BUSINESS MEETINGS

I don’t like meetings. There are a few that have been tolerable, many that have actually been important and a whole lot that could have been shorter, tighter and more effective. Generally, given an even choice between attending a meeting or going to the dentist, I would pick the dentist, except for the fact that going to the dentist is a lot like going to a meeting.

I don’t dispute the need for meetings. They are important and significant and are a necessary part of church and denominational and even normal life. I am not an anarchist, a dictator or a megalomaniac. Getting people together to talk about stuff is often the only way we can discover God’s leading and figure out how he wants us to do the work he has called us to do. Over the years, I have become very good at enabling meetings to become places where people have the freedom and encouragement to share and grow and develop ministry. I have also tied to teach other church leaders how to make meeting more effective and more a part of the process of discerning God’s leading.

But for all that, I don’t actually like meetings. So, when a new year rolls around, I brace myself for the wave of annual meetings I have to deal with—these days, that means anywhere up to a dozen different meetings by the time I count finance meetings, deacons’ meetings, congregational meetings and pastorate meetings. Sometimes, I am the chair of the meeting and other times, someone else chairs the meeting (I prefer someone else to be the chair).

Typically, church business meetings have been somewhat restricted to church members but because of the nature of our churches, we have been having open meetings and specifically inviting our non-members to be part of the process. I jokingly tell them during the announcement of the meeting that they are really a part of our fellowship and if we members have to endure the business meeting, they should have to as well.

One pastorate just wrapped up our season of annual meetings. And in spite of my antipathy to meetings, I felt that all the meetings in the process had a positive flavour. We did more than look at financial statements and hear reports. We spent time together, sharing about family and friends, passing on information about absent people, joking about who did what when. We were comforted by the fact that we didn’t go into debt over the past year and that we actually did some good stuff over the past year.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses—we talked about those who had died or had to move in the past year. We wondered how our aging creaky membership could look after our aging creaky buildings—none of us is able anymore to grab a hammer and fix the rotting sills that make the floor sag around the front door. But there are ways to deal with that, especially since we do have some money in the bank.

As pastor, I had some good things to report. Our churches grew over the year—not so much in numbers but definitely in faith. We have a sense of confidence in our churches. We have a developing understanding of how we are being salt and light in our communities; we are seeing some positive response from the community to the ministry we are doing; we have encouraged and enabled people to try a variety of things; we have experimented with worship and mission; we have shared life and all its triumphs and crises with prayer and support and casseroles. We have been the church.

So, I still hate meetings. But this meeting cycle has been worthwhile because it allowed us to take a look at ourselves and see where God has been working, what he has been doing and how he is leading us into the future. We have a bit of money, enough for our needs. Our buildings need some work but we can handle it. We have grown in a lot of ways—and we can all see it. We might have seen all that stuff without the meetings but then again, without the meetings, we wouldn’t have had the chance to get it all together at the same time. I won’t actually say “Thank God for meetings” but I will thank him for what he has shown us through the meetings.

May the peace of God be with you.

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COUNTDOWN

I have to have some surgery in the near future. All surgery is invasive and brings a variety of risks, some of them potentially serious, as the surgeon explained. However, the benefits of this particular surgery clearly outweigh the dangers and so I am waiting. Because of various factors beyond my and the surgeon’s control, the wait has been longer than either of us anticipated when we began this process.

Essentially, that means I have spent the past few months delaying and postponing and tentatively scheduling things, especially in my ministry. For a while, it looked like the date might fall around Easter, which meant I was tentatively planning our Easter services, half-expecting (and seriously hoping) someone else would be doing them. Then, it was winter vacation—we weren’t sure our winter trip to kids and grandkids would work out. Eventually, both Easter and the vacation happened.

And best of all, I got a date—as solid a date as one can get in any medical system. So now, I find myself dividing life and ministry into before and after surgery. When we talk about doing something in the churches, we need to decide if we can do it before or after my sick leave. Some stuff, like the ministry planning meeting for one pastorate, I would like to do before I am off, so that when I get back, we can jump right into work.

Some stuff, like the meeting at the other pastorate to discuss buildings and related stuff would be nice but can be put off—although the reality is that if we put it off, it likely won’t happen until fall because my sick leave likely ends at about the time most people stop wanting to have meetings because of the summer.

