Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Question. Period.

I sat in a century-old church building surrounded by grandmas. I had been invited by a denomination I really didn’t know well, to talk with a women’s group about the kingdom of God and how we live that out. I began by asking questions to understand the way these faithful saints perceived the life of the church these days. Their answers were questions themselves: Where are the young people? How do we compete with the busy work and recreation schedules of people? What can we do to make church effective and alive again?

I understand their quandary. Many churches in my own denomination, I assured them, would ask similar questions given the opportunity.

We trip and stutter our way towards answers to those queries. Try as we may, this search only leads to more questions and plenty of opinions, many of them polarizing. There were even some sparks in that room full of grandmas!

It’s not that the conversation was heated; desperation would more describe the mood. Hanging in the air was the hoped-for wish that something we could do would change things. That was quickly followed with the despair of trying to figure out what that happy pill would be. I began to see that I was supposed to have brought the prescription along. Yet the further into the answers we plunged, the deeper the pit became.

Throughout the conversation a renewed insight came into view for me. It seems to me that we spend a lot of time asking the wrong question and then end up wasting time seeking answers that only leave us more confused, bewildered and befuddled. We become like a young child trying to undo a knot in his shoes by pulling in the wrong direction.

I am convinced that while many of us, legitimately and with right motives, seek to re-imagine the life of the church for a new day by asking the question, “What can the church do better?” we are actually posing a self-defeating question. Without fail, this leads to endless conversations, meetings and opinions that tend to go nowhere in the long run. The knot just becomes a frustration. Instead of discovering new freedom, we end up with schism and parties that resemble question period in the House of Commons. We’re all present for the same reason and purpose, but an outsider would surely begin to wonder what all the noise is about and how anything ever gets done.

Instead of the non-starter, “What can the church do better?” we need to begin with a truly kingdom of God shaped question: “What will bring glory to God?”

At least in my feeble mind, this question reshapes the discussion. It takes our eyes off ourselves and places it where it belongs: on our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. The question is not, what can we do, but who is God? The question is not whether we can produce more people who think like us, but whether we produce people who look increasingly like Jesus.

The question is not whether people think our church is cool, effective, tolerant or relevant, but whether or not we bring God glory. What will make God great among us and through us? That is the question. Period. That is the question out of which re-imagination begins, biblical thirst re-emerges and new creations are made.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Pastoring the flock in Boondock Nation

Why Canada needs rural leaders

There I was, the country-bumpkin pastor amidst all the really important people at the National Prayer Breakfast in Ottawa. Such an event is quite the shindig for someone from the sticks. Being asked where you're from and having to "get them there from here" is quite humorous. Most people gauge where you're from based on proximity to a major urban center. "Is that near Toronto?" "Oh, that's close to Edmonton!" You get the picture.

The picture is blurring for those of us serving and leading the body of Christ in the vast rural areas of our country. If you check a map you'll find Canada is overwhelmingly rural. Oh, I know most Canadians live in the big cities. I've been there and lived there, but in order to get anywhere in Canada (by "anywhere" we tend to mean a concrete jungle) you have to go by rural routes. Yet, despite the charm of country Canada (I'm suddenly humming Bruce Cockburn's "Going to the Country"), serving Jesus and His people "out here" is beset with new challenges.

Rural exodus
First, much of Canada's rural expanse is increasingly empty. Most rural places, including where I live, are in numerical decline. In most of Boondock Nation you'll find this trend.

Out here we live with the reality of the exodus of our future, the emigration of our youth to the big city. A pastor from Saskatchewan said, "We are situated in a community of about 150 people…most of the young people leave for the city when they graduate from Grade 12. Sometimes it is very frustrating and discouraging wondering what will happen to our church."

This emptying creates unhealthy congregational self-understanding that can be debilitating and hopeless. Add to this the discouragement that occurs when a rural congregation finally finds a good (read also "young") leader who is all-too-soon whisked off to the city to a bigger (read also "better") church.

Who will lead and love the flock in an increasingly empty nowhere?
Second, rural life is increasingly shaped by urban myths. Most villages that are growing are within a quick commute of cities. Such growth changes our towns forever. Some of our communities are now just bedrooms and fillings with sub-suburban-urbanites who can't understand why there's manure in the air. It's not that we're unwilling to change or unhappy you're here; we just wonder why "here" needs to become the city just because you arrived.

