I have learned a couple of things since posting “The Crisis of Ministry.” For starters, I learned that I should be more careful in using words like “crisis.” (I am not in a psychological crisis )¹ It would also have been ill-advised to call it a “crucible” of ministry. Would anyone accept “psycho-social locus of moderate melancholia and partly floundering quizzicalness”?
I also learned that I underestimated the effect of the lack of recent, face-to-face relational time. A common background goes a long way, but if I haven’t spent an appreciable amount of time with people in a long time, there’s a likelihood that we’ll both misunderstand or talk past one another when describing some things. Despite the best intentions and the best of hearts, some comments did not connect for me. Perhaps they spoke to readers; if so, that’s good.
Internet media can seem to whitewash things sometimes. A quick comment after a fairly quick read of a somewhat hastily conceived blogpost won’t always be on target. And I must’ve subconsciously overestimated the capacity of the intentionally written word to overcome any communication gaps. A few might be able to read between my lines or interpret what I really mean or how I feel about it all, but a topic like this was probably better discussed face to face than blogged about. I regret aspects, but can’t really say that I repent, because I’m about to sin similarly again.
I’d like to return to a few things so I can perhaps explain or respond to a few suggestions—or even answer “objections,” in a couple cases. In no case am I intending to take anyone to task, and I’m intentionally moving Facebook and other comments around, so it’s hard to trace who said what. I am using isolated sentences as a springboard to clarify and illuminate. The quotes from friends appear in blue below.
“We always tended to go somewhere close and just see where we could serve.”
This is as practical as it is good-hearted. I have had this goal in mind, too, and actually, this is precisely how we started out in our current location and others. We simply have not found that place we could serve. We want to do this. Maybe we are blind and/or deaf, but it has not worked out yet.
“I get the feeling you are looking for the perfect place to minister. It’s been my experience it doesn’t exist.”
My experience, wider and longer in this respect than that of pretty much everyone I’ve run across, bears out that there is no ideal. Truly, I have no ethereal dreams anymore and am not looking for a non-existent group. After visiting scores² of them in the last decade+, I am all too aware that no perfect place exists.
“I find it hard to locate someone really on my wavelength. I am just glad Jesus didn’t really wait to find someone on his own wavelength before trying to minister!”
Agreed on both thoughts. What should “wavelength” matter if I find myself near a genuine person wants to please Jesus, learn scripture, and be in a community of disciples? As for imitating Jesus in serving: it is always good to think about the one we call “Teacher” and “Master.” This makes me think about other things (i.e., all of them) that I don’t do as well as Jesus.
“Jedd definitely needs some church friends. Maybe you can give him that without being totally satisfied in what you need.”
I can appreciate this. I’m not sure how to weigh the church friends factor alongside others, but I’d rather that Jedd had some. He does have friends at a Wednesday afternoon church-sponsored activity. He had one other one that moved away. He also has friends in our home group (adults plus one toddler). It would be nice if there were a little quartet of 8-to-10-year-olds that could pal around together once or twice a week. Maybe a couple of them would see each other at school, too. But that “perfect group” doesn’t exist for Jedd, either.
Karly is better at “going along” than I am, but she is discontent and wondering what to do, too. If our parental goal is to have Jedd maybe see two or three kids his age weekly, a line of questioning forms in my heart:
Should we go to a place where. . .
- . . . we cannot conscientiously participate in some aspects of worship?
- . . . we have been rejected (and even mocked a little, in one case)?
- . . . we cannot “join the community” according to its present terms?
Is it really valuable for Jedd to be with a small motley crew of kids when he knows his parents are struggling upstairs, and when sometimes all he remembers is how crazy another kid was acting? I’m actually unaware of any better possibility at the moment (given distance and other factors). I suppose having regular “church ‘friends'” is valuable regardless, just like anything “stable.” I don’t know.
“Church is not trying on people to see if they fit, instead it is looking at how God will use you with the people he has surrounded you with. Ministering at home is part of God’s plan, but so is ministering to others in a local community. I would say that if there is something you feel needs to be changed at a local church, first see if it is you who needs to change in your heart.”
Please recall that I am “ministering to others in a local community.” We happen not to have a “church home” that most others would call a church home, but the lack of recognition does not in itself preclude that what we do have (or search for) can be pleasing to the Lord. In other words, if our group doesn’t measure up to someone else’s standard, that doesn’t mean it’s not a valid “local community” in God’s eyes.
