SOMETIMES I WONDER…

I am a pastor of small congregations. That has been the basic description of what I do pretty much for the whole of my ministry career. I like to jazz it up a bit by including the fact that I have also taught at our denominational seminary, spent some time as a chaplain at a younger offenders facility and even been a missionary in Kenya. But the truth is that all these have been a minor part of my career—most of the time, I have been the pastor of small, often struggling congregations.

I was once pastor of a congregation that had a membership of 200+, which sounds really great but before I arrived, the actual attendance had shrunk to perhaps 25. A sanctuary that will seat 250 or more people looks pretty depressing with 25 in attendance, to say nothing about the heavy financial burden it places on the congregation.

The decision to be a pastor of small congregations isn’t one that I consciously made at some point but it is one that I had a part in. There were times along the way when some larger congregations were interested in calling me as pastor but each time, my sense was that God wasn’t leading me in that direction—there was more I was supposed to accomplish where I was at the time.

It would be nice to report that every small congregation that I served as a pastor eventually grew into a large, thriving congregation. There was growth in all of them—we generally had baptismal services each year and people transferred their membership in and new people started attending. But most times, at the end of my ministry, the attendance numbers weren’t all that different from the numbers at the beginning of my ministry. The actual people were often different but the numbers were pretty much the same. People died, moved away, got sick—all of which meant that the congregations grew at pretty much the same rate they shrank.

Given that I am already over the “official” retirement age, I don’t actually foresee much chance that I will ever be the pastor of a large congregation, which is okay with me because my limited experience with them suggests that I don’t feel all that comfortable in large congregations as a worshipper, let alone as a pastor.

So recently, one of my personal questions has focused on the overall value of what I have been doing for the past 40+ years. I wonder if being the pastor of a handful of small congregations has been a worthwhile way to invest my energy and time and professional effort. I think I have two answers.

The first is theological and sounds somewhat sanctimonious. It has obviously been worthwhile because I was doing what God wanted me to do where he wanted me to do it. I know that sounds a bit too pietistic but I do believe that and there are days when that I find that a very significant part of my understanding of myself and my career.

The second is more practical. What I have done has been worthwhile because of the people I have worked with over the years, the relationships that have developed, the faiths that have been strengthened. Working with small congregations gives me the luxury of time to actually work with people in some very significant ways.

I have had time to help people discover and develop their spiritual gifts. I have had time to help people work through their deep spiritual fears and questions. I have had time to counsel the hurting; encourage the searching; enable the struggling. I have been able to help people find answers to hard questions. And along the way, I have been able to laugh a lot with them, cry almost as much, drink a lot of coffee, eat a lot of great food.

And in the process, we have all grown. We have grown in our understanding of the Gospel and we have especially grown in our understanding and practice of Christian community. As we worship, study, eat, share, pray, work and do whatever we do in our small congregations, we experience the wonder of God at work in our midst.

And so while I sometimes wonder if I have followed the best course, most of the time, I don’t—I more often give God thanks for the opportunity to serve small congregations.

May the peace of God be with you

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A TRIP TO THE ER

The other day my wife was feeling some medical symptoms that had been bothering her for a while. Our doctor told her that the next time she felt them, she should immediately head for the ER to have them checked out. So, we rushed to the local health centre and joined the group waiting to see a doctor. The symptoms she was feeling bumped my wife to near the front of the line and she was called to an examining room almost immediately. The nature of the symptoms required a lot of tests, some of which had to be repeated at various intervals so we were going to be there for most of the day.

Initially, I sat and waited in the waiting room. Now, both my wife and I are pastors working with churches located in small rural communities. Sitting in a hospital ER waiting room isn’t an anonymous experience for us. We know most of the staff and many of the visitors to the ER know us and some are participants in the churches we pastor. My first response whenever I go to the health centre or ER is to take a quick look around to see who is there. When I arrived this day, I was a bit agitated because of the nature of our visit so I was glad most of the people there were nodding acquaintances, although a few were at the “hi, how are you doing” level.

