THE FAMILY OF GOD

One of the suggested activities for our family reunion was attending a worship service at the church where we all spent a lot of time while we were growing up. Given that there were 40-50 of us at the reunion, this could have the potential for being a major influx of people for a mid-summer worship service. I have to confess that I was hoping that no one organizing the reunion thought to let the church know that we were coming for purely selfish reasons—I was pretty sure that if they knew we were coming, I would be asked to preach, which I didn’t really want to do since I was going to be on vacation.

No one told the church and I didn’t get asked to preach. So, Sunday morning, we ended up walking from our hotel to worship since both our cars were needed by our children not to attend worship. It was a nice walk, just at the edge of my aging knees’ limits. Unfortunately, we arrived just as the church bell was ringing, not my usual 10-20 minutes early. We were almost the last of the family to arrive—I managed to jump head of one of my sisters on the steps.

The pastor greeted us, members of the congregation greeted us and just before worship began, the pastor asked if I would lead the pastoral prayer, which I declined, and if we would introduce ourselves once things began. Although we had all grown up in the church, if had been a long time since most of us were there and a lot of the congregation had changed.

We were well received by the congregation—the “new” people were pleased to have a larger congregation and to have some connection with the past. But the reaction of the people who were there when we were there was significant. There was genuine joy and appreciation. Some of these people had taught most of us in school and in Sunday School. Some had attended school and Sunday School with some of us. All of us had a significant set of memories and connections and emotional responses.

One of the women got up to read Scripture but prefaced the reading with an appreciation for our family, including some memories and her personal appreciation for being a part of helping us become who we were now. That triggered a lot of thoughts for me because I began looking at all the connections with those present and those not present. The woman reading the Scripture had been one of my school teachers. Her father had been Sunday School superintendent and had also hired me to help work on the extension to the church building while I was a teen.

One on the men whose presence I deeply missed had been the Sunday School teacher who happily volunteered to teach our group of teenaged guys all through our Sunday School tenure, a task that I know now was demanding and onerous but which he loved because he cared so much for each of us. As the pastor preached, I couldn’t help but remember the pastor whose ministry had covered my whole time at that church and who baptized all of us.

Going to worship that day was another family reunion. The Family of God is a deep and significant part of my life and my involvement in it really began in that congregation in that building. The reality of the Christian faith, which has been the basis of my career and my life, began for me in that congregation as people accepted this large poor family that started filling the middle pew one Sunday long ago. They took us in, found us a place in Sunday School, youth group, VBS, worship. They picked us up and took us home when Dad was working and the weather prevented us from walking. They nurtured and taught and played and corrected and made us a part of the family.

And so when we arrived on Sunday morning, we were as welcomed at the church as we were at the reunion site—and for similar reasons. We were family and we belonged. We might not have been there for a long time but we were family and when family shows us, everyone is happy.

May the peace of God be with you.

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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.

THE OLD CHURCH BUILDING

            The area where I live is one of the oldest settled areas in Canada.  Before the arrival of European settlers, there was a thriving Native population.  European settlers arrived here in 1605 and have been here every since.  As might be expected, we have a great many old buildings.  The coffee shop where I treat myself to the world’s greatest cinnamon buns, for example, is housed in a building put up in 1747, although the coffee and cinnamon buns are much newer.

Among the old buildings are several unused church buildings of various denominations.  Some of them belong to denominations that have no problem  dealing with old, unused  church buildings.  The bishop, presbytery, committee or some other outside organization signs a paper and the building disappears or is sold and become an antique shop or funky house.  But other denominations, like the one I belong to, have serious problems because control of the building belongs to the membership.

But one of the interesting realities is that when the membership passes, control of the building seems to vest itself in a variety of people who want it kept for a variety of reasons.  Some have fond memories of family members who attended there.  Some are deeply appreciative of the architecture of the building.  Some swoon over the historical connections of the building.  Some see it as a possible money making opportunity–a wedding chapel or something like that.

Everyone wants it preserved and repaired and painted.  But very few want to pay the money and put in the time to make all that happen–and the few who do soon discover that having an unused church building to look after can be a major source of frustration, aggravation, stress and anger.

