HOW BIG IS THE CHURCH?

I have been the pastor of a lot of small congregations in my 40+ years of ministry.  I have never broken the 100 mark in regular attendance.  These days, the combined attendance at the two pastorates I serve part time rarely reaches 40, unless it is for a funeral. (I don’t know about weddings–we haven’t had any yet.)  I did once pastor a church that had over 250 members on paper but because of problems and issues, there were only about 25 in worship when I started as pastor.

Given that I am within visual range of retirement, I am pretty sure that my chances of being pastor to a large church are pretty small.  That’s okay with me–I don’t dream of being the next world-famous mega-church pastor any more (well, not much anyway).

But as I have been reading about church growth and how to deal with large increases in attendance and how to prepare for it and all sorts of stuff like that for years.  I know that there is more than just a difference in numbers when it comes to church size.  Beyond a certain point, the quality and nature of the congregation changes.  One blog I read recently suggested that once a church reaches a certain size, the pastor can’t know everyone–and everyone else can’t know everyone either.  His suggestion of nametags was an appropriate way of dealing with that problem.

But one of the nagging questions that has always bothered me when I think about this qualitative difference focuses on exactly this issue.  If I can’t know at least the names of everyone joined together with me in a congregation, are we really a church?  We can be a gathering of believers, we can have a strong theoretical commitment to God and each other but if I can’t know all of the others, are we really a church?

Christianity is a social faith, which requires that our commitment to God through Christ express itself in our relationships with other believers.  And I don’t think that is meant to be a theoretical, generalized expression.  We are called to love each other in very practical and personal ways–but if there are so many of us that I can’t even remember names, how personal can my expression of faith be in that context?

If I am to love other believers as Jesus loved us (John 13.34-35), don’t I need to know the names of my fellow believers (John 10.1-17, especially verse 3)? If I have to look at a name tag to know who I am talking to, how can I be expected to really love people as Christ loved us–without a real sense of who the person is, isn’t my love more generic than personal?

This isn’t an anti-big church rant.  I have friends who pastor large congregations and others who attend large congregations and whose faith I respect and appreciate.  But as I look at some of these larger congregations, it seems to me that they really aren’t united and unified.  Rather than being one big happy church family, they seem to be several different but slightly overlapping church families–several congregations meeting together.

And there are lots of good reasons for such groupings of churches in one congregation.  It allows for more and better programs and facilities and makes delivery of ministry more efficient and allows them to afford things that my small congregations can’t even afford to dream about.  But in the end, I wonder if it might not be better and more correct to call these large groups a gathering of churches rather than a church.

Maybe, once we lose the ability to know names and therefore the ability to really know people, we have lost something vital to the nature of the church.  Knowing someone’s name opens the door to knowing a lot more about the person and that allows us to specifically and personally show people how our common faith in God is expressed in our relationship.

And so while I really hope and pray that our small congregations will grow in numbers, I also am not really interested in the kind of growth that means I can’t know the names of the people I lead in worship.  If we ever get that big, we can start another church so that people can live their faith with people whose names they know and who know their names.

May the peace of God be with you.

AM I DEPRESSED?

A few days ago, I was sitting in my work chair in the living room.  I was supposed to be writing one of the two sermons I have to produce each week.  I had done the research, I had a theme, the sermon was part of a series so I had some sense of where it was supposed to go–all I had to do was start writing and soon, I would have a sermon ready.  Except, that wasn’t happening.  I was struggling–not because of the topic, not because of interruptions, not because the computer was giving me trouble.  I just couldn’t get started and when I finally got started, the words didn’t want to come.

I finished the sermon finally and went on to other stuff until it was time to go see some people in the church.  Being an introvert, that is something I always struggle with a bit but that day, it was really hard to get motivated to go out and see people.  I went, I saw people and I actually enjoyed the contacts.

But on the way home, as I was thinking about it and had a scary thought.  I put my struggle with the sermon together with the increased difficulty going to see people and began to think, “I’m depressed”.  Depression is something I struggle with and the thought that it might be making another appearance bothered me a lot.

But as I began the process of dealing with the depression, I ran into further problems.  Normally, once I realize I am slipping into depression, I look for the trigger(s), whatever it is that started the process.  But try as I might, I couldn’t find any trigger.  Nor did I find all the normal stuff associated with my depression–for example, I was still listening to the car radio when I was driving.  When I am depressed, I just can’t do that–I have to drive in silence.

