TOO MANY BUILDINGS

My job sounds much more demanding than it really is, a fact that almost inevitably leads to a specific conversational track when someone asks about it. The process begins when someone who doesn’t know what I am doing asks and I explain that I am part-time pastor to two different pastorates, one of which has four congregations and the other of which has 2 congregations.

The immediate response is one of surprise and comments of how busy I must be, which I respond to by saying that the congregations are all small, we only have one service a week at each pastorate and in the end, each pastorate basically functions as one congregation, although we meet in multiple buildings. My explanation that the small size of the congregations and the fact that I am part-time means that I don’t work anywhere near as hard as they might think are met with nods and winks.

The next phase of the conversation tends to focus on the buildings—it seems that people really can’t get a hold of the fact that I can and do actually manage to keep myself to part-time hours (mostly) and so they need something to focus on to avoid calling me a liar. The building provide a convenient focus.

And we have lots of buildings. And these aren’t all great buildings. Between the six buildings, there are two and a half bathrooms—the half comes about because the women of the building with a porta-potti out back don’t consider that to be a bathroom for some reason. The newest of the buildings is well over 100 years old, although two of them have recent additions (including batrooms) that play a valuable part in our ministry. All of the building have considerable maintenance costs—although these old buildings are well built, time-induced deterioration simply can’t be avoided. Add to that the fact that old buildings are simply not energy efficient and you have a fairly expensive ministry base. In the end, we simply have too many buildings for the people and ministry.

So, the person talking to me generally makes a comment about the number of buildings and wonders why we just don’t get rid of some of them—or all of them for that matter. A few of the people I talk to come from denominational traditions where the bishop or some outside committee makes the decision to close a building, which makes the issue all the more difficult for them to understand.

I have been in this conversation so many times that I have developed a standard answer. For me the bottom line is that the buildings aren’t my responsibility or focus. There is a lot of ministry that needs to be done and focusing on buildings takes away from my ability to do the real ministry. As long as there is money to keep the building usable, I don’t get involved in the process. I use the building, I appreciate the building and I work hard to make sure I am at the right building at the right time for the right purpose—but I am not going to get involved in the debate over if and when to close down a building.

And fortunately for me, I belong to a denomination where that decision isn’t one I really have to be involved in. In our tradition, the building belongs to the people who make up the church that makes that building their home and they have final say on everything about the building. My job as pastor is to teach, preach, enable, encourage, care for and generally be a shepherd to the people. I can and occasionally do draw attention to the excess number of buildings and encourage people to think about that reality. When the issue arises at a meeting, I agree that we need to think carefully about our buildings—but I am also going to be working at the fund raiser for the building.

I have more important things to do than worry about buildings. As long as the building is providing a base for ministry and the church has the means to support the buildings, I don’t much care whether I lead worship in one building or four buildings. My responses to the conversation about buildings tends not to satisfy people who think we would be further ahead with fewer buildings—but they tend to become quiet when I ask them if they would close down their building.

May the peace of God be with you.

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BEING SALT AND LIGHT

I knew a guy one time who was looking for the perfect church, one where he would be free to develop his understanding of God and the Kingdom. He was convinced that when he found that perfect church, everything would be great. He was a pastor and had some connections with the people who helped churches find pastors so he used the connections and discovered a church that looked good. Unfortunately, after he had been there a short time, he began to see some problems—and if the truth be told, he himself began to create some problems. Eventually, the imperfection in the church became so serious that he resigned to go to another church that looked perfect.

I am pretty sure that he is still looking for that perfect church. Personally, I entered ministry with the understanding that neither churches nor pastors are perfect and that we both need to try and help each other become a bit better at following the faith that we claim. So, whenever I am called to a church as their pastor, I know without question that I am not going to a perfect church. That is alright, though, because I also know without question that when they call me, they are not getting a perfect pastor.

Neither the church nor the pastor is perfect—and given the theological realities of sin and its persistence even after we become believers, there is no chance of a perfect church or perfect pastor this side of eternity. For me, that raised all sorts of questions, issues and concerns. One of those many questions, issues and concerns grows out of the fact that we are supposed to be sale and light in the world, a visible and concrete reminder to the community of the love and grace of God.

