EASY ANSWERS

There is an old joke among some clergy that the right answer to any question asked in Bible study or Sunday School is Jesus or God—and if the person answering has a bit of theological insight and a slightly argumentative attitude, the case can be made that either answer is the right one. I ran into a version of this the other day.

Through a somewhat convoluted route, I discovered that the answer to my recent feelings of fatigue was to take more time to pray and come closer to God. Now, on some levels, that particular answer makes some sense. I am a pastor and things get busy and it is easy to let my devotional life slip—prayer gets done only when I have to for ministry purposes; Bible reading gets done just for preparation of something for the church; quiet time becomes a prelude to a nap. All of us and perhaps especially pastors could probably use some more personal devotional time, which makes the answer sort of right.

But in this case, the sort of answer really isn’t the right answer. I was not fatigued because my relationship with God was suffering. If anything, my relationship with God was suffering because I was fatigued. I was feeling fatigue because the churches that close for the winter had started up for the year and during the first two weeks of that, I had three funerals, all of people I had known and liked for many years. The combination of start up and funerals and extra Easter worship services made me tired.

For me, the danger of quick, easy and automatic answers is that they generally contain enough truth to sound good, especially if we mentally squint while delivering the answer. But such answers generally reveal a lack of understanding of the reality of the question or context or specifics. In my various forays into the field of training pastors, I have discovered that we pastors have a terrible tendency to trot out the simple and quick answer rather than put on the time to really discover what is going on and what is really needed.

I understand that pastors (and other spiritual leaders) are busy. I have been a pastor for more years than I want to count and can only remember a few times in all those years when I didn’t have a dozen things demanding attention—and those times were during the intervals of unemployment between churches. The rest of the time, well, the rest of the time, finishing a sermon means needing to start another one; ending a Bible study topic means beginning research on the next one; leaving the funeral means wondering if there is time to visit at the hospital before the coming meeting; going on vacation means working extra before and after so as not to get too far behind.

But being busy isn’t an excuse for finding and passing out all the simplistic and easy answers that we in ministry are sometimes tempted to do. Real ministry requires that we focus on real people with real needs and help them work towards real solutions. The model for this process comes, interestingly enough, from the traditional Sunday School answer: Jesus (or God, if you want to be argumentative).

As I read through the Gospels, I discover that Jesus didn’t have general, simple, easy answers. He provided people with answers and solutions that reflected the realities of their particular situation. Take the stories of two rich men, for example. The rich young ruler and Zacchaeus (Luke 19.1-9) and the rich young ruler (Luke 18.18-22) have a lot in common: they both have money, both are obviously searching for something; both are interested in Jesus. Yet Jesus has different solutions for them. One gets a visit and the other gets a clear and difficult choice. Jesus responds to the specific people and their specific needs.

We pastors are not Jesus and so don’t generally have the ability to instantly understand the fullness of a person like Jesus did. But we are pastors and our calling does generally include the gifts necessary to enable us to listen to people and discover the reality of their complex situation and the wisdom to allow the Spirit to work through us as we are used to help them discover their unique answer to their unique issues.

Anyway, I am going to take a nap—that will deal with my fatigue better than anything right now.

May the peace of God be with you.

Advertisements

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.

YES OR NO?

I like simple answers, answers that make it clear that something is one thing or another. But life has a way of making those simple answers much more complicated than I—or many others, for that matter—are comfortable with. Take a simple situation that occurs frequently in my life. I want to know the colour of something. My wife will tell me that what I am looking at is purple. Simple answer to a simple question.

Except that the answer isn’t that simple. Because I have red-green colour blindness, I have never actually seen the colour purple. Intellectually, I will grant that it exists. The red and blue light frequencies combine to create another colour that some people find pleasing. But for someone who has difficulty seeing red, purple isn’t actually purple—it is generally some shade of blue, although as the colour balance in that particular purple includes more and more red, it becomes some weird frankencolour that I prefer not to look at or think about.

For my wife and most other people in the world, something is either purple or not. For me and a few others, purple exists in theory but in practise, we see a variety of shades of blue or some mashup that we actually can’t identify. The simple answer to the simple question, “What colour is that?” becomes more complex and very subjective.

