WELCOME BACK

Both the pastorates I serve are located in beautiful, rural areas. Both have waterfront and both have relatively inexpensive property, even relatively inexpensive waterfront property. This is not an introduction to a post encouraging people to buy real estate in our area—it is actually background to help understand something that happens in our churches. Our congregations have bigger summer attendance that we do during the winter because a lot of our people only spend the summers with us. Some are with us for several months, some for a few weeks and some come and go.

Whatever their pattern, we have a significant part of our worshipping community who are with us only part of the time. But they are a part of our community and we all respond positively when they are with us. Worship starts a bit late because everyone has to greet and be greeted by those who have arrived for the summer. It takes longer to get away after worship because the conversations that were interrupted by worship are picked up again.

We are happy that our seasonal people are back and are again sharing their gifts with us. The normally tight budget gets some wiggle room as more people contribute. The singing, which is normally good, becomes even better as the seasonal voices kick in. The special seasonal events that they are so much a part of begin to take shape as dates are set. The social scene in our community ramps up as everyone tries to make the best use of the time that people are here.

From my perspective, the arrival of the summer participants has some real benefits. Several of them are pastors, both retired and active. One Sunday recently saw a total of two active vacationing pastors, two retired pastors and one theology student attending the two worship services I lead. Several of them are interested in supply preaching, which means that I can call on them when I want to take vacation, something I really appreciate. A couple of them also provide some valuable professional feedback on my sermons and ministry.

The seasonal people are not visitors. They are a basic and vital part of our congregations, even if they are only with us part of the time. Both they and the permanent members of the congregation recognize that. We do some of our planning around their schedules. I include their presence in my sermon planning process. We minister to them and are ministered to by them. We are a stronger congregation because they are with us, even if only for a couple of weeks now and then.

For me, this points to a deeper reality of church life. All congregations except the most informal and loose ones have an official membership—but all congregations are much bigger than that. As well as the official membership, there are those who attend but who for some reason aren’t official members. There are the seasonal people, the ones who live away part of the year and those who can’t get out part of the year. There are those who look to our church for a variety of spiritual services like weddings, funerals, counselling, prayer and so on. There are the people whose parents or grandparents brought them to worship once or twice who still feel some connection with us. There are also some who used to be an active part of the congregation but who got upset and left but whom still feel they have a stake in the congregation and who want some say in what happens.

All of these people are part of our congregations—and as pastor, part of my responsibility to is figure out how to ministry to all of them. And given that I am a part-time pastor at both places, that can get complicated at times. The active, permanent members might understand that I have only so much time and can understand and live with the limits. But the further from the centre people are the less they are likely to understand that there are good reasons why they aren’t getting the ministry they think they should be getting.

This too is part of my ministry—figuring out how to juggle time so that I can get 20 hours of ministry out of 16 hours of real time. It doesn’t always work but the process is interesting at times. It is nice to have the summer people back—but I had better go so I can figure out how to see them before they leave.

May the peace of God be with you.

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DRIVING BY OTHER CHURCHES

I spend a lot of time on the road when I am working. The nearest of the churches I serve is an 18 kilometer round trip and the most distant is a 78 kilometer round trip. No matter which building I am going to, I have to pass other churches—some Baptist and some representing other denominations. And because I have lived in this area for a long time, I know quite a bit about those other churches.

And the one fact that stares me in face every time I drive by is that they all have more people in worship that I have. It doesn’t matter which denomination or where they are on the theological spectrum, they have more people in worship than I have. There are a couple of congregations in the area that have fewer but they aren’t on my regular routes so the bottom line is that every congregation I drive by has more people in worship than I have.

Now, being the spiritually mature, balanced and understanding pastor that I am, this doesn’t bother me at all. I can drive by and say a prayer of thanksgiving that they are doing so well and go to my small worship spiritually secure in the knowledge that all is well and that numbers don’t matter and that as long as God is being praised, all is well.