When we show our imperfection to the community, which we do with depressing regularity, what does that do to our saltiness and lightness? It can and all too often does turn into anti-salt and anti-light, discouraging people outside the faith from seeing our faith as a viable option for their lives. Mind you, if we try to cover up our imperfections, the community is also very aware that we are not perfect and our cover up attempts also discourage people when it comes to the faith.

We are called to be salt and light—and we are imperfect. And any approach to being the church or an individual believer that doesn’t keep those two basic truths in mind is doomed to failure. We can’t be perfect—and we can’t help but give witness to our faith. And so it seems to me that the only real choice we have is to be upfront about who and what we really are.

We need to be willing to admit to any and all that we are imperfect. What makes us people of faith and churches is not our perfection but rather the fact that we have admitted to God that we can’t deal with our imperfection by ourselves. We surrender ourselves to God who then has our permission to work in our lives: smoothing the rough spots; teaching our ignorance; forgiving the sins; guiding our footsteps and all the rest. God knows we are not perfect—but he loves and graces us anyway.

We are salt and light when we freely admit our sins and imperfections not just to God, each other and the church but also to the community and the rest of the world. We don’t always get it right—in fact, we get it wrong as much as anyone else and maybe even more than some people. What sets us apart is that we have discovered that God can deal with us in our imperfect state and wants us to be in a deep relationship with him even in our imperfect state. When we live our faith and run our churches conscious of our imperfection and our dependence of the love and grace of God, then our sin and imperfection become part of our divine saltiness and lightness because our confession and forgiveness and trying again point beyond our imperfection to the perfect God who can and does provide a way for us even in our imperfection.

We show salt and light when we remember and then let the community know that we are not perfect—but we believe in a God who is and whose love and grace can deal with our imperfection.

May the peace of God be with you.

CLEARING SNOW

Palm Sunday was supposed to be either the last of the once a month winter worship services or the first of our regular weekly worship services—either way, the winter break was over and it was time to start up the ministry at one of the part-time pastoral situations I serve. But there was a problem—not a problem that I paid much attention to but a problem nonetheless.

The problem began with a late season snowstorm that ended up giving us as much snow as we had all winter. That meant that the parking lot and driveway at the building we were going to use for worship was filled with snow. Since it is a 60 kilometer round trip for me to get to the building, I didn’t know about the state of the parking lot—but the people who attend knew and were concerned. They decided that they needed to have the lot cleared and made some calls to find someone to do the job. Since we don’t normally use the building during the winter, we don’t have a regular person to clear our snow.

The guy who showed up to clear the parking lot had one basic requirement that he insisted on strongly—he didn’t want to be paid for doing the work. He wasn’t a member of our congregation. He didn’t attend worship regularly. He hadn’t been a visitor at some point. My guess is that he likely hadn’t been inside the building in years, it ever. His closest connection with the church was that years ago, his grandmother had been a member of the congregation. But he wanted to clear our parking lot for free.

We talked about this during our worship. After hearing that what he had done, those of us who were there were grateful—so grateful that during the prayer time, one person asked if we could give thanks for the person’s generosity, which sparked a larger conversation on why he would do that which led us into a discussion of the role of our church in the community.

Given that we had seven people counting me in worship that morning, it would be easy to see ourselves as insignificant and unimportant with no real impact on the community. But incidents like this suggest that we might have a bigger influence and role in the community that we realize. One of the comments made during the discussion was that people in the community regularly ask how the church is doing—they don’t actually come to worship but it seems important to them that we exist and are doing okay.

In my visiting in the community, I regularly make contact with people who don’t attend our church but who seem to know what is going and even have opinions about what we should and shouldn’t be doing. They also don’t attend but somehow, we are important to them.

It seems to me that what we are seeing and hearing is connected to something Jesus said in Matthew 5.13-14, where he tells believers that we are salt and light in the world. The gathering of believers, the church, exists for many reasons, one of which is to be a witness of God’s love. Our presence in the world and the local community by itself is to be a witness, a salting and lighting of the world and local community with the a visible representation of the love and grace of God.

If we are doing our salt and light job well, the community will notice and respond. The response might be limited but it will be there. It might take to form of a willingness to clear our parking lot for free. It might show when there is a crisis that prompts someone to ask a member to say a prayer for them. It might be the response to the salt and light they see will prompt them to seek a stronger sense of God during some crisis.

