A GOOD CHURCH

I have never been called to serve as the pastor of a perfect church. In fact, sometimes, I have found myself called to churches which were struggling with some serious dysfunction. I have also had contact with a lot of other churches over the years and have yet to find a perfect church. Because of the nature of the connections I have had with many congregations, I have often ended up discovering the hidden dysfunction in even the best of churches.

Now, I want to be clear at this point—I don’t go looking for the problems in various congregations. I am actually not overly interested in the internal dynamics of other congregations—most of the time, it takes most of my energy and ambition to cope with the realities of the congregations that I have been called to serve. But because I have taught pastors, written about the struggles of small churches and been the pastor of churches with open problems, I have learned much more about many congregations than I want to know.

The end result of all this experience with churches is the depressing insight that there are no perfect churches. That might seem like a totally unnecessary statement of the obvious to some people. But I think many people pay lip service to the imperfection of churches while at the same time assuming that the congregation they are part of or want to be part of is somehow an exception to the rule. Whatever the reason, there are plenty of believers out there looking for the perfect congregation.

To those of you still looking, let me be clear: there are no perfect churches. They don’t exist. Every Christian congregation in the world is going to be a confusing blend of good and bad; right and wrong; inspiring and depressing; perfection and imperfection. The congregation that produces the deeply spiritual Good Friday worship will also discriminate against some people groups. The congregation that condemns any deviation from their norms loudly and publically will also love and care for their disabled members in ways that put others to shame.

No matter what the congregation looks like from the outside, once you become a part of it, you will see both the good and the bad. Well, actually, you might see both, although there is a more than even chance that you will only see one or the other. We human beings are prone to selective vision so we can and do block out the parts we don’t want to see. But if we are honest with ourselves, we will soon discover that the great congregation has some serious problems and the dysfunctional congregation has some seriously good expressions of the faith.

There are no perfect Christian congregations. There are just gatherings of believers who are trying to work at and work out their faith in the context of a Christian community. Running through the whole of the New Testament is the assumption that believers will form communities and that these communities, which we call churches, will be imperfect expressions of the ideal that the New Testament writers keep pointing is towards. Many of the letters in the New Testament were actually written in response to the lack of perfection in various congregations.

Very early in ministry, I realized some implications of the lack of perfect congregations. If there are no perfect congregations, I will never be called to one—and even more importantly, I will never create one. My ministry goal isn’t to create a perfect congregation but to work with the imperfect congregation I have been called to so that together, we can overcome some of the imperfection and dysfunction and become a better congregation—not a perfect one but a better one. And the goal of every member of every congregation should be the same. We become part of a congregation and seek to use our gifts to make an imperfect gathering a better gathering, all the while recognizing that we are never going to be perfect.

Rather than look for a different congregation when we see the problems in the one we are at—or give up on the church completely, as some have done, our response to the reality of imperfection in the church probably needs to be confession of our part in the imperfection, acceptance of the reality of the imperfection and commitment to doing what we can to make things better. We might never become a perfect church but we can become a good church.

May the peace of God be with you.

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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.

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.

FAITH AND CULTURE

Whether we realize it or not, much of Western culture is being affected by a non-western religion. While many people in Western countries aren’t aware of how deeply this non-western religion has affected us. Mind you, many participants in this faith aren’t aware of how much the western culture as affected this approach to religion either. Both have been modified and re-arranged by the other.

Unfortunately, the culture has tended to gain the upper hand in this modification process. Some of the ways this old, non-western religion has been changed have had beneficial effects on it. For many years, for example, some branches of this faith explicitly required that it be practised in a language that many followers didn’t really understand. Eventually, the cultural pressures allowed the religion to discover the value of using the language of the people. Another change in this ancient religion came about in the way the worship was conducted-over time, cultural pressure brought about more culturally appropriate styles and approaches to worship. Mind you, parts of this religion have successfully resisted all such changes.

