Thursday, February 23, 2012

So, what do you need?

A couple of weeks ago, I put out the question, "What do you need to be a church?" That's going to become a more important question as time goes on. Because a lot of churches are going to find that they can no longer have what they once had -- a full time minister, lots of young families, the money to keep up their building, the respect of the community -- and they won't be able to carry on.

Churches that survive and thrive in a post-Christian world will be diverse in form, but will have this in common: they will be crystal clear about what matters, and what doesn't.

So what do we need?

I want to suggest that the first thing we need is people. That's not as trivial and obvious an answer as it might seem. Part of the problem with churches is that they act like they don't need people. They don't seem to care that people are dropping out and drifting away in droves, as long as they can keep other things that they think are more important. If you gave them the choice of either getting people back, or keeping the things they think are most important, people will lose every time. Try suggesting that the service time be changed to be more accomodating, and you'll see what I mean. Oh, it's nice if people come -- but come on our terms, and accept what we have to offer.

The truth is that you can't have a church without people. But that's only part of the answer. It's not exactly true that the church hasn't cared about people. But sometimes it has cared in the wrong way. We like to count people. Almost the first question people ask me when they find out I'm a minister is "How big is your church?" Meaning, how many people show up on Sunday. The second question is "Do you have many youth and young families?" Numbers matter.

But the church has never been about simply attracting numbers of people. It's who those people are -- or more, whose those people are -- that matters. The church of the 21st century will have to be in the business not only of attracting people, but of forming them so that they bear more and more of a family resemblance to Jesus who is Lord of the church.

So, if we want to get first things first, this is maybe the first of all. What the church really needs is people who know Jesus, who are willing to follow Jesus, and who are willing to point to Jesus by the way they live.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

"Pray also for me."

I was reading a book about Paul's Letter to the Ephesians. In chapter 6, Paul is telling the Ephesians to remember to pray; and in verse 19, he says "Pray also for me." The writer of this book commented on how Paul knew that he wasn't self-sufficient. He needed prayer as well.

As a pastor, I'm always praying for people, and telling people they should pray for others. It struck me that I don't always remember to ask people to be sure to pray for me. Maybe it's a kind of secret pride, that I'm always the one people turn to for prayer. But I suddenly realized how essential it is to know that people are praying for me.

Being a minister is a great job. Sometimes I think, "I can't believe they pay me to do this." But it's also hugely demanding in ways that few people really understand. It's not, as many people think, that you have "to be available 24/7." Nobody really calls me in the middle of the night or on my day off.

The demands of ministry are just the sheer number of different things that you're required to do in a week -- everything from writing a sermon to talking to a family about baptism to visiting the nursing home to helping people debrief from a contentious meeting to filling out paperwork for Presbytery -- it's a constant stream of different demands and requests that can drain you.

So, as much as anyone, I need prayer. And I need to remember to ask for it.

I went through a dark valley a few years ago. I was frustrated, discouraged, and even depressed. Nothing was working. I wondered if what I was doing made any difference. I wondered if I needed a change of scenery. I even wondered if this is what I was meant to do. I felt like a failure.

Happily, things have changed. I have a sense of joy and confidence in my work that keeps me going. I feel excited and encouraged. I'm in a very different place than I was even two or three years ago.

I've often wondered why. And then it suddenly occurred to me that maybe it's because of the prayers that have been offered up for me. I know a couple of people who tell me they are praying for me as their minister all the time; but I know that they aren't the only ones.

I'll never know if people's prayers are the reason for the renewal of my spirit -- or if people were praying just as hard when I felt down. You can't always draw a straight line between prayers and results.

But I know that pastors and ministers are "standing in the need of prayer" as much or even more than others -- and that I need to remember to ask people to pray for me.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

What do we need to be a church?

Most clergy have had a conversation that goes something like this.

"So, what do you do?"

"I'm a minister. Of a church."

"Oh, how interesting. Personally, I need a church to find God. I can worship God just as well on the golf course."

Most of us ministers are too polite to say anything in response to this kind of lame excuse.

But it does raise the question: Just what do you need to be a Christian? What do you need to have to be a church?

