Living Now with Eternity in Mind #4: Living as God’s House

As you come to him, a living stone—rejected by people but chosen and honored by God—you yourselves, as living stones, a spiritual house, are being built to be a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture:
See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and honored cornerstone,
and the one who believes in him
will never be put to shame.
So honor will come to you who believe; but for the unbelieving,
The stone that the builders rejected—
this one has become the cornerstone
, and
A stone to stumble over,
and a rock to trip over.

They stumble because they disobey the word; they were destined for this. But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the one who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

1 Peter 2:4-10

A man was answering questions for a poll. When asked for his church preference, he said, “Red brick.” I have mixed feelings about church buildings. They can be a real blessing and they can be a real problem. Buildings constructed decades and decades ago don’t necessarily meet the needs of a congregation in 2018. At the same time, they hold history, memories, and stories. People can have very strong feelings about church buildings. People can be particular about decisions made with respect to them. Buildings can be opportunities for ministry and they can also be barriers to ministry. And I’ve heard lots of people refer to church buildings as “God’s house.”

But then I think of Paul’s words in Acts 17: The God who made the world and everything in it—He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands. And if we consider our passage this morning, Peter does use building imagery. But when he does he’s not talking about buildings like the one we’re meeting in. In Peter’s day, believers didn’t have church buildings. They met in one another’s homes. Church was more like a series of large home group Bible studies.

Not only that, but in Peter’s day there were plenty of Greco-Roman shrines to various idols. Both the idols and their shrines were made by human hands. So, in Peter’s letter there is cultural critique and contrast also. It’s like Peter is saying, “The people around you worship man-made idols in man-made buildings, but you are being built into the living God’s spiritual house.” Therefore, when Peter uses building imagery he’s actually talking about the people who make up the church. In other words: us. He’s talking about what it means for us to live as God’s house—and why God wants to build such a house.

So, as we consider our passage from 1 Peter, let’s start with a question: what’s a cornerstone? A dictionary definition goes as follows: “An important quality or feature on which a particular thing depends or is based.” Think of a company that states: “Our attention to customer service is the cornerstone of our success.” This—the idea of a cornerstone—is the central image of our passage. Peter says that Jesus has become the cornerstone. Now, the cornerstone of a building controls the design of the building and holds the structure together. It’s an architectural term. In his commentary on 1 Peter, Joel Green says that the cornerstone “is the one prepared and chosen for the exact 900 angle, and so the basis for the construction of the whole building. Choosing the right corner is basic not only to the aesthetics of the building but also to its stability and longevity.”

So, isn’t it interesting that Peter here refers to Jesus as the cornerstone? And, of course, he’s the cornerstone of a spiritual building. Again, speaking of his readers, Peter puts it this way: You yourselves, as living stones, are being built into a spiritual house. Jesus is the cornerstone of this house. Now, what might this mean? To start, I think of at least three things: 1. Jesus determines the design of this spiritual house. 2. Jesus builds us into this spiritual house. 3. Jesus holds this spiritual house together.

And notice how our passage starts: Coming to Him, a living stone—rejected by men but chosen and valuable to God—you yourselves, as living stones, are being built into a spiritual house. So, it’s as we come to him—in worship, service, and in fellowship—that we are built into this spiritual house. Becoming a spiritual house happens through our relationship with Jesus and through our relationships with one another. In other words, living as God’s house means being a Christ-centered community. Who we are as a church—as a spiritual house—is based on Jesus.

The question is: are we? Are we as a community centered around Christ? Let’s ask: What does it mean that Christ is our cornerstone? What should we look like if we’re a spiritual house built around Christ as our cornerstone?  What kind of shape is our spiritual house in? What are the signs of a stable and healthy spiritual house? How are we built into a spiritual house? How does our worship of Christ form us into a spiritual house for Christ?

In 251 A.D. a great plague struck the Greco-Roman world in which more than a third of the population died. Fear was everywhere. Those who could afford it fled to the countryside. Those who could not remained in the cities. When they went to the pagan temples they found them empty, the priests having fled. The streets were filled with those who had become infected, their families left with no option but to push them out the door.

Christian communities however took an entirely different approach. They saw it as their responsibility to love the sick and dying, so they took them into their homes and nursed them. This meant that many people recovered who otherwise would have died. And many believers died because of their willingness to love their neighbours. As one writer says: “The earliest Christians expended themselves in works of mercy that simply dumbfounded the pagans. For them, God loved humanity; in order to love God back, one was to love others. God did not demand ritual sacrifices; he wanted his love expressed on earth in deeds of compassion.” In his book The Early Church, Henry Chadwick comments: “The practical application of charity was probably the most potent single cause of Christian success.”

So why tell this story? What does it have to do with our passage and with becoming a spiritual house? Peter writes: You yourselves, as living stones, are being built into a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. And later in our passage he calls his readers a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.

