In the spring of 1985 I decided to buy my first personal computer. The choices were the CP/M machines – represented by Radio Shack and Kaypro; the Microsoft machines – represented by IBM; and two machines from Apple – the then-not ready for prime time Macintosh, and the Apple II series. The Apple IIc was compact, user-friendly, and came with the glorious integrated word processor/database/spreadsheet program, Appleworks. I’ve been an Apple guy ever since, in no small part because – to me at least – they’re so much easier to understand and use. A computer technician at one of my churches admitted to me that had Apple become the dominant platform instead of Microsoft, he probably wouldn’t have had a job – he was constantly rescuing crashed Microsoft computer programs and machines.
During my four decades as a clergyman, I sometimes joked with parishioners that my job was to take a very simple idea – that God loves us – and make it so complex that I and thousands of my colleagues would be assured of careers. Sunday after Sunday I stood in the pulpit and explained the complications and intricacies of trying to follow Jesus. And, in all modesty, I was pretty good at it.
During that career, I read dozens of books and attended dozens of workshops and classes led by church consultants, each of whom had their own spin on helping congregations – and whole denominations – discover their vision/calling/purpose/identity/goals. I even led a few of those workshops. But, because I never wrote a book or got a Doctor of Ministry degree, my stages were fairly small. And deservedly so.
Now, having spent two years sitting in the pews of churches listening to some very fine pastors help their congregations as they try to define their vision/calling/purpose/identity/goals, it seems to me that maybe I was more right than I knew about making things more complicated than they really are. Why, after all, would God make God’s message to the world complicated? Wouldn’t God make it simple enough for the children and the less educated and the less brilliant and the less nuanced to understand? One of the first heresies the early Christian Church had to battle was Gnosticism – the belief that salvation came only to those who had received some elite and secret knowledge (gnosis) unavailable to common folk. There are many ways the Church has been battling aspects of Gnosticism ever since, but perhaps church leaders have been double agents, needlessly complicating what was supposed to be Good News. Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said that unless we became like children, we could not enter the Kingdom.
Or, in the words of the late, great Baltimore Orioles pitcher Mike Flanagan, sometimes you need to try easier.
My United Methodist denomination, a number of years ago, adopted a new mission statement that stands at the beginning of our church law book. It says that the mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. A few years later they added a coda: . . . for the transformation of the world. Ever since, we’ve been wrestling with what it means to make a disciple. How do we do that? What does a disciple of Jesus Christ look like – especially, can they be gay? Into what are we transforming the world? Do we transform the world, or does God transform the world? The mission statement clarified . . . nothing.
Maybe we need to try easier.
A man once asked Jesus which of the six hundred and thirteen commandments in the Hebrew Bible was the most important. No, there are not just the Big Ten – there are hundreds more dealing with family life and ritual conduct and sex and animals and diet and personal cleanliness and women’s menstruation and wearing blended fabrics and on and on. This whole God thing is really complicated, Jesus. Can’t you just boil it down to one phrase?
Ask a run of the mill preacher that and s/he will roll his/her eyes, issue a long sigh, and then explain that it’s much more difficult than that.
Jesus – no run of the mill preacher – boils it down. The most important thing, Jesus said, was to love the Lord with all your heart and mind and strength. But – this is where his seminary training peeks out from under the terrycloth robe – there is one more thing: love your neighbor as you love yourself. That, he concludes, sums it all up.
Later on, he clarifies that second bullet point a little. He’s noticed that some of his parishioners don’t love themselves very well, and if they’re going to love others as they love themselves, then the rest of the world is going to be in a heap of trouble. So, he says, I’m giving you a new commandment: love others as I have loved you. That is, love others to death. Not theirs – yours.
Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is Biblical – it comes from what’s called The Great Commission. But it seems to me that being a disciple of Jesus Christ means loving God with everything we’ve got and loving others the way Jesus loved. If we did those things, the world would be transformed.
Love God, and love others like Jesus loved.
Now, about church vision/calling/purpose/identity/goals: love God, and love others as Jesus loved. It’s not that complicated an idea. But each congregation, like each person, is a little different, and lives out that loving a little differently. Identity, whether corporate or personal, involves two questions:
1. Where are we? The Kentucky poet/novelist/essayist Wendell Berry says we can’t know who we are until we know where we are. We are magnificent products of families and regions and cultures and languages and experiences and races and genders and epochs. Berry insists it’s impossible to “think globally and act locally” – the best any of us can do is to really, really get to know where we are, and act appropriately in that place. That’s why if you’re in Great Britain you need to drive on the left side of the road, and why you don’t try to grow rice in Montana. A church, like mine, in the inner city, is in a different place than a church on the open prairie. And a church with fifty worshippers on a Sunday morning is in a different place than a church with thousands.
