A GOOD COMBINATION

There are some things in life that are just made to go together. Hamburgers obviously need fries to be complete. Abbot needs Costello to make the comedy work. The Old Testament needs the New Testament for the Christian revelation to be fully understood. A blank page (or computer screen these days) needs meaningful words to become something valuable and inspiring. A good stew needs uglai to be perfect. (If you haven’t tried stew and ugali, trust me—or better yet visit East Africa and try it out).

Another combination that makes sense but which works out less often that a burger and fries is the combination of a pastor and a congregation. When the combination works, it is a beautiful thing. When it doesn’t work, it is a disaster not only for the church and the pastor but also for the wider Christian community because it shows our inability to actually follow the faith that we claim.

There are a variety of reasons why the combination doesn’t work. Sometimes, both congregations and pastors enter the relationship without God’s clear leading. That combination is going to fail simply because it results from people presuming to know as much or more than God. They either ignore the need to consult God on the potential combination or assume that what they want it what God wants.

While that is unfortunately a more common reality than most churches and pastors want to admit, I am going to ignore it in this post—I may deal with it sometime. Today, I want to look at why a combination put together by God goes wrong. Presumably, if God in his infinite wisdom brings together a pastor and a combination, it is literally a match made in heaven—so why would it fail?

Most of the time, the match fails because one side or the other or both forget something vital and important. They forget that God himself has selected this congregation and this pastor to be linked together for this point in time. God created the combination because at the point in time the pastor and congregation come together, it is the very best for both in the ever unfolding divine plan for the redemption of creation.

That may sound like a pretty big understanding of what is a very common reality—afterall, there are probably millions of churches around the world and therefore millions of pastor/congregation combinations. Do all of them have that same divine seal of approval making that particular combination a significant and vital part of God’s overall plan of redemption? Well, if both congregation and pastor ( and denominational leadership where applicable) have faithfully engaged in the process and have been fully open to the leading of the Spirit, then yes, their combination is a divinely planned connection that has a part to play in the overall process of moving a sin-scarred world towards its eventual rebirth.

And if that is true, then congregation and pastor need to work together to discover what God envisions them as being a good combination. The gifts, talents, needs and potentials of both pastor and congregation have been carefully and divinely considered and the combination brought together so that the congregation can continue to develop in faith, so that the pastor can continue to develop in faith and so that the overall momentum leading to the full redemption of creation can be maintained. When either the pastor or congregation—or both—forget the divine reality behind their being together, the whole thing gets out of whack.

Instead of seeing their combination as being for the betterment of both and the advancement of the kingdom, each side sees only what they want and seek to achieve it at the expense of the other—and also at the expense of putting yet another kink in the overall plan of redemption which God then has to work around.

Much better for both pastor and congregation to recognize the divine nature of their calling, to accept the need for mutual submission, to humbly seek the Spirit’s guidance as they seek to discover and express the reason for their coming together. When pastor and congregation mutually submit to each other and all submit to God, they are truly a good combination that will work even better than stew and ugali because stew and uglai will have a temporary effect while a good combination of pastor and congregation will have eternal effects.

May the peace of God be with you.

A GOOD PASTOR

I have never been called to serve as the pastor of a perfect church. But that is okay since none of the congregations I have been called to serve were calling a perfect pastor. I wasn’t perfect before they called me, I didn’t become perfect when I served the church and I didn’t become perfect when I left the congregation. There are some pastors who manage to achieve perfection—but only a few years after they have left the congregation and when succeeding pastors have more glaring weaknesses than they had. But while hindsight might make a pastor look perfect, that is more a case of selective remembering than actual reality.

Like congregations, pastors are not perfect. We are called, we are forgiven, we are gifted—but we are not perfect. We pick up our calling and carry it out with a confusing blend of good and bad that can be wildly infuriating to both pastor and congregation. We provide the absolutely perfect ministry that changes a life one minute and the next, we drive three other people to question not just our call but our basic faith.

When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, all sorts of problems develop. Congregations forget to test the spirits, as I John 4.1 tells us. This allows us as pastors to operate without accountability—and the worst thing we can give to an imperfect individual is a freedom from accountability. With no accountability, we have no reason to see or acknowledge or deal with our imperfections. Generally, lack of accountability results in increased imperfection, not less imperfection.

