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.

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.

WORDS OF WISDOM

When my freedom to live in a colour independent world and your freedom to live in a colour dependent world collide, we have a problem.  One of the troubling solutions to that problem in much of North America is for us to start shouting at each other about our respective rights.  The process fairly quickly escalates:  we begin to push and shove, sometimes physically and sometimes legally but more and more often through the media.  Generally, the collision of competing freedoms results in pain, confusion and more collisions.

As a Christian, I think we need to be willing to look beyond the socially normal practises that we so easily adopt to settle our issues.  If we are going to claim to follow Jesus, we probably need to actually try to apply his words to our life situations.   And so, facing the clash of competing rights and freedoms, I look to him for some words of wisdom.  My preferred choice would be words from Jesus that support my particular desire, or at least words that I can beat into shape to support my desire.

Unfortunately, Jesus didn’t have much to say about colour-blindness so I can’t really quote him as supporting my desire for a colour independent world.  So, I have to actually look at his teaching and do some thinking, praying and work a bit–although it isn’t all that hard a task to discover Jesus’ teaching on clashing desires.  Jesus actually has quite a bit to say on that topic.

One of the foundational sayings comes from Matthew 22.39, where Jesus uses an Old Testament quotation to answer a question about the most important commandments.  After reminding the inquirer that the first command is to love God completely, he tells him the second is like it:  “Love your neighbour as yourself”.  As I have worked at this sentence over the years, I have come to deeply appreciate the layers and layers of truth here.

One layer deals with the complex interactions between competing human realities.  Jesus isn’t supporting my need for colour-independence nor the prevailing colour-dependence in our culture.  Rather, he is calling for an interdependence and mutual responsibility that benefits all.  Instead of “either-or”, Jesus is calling for us to work things out in an atmosphere of mutual respect and concern and appreciation.  I have to love my neighbour not at the expense of loving myself but in the same way I love myself.

Seen from this perspective,  the ultimate question isn’t who wins in the clash of desires but how we can mutually and respectfully work towards a solution that works for all involved.  This is a much more difficult process than making enough noise and causing enough confusion so that in the end, one side or the other gains some sort of victory.  Jesus’ solution requires that we engage with others to find a mutually acceptable solution, a solution that may not give anyone exactly what they want but which will allow them to develop a much stronger relationship with each other and with God.

Of course, this is just Bible talk, which we know has no real connection with the realities of life where winning is everything and my desires are my rights.  But given the reality that our western culture is becoming increasingly fragmented, increasingly fractious, increasingly violent and increasingly unworkable, we just might want to look at these words of wisdom as a better way.

The current direction of our culture leads us into a dystopian future where every left-handed, colour-blind, bearded,  60+  Jeep driving male runs the world–of course, every right handed, colour seeing, clean shaven, 20+ Prius driving female is also running the world which means that we are going to spend a lot of time fighting.

Jesus’ way is hard because it requires us to work together to find a balance between what we think we must have and what others think they must have.  If we love each other, we engage in a give and take–I will memorize the position of the traffic light I can’t distinguish because the present colour dependent system works better than anarchy.  But if you give me directions to your house, give me the civic number not the colour and tell me that there are two maples and a pine tree in the front.

If I love my neighbour as myself, I will be concerned with a solution that benefits us both and will be willing to give up something so that we both gain.

May the peace of God be with you.

SMALLER AND SMALLER

Somewhere in my education career, I learned a neat word that describes a somewhat nasty human process.  I think I first ran into it during high school history classes when we were looking at the political roots of the first world war.  As near as I can remember, many of the smaller middle and central European regions began seeking independence.  They wanted to form countries based on specific ethnic groupings.  This process was given a name by historians, a name that reflected the geographic location of many of these groups.  Since most were located in the Balkan region, the process was called “balkanization”.

The difficulty was that many of these groups defined themselves partly in terms of who they were and partly in terms of who they weren’t–they often wanted it to be clear that they were not part of other groups.  In fact, one of the keys to understanding the balkanization process is that the various groups not only wanted freedom for their group but also wanted dominance over the other groups.  According to historians, the regional tensions and squabbles among these groups was an underlying cause of the ensuing war.

