THE OLD CHURCH BUILDING

            The area where I live is one of the oldest settled areas in Canada.  Before the arrival of European settlers, there was a thriving Native population.  European settlers arrived here in 1605 and have been here every since.  As might be expected, we have a great many old buildings.  The coffee shop where I treat myself to the world’s greatest cinnamon buns, for example, is housed in a building put up in 1747, although the coffee and cinnamon buns are much newer.

Among the old buildings are several unused church buildings of various denominations.  Some of them belong to denominations that have no problem  dealing with old, unused  church buildings.  The bishop, presbytery, committee or some other outside organization signs a paper and the building disappears or is sold and become an antique shop or funky house.  But other denominations, like the one I belong to, have serious problems because control of the building belongs to the membership.

But one of the interesting realities is that when the membership passes, control of the building seems to vest itself in a variety of people who want it kept for a variety of reasons.  Some have fond memories of family members who attended there.  Some are deeply appreciative of the architecture of the building.  Some swoon over the historical connections of the building.  Some see it as a possible money making opportunity–a wedding chapel or something like that.

Everyone wants it preserved and repaired and painted.  But very few want to pay the money and put in the time to make all that happen–and the few who do soon discover that having an unused church building to look after can be a major source of frustration, aggravation, stress and anger.

Interestingly enough, very few people see the building for what it really is.  An unused church building is the last sign physical of a once vibrant worshipping community.  It speaks of the faith that brought people to God and each other; a faith that enabled relatively poor people to build a building to house their congregation; a faith that sustained that worshipping community for many years–but also a faith that faded as its membership aged and moved and died.

If the congregation was faithful and worked at being the church, the deteriorating building isn’t the last sign of the former congregation’s life, nor is it even the best symbol of the legacy of the congregation.  To really know the value of a congregation, it is necessary to look at the lives touched by the congregation who used to worship in that building.  How many were helped through the valley of the shadow of death?  How many discovered the wonder of God’s grace?  How many found a cup of cold water when they needed it?  How many found their lives more abundant because of that congregation?

Unfortunately, answers to questions like that are sometimes hard to find.  People move away; communities shrink and fade away; memories grow dim.  The people who were touched by that congregation may not be anywhere near the old building–and the building probably isn’t anywhere near as important to them as the people who once made up the congregation.

I like old church buildings–but then, I like all church buildings, from the huge cathedral to the mud and wattle hut in the Kenyan bush.  But I like the congregations that inhabit the buildings even more.  I might appreciate the furtively scratched ship drawings hidden on the back pew in the balcony of an old unused church building but I appreciate even more the legacy of the congregation that used to inhabit that building.  Their worship might have bored at least one budding artist, but it also touched lives and made a difference.

The old building might have historical, architectural, cultural and emotional significance but the real story and real value of the building is written in the lives of those who built it and worshipped in it and in the lives touched by that group of people.  What happens to the building after the worshipping community ceases to exist?  Let the historians and the architects and the culture buffs and the nostalgia surfers figure it out.  I am going to take some pictures, thank God for the church that used to be there and worship somewhere else, where God is using another group of believers to touch lives.

May the peace of God be with you.

I AM A…

I grew up in a small town that had at least five different denominational congregations with at least one independent congregation.  I also grew up in the era when basically, everyone when to worship on Sunday–as far as I know, we didn’t have any Seventh Day groups in the community.  That meant that everyone in the town “belonged” to some group or another.  It also meant that we generally knew why we didn’t belong to one of the other groups.

Of course, the reasons we didn’t belong to one of the other groups were always because of something our group did much better.  We Baptists, for example, were proud of the fact that when we worshipped, it was under the leading of God, not some canned worship program written long ago by people who obviously weren’t Baptist.  We were also convinced that those groups that actually used wine for Communion were just opening the door to alcoholism.  And of course, we allowed ourselves to be lead by God, not the Holy Spirit because the group that talked a lot about the Holy Spirit was definitely off base.  And we certainly were holding to the true Gospel, unlike that group that was moving off the theological base into liberalism.

