HOW BIG IS THE CHURCH?

I have been the pastor of a lot of small congregations in my 40+ years of ministry.  I have never broken the 100 mark in regular attendance.  These days, the combined attendance at the two pastorates I serve part time rarely reaches 40, unless it is for a funeral. (I don’t know about weddings–we haven’t had any yet.)  I did once pastor a church that had over 250 members on paper but because of problems and issues, there were only about 25 in worship when I started as pastor.

Given that I am within visual range of retirement, I am pretty sure that my chances of being pastor to a large church are pretty small.  That’s okay with me–I don’t dream of being the next world-famous mega-church pastor any more (well, not much anyway).

But as I have been reading about church growth and how to deal with large increases in attendance and how to prepare for it and all sorts of stuff like that for years.  I know that there is more than just a difference in numbers when it comes to church size.  Beyond a certain point, the quality and nature of the congregation changes.  One blog I read recently suggested that once a church reaches a certain size, the pastor can’t know everyone–and everyone else can’t know everyone either.  His suggestion of nametags was an appropriate way of dealing with that problem.

But one of the nagging questions that has always bothered me when I think about this qualitative difference focuses on exactly this issue.  If I can’t know at least the names of everyone joined together with me in a congregation, are we really a church?  We can be a gathering of believers, we can have a strong theoretical commitment to God and each other but if I can’t know all of the others, are we really a church?

Christianity is a social faith, which requires that our commitment to God through Christ express itself in our relationships with other believers.  And I don’t think that is meant to be a theoretical, generalized expression.  We are called to love each other in very practical and personal ways–but if there are so many of us that I can’t even remember names, how personal can my expression of faith be in that context?

If I am to love other believers as Jesus loved us (John 13.34-35), don’t I need to know the names of my fellow believers (John 10.1-17, especially verse 3)? If I have to look at a name tag to know who I am talking to, how can I be expected to really love people as Christ loved us–without a real sense of who the person is, isn’t my love more generic than personal?

This isn’t an anti-big church rant.  I have friends who pastor large congregations and others who attend large congregations and whose faith I respect and appreciate.  But as I look at some of these larger congregations, it seems to me that they really aren’t united and unified.  Rather than being one big happy church family, they seem to be several different but slightly overlapping church families–several congregations meeting together.

And there are lots of good reasons for such groupings of churches in one congregation.  It allows for more and better programs and facilities and makes delivery of ministry more efficient and allows them to afford things that my small congregations can’t even afford to dream about.  But in the end, I wonder if it might not be better and more correct to call these large groups a gathering of churches rather than a church.

Maybe, once we lose the ability to know names and therefore the ability to really know people, we have lost something vital to the nature of the church.  Knowing someone’s name opens the door to knowing a lot more about the person and that allows us to specifically and personally show people how our common faith in God is expressed in our relationship.

And so while I really hope and pray that our small congregations will grow in numbers, I also am not really interested in the kind of growth that means I can’t know the names of the people I lead in worship.  If we ever get that big, we can start another church so that people can live their faith with people whose names they know and who know their names.

May the peace of God be with you.

AM I DEPRESSED?

A few days ago, I was sitting in my work chair in the living room.  I was supposed to be writing one of the two sermons I have to produce each week.  I had done the research, I had a theme, the sermon was part of a series so I had some sense of where it was supposed to go–all I had to do was start writing and soon, I would have a sermon ready.  Except, that wasn’t happening.  I was struggling–not because of the topic, not because of interruptions, not because the computer was giving me trouble.  I just couldn’t get started and when I finally got started, the words didn’t want to come.

I finished the sermon finally and went on to other stuff until it was time to go see some people in the church.  Being an introvert, that is something I always struggle with a bit but that day, it was really hard to get motivated to go out and see people.  I went, I saw people and I actually enjoyed the contacts.

But on the way home, as I was thinking about it and had a scary thought.  I put my struggle with the sermon together with the increased difficulty going to see people and began to think, “I’m depressed”.  Depression is something I struggle with and the thought that it might be making another appearance bothered me a lot.

But as I began the process of dealing with the depression, I ran into further problems.  Normally, once I realize I am slipping into depression, I look for the trigger(s), whatever it is that started the process.  But try as I might, I couldn’t find any trigger.  Nor did I find all the normal stuff associated with my depression–for example, I was still listening to the car radio when I was driving.  When I am depressed, I just can’t do that–I have to drive in silence.

