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.

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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.

THE VISIT

A recently retired friend invited me for a visit because another friend we both know was visiting them. I was happy to spend some time with all of them—the retired friend is living part-time in the area I serve as pastor and attends worship so I could multi-task. With that one visit, I was both improving my pastoral visit statistics and spending time with friends. That sounds like win-win to me.

All of us are or have been involved in ministry, either as pastors, missionaries or spouses of pastors. Inevitably, then, the conversation turned to ministry and we began telling stories. The friend of the friend was the most extroverted so managed to tell the most stories but we all go a chance to tell stories. Because I can’t do much in life without analysing and studying, I was keeping a sort of mental record of the stories—who told which story, which themes kept coming up, who responded to which story in which way.

The results were interesting. We were all telling stories about things, events and incidents that affected our ministry and that enhanced both our faith and our ministry. One of the people kept referring to times when God called him spend money he didn’t have—his faith commitment was always to help out someone who needed serious help. All of his stories ended with his amazement at how God had honoured his faith be ensuring that the money he spent and didn’t have was returned to him.

One of the other people present had obviously heard some of the stories before and really wanted to hear them again, to the point of asking someone to retell a particular story. It seemed that the retelling of the stories was an important part of their faith. This person also had their own stories, stories that focused on how God provided the support and help needed when they were facing scary times in ministry, like when God showed them that their step of faith in attending seminary wouldn’t result in their family starving.

I tended to tell stories of how God worked to make up some deficit in my life so that I could do the ministry I was called to or stories of how people I had taught or mentored went on to do what I considered significant ministry. Another told stories that indicated how God had provided the faith to enable them to follow in the scary footsteps of a partner whose faith was often several steps ahead of them.

At first, my analytical side was tempted to rank the stories. The temptation was to see the stories about money as less significant than my stories about real ministry or to see stories where the teller was the hero as less important than the ones where the teller didn’t look good. But I realized that this wasn’t actually a very productive avenue of thought (NOTE—I do actually process at several levels during conversations and can still maintain focus on what is being said).

This wasn’t a contest. This was a group of friends who had all spent serious time in ministry talking about the wonder of being a part of God’s work. We all approached ministry from our personal perspective; we all had different needs in our faith and ministry; we all had different skill and gift sets—but we were all still amazed that God had chosen us, equipped us and was willing to work through us. The stories were our expressions of amazement and gratitude.

And because we were all different, it is no surprise that the themes of our stories were different. God celebrates diversity. He encourages diversity. He created humanity to thrive on diversity. I don’t need other people to tell the same kind of stories I tell—I need to listen to their stories and hear how God is working in their lives so that I can grow in faith and my understanding of God, just as they can grow and develop in hearing my stories. If we all told the same story, what would be the point?

I enjoyed my visit so much that I felt a tiny bit guilty including it in my visitation statistics—not guilty enough to leave it out of the list, though. It was good to share time and stories with people I have known for years and whose lives have followed similar paths as mine. In our diversity, we enabled and encouraged each other.

May the peace of God be with you.

BACK TO WORK

After a two week vacation, I am back at work—well, I have actually been back at work for a few days now. After two weeks of sleeping in, playing with grandchildren, visiting and all that fun stuff, getting back into the process of writing sermons and all the other stuff that I was supposed to do was hard work. For a variety of reasons, my first week back didn’t include much time with church people, beyond some phone calls and emails, although I did do one Bible study. It was mostly preparation, dealing with stuff that I put off until after vacation, planning for the fall church season and resting my knees from too much time spent with busy and active grandchildren. (In the interest if clarity, the too much time was just on the part of my knees, not the rest of me.)

So, the first real contact I had with church people was Sunday worship. They had had a substitute preacher for two weeks and I has two weeks off, including one Sunday where I didn’t actually attend worship at all. Driving to both worship services, I did my usual contemplation about who would be there and who wouldn’t—in small congregations like ours, it is fairly easy to remember who is going to be where when. I actually don’t know why I do this to myself because my anticipated numbers are always smaller than the actual attendance.

But when I arrived and as people started arriving, we got to the real point. We had missed each other. I was happy to see them and they were happy to see me. We talked about my time off (the family retreat was great, the grandchildren were even better, I needed to get back to work to get a rest from my vacation); their time while I was away (We really appreciated hearing the supply preacher, we miss Bible study, did you know she is having surgery tomorrow, isn’t is great that it isn’t as hot, we need to have a business meeting to discuss this); and anything else we could think of.

