Friday, October 17, 2014

A Healthy Church Is a Growing Church(?)

A healthy church is a growing church.  Someone quoted someone saying this in a recent conversation.  The question at hand was how to encourage (numerical) growth.  My attempt to respond was weak.  My response is one that needs to be processed in writing rather than subjected to the jumble of spoken words.

A highly influential book in my life is Hannah Whitall Smiths' A Christian's Secret to a Happy Life.  One of the most influential concepts in that highly influential book involves Jesus' illustration in John 15 of the branches and the vine.  (Jesus is the vine; we are the branches; God the Father is the gardener.)  The author points out that the way to bear fruit (which is not identified) is to focus on abiding in the vine rather than straining to bear fruit.  Fruit is a natural and inevitable result of focusing on our connection to the vine and accepting the pruning shears of the gardener.

I have found this concept useful in many areas of life.  Many things we most desire cannot be obtained by seeking them directly.  Rather, they are byproducts of efforts in a totally different direction.  Happiness is an example.  People who focus on their own happiness aren't likely to find true happiness.  Happiness is a byproduct of healthy relationships and healthy living.  Focusing on one's own happiness tends to damage the relationships that have the most potential to bring happiness!

So what about church growth?  While I agree that a healthy faith community is likely to be attractive to others, I think we are on the wrong track when we make growth our goal.  Growth is a natural byproduct of a healthy community.  Just as the individual who focuses on connecting to Jesus Christ will bear fruit in keeping with the strength of that connection, the faith community that focuses on seeing as Jesus saw and loving as Jesus loved and nurturing a spirit of compassion like that of Jesus for those who are harassed and helpless will be irresistibly attractive and bear the fruit of growth.  Perhaps connection can be assessed and measured by numerical growth, but when that growth is lacking, it's the connection to the vine that needs our attention.

In my own ministry to children right now I'm going with the philosophy that less is more.  Fewer children means more opportunity for one-on-one conversations, more mentoring.  There were seven in the beginning and I haven't looked for more.  But three more started coming.  Then three 7th-grade boys started drifting over from the teen group to forage for snacks in our area.

Can I do with thirteen kids what I could do with seven?  These are high-risk kids.  Can I foster spiritual growth as effectively with more?

I will accept all who desire to come.  I suspect the group will max out at a fairly small size until we develop enough inner resources to effectively welcome and nurture more.  Meanwhile, I will focus on nurturing those present rather than looking past them to those not yet showing interest in the group.  Maybe it will be a big fail to do so, but connection is my passion and we aren't there yet.  Growing the group by focusing on growth rather than on spiritual nurture could lead to a shallowness that would be difficult to overcome.

Do healthy churches grow?  Yes, barring liabilities such as a transient population I suspect they do.  But I think numerical growth is a lousy goal.  It's like setting a goal of so many grapes per branch while neglecting to make sure the branch stays firmly connected to the vine.  If growth is your ultimate goal, you would do well to set it completely aside while you nurture the connection between the branches and the vine.

Extraordinarily Ordinary

Left behind. Yes, it's the name of a book series with related film productions, but that's not what this is all about. In this case, left behind is how I'm feeling.

Several years ago I read The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shaine Claiborne and wrote a review which brought an unusual amount of traffic to my blog. I was a bit embarrassed by the attention because it was a less than positive review of a worthwhile and popular book.  While I appreciate the efforts of the author in inner-city ministry, I felt at the time like he would have no regard for someone living a life of radical obedience to Jesus Christ in a more rural setting. Is there a place for ordinary radicals where I live or will urban ministries always have more glamor?  Does true ministry involve packing up and moving to the inner city?  If everyone does that who will do ministry to my hurting neighbors?

I'm still trying to bloom where I am planted rather than transplanting myself elsewhere and have moved on to other books.  Many of them likewise describe urban ministry but I find inspiration in them to get outside my comfort zone in ministering to people who are part of my rural community but still aren't like me.  Or like those with whom I gather on Sunday.

More recently, the only active 20-somethings in the aging congregation of which I'm a part announced they are planning to start a new ministry for their peers -- young adults who are spiritual but alienated from traditional church settings.  As a first step, they will step away from our congregation and seek alternative settings for worship.

This is very interesting to me.  I realize I don't fit their target demographic, but I would love to be part of the conversation.  Alas, it is not to be.  I'm in their rear view mirror as they move toward a shiny new ministry.  My books and what I have gleaned from them don't interest them.  They need to do their own exploration.