So, I wondered some more–was I slipping into some new, unknown expression of depression that was growing out of some deeply repressed stuff that would send me into a long and difficult bout of depression and struggle and all the rest?  I don’t like the depression process that I have dealt with too often in my life and so tend to be somewhat anxious about everything connected with depression.  Not being able to get a quick hold on it was depressing me.

As I worked through the stuff, I realized that what I was experiencing might not be depression.  It also wasn’t likely some other form of emotional upheaval either.  There was nothing major percolating up from the depths and the surface stuff wasn’t all that much of a problem, except for the fact that there was a whole lot of it and my personal time was getting lost.

I was missing exercise time; I was having less personal time, I was spending much more time in intense contact with people, I was putting in too many hours at both my jobs.  I looked at the whole picture and realized that in the end, I was tired, not depressed.   I do realize that physical fatigue can and does lead to serious stuff and in my case, prolonged physical fatigue can indeed lead to depression but what I was (and am) dealing with here was tiredness, not depression.

I can deal with that–probably not right now  but eventually.  I am tired because a variety of things have come together requiring a lot more work than normal.  There is a slow down coming–that isn’t the workaholic’s “someday” dream but rather is a basic reality.  A lot of the stuff keeping me so busy will soon be done and churches simply don’t do all that much in the summer.  In the meantime, I can do a few things, like allow myself to take longer to write sermons (and blog posts), exercise when I can, take a nap now and then, watch a TV show, plan and take some vacation time or just enjoy sitting and doing not much of anything.

I am tired and not depressed.  I do need to take the fatigue seriously but fatigue is much less painful for me than depression.   While I might not be overly thankful for being tired, I am deeply thankful that it isn’t depression and even more thankful that I can tell the difference.

May the peace of God be with you.

IT’S RAINING

The weather forecast was right–it predicted rain for today and when I got up, it was raining, something that is putting a bit of a down spin on my day.  Now, I really don’t have any plans for being outside today.  I mowed the lawn earlier in the week based on the long range forecast that predicted rain for today.  I have a bunch of things to do that require me to be inside various buildings or the car for most of the day.

About the only ways the rain today affects me are I probably won’t go for a walk if it is raining hard but since the majority of my exercise is accomplished on the exercise bike, that isn’t a big issue.  But nonetheless, the dark and drippy day is making me feel a bit down–not depressed and nothing serious but just a bit down, a different feeling than I have when the sun is shining.

I am probably not alone in my reaction to the weather today and by itself, that really isn’t all that much to blog about.  But when I had been up for a bit and realized my emotional response to the rain, I realized that there have been times in my life when the same kind of day produced a very different emotional response.

During the times when we have lived in Kenya, rain produced a very different reaction.  Most of Kenya is dependent on rain for its water supply.  There isn’t a lot on the way of water infrastructure and what there is depends on rain.  At times, our water supply was two 1000 gallon water tanks filled by the rainwater off the roof of our house.  During the long six month dry season when those tanks were empty, our water supply consisted of two five gallon jerry cans that went everywhere the car went that there was a chance of getting some water.

The last time, we lived in a town that had a municipal water system.  A couple of times a week, the town turned our water on and the 500 liter tank in the attic filled with enough water to keep us going until the next time the water was turned on.  This depended on how many breaks there were in the water line, how careful we were with our water, and how full the rain-filled town reservoir was.  During the long dry season the twice a week water supply dwindled and stopped and our water supply consisted of the two buckets I carried up three flights of stairs from the backup reservoir in the parking lot.

So, when we are in Kenya, waking up to a rainy day produced a feeling of pleasure and a sense that this was going to be a good day.  Rain in Kenya produced the kind of emotional uplift for everyone that a bright, warm sunny day does here in rural Nova Scotia.

This suggests many things to me, among which is the deep reality that we human beings are much more adaptable and flexible that we often give ourselves credit for.  And if we are more flexible and adaptable that we think, that means that we probably don’t need to get as bent out of shape about things as we sometimes do.  The problem isn’t really the external events or circumstances but the way I am choosing to react to them.  Am I looking at the rain as a Nova Scotian or a Kenyan?

And because I am a Christian, that suggests to me that I need to work at making sure that my Christian faith plays a big part in how I look at life and its realities and in how I respond to life.  Rather than seeing my faith as an add on that only kicks in when I am in worship or somewhere where being a Christian is required, I need to work at placing my faith in the centre of my response to life.

