Thursday, 23 October 2008

Christian? Ministry

Last Sunday I think God spoke to me just when I wasn’t listening. I should have been paying
more attention, after all I was in the middle of a church service. Trouble was it was nearly time for the sermon and I was checking my notes.

The service to which I refer was the last of this year’s welcome services for students beginning placements. These are always occasions that ripple with hope so it’s good to be involved.

What got my attention was a collision between two sentences. Neither of the sentences was particularly noteworthy in its own right. However, they must have been whizzing around somewhere in my head because all of sudden they bumped into each other and the noise they made sounded like God.

Sentence one came from the church’s moderator who was leading worship. He observed that the large council estate on which the church is set is, according to all the indexes, one the most deprived parts of the country. I knew this. I used to live down the road. The reputation matched the statistics.

Sentence two came from the church secretary as she told the story of God leading them to invite one of our students to become their minister-in-training: “It’s never easy to find someone to minister in an area like this.” True, indeed a commonplace observation.

But throw those two sentences together and what an indictment! What an utterly irreconcilable and damning contradiction! After all this is supposed to be Christian ministry that we are talking about. You know ministry in the name of Christ, for the sake of Christ and according to the example of Christ.

Just how Christian is a ministry that shies away from the most needy areas? Isn’t that what the incarnation is all about? You know, God seeing our need and plunging into the thick of it rather than shouting at us from a distance or commuting in now and again?

To the extent that Baptist ministry as a whole joins the queue into the suburbs or goes looking for the chance to escape to the country (or our fond-imagined picture of the country), to the extent that it rushes to put its name down for a church in Pleasantville, to that extent it ceases to be worthy of the label Christian.

Indeed such a state of affairs is a denial of Christ; it is a ministry that speaks his name while repudiating his way of life. If our ministry were truly Christian then the neediest areas would find it easiest to attract a minister.

I know all the justifications of this unGodly perversion – you’d be surprised how many people tried them out on me to in an attempt to persuade me not to move from my first ministry in a large suburban church to lead a small congregation in a former mining area.

Some might say, “We are all simply following the Lord’s call.” If that’s true, why has God stopped calling people to minister to the most needy? Has there been a divine change of mind about the poor that has passed me by?

Some might point to church growth theory and urge that we continue to exert our evangelistic efforts in those areas where we seem to get the best response. But since when has it been OK to pursue mission in a way that denies the very heart of the gospel, sacrificing faithfulness to the way of Christ on the altar of easily measurable “success”?

None of this is to point the finger at any particular minister in any particular church. There is human need everywhere and we are called to minister to that need. But it is most definitely to point the finger at our Baptist ministry as a whole.

Whatever the justifications they aren’t worth tuppence as long as the collective reality denies the way of Christ. Until things change perhaps we should stop calling our ministry Christian.

My turn to do a month's worth of comment pieces for the Baptist Times' "Outside Edge" column has come round again. With the agreement of the editor I'm going to post my BT article here. To check out the Baptist times as a whole click here.


Cynical of NW Leicestershire said...

Small churches, tough contexts - only girls and students need apply. Sorry, that's cynical, but I was recently struck, when doing a guest preach at a former work colleague's church, by a comment to the effect that that's how it is. And my experience seems to fit.

The sad thing, I think, is that some small churches feel they have no option but to take these people because 'no one better will look at them' (ouch!) and some ministers get stuck in tough places because 'no one else will look at them' (double ouch).

I sometimes think that small churches in tough contexts need plural ministers when what they can afford is less than one.

Rant over!

tim f said...

Good stuff.

Of course it isn't just pastors who are guilty on this count. On a political level it's always telling how many councillors (of all parties: I reckon mine is not quite so bad at this as the others but still pretty poor) represent the most deprived areas but won't go and live in them. Not saying that people absolutely have to live in the area they stand for, but they could at least consider moving there once elected.

Ditto people who work for charities.

Ditto people who are part of church plants in neighbourhoods with a lot of poverty.

You can tell a lot about people by the company they keep and where they live is pretty reflective of the company they keep.

Phil said...

It's a real problem, especially if the denomination has minimal standards for housing.

now even more cynical! said...

it has standards for housing?

Anonymous said...

try small and multi-faith and see who will go there!