So, the churches and I find ourselves making ministry decisions based on the date of my surgery. For me, that is an interesting place to be in. Normally, my time and situation aren’t a big factor in the decisions we make as far as dates are concerned. As I jokingly tell church people, I am getting paid to be there and so unless the meeting falls on my previously scheduled vacation, I will be there. Many times, even my vacation has been scheduled around church events.

Decisions are made based on which deacon has to be away; how many regulars can’t make the meeting; who is going to have family visiting; which couple is having a significant celebration on the day we want to have a church picnic and so on. Those are all legitimate reasons to consider when scheduling a meeting or activity, at least as far as I am concerned. But as pastor, well, I am paid to work for the church and generally, that means my schedule flexes more than the church schedule.

I don’t have a problem with that—that’s why I get the big bucks. Well, actually, it is part of my calling. I committed to serving God through serving the churches and that involves a certain amount of flex in my planning. It is generally easier to make my plans flexible than it is to try and flex plans for half a dozen or more others.

But for now, everything seems to hang on my surgery and recovery. The churches aren’t going to be on hold for that period of time but we are dividing stuff up into before surgery and after surgery. Now, as a committed pastor, I should probably write that I feel guilty about that—but I actually don’t. I would prefer not to need the surgery but I do and that does affect the church.

But we are a church, a gathering of people who seek to work together to serve God, making allowances and flexing plans based on the needs of all our members. While I am generally one of the more flexible players in the process, this time I can’t be. The churches are comfortable with that, I am comfortable with that—and so we are all spending these days counting down to surgery day and working around this disruption in ministry. Right now, most stuff is being seen as pre- or post-surgery. That, for me, is part of the essence of a healthy church—we deal with the needs of our members, including the needs of the pastor.

May the peace of God be with you.

DURING THE HYMN…

As our church’s regular worship leader, I am normally quite busy during the singing of the hymns. I am checking to make sure that I have the next hymn marked, looking over the congregation to see if I missed anyone’s absence, making sure I have the right spot in the order of service set up on the tablet and, more and more these days with my aging tablet, making sure that I have enough battery power left to finish the service. Needless to say, I am not generally paying a lot of attention to the hymn.

But during a recent service, one line caught my attention. The organist had picked “Onward Christian Soldiers” as the opening hymn—and did her usual excellent job of playing the hymn—I almost felt I needed to march around the sanctuary during the chorus. What caught my attention, though, was the first line of the third verse, where we sang, “Like a mighty army moves the church of God”.

As we sang those words, I was struck by a sense of something—irony, delusion, confusion—something. Here we were, the seventeen of us who made up the congregation that day singing words that compared us to a mighty army. Now, it is true that our numbers were down that day for a variety of reasons: some were travelling, some were at another community function, some were sick and some were just AWOL. But even at our best, we are not a mighty army—mostly, the best our congregations can come with is a seriously under strength platoon and that depends heavily on visitors and summer people.

And our under strength platoon disresembles an army in many other ways. The two deacons who take up the offering are both in their 80s—they are doing really well for their age but they are still in their 80s. The pastor (me) isn’t capable of marching too far—I limp to the door to greet people after being on my feet for the worship service.

And so, our under strength, aging platoon creakily gets to our feet and songs words that proclaim us to be a mighty army. Maybe I should have checked the tablet battery one more time instead of paying attention to the words of the hymn. But then again, maybe the Spirit meant me to focus on those words.

Our church isn’t an army by any stretch of preacherly exaggeration. We were probably closer to that years ago when worship attendance could reach company strength but even at our best, we were never a mighty army. These days, we mostly wonder if we will have enough people to sing the hymns let alone do mighty army acts, whatever they are.

But we are a church—and we are part of the Church Universal, that body of believers stretching through time and space to encompass all people who have discovered the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We might be a small part of that Church Universal but we are still a part of it. And because we are a part of the whole church, the success, triumphs and victories of the church belong to us as well, just as our triumphs past, present and future belong to the whole church.

Our under strength platoon might not be triumphing like the booming church army in Kenya, for example. We might be losing members rather than gain members faster than we can count. We might not be standing up to persecution and government corruption and discrimination. We might not know how long we will keep our doors open, especially if we don’t figure out how to fix the sagging floor in the sanctuary.

