Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Ministry of Possibility

I am becoming increasingly convicted that the Church's primary mode of doing ministry is out of step for the times. I'm not talking about the United Methodist Church. I'm talking about the Church.

Now, before you give up on what will surely be some church-structure or worship-war diatribe, let me say that I like the structure of the church. I like traditional worship. I like the witness we offer.

But our primary mode of doing ministry may just not fit anymore, in a culture that no longer accepts filters. There was a time, I am told, in which the minister's job was to filter information. The minister was, in essence, the designated reader, and all the training that the minister had went into what she or (primarily) he had to say on Sunday morning. The minister served as the filter, such that the minister went to the Bible and brought out whatever the Bible had to say for that particular group of people on that particular day.

And this mode of ministry--and of preaching--is fine, but it seems to me that the modern mind functions differently in the day of information overload. Annie Dillard calls it "the mind's muddy river, this ceaseless flow of trivia and trash," such that it "cannot be dammed, and that trying to dam it is a waste of effort that might lead to madness." What I fear we are doing as ministers is trying to filter--to dam--in a world that is not used to damming. Everything we present, then, because it has been filtered, is sold as very important.

It is no surprise that we sell this stuff as very important. After all, it is very important. It is the most important thing there is.

But the "stuff" (the Bible, Christian religion, the path of discipleship) is not what we are selling, exactly. You cannot give a sermon on the whole Bible. You cannot sing the entire hymnbook in one service.

Instead, what we are selling each week is filtered and concentrated and very important, and minds that have lost their willingness to have someone filter their information behave one of two ways.

1. They look back at the stack of things already piled on top of their backpacks, figure out how high to hurl this one, and throw it on top, and then they carry it around with them until next week when they hurl something new on top of that. Or

2. They become overwhelmed, and they topple, crushed under the weight of all the very important things we have given them.

There are times I wonder if we are simply filling people's already-overfilled backpacks instead of offering them an encounter with the living God.

This is not to say that programs are not important. Programs are simply vehicles through which we offer the love of God to one another, structures through which we mirror grace. But at some point, in our offerings of specific opportunities, are we missing the opportunity to simply be the church? In our filtering and distilling and boiling down, are we offering people a sickeningly-sweet syrup instead of the wine that fills the cup of salvation?

Dillard says that the answer to this dilemma--the way to deal with the muddy river of the mind--is to allow it "to flow unheeded in the dim channels of consciousness; you raise your sights."

What if church were about offering possibilities? In a world that seems static--in which I feel frustrated and incapable as much as I feel anything else--what if what the church had to offer was the possibility of God's grace, of God's transformation? What if we raised the sights and showed that, truly, nothing is impossible with God?

There is a danger, of course, in raising the sights. We can so spiritualize the Gospel that it begins to mean nothing other than accepting or rejecting and then waiting to die. There are churches who have fallen into this trap, turning the Bible into something wholly spiritual and ethereal and neglecting the bloody, dirty consequences of a life spent following God. This is scary business. We dare not touch the Ark. We would rather leave God in the sky.

But danger is no reason to shy away from that which God is offering! Neither is danger a reason to boil something down until its sharpness of taste is gone.

Of course, in preaching, it is much easier to see a piece of scripture as something to be simmered down to its essence. I am starting to think that the church's job is not so much to simmer the scripture down to its essence but to find the spot in the heart of God where that scripture is seeded, and offer that seed of possibility. Planting that seed means that the results are out of our control, but then again, they never really were in our control.

This is the model of the church I am thinking about these days: a church that raises the sights, that looks beyond simple application.

I am thinking about a church that sees as its mission offering the possibility of an encounter with the living God.

I am thinking about a church that offers things, yes, but also a church that understands, at its core, that the very important things we have to offer pale in comparison to the Very Important Thing that lies at the source of all we do. If we recognize that Source, if we shine a light on its holy possibilities, we might just end up with disciples AND a transformed world.

(Image by Flikr user Herkie, Creative Commons license)

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