How does God’s mission get accomplished? The apostle Paul, in writing to the church at Rome in the first century, gave a clear picture of what that looked like for him, and there are things we can learn from his experience as we seek to undertake the work of God in our time. Based on Romans 15.14-22, you can watch the entire worship broadcast below, or just the message below that.
If you’re a church leader, especially a pastor, hands up if you’ve muttered in the past year, “They didn’t teach me this in seminary”?
For me, it became a mantra as the reality of the pandemic set in, along with the first round of lockdown, back in March of 2020. Not long after that, I was given a copy of Canoeing the Mountains, and I thought it sufficiently intriguing that I would read it, if for no other reason than to give me a break from watching YouTube videos telling me how to do some of the things that seminary didn’t teach me.
The title itself beckons the reader to pick up this book. Whoever heard of canoeing the mountains?
Exactly. That’s why this book needed to be written, and why it needs to be read by Christian leaders, especially in these days.
The book is premised on the expedition of Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery. For us Canadians, that has an almost solely academic meaning, but to the average American, especially those living west of the Mississippi, the heart skips a veritable beat when these names arise. They are woven into the fabric of American history in the years after the Revolution.
But this is not a history text. I will admit, however, that as a Canadian, I learned more about the Lewis and Clark expedition in this Christian leadership book than I ever knew before. Illustratively, Tod Bolsinger, a minister of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, makes masterful use of Lewis and Clark to help church leaders realize that what seminary prepared them for is not what they’re navigating today.
When Bolsinger wrote this, he did not anticipate a global pandemic that would change the face of the world – and the church – forever. By God’s grace, the principles he writes about, while entirely applicable to pre-pandemic leadership, are going to be doubly applicable in mid- and post-pandemic leadership.
Leaning heavily on the writing of Edwin Friedman, particularly in A Failure of Nerve, Bolsinger applies, and demonstrates through the relation of personal experience, family systems theories to the process of change in the church.
He makes good use of the research of Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky, noting that “Leadership is disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb” (124). I remember sharing that quotation and getting a prickly reaction, but I think there is some wisdom in it. As Bolsinger later states, those people whom you disappointed at a rate they could absorb will later be your strongest allies.
This book is both a comfortable read and (in a sense) an uncomfortable read, well worth the time for anyone in Christian leadership. I’m glad I took a break from tech-ed YouTube to read it!
Canoeing the Mountains: Christian Leadership in Uncharted Territory by Tod Bolsinger
(Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2015). ISBN #978-0-8308-4126-4.
The Session at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton decided today to open this Sunday, June 21. This is the (edited) content of an email sent to the congregation tonight.
The building has been sanitized. All materials have been removed from the seats in the worship space. The lobby has been emptied of all furnishings except the small table next to the worship space doors. With the exception of the main doors, the lobby, the upstairs washrooms and the worship space, the building has been cordoned off.
Hand sanitizer will be provided and its use will be mandatory as you enter the building. If you choose to come – remember, nobody’s twisting your arm here! – and you are more comfortable wearing a mask, please bring one with you. We will have a few extras available in case you forget.
Here’s what will happen if you choose to come this Sunday at 10:
- As you enter the parking lot, please try to avoid parking adjacent to another vehicle.If you must, then please ensure the occupants of the nearby vehicle are not exiting their vehicle at the same time as you.
- All entry and exit will take place via the main doors that face King Road.All other entrances will be locked. Upon arriving at the main doors, if others are nearby, please maintain a two-metre distance from them as you wait your turn to come in.
- At the door, a masked elder (this Sunday, it will be Erma, in case the mask fools you) will write your name on a sheet of paper so that we can notify Public Health if for some reason we find anyone present is later diagnosed with Coronavirus.
- You will be instructed to use hand sanitizer at this time.Please do not wear gloves; you will be asked to remove them.