So there we were–at least six separate groups, meeting at about the same time on Sunday morning, listening to each other’s church bells peel around the same time, singing many of the same hymns, reading from the same Bible (although some were using the RSV not the KJV), worshipping the same God of love and grace and working really hard to make sure we all knew how different we were.

Except, we really weren’t that different.  Our Baptist insistence on extemporaneous prayers rather than a prayer book tended to fall apart when you actually listened to the prayers we made–the prayers tended to sound pretty much the same from week to week.  We didn’t have written prayers but we did a lot of repetition and saying the same thing week after week.

And more seriously, we all had our theological strengths and our practical weaknesses.  The “liberal” denomination was trying to actually show God’s love in concrete ways.  The “Holy Spirit” group was trying to open themselves to the movement of God in daily life.  The liturgical worship approaches were trying to tie is together with the deep historical roots of the church.  Our Baptist group, well, we were trying to make sure that there was room for individuality in faith.

Together, we has a deeper, fuller and more complete understanding of what God was trying to show us and teach us and ask of us.  Together, the churches in our community came close to understanding the fullness of the Gospel.  Unfortunately, we were too much interested in our own small insights and understandings to really benefit from the things that we could learn from each other.  We had to be right and they had to be wrong.

I am deeply appreciative of the fact that I live and work in a very different church climate.  I am aware that there are still many places where the church or parts of it are more concerned with division and difference than unity and similarity but I don’t work there and don’t want to be there.

I think the process of moving to a new place began when I started to understand that it was alright to question my own group, to be open about the things that we did and didn’t do that caused problem for the faith.  I moved from there to realizing that others had similar realities–there was some good and some bad.  And I realized that I was free to challenge the bad in my group and import some of the good from other groups.  I didn’t stop being Baptist–but I did begin to realize that before I was Baptist, I was a follower of Jesus Christ.

And as a follower of Jesus Christ, I am united with all other followers and can look at what others do in their journey in a different light.  When their journey helps someone else’s journey, it is great.  So I can borrow printed prayers, new translations, emphasis on the Holy Spirit and couple it with extemporaneous prayers, traditional hymns and grape juice–the goal is God, not Baptist.

May the peace of God be with you.

ANOTHER MEETING

A few years ago, I got is a bit of trouble over a joke.  It seems to me that ministry sometimes consists of going to meetings and at one meeting, I asked the participants how they could know for sure if they were in heaven or hell in the afterlife.  I thought the answer was simple:  if you were at a meeting in the afterlife, you were obviously in hell, not heaven.  I thought it was funny but others at the meeting didn’t see it the same way, but that is a story for another time.

Meetings are a fact of life in ministry.  And because I serve two separate collections of churches, I end up at more meetings.  As a result of these two different ministry settings, for example, I am currently part of two different ecumenical gatherings.  One is an actual council of churches and the other is a gathering of clergy.  Interestingly enough, they both do pretty much the same type of things.  Both meet monthly and both spend time getting to know each other better and working together on a variety of things that help the church as a whole.  And while I don’t much like meetings, the idea of churches and their leaders working together makes up for the necessity of attending meetings, most of the time anyway.

When I attend such meetings, I appreciate the opportunity to meet with other believers from other traditions.  I sometimes get frustrated when I recognize the limitations we face as different denominations but more often, I am more often trying to deal with the differences in personality that always complicate meetings.

Our gatherings do not represent the full Christian presence in our communities.  There are some Christian groups that choose not to take part and depending on the leadership at any particular time, some of the member groups may not have a very active participation.  But in the end, we meet together, we talk together, we plan together, we laugh together, and we support each other in difficult times.  We get to know each other’s individual and ecclesiastical differences.  We learn who does what well and who doesn’t do what well.  We discover who can offer which resources to the work we can do.