And it also becomes controversial. My wife and I have this habitual debate on the reality of purple. I claim it doesn’t exist and she claims it does. This is one of those familiar and comfortable jokes that married couples develop over their time together, something to smile about and enjoy. But I am sure that somewhere, some militant colourist is willing to bluntly tell me how wrong I am and that purple exists and my unwillingness to see it or admit its existence is illegal, immoral, sinful, stupid or part of a vast conspiracy threatening the whole of western civilization.

Well, maybe it isn’t quite that bad. But we do live in a culture where people who want simple yes or no answers are more and more upset with the discovery that answers aren’t as simple anymore. Now, most people really don’t get all that upset over the discovery that for some of us, the existence of purple is less black and white than they would like. But there are whole areas of life where people are being confronted by complex answers to seemingly simple questions.

Questions dealing with gender or sexual orientation for example, are producing much more complicated answers in some circles. At one point, you were either blue or pink—now, there is a whole rainbow and people are quite happy choosing a place on that rainbow for themselves and insisting that it is who they are. The blue and pink answer proponents are deeply upset with the rainbow and the rainbow proponents are deeply upset with the blue and pink proponents.

Questions dealing with faith are much more complicated as well. I grew up in a time and place where you were either a Christian or you weren’t. Sure, there were a few, generally in other denominations, who might claim faith but we true believers knew that they were only fooling themselves. True believers looked and thought like us. But now, well, it seems like anything goes. People who follow the traditional path, literally walking the aisle, find themselves confronted by people who wonder about the divinity of Christ, whether he actually existed let alone rose from the dead, who are still comfortable calling themselves Christian. The simple yes or no has become a theological debate that angers and enrages everyone.

It seems like we are generally predisposed to simple binary answers but are discovering more and more that the simple binary answers are much more complicated than we want them to be. I really don’t know what the solution is. But maybe the way I deal with purple is some help.

In spite of my running joke with my wife, I know that purple exists. My inability to see it doesn’t change the reality of purple. I have to live with the fact that for most people, purple exists but for me, it doesn’t. Ultimately, life is complicated and I need to accept the reality that there is more going on than I see or understand and maybe I have to trust that in the end, God knows what is going on, even if I don’t.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW TO WITNESS!?…

The title of this blog isn’t suffering from one of those strange electronic glitches that sometimes produces unexpected characters in text. It actually represents something of my personal journey (and confusion) when it comes to the process of being a witness to my faith.

Early in my faith, I was sure that being a witness involved direct action, strong words and clear purpose, hence the !. Witnessing was and is a basic requirement of all believers and as a young, evangelical new believer, I knew that I had to witness to my faith always. The books and sermons and seminars on witnessing always included a “!”—there was always someone telling me how to be a more effective witness—with at least one ! in every title and paragraph.

I read all the classic witnessing tools: Four Spiritual Laws, The Roman Road, The Sinners’ Prayer. I knew all the arguments to cut down opposition to the faith. I had answers for the questions I was going to encounter. I had lots of !!! in my approach, my understanding and enthusiasm.

But no matter what I am doing, I am an analytical person: I need to examine things, take them apart, understand them and evaluate them. And I discovered that the certainty of witnessing wasn’t all that certain. Most people weren’t paying attention—and no matter how many !!! I and others used, our approach wasn’t working.

I began to see witnessing with a ? instead of a !. I had lots of questions: Why aren’t people listening? Why aren’t the approaches working? Why can’t I find the right words? How come the !! aren’t working? My analysis began to suggest to me that the witnessing process wasn’t as clear-cut and as easy as all the books and trainers had lead me to believe. In fact, I began to wonder if it was possible to witness at all.

My journey from ! to ? didn’t stop me from wanting to share my faith and it didn’t stop me from actually sharing my faith—but it did change my approach. Rather than understand witnessing as an aggressive, verbal offence on my part, I began to see it as a waiting for the other person to give me an opening, which I could then exploit. It didn’t actually happen all that often but when it did, I found that none of the canned responses actually worked. My witnessing sessions had a lot less ! and a whole lot more ?, questions from both the witnesser and witnessee.

And the ? phase of the witnessing journey also didn’t produce all that much in the way of results. I had some great conversations about faith and sometimes really was aware of the presence of the Spirit in the process but often, the person would thank me for the time and insights and continue on their way, not having walked the aisle or raised their hand or prayed the sinners’ prayer.

And thinking on that has led me to the present stage of my witnessing journey. I see witnessing as a process, something best exemplified by …. Witnessing is a long and involved process that is much bigger than me, my words and my actions. I am not THE WITNESS—I am a witness, one among many influences, all of us working under the leading of the real witness, the Holy Spirit.

