A GOOD PASTOR

I have never been called to serve as the pastor of a perfect church. But that is okay since none of the congregations I have been called to serve were calling a perfect pastor. I wasn’t perfect before they called me, I didn’t become perfect when I served the church and I didn’t become perfect when I left the congregation. There are some pastors who manage to achieve perfection—but only a few years after they have left the congregation and when succeeding pastors have more glaring weaknesses than they had. But while hindsight might make a pastor look perfect, that is more a case of selective remembering than actual reality.

Like congregations, pastors are not perfect. We are called, we are forgiven, we are gifted—but we are not perfect. We pick up our calling and carry it out with a confusing blend of good and bad that can be wildly infuriating to both pastor and congregation. We provide the absolutely perfect ministry that changes a life one minute and the next, we drive three other people to question not just our call but our basic faith.

When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, all sorts of problems develop. Congregations forget to test the spirits, as I John 4.1 tells us. This allows us as pastors to operate without accountability—and the worst thing we can give to an imperfect individual is a freedom from accountability. With no accountability, we have no reason to see or acknowledge or deal with our imperfections. Generally, lack of accountability results in increased imperfection, not less imperfection.

When congregations forget that pastors aren’t perfect, it become very traumatic when the real imperfections manifest themselves. While some congregation members can and will ignore any and all imperfections, most people will eventually discover the pastor whom they thought was perfect isn’t perfect and that will create all sorts of responses, from mild irritation to rejection of the church to rejection of the faith.

When pastors forget that pastors aren’t perfect, the consequences are even worse. When we pastors forget that we don’t have it all together, we then begin to minister from our imperfection, not from our commitment to God. Our desire for power gets wrapped in “doing God’s will”; our need for approval overshadows the need to speak the truth of God; our desire for affection rewrites the moral standards of the faith. We end up hurting not just ourselves but the wider church. Our imperfections can often become the institutionalized dysfunction of the congregation or denomination.

So, let me be clear. Pastors are not perfect—nor will we be perfect this side of eternity. And since that someday perfection simply isn’t the reality here and now, we pastors need to learn to minister as imperfect people and congregations need to accept the reality that their pastor isn’t perfect and won’t be perfect—and wasn’t actually perfect in the case of former pastors.

How do we imperfect pastors minister to imperfect congregations? I think we start with honesty. It isn’t quite the blind leading the blind—but is the imperfect pastoring the imperfect. If we all start there, then we can become mutually accountable and responsible. As an imperfect pastor of an imperfect congregation, I need to make sure that both I and the congregation are willing to commit proper time and resources to seeking the leading from the Perfect that we need. My latest and greatest idea that will revitalize our church and change the face of Christianity needs the careful and prayerful consideration of the congregation to make sure it isn’t actually an expression of my imperfection wrapped in a few decontextualized Scriptures. While I am called to be their pastor, I am not called to be their boss or dictator. Rather, both pastor and congregation are called to mutual responsibility and accountability as we together seek to offer our imperfection to God so that he can bring us all closer to what we are meant to be.

The churches I have been called to serve as pastor didn’t get a perfect pastor when they called me. But then again, they didn’t have one before I arrived (no matter what the older members say) and they won’t have one after I leave. As long as I and the congregation remember that, we are better able to seek God’s perfection to deal with our imperfection.

May the peace of God be with you.

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WHAT IF WE GOT BIGGER?

Our small congregation was worshipping. We were a bit smaller than normal but it wasn’t a problem—we knew where everyone was and they were all healthy and safe. Our worship proceeded at its normal pace: some scheduled stuff and lots of unscheduled interruptions and questions. Our worship resembles a worship service wrapped in a Bible study packaged in a theological seminary, trimmed with laughter and sprinkled with lots of questions and insights.

We share, we sing, we read and discuss Scripture, we pray, we have a sort of a sermon—we worship and it is a worship that we all find satisfying and uplifting. And since we have been shut down for three months, we are just getting back into the process, everyone enjoying the opportunity to get back to something we deeply enjoy.

As we were winding up, one of the participants raised another question. She wondered what would happen if we got bigger. Would we be able to do the same sort of worship? Her speculation was that we might be able to be the same up to a certain point but after that, there would just be too many people to do what we do. We joked a bit about that but for her, it was a real concern, not a major concern and certainly not one that will drive her to refuse entry to new people but a concern nonetheless.

