery but I do and that does affect the church.

But we are a church, a gathering of people who seek to work together to serve God, making allowances and flexing plans based on the needs of all our members. While I am generally one of the more flexible players in the process, this time I can’t be. The churches are comfortable with that, I am comfortable with that—and so we are all spending these days counting down to surgery day and working around this disruption in ministry. Right now, most stuff is being seen as pre- or post-surgery. That, for me, is part of the essence of a healthy church—we deal with the needs of our members, including the needs of the pastor.

May the peace of God be with you.

DURING THE HYMN…

As our church’s regular worship leader, I am normally quite busy during the singing of the hymns. I am checking to make sure that I have the next hymn marked, looking over the congregation to see if I missed anyone’s absence, making sure I have the right spot in the order of service set up on the tablet and, more and more these days with my aging tablet, making sure that I have enough battery power left to finish the service. Needless to say, I am not generally paying a lot of attention to the hymn.

But during a recent service, one line caught my attention. The organist had picked “Onward Christian Soldiers” as the opening hymn—and did her usual excellent job of playing the hymn—I almost felt I needed to march around the sanctuary during the chorus. What caught my attention, though, was the first line of the third verse, where we sang, “Like a mighty army moves the church of God”.

As we sang those words, I was struck by a sense of something—irony, delusion, confusion—something. Here we were, the seventeen of us who made up the congregation that day singing words that compared us to a mighty army. Now, it is true that our numbers were down that day for a variety of reasons: some were travelling, some were at another community function, some were sick and some were just AWOL. But even at our best, we are not a mighty army—mostly, the best our congregations can come with is a seriously under strength platoon and that depends heavily on visitors and summer people.

And our under strength platoon disresembles an army in many other ways. The two deacons who take up the offering are both in their 80s—they are doing really well for their age but they are still in their 80s. The pastor (me) isn’t capable of marching too far—I limp to the door to greet people after being on my feet for the worship service.

And so, our under strength, aging platoon creakily gets to our feet and songs words that proclaim us to be a mighty army. Maybe I should have checked the tablet battery one more time instead of paying attention to the words of the hymn. But then again, maybe the Spirit meant me to focus on those words.

Our church isn’t an army by any stretch of preacherly exaggeration. We were probably closer to that years ago when worship attendance could reach company strength but even at our best, we were never a mighty army. These days, we mostly wonder if we will have enough people to sing the hymns let alone do mighty army acts, whatever they are.

But we are a church—and we are part of the Church Universal, that body of believers stretching through time and space to encompass all people who have discovered the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We might be a small part of that Church Universal but we are still a part of it. And because we are a part of the whole church, the success, triumphs and victories of the church belong to us as well, just as our triumphs past, present and future belong to the whole church.

Our under strength platoon might not be triumphing like the booming church army in Kenya, for example. We might be losing members rather than gain members faster than we can count. We might not be standing up to persecution and government corruption and discrimination. We might not know how long we will keep our doors open, especially if we don’t figure out how to fix the sagging floor in the sanctuary.

But we are touching lives. We helped several families through the pain of death. We are growing in our personal faith through our Bible study group. We are helping the local school provide care for disadvantaged students. We can and do provide prayer support for anyone and everyone who asks for it and for many who don’t ask for it. We support church efforts here, there and everywhere through our offerings and prayers.

So maybe our under strength, seriously aged platoon isn’t a mighty army. But we are still part of a mighty army; we still belong to the victorious side; we have a place and a mission and we are doing it as best we can, with the Holy Spirit’s empowering.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT IF WE GOT BIGGER?

Our small congregation was worshipping. We were a bit smaller than normal but it wasn’t a problem—we knew where everyone was and they were all healthy and safe. Our worship proceeded at its normal pace: some scheduled stuff and lots of unscheduled interruptions and questions. Our worship resembles a worship service wrapped in a Bible study packaged in a theological seminary, trimmed with laughter and sprinkled with lots of questions and insights.

We share, we sing, we read and discuss Scripture, we pray, we have a sort of a sermon—we worship and it is a worship that we all find satisfying and uplifting. And since we have been shut down for three months, we are just getting back into the process, everyone enjoying the opportunity to get back to something we deeply enjoy.

As we were winding up, one of the participants raised another question. She wondered what would happen if we got bigger. Would we be able to do the same sort of worship? Her speculation was that we might be able to be the same up to a certain point but after that, there would just be too many people to do what we do. We joked a bit about that but for her, it was a real concern, not a major concern and certainly not one that will drive her to refuse entry to new people but a concern nonetheless.