Ultimately, it is God who brings people to himself. In the process of helping someone to open themselves to his love and grace, God graciously allows us to play a part. He could do his work without us and many times, I am sure that he would have an easier time if we weren’t involved. But he invites us to participate in his work of bringing others to himself. Sometimes, we have a clearly defined and clearly important part in the process—he uses us to deliver the right words to the right person at the right time. Other times, he gives us a less clear but nonetheless important part—who knows how the cup of cold water delivered in his name is going to affect the process?

So, for now, I see witnessing as …–an ongoing process where God is seeking to bring someone to him and gives me a task along the way. As I faithfully seek to know and do what God wants, he lovingly and graciously uses it in his process—and the witnessing goes on…

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?

I made two trips to our regional shopping area recently. One was shortly before Christmas and the other was a couple of days after Christmas. Neither trip was primarily for shopping but since that is where the biggest stores and best prices are, both trips involved shopping. On both trips, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people driving to the stores, filling the parking lots, jamming the store aisles and stretching the checkout lines. I was also amazed at the number of heaped shopping carts.

Of course, I really shouldn’t have been amazed. The first trip was just before Christmas, when everyone was busy completing their Christmas shopping—a task that I also had that day. The cultural norm requires that we spend and spend and fill carts and jam store aisles. If we don’t spend enough, the economy will collapse.

The second trip happened on the day of Canadian Boxing Day sales—the day when everything that was full price before Christmas is now seriously discounted. People need to get to the stores to take advantage of all the deals on all the stuff that they didn’t know they needed but now that it is on sale at 40-60% off, is a must have—and maybe we even need two of them.

I don’t much like shopping and really don’t like shopping in crowded stores and that fact probably affects my thinking about the whole shopping process. But I can’t help but ask myself what is actually going on here. Where does this desire to have more and more come from? And perhaps even more basic, there is this question: How much is enough?

It seems that as a culture, we have decided to answer that question by saying that we will only have enough when we get something at the next sale. But since there is always another sale coming up, we never really have enough. When 50% discounts are dangled in front of us, we rush out to the malls, charge cards in hand, ready to buy more stuff that we just realized we need or might need or might find a use for—after all, a 50% discount saves us so much money that it is worth it to get whatever we can.

I don’t think we actually ask the right questions. For me, a much better question is “Why”, as in “Why do I need that?” or “Why does something being 50% off mean I need it?” or “Why does spending money on something I don’t really need qualify as saving money?” When I get home, I have less money that I started with and more stuff that I am not really sure what to do with or where to put while I decide what to do with it.

I think we have developed a cultural norm that is wrong and even dangerous. We believe that more is always better—and that getting it for less than expected is a good thing. But really, how much do we really need? The continual quest for more simply enriches those who have lots of money and impoverishes those who don’t have as much money. We buy and buy. Our culture has even spawned yard and garage sales to allow us to buy more—we sell off some of the stuff we accumulate so that we can afford more.

How much is enough? My guess is that most of us need a whole lot less than we think we need and much less than advertisers would like us to think we need. Life needs to involve more than just accumulating things. It needs to be about more than just filling shopping carts with discounted stuff that will go into next year’s yard sale. When we fill all the carts and save all the money and fill all our storage space, what do we really have?

Maybe our push to accumulate stuff is an attempt to fill holes in our lives, holes that would better be filled with deeper more significant human relationships and a deeper and more fulfilling relationship with God. Maybe we need to discover that even if we manage to accumulate the whole world, it won’t really fill the holes in our lives that need to be filled with love, faith and hope that really only come from relationships with others and God.

May the peace of God be with you.

NO VISITING

Both our Bible study groups are now on Christmas break. Before we closed down, we switched gears and put our regular topic on hold because so many of our people are travelling and visiting family that it wouldn’t be fair to cover new stuff while they were away—we would just have to do it again when they got back anyway. So, we spent some time looking at the Christmas story, comparing the Biblical story with the culturally accepted version of the story.

Along the way, I was again struck by a part of the story that always catches me. Matthew tells of the wise men calling in at Herod’s palace to discover where the king had been born. While this probably made perfect sense to them, it was a real problem for Herod and anyone who knew him—historical records tell us that Herod was quick to execute anyone who even looked like he/she might someday possible entertain a thought of replacing Herod.