I don’t expect our doors will be broken down by hoards of people wanting to be a part of our worship in the near future but since then I have been thinking some about the church in general and in specific. We have something unique and special in this congregation, something that works in part because of our small numbers. It is also possible because we are a group of people who share faith, a concern for understanding our faith, an appreciation for each other and a variety of other things.

For us, the church becomes a place where people can worship in the context of a free-flowing, unstructured structure that allows everyone freedom to participate. It works for us. But if we change the mix of people, it might not work as well, although our experience with visitors over the years is that they tend to find what we offer interesting. It will also change if we get a lot more people—the time factor will come into play. When half our group of 8-10 have a question or comment, we have time for that. But if we had 50 people and half of them had equally interesting questions or insights, there simply wouldn’t be time for what we do now.

I personally am not going to lie awake at night wondering what we are going to do about this. The church—both our little church and the church as a whole—isn’t static, or at least is shouldn’t be static. The Holy Spirit enables the church to be what it needs to be at any given time and place. Or rather, it is better to say the Holy Spirit seeks to enable the church to be what it needs to be at any given time and place.

But time and place and people change and the church needs to change as well. What we do now works well for us. Our church is stronger and more grounded because of our unique approach to worship (and Bible study as well). It has given us an opportunity to explore our faith and develop new understandings and ideas. All of us are stronger in our faith because of the way the Spirit has been working in our midst.

But neither the church nor the Spirit is static. The question we need to deal with isn’t “What if we change?” but “Where is the Spirit leading us?”. Change is inevitable. Our response as believers is not to try and convince ourselves and the Spirit that what happened yesterday is the only way the Spirit can lead but rather to use the Spirit’s presence to find the courage to embrace the change the Spirit is bringing to us so that we can continue to serve God and do his will.

Fortunately, I think that all of us in our small worshipping group have the willingness to recognize that things change—and hopefully, because of the way the Spirit has been working in our midst, we will have the faith and courage to accept His change.

May the peace of God be with you.

PROFESSIONAL ANXIETY

I realized recently that there is a serious source of anxiety in my job. I am a pastor working with churches in an area where I have lived for around 40 years. Many of the people who form the congregations I serve are more than just parishioners—they are friends. The relationships go back many years and involve many shared experiences that have tied us together over the years. And because of the fact that I have been here so long, I know many in the communities who don’t attend our church—or any church—equally as well.

I had some inkling of the anxiety but tended to ignore it until this week. I had a call about a death—not an unusual call for a pastor in an area with one of the highest rates of over 65s in Canada. The call involved someone I knew, not a church member but with strong family connections in the church, someone I knew because of the family connections. Shortly after that call, I got another about another death. Again, this was a person I knew well, who had at one point been heavily involved in churches I pastored but who had moved and while still in the immediate area, wasn’t as much a part of any churches I pastor.

The anxiety developed as I realized that both these people were about my age, I knew them fairly well and in the end, while they were not parishioners, they were friends. My thinking process, always a bit overactive, very quickly began making lists of people in the same category: people I know who are like me getting on in years. Unlike me, some of them have developed some fairly significant health problems and we are all at the stage in life where the unexpected can pop up at any time.

For me, the anxiety develops because I realize that professionally and personally, when bad things happen, I am the person who is going to get called. Professionally, I am the pastor to a significant number of people, some of whom attend worship and some of whom don’t. Personally, I am the only pastor many people know—they don’t actually know me as their pastor but they know I am a pastor and that means they will call when life gets tough.

So, I do a lot of funerals for friends and family of friends. Doing funerals is a basic part of my job—it is so basic a part of the job that early in my ministry, I spent a lot of time looking at the death and funeral process so that I could do the best job possible. I like to think that when it comes to the grief and funeral process, I know what I am doing.

But there is a major difference doing what I do for someone I have known and liked and spent time with in a variety of ways over the years. I am grieving myself—maybe not as much as the family but I have still lost someone whose death is creating a dark hole in my life. My work and my life come together creating a difficult task—I need to use all my training and professional ability to help people process a death that I am also processing at the same time.

My anxiety isn’t about that, or at least, it isn’t primarily about that. I can do that—there is a certain amount of this cross over in every funeral. I have learned how to help people as a pastor and process my own grief at the same time in a way that enables both to happen. It hasn’t been and isn’t always easy but I can do it.