But for all the good changes, the religion has tended to be on the losing side of the culture war. It’s essential teachings have been tampered with; it’s codes of conduct have been weakened or selectively ignored; it’s followers have been encouraged to follow cultural norms rather than original teachings; it’s greatest insights have been blunted or ignored. In many geographic areas of the west, the legacy of this ancient religion is all but forgotten while a culturally modified façade seeks to use bits and pieces of it to bolster cultural norm and patterns.

The irony is that this ancient religion has at it’s core a call to change culture. The basic teachings and tenants of this faith call for a different approach to life, an approach that stands in sharp contrast to the individualistic and self-centered western approach to life. This religion began claiming to be a divinely given alternate to the destructive and selfish realities of human life. And at times, it did a fantastic job of changing culture.

It was and is especially effective on the individual level. People discovered the core of this religion and made changes in their lives, changes that made them stand out. Sometimes, they were seen and noticed and gave others courage to follow the faith. Other times, they were seen and noticed and the difference was so dramatic and so counter-cultural that they were shunned, scorned, persecuted and even killed. But often, the religion reached enough people and for a time, the culture it found itself in changed for the better.

But human selfishness is a powerful force—and faced with a force that tries to set limits on selfishness, it reacts in self-defence. Culture comes roaring back and begins chipping away at the core of this religion. Eventually, this religion stopped being a cultural change agent and becomes an agent of the culture, one more way of channeling the essential human selfishness into self-serving ways.

Our western culture has been deeply affected by this ancient religion, Christianity. We see the continuing effects of this change in the continuing calls for equality and fairness in our culture. But at some point in the last century, it seems like a line was crossed and the changes western culture made in Christianity became more significant than the changes Christianity made on western culture. The faith no longer stands outside the culture, seeking to make the culture better—now, unfortunately, it has too often become the weaker partner in the relationship and has become nothing more than a tool to force people into being better players in the cultural games.

But culture rarely has the final answer because the Christian faith is a living and dynamic faith empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit. No matter how strong the call and temptation of selfishness, the Spirit will eventually act, bringing about a reformation, a reformation that will break some of the tangled bonds it has with culture. Human culture is always based in our human selfishness—Christianity is based in and on God’s eternal love and grace and no matter what it looks like at any given point in time, God will always win.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE FAMILY OF GOD

One of the suggested activities for our family reunion was attending a worship service at the church where we all spent a lot of time while we were growing up. Given that there were 40-50 of us at the reunion, this could have the potential for being a major influx of people for a mid-summer worship service. I have to confess that I was hoping that no one organizing the reunion thought to let the church know that we were coming for purely selfish reasons—I was pretty sure that if they knew we were coming, I would be asked to preach, which I didn’t really want to do since I was going to be on vacation.

No one told the church and I didn’t get asked to preach. So, Sunday morning, we ended up walking from our hotel to worship since both our cars were needed by our children not to attend worship. It was a nice walk, just at the edge of my aging knees’ limits. Unfortunately, we arrived just as the church bell was ringing, not my usual 10-20 minutes early. We were almost the last of the family to arrive—I managed to jump head of one of my sisters on the steps.

The pastor greeted us, members of the congregation greeted us and just before worship began, the pastor asked if I would lead the pastoral prayer, which I declined, and if we would introduce ourselves once things began. Although we had all grown up in the church, if had been a long time since most of us were there and a lot of the congregation had changed.

We were well received by the congregation—the “new” people were pleased to have a larger congregation and to have some connection with the past. But the reaction of the people who were there when we were there was significant. There was genuine joy and appreciation. Some of these people had taught most of us in school and in Sunday School. Some had attended school and Sunday School with some of us. All of us had a significant set of memories and connections and emotional responses.

One of the women got up to read Scripture but prefaced the reading with an appreciation for our family, including some memories and her personal appreciation for being a part of helping us become who we were now. That triggered a lot of thoughts for me because I began looking at all the connections with those present and those not present. The woman reading the Scripture had been one of my school teachers. Her father had been Sunday School superintendent and had also hired me to help work on the extension to the church building while I was a teen.