The word isn’t all that common these days–unfortunately, the process is all too common.  We can see the process at work in the classical sense in parts of the world:  sections of Africa and even eastern Europe are engaged in movements to become independent of groups they consider less valuable than they are.  But we also see the process working itself out in less traditional ways–various political parties are finding ways to appeal to smaller and smaller groups in their attempts to build support.  Often, the rhetoric used by these groups includes a great deal of anti-other talk.

Even the church isn’t immune from the balkanization process.  In the past, it wasn’t uncommon for various denominations to make sure that its members knew who they weren’t.  I know people within my denominational family who know more about the “heresies” of other denominations than they actually know about the doctrine and polity of our particular group.

These days, balkanization is also taking another form.  Groups within denominations are claiming to have the real truth about the denominational distinctives–and making it clear that their grasp of the truth makes them better than those who see it somewhat different.  Those within my denominational family who use the KJV of the Bible like to make sure that those of us who use more modern translations know we are on the wrong track and might have endangered our place in heaven by losing sight of the “truth”.

The logical extension of this process is the one congregation denomination made up of those who have seen the truth and know that it can only be expressed outside the bounds of denominations.  True believers would not be caught dead in a denomination.

Balkanization is a serious danger in many areas–but since I am part of the church and have spent most of my life working in, with and for the church, I have seen and experienced the dangers of balkanization there from a very personal perspective.  From my earliest experiences in ministry, I have experienced the problems that come from this process.

During my first year of university, we were required to read the Bible from a relatively new translation, the New English Bible.  That requirement caused serious problems for some students, who felt that this was somehow a compromise of the faith–after all, if the KJV was good enough for Paul, it is good enough for us.  I later discovered that because I wasn’t pre-(or post- or a-) mil in my theology, I was missing the point and wandering into heretical territory.  If I read a prayer during a worship service, I was slipping away from the true faith which was based on free, spontaneous prayer, not the stifling, stilted rote prayers in a book.

Even today, I see and experience the balkanization process as work.  I happen to like to old hymns of the faith–but true believers these days need to follow the Spirit through the use of modern choruses, preferably projected on a screen.

It seems that one of the trends of the faith is more and more restricted views of truth, views that focus as much or more on what they aren’t than on what they are.  Unfortunately, history has taught us that balkanization never has a positive outcome–and no amount of noise will make it a valuable process.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIRST PERSON PLURAL

I confess that I have never been a big fan of grammar.  In school, grammar classes were painful for me–having to learn about nouns and pronouns and adverbs and conjunctions and infinitives and all the rest was just no fun.  Given that I have developed a deep love for writing and make my living as one who regularly speaks in public, my dislike of grammar might seem strange but that is the way it is.  Language is a tool to facilitate communication and as long as I can communicate, I can’t get too excited about the rules.

However, there is one area involving grammar that I have been thinking a lot about in the past few years.  And that is the area hinted at by the title of this post–the grammar of how we refer to people.  Actually, I am more concerned about the theology and psychology behind the grammar of how we refer to people.

I see this working itself out in  practical terms in the church.  I often find myself in meetings with other pastors.  I have learned that the grammar pastors use to talk about their current church situation tells a lot about the future of that particular church-pastor combination.

Almost invariably, the pastors who talk about the church as “they” are either having problems or will be having problems.  Those who talk about “we” generally don’t have as many problems.  Another difference also emerges.  Those who refer to the church in the third person plural (they) haven’t been with that church for long–and won’t be there much longer.  Those who use the first person plural (we) have been there for  awhile and will likely be there for a while longer.

This grammatical distinction occurs everywhere, not just among pastors.  But the problem isn’t because of the grammar–the grammar points to the problem.  When we use the third person in the context of people, we are emphasising the differences, drawing distinctions and making sure that people know they aren’t included in our group.  “They” are different from us and we want to emphasise the difference.

When we use the third person grammar to describe individuial or groups, we open the door to all sorts of problems, like prejudice, discrimination, injustice, exploitation and on and on.  Beyond certain legitimate grammatical usage, the way we tend to use the third person becomes a way of excluding people and making differences clear, often with the unspoken understanding that “they” aren’t good or wise or smart or rich or capable or whatever as us.