Do I view the stranger in town from a basically mono-cultural Nova Scotian, a multi-cultural Kenyan or a supra-cultural Christian viewpoint?  My response to the stranger varies depending on which set of cultural norms I bring to the front.  I would like to say that my Christian norms trump all the others but I try to be honest here.  Like my response to the rain today, I need to work more on what I respond with.

May the peace of God be with you.

TIME AND TIDE

The house we live in sits just above a tidal flat.  At low tide, we see a flat grassy meadow that stretches to the dike along the river bank in the distance.  At high tide, the meadow disappears to varying degrees, depending on the phase of the moon.  When the moon is full, the whole flat disappears and the water comes near to the top of the dyke.  Fortunately, our house is 10-15 meters above the highest tide mark so I can watch the tide without wondering if I need to invest in a canoe for emergencies.

But even though I can watch this twice daily process, I tend not to pay much attention.  If people had asked me where the tide was, I probably couldn’t answer–or that was the case until recently. For the past few months, I have been paying close attention to the tides and can easily tell people what stage the tide is at.

This didn’t come from a concern about raising ocean levels because of global warming.  There is a spot near our house that is so affected and before much longer, a really high tide is going to go over the road there–but I have known that for years and there are other ways to get to where that road leads.  And as I mentioned, we have several meters beyond the most pessimistic predictions of ocean level rise.

What changed for me is that I build a tide clock.  I like clocks and I like building clocks.  So my winter project was to design and build a tide clock.  It wasn’t as quick a process as I thought–the winter was much busier than I anticipated and my wood-working skills were much rustier that I expected.  But the clock is done and sits on the mantle in the living room.  When I am sitting in my working chair in the living room, I can see the tide clock and the tidal flat with just a slight turn of my head.  When I walk into the room during the day time when the curtains are open, I automatically check the clock and the tide.

Part of that began as I worked at regulating the clock.  Although I can look up tide times on the internet, I did have to set the clock hand that tells the state of the tide.  And while the mechanism is interesting, it is a bit hard to adjust perfectly and so I have been tinkering with it since I placed it on the mantle–I think I have is set now but I will continue to watch it.

There is a parable here–remember, I am a preacher and therefore can’t let something just be something–it also has to be something else to feed the insatiable demand for stories to keep people interested on Sunday.

And so the meaning of the parable is this.  I live beside a tidal flat but because the coming and going to the tide has no affect on me personally, I ignore it.  My house is safe from the highest tide predictable; I don’t make my living digging for clams at low tide; I don’t need to know when I can get my boat out from the wharf and the only road that might have some affect on my life is easily bypassed.  The tide comes and goes and has no affect on me.

But as soon as I build a tide clock, I have a personal interest in the tide.  It makes a difference to me where the tide is.  Sure, the difference is only because I want to check the accuracy of the new clock–but I am still interested.

So, we live in a world where there is a great deal wrong, which we ignore because we can’t perceive a direct effect on us.  Some, we can ignore.  Some, we can pretend isn’t a problem.  Some, we have to deny.  And in truth, some we have to work really hard to avoid.  As long as we can tell ourselves it doesn’t affect us, we can ignore it, at least until it becomes too personal.

But as believers, we are called to be involved with the world–instead of ignoring the darkness and its effects, we are to shine the light of God into the darkness.  We didn’t create the light–but we have been given the light.  We need to turn it on and challenge the darkness because whatever we want to think, we do have a personal stake in making the darkness go away, a personal stake that came to us through Jesus Christ.

May the peace of God be with you.

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS

At a recent meeting, a friend was receiving a certificate recognizing his status.  During a break after the certificate was presented, one of the committee responsible for the presentations came over to apologize to my friend.  The certificates had been changed recently by the parent organization and instead of having a “he/she” where one could be scratched out, the certificate now said “they”.  The presenter was a bit upset at this obvious grammatical error.

Except it wasn’t a grammatical error.  Using “they” or “their” is now an acceptable way of referring to an individual.  It is a politically correct way of avoiding the issues that can lie in wait whenever gender is an issue.  Personally, the switch didn’t particularly bother me for a couple of reasons.  First, I remember when those particular certificates were printed with only “he”–and continued to be that way for several years after “she” was needed.  And, pragmatically, those of us with less interest in proper grammar have been using “they” to refer to individuals for years.