One on the men whose presence I deeply missed had been the Sunday School teacher who happily volunteered to teach our group of teenaged guys all through our Sunday School tenure, a task that I know now was demanding and onerous but which he loved because he cared so much for each of us. As the pastor preached, I couldn’t help but remember the pastor whose ministry had covered my whole time at that church and who baptized all of us.

Going to worship that day was another family reunion. The Family of God is a deep and significant part of my life and my involvement in it really began in that congregation in that building. The reality of the Christian faith, which has been the basis of my career and my life, began for me in that congregation as people accepted this large poor family that started filling the middle pew one Sunday long ago. They took us in, found us a place in Sunday School, youth group, VBS, worship. They picked us up and took us home when Dad was working and the weather prevented us from walking. They nurtured and taught and played and corrected and made us a part of the family.

And so when we arrived on Sunday morning, we were as welcomed at the church as we were at the reunion site—and for similar reasons. We were family and we belonged. We might not have been there for a long time but we were family and when family shows us, everyone is happy.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO CARES?

When I started this blog back in 2015, I had a sort of a vague goal—or maybe a couple of them. I was unemployed at the time and needed something to do that would relieve the boredom and depression of unemployment. And I wanted to be able to think and organize and share some of my thoughts and ideas relating to faith, the church and spiritual growth. Very early in the process, I decided that I wasn’t comfortable dealing with some topics and since it is my blog, I can and do pretty much ignore anything I don’t want to write about.

One area I have avoided is commenting on current political and cultural events. I am a news junkie and so I am aware of what is going on but have never really wanted to wade into the cultural and political debates that are so prevalent and so divisive in our culture and churches these days. I have been troubled by a lot of what I see; I have been enraged by some of what I see; I have been saddened and depressed by what I see—but up until today, I haven’t been inspired by what I see.

And even today isn’t going to be a rant for or against some particular political move or figure—there are enough comedians and bloggers who make a living doing that way. We really don’t need another.

But maybe what we do need is someone who is willing to step back, forget the partisan politics and ask some difficult questions that come from the heart of our faith. Given that most major questions these days get addressed from the perspective of nationalism or partisan political stances or narrow perspectives, maybe we need someone to open the questions up and give them a bigger, divine context.

For example, some statistics suggest that over 65 million people are classed as refugees or internally displaced people—that is a good sized nation. Mostly the response to this crisis is that someone should do something, preferably far away from us and at no cost to us. Politicians debate and people are dying where they try to live and dying trying to get to safety. And while that might be a popular political response, what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Recent statistics in Canada suggest that around 20% of Canadian children live in poverty. There are all kinds of political suggestions about how to deal with the problem but since most of them require people who have helping people who don’t have, there tends to be a lot of talk but little action beyond band aids like food banks. So politicians debate and plans get drafted but since little money gets spent, the poor remain poor, get poorer and go to school and bed hungry and cold. But what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Our political and cultural responses tend to be narrow, self-serving, protectionist, biased and prejudicial—we like ourselves and ours. Being different is grounds for exclusion, mistreatment, name-calling and persecution. Unfortunately, politicians of all types love to build a base on these self-centered realities. We are all afraid of the other—and politicians know how to work that fear. But what is the divine response? What does God think? Does God care? And if God cares, how should his people act?

Too often, we have tried to fit God and the Christian faith into the cultural and political armour that we wear ourselves. But even a quick reading of the message that God has given us shows something far different. God has a deep and powerful concern for the alien, the poor, the different. God cares—and even more, he requires that his people care. He wants us to step out of the narrow and constrained ruts we dig for ourselves and begin to really care. He calls us to follow his example—he cared enough for selfish and self-centered people that he went to the cross for us. God cares. He made his care real, at great personal cost.

And us—well, we are called to care as well. And maybe that care demands that we step outside the cultural and political and show some real care, care based not in cultural and political fears and prejudices but in the love and grace of God.