It was good to be back. I have to confess that during my vacation, I spent some time wondering why I am still doing what I am doing. I have passed the accepted retirement age, I have sufficient funds available to retire, I have lots of things I would like to do that I don’t have time to do because of work, writing sermons is getting to be harder work that it used to be—I thought of all sorts of things in an attempt to figure out why I am still doing what I am doing.

And while I don’t yet have a complete answer, I do think I found part of the answer at those two worship services the first Sunday back. I am a pastor, called by God to be in a special relationship with a specific group of people. We are in a God ordained relationship where we work together to help each other in our common journey through life and towards God. I am the pastor, called to give whatever it is that God has called me to give. As the church, they are called to receive whatever it is that God has ordained that they receive.

But it is more than that because the roles are flexible and changeable—often, the church is the pastor and I am the recipient of the pastoral input. I teach and preach—but often, the church teaches me and preaches to me. Our relationship is deep, complex and multifaceted. We are joined together by our common faith and by God’s calling. Working in and through all of us, God has something to accomplish in the church, the individuals who make up the church and me.

And so part of the answer to the question of why I am still doing what I am doing is that God isn’t finished with this particular pairing of pastor and church. He still has things to accomplish through us. Church and pastor are still united by God because we both still have stuff to give and receive from each other. This relationship is a powerful and profound one and while I know that someday it will end, that day isn’t right now. We all have more to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE FAMILY OF GOD

One of the suggested activities for our family reunion was attending a worship service at the church where we all spent a lot of time while we were growing up. Given that there were 40-50 of us at the reunion, this could have the potential for being a major influx of people for a mid-summer worship service. I have to confess that I was hoping that no one organizing the reunion thought to let the church know that we were coming for purely selfish reasons—I was pretty sure that if they knew we were coming, I would be asked to preach, which I didn’t really want to do since I was going to be on vacation.

No one told the church and I didn’t get asked to preach. So, Sunday morning, we ended up walking from our hotel to worship since both our cars were needed by our children not to attend worship. It was a nice walk, just at the edge of my aging knees’ limits. Unfortunately, we arrived just as the church bell was ringing, not my usual 10-20 minutes early. We were almost the last of the family to arrive—I managed to jump head of one of my sisters on the steps.

The pastor greeted us, members of the congregation greeted us and just before worship began, the pastor asked if I would lead the pastoral prayer, which I declined, and if we would introduce ourselves once things began. Although we had all grown up in the church, if had been a long time since most of us were there and a lot of the congregation had changed.

We were well received by the congregation—the “new” people were pleased to have a larger congregation and to have some connection with the past. But the reaction of the people who were there when we were there was significant. There was genuine joy and appreciation. Some of these people had taught most of us in school and in Sunday School. Some had attended school and Sunday School with some of us. All of us had a significant set of memories and connections and emotional responses.

One of the women got up to read Scripture but prefaced the reading with an appreciation for our family, including some memories and her personal appreciation for being a part of helping us become who we were now. That triggered a lot of thoughts for me because I began looking at all the connections with those present and those not present. The woman reading the Scripture had been one of my school teachers. Her father had been Sunday School superintendent and had also hired me to help work on the extension to the church building while I was a teen.

One on the men whose presence I deeply missed had been the Sunday School teacher who happily volunteered to teach our group of teenaged guys all through our Sunday School tenure, a task that I know now was demanding and onerous but which he loved because he cared so much for each of us. As the pastor preached, I couldn’t help but remember the pastor whose ministry had covered my whole time at that church and who baptized all of us.

Going to worship that day was another family reunion. The Family of God is a deep and significant part of my life and my involvement in it really began in that congregation in that building. The reality of the Christian faith, which has been the basis of my career and my life, began for me in that congregation as people accepted this large poor family that started filling the middle pew one Sunday long ago. They took us in, found us a place in Sunday School, youth group, VBS, worship. They picked us up and took us home when Dad was working and the weather prevented us from walking. They nurtured and taught and played and corrected and made us a part of the family.

And so when we arrived on Sunday morning, we were as welcomed at the church as we were at the reunion site—and for similar reasons. We were family and we belonged. We might not have been there for a long time but we were family and when family shows us, everyone is happy.

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.