Whatever the response, we are called to be aware that we are salt and light in our community. Our existence is rooted in more than just our numbers and our internal activities. We are the church, and our existence makes a difference not just to our group but to the world and our local community. Our salt and light make a difference, a difference that we might not always see but which is real and important.

May the peace of God be with you.

I CAN DO IT BY MYSELF!

The man just wants to be left alone. We don’t know about his past but hints and clues suggest that his life hasn’t been easy. There may be something terrible back somewhere but all we see now is a strong, independent individual who just wants to farm his farm, herd his cattle, fish his fish, research his research, raise his family—that part varies depending on the movie. What doesn’t vary is the need for independence and the lack of a need for much in the way of relationships with other people.

This movie, book, TV show, coffee shop tale is something of a theme for our western culture: the strong, capable independent hero who just wants to be left alone. He (sometimes, she) needs nothing beyond what he produces himself. We in the west like to think of ourselves in terms of this cultural archetype—we are all like this, or wish we were like this.

And this cultural desire for independence is part of the reason why Christian worship attendance in Canada is so low when claims of being a Christian are still relatively high. Just as we celebrate the hero taking care of business by himself, we have developed a faith culture that sees faith as not needing anything beyond an individual and God—and if we are really honest, the God part of the equation is open to a great deal of interpretation. We are not all that comfortable with God unless we have the independence to tinker and edit so that the God who is the focus of our faith looks and feels like we want him (her, it) to look and feel.

We are, in reality, a culture that celebrates independence. We don’t really like obligations that are imposed by relationships. We don’t want to owe people. In fact, we have created a culture that tries to reduce every interpersonal transaction to the lowest common denominator—and that tends to be money.

If I pay for something, I am still independent and in control. I made the money, I chose to spend it. The relationship is bounded by the financial transaction. There is no need for gratitude, returning favours, mutual support—all that kind of ucky and troubling stuff that relationships and commitments bring.

I am aware that I am overstating the reality. But our western independence is a reality and it does, I think, have an effect on how we western believers relate to each other and the church. To be a part of a church might suggest that we need something or someone. At the very least, it suggests that someone might be able to ask us for something and we might not be in a position to say no. And so it is easier and safer in the long run to conceptualize our faith as a part of our independence.

My very western faith is focused on God—we have a good thing going here. I don’t really need God and he doesn’t really need me but we can get together now and then and within the rules of my independence, I can do whatever—maybe complain about the difficulties of life, maybe blame God for some trouble, maybe tell God how to do her job. I don’t actually need God but it is nice to have him or her around, as long as God doesn’t make any unreasonable demands, like suggesting that I join a church.

So, we have become a culture of independent Christians, people whose faith is expressed in solitude and not in community. And while there is certainly a need and encouragement in the Christian faith for solitude, it isn’t the defining characteristic of the Christian faith. And the deeper, darker, ignored reality is that it really isn’t a defining characteristic of our western culture.

Remember the independent hero standing on his own two feet, dealing with life on his terms? Well, doesn’t that movie always end up with the hero discovering the wonder of a relationship as he battles for the woman or the child or the older couple or even the dog or horse? Doesn’t the movie end with the independent hero happily trading his independence for the relationship?

Our culture may love the theory of independence but the practise tends to be lonely and boring. Our culture and our faith in the end need us to be in real relationships with real people.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT ABOUT THE CHURCH?

I have been quoting an interesting statistic for several years ago, every since I discovered it in a book written by a friend. In discussing the state of the Christian faith in Canada, he mentioned that about 16% of Canadians attend Christian worship these days. I have seen other statistics that put the number slightly higher but none of the other statistical pictures of the church in Canada put attendance all that much higher.

A quick and very unscientific (on my part, anyway) web search reveals that a majority of Canadians still claim to be believers. The sites all make the usual disclaimers about statistical validity and so on and some lament that the numbers claiming faith have dropped over the years but the reality is that most people in Canada still claim to be followers of Christ.

For me, that raises a very important and troubling question. If people claim to be followers of Christ, why aren’t they in worship? You might suggest that that is a very biased and self-focused question, given that I am a pastor and have a vested interest in people attending worship. But I am choosing to overlook that part of the question for now—over the years, I have become comfortable with being the pastor of small congregations. I am excited when someone new discovers the church and/or the faith but I don’t define myself or my ministry by the numbers.