And if you are willing to believe that last paragraph, can I interest you in some land I have for sale? It is a great piece of land, although we need to wait for a six month dry spell so the ground is firm enough to stand on without sinking in too much.

Being the pastor of some of the smallest congregations in our area does bother me, especially since I have been working there for over two years and have managed to slightly decrease our average attendance in that time. Driving by other congregations can be painful.

I drive by the very conservative ones that have clear answers for everything, along with lots and lots of cars in the parking lot and wonder if maybe I need to start giving people clear answers like those groups do. But then, as I think about the people in the pews that I work with week after week, I realize that they neither need nor want clear and rigid answers—their faith needs the freedom to ask questions and seek answers that is such a strong part of our ministry.

I drive by the buildings of more liberal denominations which sometimes question what I consider the basics of the faith—and who also have lots of cars in the parking lot. I wonder of maybe I should copy their approach—but then I remember that most of the people I work with have built their lives and their faith on these foundational realities.

I drive by charismatic congregations, whose music and worship are obviously attracting people, at least according to the number of cars in the lot and I wonder if maybe we need to ditch the organ and piano and traditional hymns for a worship team and choruses projected on the wall—but then I remember that we are lucky to have any musician at all and we do like the older hymns but when possible, we try some new stuff.

So, I drive by. I look at the cars in the lot with some envy and maybe more jealousy that I am comfortable with. I wonder if I am doing something wrong that keeps us small and struggling. I wonder if maybe we should close up shop and go somewhere else. And then I realize that we gather each week for worship and for Bible study because we have found something that works for us. It probably won’t work for others—well, obviously, it doesn’t work for a lot of others because they aren’t there. But what happens in other places might not work for us either—I know that because some have tied hard to fit in there and it just doesn’t work.

So, I drive by and look at the cars and continue to my congregations where we gather as a small group seeking to understand God’s presence and calling and purpose for us. I don’t really know why we are who and what we are—but I do know that we are who and what we are because God has called us together and works in and through us—and for now, that counteracts the parking lot envy enough to keep me going.

May the peace of God be with you.

ENDING WELL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

CHURCHES FIGHT

Recently, it was our church’s turn to lead the weekly worship service at a local nursing home.  It was my first time doing this since starting at the church but some of the choir had been there before.  I arrived early as always and chatted with some of the staff and residents as they gathered in the multi-purpose room that was our sanctuary for the afternoon.  One of the staff people had heard I had been doing some fill in preaching at another congregation, which prompted her to ask how things were going at that church.

That quickly lead to her talking about the recent struggles the congregation had, which lead several of the residents to talk about struggles that other congregations were having.  In the midst of the back and forth, a young woman staffer brought another resident to the room and as she was positioning the wheelchair, was obviously listening to the conversation.  Picking me out as the obvious pastor, she asked, “Do churches really have fights?”

I immediately thought that she was being ironic, since everyone knows that churches fight.  But it quickly became clear that she didn’t know this.  She didn’t have a church background and said that she just assumed that churches were supposed to be places where stuff like that didn’t happen.  It was difficult to follow up with her, interact with the others having the conversation and greet new patients coming to the service so all I was able to do in response to her question was assure her that although churches do fight, they are not supposed to.   With that, she headed off to other duties and I began the worship service.

Given the nature of life in small communities, I may or may not get another chance to talk with this woman–there is so much I would have liked to say about the church and its potential as well as its propensity to fight.  I do have a concern that she might write the church and the faith off because of this chance conversation–I hope and pray not but the reality is this may be what happens.

Churches do fight–and in rural areas like ours, everyone soon finds out about this reality.  Although only a minority of people in Canada actually attend worship or are actively involved in churches, we are all related in some way, shape or form and being human, we love to trade stories–I won’t call it gossip because that might be a good topic for another blog.  The woman at the nursing home who didn’t know that churches fight obviously hadn’t been a part of any such relationship net but I am sure that she will eventually know people who have been involved in and hurt by a church fight.