This week I found out the leader of a trip I'm taking in January won't be leading it after all.  He has accepted a position with a group specializing in new church plants.  I knew he was involved in that sort of thing and was looking forward to interacting with him maybe a little as we traveled, though his ministry looks different from mine.  Now he has moved on.  Others I thought would be in the group have also dropped out because of conflicts with other ministries.  Even when signing up to go where I thought they were going, I have still been left behind.

As part of my own journey, I extracted myself from the organizational structure of the local church in order to focus on ministry inside and outside the church building.  I hear that many Christians have no friends who aren't also Christians.  I may have fit that description at some points in my life.  I now spend much time in public places interacting with people whose lives are being torn apart by sin.  But I also still show up for church services or activities -- Sunday morning and evening, Wednesday evening, and more. There are many hurting people who show up there looking for a message of hope.  And it's my home.  I should be there to welcome them.

I've been sharing my journey into rural community ministry with an online fellowship group as something new and different.  But recently, I was reminded that I'm still in a traditional church setting.  What might feel radical and different to me looks extraordinarily ordinary from a more detached perspective.  On Sunday mornings I facilitate an adult Sunday School group.  On Wednesday evenings I try to speak some sort of word into the chaos of children's ministry with too wide an age range.  So very ordinary.  For a while I had a teen helper I brought in from the outside world.  My first success story in the making!  But she now has a job and can no longer be involved.

Jesus told a story about a farmer who went out to sow.  Some seeds fell on the path and were eaten by birds.  Other seeds fell in rocky soil and sprang up quickly but then died for lack of roots.  Other seeds grew but the growth was choked out by weeds.  But some seed fell on good soil and yielded a bountiful harvest.

I seem to be still in the sowing mode with no sign of a bountiful harvest.  What I thought was going to be new ground with new opportunities for harvest I now realize looks a lot like the old place.  And yet there is fertile ground here, in spite of rumors to the contrary.    I keep turning to the Master Gardener looking for new cultivation techniques, a fresh approach to the ancient practice of sowing seeds.  It all looks like ordinary gardening to the neighbors who are involved in more exciting pursuits, but I've never done it like this before.  Maybe I need to focus more on doing it and less on trying to present it as something fresh and new to those who surely see how extraordinarily ordinary it is.  Maybe I need to focus on what I'm doing and be less distracted by those who are moving on to greener pastures.

"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up" (Galatians 6:9).  

Faithfulness means continuing to study and practice creative agricultural methods while trusting the growth and harvest to the "Lord of the harvest" (Matthew 9:38).  I need to have faith in the viability of the seed, faith in the fertility of the soil, faith that rain will come when needed, and faith that there will someday be a harvest if I don't give up.  My ministry results may never look like anything worth looking at but I have a farmer's heart and cannot NOT sow seeds when the weather warms and the soil is dark and rich.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

I Love Juvenile Delinquents!

I'm at the library on a Wednesday morning -- working.  In walk two teenage boys.  School is in session.  They are not there.  Uh-oh.  Suspended.  Again.  One was expelled last year but later returned.  He came to me during that time asking for a job.  At 14, he is too young for me to hire even if I had an opening.  But I had a project that required multiple hours and offered to pay him to do it.  He did an excellent job with it.

Now he's back in school.  Except he's not.  He and his "step-cousin" (quotes indicate a need for a wedding to make it official) are suspended.  I ask how they managed that.  I don't comprehend much of their answer, but get the gist of it:  It's the school's fault.  And they have managed to be disrespectful to the wrong person.

Cool!  I'm all over this.  Do they need to do community service?  Because I love unpaid young laborers!  It's a gorgeous day and I have landscaping to weed!  Work at the library counts as community service.  How can I get in on this opportunity?

How I would love to reach into the lives of these young men.  And "young men" they truly are.  In other times and places they would be moving into an adult world, spending time with the older men, learning the ways of the tribe and their place within it.  In our time and culture, they are expected to sit quietly at a desk, pencil in hand, and take in the wisdom of their teachers.  It's obviously not working for them.  They need an alternative curriculum.

How in the world can I, a 56-year-old library lady, make a difference?  I'm old enough to be their grandmother.  Why would they have any respect for me?