- Someone will escort you to a place to sit in the worship space.Households will be seated not less than two metres apart, staggered throughout the worship space. If you have a preference for where you wish to sit, you can express that, recognizing that priority will be given to those arriving first. You will be asked not to get up and move from the time you are seated until you are called on to depart the building. If you think you might need to get up and use the washroom after you’ve been seated, please be sure to wear a mask.
- Children are welcome to come, too.Individually packed take-home resource packages will be provided for smaller children to keep busy during worship. There will be no children’s ministry of any other sort provided at this time for health reasons.
- The worship gathering will follow much the same format as we’ve seen online, with acknowledgement of the people in the room.There will be two songs sung near the end. If you are not comfortable with having people singing around you, it is recommended that you sit nearer the back. (The science on singing and the spread of Coronavirus is somewhat conflicting; some say it is problematic, while others say that at a safe physical distance, it poses no threat.) Paul Mason will be joining me to lead the singing.
- When the gathering is over, you will be asked to leave as a household, with safe gaps between households as they depart.
- If you want to share fellowship at a safe distance, it is recommended that you wear a mask, bring your own beverage (if desired), and stand in the parking lot to do so.The lobby will not be made available for fellowship during this stage of re-opening.
The gathering will be limited to not more than 54 persons, inclusive of volunteers and worship leaders. So we’re asking that you indicate your intention to attend this Sunday if you plan to do so, by commenting below. That way, if guests appear, we will know how many we can welcome. It’s not like us to turn away anyone at the door, but under the current emergency regulations, we have no choice but to limit physical attendance.
We ask that if you feel unwell or have symptoms of Coronavirus, please stay home and watch the live-stream. And if you are in a vulnerable category, that is, elderly, or with a pre-existing health condition that compromises your immune system, likewise, please stay home and watch the live-stream. Furthermore, if you are not quite ready, whether emotionally or physically, to gather with others in worship, don’t feel that you must come because the doors are open. As much as we all would like to see one another in person, your health is your top priority. The live-stream broadcast will continue irrespective of the restrictions that may or may not be placed on public gatherings, so a worship experience will always be available to you online, as it has been for the past few months (and many months before that).
By opening for public worship this Sunday, we are offering an option for those who are ready and well enough to come together. I have no doubt it will feel a bit weird, coming into a familiar place that in some ways will seem unfamiliar because of the situation we’re in. But if you are physically and emotionally ready to gather together in God’s praise, this Sunday, we’ll be ready for you. The flag will be out at the road to welcome you…and if you come early enough, weather permitting, I might be out at the road to welcome you, too!
Again, if you plan to attend this Sunday, please comment below. Thanks!
May the Lord be with us as we take this step of faith.
Around the world, governments are starting to loosen restrictions from the Coronavirus pandemic. I find this encouraging, and I view it with guarded optimism.
“Guarded”, I say, because we need to be careful. We’ve never been down this road before, so just because we may have more freedom, for example, to go to the hardware store, doesn’t mean that the virus is dead and gone and will never return. We will still need to practise procedures that will keep everyone healthy.
Like me, you may be longing – deeply! – to return to holding public worship gatherings, where we can praise the Lord together, instead of uniting by faith, separately, in our homes, watching modified services broadcast over the Internet. We don’t know when the green light will be given for that. And we will need to be wise in our roll-out of new practices and procedures that will allow us to be together safely.
In the midst of all that, let me encourage you to pray for the leaders of your church. At St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton, where I serve, our elders have begun thinking about what will be permitted once gatherings are allowed once again. We don’t know how the government of Ontario will roll out permission together, so we will have to abide by those guidelines, but as a witness to the goodness of God, we will err on the side of caution, because doing so demonstrates our love, and God’s love, for the community.
Let me also encourage you to pray for the people of your community. Pray that they will be released from fear, while not being released from caution. Pray that they will be given wisdom to retain the important habits and practices they have learned through this time of restriction. And pray that people will see that only the gracious hand of God has permitted us all to get through this, and that they will want to respond in worship and praise, gathering with the church in celebration of God’s grace.
“Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18, NLT).
Normally, on Good Friday, I write about the crucifixion. And make no mistake: the fact that Jesus died is an important fact on which to meditate, and for which to give thanks in worship today. (You can do so at St. Paul’s Church, Nobleton, at 10:00 a.m. if you are able!)
But a big event from last Monday prompts me to go in a different direction.
Last Monday, a serious fire occurred within Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France.
The outpouring of emotion on social media was palpable. To be sure, it is profoundly sad that this icon of religious architecture would be nearly destroyed by fire. It appears that the structure may be saved, and French leaders, with large donations from wealthy people, are vowing to rebuild what has been lost. (That in itself has caused no small amount of controversy.)
What I’m left wanting to ponder with you, though, is the reality that though a building may be destroyed, the church is not.
The church is not a building: the church is people.
Every time I say or hear that, I am reminded of a very old radio ad I used to hear as a child for Dofasco, a steel fabrication company in Hamilton, Ontario. I couldn’t tell you a thing about the commercial itself, but the tagline has stuck with me for well more than forty years: “Our product is steel. Our strength is people.”
The company knew that while they would be known for producing steel products (among those with which I’m best acquainted are the side frames for Canadian-built locomotives), they could not produce those steel products without the employees who make it happen – everyone from the people who heat the molten material to the people who sweep the floors to the people who keep the books in the office.
The same is true of the church – almost.
When we think of the church as bricks-and-mortar, we have only an imagined product. A church building in and of itself is only a tool. The building does not preach the gospel. The building does not care for the sick. The building does not feed the hungry. The building does not advocate for justice.
It’s the people who do that. We are the church.
So yes, be sad for the significant damage done to a magnificent church building which has stood for almost nine centuries as a testament to the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. But be resolved to be the church. Some of the most effective gatherings of God’s people in the world do not worship in an architectural masterpiece; some of them don’t even have a building to call their own. And while people may be inspired by the incredible architecture of great church buildings (and there are many), let your inspiration be channeled into a deep and abiding faith in Jesus, who died and rose again for us, that we would be his hands and feet in the world – preaching the good news, caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, and advocating for justice.
When the church loses these characteristics, we ought indeed to mourn.
But you and I aren’t going to let that happen, right? It doesn’t matter if we have a building or not: we are the church.
Jesus said, “For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them” (Matthew 18.20, NLT).
I’m attending the Canadian Church Leaders Conference in Barrie today (and last night, and tomorrow). It’s the second year in a row that Connexus Church has offered this conference, aimed at leaders in Canadian congregations (since so many church leader conferences are held in the US and aimed at the American culture, which is different from ours). Even after hearing just two short talks, I’m encouraged to keep going in the work of change.
Change is a hard word for most people, but perhaps especially for those who have been invested in the life of a local church for a long time. We all remember what the church used to belike. Some will remember when there were 500 kids in the Sunday school – a number that seems to go up every time the person recounts the story of what life in the church was like 60 or more years ago.
Trouble is, the world looks a lot different today than it did in the 1950s. In those days, the post-war baby boom and the optimism that came with a rejuvenated economy meant churches were full most Sundays, without much effort on the part of the leaders. Today, we have generations of people for whom the church has never been a factor in their lives.
One of the key learnings, so far, has been this: if the church is to be strong, we have to be set free from the idea that we just need to survive, so we can dream again. And that means change. And while change will be uncomfortable, we need to continue to focus on the people who are not among us yet.
That means ‘doing church’ in such a manner that it attracts those who are not yet part of the church and being more concerned for those who are far from God than those who are unwilling to change. It’s a tough sacrifice, and it can even seem a bit cold. But if we focus on who we already have, making sure we keep them happy, we are unlikely to see measurable growth in our churches.
I remember in one church I served, someone got up at a congregational meeting and complained about the changes that were happening. After the meeting, a dear old soul came up to me and said, “I wonder if his kitchen looks like it did in 1950.”
