BEING ORDINARY

I was at a meeting the other day and on my way back from the snack table, I stopped to have a short chat with one of the people who attends one of the churches I pastor. We were joking a bit and talking a bit about the meeting and our Bible study and generally enjoying seeing each other. I made what I thought was a somewhat innocent comment that wasn’t phrased in “ministerial” language. Her response was interesting. She said, “I love it that you are so ordinary!”

We both laughed because I pretended not to know what she meant—and she knew I was pretending. I then thanked her for the compliment. Being ordinary is part of my self-identity. I really don’t want to be seen as “THE MINISTER” or ‘THE PASTOR” or any other “THE”. I am a pastor and I take pride in doing my pastoral and ministerial work well. I have spent a lot of time and effort over the years to ensure that I am good at what I have been called to do. I also appreciate it when people recognize that I am good at what I do. But I really don’t want to be perceived as being something special because of that.

That attitude does sometimes make me feel a bit strange, both in clergy circles and lay circles. Laity have often been taught and encouraged to treat pastors as if our calling turns us into spiritual and moral and general experts, who are somehow out of touch with the rest of humanity because we are so close to God. Other clergy sometimes want to maintain a distance between clergy and laity—one of the ongoing debates in clergy circles, for example, it whether clergy can actually have friends in the church they serve.

My denominational tradition supports my thinking, at least theoretically. Baptists began partly in protest to the elevated position of clergy. We espoused the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, which means that all believers have the freedom and responsibility and ability to approach God directly, without the need for an intermediary. When I begin with that theological position and add to it the Biblical teaching on gifts and calling, I very quickly come to a position that has a equal place for all people of faith.

We are most definitely not equal when it comes to our abilities and gifts—we are very unequal in that area. I am much better at preaching that some of the members of the church, a few of whom can’t even manage to croak out a word when they are in front of people. On the other hand, I am much worse at singing that some of them—my croaking tends to encourage people to call for silent singing or loud organ playing. Some of our church members who can’t preach or sing bring to the congregation the ability to count and care for our church money—they can actually add and subtract numbers and get them right.

Our inequality in terms of gifts and abilities is part of our overall equality. Each gift and ability and individual has a part of play in our church and ministry—and that makes us equal. My gifts are important at times and at other times, they really aren’t important. When the church puts on their annual tea and sale, my gift of preaching and teaching isn’t overly important, which is why I get assigned to the dishpan in the kitchen, where my lack of tea and sale specific gifts isn’t a problem. But the member of the church whose gift of organizing and administering becomes the most important person that day.

I appreciate my gifts and my calling. I work hard at keeping myself current and capable. I want to be the best I can be at understanding and using my gifts. But I don’t want my gifts and calling to stand out simply because they exist. I much prefer the situation where people recognize my gifts, their gifts and other’s gifts and feel comfortable calling on the gifted person for the exercise of their gifts in the appropriate ways—and when the gifts aren’t needed, everyone is equal and ordinary. When we see each other as both gifted and ordinary, I think we have a solid and strong foundation for our church, one that God can and will build on.

May the peace of God be with you.

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SHARING THE LOAD

In common with many congregations these days, the worship in both the pastorates I serve has a prayer time, where members of the congregation have the opportunity to share prayer requests. Some Sundays, there are no requests, not because nothing needs prayer but likely because no one wants to share their concerns that particular day. Other Sundays, the list of requests is long—which means I have to take good notes so I can include them in the subsequent pastoral prayer time. The longer the list, the more likely it is that I will not be able to read my handwriting by the time I arrive at that point in the prayer time.

Anyway, I have noticed something interesting about the nature of the prayer requests that people bring. As expected, there are often requests for members of our worshipping community: things like return to health, safety in travel, successful operations and so on. There are also requests for people we know in the wider community who are dealing with illness or grief or some other issue that someone in our group feels should be prayer about.

And then there is another set of requests. Many of our members tend to be aware of what is going on in the world and because many of them are also caring and compassionate people, the things they read and see on the media trouble them. And so many of our prayer requests during the sharing time focus on people and events in places where we have no real connection and are not likely to have any connection.

But some want a connection of some kind. In some cases, they could and probably do make a connection by donating money—there is always someone or some organization willing to take money to assist in whatever the media is covering. But some of our people want a different connection. We have concerns, we want to do something and money doesn’t seem to be enough. And so we pray. I am pretty sure that those making the requests pray about them personally and privately, we pray about them during worship and some, I believe, are inspired to pray about them later on their own.

There are lots of possible comments to make at this point. We could question the value of such prayers; we could wonder if the suggestion is a way of avoiding actual involvement; we could even look at the whole issue of the value of prayer. But to me in my context, none of those seem to have much validity. I am the pastor and I have some insights into the motivations of those making the requests—and I believe that they bring the request because they are concerned and want to make a difference.

