WHY BOTHER?

I don’t get to attend worship as an ordinary participant very often. Generally, I get to do that while I am on vacation, unless we decide not to attend that Sunday which happens. But when I do, I notice just how far from the prevailing cultural norms I actually am. Most preachers these days were jeans and polo shirts or some other casual attire. I have noticed that most clean up and wear a suit and tie for funerals and maybe some weddings but mostly, the causal, comfortable look dominated the pulpit these days.

I happen to think that is great. It sets a tone for worship and enables both preacher and congregation to relax and enjoy the reality of God and his love and grace. Being comfortable in the presence of God is one of the prime messages of the Christian faith and the trend to casual, comfortable clothing is a visual and powerful statement of the relationship we have with God because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.

But when I am leading the worship and preaching, I will be wearing one of my two dark suits and one of my small selection of ties. There are two exceptions:

• When it is really warm, I lose the suit jacket.
• When we are having a potluck, I wear the sporty pants than came with the new suit

Isn’t that just a bit hypocritical on my part, especially since I love to point out the pointlessness of wearing ties and encourage people to dress as comfortable as possible? In fact, when asked about our church’s dress code, I tell people that we have a very strict code—you have to wear clothes. But week after week, there I am, wearing my suit and tie while everyone else has jeans, shorts (in summer), sneakers and definitely, no tie.

It probably is hypocritical on some levels but on other levels, what I am wearing is perfectly congruent with what I am telling people. I encourage people to be comfortable with what they are wearing for worship. And for me, that means a suit and tie. My experience and cultural influences go way back and are deeply rooted. I grew up in the era when worship attire was the best jacket and tie you had. I spent serious time working with an independent Kenyan denomination which has a fairly formal dress code—the only leaders who don’t have to wear ties are the ones entitled to wear clerical collars.

I actually upset the leadership of the church in Kenya early in my first time there. I wasn’t wearing a tie to teach—after all, ties are anachronistic cultural hold overs that have no real purpose or meaning. When the church leaders finally got up enough courage to suggest that I wear a tie, I realized my mistake, apologized and put on a tie. Given the heat in Kenya much of the school year, they didn’t mind if I skipped the suit jacket now and then.

I just don’t feel comfortable leading worship and preaching unless I am wearing a tie and at least part of my suit—the jacket doesn’t count on warm days. It isn’t a requirement placed on me by anyone else. In fact, I might fight against any regulation that said I had to wear a tie, at least in North America. I don’t make it a requirement for anyone else—not even the occasionally student I mentor for the nearby seminary. If someone wants to come to worship in ripped jeans and well worn t-shirt, I welcome them and am not the least concerned about their costume. If they are comfortable, they can probably better enter into the reality of worship and have a better experience of the awareness of the presence of God.

And me—well, wearing my suit and tie allows me to be comfortable in the presence of God. He doesn’t require it but my personal culture and background does. I could put in the effort to align my personal preference with the freedom that I teach and preach and encourage for others—but truthfully, I am comfortable doing what I do and there is enough really serious stuff that I need to deal with in my personal life that it isn’t worth the effort to change my approach to worship wear. I am comfortable, God loves me and the people understand me. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

May the peace of God be with you.

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WHICH DIRECTION?

These days, I find myself spending a lot of time wondering where I am going, at least in terms of the churches I have been called to pastor. Both the pastorates I work with have great people and lots of potential. While neither of them is actually rolling in money, they both have enough to ensure they have a future, especially since they have made the difficult decision to move to part-time ministry. Both are located in geographical settings where they are basically the only organized expression of the Christian faith. And although both settings don’t have as many people as they used to have, there are still a significant number of people living in the communities served by the congregations and a significant number of them have no real connection with our faith.

I am entering my third year of service with this somewhat unique ministry—and to be totally honest, I have much less idea of what I am supposed to be doing than I did when I began this work. When I began, the process was clear: lead worship and preach on Sunday, prepare and lead Bible study and get to know the people, as well as deal with things like weddings and funerals and so on. In the process of doing that basic stuff, I would work at developing a sense of the churches and communities and help develop an approach to ministry that would help the churches become more healthy.