May the peace of God be with you.

AN ANSWER TO PRAYER

I am a part-time pastor—and a part-time pastor who likes to research and study and stuff like that. So, I have spent some time looking at part-time ministry—I even wrote a short book about it a few years ago for our denomination. Anyway, one of the bits of data I have dug up indicated that there are two broad categories of congregations that seek part-time pastors.

New church plants often begin with some form of part-time ministry. If the plant is successful, the group eventually become large enough that they can afford a full-time pastor or two. While I have been connected with a few such situations through my denomination, I have spent my time as a part-time pastor working in the other major category.

This category includes all those congregations which once used to be bigger and financially more solid and which used to have a full-time pastor. But as membership shrinks and the costs of full-time ministry escalate, the congregation eventually has to make the difficult and demoralizing to shift from a full-time pastor to a part-time pastor. This is without question one of the most traumatic decisions a congregation has to make because to most, it signifies that they are on the way out—it might take years but their decline will eventually result in the church closing.

I begin work in part-time settings very much aware of this mindset—and feel that a big part of my responsibility as the pastor is helping the congregation deal with their realities. But I don’t generally include closing as one of the realities I am concerned about. Certainly, it is always a reality. But there are other possible realities: stabilization, for example, is a possibility—a small congregation that is healthy and doing ministry is a valid reality. Reversing the downward trend is also a valid reality—sometimes, given the cultural context not as possible as stabilization but still a possibility.

So, with that in mind, I think a large part of my ministry is helping the part-time congregation look at itself and discover the reality of God’s love and grace working in and through it. But I have to confess that recently, the direction of my thoughts concerning the smaller of the two pastorates I work with has been a bit on the gloomy side. I hadn’t been able to really get a sense of direction or potential. I have been praying, thinking, listening and all the rest but mostly kept seeing our small numbers and the relative lack of what I would consider positive signs.

I am aware that we have an uphill climb—but I wasn’t seeing much to suggest that we had what it takes to make the climb. That is, I didn’t until a recent church meeting. This wasn’t an official meeting but more the general discussion we do before, during and after worship. We discussed and made a significant decision on helping out in a community need. But underneath, there were all sorts of revelations that I saw—the members there might not have seen them all but I did.

I saw a group of people who were not only deeply concerned with their community but who were also very active in the community. Everyone knew who was needing what and was working to meet those needs in a variety of ways: some visit and provide food and conversation; some provide a listening ear; some pound nails to repair houses; some provide prayer; some fill out complex application forms—and everyone is known and respected and appreciated in the community.

And in this, I found an answer to my prayers and my worries. We are small and struggling in some ways—but we are deeply involved in the life of the community. We are taking the light of God’s grace and love directly to our community. Many of the people touched by our small group haven’t been in our building for years, if ever—but they are experiencing God at work through our group.

I still don’t know where we are going as a group—but I have an answer to my prayers. As a church, we keep doing the ministry we are doing and as a pastor, I keep encouraging and enabling this gathering of believers to be God’s light and salt in our community.

May the peace of God be with you.

A DISAGREEMENT ABOUT MONEY

I have spend my entire working career in ministry, most of it in the context of small, struggling rural congregations. There are a great many realities clustered around that statement but one of the more significant realities is that I have basically spent my entire working career in a context where there is never enough money. There may be small, rural congregations that have tons of money (I have heard rumours about such things) but I have never been called to be the pastor of one of them.

This means that I have spent a lot of time discussing money. Sometimes, we call it discussing vision and ministry and options and all that but in the end, it becomes a discussion of money—or, to be more honest, it becomes a discussion about our lack of money, how we can get some more money and what we can’t do until we get some more money. I know there are lots of ministries that can be done with very little money but one of the basic truths of living in our culture is that ministry costs money and if we don’t have the money, it makes a difference in terms of what we can and can’t do. Dreaming is free—implementing dreams generally costs money.

