THE OTHER SIDE

I need some surgery sometime in the near future. While it is fairly serious surgery, it is important because it will prevent even more serious stuff down the road. After thought and prayer and some consultation, it just makes sense to me to go ahead with the process.

However, committing to that process also commits me to another process, one that I am normally involved with on the other side. I need to inform and involve my church people. Normally, I am the one church people inform and involve—they want my prayers, my pastoral concern, my connection with God. I am happy to be involved in their process. My giftedness, my calling and my temperament enables me to support them and do what I can to help them through the process. Most of the people I have provided pastoral care for through their process have seemed to be appreciative.

But approaching the whole thing from the other side—well, that is and has been and will be a huge shift for me. I haven’t actually had to deal with medical issues in my ministry. The only time I have been hospitalized was for kidney stones and that occurred between public ministry activities and so I didn’t miss anything. For this surgery, I will be out for at least a month, which means that I have to tell people so they can make arrangements.

My introverted inclination was to simply forget about telling people and have my wife call the deacons the day of surgery and tell them I won’t be there for a while. Aside from the fact that my wife simply wouldn’t assist my fantasy, that really wouldn’t be a very good way to deal with things.

I teach, preach and encourage Christian community and sharing. I seek to have people involved with each other as an expression of their faith. I want people to know that faith needs to involve us with other people so that we can both give and receive the love and grace of God through each other. For me to follow my introverted fantasy process would be hypocritical at best and ministry destroying at worst.

So, pushing the all too tempting fantasy out of my mind, I set about informing people. I had a meeting scheduled with the church leadership before I knew about the surgery so that became the first place to announce what was coming. I didn’t swear them to secrecy and released them to tell others in the church what was coming. I think I was secretly hoping that the message would quickly travel through the church the way most things do.

That didn’t happen, or it didn’t happen the way I wanted or as fast as I wanted. I faced a congregation on Sunday made up of people who knew and people who didn’t. Since the surgery is coming soon but not that soon, I chose not to make an announcement from the pulpit—that will come when I know dates and so on. But I did find myself telling individuals as the opportunity arose during the potluck that followed the worship.

I have spent most of my life on the other side of this part of ministry and now I have to learn how to receive what I have been giving. I could continue the role of pastor and say that it is good for the church to learn how to minister to the pastor—and that is a good thing. But the deeper reality is that I need to learn more about how to be ministered to. I haven’t done that well over the years. Being an introvert means that I tend to keep to myself and be somewhat self-sufficient. I have had times when others have ministered to me and they have been very important and valuable—but overall, I am much more comfortable providing the ministry.

So, the coming surgery will not only take care of a medical problem but will be another step in the more significant learning process that is helping an introvert who encourages community to experience the fullness of Christian community. I really do want and value the prayers and concerns and support of my Christian community—I just don’t like telling people that I need their prayers and concerns and support. Like all of us, I have a lot to learn about the fullness of my faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

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LET’S TALK

I got a phone call from a friend a while ago. We don’t know each other all that well but we were neighbours for years and had a comfortable relationship. He was calling because he was going to need a pastor in the near future—his wife has an incurable illness and he wanted to be somewhat prepared for what was coming. He didn’t have any real church connections but he did know me and knew that I was a pastor—in fact, the last time I was talking to him was at a funeral I was conducting.

I don’t actually like this sort of thing. The dying and grief process are always painful and difficult and when I am called in because of friendship, it is more difficult. But he is a friend and I am a pastor so I arranged a time to meet with him and talk. Because we are friends, the conversation dealt with more than just then essentials of pre-planning a funeral service. We did that but then went on to talk about lots of other friend stuff: how things were going for each of us, where we were each working, why I didn’t walk anymore and so on.

In the course of the conversation, I discovered that he did have a church connection. Like many kids our age, he had attended Sunday School—and had attended at one of the churches I now pastor. That was quickly followed by the almost obligatory apology for not actually being involved in church anymore. We actually had an interesting conversation around that revelation and half-hearted apology.

I suggested to him that maybe the reason he wasn’t involved in church was more the church’s fault than his. Since we had already been talking about his involvement in a local club, I suggested that if church actually met some of his needs, he would be there—just like he was part of this club because it met some of his needs. Somehow, we in the church hadn’t been able to provide what he needed to maintain a connection.