When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, it become very traumatic when the real imperfections manifest themselves. While some congregation members can and will ignore any and all imperfections, most people will eventually discover the pastor whom they thought was perfect isn’t perfect and that will create all sorts of responses, from mild irritation to rejection of the church to rejection of the faith.

When pastors forget that pastors aren’t perfect, the consequences are even worse. When we pastors forget that we don’t have it all together, we then begin to minister from our imperfection, not from our commitment to God. Our desire for power gets wrapped in “doing God’s will”; our need for approval overshadows the need to speak the truth of God; our desire for affection rewrites the moral standards of the faith. We end up hurting not just ourselves but the wider church. Our imperfections can often become the institutionalized dysfunction of the congregation or denomination.

So, let me be clear. Pastors are not perfect—nor will we be perfect this side of eternity. And since that someday perfection simply isn’t the reality here and now, we pastors need to learn to minister as imperfect people and congregations need to accept the reality that their pastor isn’t perfect and won’t be perfect—and wasn’t actually perfect in the case of former pastors.

How do we imperfect pastors minister to imperfect congregations? I think we start with honesty. It isn’t quite the blind leading the blind—but is the imperfect pastoring the imperfect. If we all start there, then we can become mutually accountable and responsible. As an imperfect pastor of an imperfect congregation, I need to make sure that both I and the congregation are willing to commit proper time and resources to seeking the leading from the Perfect that we need. My latest and greatest idea that will revitalize our church and change the face of Christianity needs the careful and prayerful consideration of the congregation to make sure it isn’t actually an expression of my imperfection wrapped in a few decontextualized Scriptures. While I am called to be their pastor, I am not called to be their boss or dictator. Rather, both pastor and congregation are called to mutual responsibility and accountability as we together seek to offer our imperfection to God so that he can bring us all closer to what we are meant to be.

The churches I have been called to serve as pastor didn’t get a perfect pastor when they called me. But then again, they didn’t have one before I arrived (no matter what the older members say) and they won’t have one after I leave. As long as I and the congregation remember that, we are better able to seek God’s perfection to deal with our imperfection.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

COUNTDOWN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

CHOICES

As a pastor and someone involved in the task of helping others, I get contacted about a lot of things. Everyone seems to think that a pastor has nothing more to do than become involved with their particular concern. Most of the things people want me to become involved in or to help them with are worthwhile. Whether it is helping develop counselling resources in our region or helping provide food for hungry kids in school or housing for people who need it or defending the environment or preserving the built history of our area or—well, the list goes on and on.

And if I were rich, didn’t need to earn a living and didn’t have a bunch of things I am required to do, I might be interested in some of these things. But one of the realities of my life is that I already have a long list of required activity. Every week, I need to prepare and preach two sermons, develop and lead (or pretend to lead) two Bible studies, and keep a spiritual eye on the people I have been called to serve as pastor. I also have to be ready to drop everything to work with serious illness or funerals or other life crises. I am responsible for primary spiritual and emotional care for the people in the congregation. Along with all that, I have to find some time to cook and eat meals, exercise and sleep.

I am also finding that as I age, the energy I have available isn’t as plentiful as it was 20 or 30 or 40 years ago. Burning the candle at both ends might be possible at 36 but at 66, the candle doesn’t actually allow for that. I keep being told by medical people that I am healthy—but then they add for a 66 year old, subtly reminding me that I am not 36.

So, I have to make choices. And these choices aren’t like choosing between drinking a cup of good coffee or a cup of stagnant puddle water. These are choices between things that are equally appealing, equally valid and equally important. Do I choose providing counselling for the adult victim of childhood sexual abuse or helping a shattered family process the death of their loved one or finding ways to discretely provide food and clothing to the kids in school whose families can’t afford it or take part in the long process to correct an environmental mess?

I learned early in my life that I can’t do everything—and learned almost as soon that I would have to say no to some very good things. I would like to say that I have developed a simple, easy to use two step process for making such decisions but since I am still a pastor, a profession that requires honesty (except in the case of sermon illustrations), I won’t say that.