All of these images of God’s people point us to the relationship between God’s people and the surrounding world. Thinking back to the people of Israel, when they were called a holy nation and a chosen race, the people of God, it was talking about how they were called to be a light to the surrounding nations. They were called to put on display the character of their God. Joel Green, speaking about the notion of priesthood, says it refers to “the role of the community of believers in the world-at-large.” Priests have the role of representing God to others and others to God. We’re being called to be our community’s priests, representing God to them.

Let’s put it this way: we’re not being built into a spiritual house so we can feel safe and have this space all to ourselves; we’re being built into a spiritual house so other people can see it and be a part of it: and live in it. And they will see it when we live like the church in the 3rd century during the Greco-Roman plague. Living as God’s house means being a Christ-witnessing community. We are a Christ-witnessing community when we love our neighbours. William Temple once said: “The Church is the only society on earth that exists for the benefit of non-members.” Similarly, Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote: “The church is her true self only when she exists for humanity.”Finding ways to love and show kindness to our neighbours, to bless our community—maybe these can be our spiritual sacrifices and the way in which we can declare God’s praises.

How would you describe the way people in the community perceive our church? Do they have a good impression or a negative one? What is God calling us to do as a community to love our neighbours? How can we get outside the walls of our church building to bless our neighbours?What might we have to sacrifice in order to love our neighbours?

In our passage, Jesus is called the living stone—rejected by men but chosen and valuable to God. Peter also says of Jesus that as the stone that the builders rejected—this One has become the cornerstone. Even when we love others with the love of Christ, there will be people who reject us and our message. We don’t reach out with the grace of Jesus for the approval of human beings. We’re not looking for affirmation from our neighbours. It’s like how if I base my personal sense of identity and security on what others might think of me, then my identity and sense of self will be very fragile and unreliable. The reason this is so important is this: if we’re going to reach out as God’s people into our community with love and compassion, we need to do so out of a deepening sense of our identity in Jesus. He is our life. Because we’re accepted by him, we don’t reach out to others to find their acceptance.

Put simply: Living as God’s House Means Being a Rejected Yet Honoured Community. As Peter says, rejected by men but chosen and valuable to God. If people rejected Jesus, people will reject us—even when we’re acting out of a Christ-like love.

And I say all of this because as a church I don’t want us to be insecure, to be half-apologetic about who we are, to have this inferiority complex where we don’t think we have anything to offer. Because we are being built into a spiritual house for a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. And this is no small thing. This is a beautiful, wonderful, joyous thing!

Think of Peter’s words again: But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His possession, so that you may proclaim the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Isn’t that incredible? And isn’t it—and shouldn’t we think it is—a privilege to have this role in our community? To live as the people of God showing the love of God?What do you think we have to offer as a church to our community? What makes us valuable as a church family?Why do we reach out to love our neighbours? What’s our motivation?Are we willing to experience rejection in order to live as God’s house in our neighbourhood?

Church, the Holy Spirit, and Learning to Rely on God Rather than Our Institutions

I had a church history professor who was fond of saying, “The church institutionalizes how the Holy Spirit moved last.” He’s right. When a movement of the Spirit comes along, and people are saved and there is revival in the church, there is the innate human tendency to want to replicate this result by nailing down the methods through which this movement appears to have taken place. If we just do things this way, then this will be the result. We want concrete, permanent solutions to our ecclesiastical problems and evangelistic endeavours. On the one hand, I think there’s an understandable desire for stability in this. But on the other hand, we end up relying more on what we view as effective methods than we do on the God who graciously chose to work sovereignly through them. Perhaps God seeks to destabilize us precisely in order that we might realize how profoundly we need him—indeed, so that we would come to him in desperation, in abject poverty of spirit, in the recognition that all we do or try is for naught without his power and mercy.

Now, I would say that it’s impossible to avoid some manner of institutionalization. I can also add that we need some degree of institutionalization. We need some order and structure, standards by which we minister together for the sake of the gospel, if we’re going to be a community of faith. When people come together, they need to organize. Perhaps, then, it’s about the principles and values by which we organize. And every church organizes itself–its programs and ministries–in a manner based on both practical considerations and theological principles. And even if some of our older institutional structures once had (and still try to maintain) principles and values we want to espouse today as churches, no doubt the accumulation of dust and history requires we do some serious house-cleaning if we’re going to remember them and be able to live by them as a community. We need to have the wind of God’s Spirit blow through our churches and into our lives in a fresh way. The real question is not whether we need this. Rather, the question is whether we’re willing to admit it and be open to it. And then: What form does such willingness and openness need to take? In our current situation, what spiritual posture do we need to adopt? Or to put it another way: Do we really want God to have his way with us once again?

To All My Pastor Friends . . .

So, here we go again. We Nova Scotian pastors are facing two weeks of lockdown, unable to gather in our church buildings.

And, of course, we hope and pray it is only two weeks.

Some of us will go online again to provide worship either with recorded messages or livestreamed services. My family and I might try and live stream on YouTube like we did on Facebook live last year with “Homemade Worship.” Especially if this lockdown extends beyond two weeks.