The preacher and teacher Bill Pannell said he believed that when Jesus said to love our neighbor as ourselves, the first place we should look was to our right and to our left. I was once on the staff of a church that sat across the street from a major university. The congregation was trying to define its mission, and decided they were being called to work with homeless people. There were two problems with that calling: first, the homeless lived on the other side of the town. Second, there were eighteen thousand “homeless” students across the street from the church. There were downtown churches working with their literally homeless neighbors, but no one was embracing the students. First look to your right and to your left.
The church my wife and I have elected in retirement to join is one of the few Anglo churches that stayed downtown when the complexion of the city changed years ago. It is committed to ministry in its inner city neighborhood, and feeds one hundred fifty to one hundred eighty homeless people every Friday – a ministry with which I help. Yet, as the congregation ages and shrinks, it is naturally concerned about its future. Like many of its members, I drive in from the suburbs because of the music, the liturgy, the preaching, and the mission of that church. But all around the church is residential redevelopment – a former bookstore and office building next door has become a restaurant and apartments; a skyscraper bank has been turned into condominiums; the street on which the church faces has become “restaurant row.” We have fascinating neighbors all around us: that is who we are. What would it mean for us to first love to our left and to our right?
2. Who are we? The late church consultant (I know, I know) Kennon Callahan asked what might happen if we stopped believing that congregations were random assemblies of self-selected individuals. What if, he posited, every congregation is in fact a unique gathering of gifts and graces that God has brought together for a specific purpose? I once served an aging rural congregation that was enormously jealous of the other, younger, larger church on the same charge. They were convinced they couldn’t do anything significant because they didn’t have any “young people” (which in that church meant under fifty). They had tried to reach out to young families, but the young families went, naturally, to churches where there were other young families. “Then why don’t you become the best Senior Citizen’s church anywhere around?” I asked. Free from trying to be something they weren’t, they could make use of the gifts they had. In fact, some of the older members of the second congregation moved to the first, just as some of the younger families had moved in the opposite direction.
At another of my churches, a woman approached me one day and asked if we could start a prayer shawl ministry. She liked to knit, she said, and she thought it would be nice if there were other people who liked to knit and would be interested in making shawls for the sick. I managed to avoid rolling my eyes, counted to ten, and blew her off by saying, “I’ll tell you what. Next Sunday why don’t you make an announcement at the beginning of worship, and invite anybody interested to meet with you during our Wednesday program night activities.” She made the announcement, and that, I thought, would be the end of that.
The next Wednesday night twenty women gathered in a classroom and began knitting. And the prayer shawl ministry became a huge ministry in the life of that congregation. Quarterly, we had to bless the prayer shawls during worship. People were buried wrapped in their prayer shawls. Shawls went to Iraq and Afghanistan, and soldiers sent us pictures wearing them. And the shawls opened my eyes to how to discover God’s call in a congregation: don’t sit in a committee meeting and debate the millions of shoulds. Look around the congregation for small groups of people who have passion about a need in the community and in the world. Those people are not there by accident – they have been called by God to be together to do ministry. Where two or three are gathered in my name . . . The writer to the Ephesians said that the task of church leadership was to equip the saints for the work of ministry. People are in church because, to one degree or another, they care about the work of God. They are there because they have passions and gifts for ministry. The function of church leadership is to do what Bishop Joe Pennel used to say when the Virginia Conference was stuck in a parliamentary rut: Let me try to help you do what you want to do. You want to feed the hungry -- how can we help you do that? You want to teach children – how can we help you? You want to make music . . . you want to rebuild houses . . . you want to end war . . . you want to knit shawls – how can we help you make that happen? If we’d structure our churches around the passions and gifts of our congregations, we’d have little problem getting people to do the things they already want to do.
And if no one in the congregation wants to do it . . . maybe it shouldn’t be done. In my last congregation, no one wanted to be the church treasurer. And, frankly, no one was qualified. So, we hired a CPA, and it worked beautifully. Best treasurer I ever had.
Love the Lord your God with all your being.
Love others as Jesus loved you.
Look to your left and to your right.
Follow your gifts – they’re not accidents.
Sometimes, you have to try easier.