But we are touching lives. We helped several families through the pain of death. We are growing in our personal faith through our Bible study group. We are helping the local school provide care for disadvantaged students. We can and do provide prayer support for anyone and everyone who asks for it and for many who don’t ask for it. We support church efforts here, there and everywhere through our offerings and prayers.

So maybe our under strength, seriously aged platoon isn’t a mighty army. But we are still part of a mighty army; we still belong to the victorious side; we have a place and a mission and we are doing it as best we can, with the Holy Spirit’s empowering.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT IF WE GOT BIGGER?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

GOING BACK

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May the peace of God be with you.

WHOSE CHURCH IS IT, ANYWAY?

Because I am a pastor, I spend most of my people time with church people. I work for and with church people; I go to seminars with and about church people; I spend some of my free time teaching people from other churches; I read and study about church people. Some of the reason I spend so much time with church people is that I am an introvert and after spending so much time with church people, I really don’t look for opportunities to spend time with other people.

But mostly I spend my time with church people because that seems to be the nature of my calling. God has called and gifted me for the task of working with church people. And because I have been doing this for so long, I have a lot of ideas and comments and even a few complaints about the church. I am committed to the church, both the local churches I work with and the universal church that all believers are a part of. I have a great respect and appreciation and even love for the church.

But that doesn’t blind me to the difficulties and problems that are an intrinsic part of the church. Because the church, any church, is made up of imperfect people who are learning how to be followers, the church is never going to be perfect in reality, at least in this life. A major part of my calling is helping the church see, understand and change the things that are less than perfect.

And one of the major areas of imperfection that I have noted over the years concerns the ownership of the church. It has been my experience that most people who are a part of the church have the wrong idea of who the church belongs to. There isn’t any real agreement among those who have the wrong idea—the number of wrong answers to the question of who the church belongs to is staggering.

Just as an example, there are those who believe the church belongs to the pastor. Some would suggest that it belongs to those who pay the most. Another group suggests that the church belongs to the denominational structures. Another possibility is that the church belongs to whatever group within it that can come up with the most votes. The oldest members sometimes want to lay claim to the church, especially if some of the newest members want to dispute that claim with a claim of their own.

This debate over the ownership of the church is more than just an intellectual discussion. It affects the very nature and work of the church. If the church belongs to any individual or group or organization, the policy, direction and activity of the church is set by the ownership. The owners decide what the church does, when, how and where. If the owners decide that the mission of the church is comforting the afflicted or afflicting the comfortable, that is what the church does.

But the debate misses the point. The church doesn’t belong to the pastor, the moneyed, the connected, the right age group, the organization. The church belongs to God through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is his church. Christ is the head of the church and the owner of the church. Certainly, he works through his human agents—but it is his church. Forgetting that important reality opens the church to incredible pain and suffering.

Our task as the church is to discover and do what the owner wants—and if the Bible is any indicator, the owner generally wants us to act in ways that go against our generally self-centered desires. In other words, what I want for and from the church are likely not what Jesus wants for and from the church. The church doesn’t exist to make me feel good—it exists to serve Christ. And one thing that pleases Christ is seeing me challenge and change the selfish and sinful aspects of my being that get in the way of really knowing him.

And when I gather with other believers to form a church or the church, the purpose of the church isn’t to make us all feel good—it is to help us all become better at serving the owner personally and as a body. It is Christ’s church, not ours.

May the peace of God be with you.

BEING ORDINARY

I was at a meeting the other day and on my way back from the snack table, I stopped to have a short chat with one of the people who attends one of the churches I pastor. We were joking a bit and talking a bit about the meeting and our Bible study and generally enjoying seeing each other. I made what I thought was a somewhat innocent comment that wasn’t phrased in “ministerial” language. Her response was interesting. She said, “I love it that you are so ordinary!”

We both laughed because I pretended not to know what she meant—and she knew I was pretending. I then thanked her for the compliment. Being ordinary is part of my self-identity. I really don’t want to be seen as “THE MINISTER” or ‘THE PASTOR” or any other “THE”. I am a pastor and I take pride in doing my pastoral and ministerial work well. I have spent a lot of time and effort over the years to ensure that I am good at what I have been called to do. I also appreciate it when people recognize that I am good at what I do. But I really don’t want to be perceived as being something special because of that.

