FIXER-UPPER

I confess–I can’t help it.  In the last post, I was content to share my fix-it rules and leave it at that.  Writing the post helped pass the time while the glue on the Fitbit repair dried (it is still holding).  But I am a teacher and a preacher as well as a fixer–and most of my ministry has been spend working for an organization that always needs fixing.  Given that no church has ever been perfect and there will never be a perfect church until we all come together as perfected beings in heaven, there is always something that needs to be fixed in the church.  So, I am going to take a simple post written while fixing a Fitbit and turn it into a pastoral illustration about fixing churches.

But there, however,  are some important differences between what I do with lawn mowers, broken furniture and Fitbits.  One of the first and most significant differences is that in the church, I am not just the fixer–I am also part of the problem.  I am generally involved with churches as pastor–but that doesn’t change the fact that I bring my own flaws and difficulties to the church.

When I approach the church, I need to make sure that the thing I think I am called to fix isn’t more my problem than the church’s problem.  I also need to make sure that the fix I think I am called to apply isn’t coming from my needs and flaws and not the church needs and flaws.  Basically, the first rule of fixing in the church is that we are all in need of some fixing at some point.  If I forget that rule, I just might fix the church into a worse mess than it was before.  Unfortunately, the history of the church shows that too many of us who have tried to fix the church have forgotten our own need to be fixed.

The second rule of church fixing comes from the fact that sometimes the things that actually need to be fixed aren’t that easy to see, or some relatively minor need covers a much deeper and much more serious need.   In the kind of small churches that I work with, there are always some obvious things that new pastors think should be fixed.  Most people prefer to sit near the back, making it hard for them to hear.  A lot of pastors spend a lot of energy trying to fix that by getting people to move up to the front.

But where people sit is something of a distraction for deeper, more serious problems that have a more serious effect on the long-term health of the church.  I have learned to ignore the distraction and focus on the seating pattern, which sometimes reveals the underlying problem of tensions and factions in the church, something that is very serious and which actually needs to be addressed–carefully and sensitively and patiently–but still needs to be addressed much more than whether people sit at the back or not.

But for me, the biggest difference between fixing a broken chair leg and fixing a church has to do with the fact that when I fix a chair leg or a Fitbit or a lamp cord, I am on my own.  Sure, I can talk to friends, check my home repair books, look things up on the internet–I can even sidestep the whole process and hire someone to do the work.  But even with all that, I am in charge of the repairs.  I decide what to do, what not to do, what rules to follow and which ones to ignore.

In the church, though, I am not alone.  I work with the church in the process.  The Fitbit doesn’t know or care that I am trying to fix it–it has no input on what I do.  But the church does–I need their permission and cooperation in the process.  It is not me, the expert, fixing them, the problem.  It is us, a collection of flawed individuals seeking to use our collective gifts and abilities to address our collective issues.  In the church, we are all fixer and fixee.

And as well, we aren’t on our own–all our fixes and repairs need to be done with the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit.  I don’t see the need on my own; I don’t develop the fix process on my own; I don’t implement it on my own.  We, the church, open ourselves to each other and the Holy Spirit who shows us where we need fixing, guides us to the proper fix and helps us in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

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MY DAY

I had an interesting work day recently that seems to me to be begging to be recounted.  The day began normally enough.  I did my morning routine:  exercise, Bible reading, breakfast and so on.  But from that point on, the rest of the day was spent running from one thing to another, dealing with bits and pieces that had accumulated and whose execution all fell on the same day.

The first task was to finish preparing the funeral service that was coming that afternoon. Funerals are a part of ministry that are generally unpredictable and so put a serious strain on pastor’s schedules.  So, although I had known about this one for three days, I couldn’t work the preparation in to my schedule until the morning of the service.  That wasn’t a major problem–I have often pulled the pages off the printer on my way to the funeral.  These days, I don’t do that anymore–I transfer the service details from my laptop to the tablet (and to my phone as a backup.)

I finished working on the funeral service just in time to head out to help a congregation member set up for a fund raising event.  While that isn’t in my job description, she was a bit desperate because a variety of people who normally help couldn’t make it. Her call the night before was filled with apologies and assurances that if I couldn’t make it, it was okay.  But I had the time and since I benefit from the fund raising as much or more than anyone else, I went and helped.