Some of us will easily roll with these changes. Others of us might be frustrated. Some might simply disagree that it’s even warranted. Those in our congregations will be of varying opinions.

And maybe after a year of various COVID restrictions, news coverage, media saturation, and debates with family, friends, and neighbours in person and on Facebook about masks and vaccines you’re feeling a little weary. Maybe exhausted.

Just a few thoughts, especially if this extends beyond two weeks:

One, know your limits. You can’t do everything. You can’t be all things to all people. Pastors are not super-heroes who are supposed to bear the entire weight of the church and its ministry on their shoulders as if they were the Hulk or Super-Man. That attitude and approach will kill you. Ask others in your church to help keep connected with those in your congregation who might be most vulnerable or fearful or lonely. This is even more true the larger your church. Pastors are called to equip the saints for the work of ministry, not to do all the ministry on their own (Ephesians 4:11-13).

Two, you need rest too. Give yourself permission to take a Sabbath from all online activity. Turn off your phone, even for a few hours. Take steps to give yourself a break from being constantly available. That we find this to be such a challenge is a symptom of how poorly we have managed our smartphones and other devices. Have a nap. Go for a walk in the woods or on a local trail. Read the novel you haven’t had time to pick up. Jesus invites us to rest (Matthew 11:28). Maybe listen to him?

Three, learn from last time. We’ve been through this before. What worked and what didn’t last time? What might we do differently?

Blessedly, God remains on his throne. He’s not only got the whole world in his hands, he’s got you. And he has your congregation in his hands also. So, count on that, put your trust in him, and move ahead as best you can. Whatever else happens, Jesus is still our risen Savior. Because of that we’re going to be fine.

The ABCs of Church

There are a lot of churches in our world struggling to survive. Not only have many of us have heard the stats about the decline of attendance in churches, we’ve experienced it. We’re going through it. For a lot of churches and church members the situation is discouraging.

But what if it doesn’t have to be?

I heard someone say once that too many congregations focus on the ABCs: attendance, buildings, and cash. And when a congregation is finding it especially difficult to envision a future for the church, it’s natural to put our attention on these ABCs. They’re what we see. We can measure them. We can wrap our minds around them. We can–ahem–complain about them. We can blame someone else for them. Maybe we can even control them to some degree.

Except let’s think about it for a minute. And maybe in this way. Here’s the process: Getting more people in the church will hopefully lead to more money in the offering, thereby enabling us to manage the upkeep for our building.

What’s wrong with this picture? Here are a few things.

  1. The focus on ABCs can often be a focus on institutional survival. We want to continue to have what we’ve had. In many ways, this perspective focuses on the past. How things have been done. How things have always been. The value of being able to appreciate a long history of ministry gets reduced to a refusal to move a pew or redo a room because of a bronze plaque with someone’s name. It can also be a posture of fear. Fear of losing what we’ve had and a fear of change and what we really need to do in order to move into the future.
  2. Having the wrong focus leads to the wrong solutions. If attendance in our church is down, we strategize ways to increase it. We hold special events, services, dinners, fundraisers, etc. We boil it down to getting more people in the building when we’re doing stuff. And maybe if we invite people to do stuff they like doing anyway, like eating and listening to music, maybe they’ll think about coming on Sunday mornings too. My first church, for example, put on a great breakfast one Saturday a month for years. It was always very well attended. Our church attendance, however, never, ever went up because someone liked their bacon and eggs.
  3. The focus on ABCs and the solutions we come up with to deal with them can too easily leave God out. This is really the most significant point. Because a focus on the ABCs is often anxiety and/or control driven, prayer is not a big part of the process. We effectively de-spiritualize church life. We compartmentalize what happens in congregational life as much as we compartmentalize our own lives. Attendance, buildings, and cash are not seen as spiritual matters and so we think human solutions will do. Or, worse, we know they are spiritual matters, but dealing with them at a deeper, spiritual level is too uncomfortable and difficult. We’re afraid of what is in that particular box, so we insist on keeping it closed.

So what do we do? Well, I’d be lying if I claimed to have perfect answers. But I do have some thoughts.

  1. Not focusing on the ABCs doesn’t mean ignoring them. I need to make sure that’s clear. If a church roof caves in or the toilet is overflowing, we need to deal with it. Obviously. If attendance is consistently going down, it is wise to ask why. Because there are underlying issues that likely need addressing. So on and so forth. But paying attention to them means doing so within the larger framework of the identity and mission of your church. You call someone who hasn’t come for a couple of weeks not because of the empty seat in your sanctuary but out of concern for the person who has been absent. The state of our ABCs can tell us something about the spiritual condition of our church, the quality of the relationships among the members, and therefore point us to larger, more significant issues in need of attention.
  2. Real solutions are usually personal and relational. If your church has a monthly breakfast for your community, like my first church did, make sure there are people from your church whose job it is to connect with those who come. Say hello. Smile. Work the room. Also, don’t make everything about how to get people in your church. Instead, think of ways to get church people out into the community. What are the needs in your community? How can your church bless your neighbours? On the other hand, how close are the people in your church? Maybe it’s time to give some thoughtful attention to building those relationships. Have someone out for coffee or over for dinner or dessert. Whose story in your church are you unfamiliar with? Change that. Don’t underestimate how such personal attention will bless your church over time.
  3. Remember that it’s all about Jesus and the good news. If our desire for larger attendance numbers stems from a desire to keep what we’ve always had (institutional survival), then the odds are good we will miss Jesus. We will miss out on participating in his kingdom work. We will inoculate ourselves to the good news. The good news is the reason we are here. It’s the reason your church exists. How do you need to refocus so that Jesus is at the centre of your church once again?