So, I wondered some more–was I slipping into some new, unknown expression of depression that was growing out of some deeply repressed stuff that would send me into a long and difficult bout of depression and struggle and all the rest?  I don’t like the depression process that I have dealt with too often in my life and so tend to be somewhat anxious about everything connected with depression.  Not being able to get a quick hold on it was depressing me.

As I worked through the stuff, I realized that what I was experiencing might not be depression.  It also wasn’t likely some other form of emotional upheaval either.  There was nothing major percolating up from the depths and the surface stuff wasn’t all that much of a problem, except for the fact that there was a whole lot of it and my personal time was getting lost.

I was missing exercise time; I was having less personal time, I was spending much more time in intense contact with people, I was putting in too many hours at both my jobs.  I looked at the whole picture and realized that in the end, I was tired, not depressed.   I do realize that physical fatigue can and does lead to serious stuff and in my case, prolonged physical fatigue can indeed lead to depression but what I was (and am) dealing with here was tiredness, not depression.

I can deal with that–probably not right now  but eventually.  I am tired because a variety of things have come together requiring a lot more work than normal.  There is a slow down coming–that isn’t the workaholic’s “someday” dream but rather is a basic reality.  A lot of the stuff keeping me so busy will soon be done and churches simply don’t do all that much in the summer.  In the meantime, I can do a few things, like allow myself to take longer to write sermons (and blog posts), exercise when I can, take a nap now and then, watch a TV show, plan and take some vacation time or just enjoy sitting and doing not much of anything.

I am tired and not depressed.  I do need to take the fatigue seriously but fatigue is much less painful for me than depression.   While I might not be overly thankful for being tired, I am deeply thankful that it isn’t depression and even more thankful that I can tell the difference.

May the peace of God be with you.

POLITICAL CORRECTNESS

At a recent meeting, a friend was receiving a certificate recognizing his status.  During a break after the certificate was presented, one of the committee responsible for the presentations came over to apologize to my friend.  The certificates had been changed recently by the parent organization and instead of having a “he/she” where one could be scratched out, the certificate now said “they”.  The presenter was a bit upset at this obvious grammatical error.

Except it wasn’t a grammatical error.  Using “they” or “their” is now an acceptable way of referring to an individual.  It is a politically correct way of avoiding the issues that can lie in wait whenever gender is an issue.  Personally, the switch didn’t particularly bother me for a couple of reasons.  First, I remember when those particular certificates were printed with only “he”–and continued to be that way for several years after “she” was needed.  And, pragmatically, those of us with less interest in proper grammar have been using “they” to refer to individuals for years.

But this little incident did add more fuel to a flickering thought I have been beating around for a few years.  In general, I am comfortable with political correctness in writing and speaking.  At its root, it is simply a desire to be fair and polite and respectful, all things that fit in well with my Christian faith.  I believe that as part of my faith, I am to be accepting and respectful and fair and polite and it using political correct terms accomplishes that, I have no real problem–plus, it is much easier to write or say “they” than  it is to figure out the proper gender-based terminology.

On the other hand, where does it end?  It seems that political correctness has become as dominant a force in some circles as political incorrectness has been and is in some places.  If I prefer a gender based pronoun, that makes me the focus of some serious criticism in some circles–and some of that criticism can be driven by anger and scorn and disrespect, the very things that political correctness is supposed to prevent.

Parts of our culture have become intolerant of intolerance–and are quite willing to make their intolerance known.  From my perspective as an concerned (and sometimes confused observer) the intolerance of political correctness against intolerance looks and acts pretty much like the intolerance of political non-correctness.  So, in a space where free speech is prized, it appears that only certain forms of free speech are allowed.  That looks and sounds a lot like censorship, which is supposed to be non-correct politically.

I end up confused, not knowing who to support.  And in the end, if both sides are using the same tactics, is there really a difference?  If tolerance can’t tolerate intolerance, how tolerant can it really be?

As in most major issues, we need to realize that we don’t generally accomplish much when we try to prohibit people from doing something.  Telling people “no” seems to produce some reluctant obedience and a great deal of backlash.  It rarely changes much and often produces more problems.

We probably need to pay a lot more attention to Jesus, whose approach to the politically non-correct world he came to was to love people and meet felt needs of real people.  He used “he” and “she”; he called “sin” sin; he scolded religious leaders who prized rules over people; he waded into the dark, foul mess we call life and shone a light of love and acceptance and forgiveness and hope, a light that people wanted and needed.