I have found that the process of choosing isn’t easy, at least for me. I do have friends who semi-boastfully tell me that God spoke to them and made it clear what they were supposed to do. I believe God speaks but it always seems to take me a lot longer to get the message. And so I often find myself juggling choices, trying to figure out which ones I can do and which therefore have to be not chosen.

I do work hard when I have a choice like this to make and the work does include serious prayer. I don’t actually get down on my knees—the days of getting on my knees are long gone. But I do pray. Sometimes the prayer involves weighing consequences in the awareness of God’s presence. Sometimes, it involves a groaning plea something like, “What do I do?” And sometimes, it involves mowing the lawn or shovelling snow or staring out the window allowing God to move around in my thought process.

Eventually, I make a decision. Sometimes, I second guess the decision; occasionally, I feel guilty about the decision; now and then I even change the decision. But I work at making faith decisions about the various demands, claims and possibilities that I have to deal with. I really can’t do everything but doing one thing often involves not doing something else, which means I have to think carefully and pray hard about the choices I make.

May the peace of God be with you.

WRONG TIME, WRONG PLACE

I am feeling a bit down on myself right now. For some reason, I have ended up in a couple of situations saying things that probably would have been better left unsaid. What I actually said wasn’t false, it wasn’t malicious and it didn’t cause any harm—but all the same, it was probably the wrong things to say in the context where I said it. Nobody was upset by what I said and there were no serious consequences. But I recognized that somehow, I had crossed a line I don’t normally cross.

The fact that I did it once would be unusual but I actually went too far twice—in different contexts and about different things but both times, I realized that I said too much to the wrong people. That by itself is somewhat surprising. I am an introvert with a very strong listening gift, which means that most times in a group setting, I am the one in the group who is helping everyone else talk and share. I am also often the one people look at when they are sharing something difficult or painful.

But here I was in the group talking—and talking too much, taking the group in a very different direction than our stated purpose and in the process giving people too much information that they really didn’t need and which wasn’t all that helpful in the context. I am feeling kind of something which although I can’t exactly describe is somewhat negative.

My first response was to do what I always do when something isn’t right: I analyse. I needed to know what prompted the over sharing. Interestingly enough, each infraction had a different reason. In the first case, our group was given a discussion question that I couldn’t answer for a variety of reasons. Instead of letting the group carry on, I blurted out my inability and essentially stopped the group process. I am pretty sure that that was result of being tired and therefore less able to discipline myself—my normally efficient self-censor was off taking a nap.

The second time was different. Someone asked me a question and in the process of answering, I went a bit too far. I knew a lot about the question they asked and once started on the answer, the teacher inside kicked into gear and I kept going after I had given the questioner everything they wanted to know—and then I proceeded to give them lots that they didn’t want or need to know. Sometimes, my teacher likes showing off.

So, different reasons for the same behaviour. Given that there were no negative consequences that amounted to anything, it might seem like I am making a mountain out of a mole-hill. But I like to understand what I am doing and why I am doing it. It is part of my continual growth emotionally and spiritually. Knowing why I do what I do, or knowing as much as I can about why I do what I do is important to my continued growth.

I don’t want to go with the flow and not understand myself. I want to know what rough edges still need sanding, what holes need patching, what weak spots need shoring up. I think that is all part of personal and spiritual growth. Yes, I am what I am—but my faith teaches me that I am not what I could be. God loves me as I am—but he also loves me enough to encourage and help me to become what I can be.

And it is important to me to be involved personally in the development process that God has going on in my life. I believe I went too far both times. I see something that I need to work on. I don’t think I am a failure or a hopeless case. I goofed. I messed up. What now?

Well, I figured out what went wrong. God has already forgiven me. I can and will forgive me. And together, God and I will move on, continuing to work at the project of helping me become what God knows I can become. I hope I won’t make those same mistakes again—but if I do, well, God’s grace is big enough to deal with it.

May the peace of God be with you.

SPIRITUAL GUIDANCE

Recently, some of my electronics have been giving me indications that they are thinking about retirement. Since some of them are getting really old for electronics, I have been observing their symptoms with some mixed feelings. I appreciate my electronics and use them heavily—while I am not totally dependent on them, I would be very reluctant to go back to pre-electronic days. But at the same time, new electronics are new—better specs, new tricks, updated everything.