The anxiety comes from the fact that I realize I am facing a lot more of this cross over. People I have known for 40 years or more are not well. Some will get better. Some will remain chronic. And some will die. And I will get called in on many of these life realities. I don’t want to have to deal with this stuff. I especially don’t want to deal with it when it involves people I have known for so long and whose lives have been intertwined with mine in so many ways.

But that is my job and my calling and so I will deal with it—but I will depend on the presence and power of God in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

JESUS’ CHOICES

For my Easter sermons this year, I decided to spend some serious time looking at Jesus and the Easter story. Because of my theological predispositions, I don’t see the Easter story as a predetermined process that made all those involved act and respond in a certain way. I have long espoused a theological view that allows freedom—we have real choices and what we chose has real consequences.

When I bring that theological slant to the study of the Easter story, I realize that the freedom that God has given to us is also given to Jesus. He was, after all, fully human and like all of us, he had choices before him. I will quickly add here that Jesus was also fully God. Both must be a part of our thinking about Jesus.

But for this Easter season, I have been thinking about and preaching about the process from the perspective of the human Jesus. And from that perspective, the story seems to be to be very clear that at each step along the way to the Cross, Jesus had to decide to go to the cross. He had other options. Certainly, the perfect option was to go to the cross. But along the way, there were other options presented that might not have been perfect but which would have been okay.

For example, on Palm Sunday, Jesus is acclaimed by the crowds entering the city for the Passover. This huge crowd was stirred up by their religious passion for the Passover. They were excited by the stories they had heard about Jesus. They were also angry and frustrated with the continued Roman occupation of their country. It wouldn’t have taken much to turn that crowd into an army of liberation.

Jesus could have used them to liberate the nation and the temple. Sure, a lot of them might die—but there were enough that the vastly outnumbered Roman legions would simple get worn out trying to kill them all. Add to that the fact that Jesus isn’t just limited to human means—he could heal and even resurrect people.

While we might want to dismiss this as the fantasy of a preacher tired of the traditional approach to Easter, we do, I think, need to realize that this was an option open to Jesus. He could have done it, just as he could have given in to the temptations of satan early in his ministry or walked away from the whole thing in the garden before the arrest. He keeps choosing the painful and difficult.

For me, understanding that Jesus had choices makes the whole story different and more powerful and significant. The cross was necessary—but not inevitable. Jesus chose the cross—not just once but repeatedly. Knowing the pain and suffering that would come from the whole process, he still chose to follow that path.

And for me, this reality sheds all sorts of exciting light on the story. When Jesus says he loves us, we can take that to the bank because his love gets shown every time he makes a difficult choice that brings the cross closer. His is an active, powerful, dynamic love that looks at the benefit to us in the fact of the suffering he will face and somehow always manages to find the courage and determination to make the choice that benefits us the most.

I could perhaps write that I don’t know how he could do that but that wouldn’t actually be true. I know how he found the strength to make those painful choices. The human/divine being who was Jesus makes the difficult human choices in the presence and power of the divine. He has powerful help.

And the story gets even better because the risen living Christ offers to us the same help. When we accept the love of Christ shown in the cross and resurrection, we receive not only reconciliation with God but the active and real presence of God in our lives through the Holy Spirit. We have access to the same divine help that enabled Jesus to make the difficult choices.

Now, obviously, the divine isn’t integrated into our lives like it was with Jesus. But we as believers have access to the divine power and guidance and help that enabled Jesus to make the hard choices.

May the peace of God be with you.

DIDN’T EXPECT THAT

The clergy in our area have started getting together one a year just to spent time talking about stuff that we all deal with. Our first session last year dealt with the poverty we all deal with and how we can deal with it better. This year’s meeting was a follow up. We were hoping to be able to develop some actual plans of action. We began with worship.

As might be expected with a group of pastors whose profession involves us in designing and planning worship regularly, nobody had actually taken the initiative to plan the actual worship. But we each had something that we offered to the process and we threw together a pretty powerful worshipful time. One of the participants chose to read an article written by a poor person living in our area.

And for me, that article produced a totally unexpected response. I came to the meeting expecting to discuss and share and plan and look at how we as a group could deal with the endemic poverty we see every day. I had some ideas and was looking for a sharing of ideas from a group of people who are good at what they do. I was prepared to deal with the issue of poverty from a pastoral perspective.