What bothers me is that in spite of this woman’s lack of knowledge, many others do know about church fights–and often, this is the only real knowledge of the church that they have.  This becomes the public witness of the church and the faith–we fight.  I know lots of churches in our area that are doing all kinds of good ministry, have good worship services, provide their communities with support and service and so on but mostly, if I hear about a church, it is because they had a fight, are having a fight or look like they are getting ready to have a fight.

I can’t stop churches from fighting.  I can’t stop the stories of church fights from spreading.  I can’t give everyone a long explanation of why churches fight and why they shouldn’t. What I can do is work with the churches I am called to and help them learn better ways to deal with their disagreements.  I can work with myself and learn how to better deal with myself in the context of the disagreements that I am involved in.  I can write and teach and pray things that will encourage the wider church to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.

To me, the church is the place where people of faith are supposed to be–the gathering of believers called together to help each other grow and serve.  A church fighting itself is a complete denial of all that we are supposed to be and are called to be.  While I wish church fights were so rare that the staff person’s reaction was normal, that isn’t the case–but I can hope and dream and pray.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT ABOUT MY CHURCH?

Although I have done many things in ministry–prison chaplain, missionary, theology professor, I have basically spend most of my life as a pastor, working with small rural congregations.  And although every congregation is different with its own dynamics and quirks and strengths and weaknesses, I think I have discovered a few things that are shared at least by all the rural congregations that I know.

The first is a generalized sense of doom.  Small congregations are always struggling.  They don’t have much money, the membership and attendance are dwindling, the average age is increasing, internal quarrels are getting more frequent and nastier, it gets harder and harder to replace key leaders like musicians and pastors, the building they meet in is getting older and older and needs more and more work.  Most such congregations feel that they are living on borrowed time, a condition that is expressed by a grim comment I hear now and then: “We are just one or two funerals away from closing.”  Normally, that is followed by the names of the one or two people whose contributions keep the congregation afloat.

That is the first and most obvious thing I see in the small churches I work with and know of.  At one point in my ministry career, I tended to get worked up and worried about the realities that the church was worried about–maybe not for the same reasons.  If I was the pastor, the imminent closure of the church meant that I would be unemployed.

I don’t worry about that sort of thing as much anymore.  Partly, it’s because the closer I get to retirement age, the less unemployment bothers me.  But mostly it is because I had discovered something else that all these congregations have in common.  If you can find the minutes of old business meetings of some of these congregations, you will discover that the church members have been saying the same things almost from day the church began–and for many congregations in my geographical area, that beginning can be anywhere up to 200 years ago.

Congregations are persistent–and it seems like small congregations have this persistence in abundance.  Something about their church touches their lives in a very important, deep down way that keeps them going on no matter what the realities they face.

I was doing some supply preaching last year for two small congregations that were giving serious thought to closing down permanently.  Money was tight, buildings were in need of work, they had no musician and couldn’t find a pastor–but didn’t feel that they could afford to pay a pastor anyway.  This was not the first time they had been at this point.

And every time they reach this point, they find a way to keep going.  Their church is important.  The small gathering of believers provides something in their life that can’t be found elsewhere.  They could close and go to other churches and would probably find something of whatever it is that keeps them together.  But being together, even if it is just for a worship service, meets a need in their lives and they keep going.  Will they close?  Who knows?  For now, they are still meeting for worship and are exploring ways of becoming a more active congregation–one of the members said recently that part of the problem is that they have no real mission.  We are setting out to find our mission these days.

Small, struggling congregations do close–there are a lot of empty church buildings in our area and other spots where congregations used to meet.  But there are even more that keep going, defying the odds year after year, finding unique and interesting way to keep going.  Their persistence comes from deep within–they have made a commitment to God and a commitment to each other, commitments that they express through the church.  A local congregation will not die until those commitments disappear.