I have been doing this for a lot of years and used to think that I was pretty good at this process. I listen, observe, ask questions, research and eventually, begin to get a sense not just of what is but of what can be. I work with the church and together, we do what we feel God is calling us to do in the way God is calling us to do it. Generally, by the two year mark, I am starting to develop a fairly well focused sense of the church and its needs.

But instead of having this developing focus, I find myself these days spending a lot of time wondering what I am doing, what I need to be doing, what is needed for the church and what directions we need to be moving in. Since my ministry involves a lot of time in the car, I find myself wondering what I am supposed to be doing a lot during the drives between home and church building. But I also catch myself worrying the question when I am sanding a piece of my woodworking project or preparing a preaching plan or waiting in the line up at the grocery store.

I spend a lot of time on the question because I don’t have an answer. We have a great spirit in both settings—but our numbers are not improving and our average age isn’t decreasing. We are doing some interesting and innovative things but so far, no matter how much we enjoy it, noting much has changed our overall reality. We hear through the grapevine that people in the communities are noticing us and are pleased at what they see, something that hasn’t always been the case in our communities but that hasn’t translated more people coming to worship or special programs.

As individuals, we are learning more and more about our faith and what it means to us and we are learning how to express that faith to each other in better ways. We have been experimenting with a lot of stuff and we are finding stuff that we enjoy and stuff that we don’t really need. Our worship tends to be a bit more worshipful, our Bible study tends to be a bit more significant, our churches seem a bit more churchy—but for all that, we are still small, rural churches caught in a long-term decline. I like to think that the rate of decline has slowed down since we began looking at ourselves but the truth is that the causes of our decline haven’t really changed—we are still basically the same people we were two years ago but we are all two years older.

So, I wonder. What are we supposed to do and where are we supposed to be going and most especially, what am I supposed to be doing as the pastor of these churches?

May the peace of God be with you.

TOO MANY BUILDINGS

My job sounds much more demanding than it really is, a fact that almost inevitably leads to a specific conversational track when someone asks about it. The process begins when someone who doesn’t know what I am doing asks and I explain that I am part-time pastor to two different pastorates, one of which has four congregations and the other of which has 2 congregations.

The immediate response is one of surprise and comments of how busy I must be, which I respond to by saying that the congregations are all small, we only have one service a week at each pastorate and in the end, each pastorate basically functions as one congregation, although we meet in multiple buildings. My explanation that the small size of the congregations and the fact that I am part-time means that I don’t work anywhere near as hard as they might think are met with nods and winks.

The next phase of the conversation tends to focus on the buildings—it seems that people really can’t get a hold of the fact that I can and do actually manage to keep myself to part-time hours (mostly) and so they need something to focus on to avoid calling me a liar. The building provide a convenient focus.

And we have lots of buildings. And these aren’t all great buildings. Between the six buildings, there are two and a half bathrooms—the half comes about because the women of the building with a porta-potti out back don’t consider that to be a bathroom for some reason. The newest of the buildings is well over 100 years old, although two of them have recent additions (including batrooms) that play a valuable part in our ministry. All of the building have considerable maintenance costs—although these old buildings are well built, time-induced deterioration simply can’t be avoided. Add to that the fact that old buildings are simply not energy efficient and you have a fairly expensive ministry base. In the end, we simply have too many buildings for the people and ministry.

So, the person talking to me generally makes a comment about the number of buildings and wonders why we just don’t get rid of some of them—or all of them for that matter. A few of the people I talk to come from denominational traditions where the bishop or some outside committee makes the decision to close a building, which makes the issue all the more difficult for them to understand.

I have been in this conversation so many times that I have developed a standard answer. For me the bottom line is that the buildings aren’t my responsibility or focus. There is a lot of ministry that needs to be done and focusing on buildings takes away from my ability to do the real ministry. As long as there is money to keep the building usable, I don’t get involved in the process. I use the building, I appreciate the building and I work hard to make sure I am at the right building at the right time for the right purpose—but I am not going to get involved in the debate over if and when to close down a building.

And fortunately for me, I belong to a denomination where that decision isn’t one I really have to be involved in. In our tradition, the building belongs to the people who make up the church that makes that building their home and they have final say on everything about the building. My job as pastor is to teach, preach, enable, encourage, care for and generally be a shepherd to the people. I can and occasionally do draw attention to the excess number of buildings and encourage people to think about that reality. When the issue arises at a meeting, I agree that we need to think carefully about our buildings—but I am also going to be working at the fund raiser for the building.