But somewhere during the story, something happened. My detached pastoral response to poverty got lost. I began to remember—not repressed memories but real memories that I knew and know are there. I grew up poor. We didn’t have a lot—my joke is that I didn’t know that clothes came new until I was in my teens. Listening to the story, which wasn’t all that much connected with my story, somehow triggered deep feelings associated with growing up poor.

I shared with the group a couple of stories about the poverty we lived when I was growing up. My stories were received with compassion, understanding and acceptance. My story prompted another of the members to be open about her story, which also involved childhood poverty. The others hadn’t experienced that but I felt that they were concerned and appreciative of the sharing—and in the end, I think the stories the two of us shared set a very different tone for our group discussion and what our ministry to poverty would and could look like.

I wasn’t expecting to be touched like that. I was prepared for a good, open discussion of the ministry realities and possibilities associated with being a pastor in a rural area with a high poverty rate. I wasn’t expecting to discover some long lost feelings and have them ministered to by a group of people who were caring and supportative. But that is what happened. I was ministered to. I like to think that I ministered to the rest of the group as well but I was definitely ministered to as I shared my stories and opened my feelings and looked at a part of my life that I am generally okay with but which obviously needs something now and then.

This was for me a God moment, a time when God through the power of the Holy Spirit allowed me the time and freedom to safely look at something that was painful at the time and which obviously still has some residual emotional hold on at least some part of my being. In general, I think it is safe to say that I have effectively dealt with the realities of growing up poor but obviously, there are a few things that are still sitting there that have more effect that I realize—or want to realize.

We went on to have a very good session and developed some workable plans to minister together. But for me, the most important part of the whole process was being able to discover and be open about a part of my experience that was obviously more of an issue that I realized. I felt heard and validated and as we moved on, there was no sense of pity or being seen differently. I was heard, what I said was appreciated, my experience and sharing became part of the matrix of our discussion. I didn’t expect any of that but God does move in mysterious ways.

May the peace of God be with you.

AN INTROVERT’S WEEK

Being an introvert is something I didn’t have any choice over, at least according to my understanding of current psychological theories. While there may be some environmental factors involved, most likely I am hard wired to be an introvert. I can and do function as an extrovert because of my calling—ministry in small congregations and rural areas demands a certain degree of extraversion.

But honestly, my ideal work week would consist of sitting with my laptop, writing the sermon and Bible study, reading the various books and articles that interest me, taking short walks and long trips on the exercise bike and not actually interacting with too many people during the week. The ideal week would get even better if there were a couple of strategic snowstorms that cancelled existing appointments and allowed me the opportunity to play in the snow a bit. Certainly, I would get tired of that week if it was repeated too often for too long. I don’t actually know how long it would take to get tired of the repetition because I have never actually has one ideal introvert week, let alone a string of them.

This week is shaping up to be the anti-introvert week. I began with two worship services, one of which was followed by a potluck lunch. During the rest of the week, I have two counselling sessions, a mentoring session, a Bible study, a ecumenical clergy retreat and strategy session, two doctor appointments—and that is just the stuff that I know about. The nature of ministry is that invariably, there will be other people contacts along the way, either in person or on the phone. By the way, while some might see phone contacts as something of a blessing for an introvert, I actually don’t like talking on the phone—I need the non-verbal information that is so vital a part of real communication.

This week is a bit unusual but only a bit. I normally don’t have doctor appointments and try to keep counselling sessions to one a week. But in the end, this week is closer to the norm of my life than that idealized introvert-friendly week. I occasionally dream of having blocks of introvert-friendly weeks after retirement but in my more realistic moments, I am aware that while my basic nature might be introversion, I have also been called to and gifted for pastoral ministry, which means that in the end, I have an equally powerful drive to connect with people.

So, how does an introvert called to live an extrovert life cope? There are lots of psychological and emotional coping mechanisms that I know and use—but the truth is that these really aren’t what makes the whole thing work. They are tools that can and do mitigate the fatigue and stress somewhat but they aren’t the real answer.

The real way I cope is tied in with my faith. I am an introvert who has been called by God to an extroverted role. God, I have noticed repeatedly, specializes in calling unqualified people to tasks they are particularly unsuited to. In fact, I have been known to tell theology students that we don’t get called to ministry because we are qualified—we get called like all the Biblical examples because we are unqualified and likely losers who will never be able to do what we are called to.