Interestingly enough, very few people see the building for what it really is.  An unused church building is the last sign physical of a once vibrant worshipping community.  It speaks of the faith that brought people to God and each other; a faith that enabled relatively poor people to build a building to house their congregation; a faith that sustained that worshipping community for many years–but also a faith that faded as its membership aged and moved and died.

If the congregation was faithful and worked at being the church, the deteriorating building isn’t the last sign of the former congregation’s life, nor is it even the best symbol of the legacy of the congregation.  To really know the value of a congregation, it is necessary to look at the lives touched by the congregation who used to worship in that building.  How many were helped through the valley of the shadow of death?  How many discovered the wonder of God’s grace?  How many found a cup of cold water when they needed it?  How many found their lives more abundant because of that congregation?

Unfortunately, answers to questions like that are sometimes hard to find.  People move away; communities shrink and fade away; memories grow dim.  The people who were touched by that congregation may not be anywhere near the old building–and the building probably isn’t anywhere near as important to them as the people who once made up the congregation.

I like old church buildings–but then, I like all church buildings, from the huge cathedral to the mud and wattle hut in the Kenyan bush.  But I like the congregations that inhabit the buildings even more.  I might appreciate the furtively scratched ship drawings hidden on the back pew in the balcony of an old unused church building but I appreciate even more the legacy of the congregation that used to inhabit that building.  Their worship might have bored at least one budding artist, but it also touched lives and made a difference.

The old building might have historical, architectural, cultural and emotional significance but the real story and real value of the building is written in the lives of those who built it and worshipped in it and in the lives touched by that group of people.  What happens to the building after the worshipping community ceases to exist?  Let the historians and the architects and the culture buffs and the nostalgia surfers figure it out.  I am going to take some pictures, thank God for the church that used to be there and worship somewhere else, where God is using another group of believers to touch lives.

May the peace of God be with you.

WWJD

Every now and then, I am struck by the wonder and breadth of the Christian church.  The Church worships God and that worship comes from many places in many languages and in many forms.  Whether it is a formal, liturgical English service or a relaxed, informal Kikamba service, God is worshipped and it is still the church.  While some lament the fragmentation of the church into denominations, I actually rejoice in the diversity of the church–since we are all different as humans, it makes sense that God would allow the Church to develop structures and forms that allow everyone to have a place to comfortably worship God.

That aspect of our diversity excites and encourages me.  It says that God speaks our language; that God accepts our worship in all its diversity; that God cares about who we are and what has meaning for us.  We may struggle with human diversity but God seems to celebrate and encourage it.  I appreciate the ability to worship in different styles and languages with different approaches to music and liturgy and preaching.

But there is a dark side to our diversity.  The dark side begins when we become aware of our differences and begin to think that different automatically means that we are right and they are wrong.  It occurs when we begin to think that Jesus must have done things the way we do things and that he must somehow have put his stamp of approval on our ways.  When  we begin to claim that Jesus is on our side, we have moved into the darkness.

While I would like to think that Jesus was a Baptist, the reality is that Jesus was non-denominational.   He wasn’t Baptist or Catholic or Pentecostal or Anglican–but at the same time, he is all of these and more.  And so, while I read the New Testament with my Baptist bias and find support for believers’ baptism by full immersion, I need to realize that there is also support for other forms of baptism.  Would Jesus practise immersion or pouring or sprinkling?  Well, since there is no record of Jesus actually baptizing anyone, we can’t say for sure what he would have done.

And if we can’t say for sure what he would have done, we probably need to have a more open mind on baptism that we generally do.  That reality generalizes to most of church life.  We don’t have a clear and definitive model of the church in the New Testament.  Sometimes, it acts congregational, as it did in Acts 15 when the church was dealing with the issue of how to deal with the influx of Gentile believers coming from  Paul’s ministry. At other times, it acts as a hierarchy,  with the apostles exercising considerable authority, as we see in other places in the book of Acts and in some of Paul’s writings.