I have more important things to do than worry about buildings. As long as the building is providing a base for ministry and the church has the means to support the buildings, I don’t much care whether I lead worship in one building or four buildings. My responses to the conversation about buildings tends not to satisfy people who think we would be further ahead with fewer buildings—but they tend to become quiet when I ask them if they would close down their building.

May the peace of God be with you.

PICKING MY BATTLES

Meetings are an occupational hazard for people in ministry. Sometimes it seems to me that no ministry can actually happen unless there is a meeting involved—and the more meetings, the more important the ministry. The problem with meetings though, is that they involve people and even more, they involve people who don’t necessarily agree with everything that I think.

At times in the past, that reality has resulted in my becoming involved in long, complicated and occasionally less than pleasant debates and even arguments. Disagreement needed to be dealt with. Everyone needed to have the benefit of my wisdom and understanding so that they could see the light and truth of the position I was holding and they were missing. Meetings took a lot of energy as I and the other participants worked hard to make sure that everyone came around to our personal view.

But I noticed something while at a meeting a little while ago. Someone said something I disagreed with. It wasn’t a small issue either—it was something fairly significant, something that affected some essential realities of the faith. But I noticed that I didn’t immediately jump into a defence of the faith. I didn’t actually say much. I think I may have said something that indicated I disagreed with what was said and let it go at that.

What kept me from springing into action, something that has been a characteristic of my ministry, at least as far as meetings go? Well, I wasn’t intimidated by the others at the meeting—I knew and was comfortable with everyone there. It wasn’t that I was unsure of my stance—the issue was somewhat foundational for me. It wasn’t even that I was too tired to argue.

No, the reality was that although the issue was a problem for me, raising it and really going after it in that particular setting would have done more harm than good. The person making the comment was deeply committed to what they said. A lot of people at the meeting were not overly interested in the issue. And even more, the meeting was supposed to be focusing on something else entirely.

To open a debate on the issue at the meeting would have derailed the meeting. It would also have created a potentially adversarial setting where two people argued back and forth about a topic both were seriously concerned about but which most people weren’t interested in. Since this was a meeting of Christians involved in a specifically Christian process, the escalation of the disagreement could do some serious damage to our fellowship.

I decided that the damage to the Christian fellowship from getting into a heated debate was potentially worse than the possible damage from the comment itself. I have discovered myself doing that more and more these days. I think I am discovering that as believers, the way we do things is at least as important as what we do. If I engage in an debate that degenerates into a non-Christlike process, I have harmed the faith.

Jesus tells us that a major part of our responsibility it to love each other as he loved us (John 13.34-35)—and doesn’t say anything about having to win every debate over the truth of every issue. I think I am making some wise choices when I choose not to engage in what may become a less than loving debate. Even when I know that I am right, I need to deal with the issue in a way that shows Christlike love for everyone involved. The win doesn’t come from scoring debating points—the win comes from responding like Christ would respond.

There is a time and a place for theological debate. There is a need to have a good discussion on points of contention. There are some things that are wrong and need to be dealt with. But in every case, how we do this is at least as important as the debate and its results. Unless we can do what we do in a way that shows Christian love and respect, we are going to lose—and even worse, the faith itself will lose because we will show something other than the love of Christ.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING SALT AND LIGHT

I knew a guy one time who was looking for the perfect church, one where he would be free to develop his understanding of God and the Kingdom. He was convinced that when he found that perfect church, everything would be great. He was a pastor and had some connections with the people who helped churches find pastors so he used the connections and discovered a church that looked good. Unfortunately, after he had been there a short time, he began to see some problems—and if the truth be told, he himself began to create some problems. Eventually, the imperfection in the church became so serious that he resigned to go to another church that looked perfect.

I am pretty sure that he is still looking for that perfect church. Personally, I entered ministry with the understanding that neither churches nor pastors are perfect and that we both need to try and help each other become a bit better at following the faith that we claim. So, whenever I am called to a church as their pastor, I know without question that I am not going to a perfect church. That is alright, though, because I also know without question that when they call me, they are not getting a perfect pastor.