The tensions between the need to do ministry and the lack of finances create some difficult, long, heated and painful discussions in small churches. Generally, one side wants to keep as much money as possible, holding it for the inevitable crisis in the future. The other side wants to do something, reasoning that having money in the bank isn’t much good if we are doing nothing. As pastor, I tend to be caught in the middle, wanting to encourage the church to do ministry but also recognizing that some of that money in the bank ensures that my paycheque won’t bounce at the end of the month.

So, with all that in mind, join me as one of my pastoral charges discusses a money issue. Worship was late starting because during the announcements, we discussed the fire in the community the night before. A house was severely damaged, likely beyond repair. The owner was in the hospital, fortunately in stable condition. He had been disabled for several months and therefore unable to work—and probably wouldn’t be able to work, especially given his injuries suffered in the fire. While no one actually said it, I think we were all assuming there was no insurance on the house or contents.

Since everyone knew the person and he was related to some on the church, the congregation wanted to help—and in this case, that meant a financial contribution. We had been planning on making a donation to another cause which ultimately didn’t need our help so some thought it would be a good idea to use that money to help. That started the discussion—what we were going to give wasn’t enough given the needs caused by the fire and injuries. Certainly, the wider community was likely going to hold some sort of benefit at some point. Definitely, there was a need—but there were several other serious needs in the community as well.

The discussion didn’t take too long. We wanted to help, the need was real, the amount we have been going to give wasn’t enough. So, the amount was almost doubled, everyone agreed and that was it. Most of the donation would be coming from our “reserves”—we don’t take in enough to make any kind of donation beyond paying the part-time pastor. We moved on and began our worship, later than normal but that isn’t unusual for us.

Not much of a discussion—but a significant one from my perspective. This group of people is interested in doing ministry and instead of seeing limits and walls and barriers, they see opportunities and want to respond. Money is a tool to use for ministry here and now. So, as a church, we look at the need and we respond—and then we move on to discover what else God has in store for us.

This is healthy and positive and significant. It says a lot about the underlying faith of this small group. This church is comfortable putting its money where its ministry is.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING SALT AND LIGHT

I knew a guy one time who was looking for the perfect church, one where he would be free to develop his understanding of God and the Kingdom. He was convinced that when he found that perfect church, everything would be great. He was a pastor and had some connections with the people who helped churches find pastors so he used the connections and discovered a church that looked good. Unfortunately, after he had been there a short time, he began to see some problems—and if the truth be told, he himself began to create some problems. Eventually, the imperfection in the church became so serious that he resigned to go to another church that looked perfect.

I am pretty sure that he is still looking for that perfect church. Personally, I entered ministry with the understanding that neither churches nor pastors are perfect and that we both need to try and help each other become a bit better at following the faith that we claim. So, whenever I am called to a church as their pastor, I know without question that I am not going to a perfect church. That is alright, though, because I also know without question that when they call me, they are not getting a perfect pastor.

Neither the church nor the pastor is perfect—and given the theological realities of sin and its persistence even after we become believers, there is no chance of a perfect church or perfect pastor this side of eternity. For me, that raised all sorts of questions, issues and concerns. One of those many questions, issues and concerns grows out of the fact that we are supposed to be sale and light in the world, a visible and concrete reminder to the community of the love and grace of God.

When we show our imperfection to the community, which we do with depressing regularity, what does that do to our saltiness and lightness? It can and all too often does turn into anti-salt and anti-light, discouraging people outside the faith from seeing our faith as a viable option for their lives. Mind you, if we try to cover up our imperfections, the community is also very aware that we are not perfect and our cover up attempts also discourage people when it comes to the faith.

We are called to be salt and light—and we are imperfect. And any approach to being the church or an individual believer that doesn’t keep those two basic truths in mind is doomed to failure. We can’t be perfect—and we can’t help but give witness to our faith. And so it seems to me that the only real choice we have is to be upfront about who and what we really are.