Jesus wasn’t politically correct.  Rather, he was being theologically correct, which seems to me to be a much more demanding standard.  He saw the value of each and every individual and treated them as a loved and respected individual, whether they were a rich intellectual sneaking in after dark to see him or a known prostitute crashing a party to wash his feet with her tears.  Both these people and anyone else who encountered Jesus went away knowing that they had been in the presence of the Divine and had been seen and recognized for who they were.

Some used the support of the love and acceptance to become more of what they were meant to be and some fled the love and acceptance because they were unwilling to see themselves as they really were.  Political correctness seeks to make rules that might help some people at some times and have some benefits–but Jesus’ theological correctness seeks to show all that they are loved and what is possible within the context of that love.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING DIFFERENT

            If balkanization is a problem, the seemingly obvious solution is for us to focus on being as much alike as we can be.  I remember reading a science fiction story years ago about a cult that decided this was the case.  They developed a strong doctrine based on everyone being the same–and then, in the logical consequence of the doctrine, every member was surgically altered so that everyone looked the same.

The story was based on the idea that no matter how much they wanted to be the same, there were still differences that could not be erased.  In that fictional group, someone was murdering members of the group.  I don’t remember the story all that well but it seems to me that the reason for the murders was that one member of the group felt that those being killed were not quite the same as all the others.

And so while making everyone the same might seem to be the antidote to balkanization, it really isn’t.  We are different and no matter how much we try to be the same, we will never make it.  Our differences are basic to our humanness–it begins in our genetic makeup and is reinforced by our experiences in life.  We have significant similarities and significant differences and both are a part of who and what we are.  We can no more ignore our differences than we can  ignore our similarities.

We need to learn to celebrate our differences without making them a basis of division.  I am left-handed.  Being left-handed makes me part of a minority–about 10% of the population is left-handed.  Since the majority of the population is predominantly right-handed, most things are designed and build by and for right-handed people.  Technically, that is a form of discrimination which puts me at a disadvantage and occasionally in danger–some tools designed for right handed-people put us lefties in danger by causing us to reach over or around spinning blades and other parts in order to use our dominant hand.

I didn’t have a choice about being left-handed–it is ultimately a result of factors beyond my control.  I have spend my life living left-handed and learning how to adapt myself to living in a right-handed world.  But I have never spent much time trying to differentiate myself from the right-handed majority nor have I spent time blaming or shaming the right-handed (except in fun when everyone knows we are having fun).  I don’t worry about being minority, majority or whatever–I just do what I do to function.  And when I can’t function as left-handed in a right-handed world, I either adapt or find a right-handed person to do the job.

I really don’t need to create a militant left-handed group.  I am left-handed and like being left-handed but that is likely because I don’t know anything else.  But I don’t need to put down right-handed people to enjoy my left-handedness.  I can celebrate and enjoy what I am without going the balkanization route.  Being left-handed isn’t one of the major flash points when it comes to human difference, although it has been at times and continues to be in a few cultures.

There are many differences that are flash points in  life–but they are flash points because of cultural, ethnic, political, theological issues.  Someone or some group decides that being from one ethnic group is not as acceptable as being from another group.  But the truth is that these differences are part of human reality.  We can be different and still be human.  We can barbeque hamburgers or goat or egg plant and still be human.  We can read the Bible in KJV or NIV or the original Greek and Hebrew and still be Christian.  We can celebrate Communion with wine or grape juice and still be faithful to God.

And if we pay attention, the differences we see and experience can help us experience more of the fullness of life and faith.  As we discover how others have faced and dealt with life and faith, we gain a deeper and broader understanding of the possibilities.  We discover that different is not wrong or better or strange or sinful–it is just different.  Some difference we can embrace–I like my Kenyan friends’ food.  Some, we can’t embrace as easily–I always have to figure out how to use right-handed tools safely.  But we can celebrate the differences–just as God does.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO KINDS OF PEOPLE

There are two kinds of people in the world:  those who say there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t say there are two kinds of people in the world.  The second kind are a rarity, as far as I can tell because it seems that most of us have this deep seated drive to reduce the complexities of the world’s population to a simple, easy to grasp dichotomy–everyone is either this or that.  It is a staple tactic of many preachers (including me, at times):  we preachers categorize people as Christian/non-Christian; good Christian/bad Christian; tither/non-tither; sermon note taker/sermon sleeper; pastoral supporter/pastoral opponent–well, you get the idea.