After that, well, I needed to finalize the text for the wedding scheduled for the next day.  Weddings, unlike funerals, tend to be scheduled long before hand.  This one had actually been scheduled several months earlier.  So, how come I was finishing the text the day before the service?  Well, the bride and groom wanted to write their own vows and didn’t get them to me until the day before, when I was tied up with other stuff.  But getting them done the day before the service–well, that could be classed as long-term planning compared to funeral preparation.

So, next is a quick lunch and a rushed nap (Google the health benefits of a regular nap) before I get ready for the funeral.  I arrive at the church building for the funeral, pass some time with the funeral director and greet the family and friends.  As people are coming it begins to rain and so we have a quick consultation with the family about holding the committal service in the sanctuary rather than at the graveyard.

After the funeral service, I rush home, make a quick change and head out for the wedding rehearsal. The rain has stopped which is great since this is an outdoor wedding.  But the sky is still dark and threatening and I wonder if I should grab a plastic bag to protect my tablet.  Haste wins and I risk the rain, which does sprinkle a bit during the rehearsal.  The rehearsal goes fairly well, except for the 5-10 minutes I have to spend helping the bride and groom learn how to tie a reef knot for the knot ceremony they want as part of their vows. We figure it out, the tablet remains dry enough to work and everything is ready for tomorrow.

I head for home, having put in a pretty full and varied day.  I have done a lot of stuff, connected with a lot of people and managed to get everything done that had pushed itself into this particular day.  There are two things that stand out in my mind for this day.  First, it was a strange day, even for a pastor.  Most days in ministry are a bit more predictable–or at least have fewer unpredictable bits and pieces.  Except for the wedding rehearsal, this day was made up almost completely of unpredicted somewhat critical things, almost as if someone shook out the container and dumped all the left-over stuff on the same day.

The second thing that stands out for me about this day?  This all happened on a Friday, one of my days off.  Not every day off is like this and I will definitely make up for it–but now and then, it happens.  But if ministry were totally predictable, that wouldn’t be much fun.

May the peace of God be with you.

A DILEMMA OR AN OPPORTUNITY?

I like structure.  I like order and predictability.   I am an organized person.  My workshop has a place for all my tools, a place where I expect them to be.  Now, I am not obsessive about the order and structure–I haven’t drawn the outline of the tool on the wall behind its place on the wall.  But I do know where the tool is because I put it there in the first place and return it to its place when I am finished using it.  Tools don’t  lie around on the work bench partly because I don’t have a lot of workbench space but mostly because I put them away when I am done with them–one of the rituals I have when finishing a session in the workshop is making sure all the tools are back where they belong.

I have friends whose tools tend to get deposited here there and everywhere.  When they want a 15/64s drill bit, they have to think about the last project they used the drill bit on and search that work area–or go buy a new one.  I might not remember when I last used the 15/64s drill bit but I do know the bit will be in its container where it is supposed to be, unless I broke it the last time I used it, in which case, the replacement is in the proper place in the container.

My books are organized–now, the organizing principles might not be readily understandable to anyone else, but I understand it and can find the book I want when I want it because it is where it is supposed to be.  Even my computer and tablet files are structured and organized so that I can find the file I want when I want it–I know the topic of the file and can quickly find the appropriate folder and sub-folder.

So, with that in mind, I approach the church, where as I have already mentioned, there is more chaos than structure;  more confusion than order; more questions than answers.  About the only thing that is predictable about the church many times is that if a person who attends regularly shows up, they will sit in their particular place.  Almost everything else, well, it is probably easier to herd cats than get everyone and everything in its place in the church.

So, I go from the structure of my workshop and study and computer to the chaos of the church.  I carefully put my tools away, replace the books in their proper places, save the files in their proper sub-folders, put everything I will need in the proper brief case, check the phone calendar to make sure I am on time and going to the right place and step into the chaos of the church.

On some levels, my structured personality should find the church difficult and frustrating–but the truth is, I don’t find it that way.  Certainly, I can and do get frustrated with some church stuff.  I occasionally get frustrated with some church people.  But on the whole, I enjoy the church and its chaos.  My love of structure doesn’t mean that I approach the church with fear and trembling.

And as I have thought about that, I realized that my appreciation for structure isn’t one of the driving forces of my life.  What is a driving force is the gift that the Holy Spirit exercises through me, the gift of helping bring structure and sense to what appears to be chaotic.  I don’t have an obsessive need for structure–rather, I have a Spirit given gift of being able to make sense out of chaos for myself and others.  Having structure isn’t the goal of my life either in the workshop or the church.