We need to be willing to admit to any and all that we are imperfect. What makes us people of faith and churches is not our perfection but rather the fact that we have admitted to God that we can’t deal with our imperfection by ourselves. We surrender ourselves to God who then has our permission to work in our lives: smoothing the rough spots; teaching our ignorance; forgiving the sins; guiding our footsteps and all the rest. God knows we are not perfect—but he loves and graces us anyway.

We are salt and light when we freely admit our sins and imperfections not just to God, each other and the church but also to the community and the rest of the world. We don’t always get it right—in fact, we get it wrong as much as anyone else and maybe even more than some people. What sets us apart is that we have discovered that God can deal with us in our imperfect state and wants us to be in a deep relationship with him even in our imperfect state. When we live our faith and run our churches conscious of our imperfection and our dependence of the love and grace of God, then our sin and imperfection become part of our divine saltiness and lightness because our confession and forgiveness and trying again point beyond our imperfection to the perfect God who can and does provide a way for us even in our imperfection.

We show salt and light when we remember and then let the community know that we are not perfect—but we believe in a God who is and whose love and grace can deal with our imperfection.

May the peace of God be with you.

ON THE OTHER HAND…

Both the part-time pastoral positions I hold consist of small congregations meeting in old buildings that have been a part of their communities for well over 100 years in the case of newest of the congregations and well over 200 years in the case of the oldest congregation. All of them are currently struggling. We deal with a variety of issues—aging membership, declining abilities, financial shortfalls and so on.

We sometimes feel that we are pretty much alone in whatever we are doing. But the truth is that we have a wider support base than we realize. That wider support base may not consist of people who attend our worship or support us financially but that base it present. The communities around us pay attention to us and tend to know what is going on within our fellowship.

When we are being faithful and doing what we are called to do, the community knows—and whether we know it or not, they appreciate us. We are salt and light and in a variety of ways, the wider community appreciates our salt and light.

But when we are not being faithful and not doing what we are called to do, the wider community also sees that—and they don’t appreciate that at all. Instead of being salt and light in our community, enabling people to discover something about the love and grace of God, we become anti-salt and anti-light, giving the community a message about faith that upsets and antagonizes them.

They see what we are doing, they talk about what we are doing—and they are offended that we would act in such a non-faithful way. This is a reality that we in the church often forget, especially, it seems to me, when our church is small and struggling. We become so wrapped up in our perpetual and demanding attempt to keep the doors open that we forget we are being watched by a great many people whose understanding of God’s love and grace come from what they see and hear concerning our congregation.

But the wider community sees and talks and makes decisions based on what they see. When we get ourselves into a mess and end up fighting and not talking to each as we try to ensure our side wins the war over what colour hymn books to buy, the wider community sees us as flawed salt and light. We bring harm to the wider community, not just our community. Our internal mess creates a crisis in the wider community. We disappoint and hurt them. They want us to be a positive example of what faith can do and when we fail to do that, both we and the wider community hurt.

Our church hurts because we are failing to follow the path we have committed ourselves to. And the wider community hurts because the salt and light they want and need has been taken from them. They don’t have a clear connection with God, a connection that they want to have in place even if they don’t seem to pay much attention to us and what we do. The anger and disillusionment and frustration we see in the wider community when the church messes up is a sign of several things. It shows that the community is watching us. It says that the community wants us to be what we claim to be. It proclaims that we hurt them when we aren’t being adequate salt and light. We have failed our community as well as ourselves and God when we aren’t the gathered community that we have committed ourselves to being.

I am not sure that we in the church pay enough attention to this reality—and I am equally sure that a lot of what we see as resistance to the faith in local communities is a result of the fact that we have not been the salt and light we could or should be in our community. Our failure to love each other as Jesus loves us becomes a failure to our community, a failure that they feel more deeply than we or they can fully understand.

We exist in a wider community—and that community sees us and wants us to be salt and light. When we are anti-salt and anti-light, the wider community sees and reacts strongly. We have failed ourselves, we have failed God and we have failed the community.

May the peace of God be with you.