Unfortunately for preachers and all of us with this deep seated need for simplistic understandings of reality, it is pretty much impossible to actually reduce people to two kinds because of the incredibly complexity and diversity of humanity.  Take one of the examples I have been known to use:  there are two kinds of people in the world–those who have accepted Christ and those who haven’t yet accepted Christ.

As a division of humanity, it sounds good and I used it for years.  But a while ago, in the process of preparing for a course on evangelism that I was teaching, I thought myself into a mess.  I was looking for a way to help Kenyan students understand some point in the course outline and drew a line on the paper.  I labelled one end “No connection with God at all” and labeled the other end “Total connection with God”.  The graphic looked good, I could easily create it on the computer for the course handbook and it would help illustrate the point.

Except that the more I looked at the continuum this simple line made, the more complicated it got.  To start with, I realized that here and now, there is no human being at either end–no one has absolutely no connection with God and no one has a total connection with God–people in those conditions will only exist after the return of Christ and the end of this era.  So, the reality is that all of us exist somewhere between the two ends of the line.

Certainly, some of us have made a clear commitment to Christ somewhere along the line–but our position on the line doesn’t have any connection with the commitment.  The thief on the cross makes his commitment when he is near the no connection end (maybe–I am making a big assumption here) while Paul was likely further along the line when he made a commitment (another assumption but he was certainly working at his relationship with God as he understood it).  But in the end, all of us are somewhere along the line and somewhere in the process of making a commitment to accepting Christ.

Then it got a bit more complicated because I realized that another reality is that although I come from a Christian tradition that puts a great deal of emphasis on knowing the exact time, place and circumstance of the commitment to Christ, there are people whose commitment to Christ is genuine but who really don’t know when they made it–they sort of drift into it, a reality which infuriates some people because it seems so fuzzy but which is a reality for many, including me.

So, after these and a few other complications, I developed the graphic for the students and decided to live with a less than simple understanding of salvation.   The process is more complex and confusing that a simple two-category division of Christian/non-Christian. We could propose several categories:  non-Christian; non-Christian leaning to commitment; Christian but not aware of having made a commitment; Christian aware of having made a commitment; non-Christian who thinks they have made a commitment; Christian who doesn’t realize they have made a commitment.  The whole thing gets more and more confusing and complicated and makes one wish for a simple, clear, two kinds description.

Or, maybe we could do what we are supposed to do anyway, which is concentrate on being God’s agents in the world and let him worry about who is and isn’t a believer.  If we stop trying to simplify the complicated (which isn’t really our job) and work at being agents of God’s love and grace (which is our job), we can trust that God will take care of the rest.

May the peace of God be with you.

A HUMBLE CONFESSION

As I was writing the last post, I realized that it could suggest that I have a very high opinion of my pastoral abilities.  And I do think that I am pretty good at what I do–I have been a pastor for a lot of years and have helped congregations through some difficult times.  And while I have never been called to a large congregation, I think I have been good for the churches that I have pastored.  As well, I have been called to teach pastors both in Canada and Kenya.

But at the same time,  I have to confess that most of the time in ministry, I really don’t know what I am doing.  Sure, there are some basics:  I need to preach, teach Bible study, visit people, attend (and sometimes chair) meetings, do some counselling, and be there for life transitions like funerals and weddings.  But beyond the basics, I don’t always have great plans and inspiring visions.  I don’t dream (much) of seeing the congregation become a mega-church; I am never sure where we will be next month let alone 5 or 10 years from now.  In truth, sometimes, I can’t even tell you what I will be preaching next Sunday, although that only happens when I forget that the current sermon plan actually ends next week.

None of my congregations have ever given me a coffee mug with the message “World’s Greatest Pastor” printed on it–nor have I even felt that I deserve one.  Even more, there are times when I am convinced that I made a serious mistake when I decided that God wanted me to be a pastor–and more than a few times when I have been convinced that God made a serious mistake by calling me to be a pastor.

I get tired of what I am doing; I get depressed when the stress of ministry leads to overwork; I waste time when I could be studying or seeing people; I wonder why God didn’t call me to some other work; I get angry at things that happen in the church; I fantasize about winning the lottery and retiring; I sometimes hope for snow days for more than just the opportunity to go cross-country skiing.

I am a pastor–but even after all these years of pastoring, teaching pastors, reflecting and writing on pastoring, I am still trying to figure out what it really means to be a pastor.  Maybe after I retire sometime in the not too distant future, I will have some time to figure out what it is that I am really supposed to be doing.