I approach the question as one who would like to know why the discrepancy exists. Surely, if we are part of something, we would be interested in being with people who are also part of that something. People seem to love to connect with those who share their thinking and interests. If I put out an invitation for left-handed, colour-blind people who like photography and cross country skiing but who are limited by seriously arthritic knees, I am pretty sure that before too long, I would have enough responses to form a club—by the way, I don’t want to be president, secretary or treasurer.

So why do such a significant number of people who claim to follow Christ not associate with other believers? Like any significant question, I am sure that there are many interlinked answers to that question, answers that I have been hearing and thinking about for many years. This isn’t an easy question nor it is one that can be answered with a simple or simplistic response.

One of the factors in the answer is certainly a lack of understanding of the nature of the church. Many people in Canada—well probably the whole Western world, but I am really only qualified to talk about Canada—many people here have either forgotten or never really understood the strong community base of the Christian faith. Christianity was conceived as a faith that brings about reconciliation. People are reconciled to God, to themselves and to others.

There is a lot of emphasis on the community in the Christian faith, including the very blunt and powerful message we find in I John 4.20-21: “If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.” (NIV)

This was written to believers to help them understand one of the essentials of their faith—our love of God is shown for what it really is in our relationship with other people, especially other believers. If we can’t actually use our faith in God to enhance our relationships with people who share our faith, then our claimed faith isn’t as significant as we think or hope it is.

In the New Testament, to be a believer is to be a part of a group of believers because it is within and through that group that we have our best opportunity to grow in faith. As we interact with each other in the presence of the Holy Spirit, we are enabled and enabling in the faith. That is the point of the church—it was planned as the safe place where faith can be cultivated and grown and expressed. But for a variety of reasons, believers have forgotten or ignored that important reality—to the detriment of both church and individual believers.

May the peace of God be with you.

NUMBER 80 AGAIN

Being the 80th pastor in a pastorate that goes back 185 years puts an interesting perspective on ministry.  Like most pastors, early in my ministry, I tended to see what I do in a church as an isolated segment of time and space.  Most of us, I think, discount much of what happened before we arrived and aren’t overly concerned about what happens after we leave.

Very quickly, I learned that a smart pastor needs to know something about what happened before they arrived.  The present is shaped by the past and unless we know the past, we can’t work effectively.  I was pastor in one congregation which insisted that they didn’t want anything to do with evangelism.  Given that being evangelists on one of our basic tasks as believers and churches, I was somewhat surprised at this revelation.  After some digging, I discovered that the real difficulty was a certain approach to evangelism that was part of some painful experiences for the church.

Based on that historical understanding, I helped the church develop an outreach program that was actually quite beneficial to the church and community.  As long as we didn’t call it evangelism, the church was enthusiastic in their support.

As a result, I discovered that it is good for a pastor to know what happened in the past.  The past helps shape the present ministry.  Sometimes, the present ministry needs to work to correct or modify the past.  Other times, we can build on the past–rather than re-inventing the wheel by doing all the stuff that has been done before, we get to build a cart on the wheels prepared in the past.

And when you are the 80th pastor, there are a lot of things from the past.  It might be easy to dismiss anything beyond last year as ancient history but listen to people long enough and you will hear and see the effects of those long ago events.  At a Bible study recently, some of the members recalled the pain and turmoil associated with the ministry of a previous pastor, pain and turmoil that still hurts a bit after forty years.  At some levels, I have to be aware of this ancient pain in my ministry.

In another Bible Study session, someone talked about the love and compassion they experienced from a former Sunday School teacher.  Heads nodded from the others who remembered that teacher–and several were eager to tell her story to the relative new-comers in the group whose experience didn’t go back the necessary 50 years.

So, I am the 80th pastor in one place–and in the other set of congregations, I am at an even higher number although no one I know has a complete list.  But given that this other pastorate goes back to about 1780, that should put me into the low 100s, based on the 2.3 year average of the younger pastorate.  While it might make sense to say I really only need to be concerned about the former pastors up to the age of the oldest members, that isn’t really true

Occasionally, I talk to someone who passes on the family story of old Rev. So and So whose actions in relation to their long dead grandparents kept their family in or out of the church, depending on the nature of that long ago event.

