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?

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