I don’t expect our doors will be broken down by hoards of people wanting to be a part of our worship in the near future but since then I have been thinking some about the church in general and in specific. We have something unique and special in this congregation, something that works in part because of our small numbers. It is also possible because we are a group of people who share faith, a concern for understanding our faith, an appreciation for each other and a variety of other things.

For us, the church becomes a place where people can worship in the context of a free-flowing, unstructured structure that allows everyone freedom to participate. It works for us. But if we change the mix of people, it might not work as well, although our experience with visitors over the years is that they tend to find what we offer interesting. It will also change if we get a lot more people—the time factor will come into play. When half our group of 8-10 have a question or comment, we have time for that. But if we had 50 people and half of them had equally interesting questions or insights, there simply wouldn’t be time for what we do now.

I personally am not going to lie awake at night wondering what we are going to do about this. The church—both our little church and the church as a whole—isn’t static, or at least is shouldn’t be static. The Holy Spirit enables the church to be what it needs to be at any given time and place. Or rather, it is better to say the Holy Spirit seeks to enable the church to be what it needs to be at any given time and place.

But time and place and people change and the church needs to change as well. What we do now works well for us. Our church is stronger and more grounded because of our unique approach to worship (and Bible study as well). It has given us an opportunity to explore our faith and develop new understandings and ideas. All of us are stronger in our faith because of the way the Spirit has been working in our midst.

But neither the church nor the Spirit is static. The question we need to deal with isn’t “What if we change?” but “Where is the Spirit leading us?”. Change is inevitable. Our response as believers is not to try and convince ourselves and the Spirit that what happened yesterday is the only way the Spirit can lead but rather to use the Spirit’s presence to find the courage to embrace the change the Spirit is bringing to us so that we can continue to serve God and do his will.

Fortunately, I think that all of us in our small worshipping group have the willingness to recognize that things change—and hopefully, because of the way the Spirit has been working in our midst, we will have the faith and courage to accept His change.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING THE CHURCH

For the second time in two days, I am sitting with a group of believers. We come from different congregations, different denominations, different faith experiences. Some of are “professional” believers—pastors and retired pastors. We all live in the same geographical area, shop at the same stores, complain about the same inconveniences of living in a small community.

And we all share a common allegiance to God through Christ. True, we don’t express that allegiance in the same way. Some of us are part of the older liturgical denominations. Others are part of less liturgical denominations that broke from the others years ago. Some of us have a fairly conservative understanding of the faith while others push the theological boundaries. We sometimes bump up against those differences as we meet together.

But we do meet together. We recognize something that goes beyond our differences, a unifying commitment that makes the differences less important than the reality of our shared faith. True, we probably couldn’t develop a statement of faith that we could all agree to—but we can and do worship together happily and reverently.

We might not be too concerned with doctrines that are vitally important to others—but we can and do work together to discover ways to effectively give witness to the faith that we share. We recently began a process that will hopefully give us a better ministry to the poverty in our area.

We all have different approaches and emphasis in our ministries. Some are deeply involved in social issues; some are stressing environmental issues; some are developing ways of reaching the community more effectively. We share and discuss and celebrate our diverse ministries and as much as possible for over-committed people living in rural areas, we support each other’s efforts.

I like these times when the wider church comes together. As well as enabling us as believers and congregations to support each other, we are also making a powerful statement to the rest of the community. Rather than appearing to the community as a bunch of competing organizations trying to outdo each other, we are showing that even though we attend different worship on Sunday, we have a lot in common and we express that commonality as we work and share and fellowship and study and worship together.

And that is as it should be. I grew up in the era when denominations and even congregations within the same denomination were pretty sure that no one else knew the truth. We were often treated to discussions of why everyone else was wrong and we were right. Even though I was immersed in that culture, I never felt comfortable with it—something didn’t seem right.

And I eventually discovered what was wrong. No matter which form of worship; which denominational path; which theological line, we are all trying to develop and express our faith in God through Jesus Christ. The fact that my most comfortable expression of that is in the tradition I follow doesn’t negate the validity of another person’s tradition. It actually says more about the diversity of humanity.

And when the diverse expressions of the faith actually get along with each other, it makes a powerful statement about God’s love and our commitment. We are called to love one another as Christ loved us (John 13.34-35) and if we can do that in the face of historical, theological, doctrinal and denominational differences, we effectively show the world that Christ is bigger than any of us and can actually change us. When our group of believers gets together for an ecumenical council meeting or when we meet for our two annual ecumenical Bible studies or when we clergy share a retreat day, we are making the love of God real and concrete and visible both to ourselves and to the world.