I readily acknowledge that there are plenty of factors in church decline that are out of our control. But that’s kind of the point! We can’t control Sunday morning attendance or who gives how much or magically solve all of our facility issues. So the attention we give to the ABCs should have a Christ-centred, kingdom-driven, Spirit-led focus. All big words, I know. But I think it’s really about a shift in perspective more than anything else. When we say the church needs to change, such change begins with us, with our hearts and attitudes.

This is particularly true if underlying the issues with the ABCs is stuff that is personal and relational. Churches sometimes (often?) have a history of unresolved conflict. Church decline might in part be due to unhealthy relational patterns. People get hurt and leave, and the church tries to move on without actually addressing the problem. It’s hard to live out the good news of Jesus together when people in the church have a history of not loving one another well.

As a pastor, I want the people in my congregation (including myself!) to grow closer to God, to become more Christlike, to be more consistently led by the Spirit, and more driven by God’s desire and will for us. Focusing on the ABCs will not get us there. So let’s instead focus on what will. Maybe then the ABCs will take care of themselves. Or if not, perhaps we will be less discouraged and anxious about them.

Pastors

There are a lot of other pastors in the area where I live. I have had the opportunity to get to know a number of them. Some of them have become good friends. And let me say this: they are all wonderful, gifted, and passionate about their calling. Though all are pastors of local churches, they are also very different from one another. Sure, there’s always overlap among pastors with respect to gifts and skills; but there’s also a distinct variety of gifts and passions. I had coffee with a pastor yesterday whose gift, I think, is in the area of encouragement and personal evangelism. I know another pastor who’s been serving in our area for more than two decades and is incredibly musical. So while pastors often get painted with a broad brush, they are as different from one another as any of us are from those around us.

So I think this is all wonderful. But it’s also a challenge. Because every individual pastor is serving an individual congregation. We have to be careful not to expect each pastor to have all the skills of the other pastors we know. If you admire another pastor’s evangelistic gifts, you can’t automatically assume your pastor is similarly gifted. Of course, we’re all called–pastors and church members–to do the work of evangelism (2 Timothy 4:5). Yet we all know pastors and other believers who most definitely have the gift to share their faith and compel others to follow Jesus.

But even though not every pastor has the gifts or skills of every other pastor, that’s where the rest of the church comes in. Consider these words:

And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.

Ephesians 4:11-13

Hear that? God gave the church pastors and other leaders to equip the saints for the work of ministry. This is important. Even if your pastor can (somehow!) do everything well, they shouldn’t be responsible for doing everything (much less everything well). That prevents other believers from exercising their God-given calling. It keeps the church from being the church. Most importantly, it actually prevents individual Christians from growing into maturity.

Our Lord never intended any one pastor to be a “jack of all trades,” so to speak. Unfortunately, some pastors are control freaks. The addage, “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” is their calling card. If they can do it, they think they should. However, pastors ought to be in the business of helping other believers discover and use their God-given talents. What any one pastor can’t do themselves, they look for in other people in their church.

Your pastor can’t do everything. He or she can probably do some things especially well. Other stuff they can learn or figure out how to do. The rest is up to the other members of the Body of Christ. So if you’re ever discouraged that your pastor isn’t very good at administration or seems musically tone deaf or maybe isn’t the best preacher you’ve ever heard, focus on their strengths. Maybe his or her gift is pastoral care or discipleship or counselling. Then consider how others in your church can be equipped, invited, and encouraged to bring their gifts forward to complement those of your pastor. Your pastor will be glad you did.

Random Thoughts on Church in a Time of COVID Weariness

In the part of the world where I live we haven’t had an outbreak of COVID. To that extent, in the most serious sense we’ve been unaffected by the pandemic that has brought hardship and sorrow to so many around the globe. And of course this is a reason for thanksgiving. Though it ought to be a humble gratitude. It’s not as though the place where I live is more deserving than any other.

Yet, even though my region has managed to remain COVID free to this point, we haven’t been entirely unaffected. Like most people everywhere else, I think we are suffering from a collective feeling of weariness. The last (nearly) year of lockdowns, restrictions, and a news cycle that continually reminds us of the brokenness of our world has taken a toll on us. If not physically, then mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

You feel it, don’t you? Every time you slap on a mask to go for groceries. Each time you go into a government building. Whenever you turn on CBC, CTV, CNN, or Fox. And in those moments around friends, family members, or neighbours who have very different views and are enthusiastic about sharing them.