Helping create an appropriate and workable structure out of what seems chaotic is one of the goals of my life.  And it is a goal not because I need the structure but because God has been and continues using me to help congregations see their underlying structure and order that their chaos both hides and reveals.  This is important because as the divine structure and order become visible to the church, they can become much more effective and comfortable with their place in God’s work and his kingdom.

May the peace of God be with you.

CHAOS OR GROWTH?

I realized that to anyone who is a regular reader of this blog (thank you–I really appreciate your support) the situations I describe from the congregations I serve could sound somewhat chaotic.  We have people talking during worship, people making comments and asking questions during the sermon, Bible studies that might get on topic once a month, business meetings that have little structure, a very fluid and changing concept of membership among other things.

While it might all seem a bit chaotic, the deeper reality is that it is very chaotic at times.  As pastor, I am often playing catch up and am more likely to be surprised by the latest suggestion than I am to have originated the suggestion. I do prep work on Bible Study and sermons and make plans for a variety of things and sometimes–many times–the actual on the ground activity takes off in a very different direction.  To say that I am the leader of the congregations that give me a pay cheque every month would probably be technically correct, at least as far as the modern understanding of pastoral ministry is concerned.  But the practical reality is that I most often feel like a leaf floating down a stream, twisting and turning and bumping into things as I am carried along by the current.

And I love it.  I have never felt that it was my job as pastor to be the leader.  I don’t have the need to determine every aspect of the life of the church.  I don’t see the church as an  institution that needs my great wisdom and knowledge to keep it on the right track and prevent it from going astray.  Mostly, that is because the church isn’t an institution or an organization or a business or anything like that.

Essentially, the church is a group of people linked by their common allegiance to God through Jesus Christ, each one filled with the Holy Spirit.  We come into the faith as different people and we grow in the faith in different ways and in different directions.  But because we all have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit, each one of us has something valuable and important to offer to the church.  Because of that, most of my ministry has been focused on discovering the leading of the Holy Spirit for the particular group of church people I have been called to work with.

And so much of my ministry is spend listening and responding.  I do work hard at trying to bring together all the disparate voices and views of the Spirit’s leading,  because I believe one of the gifts the Spirit has given me is the ability to create an overview of the confusing and complex package that is a local expression of the church.  I am not called to impose my overview on the church–rather, I am gifted and called to help the church discover the overview that the Holy Spirit is seeking to bring to a particular gathering of believers.

One of my early ministry discoveries was that in order for my gift to be effective, there has to be stuff happening.  My particular ministry gifts thrive best in what often seems a chaotic situation.  I seem to work best when there are lots of expressions of the Spirit coupled with the ever-present reality that some of what the church and I think are expressions of the Spirit are really not coming from God.

So, the Bible Study, the worship, the meetings, the encounters with people–all these things that come together to make a church that seems chaotic and confused are in actual fact part of the working of the Holy Spirit in our midst.  As I participate in the chaos, reacting often and initiating occasionally, part of my Spirit given giftedness is to help the church make sense of the chaos and discover just what God is saying to us and where he is leading us.

I struggle with this at times because I am not naturally inclined to chaos.  I like structure and organization and predictability.   I use my gifts to help the congregation go from chaos to growth–but then the growth produces another type of chaos and so I keep going, responding to the chaos that is the church.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE MEETING

In both the collections of congregations that I serve, we have a very informal approach to doing the business of the church.  There is a formal process requiring notice and written agendas and stuff like that but we reserve that for really important stuff where we would actually have to discuss and have a recorded vote–something that might happen once or twice a decade.  Mostly, we realize that we need a meeting and sometines announce it for the next week after worship but sometimes, we announce it during the announcements and have it after that worship.  It is a system that would probably drive some people and churches up the wall but it works for us and so we keep doing it.

Anyway, one Sunday, the moderator told me that she had a long list of things that needed to be dealt with.  There was nothing on the list that was difficult or controversial so she suggested that we have a meeting after the worship and deal with it all.  Worship began, followed its appointed course and finished.  After we finished singing the threefold “Amen”, I reminded people of the meeting and headed for a seat–I don’t have much to do at meetings except begin and end them with prayer.