So whether it is pastors discussing church members, citizens discussing immigrants, conservative theologians or politicians discussing liberal theologians or politicians, purple people discussing fuchsia people, cat people discussing dog people, the “they” tends to the negative and includes a put down.

And while it is true that we are incredibly diverse as humans, our diversity isn’t the most important thing about us.  Underneath the differences that make us “they” is a deeper reality that makes us a “we”.  We are all humans, created in God’s image, in need of a deep relationship with God and each other and we are all somewhere between what we shouldn’t be and what God meant us to be.  And to get from where we are to where we were meant to be involves not just our relationship with God but also our relationship with each other.  It was and is God’s plan that we best become what we were meant to be by recognizing the “we” rather than the “they”.  We all need God and his help; we all mess up; we all need help–and we all need to work with each other and God to become what he meant us to be.

Our differences are real–no matter how well I speak Kiswahili and no matter how much ugali I eat, no one is ever going to seriously believe that I am a Kikamba–the differences that make me a Msungu and not a Kamba are obvious.  But I am still in relationship with my Kamba friends–before God, we are “we”, all of us in need of his grace and love and help, grace and love and help which we will find best when we come together around our similarities rather than try to magnify our  differences.  We are all in this together.

May the peace of God be with you.

DO UNTO OTHERS

I have been writing about Christian community for the last few posts.  This is an important topic for me because I believe that re-discovering authentic Christian community is one of the foundations for reviving the church in North America.  As we begin to develop the kind of community that God had in mind for the church, we strengthen the church internally and make our witness to the world what it should be.

But as much as I believe in the importance of Christian community, I am not some naive first year theology student who thinks that proper community should just pop into existence just because it is supposed to be.  I know from my own experience and the experience of others that Christian community isn’t always what it is meant to be–and at times, it become a dangerous and damaging witness to the power of human sin.

But I have also learned that for the community to develop in the right direction, it requires risk–someone has to be willing to start the process.  The difficulty with that is deciding who takes the first risk.  When we need someone to do something, it often means that everyone waits for someone else to be the first someone.

Since I am the one who studies and researches and digs out these things, my part in the process is obvious.  I need to explain to people how Jesus envisioned community.  I need to define and describe and explain and teach and preach the concepts.  I need to help people see the benefits and blessings of Christian community.  I need to show them the negative consequences of a lack of community.  I need to carefully show how God through the Holy Spirit provides the courage and wisdom to build community.  All that is my job–after all, I  am the pastor, the person called by God to shepherd and care for the community

I teach and preach and because of my brilliant teaching and preaching, people are inspired to develop powerful and breath-taking Christian communities.  And at this point, we end the fairy tale with “They all lived happily ever after.”  If preaching and teaching were enough to make the church and people what God wants us to be, we probably wouldn’t need churches because everything would have been fixed a long time ago.

I realized that if community is important, I need to be willing to be one of the someones who takes a risk.  It is not enough to preach and teach about community–I need to practise community.  I need to offer my gifts and my weaknesses and treat the gathering of believers as the community they are called to be.  I need to follow the teaching of Jesus 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.” (NIV)

I am not necessarily saying that I need to do this because I am the pastor, although that is a factor. Mostly, I become responsible for doing it because I have done the research and know the importance of community and therefore become responsibly before God who has led me to these insights.  I need to take the risk because I see the need.

I would like to say that this has always worked out perfectly and I have always been able to develop powerful and exciting Christian communities–but I believe in honesty.  While acting as if the community existed as it is called to be does help develop community, it has not been an always positive thing for me.  I haven’t always been willing to do what I know I should and sometimes when I have done what I consider to be right, it has been wrong and occasionally my attempts to treat the community of believers as believers has been used against me by parts of the community.

But someone has to start–and since I am often the one who has the insight and does the study, I have a responsibility.  We build community by being in community and living community.  It can be painful and frustrating and slow and disappointing–but if we really believe in the idea of community, we need to work at it.  Someone has to start the process–why not me (or you)?

May the peace of God be with you.