Not only that, but you don’t have to watch the news too closely to be aware that churches, especially in North America, have had very different responses to COVID and ways of dealing with the government restrictions put in place to stave off its spread.

As a pastor, it’s been frustrating to see other church leaders make following or ignoring restrictions on gathering a matter of religious freedom, instead of seeing it as a way of loving our neighbors.

Don’t get me started on people who trot out Hebrews 10:24–25 as justification for shoving hundreds or even thousands of people in a church building without social distancing. Here’s the passage in question:

And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.

Hebrews 10:24-25

Nothing here indicates that we are commanded by God to meet by the dozens, hundreds, much less thousands in buildings of our design in order to obey Scripture. Indeed, most NT churches met in homes in something very much like contemporary small groups. There are ways to be faithful to Scripture, to encourage one another as believers, that also allow us to live as good citizens. So when pastors and their churches violate government restrictions, I tend to think they are often on thin biblical ground.

But I digress. All I want to say is that this mixed witness of the church and the way COVID has affected ministry and congregational life has led to a weariness among followers of Jesus too.

And of course church people come to socially distanced worship services with masks on already feeling the larger societal weight of all that’s going on.

It makes me wonder. Should churches really be that anxious to get back to normal, to ramp up activities and programs?

Because if our communities are suffering from a weariness and loneliness and brokenness because of COVID, is the best way of being the church to offer events and programs, more things to add to people’s already crammed schedules? Let’s face it, we need less not more in our lives.

So might we as churches instead offer a place of rest, the space to grieve our losses, a refuge from the busyness of spirit that plagues us? Maybe even to provide a break from our screens and devices rather than another reason to have them with us?

Our lives are already full of distractions, digital and otherwise. Do we need church to be busy too? Is the kingdom an alternative to our culture’s way of life or do we mimic it for the sake of appearing relevant?

I really wonder how much we’ve learned about being churches during this time of COVID. Do we see it as simply an unwelcome interruption to our plans or what we think of as God’s plans?

Or could it be that God has wanted us to learn some stuff from these specific circumstances? That maybe church isn’t about our ideas of success? That numbers are not the best measure of faithfulness in ministry? That perhaps having more time for quiet, prayer, and contemplation might just remind us what it means to live in God’s presence as his people?

Maybe there are moments when God removes things from our lives and our churches to get us to reflect and think critically about how we’ve done things and how we ought to do things. What might we gain because of what we’ve lost?

Do I sound a little frustrated? Well, consider that we haven’t been able to have church potlucks in nearly a year! Ours is a Baptist church after all!

Seriously, though, it continues to mean putting some of our ideas on hold until restrictions are lifted. It means limited fellowship opportunities. It means living with an uncertainty about the simplest of things, like whether our church can have Vacation Bible School this summer.

The truth is, we don’t know for sure how long these restrictions will be in place. Even with the vaccines on their way, we could be looking at having to follow current guidelines until the fall of this year.

If that turns out to be the case, how will we handle it?

What we can say is that, thankfully, the ultimate wellbeing of the church doesn’t depend on us. Whatever happens (or doesn’t), God can and will uphold his people.

In any case, I’m not writing as someone who has answers, but someone who has a lot of questions. So forgive the rant. These things make me weary too.

The Blasphemy of Busyness

Busyness is the enemy of spirituality. It is essentially laziness. It is doing the easy thing instead of the hard thing. It’s filling our time with our own actions instead of paying attention to God’s action. It’s taking charge . . . The word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife, or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront. Hilary of Tours diagnosed our pastoral busyness as ‘irreligiosa solicitudo pro Deo,’ – ‘a blasphemous anxiety to do God’s work for him.’”

Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor

“How’s life?” someone asks you. “Busy,” you reply. Why is this so often our answer? Is that our answer because it’s true or is it our answer because we think we should be busy?

Recently I heard someone say that a Christian ought to be busy. Now, I know what they meant or intended to say. The word “busy” is very nearly synonymous with faithful in much of evangelical culture. Redeem the time. Don’t bury your talents. Etc., etc. etc.

But I still hate the word busy. To my ears, it sounds like an excuse word or a word we use to justify ourselves, to make ourselves feel better. Worse, it’s like at some level we can’t really accept or believe, much less live out of, the reality of grace, and so we have to make up for the gift we’ve been given through Christ by our effort and activity.

Years ago a mentor and friend of mine said, “Busyness is the evangelical badge of courage.” A busy Christian is a truly committed, obedient Christian. Our degree of busyness shows how much we’re willing to sacrifice for our Lord who sacrificed himself for us.

And to be honest, I don’t even know what the word busy means when people use it. Is someone busy when they’re setting aside time for prayer, reading, and reflection? Is someone only busy if they fill their schedule with endless family and church activities?