Of course, few of us have kitchens that look like they did in 1950, even if the house is older than that. Kitchens are among the first rooms in a house to be renovated, because we want to have the most up-to-date cooking and eating spaces money can buy! We want granite countertops instead of laminate; we want dishwashers, water-serving and ice-making refrigerators, and efficient ranges – all in stainless steel, bien sûr!
Few kitchens today lack a microwave oven, but in 1950, there was no such appliance.
Yet too often, our churches look not much different than they did in 1950. In some cases, the order of service might not have changed since then! But if we’re going to reach a new generation, that change has to be made.
I am fortunate to serve a congregation that has adapted to change very well. There’s more that needs to be done, for sure, but none of it is simply for the sake of change: we change howwe present the timeless gospel of Jesus, because that’s what’s going to reach a new generation.
Marshall McLuhan famously said that the medium is the message, and he had a point: the way we present truth attracts people, perhaps more than the truth itself. And that’s okay! While we don’t change the message, we do change the medium, because the method of presenting the timeless truths of Scripture inherently makes the timeless truths of Scripture more appealing, thus increasing the potential audience.
Is that always what we old-timers prefer? Probably not. But we already know and love and serve Jesus. What we want is to engage our neighbours so that they will know and love and serve Jesus. So we set aside what we prefer in favour of what they prefer. And the Lord does the rest.
“When I am with those who are weak, I share their weakness, for I want to bring the weak to Christ. Yes, I try to find common ground with everyone, doing everything I can to save some” (1 Corinthians 9.22, NLT).
This is one of those months that has five Sundays in it. Any church treasurer I’ve known wishes that every month had five Sundays! While it doesn’t happen every month, I’ve often wondered whether the unusual nature of the rhythm-breaking fifth Sunday could be harnessed in some way. While we like the idea of an extra Sunday of offerings, perhaps that fifth Sunday could also benefit those outside the church.
A couple of years ago, one of our Encouragement subscribers, Sharon, told me a story (which she gave me permission to share) about what happens in her church on the fifth Sunday of the month. In her congregation, they gather for a short worship time, and then go into the community to help their neighbours.
Sign-up sheets are provided so that activities and helpers can be coordinated. The first time the church did it, one group went to a nursing home to visit residents who never get visitors. Another group planted a vegetable garden on church property so that fresh vegetables could be provided for their local food bank. Another group helped neighbours with physical challenges tend their gardens. And yet another group picked up trash near a railroad right-of-way.
“The response from the congregants and the community was amazing,” Sharon told me. “Great bonding, lots of laughter, many community members really impressed that we would leave church to come ‘out’ and help others. It was a most powerful experience.”
If the church of Jesus is going to grow as God intends, one thing we know for sure is that reaching our neighbours is key. I encourage you to consider this tangible way to reach out, whether on a fifth Sunday or some other time. God knows the difference you could make by being ‘neighbourly’.
“Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith” (Galatians 6.10, NLT).
The subtitle says a lot: “A survival guide for the seasick Christian”. Many churches in the 21st century have lost their purpose, going from gatherings of people seeking communion with God to being institutions existing to promote the organization. Skye Jethani uses the cruise ship analogy to help us understand how that model doesn’t fit with God’s plan for the church.
Ships were called liners because they moved people from one place to another. With jets being used for that purpose – and more efficiently – when they were invented, ships turned to the cruise experience instead. No longer modes of transportation, cruise ships became ends in themselves. Some churches, large and small, have made similar transitions, but Jethani suggests they have missed the mark in terms of being the church faithfully.
Jethani’s analogy of the cruise ship church helps the reader put into perspective what has happened – and happened again – to the church in recent times. This hour-long read will help church leaders hit the reset button if they have disengaged from God’s picture of the church. Well worth your time.