My enthusiasm catches them and they agree to pull my weeds.  Except they need to eat lunch first.  Off they go, returning 20 minutes later.  Is it all right if they use the library computers before they start?  Ah, these child-men.  So used to asking permission for everything they do.  I ask, "Am I in charge of you?"  The older one cops an attitude and says, "No, I'm in charge of you!"  Ha ha.  Juvenile humor.  What a cut-up.  I smile and let it slide.  I hold him no malice for the comment.  I wish he could indeed feel in charge of something that would require him to pull his act together.

Since they seem to be open to direction, I offer to tell them they have ten minutes before they need to get back to work.  After fifteen minutes I hunt them down and lament that they are caught up in computer stuff and I'll never get any work out of them.  They're not sure how to take me, but they turn in the computers and go off to ask the town clerk about working at the library instead of the job she assigned them.

They come back with the disappointing news that they have to finish the task she assigned them first.  Aha, so there IS someone in charge of them.  Or at least one of them.  The other claims he isn't required to do community service and is helping only because he's bored.  I have no way of knowing how much truth he's telling as he carefully averts his eyes while talking.

It doesn't matter.  I love honesty, but have no expectation that juvenile delinquents will speak truth to me.  Why would they?  I listen carefully and add a grain of salt to every word.  I try to avoid making any response that depends on them telling me the truth.  But sometimes I detect genuine truth slipping out betwixt and between the lies and am grateful for every morsel of honesty they offer me.  Because I love them.  I know much more about them through my small-town connections than they know about me.  I know they are in difficult home situations.  I know the older one is attentive to his younger sisters.  I know he lied convincingly about his age so he could attend VBS a couple of years ago.  (But was eventually found out and told not to return.)  I know his "step-father" (more quotes for lack of a different wedding) is facing charges of disorderly conduct.  I know his previous stepfather died of cancer a few years ago and the extended family has grieved deeply.  My heart aches for him, a boy/man who has managed to alienate a lot of adults in his short life as a less-than-model student.

They return again.  They're not sure if they want to pull weeds.  We go out together and look at the weeds and they pull a few, but landscaping doesn't seem to be their passion.  They stay long enough for me to probe a little about the impact of this "time off" on their school career.

How I wish I could make a difference for these young men.  But all I know to do is to love them and embrace them with my words for as long as they hang around and then let them go.  My day is richer for the time I have spent interacting with them.  Is theirs better for having been seen and loved by me?  Is love enough?  And if not, what is more?

Monday, September 15, 2014

Lessons from the Life of an Odd Child

I recently took a turn at sharing my life story with my church family.  Fifty-six years in fifty-six minutes.  Two years merited more time than the others:  my junior year of high school -- which turned out to be my last before heading off to early admission to college -- and fifth grade.

Afterward, as I mentally replayed the evening, I realized I had likely failed to convey, or even appreciate myself, the full significance of fifth grade.  And as I teased at my memory, I discovered a fact I had missed:  I think my fifth-grade teacher may have liked me, at least a little!  This is an extraordinary realization.  I was not a well-liked child.  Not by adults; not by my peers.  In fact, by the end of fifth grade, it seemed more people openly despised me than even the more common response of simply overlooking me.

At the beginning of the year, I had a cute and well-liked best friend.  Her father was the pastor of the church where my family was actively involved and we had been best friends since she joined our class in 3rd grade. I knew I was lucky to have her and guarded her friendship with great jealousy, so afraid that she would figure out she could do better and leave me behind.  And she did leave me behind that year.  She and her family moved on to another church and I found myself abandoned and friendless.  We girls had fallen into a pattern of being "mad" at each other, usually expressed by giving someone the silent treatment.  After my friend moved away, all the other girls who had gathered around her subjected me to silence or worse for the rest of the year.  I was an easy target with my hand-me-down clothes and unfashionable shoes and glasses.  I was smart about math and reading and spelling and such.  Not so smart about fifth-grade girl society.  It was a terrible spring.

With a few exceptions.  One was Mr. Self, my first man teacher and favorite teacher ever.  My previous (and subsequent) teachers gave me little notice as a person.  Sure, I was the best student in the class, but I wasn't an attractive child, either in looks or, more importantly, personality.  Rather than attracting good-will from adults, I was either overlooked or perhaps seen as being in need of being "taken down a peg or two" -- too independent, too out-of-step with my classmates, too confident that I was smart and didn't really need their services.  But Mr. Self was kind to me.  He even gave me the lead female role in a play we did, overriding the protests of my classmates and the disgust of the boy forced to be my "husband".  I was quite surprised and pleased, though the fury of my peers took a lot of the pleasure out of the opportunity.