Neither the church nor the pastor is perfect—and given the theological realities of sin and its persistence even after we become believers, there is no chance of a perfect church or perfect pastor this side of eternity. For me, that raised all sorts of questions, issues and concerns. One of those many questions, issues and concerns grows out of the fact that we are supposed to be sale and light in the world, a visible and concrete reminder to the community of the love and grace of God.

When we show our imperfection to the community, which we do with depressing regularity, what does that do to our saltiness and lightness? It can and all too often does turn into anti-salt and anti-light, discouraging people outside the faith from seeing our faith as a viable option for their lives. Mind you, if we try to cover up our imperfections, the community is also very aware that we are not perfect and our cover up attempts also discourage people when it comes to the faith.

We are called to be salt and light—and we are imperfect. And any approach to being the church or an individual believer that doesn’t keep those two basic truths in mind is doomed to failure. We can’t be perfect—and we can’t help but give witness to our faith. And so it seems to me that the only real choice we have is to be upfront about who and what we really are.

We need to be willing to admit to any and all that we are imperfect. What makes us people of faith and churches is not our perfection but rather the fact that we have admitted to God that we can’t deal with our imperfection by ourselves. We surrender ourselves to God who then has our permission to work in our lives: smoothing the rough spots; teaching our ignorance; forgiving the sins; guiding our footsteps and all the rest. God knows we are not perfect—but he loves and graces us anyway.

We are salt and light when we freely admit our sins and imperfections not just to God, each other and the church but also to the community and the rest of the world. We don’t always get it right—in fact, we get it wrong as much as anyone else and maybe even more than some people. What sets us apart is that we have discovered that God can deal with us in our imperfect state and wants us to be in a deep relationship with him even in our imperfect state. When we live our faith and run our churches conscious of our imperfection and our dependence of the love and grace of God, then our sin and imperfection become part of our divine saltiness and lightness because our confession and forgiveness and trying again point beyond our imperfection to the perfect God who can and does provide a way for us even in our imperfection.

We show salt and light when we remember and then let the community know that we are not perfect—but we believe in a God who is and whose love and grace can deal with our imperfection.

May the peace of God be with you.

ON THE OTHER HAND…

Both the part-time pastoral positions I hold consist of small congregations meeting in old buildings that have been a part of their communities for well over 100 years in the case of newest of the congregations and well over 200 years in the case of the oldest congregation. All of them are currently struggling. We deal with a variety of issues—aging membership, declining abilities, financial shortfalls and so on.

We sometimes feel that we are pretty much alone in whatever we are doing. But the truth is that we have a wider support base than we realize. That wider support base may not consist of people who attend our worship or support us financially but that base it present. The communities around us pay attention to us and tend to know what is going on within our fellowship.

When we are being faithful and doing what we are called to do, the community knows—and whether we know it or not, they appreciate us. We are salt and light and in a variety of ways, the wider community appreciates our salt and light.

But when we are not being faithful and not doing what we are called to do, the wider community also sees that—and they don’t appreciate that at all. Instead of being salt and light in our community, enabling people to discover something about the love and grace of God, we become anti-salt and anti-light, giving the community a message about faith that upsets and antagonizes them.

They see what we are doing, they talk about what we are doing—and they are offended that we would act in such a non-faithful way. This is a reality that we in the church often forget, especially, it seems to me, when our church is small and struggling. We become so wrapped up in our perpetual and demanding attempt to keep the doors open that we forget we are being watched by a great many people whose understanding of God’s love and grace come from what they see and hear concerning our congregation.

But the wider community sees and talks and makes decisions based on what they see. When we get ourselves into a mess and end up fighting and not talking to each as we try to ensure our side wins the war over what colour hymn books to buy, the wider community sees us as flawed salt and light. We bring harm to the wider community, not just our community. Our internal mess creates a crisis in the wider community. We disappoint and hurt them. They want us to be a positive example of what faith can do and when we fail to do that, both we and the wider community hurt.