And in the process of meeting together, we are doing far more than we sometimes realize. As well as the planning and sharing and organizing that we do, we are also presenting our communities with a vision of the church as it is meant to be.  We aren’t planning to merge all our churches and become one.  But we are practising and showing an essential and basic unity of the faith that cuts across our denominational differences.  We are showing our communities that we might worship in different ways in different buildings at different times but we are all actually worshipping the same God because of the same Christ in the power of the same Holy Spirit.

We are telling our communities that no matter which building we worship in and no matter which style we worship in, we are in agreement and we are all heading in the same direction and we aren’t competing with each other.  And so when I have prayer with the Anglican lady who I see in the hospital during my visit with my Baptist people, she and her pastor know that I am not trying to steal anyone–and the community knows that we are all working for the same God.

And this is important because the more fragmented and fighting the church is, the weaker our witness.  If we who follow Christ in our different ways cannot get along, how can the world expect much of the faith we proclaim?  Our bickering and competition serve to give outsiders a reason for not considering faith–we undercut our mission and make to task of the Holy Spirit much harder when we aren’t willing to work together.

And so, I will attend the meetings–not because I love meetings.  I am still convinced that one of the joys of heaven will be the absence of meetings.  But I will continue to meet with fellow believers because that which we share is much deeper and much more significant than that which separates us.  We are joined together by our faith  now and forever.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHO ARE WE?

One of my Bible study groups just started a new topic.  Last year, we had planned to do a study of basic Christian doctrine and follow that up with a study of our specific denomination.  We got a bit sidetracked and spent several months on a study of the Holy Spirit but in both the Bible study groups I work with, getting sidetracked is one of the most exciting parts of the study process.

But this particular diversion meant that instead of going right from a study of Christian theology into a more specific denominational approach, we had a gap.  I had a concern that the gap would mean that we would lose sight of the connection between the two studies.  My original plan was to move right from one to the other, which would help us see ourselves as believers in a specific context within the wider church.

I think our study group will be able to make the connection–but just to make sure, I dug out and passed around a 2 page summary of Christian history that I developed years ago with help from a variety of sources.  But on a wider scale, one of my concerns throughout ministry has been that we believers have a terrible tendency to forget the big picture.

Because I belong to the Baptist segment of the church, I have a tendency to think that the rest of the church is somehow off course.  There are also people within this tradition who are absolutely convinced that anyone who isn’t a Baptist really isn’t part of the Church.  If such thinking were confined only to the Baptist segment, that would be a serious but somewhat manageable problem–the rest of the Church could ignore our thinking and get on with its business.

Unfortunately, the inability to contextualize denominational stances within the wider church seems to be one of the defining characteristics of  the church as a whole, at least in North America.  You would think that at a time when the whole Christian faith is experiencing a decline in the West, we would be more willing to pull together–but instead of pulling together, we are often doing our best to put each other down.

We even spend more time than any of us want to admit trying to convince believers from other segments of the Church to join our segment.  While some might call this evangelism, it really isn’t.  We are just rearranging the seating plan, not reaching into the darkness to rescue people as we are called to do.

But the reality is that we believers need to deal more effectively with all the other branches of the faith that we do at this point.  It is simply wrong to assume that everyone outside our particular brand is either wrong or needs to switch.  Christianity isn’t a competition to see who can capture the most from the “other side”.  The Church is a wide and diverse gathering of believers whose actual expression of the faith takes many forms and many styles, none of which is perfectly right or perfectly wrong.

Jesus died and rose to life for the sake of all humanity and instituted the Church as a place where those who follow him can grow and develop and fellowship and enable each other.  And he died and rose to life and instituted the church for Baptists and Catholics and the Africa Brotherhood Church and Brother Joe’s Independent Chapel and all the rest.  I may not feel particularly comfortable in Brother Joe’s Independent Chapel and I am much too happy being a married pastor to consider being a Catholic priest but I am joined to Brother Joe and the Roman Catholic church is deep, powerful and eternal ways that I need to recognize and strengthen.

