Posts Tagged ‘Spirit’

Twice last week I was asked the question, “Why do we need the church?” The first time, the question came from someone who was trying to find something to say to her children who no longer participated in the life and mission of the church.

The second time, the question was phrased more starkly: “Do we need the church anymore?” It was asked as a few people struggled with the reasons for declining attendance at a study group about social issues for which they had leadership responsibilities. They had tried a number of things to attract new participants but had not been successful. Part of the discussion had revolved around the reality that people don’t need the church to educate themselves about social issues or to take action on them.

Now that Christendom is over, the answer to the question “Do we need the church anymore?” is often, “No.”

We don’t need the church to provide us with a commitment to social justice. Many people develop commitments about social issues without any recourse to the church’s opinion (which inevitably spans the breadth of stances on any particular issue). They don’t need the church to give expressions to those commitments. There are plenty of interest or focus groups where they can give their time and energy and money.

We don’t need the church to provide us with moral values. For the most part, people no longer look to the church to inculcate moral values in their children. Even those who send (or bring) their young children to Sunday School for that purpose, decide  that the church hasn’t much to offer their children past the age of 8 or 9. When their children are bored to death with the simple crafts and moralizing stories, they decide that organized sports provides better training in moral values and character building. Even simply staying home with the family on a Sunday morning seems a more useful alternative.

On top of that, the endless parade of news stories about the sexual scandals involving clergy and priests leaves a lot of people with a pretty jaded view of what moral values the church can instil. Even if they can overlook those embarrassments, they make note of the bad behaviour of people who are active in the church and decide that the church really doesn’t have much to offer in the way of moral guidance.

Most people don’t need the church as a social group either. This was an important function of the church in Christendom. This is where young people went to meet their future spouses. Many older members of the church will tell you how the people they have met in church are the people who have been with them through weddings, births, illnesses and deaths (and golf and vacations –sometimes both at the same time). Most people don’t need the church to provide them with a social club any more. We have a number of young families that have been finding their way back into the church community. I have been asking them what they’re looking for from the church. A social group is not among their replies. They have relationships already. They have people to have fun with. They have busy lives and are not looking to add another social event to that busyness.

Many people don’t need the church for spirituality either. They talk about feeling spiritual when watching a beautiful sunset or when hiking a mountain path. They look to get their ‘spiritual needs’ met in yoga, meditation, journalling, etc. Any number of options are available to them without the inconvenience of being part of a church community.

So, do we need the church anymore? My short answer is that, the life to which Jesus Christ calls me is so demanding that I cannot do it on my own. I need others who are also being discipled by this surprising, challenging Lord to help me along the way. If ‘spirituality’ is defined as something you feel or experience, then you may not need others. However, I cannot learn to love others the way that Christ commands without being in community with other people — some of whom are very difficult to love.  I need others to challenge my natural tendencies towards self-pity or narcissism or selfishness. I need the community of the Church, which includes the faithful throughout the ages, to pull me into a bigger, more holy purpose for my life. The church is the community which the Spirit gives us in order to grow into our baptism — into Christ-likeness.

I have begun think, however, that “Why do we need the church?” is not the most important question. The more important question is, “Why does God need the church?” “Does God need the church anymore?” The church, for all its flaws and faults and failings, seems to be the form which God chooses in order to “reconcile the world to Himself”. At the most basic level, I am not involved in the church because I  have decided to be in the church. Indeed, if it were up to me, I would have given up on the church long ago. I am in the church because God has met me in the risen Jesus and I live in response to that relationship with him which God offers through the Holy Spirit. That relationship is lived out with other people who have also been met by God in the risen Jesus. Together, we are the church. Its form is changing rapidly and profoundly as Christendom recedes further and further into the past. Nevertheless, God’s Spirit is ‘doing a new thing’ and that new thing still involves some form of the church. The challenge is to respond faithfully to those new initiatives of the Spirit and to be the church God needs us to be.


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I have spent much of my ministry serving congregations that are in transition. I have often told them that a turn-around takes 5 – 7 years. This number originally came from a seminar I attended in which the speaker said to a room full of ministers that they would spend the first two years in a pastoral charge ‘burying the ghost of their predecessor’. (Based on my experience, this length of time could be longer if the predecessor stays in the congregation.) Years 3 and 4 are spent putting into place whatever new initiatives or style which the current minister feels called to offer. Not until years 5 -7 will the minister see many results from that effort. Unfortunately, many ministers get discouraged around year 5 and move away.

Again, from my experience, congregations also get worried and discouraged around years 3 and 4. They may not see much significant change (often translated as ‘growth’). That may also be the time period when they realize that, if they are going to see much growth, they themselves are going to have to change. During the first two years, they may have spent considerable energy resisting the newness that the new minister is proposing. Or, they may have made some of the surface changes that are required to make a transition. However, around years 3 and 4, they will be confronted with the need to make some deeper changes in their structures, in their style of operating,and most importantly, in themselves.

Indeed, some congregations have a long-standing pattern of short-term ministries. That often indicates that, around year 3 or 4, they manage to make the lives of the minister so discouraging and unrewarding that the minister leaves. This may not be a conscious attempt to ‘get rid of the minister’, but it operates in subtle ways beneath the surface. This way, the congregation never has to deal seriously with the issues that the minister is raising.