Our church hurts because we are failing to follow the path we have committed ourselves to. And the wider community hurts because the salt and light they want and need has been taken from them. They don’t have a clear connection with God, a connection that they want to have in place even if they don’t seem to pay much attention to us and what we do. The anger and disillusionment and frustration we see in the wider community when the church messes up is a sign of several things. It shows that the community is watching us. It says that the community wants us to be what we claim to be. It proclaims that we hurt them when we aren’t being adequate salt and light. We have failed our community as well as ourselves and God when we aren’t the gathered community that we have committed ourselves to being.

I am not sure that we in the church pay enough attention to this reality—and I am equally sure that a lot of what we see as resistance to the faith in local communities is a result of the fact that we have not been the salt and light we could or should be in our community. Our failure to love each other as Jesus loves us becomes a failure to our community, a failure that they feel more deeply than we or they can fully understand.

We exist in a wider community—and that community sees us and wants us to be salt and light. When we are anti-salt and anti-light, the wider community sees and reacts strongly. We have failed ourselves, we have failed God and we have failed the community.

May the peace of God be with you.

CLEARING SNOW

Palm Sunday was supposed to be either the last of the once a month winter worship services or the first of our regular weekly worship services—either way, the winter break was over and it was time to start up the ministry at one of the part-time pastoral situations I serve. But there was a problem—not a problem that I paid much attention to but a problem nonetheless.

The problem began with a late season snowstorm that ended up giving us as much snow as we had all winter. That meant that the parking lot and driveway at the building we were going to use for worship was filled with snow. Since it is a 60 kilometer round trip for me to get to the building, I didn’t know about the state of the parking lot—but the people who attend knew and were concerned. They decided that they needed to have the lot cleared and made some calls to find someone to do the job. Since we don’t normally use the building during the winter, we don’t have a regular person to clear our snow.

The guy who showed up to clear the parking lot had one basic requirement that he insisted on strongly—he didn’t want to be paid for doing the work. He wasn’t a member of our congregation. He didn’t attend worship regularly. He hadn’t been a visitor at some point. My guess is that he likely hadn’t been inside the building in years, it ever. His closest connection with the church was that years ago, his grandmother had been a member of the congregation. But he wanted to clear our parking lot for free.

We talked about this during our worship. After hearing that what he had done, those of us who were there were grateful—so grateful that during the prayer time, one person asked if we could give thanks for the person’s generosity, which sparked a larger conversation on why he would do that which led us into a discussion of the role of our church in the community.

Given that we had seven people counting me in worship that morning, it would be easy to see ourselves as insignificant and unimportant with no real impact on the community. But incidents like this suggest that we might have a bigger influence and role in the community that we realize. One of the comments made during the discussion was that people in the community regularly ask how the church is doing—they don’t actually come to worship but it seems important to them that we exist and are doing okay.

In my visiting in the community, I regularly make contact with people who don’t attend our church but who seem to know what is going and even have opinions about what we should and shouldn’t be doing. They also don’t attend but somehow, we are important to them.

It seems to me that what we are seeing and hearing is connected to something Jesus said in Matthew 5.13-14, where he tells believers that we are salt and light in the world. The gathering of believers, the church, exists for many reasons, one of which is to be a witness of God’s love. Our presence in the world and the local community by itself is to be a witness, a salting and lighting of the world and local community with the a visible representation of the love and grace of God.

If we are doing our salt and light job well, the community will notice and respond. The response might be limited but it will be there. It might take to form of a willingness to clear our parking lot for free. It might show when there is a crisis that prompts someone to ask a member to say a prayer for them. It might be the response to the salt and light they see will prompt them to seek a stronger sense of God during some crisis.

Whatever the response, we are called to be aware that we are salt and light in our community. Our existence is rooted in more than just our numbers and our internal activities. We are the church, and our existence makes a difference not just to our group but to the world and our local community. Our salt and light make a difference, a difference that we might not always see but which is real and important.

May the peace of God be with you.

MUTUAL SUBMISSION

One of the overlooked themes in the New Testament teaching on the Christian faith is the idea of submission. The idea of submission is clear and not subtle, as we see in Ephesians 5.21, for example: Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (NIV). The problem, though, is that we western Christians have serious issues with the concept of submission.