The things that tie me to the rest of the church are important and basic.  The things that differentiate me from the rest of the church are also important–but nowhere near as important as the love and grace of God shown to all through the crucified, risen, living and someday to return Jesus Christ.  When I look at the Church through the lens of Jesus Christ, many of the things that separate me from other believers really aren’t that important.  So what if Anglicans use wine and Baptists use grape juice and the Africa Brotherhood Church uses some local dried powder reconstituted with questionable water?  We all see it as the blood of Christ, which ties us together with an unbreakable bond.

May the peace of God be with you.

WWJD

Every now and then, I am struck by the wonder and breadth of the Christian church.  The Church worships God and that worship comes from many places in many languages and in many forms.  Whether it is a formal, liturgical English service or a relaxed, informal Kikamba service, God is worshipped and it is still the church.  While some lament the fragmentation of the church into denominations, I actually rejoice in the diversity of the church–since we are all different as humans, it makes sense that God would allow the Church to develop structures and forms that allow everyone to have a place to comfortably worship God.

That aspect of our diversity excites and encourages me.  It says that God speaks our language; that God accepts our worship in all its diversity; that God cares about who we are and what has meaning for us.  We may struggle with human diversity but God seems to celebrate and encourage it.  I appreciate the ability to worship in different styles and languages with different approaches to music and liturgy and preaching.

But there is a dark side to our diversity.  The dark side begins when we become aware of our differences and begin to think that different automatically means that we are right and they are wrong.  It occurs when we begin to think that Jesus must have done things the way we do things and that he must somehow have put his stamp of approval on our ways.  When  we begin to claim that Jesus is on our side, we have moved into the darkness.

While I would like to think that Jesus was a Baptist, the reality is that Jesus was non-denominational.   He wasn’t Baptist or Catholic or Pentecostal or Anglican–but at the same time, he is all of these and more.  And so, while I read the New Testament with my Baptist bias and find support for believers’ baptism by full immersion, I need to realize that there is also support for other forms of baptism.  Would Jesus practise immersion or pouring or sprinkling?  Well, since there is no record of Jesus actually baptizing anyone, we can’t say for sure what he would have done.

And if we can’t say for sure what he would have done, we probably need to have a more open mind on baptism that we generally do.  That reality generalizes to most of church life.  We don’t have a clear and definitive model of the church in the New Testament.  Sometimes, it acts congregational, as it did in Acts 15 when the church was dealing with the issue of how to deal with the influx of Gentile believers coming from  Paul’s ministry. At other times, it acts as a hierarchy,  with the apostles exercising considerable authority, as we see in other places in the book of Acts and in some of Paul’s writings.

I am not sure that Jesus had any particular denominational approach in mind when he set up the church.  He wanted the church to be the gathering of the faithful, a place where believers could help each other and reach into the world.  He wanted the church to be known for its love to God and its members.  He wanted the church to show the world a better way–but whether we should have a congregational or hierarchical system of government didn’t enter the picture.

He wanted the church to be his agent in the world–but didn’t tell us how we should structure our worship, what language we should worship in, what type of music we should use, who should preach, what style of preaching we should use, how long the worship should be and so on.  Most of the things that we look at and consider important in the church don’t even rate a mention in the New Testament, which should tell us a lot.

Rather than  try to make the whole church the same or waste time fighting over our differences, we in the church need to remember to worship God, love each other and show the light to the world.  Beyond that, we can enjoy our particular spot in the diversity that is the church while appreciating and maybe even borrowing from the rest of the church.

May the peace of God be with you.

