This week I had one of the most interesting weeks I’ve had in my years as a minister. Essentially, I had several different encounters back to back which were at totally different ends of the spectrum. That they happened so close to one anther has helped me in my thinking in regards to church, ministry, and, ultimately, the way I understand kingdom purpose here on earth.
In a series of events that are really unrelated, except in the sovereignty of God, I have struck up relationships with three different inmates at the Delaware County Jail. “Inmates” is a misnomer since one of them is out on parole currently. Two of the men I’ve been working with are sexual offenders. This has been timely as sex offenders have been the topic of discussion in the media lately as there are more and more restrictions on where they can live and now even work. On Monday, I had lunch with one of these guys and his girlfriend. Working closely with these guys has really opened my eyes to the “other side” of things and has taken what is often a political issue and made it a personal one. I have seen firsthand the hatred these guys are up against. Now, it goes without saying that what these guys have done is odious (both guys hooked up with teenagers when they were 19/20 years old so we’re not talking Dateline To Catch a Predator stuff . . . but I’m not about to take lightly what they’ve done). So, as I said, working alongside them trying to help get them out of the circle of incarceration is a steep challenge. This ministry has brought me to new places – the Delaware County Jail itself, apartment complexes, a grandmother’s trailer court, a body shop . . . and on and on. Quickly I am realizing how complicated people’s lives are, and how much time and energy one soul can require . . . one . . . and how intertwined that one is with scores of others.
Once a month during the school year, a group of Church of Christ ministers meet in Marion, OH (about forty five minutes north of Columbus) to discuss different topics. As an aside, I will say that of about 20 full-time staff members of Churches of Christ in the greater Columbus area, there are only two or three of us that attend the meeting in Marion . . . that speaks greatly of the schism in our churches of the area. That’s a post for another day . . . our topic on Tuesday was about why Churches of Christ are not growing in the state of Ohio. This state has had one of the greatest decline in church attendance for churches identifying Church of Christ heritage. The discussion stayed cordial and we batted several different issues around – the rural roots of our churches while people are flocking to urban areas, the lack of “contemporary relevance” in many church’s worship assemblies, etc. However, the huge elephant in the room was probably a hermeneutical and theological impasse that prominently divides the thinking of our churches. This, again, is a post for another day, but I found myself in a quandary as the discussion centered on our quest for larger and more widely attended worship assemblies – our conversation never really got far from the Sunday morning assembly.
There is a group of pastors that meet from several different denominations in the Lewis Center area (Lewis Center is the suburb north of Columbus, OH where our church is located). I have attended these meetings before, but had lost connection until recently. The churches represented this past week were all conservative – Christian church, non-denominational, church of the Nazarene, Southern Baptist, and a few others I’m not exactly sure about. The superintendent of this school district was there to discuss a matter that had been brought up in the previous month’s meeting (a local high school had written a highly controversial edition of their school newspaper regarding sex including stories about pig’s orgasms, oral sex, etc.). The pastors had written a letter to him to which he responded and suggested he attended the next meeting. I found the meeting to be fascinating. The superintendent is a professing Christian and a member of a conservative mega-church. I was especially impressed by his wisdom, candor, and honesty. He really expressed how he struggled in his high profile career to rectify the right thing to do. This school district is the second most affluent school district in the state of Ohio according to property value. Second highest! A passing remark was made about the injustice of that, but the statement was made (not dismissively, but as reality) “That’s the way it is.” During the rest of the meeting I realized how out of step I am with conservative evangelicalism. Everyone in the meeting was so worried about their personal morality and the imposing immorality of the school district on their children. It was hard for me to connect with what they were saying. I come from a different cut. I’m not saying they attacked him, it wasn’t like that at all . . . I just found so many of their comments incredibly telling of the current state of evangelicalism.
As an abrupt about face, I spent lunch and a couple other hours with the pastor of an emergent church in the city of Columbus. I went looking for some service project potential for our teens, but found an active, organic, healthy socially conscience ministry thriving in the heart of one of the poorest neighborhoods of Columbus. It is led by a man who was impressive to say the least. He was encouraging and wise and I look forward to meeting with him again and learning more of his project. Their ministry is house church based and has moved totally to the other side of the attractional-based model I had been in the midst of on Tuesday and Wednesday. This ministry is much more in line with my model of thinking. Now . . . getting that to fit into my current ministry setting is the challenge. I am growing, I am learning, and I am slowly bringing this message to the church where I minister. It is a totally different way to think about church and many people are not ready. Hopefully we can get there.
This wide variety of experiences had an incredible impact on my thinking. Prisoners and brutalized urban settings versus superintendents and church growth strategies . . . I think I know which option Jesus would settle for. It is such a difficult sell in an American consumer-driven culture. Less is more. Authenticity over appearance. Organism over model. It’s a total paradigm change. Are we getting it? I hope so.
Then . . . after such a busy and challenging week, we got to enjoy a baseball game . . . almost. For the third year in a row, we bought tickets to Cleveland’s Opening Day. If you missed the story, you have no idea what we endured (here’s a quick blurb. Here I was in Cleveland, OH with my 8 1/2 months pregnant wife and my two year old son in a blistery, blizzard-like, sub-freezing temperature weather trying to watch a baseball game. It is truly something we will never forget. There are plenty of stories to be told.