That attitude does sometimes make me feel a bit strange, both in clergy circles and lay circles. Laity have often been taught and encouraged to treat pastors as if our calling turns us into spiritual and moral and general experts, who are somehow out of touch with the rest of humanity because we are so close to God. Other clergy sometimes want to maintain a distance between clergy and laity—one of the ongoing debates in clergy circles, for example, it whether clergy can actually have friends in the church they serve.

My denominational tradition supports my thinking, at least theoretically. Baptists began partly in protest to the elevated position of clergy. We espoused the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, which means that all believers have the freedom and responsibility and ability to approach God directly, without the need for an intermediary. When I begin with that theological position and add to it the Biblical teaching on gifts and calling, I very quickly come to a position that has a equal place for all people of faith.

We are most definitely not equal when it comes to our abilities and gifts—we are very unequal in that area. I am much better at preaching that some of the members of the church, a few of whom can’t even manage to croak out a word when they are in front of people. On the other hand, I am much worse at singing that some of them—my croaking tends to encourage people to call for silent singing or loud organ playing. Some of our church members who can’t preach or sing bring to the congregation the ability to count and care for our church money—they can actually add and subtract numbers and get them right.

Our inequality in terms of gifts and abilities is part of our overall equality. Each gift and ability and individual has a part of play in our church and ministry—and that makes us equal. My gifts are important at times and at other times, they really aren’t important. When the church puts on their annual tea and sale, my gift of preaching and teaching isn’t overly important, which is why I get assigned to the dishpan in the kitchen, where my lack of tea and sale specific gifts isn’t a problem. But the member of the church whose gift of organizing and administering becomes the most important person that day.

I appreciate my gifts and my calling. I work hard at keeping myself current and capable. I want to be the best I can be at understanding and using my gifts. But I don’t want my gifts and calling to stand out simply because they exist. I much prefer the situation where people recognize my gifts, their gifts and other’s gifts and feel comfortable calling on the gifted person for the exercise of their gifts in the appropriate ways—and when the gifts aren’t needed, everyone is equal and ordinary. When we see each other as both gifted and ordinary, I think we have a solid and strong foundation for our church, one that God can and will build on.

May the peace of God be with you.

CLOSE THEM DOWN!

Recently, both my wife and I has parishioners in the large regional hospital 2.5 hours away. Our pastoral calling made a trip to the city necessary—and practical considerations made going together in one car a good idea. The fact that we would have some uninterrupted time together while we were doing our respective jobs was a blessing. The five hour drive wasn’t such a great blessing but we were at least together.

On the way back, we stopped for coffee and groceries—whenever we pass near a larger centre, we plan our shopping trip to take advantage of the lower prices and greater selection. While we were having our coffee break, a friend we hadn’t seen since our last stint in Kenya noticed us and came over to sit with us. We had a good time catching up with what was going on in all of our lives.

Except that one part of the conversation upset us both a bit. Our friend knew we were back in Canada but didn’t know what we were doing so we had to do the story of which churches we were serving. It took a while to get across the idea that between us, we serve nine different churches. We had to go through the explanation of how many worship services we do each Sunday; how many people there are in worship; how many in my pastorates go wherever the worship is and so on.

After we got that part done, our friend made the profound observation that it would make a lot more sense to close a lot of the buildings and save everyone a lot of time and effort. At that point, I sort of began looking at my watch, wondering if it we could graciously break off the conversation and head for the groceries and then home.

Our friend’s observation, delivered with such conviction, was the perfect example of armchair pastoring. I am not sure but I suspect that his comments about closing buildings were delivered as if I had never thought of that. He likely felt that he was giving me some important advice that would change the course of my ministry.

Certainly, on the level of simple logic, closing buildings makes perfect sense. But the practical realities of closing get twisted together with social, cultural, personal, family and theological ties that create a knot with deep and powerful roots. Closing church buildings isn’t an easy process—it is a Gordian knot that even Alexander’s chopping solution won’t work for.