But while those commitments exists, the church will continue.  Wise leadership will focus on these commitments, fanning the flames that keep the church going.  If these commitments are the focus, the other stuff becomes annoying but manageable.  We learn that we can sing without a musician, we can make some sort of repair on the building, we can find someone to preach and teach, we can work out the interpersonal tensions–all because of the powerful commitments to serve God and each other through the church.

May the peace of God be with you

WHAT ABOUT THE CHURCH?

Recently, a friend who has been involved in pastoral ministry even longer than I have asked me what I thought the future of the church would be.  It may be that since he had spent his life working in and for the church and was now sort of retired, he was wondering if his life’s work had any value.  Or it just might be that he was making conversation.

Anyway, the more I have thought about his question, the more complex and confusing it  seems to become.  The state of the church today is not an easy one to describe and therefore, the future of the church is even harder to describe.

On many levels, the church, especially the church in North America, looks like it is in trouble.  Attendance is dropping and those who do attend are getting greyer and greyer.  I led worship in two separate congregations yesterday, one with 12 people and the other with 17 people.  Both these congregations used to have much bigger congregations, full time pastors, Sunday Schools and even youth groups.  Now, these small groups carry on, faithful but asking serious questions about how much longer they will last.

The church is also in trouble in terms of its image.  I know more people who don’t attend worship than who do attend worship these days.  Spirituality has become a popular trend in western culture but the church isn’t often seen as a valid avenue to develop spirituality.  Even many whose spiritual journey follows the Christian path feel that they don’t really need to church–and have no problem expressing that lack of need and even encouraging others to avoid the church.

Even the church’s traditional public ministries of weddings and funerals are being expressed in different ways–and more and more, the church and its services are being ignored as people develop new ways to celebrate these transitions.

It is relatively easy to find all kinds of information about the decline of the church, the irrelevancy of the church, the dangers of the church, the evils of the church even.  Thanks to the Internet, people wanting to show the dangers and difficulties of the church don’t need a pulpit–they just need a keyboard and internet access.

And the real problem facing the church today is that no matter how biased the article, no matter how poorly written, no matter how slanted the perspective, no matter how awful the claims made against the church, everyone who writes against the church is tapping a deep vein of truth–the church today, as always, is not perfect.

And while some organizations may get to hide their imperfections behind PR firewalls and confidentiality agreements, the church’s imperfections–both real and imagined–get shouted from the rooftops for all to see and hear and pass around.  Even the most dedicated church member probably has at least one bad story about the church and since we live in the Internet age, that story can be and probably will be made public.

When we look at the very negative images of the church that are so common today and couple that with the statistical reality that in Canada, less than 20% of the population actually attend Christian worship regularly, things don’t look too good for the church.   If I were a new pastor just beginning my career in ministry, seeing all the negative concerning the church might encourage me to get qualified in something else just to be on the safe side.

But after looking at all the negative stuff, I still have to deal with the reality of my pastoral charges–the 12 and the 17.  I have heard some of their stories and will hear more of their stories in the future.  Some of those stories will be about negative stuff associated with the church in general and our churches in specific.  But next Sunday, we will still gather for worship.  We will sing some hymns and choruses, maybe even with an accompanist, and pray some prayers.  I will preach a sermon that most will listen to most of the time.  We will lament the lack of numbers even as we are shaking hands, hugging and asking how the week has been, if the cold in getting better and offering condolences for latest tragedy we have heard about.

We will be the church–for how long, we don’t know.  But for now, we are the church and we will do church stuff, even if it seems somewhat futile in the light of the stats and reports coming from everywhere and everyone.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE ART OF ENCOURAGING QUESTIONS

In one of my part-time congregations, we are experimenting with some different approaches to worship.  One of them began almost by accident.  I had just begun the sermon when someone in the small group of people there raised a hand because she wanted me to explain something I had said a bit more.  She kept apologizing for interrupting but I assured her it was fine.  The next week, it happened again, from someone else who had a comment about something I was saying in the sermon.

