Small church ministry

The current worldwide coronavirus crisis should cause grave concern for everyone. It gives us pause to reflect on our mortality and how gingerly our lives teeter on the precipice between life and death at every moment.

The church should especially consider its place in the world and how it ministers to those in need–in need of the gospel and in need of acts of mercy. Sadly, I am afraid many congregations are not prepared for this moment, either theologically or otherwise. How many congregations were engaged with their communities and members, and prepared to minister despite the separation that “social distancing” has brought us?

I don’t have magic answers, but I do have some suggestions about how our churches need to be effectively involved in the lives of those around us. This post begins a series on small church ministry. For my purposes, I am defining small churches as those having 100 members or less, and I am assuming they are found mostly in small towns and rural areas. This series should be helpful to churches of various traditions and church leaders, whether pastors, elders, deacons, trustees, or those given some other title.

In this series, I will reflect on the biblical model of ministry of the church as well as provide practical applications and suggestions. I hope this will be helpful to someone; perhaps the pastor of a small church will find this useful, as I would have done in similar circumstances.

This article is part 1 of 2 in the series Small Church Ministry.

The Church is not in despair

1 Peter 2:11-17.
John 16:16-22.


Last Monday being Tax Day, no doubt, you felt relief. Relief because you had already filed your tax return, because you mailed it off that day, or because you requested an extension for time to file. On the other hand, if you owed taxes with your return, perhaps you weren’t feeling relief so much as exasperation.

April 15th, or thereabouts, is the day we’ve learned to dread every year. We either dread it because our bookkeeping is behind and we know it will be a monumental task to get it all together; or we dread it because we’re afraid to see the last number on the return: will it be positive or negative?

We all know that this settling of accounts is coming around each year. The wise consider how their actions throughout the year will affect their tax liability. The foolish live in the moment, oblivious to how what they do now will impact their future.

My work in accounting has shown me that the field is aptly named. Sometimes, there is a daily accounting of the financial situation; at other times, there is a monthly or quarterly accounting, and there is always the annual accounting that follows the close of the fiscal year. In working with a lot of small businesses, I’ve learned that one of the principle reasons businesses fail is a lack of accounting. That is, the business fails because the owner goes along thinking all is well when he really has no clue; he hasn’t examined the books well enough to know whether he’s actually turning a profit. This man is often found driving a Mercedes while living with his wife and children in his mother’s basement.

How shall we live?

In the reading from St. Peter’s epistle appointed for today, we see the apostle admonishing the followers of Christ. He describes how Christians should walk uprightly, bringing honor to the Lord. He exhorts believers to embrace the disciplines of the Christian faith. He does so by expounding the virtues of the Christian life, the demands of the Christian life, the necessary behavior of the man committed to the cause of Christ.

We must abandon the works of evil. Those who are committed to the cause of Christ must forsake all that is of this world, all that is fleeting and ephemeral, all that is selfish and self-righteous, all this is opposed to the holiness of our Lord. Instead, we must embrace those things of Christ’s kingdom, that which is lasting and eternal, that which is selfless, and that which brings humility before the majesty of God.

We do this by following the apostle’s direction found in this passage. We do that by obeying the Lord’s commandments. Instead of walking as the ungodly, who are vain, ignorant, and blind–“who have no compassion because they have been dulled by greed and lust and immorality”–let us be like Christ. We have heard the truth from him through nature, the Scriptures, and the witness of the Holy Spirit. Let us not join with those of reprobate character when they seek to fulfill the works of the flesh. Instead, let us forsake the corrupt conversations and lusts, and let us be made new in the likeness of God according to his righteousness.

Having so received the Lord’s forgiveness, how do we uphold his commandments in the world? St. Peter tells us: be honest; obey the civil magistrate; honor everyone; show love to fellow believers; fear God; and honor the king. The reprobate has become callous to the things of God, but the Christian remains sensitive to the Lord’s will. The Christian, being driven by the Spirit, will be motivated to good deeds by the desire to honor the Lord. The man who recognizes God’s holiness will be desirous of good works because he wants to please the heavenly Father.

Soon comes an accounting. Soon comes the reckoning. After the short balance of our lives is done, we see judgement.

I think of the Babylonians, partying, oblivious to the consequences of their behavior before God. Though not invited, the Lord broke in on the party and wrote, with his hand, a message upon the wall. The idolater Belshazzar was called to give an account of his life. He was weighed in the balance and found wanting. That night, he was killed.

Unlike Tax Day, which comes at a fixed time each year, we are sometimes called to account at odd times. Whether our reckonings in this life occur with regularity or infrequency, we shall all be weighed in the balance. The evil man, the man who brings a reproach to his Creator, will be found wanting. But let us, as followers of Christ, be found worthy of our calling. Let us be found honoring his name.

We are not able to do so except by submission to his will and his Spirit. Our animation in good deeds comes from him. He has saved us by his grace and called us to good works, all for his glory.