That is partly based on our perception that submission is the same as surrender. We tend to see submission as giving up, letting our lives be taken over by someone or something else—and real, independent, self-respecting western believers don’t want to surrender anything to anyone. They will have to pry our independence out of our cold dead hands. Of course, if people want to submit to us, well that is great—it might even be an act of wisdom on their part since we likely know better than them anyway.

But I am pretty sure that the New Testament idea of submission is based on something very different from surrender and giving up. To start with, remember that the context of the teaching on submission in relationships begins with the need to love each other as Christ lives us (John 13.34-35). This gives us a very different context for submission. Submission in the Christian sense isn’t about winning and losing or gaining or giving up power. It isn’t about making people do what we want or giving in and doing what they want. And even more, it isn’t about losing ourselves and becoming mindless automatons controlled by the need to submit to everything.

Mutual submission in the Christian faith begins with a commitment to love each other with the same kind of sincere, powerful love that Christ showed us. He was willing to die for us—and even more, willing to live for us and make it possible for us to be with him always. Along the way, he offers help in whatever we need, while at the same time always respecting our freedom, even our freedom to be stupid and/or sinful.

To love as Jesus loved doesn’t take away from who we are—it actually requires that we know who we are and offer ourselves to other believers, just as they know who they are and offer themselves to us. We seek to be of service to each other, a service that may at times require self-sacrifice but which more likely requires a giving of our real self. We seek to love the other person as they are while being there for them as appropriate. We seek to let others love us this way as well. Christian love isn’t about dominance or control or manipulation. It is about a commitment to each other before God that enables each person to become the fullness of what they were meant to be as we grow towards God.

Within the context of Christian love, we learn to submit to each other. This submission is a willingness to recognize that we need each other and at times, one or the other is going to have a better sense of God and his desire in any given situation. Mutual submission recognizes both the weakness and the strength of individuals and makes choice that are appropriate in each context.

When the gathering of believers meets to discuss the colour scheme of the sanctuary, I submit to the leading of fellow believers who can actually see colours. The reality of my colour-blindness makes any comments about colour I make worthless. On the other hand, when the discussion of which colours to use gets heated and threatens to get out of hand, the group might be wise to submit to my attempts to help us move to a more loving process—one of the things I do know how to do is help groups have positive discussions about difficult topics. As we recognize each other’s gifts, strengths and weaknesses in the context of loving each other in the way Jesus love us, we learn how to submit to each other.

Far from being a surrender, mutual submission is a powerful expression of the reality of our faith. We can and do love and respect each other enough to let the Spirit work through each as appropriate in the situation. Mutual submission among believers isn’t about some winning and some losing but about all winning as we together seek to help each other grow closer to each other and to God.

May the peace of God be with you.

I CAN DO IT BY MYSELF!

The man just wants to be left alone. We don’t know about his past but hints and clues suggest that his life hasn’t been easy. There may be something terrible back somewhere but all we see now is a strong, independent individual who just wants to farm his farm, herd his cattle, fish his fish, research his research, raise his family—that part varies depending on the movie. What doesn’t vary is the need for independence and the lack of a need for much in the way of relationships with other people.

This movie, book, TV show, coffee shop tale is something of a theme for our western culture: the strong, capable independent hero who just wants to be left alone. He (sometimes, she) needs nothing beyond what he produces himself. We in the west like to think of ourselves in terms of this cultural archetype—we are all like this, or wish we were like this.

And this cultural desire for independence is part of the reason why Christian worship attendance in Canada is so low when claims of being a Christian are still relatively high. Just as we celebrate the hero taking care of business by himself, we have developed a faith culture that sees faith as not needing anything beyond an individual and God—and if we are really honest, the God part of the equation is open to a great deal of interpretation. We are not all that comfortable with God unless we have the independence to tinker and edit so that the God who is the focus of our faith looks and feels like we want him (her, it) to look and feel.

We are, in reality, a culture that celebrates independence. We don’t really like obligations that are imposed by relationships. We don’t want to owe people. In fact, we have created a culture that tries to reduce every interpersonal transaction to the lowest common denominator—and that tends to be money.

If I pay for something, I am still independent and in control. I made the money, I chose to spend it. The relationship is bounded by the financial transaction. There is no need for gratitude, returning favours, mutual support—all that kind of ucky and troubling stuff that relationships and commitments bring.