The problem with the golf course comment is that one thing Christians do need is other Christians. You can have a vague sense of spirituality on your own, but Christianity is a really communal kind of faith. We live out our Christian faith in the company of other Christians from whom we learn, and with whom we live and grow. That's why the New Testament compares the church to a body with many members. Christians need community.

But beyond that, and faith in Jesus, what do we need in order to be considered a church? If you are over a certain age and grew up in the church, you might say, "A building," "A minister," perhaps "A choir," or "A pulpit."

But in this "post-Christian" age, when the church is no longer at the centre of society, many -- maybe most -- of the things we once thought were essential, that you couldn't have a church if you didn't have them, are becoming less and less important.

When the Christian church started, and within a few years spread throughout the ancient world, it didn't have any of these things. There were no buildings, other than people's houses. There were no ministers, in the sense of specially educated professionals who led the church. There were no choirs, or hymn books or pulpits.

And just like they didn't need these things back then, people are discovering that we don't need them now. And all over Canada, the United States and Europe -- but especially in the areas of the world where Christianity is exploding in new growth, like China, Africa and Latin America -- communities of Christians are forming that have very few of the trappings that many of us grew up thinking you couldn't have a church without.

The fact is, it's getting harder and harder to maintain the infrastructure of the church that existed even fifty years ago. The cost of keeping a building and paying a full-time minister is getting to be prohibitive. For that reason, churches are beginning to close.

The deeper reason behind why it's getting harder, though, is that spiritually hungry people are no longer finding nourishment in many of the things that churches think they have to do if they're going to be a church -- putting on a Sunday worship service, paying somebody to visit you in the hospital, conducting weddings and funerals, or having space to hold all kinds of mid-week groups and activities.

Spiritually hungry people are searching for communities that will connect them with God and give meaning to their lives, and teach them how to make a difference in a hurting a broken world.

So, what do we need to have if we're going to do that? What's essential? And what can we get along without?

I'd appreciate comments on these questions. And I'll address them further in future posts.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Two Stories

We had Bible study last Wednesday. Most Wednesdays from September to June, for the last 15 1/2 years, I've led Bible study. Some weeks there are only a handful. Other weeks, like last week, a dozen or 14 turn up.

For 15 years, I've been working through whole books of the Bible with those who come to Bible study, reading verse by verse, asking questions, encouraging discussion.

At times I wonder if it's the best use of my time. But whenever I think it's time to do something different, something happens like what happened last Wednesday.

We were looking at one of the truly hard sayings in the Bible, in Mark chapter 8, where Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer and die, and then says, "Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it."

"Have you ever had an experience," I asked, "where you tried to hold onto something and ended up losing it, and only got it when you were willing to let go of it?" Blank looks. Not because people weren't thinking, but because the paradox of this passage is truly baffling. Losing what you hold onto, and gaining what you give up -- who can make sense of that?

"Isn't it true, though," I said, "that when you jealously grasp the things you think are important, your life is diminished, whereas if you are willing to let go, you receive more than you expected?" And I had to admit that even I was struggling to grasp how to apply this to real life.

"Jesus, of course, offered himself as a model for what he was saying. Let's look at Philippians 5, an ancient Christian hymn, that says that Jesus did not count equality with God a possession to be held onto for his own sake, but emptied himself and became a servant. And because of that, God exalted him to the highest place. Jesus' self-emptying love is what it's all about."

Then I could see awareness forming and thoughts coming together. One woman talked about how her father lost everything in the war, but chose not to be embittered, but to begin life again.

One person talked about the change of outlook that comes with a cancer diagnosis -- how you learn to appreciate things more deeply when you have faced the real possibility of losing everything.

Someone else spoke about the sudden and tragic death of a family member, and the regret at things that were never said; but that she has resolved to say them to others rather than simply living with the guilt.

"You can't be a parent without knowing what this is all about," said another. "You realize that you have to let your children go, or you risk losing them."

Each of these comments was a condensed personal story. Behind the words was a lived narrative.

When we come to Christian faith, the story of our life is brought within the orbit of a greater story -- the story of a God who fashioned the world in which we live and who personally entered into this world in Jesus. It's the intersection of these two narratives -- God's and ours -- that shapes our lives as Christians.

And I was just really really humbled and moved to witness the Holy Spirit opening the eyes of this group of people, and creating awareness of God's ways. It was a beautiful and moving experience.