Now to the “heart.” More than one person said something about this, and it took me at least a week to quell a negative inward reaction in order to respond as best I can. The “heart” is a curious symbol. Linguistics and historical cultural concepts aside, I would all too readily admit that my heart is not in great shape. I intended to imply that confession in my expression “maybe it’s just me,” but it wasn’t clear enough. In the third and fourth paragraphs in the original post here, I confessed that I am not who I once was in terms of the inclination to serve others. I probably should have said more about that later in the first post, after specifically describing a few churches. I don’t need to be informed that my heart needs examination. I’m not blaming anyone for not knowing this, but honestly, for me, that “change your heart” verbiage is reminiscent of certain “multiplying ministry” (Crossroads/Boston/L.A. CofC) phrasings with which I was once associated at arm’s-length. The leadership of that sect used to say you “had a bad heart” if you questioned said leadership. Well, maybe or maybe not. (Often, I think those questioning things were not the ones with the heart problems.) In my case, my heart is certainly in need of some defibrillation or de-calcifying or something. I don’t think my heart is so bad as to need a transplant, but maybe. My heart is not as healthy as it was in say, 1981 or 1987 or 1991 or 2002. My heart needs shaping. My heart needs conditioning. Give me an Rx, and it might or might not be the best one . . . but, yes, I do know my heart can use some help.
In the above suggestion to look at my own heart, I detect what I take as a sincere commitment to the gnat-camel and speck-beam principles.³ Yes, there might well be more wrong with me than with the people in the churches. I’m not consciously judging anyone’s intentions or worthiness. I’m thinking of groups far more than individuals. As much as I can, I’m trying to separate thoughts about the people from thoughts about the institutions. Yes, there might be “chemistry” problems that keep us from being close to certain folks, but I am speaking corporately when I say that the institutions we’ve visited recently range from “civic club” churches to sectarian maintenance groups to corpulent, opulent institutions. (We’ve generally learned to filter out those that would impress us as repulsively off-track or comatose.)
Back in about 2012, someone I barely knew commented to someone I knew a little better that he didn’t “experience life” as she did. Those individuals did seem to move to different drummers . . . and the way we experience church is not necessarily how someone else does. Having lived in 8 states together in 13 years, my wife and I experience “church” out of an unplanned set of experiences. After scores² of visits and many re-visits, the process of trying to connect and find a reasonable group to be with is exhausting. I will simply ask that those who have lived in only one or two places try not to be quick to criticize the process and effects of “church searching.” Some folks may always feel we need to relax our “standards,” and that might be a real need (but not in this one4 described below). Still, where our Goodyear tires experience friction with the asphalt is here: we have consciences and principles involved in our discipleship. You do, too, or you wouldn’t have read this far. To extend the metaphor, walking a few Sabbath Day journeys in each other’s sneakers would help people to understand each other—and sometimes, to prescribe for them. Yet my sneakers don’t fit everyone else, so it’s sometimes hard to empathize, let alone help.
It takes all kinds in the world. We are not of the kind that can sit and accept things we earnestly believe to be off-track and even wrong. Here, we are not talking about carpet colors and “worship styles” and nursery staffing and parking lot ministries and church bulletin mistakes. We are talking about deeper, more important things. My frequently on-target wife commented incisively, “If everyone just went along with the status quo, nothing would ever change.” It is precisely on this point that I will continue to lose some of you. For me and us, it is a given that some things require change. Other things, not so much. In mere matters of preference, change is not often needed at all. But it is not helpful to assume that, because you are okay with this or that, that everyone else can or should be content with it.
“I can certainly relate to that calling you are feeling. I’ve been starting to feel a sense that perhaps starting up something from scratch might be the way. Now for the method. I’ve lots of ideas. We’ll see. I don’t always wait years for an answer if I don’t get one bright away.”