And when the world outside the faith sees us actually doing what we are supposed to be doing, it opens doors. Our ecumenical gatherings may not bring anyone into the faith but they will definitely create an atmosphere that says to people that we have something worthwhile—and whether they check it out at the brick building by the traffic lights or the wooden one by the hospital or the historic one “downtown”, they are going to discover something that will help them like it helps us.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE OTHER SIDE

I need some surgery sometime in the near future. While it is fairly serious surgery, it is important because it will prevent even more serious stuff down the road. After thought and prayer and some consultation, it just makes sense to me to go ahead with the process.

However, committing to that process also commits me to another process, one that I am normally involved with on the other side. I need to inform and involve my church people. Normally, I am the one church people inform and involve—they want my prayers, my pastoral concern, my connection with God. I am happy to be involved in their process. My giftedness, my calling and my temperament enables me to support them and do what I can to help them through the process. Most of the people I have provided pastoral care for through their process have seemed to be appreciative.

But approaching the whole thing from the other side—well, that is and has been and will be a huge shift for me. I haven’t actually had to deal with medical issues in my ministry. The only time I have been hospitalized was for kidney stones and that occurred between public ministry activities and so I didn’t miss anything. For this surgery, I will be out for at least a month, which means that I have to tell people so they can make arrangements.

My introverted inclination was to simply forget about telling people and have my wife call the deacons the day of surgery and tell them I won’t be there for a while. Aside from the fact that my wife simply wouldn’t assist my fantasy, that really wouldn’t be a very good way to deal with things.

I teach, preach and encourage Christian community and sharing. I seek to have people involved with each other as an expression of their faith. I want people to know that faith needs to involve us with other people so that we can both give and receive the love and grace of God through each other. For me to follow my introverted fantasy process would be hypocritical at best and ministry destroying at worst.

So, pushing the all too tempting fantasy out of my mind, I set about informing people. I had a meeting scheduled with the church leadership before I knew about the surgery so that became the first place to announce what was coming. I didn’t swear them to secrecy and released them to tell others in the church what was coming. I think I was secretly hoping that the message would quickly travel through the church the way most things do.

That didn’t happen, or it didn’t happen the way I wanted or as fast as I wanted. I faced a congregation on Sunday made up of people who knew and people who didn’t. Since the surgery is coming soon but not that soon, I chose not to make an announcement from the pulpit—that will come when I know dates and so on. But I did find myself telling individuals as the opportunity arose during the potluck that followed the worship.

I have spent most of my life on the other side of this part of ministry and now I have to learn how to receive what I have been giving. I could continue the role of pastor and say that it is good for the church to learn how to minister to the pastor—and that is a good thing. But the deeper reality is that I need to learn more about how to be ministered to. I haven’t done that well over the years. Being an introvert means that I tend to keep to myself and be somewhat self-sufficient. I have had times when others have ministered to me and they have been very important and valuable—but overall, I am much more comfortable providing the ministry.

So, the coming surgery will not only take care of a medical problem but will be another step in the more significant learning process that is helping an introvert who encourages community to experience the fullness of Christian community. I really do want and value the prayers and concerns and support of my Christian community—I just don’t like telling people that I need their prayers and concerns and support. Like all of us, I have a lot to learn about the fullness of my faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

LET’S TALK

I got a phone call from a friend a while ago. We don’t know each other all that well but we were neighbours for years and had a comfortable relationship. He was calling because he was going to need a pastor in the near future—his wife has an incurable illness and he wanted to be somewhat prepared for what was coming. He didn’t have any real church connections but he did know me and knew that I was a pastor—in fact, the last time I was talking to him was at a funeral I was conducting.

I don’t actually like this sort of thing. The dying and grief process are always painful and difficult and when I am called in because of friendship, it is more difficult. But he is a friend and I am a pastor so I arranged a time to meet with him and talk. Because we are friends, the conversation dealt with more than just then essentials of pre-planning a funeral service. We did that but then went on to talk about lots of other friend stuff: how things were going for each of us, where we were each working, why I didn’t walk anymore and so on.

In the course of the conversation, I discovered that he did have a church connection. Like many kids our age, he had attended Sunday School—and had attended at one of the churches I now pastor. That was quickly followed by the almost obligatory apology for not actually being involved in church anymore. We actually had an interesting conversation around that revelation and half-hearted apology.