As I settled in to wait with my book, I was joined by a church member. We checked each other’s reason for being there and then went on to have an extended conversation about Christmas and some difficult choices he was facing. Shortly after he left, one of the staff who attends my wife’s church came over and we talked a bit about her Christmas plans and how the weather was affecting them.

After that, a friend came in, obviously dealing with some serious stuff on his phone. I waved and when he was done on the phone, we had a talk about his reason for being there, my reason for being there and several things that he was involved in that were causing stress and how he was dealing with it.

Meanwhile, between visits from the various medical personal providing tests and treatments, my wife had time to talk to several of her church members and some of the staff about a variety of things, including church/faith issues. I had to leave for a bit but eventually got back and we continued waiting for the various test results. Eventually, the tests all came back negative and the best conclusion is that the symptoms were likely a result of lifting some heavy stuff the day before.

We compared notes and discovered that even though we were at the ER as a patient and a concerned spouse, we were both also there as pastors. I suppose either one of us could have cited our reason for being there and ignored the people also sharing our time at the ER but the truth is that neither of us can do that easily—nor do we actually want to do that. We are both called to ministry and responding to the needs we perceive is second nature to us, even when we are sitting in an ER waiting or treatment room.

We do balance that with the awareness of a need for breaks and both have ways of ensuring that we get those breaks. And I am almost positive that had the reason for the visit to the ER been more serious and acute, neither of us would have been as pastoral—I remember the time I went to the ER with severe kidney stone pain, a time when I was definitely not concerned with anyone else.

But we are pastors in a rural area where we know and are known—and for most people, seeing their pastor in the ER becomes something of a blessing. There is someone there to help them as they deal with the reason for being in the ER in the first place. The fact that we were there for stuff of our own isn’t unimportant or insignificant but we have both realized that in the end, the nature of our calling is that we are going to respond as pastors, right up to the point where we are incapable of making that level of response.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT MAKES A CHURCH?

I was having a conversation with a friend the other day that touched on my career as a pastor. I have spend my whole ministry career working in small congregations—and given the realities of my age, ministry gifts and so on, the chances of my being called to be the pastor of a big church are about as slim as the chances of either pastorate I serve mushrooming into a mega church. I am deeply aware that God can and does do great, wonderful and unexpected things so I can’t really close the doors on either thing happening but practically, I will in the next few years be retiring, having spent most of my ministry pastoring small congregations.

And that isn’t written with a tinge of sadness or wistfully wondering “what if?”. Being the pastor of small churches has been good for me for a variety of reasons. One of the reasons I appreciate is that I have learned a great deal about what the church is and can be because I have always worked with the church at its most basic. We who live in the small church are sometimes forced to be much closer to who and what we are called to be by virtue of the fact that most extraneous stuff is stripped away.

We don’t have much money so we can’t simply buy ministry. We don’t have many people so we can’t do stuff just because someone else is doing it. We often lack gifted people so we have to be selective about what ministry we do. We share our leadership with every other group and organization so we have to limit the demands we make on our member’s time. We are generally located in the midst of people who know us and our church from way back so we can’t do generic evangelism. In older congregations such as I serve, our history is well known, so we can’t pretend to be better that we actually are.

Within those real constraints, along with many others, we work at being the church. We work at being the embodied expression of God’s people here on earth. Because we don’t have the trimmings and options and bells and whistles, we have to learn how to be the essential church. And the real essence of the church is a group of people who share faith in God through Jesus Christ seeking to use the presence of the Holy Spirit to relate to each other and the world in ways that are congruent with the faith we proclaim.

And because we are small and live in the reality of the wider community, we need to do this in a context where everyone is aware of our failure to actually live up to the claims that we make. In small churches, our sins are more visible and more quickly pointed out. I joke with my churches that when something bad happens in our churches, it is being talked about in the local coffee shop before the benediction is finished. The talk may not actually get the story right, but that isn’t the issue—the issue is that we live church much more publically and openly when we are a small church living in a bigger community.

