Posts Tagged With: church

Maintenance or Revolution – Two Possible Ministry Paths

Followers of Christ gathering in small groups, within communities, supporting one another in the ministries God has called them to in the world.  What a revolutionary idea!  At least it was 2000 years ago when the followers of Jesus started to meet.  In homes throughout the Roman Empire and beyond, believers gathered to work out this new understanding of God in their daily lives.  It was not so much about determining a set of doctrines as building a connection to Jesus.

Since that time these original communities have grown into institutions whose goals are often structured around maintenance – though the actual words they use are much more inspiring.  Of course they want to maintain the institution as a means to best help people to follow Jesus.  If the the institution continues then so will Christianity.   Somehow the two have become inseparable.  Yet, more and more I’m seeing that people, including myself, don’t want merely to keep something going that has been set up before they came, especially if there appears to be a disconnect between the Bible and practice.

People can tell the difference between the essence of Christianity – that radical call of Jesus to live in the Kingdom of God that he came to announce – and the maintenance of human institutions.  At times these institutions do carry the DNA of Christ and show it as they reach out beyond themselves.  But many times they reveal a communal view of one definition of sin – being curved in on one’s self.  Such communities eventually focus on providing a safe place for those inside and keep out others, either intentionally or not.

Returning to smaller communities seems like a need in the church. Though I have to say such missional communities are a bit scary.  I’ve been reading about the work of Alan Hirsch (The Forgotten Ways) and Hugh Halter and Matt Smay (The Tangible Kingdom) as they revision church.  In these books are images of people gathering in small groups of people within communities – being examples of Jesus and inviting in others who may never consider stepping through the door of a church building.  They are spending time building relationships, responding to God’s Word by reaching out to others.

In my fear of starting such groups I ask  – Where is the control?  How can we be sure they will stay true to God’s Word?  What will Christianity in these groups look like? These issues and more are often the domain of institutions that have the resources and desire to attend to them.  But maybe that’s the problem; institutions are taking care of things that are essential in walking with Jesus.  These are issues that individual followers of Jesus need to meet in the messiness of discipleship.

As I think about the small realm of campus ministry, I’m seeing how my first inclinations in setting up a new campus ministry were to create institutional elements: meetings, websites, brochures, strategic plans.  All this before seeing the first students.  But what if I encourage students to gather in smaller communities around God’s Word.  Groups meeting for an hour a week, not to be fed pre-packaged information about how to live their lives as Christians, but groups praying with one another, exploring scripture, wrestling with what it looks like lived out in their lives, and then encouraging each other to go and do – all with Christ at the center.  Some groups may gather around interests such as music, an academic field, or a desire to serve the homeless.  Others may be students just starting to think about connecting their faith to the world.

In the end I’m not quite sure what these groups will look like, and that’s probably a good thing.  For that initial revolution to revive, it needs not a renewed structure to maintain, but a renewed spirit in which to live – and that is promised to us.

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.   John 14:26-27

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Ministry Outside the Boundaries

Lately I feel myself being frustrated with how ministry is not following the plans I have laid.  It is not fitting into the map I or others have created.  University advertising during last year’s Welcome Week at UC seemed to be nearly absent and new students didn’t show up at our planned events.  Now, a year later, I’m struggling to address this lapse and figure out ways to bring many more new students in this year.  The offerings at the church I attend won’t cover a full salary for a pastor – or at least the salary suggested by the denomination.  So once again the congregation starts the same old dance of focusing on raising money for this salary in lieu of other activities.

But are the real problems in either of these situations the ones I and others are seeing?  Are the goals we set those that should have our focus?  In the case of the campus ministry – a large influx of students at the beginning of the year – and for the church – a full-time minister paid at a level a denomination recommends.   At some level we believe that if only we can get to this point then things will be all right.  We’ll have it under control.

That’s the problem.  We’ll have it under control.  These goals are human-based.  But I’m nearly positive that God does not work that way.  Instead, look at Gideon in chapter seven of Judges.  He had a large army, Israel would handily defeat the Midianites 32,000 men.  However, God kept paring it down until only 300 men were left.  This would be God’s battle – and Gideon’s trust would have to be in God.  Even though it was difficult, this time the battle was won.  But what about the prophets who continue to trust God even when battles weren’t won?  Jeremiah lived in the midst of Jerusalem’s fall.  There was no victory here, no happy ending reached.  But he continued to proclaim God’s word.  This is a very different way of engaging in the world and with God than I am naturally inclined to do.

In my own battles, I’m finding myself longing for the final story and uncomfortable with the transitional moments.  I look for shortcuts to get to the end I envision – the thriving campus ministry and the fully salaried pastor.  Instead of quickly jumping to the end, maybe God is forcing me to work in the uncomfortable space in-between – a place where my trust must rest in him and not in results.  On campus, a single advertisement can’t replace the more difficult, yet transformational work of stepping out and challenging students on their discipleship journey or building relationships within the administration.  At church, maybe the focus should not be on having a budget that pays staff to do ministry, but a budget that supports more ministry by the members.  Neither of these new ways are comfortable or even always measurable.  But one thing, it does leave room for God to work, to change up plans and hearts.

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Following Francis

View over Assisi

When we reached Assisi and our pension, Casa Papa Giovanni, I walked to my room and opened the shutters.  Beyond the edge of town, the sun shone over fields of sunflowers in the valley.  The bells of St. Mary of the Angels tolled as swallows danced in patterns above the roof tops.  My shoulders relaxed, my breathing slowed, and I briefly forgot about losing luggage and defining literary pilgrimage.  I sensed that the landscape beyond the window frame held deep connections to the spirit of Francis’ story.  An hour later, everyone gathered in a small room where we each received a written pilgrimage guide and then shared the Eucharist. Afterwards we ate a home-cooked Italian meal.  A community was forming.