As the congregation settled down for the meeting, our new couple got up to leave, at which point, the moderator called out their names and said they were welcome to stay, something that she and others have done before when we have new people–it is an almost automatic response.  We are a small group and like to include everyone in what we do.  I managed to get to them to greet them before they left and reinforced the invitation but they chose to leave.  After seeing them off, I sat down, the meeting progressed, we finished, I prayed and we all went home.  Just another somewhat typical worship and meeting for our small church.

So, we all show up for Bible Study during the week.  Almost all the regulars are there and the group now includes the new couple.  We always begin Bible study with an opportunity for people to ask questions or make comments about the past Sunday worship service.  There were a couple of comments about the service and a bit of discussion about the sermon theme.  And as that petered out, the husband of the new couple began to talk about the meeting after worship.

He had some very strong feelings about that part of the afternoon.  He did mention that he liked the sermon but for him, the high point of the day was being invited by name to stay for the meeting.  It gave him a sense of belonging, a feeling that he was part of us.  It was clear to all of us that the moderator’s invitation touched both of them deeply.  I don’t think I have ever seen anyone as deeply moved by an invitation to attend a business meeting.  He went on to give a little background that helped us see some of what made the invitation significant to him–not the whole story but enough.

We are always hearing about how some off the cuff remark offends and upsets people.  It is not uncommon to hear of someone who has stopped being a part of a church because of some comment that the pastor or Sunday School teacher or janitor or someone else made.  Sometimes, I get a bit paranoid and spend too much time wondering how I am going to phrase a comment that I know can cause some problems.

And so it is nice now and then to see an unplanned and somewhat off-hand comment have the opposite effect.  It is encouraging to know that thanks to the Holy Spirit, those comments that we might have made a dozen times before are sometimes just the thing that a person needs to hear and will be used powerfully by the Holy Spirit.  That particular day, our worship was good, the meeting was okay–but the most significant thing that happened, I think, was that God was able to use something all of us had done many times before to make a difference to someone who needed it.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE SERMON

For a variety of reasons, preparing sermons is a lot easier and faster for me now than it was when I first started preaching.  When I preached my sermon over 45 years ago, the preparation  process was long, agonizing and painful.  I struggled to get an idea, worried and fretted to get some substance to the idea, poured over commentaries to understand the Scripture, thought about the passage and theme consciously and unconsciously.  While I don’t think I ever actually reached the seminary recommended one hour of study for every minute of preaching, I probably came close in those early years.

Over the years, the process has become easier.  I don’t actually need to do as much research–I have read and written on enough of the Bible in my ministry that research is more to check and make sure I am on the right track, not a search for the real meaning.  I learned early in ministry that a good sermon must touch the lives of the people I work with and that insight removed a lot of the stress and time associated with finding topics and developing them–because my sermons are based on the real needs of real people in real churches, I generally have a lot more ideas than I need and the occasional struggle I have in that area concerns which idea to use for this series.

As a result of a couple of really stressful and busy weeks, I discovered that I can go from a vague idea to a finished, ready to preach sermon manuscript in about 90 minutes, as long as I am preaching in English–desperation sermons in Kiswahili take about twice that.  Now, the end result isn’t always pretty, doesn’t have the style or polish I would like but as the old saying goes, “They will preach” and some days, that is a major accomplishment.

Since I am a part time pastor for two different church settings and need two different sermons each week, I have a shorter preparation process than I would like.  But I still put in a significant block of my part time hours preparing sermons.  I still work hard on the process, even if it takes a shorter time than most recommend and that I would like under ideal conditions.  I take preaching seriously and give every sermon the best I can give it before I take it to the pulpit.

In one of the pastorates, we introduced a new element in our worship service at the request of the congregation.  When  I finish reading the Scriptures, there is an opportunity for people to ask questions or make comments about the Scriptures or anything somewhat related to the Scriptures.  Many times, these are short questions for clarification, brief words of appreciation for the message of the passage or personal applications of the verses.

But occasionally, the questions and comments take off as the congregation begins seriously getting into the passage.  We begin with questions, move on to comments and other questions, slip into personal illustrations, follow faint tracks into other issues, bounce ideas off each other, ignite deep thoughts in other members.  The discussion goes on and on.  My job is to try to answer some of the questions (remember the years of commentary reading and other research?), moderate the discussion, help people clarify their thoughts and encourage those who obviously want to speak but are hesitant for some reason.