A HUMBLE CONFESSION

As I was writing the last post, I realized that it could suggest that I have a very high opinion of my pastoral abilities.  And I do think that I am pretty good at what I do–I have been a pastor for a lot of years and have helped congregations through some difficult times.  And while I have never been called to a large congregation, I think I have been good for the churches that I have pastored.  As well, I have been called to teach pastors both in Canada and Kenya.

But at the same time,  I have to confess that most of the time in ministry, I really don’t know what I am doing.  Sure, there are some basics:  I need to preach, teach Bible study, visit people, attend (and sometimes chair) meetings, do some counselling, and be there for life transitions like funerals and weddings.  But beyond the basics, I don’t always have great plans and inspiring visions.  I don’t dream (much) of seeing the congregation become a mega-church; I am never sure where we will be next month let alone 5 or 10 years from now.  In truth, sometimes, I can’t even tell you what I will be preaching next Sunday, although that only happens when I forget that the current sermon plan actually ends next week.

None of my congregations have ever given me a coffee mug with the message “World’s Greatest Pastor” printed on it–nor have I even felt that I deserve one.  Even more, there are times when I am convinced that I made a serious mistake when I decided that God wanted me to be a pastor–and more than a few times when I have been convinced that God made a serious mistake by calling me to be a pastor.

I get tired of what I am doing; I get depressed when the stress of ministry leads to overwork; I waste time when I could be studying or seeing people; I wonder why God didn’t call me to some other work; I get angry at things that happen in the church; I fantasize about winning the lottery and retiring; I sometimes hope for snow days for more than just the opportunity to go cross-country skiing.

I am a pastor–but even after all these years of pastoring, teaching pastors, reflecting and writing on pastoring, I am still trying to figure out what it really means to be a pastor.  Maybe after I retire sometime in the not too distant future, I will have some time to figure out what it is that I am really supposed to be doing.

I have actually made some progress at figuring it out.  I have learned some things that pastors shouldn’t do.  Some of these I have learned from my own painful experience.  Others I have learned from watching the experience of others–those lessons have been less painful for me but no less painful for congregations and pastors.  Knowing what not to do is actually a helpful start on the road to knowing what to do.

If it is a mistake to scold the congregation with every sermon, as it is, then not only do I know to avoid that but also, I have an opportunity to discover what might be a better use of the sermon.  Teaching during the sermon, encouraging with the message, inspiring congregations through the preaching–all these are much better for everyone than a ranting scold every week.

And even more importantly, I have learned one of the most basic realities of my profession.  Ministry is really about developing relationships with people that can help them and me develop our relationship with God.  In the course of developing those relationships, we may discover God’s leading and empowering to do interesting, exciting and inspiring things but the development of the relationships is the key issue.  We have to really know each other before we can trust each other.  We have to trust each other before we can really open to each other about faith.  We have to open to each other about faith before we can experience the fullness of the presence of God in our midst.

So, day after day, I take my introverted self and go be a pastor–I joke with people, drink coffee with people, cry with people, pray with people, teach people, get taught by people.  I do my job, a job that I don’t always understand and which I sometimes struggle to explain and am not sure how good at it I really am but which God has called me to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE CHURCH WEATHER REPORT

A few times over the course of my ministry with small congregations, I have been taken aside by some member of the congregation and thanked for what I have done and am doing in the congregation.  Since I am somewhat analytical by nature, I have generally asked the person to tell me just what it is that they think I have done.  Initially, I was thinking I would hear some comment about my breathtaking preaching, my incredibly inspiring teaching, my superlative administrative skills or at least the fact that last Sunday, I managed to produce a bulletin with no discernible mistakes.

But in almost every case in which this scenario happened, the informant doesn’t mention any of those things.  Almost all have told me that what I have done that is so important to them is change the atmosphere of the congregation.  They mention that they come to worship now because they want to, not because they feel it is their duty.  They talk about the fact that we laugh a lot as a congregation–and often add that we laugh together, not at each other.  Sometimes, the person will say that the congregation used to be gloomy but now they feel hope and excitement.