Then came the fateful day.  We were out of the classroom for something and upon returning discovered three desks had been up-ended and their contents dumped on the floor.  I was horrified to realize one of those desks was mine.  Mr. Self had done an unannounced desk inspection and three of us had failed.  The fall-out was there on the floor.  All my clutter and hidden treasures lay exposed to the unfriendly eyes of my classmates.  I thought I would die.  I don't remember crying, but I can't imagine I managed to refrain from doing so.  In fact, there are tears in my eyes even now as I retrieve the memory of that scene from so long ago.

I looked around to see who the other two victims of this cruel teacher trick were.  That would make all the difference in ascertaining the social cost of this horrific scene.  Even being singled out for seeing the school's newly acquired speech therapist was made more tolerable thanks to Deanne Pletcher's lisp.  If a girl as popular as Deanne had to have speech therapy, I could somehow survive it without dying of embarrassment.

Now my eyes rested on Kevin Stroh and his friend Lacy, the impossibly thin boy who was part of us for just that one year and was despised for his bony limbs and slow Texas drawl.  I wouldn't have said then that Kevin was my friend, but looking back now I see we were about as good friends as a boy and girl of that age could be.  He lived closer to me than any of our other classmates and he and his older sister rode to church with my family.  We interacted some away from school, including playing chess some in the summer.  (He moved away a year later and it wasn't until Facebook provided a connection that I learned he went on to become a teacher and to lead a chess club at his school.  That made me feel pretty good, since I may have taught him the game.)

Kevin and Lacy certainly weren't crying as the rest of the class went out for recess, leaving just the three of us to clean up our respective piles of belongings and return them neatly to our desks.  In fact, as they settled down to the task, they seemed to be in good humor.  Soon we were all working and sharing an easy companionship.  And something shifted within me as a realized I was in good company.  They didn't care that I was messy.  After all, they were too. They didn't care what the popular kids thought of me.  They were willing to be my friends.

Although I have four brothers, there was too much tension between us in those years for me to notice the less complicated nature of male relationships.  That recess period was a first step toward learning to appreciate male friendships in a world where I found (and still find) it so very difficult to fit in with typical female social interactions.  In retrospect, it was one of the best things that happened to me that spring of my twelfth year.

Obviously, with 56 minutes to cover 56 years, I didn't spend this much time on the messy desk incident, but as I later dwelt on the memory another part of it slowly surfaced.  I can't be sure how reliable that fuzzy memory is, yet it's there.  It involves Mr. Self drawing me aside and ... but surely not ... apologizing to me, explaining that he didn't expect me to be caught in his messy-desk sweep.  Apparently, when he reached my desk it was too late to stop the process and my desk was too messy to let stand in an obvious show of favoritism.  And he was right.  The last thing I needed that spring was more fuel for my classmates' animosity in the form of being "teacher's pet."

As I look back over the years and examine that faded memory of a teacher who apologized, I am reminded again of why Phil Self is my all-time favorite teacher.  He saw an odd, awkward, girl-child and valued her feelings enough to apologize for humiliating her in front of her peers during that difficult time.  No other adult in my childhood showed that level of perception and concern.  What an amazing gift that apology was!

Thank you, Mr. Self, for dumping my messy desk that day in the spring of 1969.  It turned out to be a far more positive experience than either of us would have expected.

On the other hand, I would appreciate it if you please stay away from my current desks at home and the library where I work.  Despite your efforts, I am still much better at reading, writing, and arithmetic than housekeeping.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

I'm going to Israel!

Before my mother-in-law passed away in February, she referred frequently to money she had set aside for my husband and expressed a desire for us to travel to Israel.  Israel?  As in, the Middle East?  This was more than a little surprising. And not exactly a wish I was eager to fulfill.

A few weeks after her death, I saw the notice that a group of people connected with the Church of the Nazarene in Southwest Indiana will be going to Israel in January 2015 with an invitation to be part of that group. Israel!  Well, maybe.  If we could go with people we know.  If someone else would be handling the details of international travel.

So we signed up.  And I'm already enjoying this trip immensely for multiple reasons.