What if a congregation, in order to more clearly discern God’s leading, chose to pause a number of their programs and activities for a season in order to spend more time pouring over God’s word together and praying with one another? Are they not still busy doing the Lord’s work?

Indeed, perhaps the last year or so of COVID lockdowns and restrictions could or should have been an opportunity for churches to do exactly that instead of seeing the situation as an interruption to what they perceive God to be doing in their ministries.

Maybe what we all need–individually and as churches–is to get a little more unbusy.

What Church Is and Isn’t (Sort Of)

What is church?

I suppose there are thousands of answers to that question. It’s an institution that’s been around for roughly two millennia. There is a bewildering variety of denominations and variations of ecclesiastical communities. Needless to say, every one and their pastor has an opinion. Some hold their views loosely; others adamantly; and still others, vehemently.

Even so, I want to suggest a few things church is not (sort of!). Far from exhaustive, my suggestions merely play off some common misunderstandings of church. Nothing I say here is being said dogmatically.

Before I get into my suggestions, I think it’s important to point out that many reduce church to its ABCs: attendance, buildings, and cash. It’s a convenient acronym of sorts, if nothing else. But obviously it looks mostly at the surface, the measurables, and the immediate. It misses much, yet reveals much as well.

But what are my suggestions? Here’s my first.

The church is about people not programs.

Most congregations have various regular activities that take place regularly: Bible studies, Sunday School, youth groups, home groups, VBS, etc. The Sunday morning worship service(s) is often viewed as the core or centre of church activity. All good stuff. Mostly.

I remember being in a ministry seminar where the person leading said something to the effect that programs are essentially a reason to get people in the same room.

I like it.

But of course the people getting together in the same space, if the purpose is discipleship, have to have something to do. Hence, programs.

At the same time, programs can outlive their usefulness. Keeping a program running when it’s run out of gas and goals can leave volunteers weary and discouraged. Even though it’s often harder to stop a program than start one, it can sometimes be an act of wisdom and mercy to pull the plug.

The church is about engagement not attendance.

More butts in the pews—it’s what most pastors dream of (and think they’re supposed to) strive towards. In these days of declining churches and struggling congregations, those who’ve attended for years and even decades are no doubt confused and discouraged by the absence of upcoming generations in many a sanctuary.

You can have a full sanctuary with little actual engagement. You can also have a smaller group of people who are more deeply engaged and motivated to grow.

It’s not necessarily about numbers. So without discounting numbers altogether, they can be deceiving. That said, without some people, it’s hard to have church! It’s just as easy to dismiss the importance of trying to engage new people—thereby shirking our evangelistic responsibility—by pointing out the superficiality of ecclesiastical arithmetic.

Some have commented that the numerical decline in churches simply represents the elimination of the “mushy middle,” those who used to attend out of a sense of obligation. Those remaining are the truly committed.

Perhaps. But we still are called to engage others and to be engaged ourselves with intentional spiritual community.

Last, the church is a holy people not a holy place.

Or to put it another, more obvious, way: the church is not the building. We don’t go to church; we are the church.

This almost goes without saying, and much of time I think we (sort of) get it. But our language can betray us. Words matter. Our vocabulary reveals.

We’re being built into a spiritual house, the Scriptures tell us. Brick by brick. All of the building language from the Old Testament is used of people—the gathered family of God—in the New Testament. Peter puts it this way:

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 2:4–5

We need one another. There’s a blessed mutuality at work in the church, where each one brings their particular gifts and passions. And God assembles us into a holy place.

And, yes, we still have to meet somewhere. Churches meet in coffee shops, school auditoriums, movie theatres, homes, and, of course, church buildings. Whether it’s better for a group of Christians to rent or lease a space or have one all their own, that’s a matter of legitimate debate.

But there’s no such thing as a holy place apart from a holy people.

So there you are. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. That’s ok. My point is simply to say that at the heart of what the church is are relationships: between us and God, between individual believers, and between believers and their surrounding community.

Indeed, God himself—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is relationship. It makes sense to me, then, if that’s what the church is all about too.

Expectations, Faith, and Why Our Experience Of God Isn’t What We’d Like It To Be

Expectations are a part of every relationship whether we are aware of them or not. I heard a story once of a pastor giving some premarital counseling to a couple. And when he asked the husband to be what his expectations were of his fiancé, his list of expectations took his spouse to be by complete surprise. An initially calm session of premarital counseling turned ugly fast. The pastor joked about having to step in between them.

For people of faith, expectations are also a part of a relationship with God. The shape of such expectations can vary with one’s Christian tradition, initial faith experiences, theological perspective, and interpretation of Scripture. Pentecostals have very different expectations of what to experience in their relationship with God than, say, Lutherans. Those in the Pentecostal tradition may very well expect a more emotional experience during worship, whereas Lutherans may not expect to have a deeply powerful emotional experience. Yet, faith, and God, can be very real for them both.