It became clear to me that we had a really opportunity here.  We could make the sermon more than just a one-way communication where I talked and the people listened at least some of the time.  And so at a meeting designed to deal with where we were going as a church, we decided to add a couple of things to our worship to encourage such interactions.  First, we put in a space after the reading of the Scriptures to allow people an opportunity to ask questions and  make comments about the Scriptures before the sermon.  And then, we made it a policy that the sermon could be interrupted at any point with questions and comments.

Since I am a teacher at heart, I don’t have a need to preach an uninterrupted sermon–and since we are a small group, we don’t have to worry about being overwhelmed by so many questions that we lose focus and degenerate into a free-for-all.  But more importantly, creating a climate for asking questions opens the door for real spiritual searching and growth for both me and the congregation.

It also means that we sometimes end up going places that I hadn’t anticipated when I prepared the worship and sermon.  One Sunday, I was looking at forgiveness in the sermon when  one of the people asked a very important question that seemed to galvanize the whole congregation (all 10 of them).  The sermon time essentially doubled as we looked at the question and the comments.  The whole congregation was really working together to understand the reality of God’s forgiveness in Christ.  As I watched the congregation and moderated the discussion, I saw smiles as people got some point in a real way; signs of deep thought as people confronted their established theology and a willingness of the part of everyone to listen and think and follow the discussion.  We got more out of that question than we would have if I had just preached the sermon.

Now, I know that this approach isn’t for every church–it works for our small group but I know it isn’t for everyone.  But I do think that every congregation needs a forum where people are not only free to ask questions and make comments but also are encouraged to do that.  Not every person in a congregation is going to be interested–asking questions is hard and challenging work and some people want clear answers, not difficult questions.

But there are people who have questions or who could have questions who are often left out in the cold.  Sometimes, congregations and their leaders actively discourage questions.  Sometimes, the culture of the congregations stifles questions.  And sometimes, people just don’t realize that there might be questions that need to be asked.  Whatever the reason, people who have questions are sidelined.

And that is a tragedy, I think, because some of us need to ask questions about our faith in  order to grow in our faith.  I would like to say that all believers need to ask questions in order to grow in their faith but I know there are some for whom questions are too hard, scary and/or challenging.  Those of us who need to ask questions need a time and a place where it is safe to ask our questions.

I have always tried to make the Bible Study time a safe place for questions and as well have encouraged people’s questions during the various pastoral contacts I have.  I have often wondered what it would be like to have questions during the sermon time but could never find a way to make it happen.  I was grateful for that first hesitant question and even more grateful that the rest of congregation wanted it to become a part of our regular worship.  I think the questions are going to help our congregation grow in a lot of ways.

May the peace of God be with you.

RECYCLED

About 35 years ago, my wife, our two children and I left Kenya after working there for a couple of years.  It wasn’t a planned or happy departure and we were struggling in many ways when we arrived back in Canada in January.  Among our basic requirements were a job and a place to stay–we could only live with family for so long

Eventually, with the help of some friends and mentors, I was called to serve as pastor of four small congregations who had been through some painful times of their own.  They had need of a pastor and were willing to supply a salary and a big old parsonage.  We moved in and I began work.  We spend almost 10 years there, years that saw both our family and the church grow stronger.  Our third child was born there.  Both my wife and I entered and completed doctoral programs.  The churches came out of their slump and grew in numbers and faith.

When we left, I think both sides had benefitted from that ministry.  I went on to other ministry, including more pastoral ministry, teaching part-time at a nearby seminary, and several  more trips to Kenya of varying lengths.  We always lived in the same area no matter what I was doing, except for the extended stays in Kenya so I was always in contact with the churches–we would run into each other in town; I was on call for pastoral emergencies when the pastor was away and spoke now and then at special events.