Why would God specialize in calling the unqualified? Why would he chose a clear introvert for a job involving so much and so intense contact with people? Simple: God wants us to depend on him. The callings that God gives us are not given because he needs us to do his work. They are given so that we who are called can learn more about the faith we have accepted and grow more in that faith through discovering that what we can’t do on our own, God is willing and able to help us do. As we surrender our weakness and unqualified state to him and accept his power and leading, he accomplished ministry through us. A significant part of that ministry is for us—we learn and we grow as we allow God to teach and nurture others through our ministry.

I will survive this week from an introvert’s hell. More than that, I will likely actually accomplish some significant things as I interact with God and his people to do his work. What I really can’t do on my own, he will accomplish through me.

May the peace of God be with you.

WAITING

Right now, I am waiting to find out when I will have surgery. I am also waiting for enough snow of the right kind to go cross-country skiing. I am waiting for our spring vacation (which might be cancelled because of the coming surgery). I am waiting to hear if the group that was interested in having me speak at an event has made a final decision about my coming. I am waiting for the next StarWars movie. I am also waiting for retirement, buying a house, knee replacements and tons of other things, including the dishwasher finishing its cycle so I can unload it.

It might just be me at the stage of life I currently occupy but it seems to me that we human beings spend a lot of time waiting. Waiting often requires patience and my relative lack of patience might be part of the reason I find waiting difficult. I have never been good at waiting—all the experience I have at waiting hasn’t actually translated into making waiting all that easy.

I have, of course, learned lots of tricks and techniques. I always have a book or two with me. These days, that is much easier thanks to smart phones. Having my books on the phone also has another benefit—when I get tired of the book, I can switch to the games on the phone. Also, given that many waiting rooms these days no longer provide newspapers or back issues of magazines, I always have something to do while I wait. I can also watch people, which is great when there are other people around. Watching other people handle the waiting process poorly is a big help in keeping myself from dealing poorly with the waiting.

But these and other tricks only mask the real problem. I don’t much like waiting, especially when I am waiting in North America. I am a bit more comfortable waiting in Kenya—my cultural training and insight seems to allow me to deal with reality of waiting in Kenya better than I deal with it in Canada. But even then, waiting is a chore. Whether it is waiting 2 minutes for my wife, 10 minutes to see my doctor, 2 hours for my car to be serviced, several weeks for surgery or months until the next StarWars, waiting is hard—I am not blessed with an abundance of patience.

Actually, that isn’t true. Like all who follow the Christian faith, I have been given all the patience that I need. Becoming a believer brings with it the presence of the Holy Spirit and according to Galatians 5.22, one of the fruit of the presence of Spirit is patience, along with a bunch of other stuff. So, as an individual, I might suffer from a lack of patience but as a follower of Christ, I have all the patience I will ever need, made available to me from God himself through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.

So, if that is true, how come I get fidgety when the wait is 60 seconds, annoyed when it is 5 minutes and have to have something else to do when it is longer than 10 minutes? How come the divine patience doesn’t just wash over me and allow me to peacefully and placidly and patiently wait? Am I missing something somewhere? Maybe I have to enter a user name and password on some form somewhere to access the patience sitting in my account, just like when I access some of my ebooks?

No—the problem isn’t technical. It is personal. God gives in abundance and freely but I don’t always want to open myself to the abundance that God gives. Accepting what God gives doesn’t just imply that I need something—it bluntly and blatantly states that I am less than perfect and need what God is so willing to give. I have to confront my imperfection and admit my needs before I can admit that I need what God is so willing to give. In short, I am pretty much a normal person who struggles with admitting that I need God.

Fortunately, I have recognized this need and accepted the grace of God offered in the risen and living Christ. Now, as I wait, God is at work, helping me see how this works out in all areas of my life, including the waiting.

May the peace (and patience) of God be with you.

LET’S TALK

I got a phone call from a friend a while ago. We don’t know each other all that well but we were neighbours for years and had a comfortable relationship. He was calling because he was going to need a pastor in the near future—his wife has an incurable illness and he wanted to be somewhat prepared for what was coming. He didn’t have any real church connections but he did know me and knew that I was a pastor—in fact, the last time I was talking to him was at a funeral I was conducting.