I too tend to look more for creating and innovating than reforming these days, but I’m also not sure if I have the gusto anymore . . . which almost leads full-circle to the sense of “crisis in ministry” about which I initially wrote. I have a strong, inner sense of things I need to do in order to be useful. That “list” has changed in the last 10-20 years, but remains a presence in my heart. Too, the last decade has been chock-full of times of not doing nearly as much as I used to. I have had those times of trying to settle into friendships and the ministry of others to us. Or at least I’ve hoped for that, but very little has materialized, and when it did, it was all too short-lived. The “sabbatical” of rest and preparation that one acquaintance referred to has lasted way too long, and it’s actually not fulfilled much of a purpose, as far as I can see. (Yes, I know I shouldn’t depend wholly on my own sight.)
These days, it’s no secret that mainline denominations and other sects are losing members, generally speaking. There are many more community churches and purportedly nondenominational groups springing up. Most of these younger groups strikingly resemble the churches from which their pastors came, so it doesn’t seem that much new is happening. I paraphrase my wife again here: few are willing to step away from the traditional models—into something that doesn’t look like “church” as Americans and Europeans have defined it.
In mulling all this over, my wife and I remember knowing of some wacked-out people who had taken an evening or two to sit in lawn chairs, in the middle of a fairly busy neighborhood street, yelling at drivers to slow down around their children. Sometimes it takes radical action like that, but prophesying against dangerous drivers that way doesn’t strike us as very effective. (Nor do community action groups or speed bumps offer much good effect, but that’s another story.) We don’t stand in the middle of traffic and scream at passersby that they need to leave and develop something new. That is too stark an image, no matter how strong we feel. Even as we continue to value individuals in all sorts of churches, along with some doctrinal tenets held and principles at work in various groups, we figure we’ll continue looking to innovate more than to join and reform established churches.
Here are a couple of places to go if you want to think more along these lines:
- A collection of thoughts and further links to Simple/Organic Church material
- A specific posting related to the book Simple Church
- A New Gathering of Christians—a work-in-progress document I began nearly a decade ago and haven’t thought about for quite a while
Next: Responsive, resonant comments from Sarah, a strong friend of nearly ten years, will more or less outline the next post.
¹ Nor am I “in ministry,” in the sense that most people use that term. Yet since I was a teenager, my confidence has been unflagging in that, in terms of the New Testament writings and more, there should be no clergy/laity distinction. During two isolated phases of my life, I made a little motion toward becoming a paid, formally recognized minister in the institutional sense. I once had a phone interview but pulled myself out of the running, realizing I was not cut out for it. A decade later, I made the second cut for the worship minister position at a large Nashville church. A year or so after that, I was almost hired as a half-time worship minister. It seems better that none of these things materialized.
I doubt I will ever be a paid minister, and that is fine with me. I am settled on the more important matter: all believers, functionally speaking—by constitution and intent—are ministers/deacons/servants.
² Rough estimates of the number of churches visited since 2005:
- 6 in Sedalia
- 8 in Greeley
- 35 in Fillmore (70-mile radius)
- 8 in Kingsville
- 6 in Sheridan
- 12 in Searcy
- 25 in Atchison (40-mile radius)
- a couple dozen more when traveling (IA, WA, DE, PA, TX, TN)
³ One should not strain out a gnat and swallow a camel; one should first remove the plank from his own eye before attempting to extricate a tiny speck from someone else’s.
4 In a post in December 2016, I wrote this about one church. There is probably an “excuse” for the existence of this group in God’s eyes, but that doesn’t mean we could or should be a part of it:
Most churches fall somewhere between mildly disappointing and stultifying in many activities. The singing aspect of this church’s gathering, experienced for a grand total of five minutes this very morning, didn’t come anywhere close to either of those. It wasn’t even embarrassing. It was an utter travesty, and doubly so because no one seemed to be aware of how bad it was.
Did that make any sense? Didn’t think so. The singing at this place was like that: nonsense. The reasonable-quality gospel song sung from a poor-quality hymnal should have been familiar to at least half the people in the room, but the “leader” had not a fraction of a clue. This was not your garden-variety obtuse or relatively unskilled leader. This was like a paraplegic in a relay race or a short-order cook negotiating a nuclear treaty with the dictator of a 2nd-world communist country. “Face to Face” ended up sung to a mixed-up, bad-form version of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and believe me, no one intended that—or registered a quizzical look when it happened. It was melodically confused and harmonically chaotic. The next song, the Gaither favorite “He Lives,” began in at least three different keys with equal melodic confusion. And no one even seemed aware. And that in itself should be embarrassing. Maybe I should have left out the 2nd half of this paragraph. Nah.