I am aware that I am overstating the reality. But our western independence is a reality and it does, I think, have an effect on how we western believers relate to each other and the church. To be a part of a church might suggest that we need something or someone. At the very least, it suggests that someone might be able to ask us for something and we might not be in a position to say no. And so it is easier and safer in the long run to conceptualize our faith as a part of our independence.

My very western faith is focused on God—we have a good thing going here. I don’t really need God and he doesn’t really need me but we can get together now and then and within the rules of my independence, I can do whatever—maybe complain about the difficulties of life, maybe blame God for some trouble, maybe tell God how to do her job. I don’t actually need God but it is nice to have him or her around, as long as God doesn’t make any unreasonable demands, like suggesting that I join a church.

So, we have become a culture of independent Christians, people whose faith is expressed in solitude and not in community. And while there is certainly a need and encouragement in the Christian faith for solitude, it isn’t the defining characteristic of the Christian faith. And the deeper, darker, ignored reality is that it really isn’t a defining characteristic of our western culture.

Remember the independent hero standing on his own two feet, dealing with life on his terms? Well, doesn’t that movie always end up with the hero discovering the wonder of a relationship as he battles for the woman or the child or the older couple or even the dog or horse? Doesn’t the movie end with the independent hero happily trading his independence for the relationship?

Our culture may love the theory of independence but the practise tends to be lonely and boring. Our culture and our faith in the end need us to be in real relationships with real people.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT ABOUT THE CHURCH?

I have been quoting an interesting statistic for several years ago, every since I discovered it in a book written by a friend. In discussing the state of the Christian faith in Canada, he mentioned that about 16% of Canadians attend Christian worship these days. I have seen other statistics that put the number slightly higher but none of the other statistical pictures of the church in Canada put attendance all that much higher.

A quick and very unscientific (on my part, anyway) web search reveals that a majority of Canadians still claim to be believers. The sites all make the usual disclaimers about statistical validity and so on and some lament that the numbers claiming faith have dropped over the years but the reality is that most people in Canada still claim to be followers of Christ.

For me, that raises a very important and troubling question. If people claim to be followers of Christ, why aren’t they in worship? You might suggest that that is a very biased and self-focused question, given that I am a pastor and have a vested interest in people attending worship. But I am choosing to overlook that part of the question for now—over the years, I have become comfortable with being the pastor of small congregations. I am excited when someone new discovers the church and/or the faith but I don’t define myself or my ministry by the numbers.

I approach the question as one who would like to know why the discrepancy exists. Surely, if we are part of something, we would be interested in being with people who are also part of that something. People seem to love to connect with those who share their thinking and interests. If I put out an invitation for left-handed, colour-blind people who like photography and cross country skiing but who are limited by seriously arthritic knees, I am pretty sure that before too long, I would have enough responses to form a club—by the way, I don’t want to be president, secretary or treasurer.

So why do such a significant number of people who claim to follow Christ not associate with other believers? Like any significant question, I am sure that there are many interlinked answers to that question, answers that I have been hearing and thinking about for many years. This isn’t an easy question nor it is one that can be answered with a simple or simplistic response.

One of the factors in the answer is certainly a lack of understanding of the nature of the church. Many people in Canada—well probably the whole Western world, but I am really only qualified to talk about Canada—many people here have either forgotten or never really understood the strong community base of the Christian faith. Christianity was conceived as a faith that brings about reconciliation. People are reconciled to God, to themselves and to others.

There is a lot of emphasis on the community in the Christian faith, including the very blunt and powerful message we find in I John 4.20-21: “If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (NIV)

This was written to believers to help them understand one of the essentials of their faith—our love of God is shown for what it really is in our relationship with other people, especially other believers. If we can’t actually use our faith in God to enhance our relationships with people who share our faith, then our claimed faith isn’t as significant as we think or hope it is.

In the New Testament, to be a believer is to be a part of a group of believers because it is within and through that group that we have our best opportunity to grow in faith. As we interact with each other in the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are enabled and enabling in the faith. That is the point of the church—it was planned as the safe place where faith can be cultivated and grown and expressed. But for a variety of reasons, believers have forgotten or ignored that important reality—to the detriment of both church and individual believers.

May the peace of God be with you.