And because they are people of faith, they see prayer—and more specifically our public prayer time—as a valid and significant and important way of becoming involved and making a difference. We join together as a Christian community and open ourselves to God around those areas and situations that concern us. We might not have a personal involvement with any of the people but we make it personal when we take it to God in our prayers. We might not have any ability to personally intervene but we are enabled to personally intervene through our faith in God, whom we believe is all powerful and present everywhere. Our prayers to him are received and answered.

And we are involved. We are doing something—not doing the only thing we can do and not doing something simple to avoid doing something more serious. We are doing the best we can do, which is to share our concerns with each other before God and then in faith, trust that the God of all creation will continue to be at work in whatever has concerned us. We are not drawing God’s attention to whatever—we are, I think, reminding ourselves that the God we trust is already there and already at work and because of that, we can share the burden of those more directly involved.

We pray—not because it is the only thing we can do but because it is the best thing that we can do. We pray because we need to, because we want to, because God invites us to. We pray—and through our prayers, we share the load.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHRISTMAS IS COMING

The afternoon worship a week or so ago started out a little slowly. I arrived at the regular time but the organist who is normally there practising wasn’t there. I puttered around and set up my stuff and cleared a couple of things off the bulletin board until she arrived. The choir director arrived at about the same time and from there, things started getting hectic. Several more people came in at the same time, several of whom had questions and comments. One of the deacons arrived and I immediately passed off the bulletins to him so I could deal with other stuff.

As I rushed from task to task and person to person, I was aware that the noise level was slowly rising in the sanctuary—laughter, multiple discussions, even people talking to each other from across the small sanctuary. I try to greet everyone as they come in but that was difficult—things were hectic and every now and then, when I had time to scan the sanctuary, there were a bunch of people whom I hadn’t greeted. Granted, we are not talking large numbers but it was still hard to connect with everyone.

In the midst of the activity, I checked my watch and realized that it was time to start. The choir and I gathered for prayer but the noise level was so loud that I got distracted in the prayer, which did give the choir a laugh before we started. Eventually, I got to the pulpit and suggested that the snow that we had in the previous week must have put everyone in a good mood because of all the noise and laughter I was hearing. While no one agreed with my suggestion, the noise level was significantly louder.

Later that day, we had a Skype call with one of the kids. The call was somewhat chaotic because our two grandchildren were very active and wound up, making conversation difficult and confusing. The grandchildren had been busy with a variety of things, some of them involving candy, but there was even more activity than could be explained by that.

I am pretty sure that both events I have described are connected with the Christmas season. While the Sunday in question wasn’t an Advent Sunday, it was part of our cultural Christmas build up. I have been noticing lots of ads, the stores are seriously Christmased up, some houses are already sporting Christmas lights and at least one ten foot Santa is already inflated along our road.

Couple that with the snow that we had just before this Sunday and I am pretty sure that what I was seeing was the beginning of the Christmas season. People are being affected. We are in Christmas mode, which is hard to define completely but which seems to me to be a real thing. We are more gregarious, a bit louder when we are together, more focused on the bits and pieces of the season, quicker to laugh, more responsive to helping out and generally more interested in being with other people. Normal stuff, like getting settled down for worship, gets lost in the process.

I think I need to pay attention to what I am seeing and maybe even let it infect me a bit. I have been somewhat preoccupied with the professional demands of the season, getting plans and programs in place to enable people to remember the birth of Jesus and its significance for our faith. And while I think that is important, it does tend to take my time and energy and leave me a bit tired and even unresponsive to all the rest of the Christmas stuff.

I probably need to remember that as well as being a Christian event, Christmas is primarily a cultural event these days and maybe I need to allow myself to enjoy that part of it a bit more. I probably don’t need to get as wound up and excited as my grandchildren but it might be appropriate if I had some of the seasonal excitement that I was seeing among the worship attendees that Sunday.

We all know that after Christmas, we settle into the long, cold winter with all the restrictions and limits that brings (at least for some people who never learned to appreciate snow) so why not have some fun before that? If it makes worship a bit more hectic, I can handle that.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE CANE

For the past few weeks, my very old knees have been complaining about still being engaged in the work of carrying me around. They have been complaining for years but for some reason, this last couple of weeks has seen the complaining develop into a sort of strike. One knee became so weak and painful that walking became seriously difficult—and since the other knee is weaker to start with, the extra strain on it meant that I began to sit lot and waited until there were several reasons to get up.

And, because I can’t sit all the time, I dug out my cane and started using it when I had to go further than a few feet. This was a major event for me. I am somewhat stubborn, somewhat independent, somewhat dedicated to accomplishing what I want to do free of help. I resisted glasses as a teenager for several months; I resisted hearing aids at a 60+ year old for several years and I resisted the pain in my knee for longer than anyone knows. But I realized that if I was going to make it from the car to the church hall for Bible study, I would need the cane—rolling along wouldn’t be all that successful while carrying my briefcase and water.