My ministry in both places is built on the foundation of all these previous ministries.  Sometimes, I have to apologize for and undo some of what came before.  Sometimes, I get to renovate and update what came before.  And occasionally, I inherit a really good working thing that I don’t need to touch but which makes my ministry much better.  My ministry is also built on the foundation of all the elders, deacons, choir members, organists, Sunday School teachers, ordinary members and community members affected by what went on before.

I am the 80th in one place and well over the 80th in  another.  I have been called by God to serve these congregations for a time.  What I do will become part of the next pastor.  It makes sense to me now to be aware of the past–remembering where the church has been helps is determine what to do now to get to where God wants us to go.

May the peace of God be with you.

NUMBER 80

One of the collection of churches that I serve has connections with a couple of buildings that were formerly used as part of our pastorate.  One of them we still own and the other is sort of collectively owned by the community.  We hold occasional services in the buildings but neither has been in regular use since I have been in the area and my history here goes back a long time.

For a variety of reasons, some major renovation work was done on the community owned building this past summer.  Part of the reason for the work was that it was needed but the primary impetus for the work was the desire to have it looking good for the wedding that was happening there this summer.  We decided to hold a re-dedication ceremony for the building as one of our special events this fall.

In the course of preparations for the service, several of us got involved in historical research.  Through a friend, I got a copy of a letter to a Christian magazine describing the dedication of the building when construction was completed in 1855.  Another church member dug through some records she had and came up with a list of pastors.

She brought the list up to date and then informed the Bible Study group that I was the 80th pastor for that collection of churches.  Given that the churches were formally established in 1832, that means that the average pastoral stay was 2.3 years, according to my calculator.  Practically, the average stay would have been less–there were several periods when the churches didn’t have a pastor.  When the building whose renovations we  were celebrating was dedicated for example, there was no official pastor–the church members looked after the pastoral duties.

In the 185 years of existence, this collection of churches has had ups and downs.  In their early history, they had some serious expansion.  From a group meeting in one community, they planted congregations in at least 5 other communities, complete with buildings, Sunday Schools, choirs and all the trimmings that go with active, growing congregations.  While none of the buildings are huge, most can seat 80-100.  I won’t say they can do that comfortably because anyone who has ever spent time on old rural church buildings knows that old church pews are not known for comfort.

Early Baptists seemed to believe that comfort was somehow vaguely sinful.  Couple that with the fact that most people worked hard and if they sat down for any length of time on a comfortable seat, they would fall asleep and you get a pretty good understanding of why the pews were so uncomfortable.

So, for 185 years, there have been Christians meeting in these buildings, discovering and showing their faith.  Sometimes, they had outside leadership–but never for very long and therefore never with any real consistent direction and vision.  When the average stay of a pastor is less than two years, there is a lot of changing emphasis as each new pastor comes in with new ideas to set the church and the world on fire for the Lord–or at least catch the eye of a bigger congregation.

In the end, that means that most of the credit for the survival of these congregations belongs to the people who sat in those pews week after week and whose faith expressed itself in a variety of ways.  Sometimes, they got stuff wrong.  Sometimes, they got things right.  Sometimes, they did the right thing because it was the only choice.  This particular group of churches, for example, were one of the first to call a female pastor which was a pretty innovative step for a small Baptist congregation when  it happened in 1974.

So, I am the 80th in a long chain of pastors.  I don’t know how long I will be here–I past retirement age recently and so I know that there is a limit to how long I will be here.  I hope to stay beyond the average stay.  But regardless of how long I stay, I need to remember two things.  First, the church survives because of the church, not because of the pastor.  And second, both the church and I are doing what we do so that God may be glorified and his light shine in the world.  If we do that, not much else matters.

May the peace of God be with you.

FIXER-UPPER

I confess–I can’t help it.  In the last post, I was content to share my fix-it rules and leave it at that.  Writing the post helped pass the time while the glue on the Fitbit repair dried (it is still holding).  But I am a teacher and a preacher as well as a fixer–and most of my ministry has been spend working for an organization that always needs fixing.  Given that no church has ever been perfect and there will never be a perfect church until we all come together as perfected beings in heaven, there is always something that needs to be fixed in the church.  So, I am going to take a simple post written while fixing a Fitbit and turn it into a pastoral illustration about fixing churches.