But this little incident did add more fuel to a flickering thought I have been beating around for a few years.  In general, I am comfortable with political correctness in writing and speaking.  At its root, it is simply a desire to be fair and polite and respectful, all things that fit in well with my Christian faith.  I believe that as part of my faith, I am to be accepting and respectful and fair and polite and it using political correct terms accomplishes that, I have no real problem–plus, it is much easier to write or say “they” than  it is to figure out the proper gender-based terminology.

On the other hand, where does it end?  It seems that political correctness has become as dominant a force in some circles as political incorrectness has been and is in some places.  If I prefer a gender based pronoun, that makes me the focus of some serious criticism in some circles–and some of that criticism can be driven by anger and scorn and disrespect, the very things that political correctness is supposed to prevent.

Parts of our culture have become intolerant of intolerance–and are quite willing to make their intolerance known.  From my perspective as an concerned (and sometimes confused observer) the intolerance of political correctness against intolerance looks and acts pretty much like the intolerance of political non-correctness.  So, in a space where free speech is prized, it appears that only certain forms of free speech are allowed.  That looks and sounds a lot like censorship, which is supposed to be non-correct politically.

I end up confused, not knowing who to support.  And in the end, if both sides are using the same tactics, is there really a difference?  If tolerance can’t tolerate intolerance, how tolerant can it really be?

As in most major issues, we need to realize that we don’t generally accomplish much when we try to prohibit people from doing something.  Telling people “no” seems to produce some reluctant obedience and a great deal of backlash.  It rarely changes much and often produces more problems.

We probably need to pay a lot more attention to Jesus, whose approach to the politically non-correct world he came to was to love people and meet felt needs of real people.  He used “he” and “she”; he called “sin” sin; he scolded religious leaders who prized rules over people; he waded into the dark, foul mess we call life and shone a light of love and acceptance and forgiveness and hope, a light that people wanted and needed.

Jesus wasn’t politically correct.  Rather, he was being theologically correct, which seems to me to be a much more demanding standard.  He saw the value of each and every individual and treated them as a loved and respected individual, whether they were a rich intellectual sneaking in after dark to see him or a known prostitute crashing a party to wash his feet with her tears.  Both these people and anyone else who encountered Jesus went away knowing that they had been in the presence of the Divine and had been seen and recognized for who they were.

Some used the support of the love and acceptance to become more of what they were meant to be and some fled the love and acceptance because they were unwilling to see themselves as they really were.  Political correctness seeks to make rules that might help some people at some times and have some benefits–but Jesus’ theological correctness seeks to show all that they are loved and what is possible within the context of that love.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE TROUBLE WITH DIVERSITY

I am sitting in a Bible Study group–well, I am actually leading the Bible Study, although leading might be too strong a word for the open style I have adopted with Bible Studies.  In this particular (fictional, of course) group, we have a variety of individuals with different experiences, different levels of faith development, different understandings of God’s love, different native languages.  We are united by our common faith and our experience together, drinking tea and coffee, talking together and being stuck in the same space for an hour or two each week for several months.  We are a diverse group but we like each other and because we like each other, we tend to ignore our diversity, choosing to celebrate our common desire to grow together in faith.

And that is great–some days, it feels like a piece of heaven as this diverse group shares and cares and supports and enables and laughs together.  We can forget our diversity and enjoy our similarities, our common faith and all the rest.  But diversity doesn’t disappear just because we are feeling good and comfortable.  And so, in the feel good time of the Bible study, it makes an appearance.

Some one begins talking about their faith experience.  They had a really bad experience in Denomination A, an experience which has affected their whole life and which they are just now beginning to deal with.  Denomination A is filled with demons–there are no believers in the denomination, there are only fakers and frauds and liars and abusers.  As the speaker is talking, we are all aware of the pain, the fear, the hurt that drives the words.  We are aware as well of the beginnings of a sense of liberation from the past that the speaker is experiencing and we feel some sense of joy because part of the liberation is coming through our group.

But we, or at least some of us, are aware that at least two members of our group are members of Denomination A, active members whose faith and Christian experience have been shaped and enhanced by their membership–they are with us because their local Denomination A congregation doesn’t currently have a Bible Study.

Fortunately for our group, the members of Denomination A are caring and loving and are more concerned with the speaker’s pain than with the actual comments about the denomination they love and appreciate.  Eventually, we help the speaker understand that the pain is real but the generalization can be a problem.