Time slips by as we work together discovering the Holy Spirit’s message for us from the chosen passage.  And one level of my mind is monitoring my watch, which is lying on the pulpit before me–and at some point, I realize that the sermon I worked so hard to prepare isn’t going to get preached today.  Sometimes, I don’t get to it at all.  More often, I get to strip it down to a Readers’ Digest version.  But all the work, all the effort–well, I could have skipped it.

But I don’t and won’t.  I love the Sundays when the discussion takes off.  It says to me that the Scripture and direction I was working on have really touched something in the congregation and the work I put into sermon preparation has become background for the congregation as we together prepare the real sermon for that day.  I may or may not ever use the sermon I prepared as I prepared it–but as a congregation, we had a real sermon, prepared by us for us through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE BIBLE STUDY

After being on vacation for a couple of weeks, it was time to get back to work.  The first official task was leading Bible Study.  Well, actually, the first official task was preparing the material for the Bible study that would begin at 10:00am the first day back at work.  This particular study had been shut down for the summer and my plan was that over the summer, I would use the more relaxed work time to get the new Bible study ready.

Of course, as with all plans, this one fell apart very quickly.  Early in the summer, I did some initial research and created a file on the computer with some notes, planning on getting back to it soon.  But, well, there was a week of vacation early in the summer and I needed to take some time off to compensate for the ballooning overtime hours and there was the wedding that had to be done and some meetings and some pastoral visits.  And somehow, I arrived at the first day back at work with some notes in a file on the computer.

Fortunately, I had enough time to beat the notes into some sort of shape before I left.  I arrived early, as usual–and someone was there before me, which was bit of a surprise.  Even more surprising was the fact that I didn’t know the people–they were coming to check out the Bible study from a community a few kilometers away.

Before I could get to the door, another car arrived and as I was greeting them, another car arrived–this one with a couple who were going away for a while and wanted to let me know that they were going to be away.  As I was praying with them, others arrived and before I could get the door unlocked, we had a crowd standing around.

I finally unlocked the door and we got seated, the kettle boiling and we settled down to catching up on the summer, meeting the visitors, discussing my vacation and greeting everyone as they came in, including another visitor.  Even with several of our regulars being away, we had a full house by the time we got started.

We got down to work–and even with three new people, the Bible study worked like it always has.  We talked, got off topic, looked at interesting and significant questions and comments, did some of the material I had prepared, followed side trails, raised issues, had disagreements, got confused and occasionally had no idea how we got to where we ended up.  The new people–well, instead of sitting there bewildered by our chaotic process, the three new people jumped right in acting as if they had been there from the beginning.  Their questions and comments were as thought provoking, as pertinent and as prone to taking us off course as those of any veteran of the study.

In the end, the material I had rushed together provided lots of stuff to work with.  It started discussion, answered and raised questions and covered the topic that the group has wanted to look at.  I began the study wondering if I had enough material to fill in the time–and then part way through, began to worry that I had too much material.  In the end, we finished the topic, which was meant to be a one week study to deal with a specific issue before we went on to another topic.

As I left after the study, I realized something.  I missed the Bible study–or rather, I missed the interaction with the group of people.  While I am officially the leader of the study, practically, we have evolved an approach to Bible study that allows all of us to teach and learn, question and answer, confuse and enlighten–and do it all in an atmosphere where everyone has respect and appreciation for each other.  We don’t agree on everything–and we are comfortable leaving the disagreement on the table without trying to win the point.

I am pretty sure that if I had showed up at the study and confessed that I hadn’t been able to get anything done on the study topic, we would have still had a good Bible study because the group would have taken over.  I may have to do that next week–I still have to put together the material for the next topic.

May the peace of God be with you.

ENDING WELL

I am a pastor who has spent my entire career working with small congregations.  The largest average attendance I ever remember having was in the neighbourhood of 50 or so, depending of course on the proximity of the latest blizzard, the season of the year, the opening and closing of various cyclical events and so on.  The smallest congregation I ever served averaged 4–although we did eventually have a 50% increase and average 6 in attendance.

Although I am comfortable working in small congregations and can do a lot of ministry there, I am also aware that congregations of the size I work with are always aware of the possibility of closing down.  In the area where I live and work, I regularly drive by up to a dozen buildings that used to house churches–or the spots where the building used to stand.  Some were closed by decisions made outside the congregation–presbyteries and bishops and other bodies crunched numbers and issued decisions and churches ceased to exist.