But there, however,  are some important differences between what I do with lawn mowers, broken furniture and Fitbits.  One of the first and most significant differences is that in the church, I am not just the fixer–I am also part of the problem.  I am generally involved with churches as pastor–but that doesn’t change the fact that I bring my own flaws and difficulties to the church.

When I approach the church, I need to make sure that the thing I think I am called to fix isn’t more my problem than the church’s problem.  I also need to make sure that the fix I think I am called to apply isn’t coming from my needs and flaws and not the church needs and flaws.  Basically, the first rule of fixing in the church is that we are all in need of some fixing at some point.  If I forget that rule, I just might fix the church into a worse mess than it was before.  Unfortunately, the history of the church shows that too many of us who have tried to fix the church have forgotten our own need to be fixed.

The second rule of church fixing comes from the fact that sometimes the things that actually need to be fixed aren’t that easy to see, or some relatively minor need covers a much deeper and much more serious need.   In the kind of small churches that I work with, there are always some obvious things that new pastors think should be fixed.  Most people prefer to sit near the back, making it hard for them to hear.  A lot of pastors spend a lot of energy trying to fix that by getting people to move up to the front.

But where people sit is something of a distraction for deeper, more serious problems that have a more serious effect on the long-term health of the church.  I have learned to ignore the distraction and focus on the seating pattern, which sometimes reveals the underlying problem of tensions and factions in the church, something that is very serious and which actually needs to be addressed–carefully and sensitively and patiently–but still needs to be addressed much more than whether people sit at the back or not.

But for me, the biggest difference between fixing a broken chair leg and fixing a church has to do with the fact that when I fix a chair leg or a Fitbit or a lamp cord, I am on my own.  Sure, I can talk to friends, check my home repair books, look things up on the internet–I can even sidestep the whole process and hire someone to do the work.  But even with all that, I am in charge of the repairs.  I decide what to do, what not to do, what rules to follow and which ones to ignore.

In the church, though, I am not alone.  I work with the church in the process.  The Fitbit doesn’t know or care that I am trying to fix it–it has no input on what I do.  But the church does–I need their permission and cooperation in the process.  It is not me, the expert, fixing them, the problem.  It is us, a collection of flawed individuals seeking to use our collective gifts and abilities to address our collective issues.  In the church, we are all fixer and fixee.

And as well, we aren’t on our own–all our fixes and repairs need to be done with the leading and empowering of the Holy Spirit.  I don’t see the need on my own; I don’t develop the fix process on my own; I don’t implement it on my own.  We, the church, open ourselves to each other and the Holy Spirit who shows us where we need fixing, guides us to the proper fix and helps us in the process.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE MEETING

In both the collections of congregations that I serve, we have a very informal approach to doing the business of the church.  There is a formal process requiring notice and written agendas and stuff like that but we reserve that for really important stuff where we would actually have to discuss and have a recorded vote–something that might happen once or twice a decade.  Mostly, we realize that we need a meeting and sometines announce it for the next week after worship but sometimes, we announce it during the announcements and have it after that worship.  It is a system that would probably drive some people and churches up the wall but it works for us and so we keep doing it.

Anyway, one Sunday, the moderator told me that she had a long list of things that needed to be dealt with.  There was nothing on the list that was difficult or controversial so she suggested that we have a meeting after the worship and deal with it all.  Worship began, followed its appointed course and finished.  After we finished singing the threefold “Amen”, I reminded people of the meeting and headed for a seat–I don’t have much to do at meetings except begin and end them with prayer.

As the congregation settled down for the meeting, our new couple got up to leave, at which point, the moderator called out their names and said they were welcome to stay, something that she and others have done before when we have new people–it is an almost automatic response.  We are a small group and like to include everyone in what we do.  I managed to get to them to greet them before they left and reinforced the invitation but they chose to leave.  After seeing them off, I sat down, the meeting progressed, we finished, I prayed and we all went home.  Just another somewhat typical worship and meeting for our small church.

So, we all show up for Bible Study during the week.  Almost all the regulars are there and the group now includes the new couple.  We always begin Bible study with an opportunity for people to ask questions or make comments about the past Sunday worship service.  There were a couple of comments about the service and a bit of discussion about the sermon theme.  And as that petered out, the husband of the new couple began to talk about the meeting after worship.

