Thursday, March 8, 2012

When Ministry Doesn't "Work"

Like so many others, my church is finding new life and renewed energy through recent, creative, small - and not so small - attempts to step beyond our comfort zones into relationship with neighbors and strangers.  I'm proud of my church, God's People in Portland.  We're rising to the challenge.  God is surprising us.

And/but/yet/even so...

Like so many others, our church members, on their honest days - in the midst of all of these really good things - have the courage to ask: What if it doesn't work?

What if it doesn't work?

It's an interesting question.  The question reveals a hidden tension that exists in most quasi-missional organizations.  The tension is that, while St Christopher's and others may be convinced that the old ways of being Church are passing away - remember Bishop Spong's provocative book title: "Why Christianity Must Change or Die" - the compulsion to change issues from the implicit promise that "this new way will work."  But whether or not the new way "works" remains evaluated, ultimately, by the measure of people who begin coming to church, if not by increased financial giving, as a result of these efforts.  The new ways are (perhaps erroneously) accepted as means to the old ends.

What if it doesn't work?  What if the people we serve in God's Name never come around?

Of course, put that way, God Himself, on an honest day, might have asked the question.  It's the story of the whole Scriptures: a wayward People running from the God who will not stop loving them.  What can we learn from God's love?  In our growing to share God's heart for others, are we discovering the full depth and breadth of unconditional love, which of course is love without strings and conditional expectations?

Maybe this is precisely the door to the intersection of our passions, God's call, and - as Frederick Buechner put it - the world's deepest need: that in asking ourselves what else we would be doing if what we are presently doing doesn't work, we find the permission to give that part of ourselves, freely, abundantly, without reservation and/or resentment.  Maybe we discover the true selves God has given us to share with God, one another, and the world.  And we glorify God.

This whole past week, I've been remembering a stranger I met years ago in Chapel Hill.  It was late at night, I was driving home - the familiar 15/501 - when the car began making a terrible noise.  I pulled over at a gas station.  A flat.  I am proud to say that I am much more equipped now for such a moment and such a discovery, but the truth in that moment was that I didn't know where to start.  I was a theology student.

A security guard checked in on me, made sure I was okay, and left.  Said he didn't have time, that it wasn't his job, which was true.  It was getting really late.  A few, panicked minutes later, the gas station clerk emerged from his store and made his way up to me.   He playfully chided me for my lack of knowledge, and then he jacked up my car and changed the tire.  I helped some.

As he was finishing, I reached for my wallet to see if what I had to give him.  The clerk, now more friend than clerk, stopped me.  "No, no," he said.  "But Allah be praised."

What if the only thing that "works" in our efforts as Christians, as Church, is that God is glorified as we reach out in the Name of Christ to the poor, the lost, the rich, the hungry, the theology students?  No expectations.  No strings.  Do things become simpler when the strategic mission before us is "glorify God in all things"?  Can that ever not "work"?



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