There are valid reasons and effective processes for closing church buildings—but the process is long, slow and inefficient to the extreme. And that is because the process doesn’t involve economics and efficiencies and logic. It actually involves feelings and traditions and hopes and dreams and a bunch of other non-logical and hard to measure stuff. Any pastor who approaches the process of closing a building steps into a mindfield protected by lasers, machine guns, trained attack scorpions, dive bombers and super ninjas—and that is just the normal level of protection. Threaten the building and the people really get serious about its defence.

I learned a long time ago that ministry in rural areas and small churches is going to have to be done in the context of too many and too much building. The demands of buildings are going to consume lots of time and energy and money. Long term, some of them must and will close. But in view of the difficulty and poor return on time and energy investment, I decided to ignore buildings and focus on ministry. I use the buildings, I appreciate the history, I even try to take part in repaid and clean up days—but the building isn’t the focus of my ministry. The people are—and if they want to continue with too many and too much building, that really isn’t a big issue for me. I will encourage them to look at their building status, I will encourage them to think seriously about their buildings, I might even suggest that the church isn’t a building—but I will do that in the context of trying to remember which building we meet in this week and which building is going to need repairs this week and all the rest.

My friend’s suggestion was a much too simple solution to a much too complicate issue that I generally choose to ignore because there are better ways to spend my ministry time.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE CHURCH MEETS

I am sitting in a coffee shop with a friend. He is drinking real coffee but I have been good and ordered a decaf so I don’t have to pay the extra price of regular coffee later. We have been friends for a long time but haven’t connected for a while so the conversations hops back and forth, covering a variety of topics as we try to catch up and move along at the same time. Because we are both believers and both fairly heavily involved in the work of our respective congregations, part of the conversation concerns our church life and our faith.

I have had this meeting a great many times with various people over the years, in several countries and two languages. And somewhere along the line, a question about the nature of the meeting popped into my mind—not during the meeting because the conversation is too free-flowing and jumps around so much that most of my attention is required to keep up. But after some meeting somewhere sometime, I began to wonder about the nature of the time together.

I wondered if I could properly say that the two or three of us sitting there drinking coffee and sharing and talking could be called a church. On one level, the answer is easy: No way. We were people drinking coffee and talking. We have none of the commonly recognized attributes of a church. There was no order of service, no sermon, no offering, no singing, no membership list. We don’t meet regularly, we don’t have an administrative structure, we have never developed a constitution and bylaws. We have never developed a program, run a Sunday School, conducted a baptism—although in fairness, I do have to say that at some point all of those things have likely been topics at the coffee shop.

That isn’t a good enough answer for me—I tend not to like pat and quick answers. Actually, to answer the question, I needed to ask another question, “Just what is a church at its most basic?” That is a question my analytical, research loving self can really dig into. Obviously, the best place to start is the New Testament, where our faith is explored and described and explained. There must be somewhere where there is a simple, clear definition of what the church is.

Except there really isn’t. It seems that the New Testament is based on several assumptions about the church: it will be made of believers, the believers will join together, they will have problems and they will be filled with the Holy Spirit. The New Testament has a lot of good advice for the church but no real definition of the church, which probably goes a long way to explain the incredibly diversity in churches around the world and throughout history.

But there is one place where I think we have something that comes close to a basic definition of the church. Matthew 18.20 records Jesus as saying, “… where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” NIV And maybe that is what I am looking for, a basic, elemental definition of the church, stripped of all the cultural, theological and ecclesiastical qualifications and requirements and all the rest.

The church exists when two or three people come together conscious of their shared faith. Their shared faith means that they aware of the presence of the risen, living Christ with them and that makes them the church or at least a church. For that time and that space, they are a church, a part of the universal gathering of God’s people of all time and space. I think this provides a very important definition of who and what we are as a church. It takes no more than a couple of people coming together conscious of their shared faith to be the church.

So, whether we need to share a consecrated Cup of wine, a blessed single serving of grape juice or a cup of coffee (even decaf), we can be the church. In this definition, the church is much more widespread, much more pervasive and much more involved in the world than if we see it as only a specific gathering meeting in a specific place conforming to all the specific requirements.

Two or three conscious of the presence of the Spirit—that gathering becomes a church. I like that lot. I will have to give that idea some more thought.

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.