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Monday, April 20, 2015

Small is Beautiful

Often, the answers you get are determined by the questions you ask.
On March 19, I gathered with 21 wonderful people from seven small congregations with part time ministers at Bridgeport United in Kitchener. We spent a couple of hours sharing experiences and encouragement.

We started off with each person answering this question: "What's the best thing about belonging to a small church?"

I thought there might be some Umming and Ah-ing -- some awkward silences as people pondered "Gee, what is good about my little church?" I guess I'm just so used to folks from small churches feeling badly about who they are, their lack of resources, their problems challenges, I expected them to struggle with the question.

Boy, was I wrong. The responses came pouring out -- 

“Humour,”  “family,” “acceptance,”  “friendship,” “Everyone is needed,” “love,” "fellowship,” “Knowing people’s stories,”  “intimacy,“ "community,” “history,” “familiarity,” “Everyone can fit into Bruce's rec room when the heat isn’t working at the church,” “uniqueness,” “close knit,” “You know everybody,” “You can gain confidence in a small group,” “heritage."

If we just give people the opportunity to say what makes them feel good about being part of a small church, they are all over it. People love their small churches.

I then asked folks to "Talk about a time when your church was at its very best." They shared experiences of everyone working together to achieve a common purpose, when they rallied together to help someone in need, when they responded to a crisis.

Frequently, sharing food was at the centre.
They're well aware of their challenges -- shaky finances, too few people doing too much work, trouble holding onto young people, creaky old buildings -- but that's only to say that there's no such thing as a church that doesn't have to face issues and problems.

We also talked about assets. It's so easy to focus on deficits -- what's missing, what's lacking, what's in short supply, what we used to have that we no longer have -- that we fail to see the significant assets that even the smallest church possesses --

"God, faith, caring, determination, music, expectancy, our building, organ, labyrinth, people, our baconburger stove, knowledge, wisdom, humour, resourcefulness,  heritage, the Bible, space, leaders, location, seasons"

I really don't think that our problem is that we have so many small churches. All churches in the New Testament were what we would call "small." All New Testament churches were house churches, so they could only be as big as could fit into the house of the most well-to-do member -- in other words, around 40-50.

Most churches in the world are small churches, and the world-wide growth of Christianity is being driven by small, often home-based churches.

We are struggling with the fact that many small churches used to be much larger. They have declined. And, we're dealing with the expectation that a healthy church has to be a certain size, with a certain kind of building, full-time minister(s) and a busy round of programs for all ages. Our small churches are working against their own memories of what the church once was, and it's what is preventing them from re-imagining themselves and moving forward.
In any case, it seems to me that we have two choices. One, to simply watch small churches continue to grow smaller and more discouraged -- or, two, leverage the assets that small churches possess to develop a reimagined and reinvigorated ministry.

I know which choice I'm in favour of.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (February 4, 1906 – April 9, 1945)

April 9 is the 70th anniversary of the death of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the giants of Christian faith in our time.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer was born into a privileged Berlin family on February 4, 1906. He was a brilliant student, completing his Doctor of Theology at the age of 25, and seemingly destined for a distinguished career in the church and the university. Bonhoeffer’s true greatness, however, was in the way he combined rigorous thought with passionate commitment. He did not regard theology as an intellectual exercise, but a way of life that led, ultimately, to his death.
Rather than opting for a life of academic comfort and security, Bonhoeffer chose to oppose publicly the rise of Adolf Hitler. His Christian convictions alerted him to the dangers of Nazi ideology. Even in 1933, this was a dangerous course. For a time he left Germany, pastoring a German speaking congregation  in London, England, but felt called in 1935 to return to home to lead an underground seminary which trained pastors for the Confessing Church, set up in resistance to the Nazis.  The seminary was closed by the Gestapo in 1937.
Bonhoeffer went to America at the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Again, he felt the pull of home and returned to Germany in June, 1938, just before the outbreak of war. 
Bonhoeffer was forbidden to speak in public or to publish, but continued his opposition behind the scenes. On April 5, 1943, he was arrested and spent a year and a half in prison awaiting trial. The letters and other writings that he penned during this time were later gathered together by his friend Eberhard Bethge and published as Letters and Papers from Prison.
On July 20, 1944, an attempt to assassinate Hitler, led by senior military officers, failed. Bonhoeffer was implicated in this plot. He was moved to Flossenburg concentration camp and on April 9, 1945, he was hanged on orders from Hitler himself.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer has often been described as a martyr. We need to remember, though, that the real meaning of the word martyr is “witness.” Bonhoeffer’s importance is not only in the fact that he died for his beliefs, but that his whole life was a witness to Jesus Christ.
Bonhoeffer continues to speak to us today in many ways.
First, he reminds us of the “cost of discipleship.” He warns us the dangers of “cheap grace,” in which God is seen as the means to satisfy our desires without requiring anything in return. This warning is especially relevant in today’s world of religious and spiritual consumerism. Christian faith, for Bonhoeffer, is a call to surrender one’s entire life in service to God and the world.
Secondly, Bonhoeffer wrestled deeply with the question “What does it mean to follow Christ?” Every age must ask this question, but in a world in which “the great masquerade of evil has played havoc with all our ethical concepts,” its challenge is uniquely urgent. Bonhoeffer’s reframing of the questions of faith and discipleship remain powerfully relevant today.
Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, Bonhoeffer was one of the first to recognize that Christian discipleship and the habits and practices of Christian religion are not necessarily the same thing. In prison, Bonhoeffer pondered what it meant to be a Christian in a “world come of age,” where most people no longer need God to fill in the gaps in human knowledge, and where the traditional consolations of religion matter less and less. “What does it mean to follow Christ in a non-religious world?” he asked.
In prison, Bonhoeffer experimented with the concept of a “religionless Christianity,” distinguishing the claim of Jesus on our lives from the received habits and worldview of a religious system. The Nazis demonstrated how easily religion can be co-opted for ideological purposes. What does it mean today to confess the Lordship of Jesus Christ who judges all ideologies, including religious ideologies?
Bonhoeffer did not live long enough to work these ideas out fully, but he anticipated what I think is the critical question for Christians in our time: What does it mean to follow Jesus Christ when the religious structures that have supported Christianity for 1500 years are crumbling?
Bonhoeffer was leading a group of fellow prisoners in worship and prayer when they came for him. As the guards led him away, he said to his friends, “This is the end, but for me it is the beginning of life.” Bonhoeffer reminded us of the central importance of Christ’s resurrection to Christian faith and life. Eugene Peterson has written that Christians are called “to live a life of resurrection in a world where death gets the biggest headlines.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life, in my view, is a witness to that call.
Karl Barth wrote that Jesus Christ “forbids us to despair of ourselves.” The great danger to Christian faith today is not atheism but despair. We can be so overwhelmed by our circumstances that we are tempted to give up on God. I wonder if Barth was thinking of Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he wrote those words.
Bonhoeffer was fearlessly realistic and, at the same time, unshakeably hopeful. At the end of 1944, just a few months before he died, he wrote a hymn that is an encouragement to all who seek to follow Christ.
By gracious powers so wonderfully sheltered,
And confidently waiting come what may,
We know that God is with us night and morning,
And never fails to greet us each new day.
Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
Still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
Oh, give our frightened souls the sure salvation
For which, O Lord, You taught us to prepare.
And when this cup You give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
We take it thankfully and without trembling,
Out of so good and so beloved a hand.
Yet when again in this same world You give us
The joy we had, the brightness of Your Sun,
We shall remember all the days we lived through,
And our whole life shall then be Yours alone.