Almost lost in the story of Herod’s attempt to use the wise men as spies and their journey to Bethlehem is the interesting way they discover where this baby was to be born. Herod doesn’t know who or where or what concerning this birth—he just knows that he doesn’t like the idea. So, he calls in his version of the wise men. This would have been the religious leaders, the priests and scholars and temple officials. Herod was half Jewish and so probably has some understanding of the promises that someone was coming at some point. He naturally turned to the people who were supposed to know—the religious leadership.

This was a natural and east choice. These people had spend their whole lives reading, studying, interpreting and understanding the texts that God had given them to help people reach God. They knew the words, they knew the prophecies. Their whole lives were lived in anticipation of the time when God would act decisively and clearly to bring his chosen one into the world. No one else had the potential to answer the question Herod was asking—no other group of people could know where the king would be born.

The story doesn’t tell us if they had to consult their texts or have a conference or hold a long debate. I would have liked to know their process—having spent my entire career and clergy and academic circles, it would be interesting to know how these academically inclined clergy worked. Matthew, unfortunately, was a tax collector and seems to have only been interested in the conclusion.

The religious leaders come through—they know where the king will be born. Their years of study; their learned discussions; their generations long debates—all of it comes together and they know the answer. I can picture the delegation confidently standing before Herod with the relevant scroll open to the spot as they read the prophecy point to Bethlehem as the place where the king would be born. They pacify Herod temporarily, allowing him to make plans to use the wise men.

The wise men happily head for Bethlehem. Herod begins alerting soldiers about a coming mission. The city breathes a sigh of relief—Herod’s well know wrath won’t be expressed towards them. And the religious leaders? What of them? What did they do after giving the answer to this question?

What we know is that they didn’t go to Bethlehem. As far as we can tell from the story, they didn’t even send a delegation of the least senior to check things out. It seems like they went back to their offices, poured glass of wine (not Baptist, remember) and went about their regular business that had been interrupted by this question.

My question is why didn’t they go to Bethlehem? They knew the prophecies; they had the startlingly unusual visit of foreign astrologers; they saw Herod’s apprehension; they above all people knew that God was going to do something—so why, seeing all that was going on, why didn’t they go to Bethlehem to at least check it out?

I have been struggling with this question for years and still don’t have a satisfactory answer. But somehow, the answer is a faith issue—and it becomes a larger question. How come we who believe and who know the wonder of God in action, how come we too are slow to move in whatever direction God wants us to move in? Maybe if I can find an answer about the wise men, it might help me understand me and my faith more.

May the peace of God be with you.

MY PLANS

I am a planner. I like to have a sense of where things are going, when they are going to get done, who is doing what, how things are going to progress. I am not obsessive about it or at least I don’t think I am. I am sure that some theology student along the way whom I have taught or mentored might disagree, especially when the assignment is to develop a three month sermon plan or something like that. Planning is part of my nature and is as well, I think, one of the gifts that the Spirit has given me.

On a very practical level, that means that every Bible study day, I spend some time planning that particular session. My advanced planning already has the specific content prepared but I also make a plan for that day. It isn’t an elaborate plan. We begin with a review of last week’s worship and then I ask some review questions so that people are reminded of what we talked about last week. After the review, we move into the specific content that I plan on covering that day.

Because I have two pastoral charges, I have two Bible study groups, generally doing different topics. So, each week, I dutifully make my plans for each, using my gifts and skills to ensure that I have stuff that will help people grow in faith.

Here is what my planning accomplishes. Right now, one Bible study group has gone three weeks without finishing the review—and the other is right behind, having completed two weeks without finishing the review. I haven’t touched new material in either group during that time. I plan and prepare and then sit back at the study, watching the plan get shredded and trampled by the breadth and depth of the discussion.

Some weeks, the previous Sunday’s worship and sermon destroy the plan. The discussion becomes a way for those present to deepen their understanding of the sermon. It provides an opportunity for disagreement, for testimony, for diverse applications, for suggestions about follow-ups, as well as a time to joke about my mistakes or laugh again at the story they liked.

Some week, the worship review is quick and easy but the review catches us. Sometimes, I actually plan that. I pay attention and notice the areas that people struggle with and include those in the review, hoping that the review process will help them understand the stuff that they didn’t understand fully last week. Sometimes, a member of the study has an idea or thought or example that none of us considered last week and the review question pulls this out, which allows us the opportunity to work it through. And occasionally, someone asks a question that comes from somewhere in their faith experience that touches the rest of the group and we are off on that trail seeking what we can find.