Skye Jethani, How Churches Became Cruise Ships: A survival guide for the seasick Christian. Available for Kindle and Kindle app at https://www.amazon.com/How-Churches-Became-Cruise-Ships-ebook/dp/B018RJHNZK?ie=UTF8&keywords=Jethani%20cruise%20ships&qid=1462736837&ref_=sr_1_1&sr=8-1
Most readers of Encouragement From The Word are involved in a local church, so I probably don’t need to sell you on the importance of engaging in worship. We understand the importance of the church, and we get that it’s not just a building; it’s the people that matter. It’s a community of faith. To encourage your ongoing participation, though, I want to share a quotation I read earlier this week: “The community provides rules and boundaries against which I can break off some of my sharp edges (or they are broken off!). And it provides authentic models” (Norvene Vest, Preferring Christ [Morehouse, 2004], p. 148).
Did you ever think of the church playing those roles for you? The church, the community of faith, can round some of our corners and sand us down a bit. Most of us would rather not admit our need of this, but if we’re honest, we know we all need a bit of, shall we say, smoothing out. And loving, caring Christian community can do that for us.
The church can also provide models in authenticity for us and for our children. There aren’t enough role models out there today whom we can really trust, are there? Many parents say that their kids won’t listen to them, but they’ll listen to other adults in their circle of acquaintance. The church can be the place where you find a mature follower of Jesus to mentor and disciple your son or daughter – and where another parent finds you to mentor and disciple her or his child! It also can be the place where you yourself find someone who will make a difference in your own life and walk with the Lord.
All this means, of course, that the church is not just a body gathered together for an hour (plus coffee) on Sunday morning. Deepening relationships involves an investment of time. Make no mistake – it is an investment: there are dividends that are paid. Those dividends, though, are not paid to us, at least not directly; they are paid to the person in whom we invest, and in turn, in the Kingdom of God. Think of those whom you may meet in heaven who will be able to thank you for spending time helping them love Jesus better! They may be little ones you taught in children’s ministry or adults you walk with in a small group. They may be people with whom you spent an hour in the coffee shop one day, on a whim. All because you journeyed together as the church of Jesus Christ.
Along the way, others may have come along and helped to make you a more beautiful disciple, shaping and sanding and breaking off corners to help you live more like Jesus.
Sure, there’s sawdust on the floor, and maybe bits of clay. There are empty coffee cups, poopy diapers, and notes tucked into Bibles, written on napkins. Being the church, being active, can be messy. But with God, not one bit of it is wasted.
“Let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near” (Hebrews 10.25, NLT).
Yesterday, I heard a story from a woman who has experienced real community in the life of her church. When she was a new believer, she found herself on her own with four children. In need of short-term housing, one of her church friends took her and her four children in. When that short term needed an extension, it was graciously granted. When she acquired housing for herself and her kids, her church family came together to bring trucks and trailers to help them move. They set everything up, put pictures on the wall, and made it look like they’d live in the house for years.
When Christmas came, a tree was cut down for them, and people brought gifts for her and her kids. There always seemed to be food available when they were hungry. Hers is a church that takes “love one another” very seriously.
There was even more to the story, but it all spoke in grateful praise for a church family that put love in action…all in response to the question, “What do you like about your church community?”.
I asked an entire group that question, and got a wonderful rainbow of responses. Often, as followers of Jesus, we find it easy to love the Lord, but we don’t find it as easy to love his church. Yet when the church is truly being the church, there is much about her to love – because the church reflects her Lord.
Take a few minutes and do an audit of your own church: does your church reflect the Lord whom she serves? As a church, are you functioning as the body of Christ? Are you using the gifts that God has given to you in community? Twentieth century thinker Francis Schaeffer said, “Because every (one) is made in the image of God and has, therefore, aspirations to love, there is something that can be in every geographical climate – in every point of time – which cannot fail to arrest his attention. What is it? The love that true Christians show for each other and not just for their own party.” (The Mark of the Christian, p. 16)
How is your church living out God’s love? How could it live out God’s love?
“God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him” (1 John 4.16b, NIV).