I suggested to him that maybe the reason he wasn’t involved in church was more the church’s fault than his. Since we had already been talking about his involvement in a local club, I suggested that if church actually met some of his needs, he would be there—just like he was part of this club because it met some of his needs. Somehow, we in the church hadn’t been able to provide what he needed to maintain a connection.

I think my friend represents a great many people today. The problem isn’t that he is anti-faith. He has a spiritual side: he wanted a pastor to help him through the process of his wife’s decline and death; he enthusiastically welcomed my offer of prayer; he remembered hymns and even some Scriptures that he wanted as part of the coming funeral. He might not be on a first name basis with God but he isn’t rejecting God.

But somehow, somewhere, the church missed him and his real needs. We couldn’t or wouldn’t supply what he needed to help feed that faith spark that is still fairly evident in his life. We had nothing on offer that he wanted and so he stopped looking in our shop, finding substitutes elsewhere. But even he knows that we have more available. It seems, though, that we aren’t really making it easy for people to discover what we really have.

We claim that Christ is the answer—and I believe that he is. But when we don’t really know the questions that people are looking to have answered, we probably don’t have the required answers on display—and even more, we might not even know that the answers are available. We have sometimes even questioned the legitimacy of the question, preferring that people ask the easy questions that we can quickly answer with tried and true formulas.

Meanwhile, people like my friend wander around, looking for stuff, settling for substitutes while all the while knowing something about the faith that we seem not to know. They know that the answers they are looking for are found within the faith that we follow. They might not know the answer; they might not see the answer; they might get tired waiting for us to hear the actual question they are answering but they believe that there is an answer and that somehow, the church and its agents can provide it. And so when people like my friend really need an answer, they pick up the phone and ask the question again, hoping that maybe we have dug around in the storeroom and found that we actually have an answer to that question in stock.

I am hoping that with the power of the Holy Spirit, I can help my friend find the answer he is looking for.

May the peace of God be with you.

TRAFFIC CHECK

Sunday morning at about five minutes before worship time and most of our regulars aren’t there. I wasn’t expecting all that many to start with because the travel season has arrived and a lot of our people seek out warmer climates. But there were still some regulars not present and I was wondering what was going on.

The door opens and one couple come in with a story about being stopped at a traffic check, something that rarely happens on our very rural road. In their talk with the officers, the couple had told them they were on their way to worship. As we were talking and joking, a second regular comes in, also with a story of being stopped at the traffic check. He also told the officers he was on his way to worship and if they wanted to get warm, they could join us.

The door opens again and in come his visiting adult children, who also joke about being stopped by the police. They told the officers that their father was just ahead and was going to get to worship before them. Everyone is by now involved, joking about the stops and telling the latecomers how lucky they were not to get arrested.

Since it is now well past starting time, I begin to head for the pulpit when the door opens again—and we are joined by the two police officers, who want to know if they can come to our worship. We welcome them and I scramble to find copies of the papers I have passed out since they put our numbers well over my expectations.

We begin our worship: our small band of regulars, the visiting adult children and two police officers with all their equipment. As I always do when we have visitors, I make sure that I explain the various parts of the service so they know what it going on. The officers pay attention, participate in the singing and other aspects of the worship and generally appear to be there for more than just getting warm.

Just as I am getting to the conclusion of my sermon, the officers begin staring straight ahead and one of them whispers into her radio. As they get up and slip out, I thank them for coming and they wave, with one still talking on the radio.

I really don’t know why they showed up that day. It might be because it was a very cold day and about the only traffic to stop on our road at that time of day would have been the people on their way to our worship. But whatever it was, somehow our people provided a witness of some positive sort to these two officers. Each one stopped made it clear where they were going and one even invited them to join us.

I don’t know if they will ever show up again and I really don’t have much way to contact them. This was very much a serendipitous moment in our lives and, I hope, their lives. And sometimes, that is all we get. Sometimes, our witness is like that. It is nice when we see the whole process of witnessing in a person’s life and how the Spirit works but sometimes, maybe most times, we are a part of some bigger process where our involvement is decontextualized and we never see where it is going or how it is being used.

I do believe that God is at work, though and that through the Holy Spirit, he is using our brief contact with those two officers. God will use that contact in conjunction with many other contacts and events and witnesses to speak to them. But he isn’t just at work there—he is also at work in our churches. Bringing them to us was also a part of his process for us. We are a small group and we sometimes think we aren’t doing much. To see that God is working in and through and around us is a great thing—it reminds us that small or not, we are not forgotten, that God still has a place and a purpose for us in his plan for the redemption of the world.

I think it is exciting that even a routine traffic stop can be used by the Spirit to make a difference in the world.

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.