Last week, I got a dose of reality that I am a pastor: Synod Ministerium Conference, or also known to some as a gathering of pastors. It was good overall; networking, getting to know folks, and of course, wrestling with things that were said and their implications for ministry.
1. The church has a language problem. An insider language problem to be exact. Words like “justification, sanctification, evangelical, stewardship,” and even words like “love, grace” hold all sorts of meanings and in some cases, come with a lot of baggage as well. These are words that “insiders” understand (or do they?), but those outside the church tradition/institution have all sorts of misconceptions about, or no clue at all.
We have to be better translators of these words. I don’t think it’s helpful to throw them out, just as it’s not helpful to simply keep hammering them into people until they “get it.” We have to translate them in a way the world will get their meaning. That means understanding context matters. Think of it this way: translation is the work of the church that participates in the Word of God speaking to the world, today.
2. There is no “social gospel” or “evangelical gospel.” It’s just the GOSPEL. Frankly I’m tired of the arguments and critiques on this one. In fact, I think it’s a nonissue for outside the church institution. Yes, I get that the social gospel implies that human action is equal to God’s action, and that’s problematic. Yes, I get people need to hear about what God does for them in Christ – the evangelical gospel.
But sometimes “good news” comes in the form of feeding – like 5 loaves and two fish. Sometimes gospel is heard through the words, “I found you a job” or “You have health care.” I think Lutherans overdo the “works righteousness” thing to a fault sometimes – and it leads to inaction. But, God is a God of ACTION. God loves, God forgives. Christ heals, Christ feeds. Christ died, Christ rose from the dead.
If we still believe that God is present and active in and through the world today, why is it so hard to believe that perhaps God might be working through our actions? I agree, our actions are inadequate and will not bring about total salvation in any way – only God alone can do that. But our action witnesses to the reality of a God who acts, to the good news that God actually is concerned with the reality of the world here and now, and we get a glimpse of the Kingdom of God – where God is breaking into the world today, and a taste of the fullness of what God in Christ will bring.
Moreover, a church that enters deeply into the deep reality of suffering, injustice, and problems of the world – no matter how complicated or messy they might be – is being a church of the cross. It is a church that points to God’s presence in a suffering, injust, problem-filled world, and action to raise it to new life.
3. Partnerships are vital for the 21st Century church. I’m always energized by conversations about what other people are doing and thinking about. I’m not great at creating on my own, but rather, I’m one of those guys that can play off other’s imaginations and ideas. Like a musician who perhaps “fills in the notes” on the page, I love partnerships because sometimes, I need a sheet of music to get me going, to give me something to play, but in a particular way in my context.
And, I think in this day and age where the church is facing the reality of having to do “more with less,” partnerships are great, because we can also find ways to share resources. We can share information. We can help people find faith communities that draw them deeper into relationship with God, rather than be forced to try to fit them awkwardly into our own.
If our motivation as the church and in ministry is to draw people into a deep and meaningful relationship with God, then why would it matter where that happens? We rejoice…even if we don’t derive direct benefit from it. Partnerships are great….and perhaps seeking them out will energize people and congregations who are honestly, feeling a bit exhausted at being church these days.
Well, there’s where I’m at. Lots to wrestle with, and now that I’m a pastor serving two congregations, that wrestling really matters now. And I’m thankful for that!