So, given the realities of my aging electronics, I began researching the possibilities for replacements. I began with my tablet, which I use heavily in my ministry—I don’t do paper anymore, carrying everything on the tablet. The research thrilled my tech loving heart. Eventually, I discovered two real possibilities: one looked good and was much cheaper than the second choice. However, before I bought, I checked reviews and discovered that it didn’t perform as well as the more expensive one, which went to the head of the list.

I was ready. I was in the store, looking at samples and lifting and touching—I wasn’t actually salivating, at least not physically. I was almost ready to pull out the charge card and make the purchase when something told me not to buy right then. Since we had other stuff to do, I moved on, figuring I would be back soon to get my new tablet.

What I didn’t know then was that the something telling me not to buy was actually a spiritual message. God was speaking. Now, before you stop reading, let me explain. I think that faith needs to touch every area of life, which means that God should be a part of every decision, including what electronics I buy. I know that, I tell people that, I preach that. But at some point, my love of electronics sort of shoved that insight into the background. After all, what does faith have to do with tablets? The only tablets mentioned in the Bible are made of stone and had zero battery life.

But as I thought about buying a new, expensive tablet that would do everything I wanted and more, I believe that God was also at work, seeking to convince me that there were other options that just might be more pleasing to him. I am still not sure whether God is deeply concerned about which tablet I buy or if he is more concerned with my being willing to involve him in the process, although based on my past experience, I am pretty sure that his first concern is that I involve him in the process and then he can help me make a better decision.

Is buying a new tablet a faith decision? Well, according to many sermons I have preached, everything has a faith connection so my decision about a tablet should involve a faith component. I think that was the message God was sending in the electronics store when I just couldn’t quite buy the tablet my research—and desire—told me was the best choice for me.

Since then, I have gone back to the research process—but I have also specifically involved God in the process. I am not expecting God to become a celebrity spokesperson (spokesbeing?) for any particular brand of tablet. Nor am I expecting him to give me a list of divinely approved tablets. But I am expecting that if I open the process to God, he will do what he always does when we bring him into the process. He will help us evaluate and examine and think through things in a different way.

In this particular case, it seems that buying a new, expensive tablet probably isn’t the best decision. My desires for new tech got in the way of some realities that involving God helped me see. The new, expensive tablet would look really great—but in truth, it is more than I really need. As I thought and allowed God some part in the process, I began to see other options, other ways that would work even better and be more realistic. I will eventually end up with some new tech, some repaired tech and more of what I need.

This has been an interesting process—who knew that buying tech could be a spiritual exercise? Well, actually I did—but forgot to remind myself of what I keep telling others.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

CHURCH GROWTH

I was reading an article recently dealing with church growth. Now, I am not normally a fan of church growth articles but this was from someone whose stuff I read regularly and who almost always has good stuff to say. I liked what he had to say in the article but I was actually more interested in a chain of thought that developed for me as I was reading and afterwards.

I pastor small churches, churches which have a stable and involved attendance. We know each other; we appreciate each other; we are aware of each other’s gifts and abilities; we generally know why someone isn’t present. Our small numbers present some problems at times because we lack bodies to do specific jobs—or, as is sometimes the case, the bodies we have are no longer capable of the jobs that need to be done.

It would be nice to have more people, which I suppose puts me in the category of church growth supporter. But I realized that I simply don’t see church growth in the same way as some people do. Often, church growth is presented in terms of statistical analysis, with suggestions that a certain growth rate is healthy; that a certain percentage of the community is open to evangelism; that various approaches to outreach have specified success rates. The discussions and planning focus on numbers.

But my thinking goes in a totally different direction, something I realized as I was reading that article after a week in which I had two funerals in one of the pastorates I serve. Both were men who were well known in the community and had many connections, which meant that many of the same people attended both funerals. Before and after the service, I had a chance to connect with many of those attending. Both church and non-church people were there and since I have lived in this area for almost than 40 years, I knew most of the people attending.

So, at one point, a couple coming in to the second funeral was held up in the line to sign the condolence book. The husband looked at me and said that this was the third death he had to deal with this week. His voice was shaky and his eyes were watery—and this from a strong, no nonsense, salt of the earth man who normally appeared unflappable. But he was obviously affected by these losses.

