Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Island Church

The church and parsonage building where I live in Rotterdam is - like every place in the Netherlands - virtually surrounded by water. There are canals on almost all sides, and not your rinky-dink trenches, mind you, but full on Venetian canals. Access to the church can only be had by walking one narrow strip of land.

Can you start to see the problem?

The Netherlands is already secular enough to make it difficult for anyone to want to come to even the nationally-supported Dutch Reformed Church, let alone a strange and foreign import church from America. But in addition to that, you can't actually get to the church except across an out-of-the-way spit of land.

Now, you could say that this is a metaphor for walking the narrow road that scripture mentions. But this is church, not heaven, we're talking about. As far as the church was concerned, Jesus seemed much more interested in gathering all kinds of people in, and that would require a pretty broad road, or at least multiple points of access.

Frankly speaking, the church can't afford to be inaccessible. It has enough going against it these days that it shouldn't be getting in its own way. The geographic placement of the building actually works against the church's mission to be in the world and converting the nations.

Now, I sympathize with the saints in Rotterdam. They inherited the building from their forebears. They didn't build it. Even their forebears didn't build, truth be told - the denomination leadership decided to build a European HQ, and they chose the design. The building is perfect for the 50's theology and self-image of the church then - "we are the true church; if you want to know the truth, you have to come to us. Our doors are open (over here)." It isn't so good for our 21st century ecumenical sensibilities. But it is the building we have.

It isn't so different a problem than has much of mainline Christianity these days.

How does one minister from an island? You go off-island. But what do you do with all the infrastructure anchored in the old space? Is it best to simply abandon the accomplishments, efforts and resources of previous generations just because they are inconvenient for us?

How can we get off-island - both literally and metaphorically - and build transformative relationships that could bring people into a transforming community. I think the key is to think of church differently.

Church isn't where the frontline ministry takes place anymore. The primary location of transformative ministry is in personal relationships - friendships, family ties, pastoral relationships, and even professional interactions. The actual church building and weekly (?) church service is for energizing and guiding the faith journeys of people during the week in their relationships.

Perhaps we shouldn't be measuring congregations by how many people are in attendance on a Sunday, but by how many people are being touched in transformative relationship throughout the week, directed by those who are in Sunday services. At the same time, however, attendance at church is an indicator of whether or not you are offering something that people need.

I guess, in the end, the island church has to offer something so much better than the world around it and competing interests, that people consider the extra effort worth it.

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  • Great Post!

    Especially this part:

    "Perhaps we shouldn't be measuring congregations by how many people are in attendance on a Sunday, but by how many people are being touched in transformative relationship throughout the week, directed by those who are in Sunday services."

    This is so true! It reminded me of D&C 162: "Do not be unduly concerned with numbers. Be fervent in your witness, passionate in your discipleship, and vigorous in your labor on behalf of peace and justice."

    By Blogger Sean Langdon, at 12:45 AM  

  • Very nice picture, and even better post. I was just thinking earlier this evening that I focus too much on my failure to "win converts." I spend too much time beating myself up over the numbers that since long ago I decided prove my incapacity for ministry.

    By Blogger Adam Gonnerman, at 6:59 PM  

  • Christian ~ Great Post. I remember hearing a saying somewhere about "church" being a barracks for training soldiers for Christ, not a spiritual rest home. It's really not about how many people are in attendance on Sunday because the real work is done Monday through Saturday.

    By Blogger Mike, at 8:00 PM  

  • Mike - That is true and yet I do keep reminding myself that without the people on Sunday morning we can't afford to have the church to train the people to bring ministry to our communities.

    By Blogger Sean Langdon, at 8:48 PM  

  • Sean ~ I agree with you that it takes money to run a church. But at the same time, I am reminded of another post you wrote about the building itself sometimes being a liability....and there's a lot of truth to that as well.

    I also believe, like in your situation, that no matter how much you train someone, a lot of people are all about Sunday morning and that's the extent of their "religious" life.

    By Blogger Mike, at 11:35 PM  

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