Closing churches is a bit harder in my denomination.  We Baptists don’t have an outside agency that can close a congregation down.  As long as there is one member alive who wants to keep the church going, the church–and its building–keeps going.  Things get a bit more complicated, though, because often, people in the community whose great-grandmother was married in that church’s building get involved in the process and don’t want to see the church shut down.  Of course, they are actually trying to preserve the building–the church that inhabits a building is the people.

And so the reality is that many of us who are part of small congregations are living in a paradox.  On the one hand, we seek to be faithful to God, doing the best we can to ministry with the limited money and people and resources that we have.  We worship, we fellowship, we organize fund raising events, we minister to the wider community, we experiment, we pray, we hope.

But we are also aware that being a church takes money–and that is always in short supply.  If the building needs major repairs or Aunt Emma goes to a nursing home or dies or the big church in the next community attracts the family with our youth group, we face an inevitable financial crunch, which often gets expressed in very simple and graphic terms:  If we pay the pastor, we can’t afford to pay for the heat for worship but if we heat the building for worship, we probably can’t afford to pay the pastor.

Small congregations are very adept and very resilient and very good at finding and stretching money.  They are very good and adept at getting people to multi-task.  They are not so good at making tough decisions about their future, especially when those decisions seem to represent a step along the road to closure.

When the income won’t support full time ministry, it is hard to make the decision to move to some form of part-time ministry.  When the income won’t really support heating a very energy inefficient sanctuary in a Canadian winter, it is hard to consider moving or closing worship down.  When the church owned house the pastor lives in needs too many repairs, it is hard to consider getting rid of it.

The end result is that many small congregations keep going, dealing with the potential reality of closure by trying to ignore and avoid and pretend isn’t there.  Occasionally, the church must deal with the reality–when the sills rot out or the pastor moves on, the church has to look at the present realities and future possibilities.

And generally, the church will worry and stress and pray and come up with a solution that replaces the sills and finds a pastor.  That happens because we are talking about the church and the church has a resource that no other organization has.  We have the Holy Spirit and when we open ourselves to the Spirit, the results and consequences are completely unpredictable.

We who are part of small congregations live with the reality of closure looming over us.  But we also live in the presence of the Holy Spirit–and that means that we open ourselves to the Spirit, follow his leading and minister until we can no longer minister.  Because of the Spirit’s presence, we can live until we die.

May the peace of God be with you.

A GROWING CHURCH

One of the blogs I read regularly has been inviting me to sign up for a course that will help me take my church beyond the dreaded 200 barrier.  For those of you who don’t spend as much time as I do reading about things relevant and irrelevant to ministry, the 200 barrier refers to the reality that most congregations never grow beyond 200 in attendance.  Actually, perhaps the majority of churches in the world have far fewer in attendance than that.  But to really be a congregation of consequence in North America, a church has to break that barrier–and this course will help with that.

I am not signing up for the course.   Partly, that is because I am  not much interested in having someone else tell me what to study–I think that I have been doing ministry long enough that I can design and do my own research.  But the main reason I am not signing up for the course is that I am positive that it will be no help to me in my ministry.  In one of the pastorates that I serve, I would really like to reach 20 in regular attendance–and in the other, 30 would be a great number to achieve.  I have no problem at all with the 200 barrier–that is so far from where we are that I don’t need to spend any time on it at all.

However, the strong emphasis on growing church numbers means that my congregations and therefore my ministry are seen as somehow being less than acceptable and maybe even ineffective.  I have even heard people suggesting that congregations like the ones I serve should be closed down and the members amalgamated with larger congregations that can do some real ministry.  Fortunately, as a Baptist, the only people who can make those decisions are the members of the local congregation.

The question I keep having to confront grows out of this emphasis in numbers.  Does a worshipping community that averages 10 in worship constitute a real church?  Is it worth the effort to sustain and maintain a group of 25 people meeting in several buildings?  Is it a real ministry when one visitor represents a 10% increase in our attendance?

You might expect that as someone who has spend a whole career in those size congregations that I would automatically say yes to all those questions.  But the truth is, I would actually say that it depends.  But the dependant variables involved in the answer have nothing to do with the numbers–numbers are a revered Western measuring tool that in the end, tell us very little about the quality and character of whatever the numbers are measuring.