I have actually made some progress at figuring it out.  I have learned some things that pastors shouldn’t do.  Some of these I have learned from my own painful experience.  Others I have learned from watching the experience of others–those lessons have been less painful for me but no less painful for congregations and pastors.  Knowing what not to do is actually a helpful start on the road to knowing what to do.

If it is a mistake to scold the congregation with every sermon, as it is, then not only do I know to avoid that but also, I have an opportunity to discover what might be a better use of the sermon.  Teaching during the sermon, encouraging with the message, inspiring congregations through the preaching–all these are much better for everyone than a ranting scold every week.

And even more importantly, I have learned one of the most basic realities of my profession.  Ministry is really about developing relationships with people that can help them and me develop our relationship with God.  In the course of developing those relationships, we may discover God’s leading and empowering to do interesting, exciting and inspiring things but the development of the relationships is the key issue.  We have to really know each other before we can trust each other.  We have to trust each other before we can really open to each other about faith.  We have to open to each other about faith before we can experience the fullness of the presence of God in our midst.

So, day after day, I take my introverted self and go be a pastor–I joke with people, drink coffee with people, cry with people, pray with people, teach people, get taught by people.  I do my job, a job that I don’t always understand and which I sometimes struggle to explain and am not sure how good at it I really am but which God has called me to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

SERVANT OR SERVED?

Kenya, like most of Africa, was taken over by European powers in the late 19th century as the various nations in Europe scrambled to exert their power over the world.  The reality that the lands in question were already occupied and governed by other people was simply ignored–the prevailing opinion at the time was that since those peoples were obviously inferior, there could be nothing but benefit for them to be under European rule.  Eventually, most of Africa decided that they preferred to be independent and made it happen.

One of the lasting legacies of colonialism in Kenya is a well developed sense of entitlement and privilege.  Social stratification is a deep seated addition to Kenyan culture, with everyone seeking an important place in the pecking order.  Money, tribe, geography, education, connections, special skills–everything has a place in determining who gets what privileges and who gets to serve who.  Nobody wants to be doing the serving–everyone wants to be served.

It may be that this culture of entitlement and privilege seeking will come to be seen as one of the worst of the long term effects of colonialism because of the way it encouraged so many of the current underlying problems African countries struggle with.  Corruption, nepotism, tribalism, instability–all owe something to the colonial example.  African countries may have thrown out the colonizers but they often kept the colonial mentality.

But this problem of entitlement and privilege seeking affects more than just post-colonial countries.  Unfortunately, it affects the church–and the consequences of these attitudes is causing no end of harm to the mission of the church.

Recently, I saw a news item while I was washing the dishes.  A man got a parking ticket while he was in worship on Easter Sunday.  He openly admitted that he was parked in a no parking zone.  The church parking lot was full–the Christmas and Easter crowd were out in full force.  He and many other worshippers parked on the street, ignoring the no parking signs.  Some enterprising traffic officer saw an opportunity to improve the municipal finances and gave all the illegal cars tickets.

The man on the news was upset.  One of his comments was that he was parked there because he was in worship on one of the holiest days of the Christian year and so the police should have shown some leniency.  And while that might sound good to other worshippers and to those struggling with the lessening influence of the Christian faith in an increasingly pluralistic culture, it is really only a thinly veiled call for special privileges.  Our faith should be allowed to break the rules when our parking lot is full.

As Christians in North America, we want our culture to serve us.  We picture ourselves as being special–our western culture is built on Christian foundations.  We have made a significant contribution to our culture–and now, we want to collect the interest on that contribution.  We  deserve a break on the parking ticket; we deserve to be given exemptions from rules that we don’t like; we deserve a better place in the culture than other groups.

But aren’t we called to be servants?  Somewhere along the line, it seems that we have lost sight of what it really means to be a servant.  We have continued to call ourselves servants but have redefined the word servant to mean that we are the ones who get served.  The privileges and special treatment we want and even demand amount to us as believers thinking that our culture needs to pay us back for all that we have done for our culture over the years.  Whether it is being allowed to break parking laws on Easter Sunday or trying to stop multicultural realities, we are really not being all that much different from the colonial powers in Africa or their independent successors.

We seem to have turned our understanding of a basic part of our faith on its head.  We talk of being servants but really want to be served.  We talk of serving others but really want others to serve us.  We call for justice but really want free parking in illegal parking zones when the church parking lot is full.  And maybe this reversal in our understanding of servant-hood is at the root of the serious decline of the church in the west.  Maybe our culture needs servants more than it needs one more entitled group demanding privilege.

May the peace of God be with you.