I have to confess that this hasn’t been some planned strategy on my part but as I have reviewed the ministry I have done, I can see that a change of atmosphere is generally a by-product of what I have been doing.  And in each situation, I haven’t been doing anything more than what I think is my job as pastor.

My primary area of skill, ability, gifts and inclination is pastoral.  I am concerned about people.  Now, because I am an introvert, I joke with churches that I don’t actually like people but that really isn’t true.  As a pastor, I like and care for the people I am working with and for–and they are my primary focus.  That doesn’t seem to be the case for all pastor-congregation matches.

As I read and study pastoral trends these days, I find strong encouragement for me to be a Leader, a Visionary or even better, a Visionary Leader.  I am told by others that I must be an unflinching advocate of the TRUTH, unwavering in my defence of all that it right.  Others suggest that I must be Seeker Sensitive, designing worship and programs for those who aren’t there but who might come if I get things right.  I also need to be an advocate of Church Growth, following which ever theory is hot at the moment.

In the end, though, I am a pastor, called by God to love and care for a specific group of people.  The spiritual (and sometimes actual) feeding of this flock is my focus.  And as I have analysed the congregations I have worked with, I realize that the comments I mentioned at the beginning of this post are a direct result of the fact that the people feel cared for and supported in their spiritual development–and that changes the nature of their relationship with both the faith and the church.

These days, I am more aware of the atmosphere of congregations and more concerned with changing the atmosphere.  But the process I follow really hasn’t changed.  I am still a pastor.  I work at listening and caring and supporting.  I build my teaching and preaching on what I am hearing and seeing and deducing from my pastoral contacts.  But most of all, I spend time with people, listening and learning.

The results of good pastoral care are many and varied–but one of the most important is that people feel valued and important.  Worship becomes a time of sharing with each other and with God their sense of value and importance.  Whatever we do as a congregation grows out of this atmosphere of value and importance.  People are free to open themselves to the leading of the Spirit–and when the congregation opens themselves to this leading, there is no telling what will happen but it will generally be positive, powerful and exciting for everyone involved.

The church weather report is one of the most powerful indicators of the health and potential of a congregation–and the role of the pastor is crucial to establishing conditions for a good weather report.

May the peace of God be with you.

BRIGHTEN THE CORNER WHERE YOU ARE

It is becoming really common these days for believers to take part in mission trips.  After raising a serious amount of  money, a group of believers will take off for some faraway place where they will fellowship with local believers (often through an interpreter), test out the national food (with the assurance that a real meal awaits at the hotel), and build something.  They come home with a nice tan, great stories and a deeper awareness of the realities of life.

Interestingly, I have had serious discussions with Kenyan Christians who wanted to explore the possibility of making a mission trip to Canada so that they could help Canadians engage in ministry.  From their perspective, such a mission trip would be a great thing–based on what they see in the media, we need a lot of help in North America carrying out the mission of the church.  Of course, the North American church would have to pay for their trip since Kenya is poor and Canada is rich.

There is a major debate about the value of such trips which I will not engage at this point.  I do want to use this trend to point out a significant irony concerning the mission of the church:  the further away the mission focus is geographically and culturally, the easier it is to get people to support it financially and physically.  I think the key problem is that real ministry, where ever it happens, is messy and difficult and filled with frustration and confusion and potential for real pain.  Real ministry also generally requires serious long term commitment of money and time–and there is no guarantee that it will succeed.  I can think of many ministry situations over the years where I have given a lot of my money, time and effort and got very little in terms of tangible results:  the alcoholic returns to alcohol; the couple breaks up; the near-convert decides to become Buddhist; the potential pastor becomes a professional dirt-biker.

On the other hand, doing ministry for a week or two far away is much less messy and demanding.  We get to see and participate in what is clearly a messy, needy situation.  We get to involve ourselves deeply and intimately in the mess and solution–and then, after a week or two, we get to shower and head for home (although occasionally, we have to reverse those two events).  Our involvement in the messy situation far away after that is somewhat voluntary and involves prayer, some fund raising and maybe some publicity.

