One of the most difficult things I had to do in my early career was to convince the church I served at that a children’s program that they had invested in wasn’t working. It was my first pastoral charge, and those who were involved in this were very enthusiastic, because it really did feel fresh and innovative. It was a program that drew inspiration from Sesame Street… those who made it even used a similar name. It used puppets interacting with people, the sets of a street, and short skits linked together by a common theme. Everything was handled by two alternating teams who would meet together to prepare across two weeks for their presentation. The sets were impressive, the puppets looked great, and the volunteers were enthusiastic.
The trouble is, it didn’t work. It was sold to them as the magic bullet that would restore the great Sunday School of yesterday… and ironically, while those who were leading it were completely enthusiastic about it, the children weren’t. The leaders were convinced that the children were hyper-advanced in their spirituality, but what I learned is that the only thing that the children had really learned was to “be good.” In other words: to sit down and shut up… and it actually accelerated the decline of the Sunday School.
Why? Because as much as the leaders were involved in creating skits, the only thing that the children were allowed to do was to sit and watch. They weren’t allowed to touch the puppets or participate in the plays, they weren’t allowed to get their hands on it. Yet because the leadership were ALL hands on, it was feeding them, but not the very children that they were called to serve. It took time for them to be able to see it. Some couldn’t, or didn’t want to, because they were so invested in the program…
At the beginning of the month, James challenged us with that rhetorical skewer, telling us that “faith without works is dead.” In other words, if we are not serving, if we are not paying attention and addressing the needs of the community and people around us, our faith is empty. Yet as James put that challenge at the beginning of that wisdom-inspired sermon, James then presses the readers and listeners toward action. By the time we get to the fifth chapter, the real mandate of faith becomes clear: put it in to action. Get out there and make a difference. His closing words are all about a call to action, to be out there in the world, and be the living presence of Christ.
“Are any among you suffering?” –Pray.
“Are any among you cheerful?” –Sing!
“Are any among you sick?” –go to them and be with them and pray with them.
Like the song says “go make a difference!”
Our faith is not about being a good person in society. It’s about connecting people with God through connecting with people.
Through the operation of God’s word and Spirit, we are gathered, equipped, and sent out to participate in this ministry… but we collectively got stuck on the gathering part. Even the “sending out” we still see through the lens that what we are supposed to do is gather.
For many years, the way churches have been set up as rallying and fundraising points for missionary work elsewhere in the world. We gather, but we send someone else over “there” to do work on our behalf. As a congregation, we are pleased that one of our own, Dr. John Egger, is beginning work in an ecumenical partnership in Seoul, South Korea. But missionary work today is very different from what it was a century or more ago. As John will tell you, this is an ecumenical partnership working with a well-established church in the context of a prosperous nation where one quarter of the population are Christian. The mission field has changed, but in many ways we haven’t.
Today, the mission field isn’t over there somewhere. It’s right here. No longer are churches rallying and fundraising points for mission elsewhere, but rather we are the mission here.
This past summer the General Council of the United Church of Canada approved a long-time-in-coming sweeping change to how we organize ourselves. We are moving to a three-tier form of organization, with the Denominational Council as the highest body, Regions that cover wider geography than Presbyteries, but smaller than Conferences, and then Ministry Units –congregations, campus ministry, outreach ministries. As of January 1st, we become a part of Region 2, which covers all of southern Alberta south of Highway 13.
But there’s something else in this change that most haven’t realized. Notice that I mentioned that congregations, campus ministries, and various outreach ministries are now all called “Ministry Units.” For the most part, people in sanctuaries on Sunday mornings won’t notice a difference at all. Congregations will still be congregations… but the subtle shift in language opens up a more profound reality for us that is absolutely filled with opportunity. Congregations will now be on the same footing at least on paper, as say the Campus Ministry that is shared between the University of Calgary, SAIT, and Mount Royal University. We have the opportunity reshape the way we think of ourselves and what God is calling us to be her in Calgary. We are the mission field. God is sending us out, and doing a new thing… and yet, it is also wrapped up in the core of how St. Matthew’s got started.
In the history of this congregation, it was started in the living room of Bill Jackson’s grandparents. West Calgary Methodist was a mission church in this area… and remained a mission church even after becoming West Calgary United in 1925. We were a “mission church” until 1951 when this congregation became self-sustaining in the post-war economic and baby boom. What that means is that for the first forty-one years of this congregation’s existence, we were a mission charge.
Being a mission in West Calgary is how we got started, and it has huge implications for us moving forward. We are, from our very roots, a mission in this community… We are gathered, equipped, and sent out to participate in Christ’s ministry in West Calgary… but being sent out is NOT about getting more people for gathering. We need to let go of that. Why? Because the purpose of gathering is for equipping and sending out, as I have preached on for the past two Sundays.
Gathered, Equipped, Sent out. The purpose of sending is NOT to get more people for gathering. Sending out is not about recruiting, but rather being the living presence of Christ to the world around us. People will gather when they genuinely experience us going out to try to make a positive difference in the community. In other words, be about Christ’s mission in the world, and it will be naturally attractive. The moment we make it about trying to recruit people, is the moment that we lose the mission.
About mid-way through the Gospel of Luke, Jesus sent out seventy disciples. His goal wasn’t for them to bring back a bunch of people, but to go tend to the needs of the town, and be with the people, and in so doing demonstrating that the kingdom of God, that God’s love is close. That is also what James is reminding the flock in his sermon. We are gathered, equipped, and sent out to participate in Christ’s ministry. The mission field is all around us. The work of Christ is all around us. The love of Christ is all around us… and it’s time for us to go make a diff’rence.