I think my friend represents a great many people today. The problem isn’t that he is anti-faith. He has a spiritual side: he wanted a pastor to help him through the process of his wife’s decline and death; he enthusiastically welcomed my offer of prayer; he remembered hymns and even some Scriptures that he wanted as part of the coming funeral. He might not be on a first name basis with God but he isn’t rejecting God.

But somehow, somewhere, the church missed him and his real needs. We couldn’t or wouldn’t supply what he needed to help feed that faith spark that is still fairly evident in his life. We had nothing on offer that he wanted and so he stopped looking in our shop, finding substitutes elsewhere. But even he knows that we have more available. It seems, though, that we aren’t really making it easy for people to discover what we really have.

We claim that Christ is the answer—and I believe that he is. But when we don’t really know the questions that people are looking to have answered, we probably don’t have the required answers on display—and even more, we might not even know that the answers are available. We have sometimes even questioned the legitimacy of the question, preferring that people ask the easy questions that we can quickly answer with tried and true formulas.

Meanwhile, people like my friend wander around, looking for stuff, settling for substitutes while all the while knowing something about the faith that we seem not to know. They know that the answers they are looking for are found within the faith that we follow. They might not know the answer; they might not see the answer; they might get tired waiting for us to hear the actual question they are answering but they believe that there is an answer and that somehow, the church and its agents can provide it. And so when people like my friend really need an answer, they pick up the phone and ask the question again, hoping that maybe we have dug around in the storeroom and found that we actually have an answer to that question in stock.

I am hoping that with the power of the Holy Spirit, I can help my friend find the answer he is looking for.

May the peace of God be with you.

GOING BACK

Like a good many other people today, I am deeply concerned about the present and future of the Church in the west. I became involved in the church in the late 1950s as a Sunday School student so I remember a different church era. Those were the last of the glory days of the church—the days when Sunday School was a part of every kid’s life; when every almost adult attended worship at some point; when faith leaders were respected and consulted; when it seemed that the Kingdom of God had arrived in its fullness.

My whole ministry has been spent dealing with the reality of the western Church’s downward spiral. I have ministered to declining congregation that decline even in the face of new believers joining. Although there are some bright spots in the North American church scene, overall, the picture isn’t great—the Church is losing ground and only the most naïve refuse to see that this is a serious problem.

While there is much that can be and should be said about this whole painful situation, one particular aspect of it caught my eye again recently. Given the level of concern about the state of the Church, it is not surprising that many people are writing and speaking about this issue. And among the myriad of writers and speakers, there is one group whose approach I find equally fascinating and annoying. This is the group who wants to solve the whole thing by going back.

There is generally one key thing that needs to be changed back to the way it was that will wipe out the whole problem. The decline of the Church began with that one change and all we need to do is go back to what was and the decline will magically disappear. Over the years, I have been told that once we get prayer back in our schools, all will be well. Others suggest that we need to go back to the days when Christian men were men and Christian women were women. Or, as some suggest, if we allow parents to really parent, things will change.

A few have some more disputed suggestions. Getting rid of new music in favour of real Christian music has its supporters. The proliferation of translations and paraphrases in English is the problem for others—going back to the real Bible, the KJV, will fix everything. Occasionally, I run into someone who suggests that the problem is that hell has been removed from the preaching and if we would give people more hell, the church would flourish.

There are lots of other suggestions of things from the past to bring back—but the painful reality is that if any of these suggestions were the reason, we would be seeing results. Every suggestion has people trying to bring it back—and the results are almost uniformly underwhelming.

I think that the problem is bigger than we want to realize. Somewhere along the way, the Church in the west has lost its way. There isn’t one mistake or change or event that we can point to as the essential problem. I think we have made a bunch of mistakes, we have shot ourselves in the foot too many times, we have missed people too much for any one thing to be both the problem and the solution.

In fact, I don’t really think that there is a solution, at least not one that will magically fix the whole church. The decline of the Church and the Christian faith in the west is the result of uncounted mistakes, issues and even sins, so many that church historians will had doctoral thesis topics and book themes for centuries.

But I am not without hope. The future of the Church doesn’t actually depend on what its theorists and pastors and theologians think and do. The Church depends of the power of the risen, living Christ expressed through the presence and leading of the Holy Spirit. God will take care of the Church—even a quick glance at church history shows how the Church has defied every attempt to destroy it.