I am aware that this sounds cynical–and probably is.  But cynicism or not, it is difficult to get churches and believers to commit to sustained ministry in the messes that exist close to us.  We are often more concerned with the starving in Africa than we are with the kids who go to school hungry at our local schools.  And that makes sense:  feeding the starving far away involves giving money while dealing with the hungry school kids may involve us in the lives of real people with real problems that need much more than just our financial contributions.

Kids going to school hungry is the result of a complex and difficult set of realities that will involve us with poverty, poor choices, politics, addictions, and on and on.  It will take sustained energy of many people over long periods of time and bring us into contact with people that we might prefer to avoid.  It may open us to manipulation and to being exploited.  It may result in us being ripped off, either as churches or individuals or both.  And, after putting in all the effort and time and whatever, nothing may change.

But that is the reality of ministry–and it is the reality that we need to be involved in.  I heartily endorse feeding the starving in Africa.  I am somewhat in favour of mission trips.  And I am deeply concerned with the ministry we do just outside our church building.  For most of us, this will be our real mission and our real ministry.  And if we let our fears and frustrations get in the way, we will miss the opportunity to be used by the Holy Spirit to make a real difference.  The mess is real, the pitfalls are ever present, the results aren’t predictable or assured–but it is part of what we are called to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

A NEW BEGINNING

            A few years ago, I was involved with some theology students who were connected with a large established urban congregation.  The congregation inhabited an older building that had originally been located in the thriving downtown core of the city.  It was an influential congregation in the city and the denomination for many years.  It was so important that students from the theological school I attended were regularly invited to seminars to help us better understand how to do ministry in an urban setting.  It was so important in the city that the chief of police was willing to come to talk to us theology students–and quite willing to suspend local no parking ordinances for the theology students.

But as with all things, the neighbourhood and church underwent serious changes.  The church membership got older; the building began to fall apart; the neighbourhood became less desirable.  Parking became both more and less of a problem–less of a problem because there were more and more empty spaces and more of a problem because cars parked near the building were probably going to be vandalized.  The building doors were locked and alarmed and visitors were carefully scrutinized.

Eventually, the congregation made a decision.  They would have to move.  The downtown location was no longer desirable and with safety becoming a significant issue for the increasingly older congregation, the future of the congregation was at stake if they stayed where they were.  They bought land in a much safer suburban location and began planning the relocation process that was vital to the future of their church.  The downtown core just wasn’t safe anymore.  How can you worship God when some street person is going to break into your car looking for anything that will help them buy drugs, alcohol or food?

The new location would allow the congregation to flourish again.  They could do real ministry, rather than hide behind locked doors.  They could invite friends to special events without warning them to bring the old car and make sure there was nothing of value in it.  They could have a new building from which to really affect their community.  They could get back to the serious business of ministry without having to worry about pan-handlers, street people, vagrants and prostitution.

Of course, this is a preacher story–this has never happened.  No church would ever think of ignoring the needs of people just outside their doors.  All churches want to do ministry.  All believers see every individual as a person loved by God and in need of a tangible expression of the love of God through the efforts of the faithful.  After all, we are called by God to be servants to God and to people.

Except that we don’t always do a good job of being servants in the messiness of life.  I think we sometimes see mission and ministry as involving only those people who would fit well in a 50s TV sitcom–hard-working, wise father; stay-at-home mother always dressed like a fashion model; 2.5 mischievous but high achieving kids and one slightly less than perfect friend who says “darn” a bit too much.  We can do serious ministry in that context–why, the work is pretty much done anyway.  Even that “darn” kid will dress up as a shepherd for the Christmas concert and will likely become a pastor.