Swayed by the city
Furthermore, today's technologies mean our communities are no longer shaped by what happens in the town hall or local coffee shop, but by the same sound-bite politics, media, and corporate trends that define urbanity. Our banks move because someone in the city concludes we don't need one anymore.

Further, the urban myths of success and growth are powerful and creating unrealistic expectations for many rural church leaders whose people are smitten by that cool ministry they see every week on TV. The closest many of us can get to Hillsong or Willow Creek is standing on a hill by a creek whistling while our people drive into the city where "church" is done better. This is crippling to our communities, not to mention ecclesiologically bankrupt.

Further still, while much good ministry training is from and for the city, to many of us it is like teaching an engineer to construct skyscrapers, then sending him to Punkydoodle's Corners to build a driving shed. One is no better than the other, just different in design, use and expectation.

And when denominations expect the same preparation litmus tests for urban and rural settings, the issues are exacerbated. This not only creates financial expectations that struggling rural communities are increasingly unable to bear and pastors are unwilling to enter, but it begins to communicate that such churches are of a different (and second?) class.

Best of simple
Rural folk are not dumb, ignorant, or unaware; they are simple in the best sense of the word. They want good biblical teaching, preaching, care and leadership, but are less concerned with degrees than with seeing a life preached before them well. They are enormously generous and care less about what we've done in seminary or whether we've dissected a bishop or deconstructed modernity than about who we are and whether we really know Jesus and can help the next generation do the same. Do we have a simple faith well-founded? Do we know their grandkid's name? That's what they're looking for.

Rural places do tend to be more traditional; why is that so bad? Urban myths ask us to reject what our homesteaders knew to be true (ironically, the recent discovery of everything "green" is simply common sense out here, and the advertising of every new cookie-cutter subdivision as "Oakfield Village" makes us smirk).

Everything we watch and hear from Toronto, Vancouver and Hollywood sounds like it's coming from people who've taken the pickles we send from our fields and deposited them in the wrong end. Our self-understandings have become a smorgasbord of what we know from grandpa and what we're told we should really care about coming from Bay Street, Sussex Drive, McGill, the Lower East Side and CityTV.

We respect and pray with our city-mouse brothers and sisters, but we have lots of poverty and social issues to deal with too that never make the news or receive the funding profile cities demand.

Rural as a calling
Leading in this setting is unique and demands unique preparation and expectation. But a smattering of places do offer training, but most require travel to urban settings. It would be great for ongoing training to take place in rural settings where the apprenticing of church leaders takes place alongside the lives of those living the cultural, intellectual and systemic realities of rural folk. As Salvationist James Watson says, "if we do not pay attention to the need for resources for…leadership in rural areas, we may suddenly look at the country and wonder where the churches have gone."

Rural Canada is a vast mission field. We might assume the conservative leanings and quaint church buildings of hamlets mean a lively Christian witness. Uh, no. Churches are closing or consolidating faster than depopulation is happening. Whole villages are a few funerals away from no visible church presence.

At the same time, a Christendom memory lingers that says: since grandma goes to that church, since I went to Sunday school, got baptized and expect a "real" Christmas program at the local public school, then we and God must be cool. Try countering this heritage of naïve religiosity with the gospel, and the shine begins to come off that cornfield sunset.

Try countering what has been around forever and was started by great uncle Bart and you'll quickly discover country justice.

Reimagining the rural church
What is needed in rural Canada is not mere institutional caretakers, but mission-shaped leaders who will renew long-established churches and start many new on-mission-with-God gatherings of the saints that will initiate a new lifecycle of Christian witness and presence. This will require longevity and a new vision for the unique demographics and complexities of making disciples in rural Canada.
And, it will require that rural congregations re-imagine who they are and why they exist. They are not just there to keep uncle Bart's pet project alive or even that old building heated.

No, they exist because of the risen Lord and are called to keep the gospel fresh and alive in word and deed for the sake of those outside the Kingdom and just down Main Street and out on Orchard Line. That task must be accepted again with a freshness only the Holy Spirit can breathe and a stubborn resolve only the Boondocks can muster.