Coming as I do from a Roman Catholic upbringing, converting later to a broadly evangelical, specifically Baptist perspective, my expectations of my experience within my relationship with God probably falls somewhere in between the Pentecostal and Lutheran. My current tradition speaks often of having a “personal relationship with Jesus.” While not necessarily unbiblical, this specific phrase does not appear in Scripture. What this phrase means no doubt varies depending on who you ask. However, before unpacking the meaning of this phrase it already gives an impression as to what one can expect. Language creates expectations.

To say that I have a “personal relationship with Jesus” suggests, rightly or wrongly, therefore, a relationship of intimacy, a connection that is closer rather than distant, immediate rather than abstract, one that includes rather than excludes my emotions. In other words, it is analogous to having an intimate connection with another human being. Put another way, it’s like saying that I have a very conversational relationship with Jesus. People sometimes say, “The Lord said to me this morning . . .” Critics may say that this makes Jesus out to be far too “buddy-buddy.”

I say all of this because whatever our expectations are in our relationship with God, sometimes our experience of this relationship changes. The passage of time, changing circumstances, and other factors can affect how I perceive my relationship with God. Whereas once I had, say, an immediate connection that “felt” close and personal, now God seems more distant. And the significance of this, at least for the purposes of this reflection, is the fact that unless I am aware of the factors that impact my experience I can potentially draw the wrong conclusion from my experience.

In other words, I may conclude that I don’t feel as close to God in the present time because something is wrong with my relationship. As they say, “If you don’t feel close to God, guess who moved?” Something is amiss, therefore, in my heart. In evangelical terms, the usual means of diagnosing this issue is to say that my sin—especially unconfessed sin—is creating a barrier between myself and God. If you no longer feel close to God, it means you’ve done something wrong. “You’re living outside of God’s will,” some will say. “You gotta get right with Jesus,” others will advise. Hearing such admonitions, we can be left feeling guilty and anxious.

Let me say that this might actually be true. There are times when we wander, when we stray, when our wrongdoing and hard-heartedness keeps us from fellowship with God. Sin erects a wall, separating us from our heavenly Father. But if we are followers of Jesus, we won’t necessarily need others to make us feel guilty. The Spirit of God will already be at work in our conscience. It will be a sense of contrition, Lord willing, that draws us back to Jesus.

At its worst, though, believers in this situation will end up trying to avoid anything that might result in a deeper sense of conviction. They might avoid church. They will neglect prayer. Their Bibles will gather dust. Like Adam and Eve, they will do their best to hide from the presence of God, from anything that reminds them of both their sin and of God’s will for their lives. Evangelicals typically call this backsliding.

However, believers who experience a distance from God, but for reasons other than unconfessed sin, are not trying to avoid God. Instead, they may feel as though God is the one creating the distance. They want to pray, but the words do not come as easily as they once did. Rather than a dialogue, it feels more like a monologue. As hard as they may knock on heaven’s door, so to speak, no answer seems forthcoming. No one comes to the door, much less opens it. This change of experience runs against the grain of our expectations of God and how he relates to us.

Draw near to God and he will draw near to you. Or so James 4:8 tells us. And I do believe this is true. In fact, I believe it is true even if it is not true in our experience. In other words, even if we draw near to God to spend time in prayer and we have not, in our estimation, felt his presence or experienced a special assurance, he is still there, present, real, loving, and faithful.

This is why the difference between faith and feelings is so important. If I make my faith in God, my relationship with him, dependent on the feelings I expect to experience in relation to him, then I will often be disappointed. I will likely end up in a state of unbelief, because our feelings are so come and go. Faith is the assurance of things not seen, and maybe, we can add, of things not felt. Feelings can follow faith, but not always. And any faith that follows feelings risks being as ephemeral as our changing moods.

At a deeper level, there are times when our experience of our relationship with God shifts or changes because God is up to something, pushing and pulling us toward a greater maturity, of trusting in him and his word. In my experience, this sort of shift can be difficult to assess precisely because of our expectations.

Speaking more personally, over the last few years things have changed for me spiritually. I am still in the midst of this. I know that life circumstances have made drawing nearer to God a greater challenge – in terms of both the time and energy I generally have to spend on prayer and reading Scripture.

In addition, I find that it is hard to focus long when I pray. I can’t remember the last time I felt moved or touched during congregational worship. Even my experience of preaching has changed over the last while. Whether in my preparation or my delivery, preaching is not what it once was. If someone were to ask me to express it more clearly, I am not even sure I could. At least not in 20 words or less.

As a pastor I have experienced what I call “the professionalization of my faith.” Being in a vocation that includes activities that would be a part of my life even if I were not a pastor, activities that pertain to the practice of faith, has meant that over time my “personal relationship with God” has been swallowed by responsibilities of pastoring. In other words, being a pastor has made it harder to be a Christian.

For some of you my saying this might sound alarming or disquieting. People usually expect pastors to be pillars of faith, men and women who are examples of Christians who have an especially close relationship with God—otherwise, where would all those sermons, Bible studies, and pastoral insights and counsel come from? If we can’t trust that our pastors are in this position, who can we trust?