He and his wife have been on the fringes of the church for as long as a I can remember: their kids were part of our kids programs, they attended concerts and special events, they probably gave money when the church was hurting financially a while ago, they show up at all fund raisers, they both have shown an openness to the things of faith. But they don’t attend worship.

I realized that when I think church growth, I think of people like this. I am not actually thinking about statistical increases and rate of growth possibilities. In the end, I am concerned with how I can help people like this couple make their faith more a part of their lives. Or I think of some of the family members who attended funerals, wondering how we as a church can somehow become more responsive to their needs. Or I wonder how we can atone for the stupidities of our church past that prevents some people from becoming more involved.

I don’t actually want a bigger church—I want a church that these people a part of it. Sure, that likely means that our churches will grow. But it isn’t the growth that I want. I probably won’t even know the percentage increase—and wouldn’t care if someone told me. I am concerned about specific people, some of whom I know and many of whom I don’t yet know. And so I don’t think much about church growth.

I do think a lot about ministry, how I look after the people I have been called to shepherd and how we as a church minister to the people we see every day. We already have a significant relationship with these people and many of them look to us for spiritual support. I want to provide them with more of the love and grace that God has for them. That is my version of church growth.

May the peace of God be with you.

NEW PROPHETS

I have always been fascinated by the Biblical prophets, particularly the ones who lived and ministered during the middle section of the Old Testament times. Most of the named prophets at that time were men, although there are hints of women being involved at times as well. They tended to be somewhat on the edge of the cultural norms of their day, which is an important point to remember.

We in the faith, and perhaps especially those of us in ministry, have a tendency to see the prophets are important and respected and visionary individuals who words are important and timeless. But the truth is that most of the prophets in the Old Testament, especially those around the time of the collapse of the north and south kingdoms were not at the centre of things. They were not given much attention—and what attention they were given tended to be negative.

Their messages were important and essential but didn’t really register with their contemporaries. We look back at their words and messages and we discover the deep and powerful truths they were speaking and we respect and appreciate and honour them and their words—but in their day, they were ridiculed, arrested, exiled. Being a prophet was not exactly a sought after occupation during many periods in Old Testament history.

Before I continue, it occurs to me that I need to define prophecy just to make sure we are all thinking the same way. In the Bible, prophecy is used to describe the activity of people delivering specific messages from God to individuals, groups or nations. While prophecy sometimes involves some predictions and comments about the future, the key essential of prophecy is that it is a specific message from God to a specific target audience.

All of that makes me wonder. I wonder if there are prophets at work today. Well, actually, I am pretty sure there are prophets at work today. My wondering is more about where we find them. I am aware that there have been and are lots of Christian leaders who have been hailed as prophets by some group or another. And some of them may actually have been prophets. But what bothers me is that often, the decision to name someone a prophet is based on the fact that they speak a message that we like to hear.

We acclaim them prophets because their words and messages reinforce our ideas. We like what we hear and since we like it, we accept the words as coming directly from God, which makes the speaker a prophet. And while there is nothing wrong with liking what someone has to say, I do wonder if it is really prophecy.

Where is the tension, the rebuke, the correction that was such a part of Biblical prophecy? Why does God feel a need to send people to reinforce what we are already comfortable with? Where, for that matter, is the testing that is supposed to be in place to see if the message is really from God?

Maybe, instead of looking for modern prophets in the best seller section, we need to look at the edges of the faith, seeking out the people whose messages are ignored and whose words go against our flow. I am not suggesting that being on the edge makes something true—but based on the Biblical examples, being on the edge doesn’t necessarily make it false either. Popularity is not a necessary part of the definition of prophecy. In fact, in the Bible, God tends to send prophets to give corrective messages. He uses them to deliver words that go against the popular and accepted and pleasing—that is why so many of the Old Testament prophets has such a hard time.

So, where are the prophets of today? Maybe some of them are on the best seller lists, pastoring the mega churches, leading the newest church growth fad. But maybe some of them are on the edges, ignored and disrespected. Maybe the popular is prophecy—but then again, maybe the message God is trying to get across is unpopular and uncomfortable and we don’t actually want to hear it.

How do we decide? Well, a good start might be to listen more to both the popular and the unpopular and ask God to help is decide which is the real prophecy.

May the peace of God be with you.