Recently, their pastor got married, resigned and moved away and the congregations were suddenly without a pastor.  A lot had changed since I left 25 years ago.  Numbers were down, the congregation was aging, the church buildings were showing signs of severe age–the “newest” building is over a hundred years old.  With the numbers being down, giving was down and the churches discovered that they really couldn’t afford full-time ministry any more.  If they were going to continue, they would need to down-size their ministry and maybe even sell their parsonage.

The pastor who was leaving passed my name along to the church leadership as someone who could help them design part-time ministry.  I have been doing part time pastoral ministry since the early 1990s and had even written a handbook to help congregations make the transition from full-time to part-time.  Since I knew a lot of the leadership, I was quite willing to volunteer my time to help them with their transition.

I was surprised at the meeting to discuss part-time ministry–they didn’t so much want to pick my brains about how to set up part-time ministry as much as they wanted to know if I would be their part-time pastor.  They were willing to change their time of worship to accommodate the other part-time position I was beginning and didn’t much care how the eventual ministry looked if I would be willing to accept a call to their congregations.

So, almost exactly 35 years after I began there the first time, I again stepped in the pulpit as their pastor.  A lot has changed for both of us.  While there are some familiar faces, there are also some who are conspicuously absent.  There are a few new faces, but not all that many.  All of us are showing the signs of the passing 35 years.  I used to hop onto the platform in one of the buildings, ignoring the steps–now, the steps are a necessity and a railing would be even nicer.

But I am there–recycling even works in the church.  I don’t know where God is going to lead us as we serve together.   I don’t know how long we will be together.  In fact the list of things I don’t know keeps getting longer and longer.  But I do know that for now, God has brought us back together and obviously has some plans for us.

Did I expect to be back when I left there 26 years ago?  No–but then, one of the wonders of following God’s leading is that we really don’t know where things will go.  But if we follow in faith, it is always an interesting trip.

May the peace of God be with you.

FOUR PEOPLE AND ME

            Just recently, I began a new ministry.  I am serving part-time as pastor of two small congregations that have been struggling for the past few years.  Last year, I began working with them as a supply preacher–showing up on Sunday to preach.  But of course, ministry can’t really be done like that or at least, I can’t do it that way.

Before too long, I was focusing my preaching on the congregation, helping them look at themselves and their real potential in the faith.  I did some funerals and made some pastoral visits.  As the months passed last year, the small group of 12-16 got re-motivated, began to see that they didn’t have to close and even began to see a future for themselves.

So, we met together and talked together and planned together and prayed together and worked out a plan that would have me working with the congregations 2 days a week.  The plan called for Sunday worship, a Bible study and some pastoral visitation.  The congregations closed for the winter with the service on Christmas Eve, filled with excitement for the ministry that would begin again on Easter Sunday.

And so we started.  And immediately, we hit our low point.  I showed up on Sunday morning, early as usual.  One member arrived–and since we have been friends for years, we had a chance to talk and catch up as time for worship got closer and closer.  Finally, another arrived and the three of us chose some music they could do without our musician.  Eventually, another arrived–by himself since his wife was sick.  As it approached time to start, a fourth arrived–by himself since his wife’s disabilities sometimes make it impossible for her to get out.

So, there we were–four people and me.  Now, I know exactly where all the others were:  some were not back from extended stays in places warmer than western Nova Scotia.  Some were sick and some were there every other weekend, and this wasn’t the every other weekend. Some were scared of the 2 cms of snow we received during the night.

I had worked hard on the worship service and sermon, seeking to build on the momentum and enthusiasm that had been so evident before we closed down last year.   But–four people and me?  How can you build on that?  Even knowing the reason for only four people and me and knowing that soon the others will be back and the numbers will climb, I couldn’t help but feel a bit down and discouraged.

But I started the service.  With just four people, I didn’t bother with the pulpit.  I stood in the pews just in front of the four people and we worshipped together.  We have been developing our own unique worship style and so there is lots of back and forth, discussion and questions, comments and laughter during our worship and even during the sermon.  And with only four people and me, it is much easier to have that kind of informal but meaningful worship.