I don’t actually like this sort of thing. The dying and grief process are always painful and difficult and when I am called in because of friendship, it is more difficult. But he is a friend and I am a pastor so I arranged a time to meet with him and talk. Because we are friends, the conversation dealt with more than just then essentials of pre-planning a funeral service. We did that but then went on to talk about lots of other friend stuff: how things were going for each of us, where we were each working, why I didn’t walk anymore and so on.

In the course of the conversation, I discovered that he did have a church connection. Like many kids our age, he had attended Sunday School—and had attended at one of the churches I now pastor. That was quickly followed by the almost obligatory apology for not actually being involved in church anymore. We actually had an interesting conversation around that revelation and half-hearted apology.

I suggested to him that maybe the reason he wasn’t involved in church was more the church’s fault than his. Since we had already been talking about his involvement in a local club, I suggested that if church actually met some of his needs, he would be there—just like he was part of this club because it met some of his needs. Somehow, we in the church hadn’t been able to provide what he needed to maintain a connection.

I think my friend represents a great many people today. The problem isn’t that he is anti-faith. He has a spiritual side: he wanted a pastor to help him through the process of his wife’s decline and death; he enthusiastically welcomed my offer of prayer; he remembered hymns and even some Scriptures that he wanted as part of the coming funeral. He might not be on a first name basis with God but he isn’t rejecting God.

But somehow, somewhere, the church missed him and his real needs. We couldn’t or wouldn’t supply what he needed to help feed that faith spark that is still fairly evident in his life. We had nothing on offer that he wanted and so he stopped looking in our shop, finding substitutes elsewhere. But even he knows that we have more available. It seems, though, that we aren’t really making it easy for people to discover what we really have.

We claim that Christ is the answer—and I believe that he is. But when we don’t really know the questions that people are looking to have answered, we probably don’t have the required answers on display—and even more, we might not even know that the answers are available. We have sometimes even questioned the legitimacy of the question, preferring that people ask the easy questions that we can quickly answer with tried and true formulas.

Meanwhile, people like my friend wander around, looking for stuff, settling for substitutes while all the while knowing something about the faith that we seem not to know. They know that the answers they are looking for are found within the faith that we follow. They might not know the answer; they might not see the answer; they might get tired waiting for us to hear the actual question they are answering but they believe that there is an answer and that somehow, the church and its agents can provide it. And so when people like my friend really need an answer, they pick up the phone and ask the question again, hoping that maybe we have dug around in the storeroom and found that we actually have an answer to that question in stock.

I am hoping that with the power of the Holy Spirit, I can help my friend find the answer he is looking for.

May the peace of God be with you.

GOING BACK

Like a good many other people today, I am deeply concerned about the present and future of the Church in the west. I became involved in the church in the late 1950s as a Sunday School student so I remember a different church era. Those were the last of the glory days of the church—the days when Sunday School was a part of every kid’s life; when every almost adult attended worship at some point; when faith leaders were respected and consulted; when it seemed that the Kingdom of God had arrived in its fullness.

My whole ministry has been spent dealing with the reality of the western Church’s downward spiral. I have ministered to declining congregation that decline even in the face of new believers joining. Although there are some bright spots in the North American church scene, overall, the picture isn’t great—the Church is losing ground and only the most naïve refuse to see that this is a serious problem.

While there is much that can be and should be said about this whole painful situation, one particular aspect of it caught my eye again recently. Given the level of concern about the state of the Church, it is not surprising that many people are writing and speaking about this issue. And among the myriad of writers and speakers, there is one group whose approach I find equally fascinating and annoying. This is the group who wants to solve the whole thing by going back.

There is generally one key thing that needs to be changed back to the way it was that will wipe out the whole problem. The decline of the Church began with that one change and all we need to do is go back to what was and the decline will magically disappear. Over the years, I have been told that once we get prayer back in our schools, all will be well. Others suggest that we need to go back to the days when Christian men were men and Christian women were women. Or, as some suggest, if we allow parents to really parent, things will change.

A few have some more disputed suggestions. Getting rid of new music in favour of real Christian music has its supporters. The proliferation of translations and paraphrases in English is the problem for others—going back to the real Bible, the KJV, will fix everything. Occasionally, I run into someone who suggests that the problem is that hell has been removed from the preaching and if we would give people more hell, the church would flourish.