I am not sure that Jesus had any particular denominational approach in mind when he set up the church.  He wanted the church to be the gathering of the faithful, a place where believers could help each other and reach into the world.  He wanted the church to be known for its love to God and its members.  He wanted the church to show the world a better way–but whether we should have a congregational or hierarchical system of government didn’t enter the picture.

He wanted the church to be his agent in the world–but didn’t tell us how we should structure our worship, what language we should worship in, what type of music we should use, who should preach, what style of preaching we should use, how long the worship should be and so on.  Most of the things that we look at and consider important in the church don’t even rate a mention in the New Testament, which should tell us a lot.

Rather than  try to make the whole church the same or waste time fighting over our differences, we in the church need to remember to worship God, love each other and show the light to the world.  Beyond that, we can enjoy our particular spot in the diversity that is the church while appreciating and maybe even borrowing from the rest of the church.

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.

EVALUATING THE SMALL CHURCH 2

There are many options when it comes to doing an evaluation of the ministry of a small congregation. Many denominations offer assistance with this. Others have found the process developed by NCD (Natural Church Development) has been helpful. Some congregations have involved outside consultants in the process. Any of these options can be very helpful to a congregation, especially if it is the first time the congregation has done a ministry evaluation.

I think congregations should consider doing a ministry review every couple of years–but if that sounds like too much work, every five years could be considered. The advantage of more frequent evaluations is that everyone has a better, more up to date sense of the congregation and its state. If the congregation opts for a more frequent evaluation process, it is helpful for them to have a review process that they can do on their own without too much trouble.

For many years, I have used an evaluation approach based on Acts 2.42-47. When I was introduced to this passage as a seminary student, we were taught that the passage showed four basic functions of the church. The church to be healthy needs to engage in worship, fellowship, education and service. I will look at each of these briefly in this blog and look at how they can form the basis of an evaluation process tomorrow.

1. The worship function of the church seeks to put God first and give him the praise and adoration that is rightly his. Worship seeks to remind us of the true order of the universe: there is God, the supreme being, creator of all, sustainer of life, source of grace shown in Jesus Christ and guidance through the Holy Spirit–and there is everything and everyone else subservient to God. True worship seeks to recognize this reality.

Worship becomes disordered when the focus moves away from the wonder of God to the order of service, the feelings of the worshippers, the amount of time taken or any one of a number of other distractions.

2. Many congregations talk a lot about fellowship but often use it as a code word for coffee and sweets before, during or after worship. Certainly, this can be fellowship but this function involves far more. Believers are called to love one another as Jesus loved us (John 13.34-35); we are told that the truth of our faith in Gods is shown in our love for each other (I John 4.20-21) and believers are often referred to as the household or family of God in the New Testament. The church becomes the place where the depth of relationships between believers is worked out.

Dysfunctional fellowship denies or ignores the essential bond between believers and takes many forms, many of which are shown in the letters to the Corinthians and are still visible in congregations today.

3. Deciding to follow Christ is referred to as being “born again” (John 3.3). Part of the purpose of that image is to show us that we are entering a new way of life which is totally foreign to us. We need to learn everything again from the beginning–all of life is touched by the problems associated with human sin and as believers, we need to start over in everything. The educational function of the church is the provision of appropriate ways for believers of all ages and stages to continue learning about the faith.

Often, congregations see education as a process of providing Sunday School or some other program for kids and ignores the rest of the congregation, all of whom need to be involved in some form of education to learn the reality of their new life in Christ.

4. The service function of the church involves the work the church does to make the world aware of the love of God. Some chose to divide the function into two categories: evangelism and social action. It is probably not to make the division and see the church’s service requirements more in the light of Jesus’ example. He provided love and grace in the appropriate form for all people and settings, with the understanding that the more people are exposed to the love of God, the more opportunities they have to become reconciled with God.

The service function is compromised when the congregation is unable or unwilling to see beyond its own internal needs.

Understanding these four functions enables the church to be an active and effective participant in the activity of the kingdom. The functions also provide a way of evaluating the overall ministry of the church, which we will look at tomorrow.

May the peace of God be with you.