The service finished, the four people and I talked a bit before we left, all of us sending greetings to the two wives who hadn’t made it to the service.  I was the last one out, making sure to slam the door (it doesn’t always close and lock properly unless it is slammed).  As I was driving home for a quick lunch and short rest before the service at another pastorate where I also serve part time, I realized that although I was disappointed that there were only four people and me, I wasn’t depressed nor was I discouraged.  Part of that was because I knew where all the non-attendees were and why they weren’t there.  But a bigger part was the realization that I had actually counted the congregation wrong.

It wasn’t four people and me.  It was actually five people and God–and God was the most important.  We were there because we believe that God wanted us to begin this ministry and if he wanted us to begin it, there has to be something there.  I don’t know where this is going but I do know that five people plus God is much better than four people and me.

May the peace of God be with you.

GROWING IN FAITH

As human beings, we like to count time–and on the basis of that count, assume certain things. For example, we tend to assume that a 30 year old will be more mature than a 10 year old. Someone who have been a sober alcoholic for 10 years is probably doing better than a person who has been sober for ten days. A Christian who have been a believer for 40 years is likely more mature in the faith than a believer who started in the faith 4 days ago.

In some cases, our assumptions based on time passage are true–yet there are enough exceptions that I have spent a lot of time thinking about this issue. For example, in working with families in crisis, I have seen 10 year olds who are much more mature in their handling of the crisis than their 30 year old parents. Almost any alcoholic will quickly say that the struggle to stay sober is just as difficult after 10 years as it is after ten days. And, honestly, some Christians have less spiritual maturity after 40 years than some who have been followers for 40 days.

The thing we have to realize is that the passage of time indicates the passage of time, not the development of character and wisdom and things like that. Character, wisdom, understanding and spiritual growth take more than just time.

One of the first requirements of spiritual growth is a clear understanding of exactly what spiritual growth is. And that is where I think we often run into serious trouble because many believers don’t have a clear idea of what spiritual growth really is. In fact, many of us whose roots are in conservative groups like the Baptist may not even be aware that spiritual growth takes more than just the passage of time.

I grew up during the age of Billy Graham. One of the ways the Billy Graham organization used to reach people for the faith was through film. There were a great number of professional quality films that churches and Christian groups could rent as part of their evangelistic outreach. I faithfully attended many of these films when they were shown in our building.

The movies were well made but somewhat predictable after the first one. The central character wasn’t a believer and the movie followed his/her life and the issues and difficulties and plot twists until that character ended up as a Billy Graham crusade and walked to the front in response to the sermon. Everyone involved with the central character would rejoice, the credits would roll and the group watching would be given an alter call as well.

After the first one or two, I began to feel that something was wrong with the movie and eventually realized that I was dissatisfied with the ending. For me, the movie ended in the wrong place. Becoming a believer should be the beginning, not the ending.

But for many conservative churches and their leaders, becoming a believer is the end. We tend to be focused almost exclusively on evangelism. But once people make a commitment, are baptized and counted in our annual report, we seem to forget them and move on to the next evangelistic event, hoping to bring even more in.

We generally don’t have plans and procedures for helping people understand their new faith and its effects and implications on their life. There might be a Bible study in the church but no real effort is made to encourage people to attend. There is likely some sort of training class for new believers but once they are baptized, there is nothing.

The end result is that a high percentage of people who are brought to faith end up drifting away from the faith. A few end up in other congregations but most simply drift out of the church. Those who stay are often faithful but not always faithful to Christian truth, mostly because they don’t really know what the faith stands for.

I remember growing up in the 60s when long hair for males was just beginning to become a cultural trend. Many in the church were convinced that long hair on men was a serious sin and churches and families had major battles over hair length–good Christian males sported a military style haircut, just like Jesus did. The historical fact that Jesus, like almost all men of his day, had relatively long hair was totally overlooked.

We do need to spend time as believers seeking to understand what Christian growth actually is and how it happens.

May the peace of God be with you.