Headlines and Hope

These are all top news headlines from the past few days. I thought of reading excerpts from a few of the articles, but the headlines are sufficiently descriptive of the content.

This is a vastly evil world in which we live. Man’s sin has touched all the world. Those who put their trust in things of the world are filled with anxiety. Sometimes, the attitude of others can be infectious. If we soak up the dread of others, we too may become filled with feelings of hopelessness.

Jesus knew that’s how his disciples would feel after he died. Thus he spoke those words we heard today from St. John’s Gospel. He told them that he’d soon go away, but that they would see him again. They didn’t understand his words. It must have been a bit like picking up a book in a foreign language for the first time: none of it makes sense. “A little while, and ye shall not see me: and again, a little while, and ye shall see me.” Is this a riddle of some sort?

Christ’s death left his disciples in despair. They all forsook him at his trial and crucifixion. They denied they even knew him. The One on whom all their hopes depended had been killed. He, knowing all things, knew that they would do this, and he warned them about it. But he also knew that they would come back to him, that, in the end, they would be faithful. In the moment of his death, they were overwhelmed with anxiety. In the moment of his resurrection, they were overwhelmed with his glory.

Reading the headlines, we may feel a bit like the disciples when Jesus died. We are troubled by the things going on around the world, the things going on in Washington and Austin, the things going on in our neighborhoods. And we are often troubled by the things going on in our own homes. There is much to be concerned about, understandably. We are to discern the times and assess how we should live.

Some have given up hope. They have determined that evil shall triumph in this world, that the future is certainly filled with the extermination of mankind, with endless calamity, with pain and misery that only ceases upon the death of all. They despair of this world. They have resigned themselves to simply biding their time here, treading water until the earth is destroyed.

We are “strangers and pilgrims”, as Peter calls us. We are temporary visitors to this time and place. Yes, we eagerly await the Second Coming of Christ in glory and the consummation of all things. That yet more glorious day shall come.

In the meantime, however, we are not men of misery. We are not proceeding to the scaffold. We do not lurch about as men having no hope. Even in the face of boundless uncertainty in the world today, we do not despair. We know the promise of the Lord and we know the ends of his mercy. We are not to sit idly on the platform, tickets in hand, waiting for appearance of the train that will take us to heavenly places.

The work God has given us is to be done here. And we shall not please him if we are not engaged in his work. We may weep and lament while the world rejoices, but our sorrow shall be turned into joy.

It is this message that we hear constantly from the Scriptures. Certainly we should be sober-minded, filled with an understanding of the world’s sinfulness and our own. But we do not despair. We are not filled with dismay at the misery of the world, at the injustice of the world, at the pain and agony inflicted by evil men.

Do not look for a way out: our Lord has placed you here. He has placed you here to reflect his glory, even amidst the cesspool of wickedness of those around you. He has placed you here as a beacon to wayward ships, tossed about on the seas of skepticism, immorality, abuse, and faithlessness. He has placed you here as a witness of his gospel–that all men might return to their created purpose, that they might worship, that they should not fear his judgement.

This was the promise of Christ to his disciples before his crucifixion, and it is the promise to all who follow him. He has not left us comfortless. We are not without hope. We are not defeated. The church is not in despair.

Living Faithfully

As Christians, we are not yet perfect. We must maintain humility before the Lord and continually plead for his forgiveness. We must daily repent of our wrongs, and we must daily seek to do and to promote the will of God.

Let us remember that, one day, we shall all stand before the Lord in judgement. On that day, he shall require an account of all we have done. Will we be found faithful to his cause or will we be found as practitioners and enablers of unrighteousness? We must care for the things of God and care not for the spite or the ridicule of the world or our own flesh. If, in this finite and temporary world, we stand without compromise, we shall find comfort in the eternal things of God. It is only by being faithful to our Lord that we shall find true satisfaction.

“A little while, and ye shall see me, because I go to the Father.” We shall go to the Father also, and there shall we see him. For a while, in the church militant, we resist the world, the flesh, and the devil; in a little while, we shall join the church triumphant, having our robes washed clean in the blood of the Lamb.

When the pain of delivery is over, a woman with child rejoices. She no longer remembers that pain, but she is delighted to hold the baby to her breast. So, too, shall our joy be in due season if we faint not. We endure here for a season; let us do so with diligence in the Lord’s work. We shall not please him in the glorious day of his appearing if we do not please him now.

Church ruins

An unbroken Church

Lots of folks believe the Church is broken these days. Some of the words they use to describe it: messy, a failure, irrelevant, archaic, and more along this line. And those descriptions come from people who identify themselves as Christians.

I don’t know what church they’re talking about, but it’s certainly not the Church founded by Christ. After all, he speaks of his Church as a spotless bride, a pure virgin waiting for her beloved to take her to the wedding feast.