So, according to this week’s federal budget, Canadians will soon be penniless. (I don’t mean we’re all going to end up on welfare, I mean we’ll literally be without pennies: they’re being taken out of circulation. Apparently, they cost more to produce than their face value.)
Most of the initial reactions I read to this had to do with the cost of thoughts increasing (i.e., “A penny for your thoughts” will have to become “A nickel for your thoughts”). My first reaction was, “What will I use to weigh down my freight cars on my model railroad?”
There will be some significant ramifications for Canadians once this move takes place. Since credit and debit cards are used for so many transactions nowadays, it may not matter as much as we initially think, but when paying with cash, will figures be rounded up or down? Even if prices are rounded off, the addition of taxes will force the need to round up or down again. (And you can bet your bottom dollar – since you won’t have any pennies anyway – that the bulk of the rounding will be “up”.)
There will almost certainly be other smaller, less noticeable changes necessitated by the removal of the penny. But it reminds us that even something as lowly and seemingly insignificant as the penny, to which we pay little heed today, will, with its disappearance, cause societal problems in our land.
There is something else to which most Canadians pay little heed which, if it disappeared, would also cause societal problems: the church of Jesus Christ. A lot of people think the church is out of touch with society and should be abandoned entirely, but this arrogant concept is lobbed out quite thoughtlessly. Even to those who do not believe in God, the church plays a significant role in society, advocating for the family, providing community, and providing for the needy – among countless other important responsibilities. For those who do believe in God, the church needs to be a treasured organism, since it is God’s means of providing hope to the world through its proclamation and embodiment of the truth of Jesus Christ.
We who are the church do well to live, love and serve as those who are instruments of the Holy Spirit in providing hope to the world around us. Being an organism – not an organization – is key to fulfilling this responsibility. An organization tends to live for its structure; an organism lives to grow, and ceases to live when it stops growing.
“Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied…’Now I say to you that you are Peter (which means ‘rock’), and upon this rock I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it’” (Matthew 16.16-18, NLT).
Let’s live and grow as the church, which matters to God, and matters to our world – even if it’s not yet noticed by many around us. God is at work.
I don’t know about you, but I get chills every time I see a large transportation vehicle in a position other than it was intended to assume. For example, the pictures of the Costa Concordia on its side off the coast of Italy is a disturbing picture for me. And it’s a sad story.
When the tragedy was first reported, all fingers pointed to the ship’s captain. Initial reports suggested that the captain had “stumbled into” a lifeboat, while most passengers and crew were still on board. More recent reports have suggested that the captain may have stayed on the ship longer than initially thought.
The truth appears to be unclear. The captain is facing charges, since it’s an international crime for a ship’s captain to abandon his vessel.
It may be a while before we know the final outcome of this sad story, but one lesson we can take away from it at this early stage is this: don’t jump to conclusions.
Particularly in this age of overwhelming quantities of information, it is altogether too easy to draw a conclusion about a person or situation before all the facts have been unveiled.
Of course, this doesn’t just happen with news stories, or even community events. Sometimes, it happens right in the church. One of the greatest challenges to the growth and health of the Christian church is that very human temptation faced by each of us: gossip. I’ve seen guests decide against a return visit to a congregation because, before worship, they clearly heard gossip, and even slanderous talk (!), coming from congregants.
It’s a great habit and discipline to learn how to speak well of others, and to have a positive attitude. Part of the blessing of that is the whole ‘honey attracts better than vinegar’ concept, but more importantly, speaking well of others fulfills an aspect of God’s will for his people: “Whoever pursues righteousness and unfailing love will find life, righteousness, and honour. Watch your tongue and keep your mouth shut, and you will stay out of trouble. Mockers are proud and haughty; they act with boundless arrogance” (Proverbs 21.21-24, NLT).
I’ll be interested to see how the captain of the Costa Concordia comes out of this tragedy, but more importantly, I will love to watch God’s people speaking well of others. Try it, and see what happens in your church!