Jesus, of course, wants these people to know about his love.  But what we forget too often is that Jesus also wants to street person breaking into a worshipper’s car to know about the love of God as well.   He wants the model family to become part of the faith–but he also wants the teen run-away who is into drugs and prostitution to be a part of the faith as well.  And his plan for reaching the model family and the street person and the teen addict is the same–he wants to use the ministry of the faithful expressed through the church.

As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “Real ministry is messy”.  And whether our church is located in a deteriorating downtown core, an up and coming affluent suburb or a dying fishing village, we need to open ourselves to the Spirit who will lead us into the best way to ministry and serve those around us.  Moving the building to get a better class of sinners doesn’t quite seem to follow the pattern that Jesus gave us.

May the peace of God be with you.

VISITOR, FRIEND OR BROTHER

            I can sum up my journey through the difficulties of inter-cultural relationships in Kenya in three words.  Each word is accompanied by a specific set of actions and assumptions.  And since I seem to have an urge to play with my Kiswahili, I will use words from that language.

When we first arrived in Kenya we were introduced to the church as “wageni”, a Kiswahili word that means visitor or guest, although it can sometimes be stretched to cover tourists.  As wageni, we were given special treatment:  guest food, a place to sit on a real chair in the shade, someone to make sure that we were shown to the right place and served our food.  There was always someone close to translate, answer questions and make sure we weren’t ignored, embarrassed or made to feel uncomfortable.  For me, this got old really fast–the food was good but I really didn’t care for much of the rest that went with being “mgeni” (singular of “wageni”.

I noticed that after a while, people began to use a different word when I was around.  Since the change coincided with my increasing facility in Kiswahili, I knew what they were saying.  I became a “rafiki”–not the shaman/advisor in Lion King but a friend.  Being a “rafiki” meant that I didn’t get quite as much pampering.  Mostly, we still had wageni food but I had to serve myself and got to sit where I wanted, within limits.  I also got to talk with people more and didn’t have to answer as many questions about all things “wazungu”–I could talk intelligently about crops, politics and the potential for a good rainy season.  Being a rafiki was much better than being a mgeni.

The more I hung around, the better my language got and the more I clued into the local culture and customs, the better rafiki I think I became.  But one day, I began to notice a different word being used.  Someone would refer to me as “ndugu”, which means brother.  At first, I thought that this was simply the traditional Christian family of God stuff–and it was that at times.

But other times, the context convinced me that some people at least were using the word in another way.  They were including me in their family.  I belonged.  I got normal food–because brothers don’t need the expensive mgeni food.  I sat where I sat with my brothers and sisters.  I didn’t need a baby sitter or translator–I was a brother and knew when people were teasing me and could tease them back.  As a brother, I not only belonged but was expected to be a responsible brother–doing things like welcoming wageni and helping the family and being available for family emergencies or to share a cup of coffee and some good conversation.  I liked being a brother a whole lot more than being a mgeni and even more than being a rafiki.

Now, the thing is I didn’t get to decide what people called me.  I had no control over when the transitions came.  Even if I didn’t like being a mgeni, I didn’t get to tell people I was a rafiki or ndugu.  I could and did spend my time learning and appreciating and practising and understanding the culture.  I could and did work hard to learn and use Kiswahili and a bit of Kikamba.  I could and did work hard at loving people and showing it the best way possible.

For me, this journey through language and relationships serves as a parable for the church in North America.  I think that the church here wants to be a mgeni in our culture–we want the special treatment and the best seats and the company food.  But our culture really isn’t there–they don’t see a need for us as guests or visitors.  Sometimes, we are appreciated as friends, as when we provide a service like grief support or emergency help of some kind.

But in the end, our culture needs the church and its members to be brothers and sisters.  We need to be willing to understand and appreciate and be a part of the culture in a way that allows us to speak as family.  We don’t need to give up our faith or compromise it–but we do need to love people so much that they call us family.  Then, maybe, we can help them become part of our family, the family of God.

May the peace of God be with you.