It is God’s church and he will care for it. We might have created the mess—but in the end, God is and will be working in, through and even around us to accomplish his goals for us, churches and the Church.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHOSE CHURCH IS IT, ANYWAY?

Because I am a pastor, I spend most of my people time with church people. I work for and with church people; I go to seminars with and about church people; I spend some of my free time teaching people from other churches; I read and study about church people. Some of the reason I spend so much time with church people is that I am an introvert and after spending so much time with church people, I really don’t look for opportunities to spend time with other people.

But mostly I spend my time with church people because that seems to be the nature of my calling. God has called and gifted me for the task of working with church people. And because I have been doing this for so long, I have a lot of ideas and comments and even a few complaints about the church. I am committed to the church, both the local churches I work with and the universal church that all believers are a part of. I have a great respect and appreciation and even love for the church.

But that doesn’t blind me to the difficulties and problems that are an intrinsic part of the church. Because the church, any church, is made up of imperfect people who are learning how to be followers, the church is never going to be perfect in reality, at least in this life. A major part of my calling is helping the church see, understand and change the things that are less than perfect.

And one of the major areas of imperfection that I have noted over the years concerns the ownership of the church. It has been my experience that most people who are a part of the church have the wrong idea of who the church belongs to. There isn’t any real agreement among those who have the wrong idea—the number of wrong answers to the question of who the church belongs to is staggering.

Just as an example, there are those who believe the church belongs to the pastor. Some would suggest that it belongs to those who pay the most. Another group suggests that the church belongs to the denominational structures. Another possibility is that the church belongs to whatever group within it that can come up with the most votes. The oldest members sometimes want to lay claim to the church, especially if some of the newest members want to dispute that claim with a claim of their own.

This debate over the ownership of the church is more than just an intellectual discussion. It affects the very nature and work of the church. If the church belongs to any individual or group or organization, the policy, direction and activity of the church is set by the ownership. The owners decide what the church does, when, how and where. If the owners decide that the mission of the church is comforting the afflicted or afflicting the comfortable, that is what the church does.

But the debate misses the point. The church doesn’t belong to the pastor, the moneyed, the connected, the right age group, the organization. The church belongs to God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is his church. Christ is the head of the church and the owner of the church. Certainly, he works through his human agents—but it is his church. Forgetting that important reality opens the church to incredible pain and suffering.

Our task as the church is to discover and do what the owner wants—and if the Bible is any indicator, the owner generally wants us to act in ways that go against our generally self-centered desires. In other words, what I want for and from the church are likely not what Jesus wants for and from the church. The church doesn’t exist to make me feel good—it exists to serve Christ. And one thing that pleases Christ is seeing me challenge and change the selfish and sinful aspects of my being that get in the way of really knowing him.

And when I gather with other believers to form a church or the church, the purpose of the church isn’t to make us all feel good—it is to help us all become better at serving the owner personally and as a body. It is Christ’s church, not ours.

May the peace of God be with you.

TRAFFIC CHECK

Sunday morning at about five minutes before worship time and most of our regulars aren’t there. I wasn’t expecting all that many to start with because the travel season has arrived and a lot of our people seek out warmer climates. But there were still some regulars not present and I was wondering what was going on.

The door opens and one couple come in with a story about being stopped at a traffic check, something that rarely happens on our very rural road. In their talk with the officers, the couple had told them they were on their way to worship. As we were talking and joking, a second regular comes in, also with a story of being stopped at the traffic check. He also told the officers he was on his way to worship and if they wanted to get warm, they could join us.

The door opens again and in come his visiting adult children, who also joke about being stopped by the police. They told the officers that their father was just ahead and was going to get to worship before them. Everyone is by now involved, joking about the stops and telling the latecomers how lucky they were not to get arrested.

Since it is now well past starting time, I begin to head for the pulpit when the door opens again—and we are joined by the two police officers, who want to know if they can come to our worship. We welcome them and I scramble to find copies of the papers I have passed out since they put our numbers well over my expectations.

We begin our worship: our small band of regulars, the visiting adult children and two police officers with all their equipment. As I always do when we have visitors, I make sure that I explain the various parts of the service so they know what it going on. The officers pay attention, participate in the singing and other aspects of the worship and generally appear to be there for more than just getting warm.