There are lots of other suggestions of things from the past to bring back—but the painful reality is that if any of these suggestions were the reason, we would be seeing results. Every suggestion has people trying to bring it back—and the results are almost uniformly underwhelming.

I think that the problem is bigger than we want to realize. Somewhere along the way, the Church in the west has lost its way. There isn’t one mistake or change or event that we can point to as the essential problem. I think we have made a bunch of mistakes, we have shot ourselves in the foot too many times, we have missed people too much for any one thing to be both the problem and the solution.

In fact, I don’t really think that there is a solution, at least not one that will magically fix the whole church. The decline of the Church and the Christian faith in the west is the result of uncounted mistakes, issues and even sins, so many that church historians will had doctoral thesis topics and book themes for centuries.

But I am not without hope. The future of the Church doesn’t actually depend on what its theorists and pastors and theologians think and do. The Church depends of the power of the risen, living Christ expressed through the presence and leading of the Holy Spirit. God will take care of the Church—even a quick glance at church history shows how the Church has defied every attempt to destroy it.

It is God’s church and he will care for it. We might have created the mess—but in the end, God is and will be working in, through and even around us to accomplish his goals for us, churches and the Church.

May the peace of God be with you.

FAITH AND CULTURE

Whether we realize it or not, much of Western culture is being affected by a non-western religion. While many people in Western countries aren’t aware of how deeply this non-western religion has affected us. Mind you, many participants in this faith aren’t aware of how much the western culture as affected this approach to religion either. Both have been modified and re-arranged by the other.

Unfortunately, the culture has tended to gain the upper hand in this modification process. Some of the ways this old, non-western religion has been changed have had beneficial effects on it. For many years, for example, some branches of this faith explicitly required that it be practised in a language that many followers didn’t really understand. Eventually, the cultural pressures allowed the religion to discover the value of using the language of the people. Another change in this ancient religion came about in the way the worship was conducted-over time, cultural pressure brought about more culturally appropriate styles and approaches to worship. Mind you, parts of this religion have successfully resisted all such changes.

But for all the good changes, the religion has tended to be on the losing side of the culture war. It’s essential teachings have been tampered with; it’s codes of conduct have been weakened or selectively ignored; it’s followers have been encouraged to follow cultural norms rather than original teachings; it’s greatest insights have been blunted or ignored. In many geographic areas of the west, the legacy of this ancient religion is all but forgotten while a culturally modified façade seeks to use bits and pieces of it to bolster cultural norm and patterns.

The irony is that this ancient religion has at it’s core a call to change culture. The basic teachings and tenants of this faith call for a different approach to life, an approach that stands in sharp contrast to the individualistic and self-centered western approach to life. This religion began claiming to be a divinely given alternate to the destructive and selfish realities of human life. And at times, it did a fantastic job of changing culture.

It was and is especially effective on the individual level. People discovered the core of this religion and made changes in their lives, changes that made them stand out. Sometimes, they were seen and noticed and gave others courage to follow the faith. Other times, they were seen and noticed and the difference was so dramatic and so counter-cultural that they were shunned, scorned, persecuted and even killed. But often, the religion reached enough people and for a time, the culture it found itself in changed for the better.

But human selfishness is a powerful force—and faced with a force that tries to set limits on selfishness, it reacts in self-defence. Culture comes roaring back and begins chipping away at the core of this religion. Eventually, this religion stopped being a cultural change agent and becomes an agent of the culture, one more way of channeling the essential human selfishness into self-serving ways.

Our western culture has been deeply affected by this ancient religion, Christianity. We see the continuing effects of this change in the continuing calls for equality and fairness in our culture. But at some point in the last century, it seems like a line was crossed and the changes western culture made in Christianity became more significant than the changes Christianity made on western culture. The faith no longer stands outside the culture, seeking to make the culture better—now, unfortunately, it has too often become the weaker partner in the relationship and has become nothing more than a tool to force people into being better players in the cultural games.

But culture rarely has the final answer because the Christian faith is a living and dynamic faith empowered by the presence of the Holy Spirit. No matter how strong the call and temptation of selfishness, the Spirit will eventually act, bringing about a reformation, a reformation that will break some of the tangled bonds it has with culture. Human culture is always based in our human selfishness—Christianity is based in and on God’s eternal love and grace and no matter what it looks like at any given point in time, God will always win.

May the peace of God be with you.