These days, many congregations are so close to the edge of not being viable that they do not have 5-7 years to make the transition. They run out of money or out of people or out of energy (because of the average age of the congregation) before they can make the changes that need to be made.

However, if a congregation has the time and the people and the energy, the changes that need to be made can be made. People can change. Congregations can become places where the Spirit troubles the waters and brings something new to birth. New life can grow from the ground that was weeded and tilled and prepared in those earlier years and from some of the seeds that were sown in years 3 and 4.

Even in a congregation that has resisted change too long and is running out money or people or energy, God may decide to make resurrection happen. In the end, it is always about God’s grace. When the crisis is upon us, that is what we need to be on the lookout for.

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A Prayer based on John 14

You are the source of our life.
You have given us a wonderful world
and permeated it through and through
with your grace and your love.
You have promised that you will give us your Spirit,
to be with us as we journey through this life.
Yet, we confess the many times when
our eyes can’t see you,
can’t take you in,
can’t comprehend how you can be at work
in pain and disappointment and sorrow.
We need your Spirit to lift our sights to your wide horizons.
Teach us to pray with such openness to your Spirit that you make yourself plain to us.
Bring us to that place where we are willing
to place our lives in your keeping,
to submit to your life-changing love,
and to move with you into your large open spaces of salvation.
We ask these things in Jesus’ name, our light and our salvation, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Spirit in the bright glory of the holy Trinity, forever and ever. Amen.

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A prayer for the Baptism of our Lord Sunday, based on Isaiah 42 and Matthew 3

Spirit-bathed Christ,
you have summoned us to join you in your holy work.
You are present in our neighbourhood,
setting free those who have been bruised
by hurt or sorrow or sin.
You are present in our city,
noticing those whom others regard as
small and insignificant.
You are present,
setting things right.
This is good and holy work
you have given us to do.
Summon us again —
from our pre-occupation with petty issues;
from our fear that we don’t have the resources we need
to be your people here
in this time and in this place;
from our blindness to your glory
all around us.
Open our hearts and ears
so that we hear again
the voice from heaven that calls us,
“My delight”.
Bathe us in those healing words.
Let them fill our life together —
Full and overflowing
till we become a stream of love and mercy
in this neighbourhood,
in this city,
in this place
and in this time.
We offer ourselves
in the name of Jesus,
the one whose servanthood has saved us. Amen.

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One thing I have discovered in the process of leading a number of congregations through the process of change is that it is a lot harder than people expect it to be. Congregations SAY that they are willing to change, especially when a crisis hits and they face the possibility of having to close. However, when they get into the thick of it, they are able to put up a lot of resistance.
When new people start participating in a congregation, they don’t know all the hidden ‘rules’ and practices. They discover them as they start doing things differently and then, sometimes, encounter people who are angry and hurt and afraid because they weren’t consulted. New people start using equipment and spaces that longer-term members are used to having at their sole disposal.
If congregations are serious about wanting to welcome new people into their midst, they will have to be willing not only to make external changes but internal ones as well. Offering hospitality to ‘strangers’ means entering into our baptism in radical ways. In baptism, we embark on a life-long journey of letting go and being raised to new life by God’s transformative work.
On a practical level, this means that egos will have to learn a new humility. The way things have always been done isn’t necessarily the way that they HAVE to be done. Sometimes, older members will have to give up some activities that they have claimed as their territory so that there is space for somebody else to do something new. Patience and respect will be required as the new participants learn some of the practices and traditions of the community. They need to have the stories and traditions told to them. Criticism will have to be kept in check.
The creativity that is integral to change requires an environment of graciousness. Mistakes will be made. New experiments won’t work out the way it was hoped they would. New life needs to be celebrated and nurtured — lavished with praise.
Many of the changes are ones that existing members need to make in order to accommodate newcomers. This is not easy work. People need to be gentle with each other but also firmly committed to keep following the Holy Spirit as God leads Christ’s Church into a new creation. That’s where life lies.

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Open to being changed

God of life and creativity,
we come before you with joyful songs
but you know the times we have entered your presence
with our minds consumed with ourselves and
with our hearts closed to your grace.

We are a people well-trained
to depend upon ourselves,
to take care of our needs,
to seek our own dreams.
Yet, you have summoned us into
your mission in the world.

Such work is more than we can do in our own strength.

Free us from our attempt to be in control
and the anxiety that it brings,
and the small horizons that it sets for our lives.

You have promised that those who wait upon you
shall renew their strength:
they shall run and not grow weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
Here, in your Spirit’s presence,
we wait upon you
Visit us, we pray,
even as we know that that is such a dangerous prayer,
for your Son may change us
in ways we had not planned.
We dare to pray it
only in trust that whatever changes
you bring,
will also bring life and hope. Amen.

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A prayer based on John 20: 19-31

Reconciling God,
You invite us into life ruled by resurrection,
into your new country shaped by your grace,
into your transforming presence.
Break into our lives and speak your resurrection words
again and again until we receive your life-changing breath.
Break into the places where we need reconciliation;
into the places where we hide wounds that will not heal;
into the places where we cannot find peace.

Faithful God,
meet us with your Spirit’s healing power.
Restore your image in our lives and in our life together,
so that, through us, other may see the new creation
You make possible.
Let your peace flow among us and through us
into all the world.
We ask these things in the name of our crucified and risen Lord.

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