He had some very strong feelings about that part of the afternoon.  He did mention that he liked the sermon but for him, the high point of the day was being invited by name to stay for the meeting.  It gave him a sense of belonging, a feeling that he was part of us.  It was clear to all of us that the moderator’s invitation touched both of them deeply.  I don’t think I have ever seen anyone as deeply moved by an invitation to attend a business meeting.  He went on to give a little background that helped us see some of what made the invitation significant to him–not the whole story but enough.

We are always hearing about how some off the cuff remark offends and upsets people.  It is not uncommon to hear of someone who has stopped being a part of a church because of some comment that the pastor or Sunday School teacher or janitor or someone else made.  Sometimes, I get a bit paranoid and spend too much time wondering how I am going to phrase a comment that I know can cause some problems.

And so it is nice now and then to see an unplanned and somewhat off-hand comment have the opposite effect.  It is encouraging to know that thanks to the Holy Spirit, those comments that we might have made a dozen times before are sometimes just the thing that a person needs to hear and will be used powerfully by the Holy Spirit.  That particular day, our worship was good, the meeting was okay–but the most significant thing that happened, I think, was that God was able to use something all of us had done many times before to make a difference to someone who needed it.

May the peace of God be with you.

A GROWING CHURCH

One of the blogs I read regularly has been inviting me to sign up for a course that will help me take my church beyond the dreaded 200 barrier.  For those of you who don’t spend as much time as I do reading about things relevant and irrelevant to ministry, the 200 barrier refers to the reality that most congregations never grow beyond 200 in attendance.  Actually, perhaps the majority of churches in the world have far fewer in attendance than that.  But to really be a congregation of consequence in North America, a church has to break that barrier–and this course will help with that.

I am not signing up for the course.   Partly, that is because I am  not much interested in having someone else tell me what to study–I think that I have been doing ministry long enough that I can design and do my own research.  But the main reason I am not signing up for the course is that I am positive that it will be no help to me in my ministry.  In one of the pastorates that I serve, I would really like to reach 20 in regular attendance–and in the other, 30 would be a great number to achieve.  I have no problem at all with the 200 barrier–that is so far from where we are that I don’t need to spend any time on it at all.

However, the strong emphasis on growing church numbers means that my congregations and therefore my ministry are seen as somehow being less than acceptable and maybe even ineffective.  I have even heard people suggesting that congregations like the ones I serve should be closed down and the members amalgamated with larger congregations that can do some real ministry.  Fortunately, as a Baptist, the only people who can make those decisions are the members of the local congregation.

The question I keep having to confront grows out of this emphasis in numbers.  Does a worshipping community that averages 10 in worship constitute a real church?  Is it worth the effort to sustain and maintain a group of 25 people meeting in several buildings?  Is it a real ministry when one visitor represents a 10% increase in our attendance?

You might expect that as someone who has spend a whole career in those size congregations that I would automatically say yes to all those questions.  But the truth is, I would actually say that it depends.  But the dependant variables involved in the answer have nothing to do with the numbers–numbers are a revered Western measuring tool that in the end, tell us very little about the quality and character of whatever the numbers are measuring.

What makes a congregation a viable church is the nature and strength of its commitment.  If the congregation is focused on serving God where and as he leads, it is a viable church.  If the congregation is doing all it can to effectively do what God has called it to do, it is a viable church.  If the ministry is helping people grow in their understanding of and ability to practise their faith, it is a viable ministry.

If, however, the congregation is focused on surviving long enough to host the funeral of the last member, it has ceased to be viable and healthy.  If worries about money and repairs and finding preachers take up all the time and energy of the congregation, it is not really a viable church.

That doesn’t mean it needs to be shut down.  While that may be the appropriate solution for some congregations, in my mind, this is always the last and least desirable option.  A struggling, unfocused, misguided congregation can change.  With time and good pastoral care, even a dying congregation can become healthy.  It may not grow in numbers but if it can refocus itself and redirect its time and energy to serving God, it becomes a real and viable church that can and does have a positive impact for the Kingdom of God.

My calling is not to break the 20 barrier or the 200 barrier.  My calling is to help congregations realize who they are and what they are called to do and help them become what they are meant to be and do what they are called to do.  And when we do this, we are becoming the church God has called us to be regardless of our numbers.

May the peace of God be with you.