Messy, Challenging, Difficult, But Worth It!

Philippians 2:1-11

So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Street Scene in Kenya

Street Scene in Kenya

I recently read a blog post by Ed Stetzer describing the challenges he faced as he “led a church of 35 senior adults during a brief stint teaching at a seminary.” They had expressed a desire to reach younger people and he set about helping them to do that. He writes:

They wanted to love their neighbors and engage the community around them. And that all-white congregation got out from behind their church walls and began effectively reaching their multi-cultural, lower-middle to poor working-class neighborhood.

The church grew from 35 to 175 under his leadership. He describes the end of his experience this way:

On my last day at the church, Harold, the over 80-year-old deacon chairman poked me in the chest, and said, “Preacher, I still don’t like the music. And the kids are breaking everything.”

And he was right. The more activity you have in a church, the more likely things are going to be broken.

Any disconnected church that seeks to reengage with their community will find the experience to be messy. There may be mud on the carpet, smudges on the walls, dirty bathrooms, or broken vases.

The way of church life to which your people had grown accustomed will suddenly change.

So there we were, Harold with his finger in my chest and me looking at him trying to figure out this confrontation. Still making eye contact, he teared up and said, “I still don’t like the music, and the kids are breaking everything, but it was worth it all.”

Perhaps this will help me the next time I am confronted with the confused and distressed elderly woman who recently cornered me about the goings-on at her church. It seems that they had opened their church building up to an ethnic ministry and the challenges and disappointments significantly out-weighed the benefits or successes they were experiencing in the process. She was hurt and angry at how the church had (not) been cared for, and how the group that was using the building had no respect for them.

Sadly, this seemed also to prove to be a launching pad for yet another diatribe against some more unusual manifestations of Lutheran churches which, seeking to reach new people, looked nothing like what she had experienced over the years. She said, “You used to be able to go to any Lutheran Church and it was the same order of worship, same Biblical texts, and same overall experience. It was part of the Lutheran experience that she had come to expect.

Churches that seek to reach into changing neighborhoods, or new demographics will often not look like the churches that have not been reaching those people and neighborhoods. Somehow we might expect that to be the case. But most of us – myself included – want to see things change for the better as we define it. And this is not true only of Lutheran people; the same would be true of any long-time denominationally-loyal people.

I am actually looking forward to a conversation with this woman who seems to seek me out when our social engagements lead us together. I think I’ll tell her this story, and then perhaps even challenge her with this thought. How difficult was it for Jesus to redeem us? What price did he put on our salvation? How far did he go? He calls us to follow him, not to bring him inside our churches to protect our sensibilities or even our church property.

OK, maybe that would be too challenging. Perhaps I’ll just start by telling the story of Harold and ask her if perhaps his attitude is worth having.

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