To such a concern, I can only say that I am, after all, human. And, yes, that means I am a sinful human being. But it also means that I am subject to the same weaknesses and limitations that any other person of faith may have. And as it happens, I am experiencing these weaknesses and limitations in a more pronounced fashion these days. I can also say that this is about my experience, not that of other pastors. While others sharing my vocation may also share my struggles, I do not mean for anyone to generalize from my personal experiences.

What about being a pastor has made this more difficult (or even more likely)? Hard to say, exactly, but I can give examples. For instance, since I spend a lot of time in Scripture during the week preparing for sermons, I have found it hard to read the Bible without seeing potential sermon outlines or ideas. Because of this I have found that I am less motivated to read the Bible. I have found it more difficult to hear what the text might be saying to me.

Though this is a good example of what I mean when I talk about the “professionalization of my faith,” I feel that it’s much deeper. It’s as though having to be in the role of pastor, which has often meant, for better or worse, setting aside my own spiritual needs, also means having to stifle aspects of myself and my own faith journey for the sake of those around me. Partly because of my own personality, I made a conscious choice to maintain a degree of professional distance from the people in my church. I did this to some extent out of fear, fear that if they knew the real me they would never want me as their pastor. On one level, there is a wisdom in this; on another, it was a mistake.

Add to this several years of ministry that have seemed less than fruitful, and no wonder my own relationship with God has taken a beating. What I mean is that—and I know that this is wrong, by the way—I have allowed myself to think at times that God values me (or not) depending on how I perform as a pastor. Like I said, I know that this is unbiblical theology. Still, knowing something is wrong doesn’t mean you won’t feel it is true. And this, by the way, adds to the difficulty. There is often a dissonance, a lack of continuity, between what I am going through internally and what I know to be true in Scripture and what I try and portray in public. There have been days when I was screaming on the inside and smiling on the outside.

So what do I expect of and from God in all of this? Or in my experience of God? Part of me wants to say, “I don’t know.” That’s probably accurate enough. Like a Hebrew wandering in the Sinai wilderness or like a lump of clay on the Potter’s wheel, what I hope and pray for is that God in his sovereign purpose will make clear sooner than later what he is up to in all of this. Either that, or that he will bring me out of this into something fresh and new, a wide-open space, a place where he makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul.

When Less is More

“We’re not big but we’re small!”

So goes the slogan for the fictional used record store in Stuart MacLean’s radio program The Vinyl Café.

And I love it.

You see, seldom in our church culture is small a point of pride. Instead, we worry and fret when numbers are down. We hope and pray for more people to come, to participate, to get involved. I recall in my earlier years as a pastor, other pastors and people from other churches would ask me if and how much my church had grown during my ministry. Denominations tabulate baptism numbers. Ministry effectiveness gets reduced to mathematics.

Don’t misunderstand me. I am aware that numerical growth, while not necessarily important in itself, can be indicative of spiritual health, of the vitality of a congregation and the impact this vitality can have on the surrounding community. I also know that we want more people rather than fewer people coming to Christ. I simply want to suggest that vitality and numbers is a more complex equation than some think.

There are things that are true of smaller churches that can never be true of a larger church, good things, things to be grateful for. Yes, there are disadvantages. But for now I want to focus on what makes being a small congregation a positive experience.

First of all, there’s a real sense of family. Everyone knows everyone. Heck, everyone knows where everyone sits. Whatever the downside of this might be, it also means that we know when someone is sick, when they’ve been away, when their participation has begun to ebb. Since I have friends who’ve been to large churches where weeks can go by before someone knows your name, there’s something wonderful about being that much more acquainted and connected with the other folks sitting around you. You can’t drop out without being noticed.

Not only this, but in a smaller church things tend to be less formal. Our Sunday morning worship service isn’t as professional or polished as that of some large churches. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that we have this folksy “aw shucks!” attitude about how well things are done, and take a certain weird pride in making mistakes. But neither do we get all bent out of shape when things don’t run like a well-oiled machine. Put another way, ours is not a congregation filled with perfectionists.

New people can also make connections easier. Someone new can more quickly become a part of the congregation. They don’t get lost in the crowd. They can participate almost immediately in the life of the church. Most regulars make a real point of welcoming someone new because having someone new is such a rare but wonderful gift.

If you are a part of a smaller church, maybe you can think of other strengths they offer.

Oh, I know. Every upside has a downside. There are cons as well as pros. I could very easily describe the shadow side of all these good points. However, I think most of us know already the negatives of small churches. But since a lot of churches—particularly rural congregations—may always be smaller, it’s important to consider what is specifically valuable about being a smaller church. This is significant because without reflecting on these good things, we might always end up with this inferiority complex, this feeling that we haven’t quite made it, that we weren’t quite up for the job. Since being in a small church can actually be a wonderful and rich experience, I’d rather that we be able to say, with all the joy and gratitude we can muster, “We’re not big but we’re small!”