Sure, men are flawed. Men have failed. Men have used God’s gifts in perverted and sinful ways. But the Lord’s Church is unbroken because it is founded upon Christ. The Church doesn’t rise and fall with sinners. It triumphs because of Christ. The Church isn’t made by men and can’t be destroyed by men. The Church is animated by Christ.

Those who think the Church is broken have truly only discovered their own brokenness. They are broken by the sin of pride and selfishness, the sins that beset all men. Quite easily, they project their own sins upon the Church, claiming that there’s no right way to worship, no perfect way to follow God, no way to overcome the brokenness. And in the latter, they are right: there is no way that men can overcome their brokenness. Instead, they must be overcome by God.

The Spirit of the Lord still leads his Church. Christ said quite plainly that the gates of Hell would not prevail against his bride. The Church isn’t broken, men are.

What is a parish?

In reflecting on Anglican congregations and their connections with their respective geographical communities, we must look at the meaning of the term “parish”.

The American Heritage Dictionary offers this definition, which I have abbreviated to the relevant portions.

  1. a. An administrative part of a diocese that has its own church in the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and some other churches.
    b.The members of such a parish; a religious community attending one church.
  2. A political subdivision of a British county, usually corresponding in boundaries to an original ecclesiastical parish.

In the traditional sense, definition 1a is the best description. It was out of the church-established parishes that the government subdivisions, of definition 2, grew. In the contemporary sense, definition 1b is the one most used in the United States. I believe it is a corruption of the traditional sense of the word which has come about because of the historic lack of an established church in the federal system of the United States (realizing, of course, that there were established churches in some states in an earlier time and in the colonial era). The open market of religious beliefs has led to a lack of demarcation of geographical areas based on religious affiliation. Though some denominations are strong in certain areas, no single religious body has maintained absolute control over communities in the same way that has existed in the English church for centuries.

The Catholic Encyclopedia offers this definition, which I have also abbreviated:

A parish is a portion of a diocese under the authority of a priest legitimately appointed to secure in virtue of his office for the faithful dwelling therein, the helps of religion. The faithful are called parishioners, the priest parochus, curate, parish priest, pastor. To form a parish there must be (1) a certain body of the faithful over whom pastoral authority is exercised; the ordinary manner of determining them is by assigning a territory subject to the exclusive jurisdiction of the parish priest.

I believe this would accord with the traditional view of the parish system in Anglicanism. Essentially, there is a geographical area, recognized by the bishop, which is led by a priest, and who ministers to those within the area. The impetus for forming a parish is the existence of a certain number of Christians who desire a parish church.

Consulting the trusty Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (third edition), I find this definition, which I have again shortened:

In England, an area under the spiritual care of a C of E clergyman …, to whose religious ministrations all its inhabitants are entitled.

Though there are many more things that could be said about the background of what we have come to know as a parish, these definitions (particularly that from the Oxford Dictionary) give us a succinct vision of what the traditional parish looks like. The parish from the English system is a territory whose residents are entitled to the spiritual care of a priest assigned to the area church. To expand this idea slightly, the ministry of the local church is not limited to those persons who attend that church’s services; instead, the local church ministers to the community at large, some of the inhabitants of which participate in the religious services of the church.

This is certainly a different idea of the parish than most Anglicans have today. Instead of viewing our ministry as being oriented to the community, we see our ministry as being oriented to those who attend Sunday services. I contend that the responsibility of ministry does not stop at the boundary of the church precincts, but that it extends to the territorial limits of the community.

This article is part 2 of 2 in the series Parish Ministry.

An old paradigm for a new day: reinstituting the parish system

In my ministry as a military chaplain, I find myself with a few hundred souls who are my parishioners whether they want to be or not. I minister to them all. With some, I celebrate the sacraments; with others, I listen to their struggles. To all, I share friendship, concern, and compassion. I’m not perfect, of course, but I try to minister to all of them pastorally.

This model of ministry in the military reminds me of the old parish system. Most Anglicans seem to remember it and assume we still have it, but it doesn’t really exist, at least not in the United States. Yes, we have a parish system of sorts, but these “parishes” are composed only of those persons who attend our local churches. What about the old system that held that everyone within a certain geographical territory belonged to this parish? What about the old system that held that clergy ministered to every soul in that territory, regardless of whether they were Christian or not?

I hope to explore this idea more in a series of short articles here. In reflecting on the old parish system and how it should apply today, I suspect that I shall reach some conclusions that offend today’s milquetoast sensibilities that seem to abound in the Church. However, I can’t help but think that the Church of C.S. Lewis’ day, or even earlier, though not much later, was a Church which had much to offer the world. In our striving toward ignorant politeness, have we lost the prize?

I suggest that the old parish system is a suitable way of thinking and working for the Church today. Let the Church’s priests take up this forsaken system, this “outdated” paradigm, to honor God in the world. Join with me, reader, in reflection and meditation on this topic; join with me, priests, in becoming, as St. Paul, “all things to all men”.

This article is part 1 of 2 in the series Parish Ministry.