What makes a congregation a viable church is the nature and strength of its commitment.  If the congregation is focused on serving God where and as he leads, it is a viable church.  If the congregation is doing all it can to effectively do what God has called it to do, it is a viable church.  If the ministry is helping people grow in their understanding of and ability to practise their faith, it is a viable ministry.

If, however, the congregation is focused on surviving long enough to host the funeral of the last member, it has ceased to be viable and healthy.  If worries about money and repairs and finding preachers take up all the time and energy of the congregation, it is not really a viable church.

That doesn’t mean it needs to be shut down.  While that may be the appropriate solution for some congregations, in my mind, this is always the last and least desirable option.  A struggling, unfocused, misguided congregation can change.  With time and good pastoral care, even a dying congregation can become healthy.  It may not grow in numbers but if it can refocus itself and redirect its time and energy to serving God, it becomes a real and viable church that can and does have a positive impact for the Kingdom of God.

My calling is not to break the 20 barrier or the 200 barrier.  My calling is to help congregations realize who they are and what they are called to do and help them become what they are meant to be and do what they are called to do.  And when we do this, we are becoming the church God has called us to be regardless of our numbers.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE VISITOR

The last Sunday before my vacation, we had a visitor at our worship service.  While not a completely unusual event, visitors in that particular place are not overly common.  This visitor had actually been in worship before–she lives in the community and is well known to the church members, all of whom welcomed her and talked with her and included her in the community.  I don’t know if the welcome encouraged her to come back–I kind of suspect that her attendance will continue to be somewhat sporadic and unpredictable.

The key issue for me was that the church did everything right, at least from my perspective.   The visitor was welcomed, included and involved.  That is a strong contrast to many congregations where visitors are either under-welcomed or overwhelmed with welcomes.  The traditional welcome for visitors in small rural congregations such as I serve is covert glances, somewhat hidden whispered questions about who that person is and maybe a welcome or two, although some rural congregations aren’t willing to go that far.

My experience as a visitor in larger congregations has convinced me that the typical welcome isn’t much different, except that because the larger congregations have greeters and ushers, the visitor is generally at least given a greeting and a bulletin.  I do remember one instance, though, when I visited a large congregation and was ignored by the greeter, who was engaged in a conversation with another greeter about some event they had both attended.  I found a bulletin and a seat and was eventually greeted after the greeters found out I was a friend of the pastor.

I understand the difficulty surrounding visitors.  On the one hand, we want them to feel welcomed and accepted.  But on the other hand, most of us are introverts who have difficulty connecting with people we don’t know.  Even as the pastor, I would rather hide in the office until just before the time to begin worship–but since all the church buildings where I lead worship share my living room office, I have no place to hide before worship.  And since I don’t have assigned seating in the congregational area, I tend to be standing and thus the first person to see and be available to greet visitors.

I have to confess that I am much more comfortable when visitors come in late, after we have already started worship and I am behind the pulpit leading the worship service.  Actually, everyone is happier with that because the visitors find their own seats and since worship has already started, no one has to talk to them.  We will overlook the fact that in this particular congregation, we have a very open worship with lots of back and forth chatter during the worship time.

So, we are all pretty much happy to see visitors but not really sure how to deal with them.  We are doing okay–there are some of our people who are getting comfortable greeting and welcoming people.  One is something of an extrovert who likes to talk to everyone.  Another has come from away and worked in public service so is used to greeting new people.  And one or two others are becoming aware of the need to at least say hi to people.

In our small group visitors stand out–but they also cause us some anxiety.  We want new people–but since new people have to start out as visitors, we need to get better at welcoming them.  In the end, this becomes both a test and sign of our faith.

When we have visitors, our faith is tested–it our faith real enough and strong enough for us to overcome our fears and anxieties about strangers?  Can we find the Holy Spirit’s help and leading to help us greet new people appropriately?

The way we greet visitors shows the reality of our faith–are they objects of fear and curiosity or are they real people whom God loves and whom we are therefore to love as well?  Is our faith just words about loving as God loves or can we really do what we say we are supposed to do?

Like all small churches and probably many larger churches, we have some ambivalence about visitors but we are learning and hopefully are creating an atmosphere where visitors feel comfortable and accepted.

May the peace of God be with you.