Just as I am getting to the conclusion of my sermon, the officers begin staring straight ahead and one of them whispers into her radio. As they get up and slip out, I thank them for coming and they wave, with one still talking on the radio.

I really don’t know why they showed up that day. It might be because it was a very cold day and about the only traffic to stop on our road at that time of day would have been the people on their way to our worship. But whatever it was, somehow our people provided a witness of some positive sort to these two officers. Each one stopped made it clear where they were going and one even invited them to join us.

I don’t know if they will ever show up again and I really don’t have much way to contact them. This was very much a serendipitous moment in our lives and, I hope, their lives. And sometimes, that is all we get. Sometimes, our witness is like that. It is nice when we see the whole process of witnessing in a person’s life and how the Spirit works but sometimes, maybe most times, we are a part of some bigger process where our involvement is decontextualized and we never see where it is going or how it is being used.

I do believe that God is at work, though and that through the Holy Spirit, he is using our brief contact with those two officers. God will use that contact in conjunction with many other contacts and events and witnesses to speak to them. But he isn’t just at work there—he is also at work in our churches. Bringing them to us was also a part of his process for us. We are a small group and we sometimes think we aren’t doing much. To see that God is working in and through and around us is a great thing—it reminds us that small or not, we are not forgotten, that God still has a place and a purpose for us in his plan for the redemption of the world.

I think it is exciting that even a routine traffic stop can be used by the Spirit to make a difference in the world.

May the peace of God be with you.

MORE VACATION

One of the perks of being a pastor in our denomination is the vacation time recommendation that our head office suggests. The denomination recommends that pastors get four weeks of vacation a year. Most of the churches within our denomination follow that recommendation, which I really appreciate. Many pastors choose to take their vacation in a block. Some, according to one cynical church member I knew years ago, try to schedule their vacation for a five Sunday month to get an extra week.

That has never really worked for us. In fact, I don’t think that we have ever taken a month of vacation all at one time ever during my time in ministry. There have been a couple of times when I have been away from the church for a month or so but that was generally vacation combined with church sanctioned ministry which didn’t count as vacation. We have tended to take two or three breaks during the year, a pattern which works much better with both our personal fatigue cycles and the church year. An added bonus is that by not taking a whole month off during the slower summer months, I get the opportunity to use some of the over-time hours I accumulate during the busier seasons as extra summer time off.

While this plan has worked really well for my time in ministry, there is a drawback. The drawback is that I always seem to be telling the church that I will be away on vacation again. Nobody in the churches minds that I am taking vacation. Some, in fact, would allow me to take even more time if I wanted it. And yet there is that nagging sense of guilt when I approach the deacons or write the announcement in the bulletin or tell the church that I am off yet again for another vacation.

The only ones who ever say anything about the vacation fall into two categories. One group teases me about being away so much, asking didn’t I just have a vacation and so on. They are not being serious, we all know they are joking. The other group, who are often exactly the same people, tell me it is about time and that I need to forget about the church and have a good break.

My problem isn’t with the church—they are quite happy to give me my vacation time. No—the problem is mine. Even after 40+ years of ministry, I am still a bit uncomfortable getting paid to travel, go camping, visit family, finish woodworking projects or just sit home and do nothing related to church work. I know that I need the time—my ministry is much better after a vacation than it is just before a vacation time. The break, whether it is one week or two, is enough to clear out the accumulated fatigue, re-motivate me and allow me to get on with the ministry that I have been called to do.

And having three such breaks a year, combined with the compensatory time off during the slower seasons of ministry allows me to recharge at regular intervals, rather than trying to jam the whole rest and restoration process into one long break. But that does mean that three times a year, I have to stand in the pulpit and announce that I am going to be on vacation for a certain period of time—and deal with the nagging sense of guilt that comes with that.

It isn’t debilitating guilt. It isn’t strong enough that I resist vacations. I don’t feel guilty enough to have to do penance when I get back. There definitely isn’t enough guilt to take away from the enjoyment of being on vacation. I just feel enough guilt to make the announcement in worship uncomfortable. Once that is out of the way, I am on vacation and the guilt can get lost.

I am not going to find a way to get rid of that guilt at this point. It has been there for 40+ years so I am pretty sure that it will only go away when I retire. But that is okay because my vacation guilt and I have come to an agreement that works. I will acknowledge the guilt and having been acknowledged, the guilt will then let me enjoy my vacation.

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.