The potential danger is diffused but the unfortunate reality is that because we are diverse as believers, there is always going to be the potential for someone to say or do something offensive to another.  We are diverse–even our basic and important Christian unity doesn’t remove the diversity that God gave us and which is as much a basic part of our being as our human and faith-based similarities.  And if not understood properly, that diversity can undermine and destroy the carefully build unity of the group.

That is not hard to see.  We live in an increasingly divided culture, with everyone demanding that their particular slice of human diversity be given priority over every other slice of human diversity–and with more than a few slices calling for the punishment or banning of competing slices of diversity.

I really don’t have much impact on the increasingly fragmenting nature of western culture.  But I am a pastor and I do work with groups of people whose unity in faith is exercised in the reality of their diversity.  And so I work with that.  I try to understand our diversity, both its good and bad.  I try to model acceptance of the individual in the face of disagreement with some aspect of that individual’s thinking or practise.  I teach and preach the need for real communication and real openness and real understanding.  And when the reality of diversity threatens our unity, I work hard at helping the diversity of our group become an opportunity for growth and love.

Our Christian faith calls for unity within the reality of our diversity.  Loving one another isn’t dependent on our being the same.  Loving one another is based on our understanding that just as God loves us in our diversity, so we are to love each other in the diversity that we were created with.  We are not called to be the same–we are called to love each other as we are.

May the peace of God be with you.

DO UNTO OTHERS…

Every now and then, I run into a “modern” version of the Golden Rule, the words of Jesus found in Matthew 7.12: ” So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”  This modern version is often presented in semi-humorous contexts and goes something like this “Do unto others before they do unto you.”

Unfortunately, it seems that our culture has decided that the humorous “before” is more applicable than the original “to”–since my rights and the privileges and desires that I feel belong to me by virtue of my existence are more important than anyone else’s rights, privileges and desires, I need to protect them.  And as we are often told, “The best defence is a strong offence.”

Others, especially others who are or might be different, are a threat to me and what I deserve.  Their choices and desires and practises threaten me and my freedom to be what I want to be.  I need to ban them, restrict them, overcome them, segregate them, control them–and in extreme cases, maybe even find a way to get rid of them.  And if that sounds harsh and hate filled, these are just the headlines that we humans have been reading, experiencing and creating over the years.

Jesus’ words about doing to others fly in the face of socially acceptable norms–norms that are as common and dangerous today as they were in his day–and which go back to the beginning of human awareness.  But Jesus knows that our self-focused, insane drive to put ourselves at the centre of the universe only results in pain, suffering, and continual conflict.  He calls for a different way.

We do to others what we would like done to us. In one compact sentence, Jesus manages to open the door to a new understanding of self and others.  His route doesn’t demand that I ignore myself to benefit others but it also doesn’t demand that I ignore others for the benefit of myself.  Jesus calls for me to engage in a conscious dialogue involving me, the other and the situation.  There is a fourth aspect to the dialogue but I going to hold off on that for a bit.

I need to know what I want/need in the situation.  I need to be aware of myself and my needs and wants.  To really carry out Jesus’ call here, I also need to be willing to examine the validity and necessity of my needs/wants–maybe some of what I need/want isn’t all that important and can be sacrificed or at least downsized.

I need to be aware of the reality of the other–what are their real need/wants.  That will probably mean I need to engage the other and develop some form of relationship–I can’t really get to know the other from a theoretical point of view.  I need to know the other as well as I can.

And I need to know the situation well.  If I am lost, hungry and bleeding, what would I need/want?  I probably wouldn’t want a Gospel tract, unless it was made of cloth and I could use it as a bandage.  I would appreciate directions, first aid and maybe a sandwich although if I am hungry enough, even a pocket-lint covered cough drop might help.

Realistically, that is a major amount of work–and doing it effectively demands that I open myself to the legitimacy of the other as I figure out how to do to them what I want done to myself.  In small, clearly defined situations, I can probably do it and might do it.  But the bigger the situation, the more complex the needs/wants, the more “other” the other is, the harder the whole process and the more unlikely I am to do it.

And this is where I need to remember the fourth part of the dialogue I am engaged in.  I need to involve God.  I need to open myself to the Holy Spirit, whose task in my life is to both guide me in my thinking process and strengthen me in the actual doing.  To really do as Jesus said, I need the power and help of God.  Fortunately, God is both willing and able to give me all the help I need to do to others what I would have them do to me.

May the peace of God be with you.