I think at our best, we in small churches learn about giftedness early—when there is only one person who can actually sing a solo in the congregation, that gift is seen, appreciated and valued. When there are only two people who can actually minister to pre-teens, they have an assured ministry spot.

We learn about grace and forgiveness—when the sinner is also a friend and a family member, it is harder to shun and condemn. It can be done and is done in some small congregations but more often than not, we discover the reality of grace and love and forgiveness as we grapple with the pain of our shared imperfection. Not many of us are willing to cast the first stone when we know and are known as well as we are in small churches.

We learn that effective evangelism doesn’t involve a program or a canned speech. Instead, it comes as a result of our hesitant and uncertain attempts to live and share our faith in the wider community. Both our successes and our failures are part of our evangelism.

I am not suggesting that large churches can’t learn these things—rather, I am saying that as the pastor of small churches, I have learned these things in this context and have tried to help others learn them as well.

May the peace of God be with you.

TWO BUILDINGS

One of the realities of being a pastor for rural churches is that I get to work in some really old buildings. One Sunday recently, both worship services occurred in old buildings. One dates back to 1835 and the other to 1833. In another pastorate, we were responsible for a building that was put up in 1810. By European standards, these are of course relatively new buildings—but by our standards, they are very old.

These buildings have all the drawbacks that you might expect from such an old building: limited facilities, inadequate electricity, inefficient heating systems, no cooling system, poor parking, uncomfortable and fixed seating. Most of them are wooden buildings, which always need serious work—the 1835 building needs sills replaced and the 1833 building has had major work done recently. The majority of them indicate their age with the tell tale scent of mold and decay. Basic maintenance jobs tend to be expensive and eat up lots of time, energy and money getting them taken care of.

There are some advantages to the buildings: we have a place for our church to gather, we can enjoy the old-time craftsmanship, we can complain about the hard seats. If we get enough money and support, we can and so make some modifications that make them better for our purposes.

But lots of people ask why we are so committed to these old, expensive, inefficient buildings. Generally, the only people not asking that question are the ones who have regularly worshipped in the buildings year after year. New comers, people from away, leaders of bigger congregations in other places, denominational dealership, even theology professors ask the question a lot, sometimes assuming that just because they ask the question, we inhabiting these old buildings will see the light and abandon the buildings.

But those of us who worship in such buildings aren’t asking the question. A person like me who has pastored congregations like this for years used to ask the question. These days, I don’t bother asking because I know the answer. Why do we in small churches keep meeting in old, antiquated, expensive to maintain and heat buildings? The answer is simple: because we can.

We don’t worship the building—well, maybe a few do. Mostly, we continue to inhabit our buildings because they are ours. We worship week after week and the building itself enhances our worship. Occasionally, the enhancement is a result of the building itself–the acoustics, the craftsmanship, the view—but more often, the enhancements occurs because of what the building houses.

It houses our memories. That seat at the back left—that is where I first went to Sunday School. The third pew from the front in the centre, that is where Deacon Zeke used to sit—he was a wise and wonderful example of the Christian faith. That pew right there—that is where I was sitting when I decided to follow Jesus. That Communion table—that was donated by my great-grandparents and my great-grandfather made it by hand from wood he cut himself.

The building houses other memories as well. We remember those we grieved and whose lives we celebrated at the funeral. We remember the weddings when new families came into being. We remember those who grew up in our midst and went on to serve God in the pulpit or the mission field. We are reminded each week of the faithful whose memories are collected and celebrated in our buildings.

We keep our buildings because they hold the memories. We keep our buildings because they allow us to celebrate the cloud of witnesses that are part of our story. We keep our buildings because they are a visible symbol of the endurance of our faith. We keep our buildings because they help our faith.

We don’t worship our buildings and we don’t need the building to have and express our faith. If the building is beyond repair or suffers a fire, we will grieve. We will mourn the loss—but we won’t lose our faith. We will still be believers, albeit believers struggling to find a place to locate our memories.

Our old, inefficient and expensive to maintain buildings could disappear and our faith would continue. But we have them—and because we have them, we can and do use them to enhance our faith.

May the peace of God be with you.

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.

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.