I could, I suppose, impose order and structure and organization on the Bible studies. I have a plan and I have prepared the content that we agreed on and I am the pastor so I probably could take charge and ensure that the study follows my plan. After all, I have put a lot of thought and effort into developing content that will help them grow in their faith. And if I were to do that, most of the members of both groups would go along with it.

But our studies would lose much more from that than they would gain. They might gain well planned content on Romans and prayer (one topic for each group) which would no doubt be helpful and important and even spiritually valuable. But what the group would lose is the freedom to explore our faith in real time. We would lose the ability to help each other as we together work to understand and develop the faith we share. We would lose the excitement of seeing the work of the Spirit touching each of us in diverse ways. We would lose the opportunity to get to know God and each other on a deeper and more intimate basis.

We all like our approach to Bible study. We know we will get to the specific content at some point—but we also know that we will be able to deal with anything we need to deal with fully and safely.

The only problem is mine—how do I plan review questions when we haven’t done new content for two or three weeks?

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SERMON

I work hard at sermon preparation. The whole process is important to me. I put serious effort into deciding what to preach and when. I work hard to bring together Scripture and the needs of the congregation. I make sure that I am not distorting or minimizing or hijacking Scripture passages. I use all my creative skills to pull the whole thing together in a 18-20 minute package that will make sense. I prayerfully and hopefully believe that what I prepare is a message from God for the people I am called to preach to mediated through me and my efforts.

My process is much faster and more efficient these days than it was when I first began preaching. The process that took hours and hours of sitting, reading, researching, drafting, editing, rewriting and all that has been compressed into a couple of hours of screen time—although there are actually uncountable mental processing hours and something like 45 years of research also involved in every sermon. The sermon I bring to the pulpit represents a lot of hard work, a lot of time, a lot of prayer, a lot of faith so that I can bring to people what I sincerely believe is God’s message for them that day.

So, with that in mind, join me at a worship service a few weeks ago. This church has a somewhat unique addition to the worship service. After I finish reading the Scripture, we have a time for discussion. If members of the congregation have questions or comments about the Scripture—or anything else in the worship for that matter—this time is set aside to look into them. Most Sundays, there are is a question or two seeking clarification, a comment or two dealing with the passage and then we move on.

But every now and then, the discussion takes off and one thing leads to another and this comment sparks that question which leads to this story which produces that question and that leads to another question and this produces a heart-felt testimony—and before anyone but me notices, the sermon time has been eaten up.

Actually, there are a couple of stages here. At some point in the discussion, I am following the discussion on one level and at another mentally editing the sermon to fit it onto the remaining time, trying to decide if I dump the story or condense the second point. But as the discussion continues, I realize that there will be neither time nor focus for the sermon. Eventually, the discussion concludes, I point out the time, we sing the final hymn and go home.

I rearrange the preaching plan to make room for the missed sermon—and rejoice that I will be able to use that preparation time for something else. There are many blessings to those Sundays when the discussion becomes the sermon.

So, this sermon got rescheduled. There were several special things that were the focus of the next Sundays but eventually, the rescheduled sermon comes up again. I read the Scripture and open the door for comments. There is a silence—five seconds, ten seconds, fifteen seconds. Just as I am about to call us to prayer before the sermon, there is a comment, which prompts another and suddenly, we are in full discussion mode as we share and question and explain. The discussion is important, powerful and there are even a few tears as we wrestle with the ideas and questions and feelings. Once again, the sermon time disappears as the discussion provides the Spirit with the opening he needs that day to touch people’s lives.

And me? Well, I worked hard on that sermon. But I also recognize the wonder of the Spirit at work in our midst. That twice missed sermon will get preached and will take its place in the Spirit’s schedule for me and the congregation. I didn’t waste my time preparing it and I didn’t miss the opportunity to speak God’s word. Instead of being upset or frustrated, I am excited that we have discovered a way that allows the Spirit freedom to really speak to us, in a way that might not happen if we (or I) insisted that the sermon has to be preached.

I am not advocating this process for everyone—it probably won’t work. But it does work for us and that makes it an important part of our worship—and I actually get a week off from sermon preparation now and then.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

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.