It wouldn’t be all that big a problem, though, because I always arrive first and would be inside and settled before anyone else arrived. And, if I followed my usual practise of being the last one to leave, most wouldn’t even notice my limp or the cane. Although I joke sometimes about using the cane to garner sympathy, I really don’t like the limits the cane illustrates or the multiple questions and so on that accompany the cane.

Shortly after I began the drive to the study, I realized I was in trouble. The long awaited resurfacing of our road was underway—and I managed to arrive at the work site just as the traffic going my way was stopped. There was still time but as the wait stretched on into minutes, I began to fidget and wonder how much longer and all the rest. There are no other practical routes from my house to the Bible study so my only choice was to wait. Finally, we were allowed through, although we had to drive slowly behind the guide truck for what seemed like hours. I couldn’t even make up a lot of time after we were free of the work area because several of the cars in front of me were obviously being driven by people seeking to save the planet by poking along well under the speed limit.

But I could still arrive before most people, I thought, at least until I came up to the second set of road works and flagperson, who also timed their work perfectly to stop me for another several minutes, followed by another slow trip behind the follow me truck and another forced speed reduction by the drivers in front.

I finally arrived—and most of the members of the study were there, either standing by the locked door (the person who normally opens the door and turns on the heat was away that day) or sitting in their cars waiting. So, I park, open the door and crawl out of the car and stand unsteadily as I juggle my briefcase, water and cane. By the time I was standing with everything sort of in control, most of the study group was right there, asking what was wrong, if they could help, did I need anything, was I okay.

Eventually, I got inside. One person took the key to open the door, another ended up with my water, a third had the briefcase. No one offered to carry me but that was probably just because of the fact that all of us are actually too old to make such foolish gestures. I did actually appreciate the help—it is much easier to use a cane when I don’t have anything else to carry at the same time. Getting out was the reverse—all my duties and burdens were taken on by others. All I had to do was limp to the car and fall inside.

I hate being dependent on anyone or anything. But honestly, it was really great to have people so willing to help out and the cane made the trip from the car to the hall much easier. My pride can be a real problem at times.

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.

REAL MINISTRY

I am a pastor, which means many things: I get to be chief grace sayer at all kinds of meals; I am expected to know the meaning of every obscure word and verse in the Bible; I am able to conjure up food and money for every needy person and situation. In short, I am involved in ministry. While I am aware that others are involved in ministry as well, I have a tendency to forget that.

But recently, I was talking with someone who needed someone to listen while they opened up about something they were involved in—that is another of the many activities that go along with being a pastor. I actually knew a fair bit about the situation since it had been a topic of the church and our prayers for a while. I knew about this person’s involvement. As they talked, the story became more interesting.

The person was a bit frustrated with the response to the situation. The person we were all concerned about needed serious help financially, emotionally and medically. He needed major repairs on his house or he would spend the winter with a temporarily patched roof—never a good thing in a Nova Scotia winter where wind, rain and snow come regularly. But in spite of the fact that this was a small community, there wasn’t a lot of activity. Some work had been done and some money had been raised but not what might be expected.

The person talking to me was trying really hard to get things going and frustrated at the results. As we talked, the person acknowledged that helping this other person was difficult: the life choices he had made had tended to turn people away from him. His alcoholic life style, his sometimes difficult personality, his overly independent personality had all worked to create a situation where he was more tolerated in his community than appreciated. Nobody would actually wish his harm but nobody was very quick to step in and help either.

But the person was trying, which I thought was great. But as they talked to me, what I was hearing became even more significant. The person acknowledged that the person was difficult. And then they told me that they had been bullied and I suspect even abused by this person and had spend many years being afraid of the person. There were clearly painful and deep scars associated with this particular individual.

And yet the person talking to me was committed to making sure that the person had a safe and secure home for the winter. They were making arrangements, setting up processes, ensuring that money was accounted for, pushing community leaders. They had made a commitment to this person, a person whom I wasn’t even sure they really liked.

As I reflected on the conversation, I had lots of thoughts, one of which was that this person was engaged in real ministry. They were committed to helping someone others were rejecting for some valid reasons. They themselves had good reason to ignore the person and the situation. And yet, the individual in question needed help—and for some reason, the person talking to me felt it was their job to make sure that the help was delivered. I think what I was hearing from this person qualified as a call to ministry.

Not a call to ministry in the sense of committing to spending a life time working in and for the church, which is what we often consider a call to ministry to be. But this was a specific call to a specific ministry for a specific time. For some reason or reasons, I think God has asked the person talking to me to be his agent for a person they might not like but to whom they can be used as God’s hands. The results of this call are already evident: the man in need is slowly getting the help he needs and if the person I was talking to has anything to say about it, they will have a warm shelter for the winter. But there are other results of that call that are equally valid, results that have to do with the ability of the person talking to me to open themselves to God to find the resources needed to do what God asks.

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.

BEGINNING AGAIN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

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.