Saturday, June 25, 2011

Mission is Messy (Reprise)

A reminder to me of how messy mission is: When following Jesus, things can get complicated. The world resists the kingdom of God breaking in. Our Master never promised us it would be easy. We do things intending to bless people and our efforts are rebuffed. Sometimes we totally fail. But we have to keep trying.

Wednesday night I had a strange phone call. It was the mother of some of the kids in our mid-week tutoring program. The family is Muslim. We had invited all the kids to go to Bible Camp this summer. This week I started handing out the permission slips to go. The mother called and was frantic. She told me that if I took her kids anywhere, she’d burn down the church. Wow. That’s messy. I assured her that we would never take her kids anywhere without her permission. I apologized for any harm we had done in extending the invitation and said I hoped that she would consider allowing us to bring the kids to our Art Camp next month. The kids called me later and were upset and disappointed. I told them that God wants us to respect and honor our parents. If their mother didn’t want them to go, they need to respect and honor her. I suggested they try to serve her and love her and maybe, just maybe, she would change her mind.

Friday night, the same mother called back. She was apologetic and said that she gave her permission for her children to go anywhere with me. Wow. Complete change. Praise God. An answered prayer. God changed hearts and minds and his will-will be done. But you have to be willing to wade through the mess first, give up control, and don’t give up.

Last weekend, a friend of mine and our ministry, another Muslim, gave his life to Christ. I’m weeping as I write this. I wasn’t at the service he attended and then he was out of town this week. We finally connected yesterday. His family is in an uproar. I don’t know how this will affect his business. There are so many things to be overcome. It’s messy. But praise God. I am confident that if we wade through the mess, He will be faithful.

Sometimes I think that the church is kept from doing mission because we’re afraid to make mistakes, make a mess, we’re afraid of making people angry or upset. We’re afraid of not meeting the expectations of our long time members to deliver what they expect week after week. We’re afraid of the mess we’ll make if we invite those who don’t know Christ to follow him. They could say no. They could get upset or offended.

Following Jesus is messy. Mission is messy. Being faithful is messy. But do we have the faith to risk failing? The faith to make a mess?

At church we’re experiencing a new phenomenon. Our members are bringing homeless men to church. Wow. The kingdom of God is happening. But it’s messy. The men want to shower before the service. The showers are in a Sunday School area. We have to set up an elaborate system of supervision to be sure that everyone is safe. These men need accountability, they need to be discipled, they need community, they need a job and place to live. It’s ironic to me that as a pastor I’ve never realized that we weren’t set up to incorporate those not in families and without a place to live into our church family. I’d like to think that as a church, we could be a place that could incorporate anyone into the Body of Christ. And now we have to. And it will be messy. And we will make mistakes. And we might even fail. But in the end, it’s worth it. Because following Jesus is messy.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

New Directions, New Challenges

My current working theory: As we seek to minister in Jesus’ name to the people in our neighborhood, it requires us to become more open to them and to their needs. As we become more open to new people in our church, it means we become more open to change in order to accommodate our new friends and to make them feel welcome. As we accommodate more, our structures and styles have to change more.

Case in point: we are seeing a wonderful thing happening with people on the fringes of our society coming to church at Zion. Zion has always been very open to people with various physical handicaps. Now, we’re seeing the Lord bring us people with various other conditions, including mental disabilities and other conditions which make it difficult for them to “fit in with the rest of society.”

Praise the Lord!

We recognize right away that this is a big part of the audience that Jesus would seek to reach. The fact that the crowd on Sundays and/or Wednesdays includes such folks, I think, means that we are continuing along the path of obedience the Lord has called us to follow.

The participation of such folks in the life of the body means that we need to find ways to help them, where appropriate, and, in Jesus’ name, welcome them.

The issue on my mind these days is just how “un-set up to do ministry” we are as a church. This is what I mean: Want to be baptized? We can do that. Want to worship? We do that. Sunday School? Got it. Spiritual questions? Equipped to handle that. Outreaches, missions? Got ‘em.

But come to us with the basics: “I have no where to live.” “I’m hungry.” “I need work.” And we hem and haw and don’t know what to do. Now add to that: “Oh, by the way, I’m schizophrenic.” “I’m homeless.” And we don’t know what to do.

In the past, we’ve been able to accommodate maybe one person at a time. “I’m an offender and I need a job.” We’ve done that. Praise God. But this recent development requires us to stretch. A guy off the street with no housing and no job who wants to follow Jesus requires a whole new approach. An approach we’re not exactly set up for. It would be easier if he wanted Sunday School or Bible Study.

All this came to a head for me this weekend. Apparently, a local business where one of our members works, has been letting a homeless man, a Christian, live in his broken car in their parking lot for the last few weeks. Individual members of our church have been taking him grocery shopping and giving him gift cards. It’s a beautiful thing. But here’s the deal: what’s the long term situation? A single man can live in his car in Iowa in the spring and summer, but not in the winter. We eventually have to find a solution.

Isn’t that why we are church together? To help this brother, a member of the same body we are, find his legs and stand? But how? He needs a place to stay, a place to work, and someone to hold him accountable. It would be great if individual members could do this, but once you consider people’s schedules, our fear of liability issues, the very real fact that this is new to us as a way of doing church (the homeless didn’t used to be our target audience - but Jesus seems to be changing that!), it gets complicated. We really need someone on this more or less full time.

And that’s my big thought for the day. Isn’t it interesting how most churches, including ours, are set up to do ministry? We are set up to meet, first and foremost, the needs of our members. We have a staff member who runs the office for us, one who runs adult discipleship, another who runs children’s discipleship and one who runs youth discipleship and one who runs worship. And me, who preaches and teaches and gets us into stuff. But, in our structure, we’ve no one tasked with ministering to the very least of these. And isn’t that significant? Didn’t Jesus tell us, “whatsoever you do for the least of these, my brethren, you do to me?” Shouldn’t we be set up to minister more to Jesus (as his body) than to minister to ourselves?

So I have a lot of “stuff” churning around in my mind. Obviously it isn’t as simple as I’ve laid it out. Obviously, our various staff do minister to our regular attenders and to the neighborhood and so on. But isn’t it odd how the answer to the man living in the car is really just Christian community and we’re not set up to be that? I find it strange, scandalous and wonderful to be in this position all at the same time. All the more so because I believe the Lord is calling us to again stretch and trust him in obedience.

Thanks for reading. I’m open to your thoughts and comments. God bless you. PJ