I can still remember that moment when I opened the shutters and saw Assisi below me over a decade ago – in late June 2003.  The following week was a marvel of pilgrimage – of time to reflect, opportunities to talk, challenges to take, and stories to hear.  I went to observe this practice of pilgrimage and became a pilgrim myself – following St. Francis of whom I had previously known only a little.  Spurred on by the words of our guides and fellow pilgrims, I moved into a rhythm of pilgrimage allowing the stories, place, and my own experiences to stir up my previous ideas of such a journey – and even the life of Christian faith.

God called Francis to rebuild the church – not merely the single building of San Damiano where he heard this call and whose stone walls were literally crumbling – but Christ’s Church, His body.  This human representative of Jesus Christ on earth was falling apart as an institution and a group of faithful believers.  In response to his call, Francis dedicated himself to living as Jesus – not pontificating on what the Bible means, but living Jesus’ teachings as radical as they may appear.  Among many things, he left his dream of becoming a victorious knight, turned away from his father who did not support his new life, started a new religious order, served the poor and outcast (including lepers), and preached a gospel that included experiencing God in real and dramatic ways.

Ian Morgan Cron in the novel Chasing Francis takes readers on a pilgrimage to Assisi as he follows the journey of a successful evangelical pastor who can no longer abide the structure and politics of the church he founded.  The exterior programs and preaching does not mesh with the interior rumblings of his soul and what he is discovering in scripture. Several months in Assisi visiting sites of Francis and engaging with Franciscans re-centers his view of the church.  Through the stories and places associated with Francis he learns the freedom of living a radical gospel through this man who lived an impoverished life, questioned the worlds’ values, and ecstatically praised God.

What does this new church look like?  A church of life – creating art, caring for the poor, living Jesus’ teachings, sharing community, stewarding the environment, and seeking out true meaning.  Such a church is not centered on programs, but on Christ and his people.  At the end of the novel Cron paints an idealistic picture as the protagonist starts a new church with 40 people packed into his condo.

When I put down this novel, I started to remember my time in Assisi and the new eyes I had developed.  I had an eagerness to re-engage with a living faith – incarnating Christ, experiencing God, accepting my poverty, and even holding the leper.  My heart still skips a beat when I recall that time that opened up my understanding of God, of Christ, and of the church.  But, how can I bring that decade-old experience into my life today?

Whether its remembering my pilgrimage to Assisi or treading this novel of another’s pilgrimage there, I am drawn to new ways of seeing the church.  Yet, not long after these leadings, I’m often drawn right back into the safety of the institution.  Maybe it’s time to open another window, this time not to view the buildings of Assisi below, but the hope of a new church right in front of me.  This is a gathering of people in mission – maybe to the campus, to the city – that goes out and lives the mission beyond the crumbling walls of the church.  Not re-creating culture within a Christian safety net, but bringing this living faith into the world.  What a beautiful view!  Now to step into it.

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Attending to Church

I’m getting tired of hearing pastors complain that people put soccer practices, family gatherings, and vacations above church.  Yes, it’s easy to fall into this complaint.  I also do so as I look around the sanctuary on a given Sunday and count up who is missing.  My mind automatically starts to think about ways to get them back.  But then I stop. I realize that I too have fallen into the practice of equating church with what happens on Sunday mornings.  With so many people opting for other activities, I wonder if people are not only being influenced by the larger culture, but also sensing that the church does not know or care about the world outside its doors.

At many churches there is an overwhelming sense that one must be present on Sundays and other events to be an active member and grow as a Christian: keeping the Sabbath means going to church.  Now, it’s not a bad thing to be in Bible studies or worship God corporately, don’t get me wrong.  The Bible encourages us to draw together and praise God, “not neglecting to meet together” (Hebrews 10:25) and Sunday morning activities are one way to do so.  Yet, in the church model that focuses on Sunday morning attendance, only once people enter our doors and become involved in our programs do we have the opportunity for influence.  We can rest on attendance numbers for proof that people are growing closer to Christ.  But are they really?  Are programs really the best way to shape people as Christ followers?  Because so much effort has been exerted in developing services and other programs that will attract people, we’ve forgotten something much more important, but more difficult: relationships.

What if we look at church more as the body of Christ – which it is – and not merely as a body that comes together primarily to keep an institution going?  Yes, some members of the body will serve the church as Sunday School teachers, administrators, and trustees.  But what if being a mother, a janitor, a barista, or a teacher were also regularly promoted as ways of attending church?  In this way, we are attending to church when we are attendant to Christ’s mission in our lives.  This may be during a weekly worship service, but it also can take place where ever we are at a given moment.  As we talk to the cashier at the corner grocer, take a pie to our next door neighbor, attend our child’s soccer game, or skip choir practice in order to attend a friend’s concert.

With this perspective, I don’t feel the need to coerce or convince people to be present at a weekly service.  We can walk together throughout the week learning how God is at work in our lives and how we are in mission in our places throughout the world.  Then, as we become more fully enmeshed in His story, we are drawn to gather with others in more formal worship, allowing God to fill us so that we can return to the world as church throughout the week.  It’s a living, breathing church in mission everywhere, not merely within four walls one hour a week.

How are you attending to church this week?

Categories: Journey Living | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

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