  • I haven't been "abroad" for forty years -- since Nazarene Youth Congress was held in Fiesch, Switzerland in 1974 and I attended as a 16-year-old. This is a big deal!
  • My husband and I haven't done a genuine vacation trip since our children quit traveling with us. I get email all the time from airlines and travel sites and hotel chains offering me travel opportunities, and I look at them wistfully before pushing the delete button, not sure where to go or why. How wonderful to now say, "No, thank you. I already have a wonderful trip planned."
  • I haven't made a trip as an adult that I didn't have to plan. The greatest stress in my life comes from my to-do list, for home, work, and the church. Looming deadlines, forgotten details, and a huge list of unfinished tasks is what keeps my stress level high. Having nine months to prepare for a trip that adds hardly anything to my to-do list -- mostly packing and clearing nine days for travel -- is wonderful! It adds much anticipation all these months ahead of time while adding hardly anything to my to-do list.  At some point, that one small detail of clearing nine days for travel will become a sticking point, but this far ahead of time it looks simple enough and the entire trip appears to be a stress-free adventure.
For previous trips, I have added books set in the region to my reading list. Israel is different. I don't want "Dick and Jane Visit Israel" type novels. Travelogues from modern pilgrims have some appeal, although I think less may be more in that genre. But I think I found the perfect addition to my pile of unread books -- Out-of-Doors in the Holy Land by Henry Van Dyke, written in 1908. Thus far, I've read the introduction and two chapters. His trip from England to Palestine, which he described with admirable brevity, took him 15 days of travel by ship, train, and Mediterranean yacht. I hope to get there from America in 15 hours or so. He saw many people from a wide variety of cultures along the way. Yes, come to think of it, I suspect that will be the case for me as well. I'm looking forward to the rest of his trip, which will be so different and yet maybe remarkably similar to mine. There's a reason great authors are recognized as being great, and this promises to be a great read.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

How does such a nice person get labeled a meanie?

It happened again recently.  A grown man, an internet acquaintance, told me I wasn't being very nice.  I couldn't see his face or hear the tone behind his written words, but what popped into my head was a little kid saying, "Teacher!  Teacher!  Marsha is being mean to me!"

This push-back followed an email from another man apologizing for letting me see that he was offended by something I had said.  It was the first I knew of the offense.  I knew he didn't respond positively to a statement I made that contradicted something he had said, and I knew he left the scene shortly after, but the time gap was sufficient that I didn't make the connection.

Two offenses in one day!  It left me wondering:  Am I not a nice person?  And that question led to another question:  Do I want to be a nice person?  When set against such qualities as authentic, discerning, thoughtful, honest, transparent, loving, gentle, kind, good, and patient, where would I rank "nice" on my list of priorities?  Which of those virtues are part and parcel of "nice"?

I encountered someone new at the public library where I work this week.  He offered to do a favor for a staff member and then, with a self-deprecating chuckle, said, "I'm really a mean person."  And my "fraud alarm" went off.  Too much surface niceness, it said.  Watch out for this guy.  People who put their niceness on display make me nervous.  I wonder what lies behind it?

Can I be discerning and committed to honesty and consistently nice all at the same time?  I don't think a commitment to honesty requires one to make unkind comments to or about others, but it might make one less than syrupy sweet when discussing areas where there are different views among the group.  That was the case in both of my offenses this week.  My opinion differed from that of the men who found me less than nice and they were offended by the way I expressed that opinion.  Apparently, nice people don't push back against their statements the way I did.

So what do nice people do when they don't agree with what is being said?  Do they keep their thoughts to themselves?  Do they have skills I lack for expressing their disagreement in a way that doesn't stir up defensiveness?  Are the nicest people those who let others do the hard work of thinking and debating issues while they simply smile and focus on puppies and cookie recipes?

Is "nice" in conversation the equivalent to "bland" in food?  I realize that's my view of people who are nice in every situation.  No salt.  No backbone.  No iron sharpening iron.  Dull and bland.  Or worse, fake; wearing a mask of niceness to lull others into thinking they are wonderful.

And yet ... I spend almost all my time being a nice person.  Polite society depends on nice people being nice to each other, and even to not-so-nice people.  I get a lot of practice in the art of being nice to obnoxious people at the public library.  How is it that I, with all my developed skills, managed to offend two grown men in one day by countering their thoughts with my own in ways they found offensive?  Do I need to be a nicer person or do they need to make more space for me to freely express my viewpoint without taking offense?  If the answer is more niceness needed on my part, how do I get there while valuing authenticity in my relationships and without sacrificing independent thinking?

One more thing to ponder.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Why Ministry in the Church Is Difficult

I live in two worlds – inside the church and outside the church. I have been told many times that if we want to do ministry, we need to go outside the doors of the church building to find people who need God. I had to figure out for myself that those who gather inside the church on Sunday mornings also need God's love in their lives. Many people go to church on Sunday morning lonely and in despair and walk away an hour or so later even more lonely and deeper in despair. They have gathered with God's people and found no connection with God or with people even in that setting.

Out in the community I find endless opportunities to love people. I work with the public and listen to their stories and entrust them with mine. I am glad to see them and make a point to connect with them the best I can. But I seem to have no gift or ability for turning such exchanges to spiritual matters. I listen. I look for openings, for interest in spiritual things, but fail to get there. I'm never sure if I'm doing anything to bring them closer to God.

So I turn back to the church. That's where people with an interest in spiritual matters gather. And from the pastor to the bus child, people at church are hungry for someone to see them and love them as they are and demonstrate God's amazing grace to them. What better setting could there be for discussing matters of the heart?

In the church, however, I find many obstacles to true ministry. Here are a few of them:

  1. Little opportunity for real conversation. I spend several hours a week in the church building. Most of that time is split between two formats – groups who sit and listen to a speaker, and smaller groups who meet to discuss a preselected topic. Little time is left for the increased intimacy and freedom of unstructured one-on-one conversations. Anything too raw and vulnerable to share with everyone present in a small group often has no room to be spoken.

  2. Answers for every question. Outside the church the problems are large and don't lend themselves to easy answers. This may be one reason church people often don't like to go “out there.” The answers that are so obviously correct and greeted with a chorus of “Amen” when spoken in the church aren't given nearly so much respect “out there.” But in the church, they are kept on hand to give to people with problems. If you have a problem, we have the solution. Even in the smallest of small groups, there's likely to be someone ready to offer a simple solution to your complex problem.

  3. An emphasis on truth and authority. There is a tone of authority, of being right and justified in all one's actions in the church that isn't encountered elsewhere. One who speaks for the Lord need never apologize or doubt their ability to speak the truth. It allows lines to be drawn rigidly and hearts hardened toward those who cross over them. It allows communication to go one way – from the one who is in possession of truth and authority to those who aren't.

  4. An emphasis on training. Recently, a church person revealed to me that my efforts at ministry are falling short. In attempting to be flexible enough to accommodate everyone involved in a particular program, those of us leading the effort have frustrated people who get lost in the shuffle. We are aware of that problem and working to improve communication and planning. Having someone uninvolved in the program point out our shortcomings was more demoralizing than helpful. It was another example of someone speaking their version of truth rather than engaging in conversation.

  5. An emphasis on discipline. One evening two teen girls went outside to talk in the cold winter darkness rather than joining the teen group. (See obstacle #1. Maybe they needed to talk rather than sit in a group?) Someone became concerned and the ladies Bible study group took up the search, one of them even driving a mile down the road to see if the girls had walked back to town. When the girls were finally found on the church grounds, they were soundly lectured for their bad behavior. I felt terrible about the chastisement they received with so little chance to explain their actions. I consider these young ladies to be my friends.  I don't know how much fence-mending will need to be done or if I will have a chance to do it. I was glad for a chance to chat briefly after the drama with the one I see less often in other settings. She told me she accidentally messed up a chance for her mother to start her chemotherapy sooner rather than later by not taking a call when using her mother's phone. What a burden for a teenage girl to carry. Maybe that's why she seemed less upset by the chastisement she had just received than her friend. Compared to the load she is already carrying, lectures by church ladies might seem pretty trivial. Besides, no one forces church attendance on her. She can just walk away if the church has no more to offer than the rest of her world.
I long to be a blessing as I go through my days. I long to share the joy I have found as an ambassador for God's glorious now-but-not-yet kingdom. Outside the church, my conversations too often lack the depth I long for them to have. But inside the church there are strong forces that leave people isolated and lonely, feeling like no one cares enough to hear the cry of their heart. There are voices of authority setting people straight and pointing out their failings. There is little opportunity for the ministry of focusing on one person and truly listening to them. It can be a discouraging place.

I won't quit trying to do ministry in the church. I'm never sure if being associated with a local church in a small town makes people more or less likely to trust me enough to share their hearts with me. If the answer is less, I suppose I can count it as part of the cost of following Christ. There are hurting, spiritually hungry people in the church and I need to include that setting in my days. If nothing else, the church can be a place for a quick exchange and a hug in between lectures and structured small-group discussions. It's not exactly the place of tender love and joy and good news one might hope it would be, but every now and then it provides a chance to listen to someone who needs someone to listen.

What do you think?  Do you find ministry opportunities in the church?