I only spent a year at the church in Parkdale before moving to Ottawa when Ericka was offered a new job there.
As we were preparing to leave, I received a phone call from a long-time friend. “I hear you’re moving to Ottawa. Maybe you can help me out.” Never one to beat around the bush, he laid it on the line: there was a church in the denomination he worked for in need of interim ministry. Would I consider stepping in?
When visiting Ottawa a few months previous, we had stopped by that same congregation for Sunday worship. It was a church that had long been on my radar, one that had a strong reputation in Canada’s emerging church world for its creativity, innovation, and long-term success. No easy feat in a world where most church plants fail before they hit their third birthday.
But the Sunday we visited, I noticed dissonance between reputation and reality. I was confronted by the disparity between the wide embrace the website claimed as a core value, and my own experience of being ignored from the time I arrived to the time I walked out the door. Which I’d have to admit is weird in a room with only 20 people in it.
Was it not clear that we were newcomers?
I couldn’t have known then that the community was well into decline, and that it would take monumental effort to regain the momentum they had once had. I didn’t know then that the board was doing everything in its power to hold things together in the midst of a growing leadership vacuum. I had no idea what was happening behind the scenes.
We rarely have insight into the story behind our initial experience of any given community.
This gives me much to ponder when I reflect on my experience of other churches. It gives me much more to think about in terms of the limited control I have over how visitors might perceive the community I serve today.
Behind the shimmer and sheen of the aspirational statements on your church website is the complex reality of human community in all of its personal and communal dynamics. There are real people with real stories that can never be summarized or completely understood at a glance.
The lived complexity of human community we experience in all spheres of life reminds me that we cannot encapsulate a community’s core essence in one person’s experience of it.
My intersection with the community’s story is not The Community’s Story. It is one lens on what might have been going on.
To put it succinctly, no church’s story is a first person narrative. Even if that’s what the talking heads on the conference circuit want to tell us.
Before the moving trucks arrived to take us up the 401 towards the nation’s capital, I walked through the various steps involved. There was a phone interview with the board. There were the reams of questions about who I was, my background and experience.
This was a bit strange, because it should have been clear from the start that my on-the-books congregational experience was nothing more than a year of part-time work for several Toronto area churches. Even so, I was invited on board as the interim pastor of Ecclesiax, a small Free Methodist Church in Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood.
And to this day, I am truly grateful. My time there wasn’t easy. The community took a chance on me. I took a chance on them. And while my time with them was short – as can be the case with interim ministry – it profoundly shaped me. The community taught me a great deal.
Pretty soon after I arrived, I learned something that now seems obvious, but in my youthful exuberance was not apparent:
Your church doesn’t have to be hundreds of years old to remember the glory days. It can be eight years old, and be paralyzed by nostalgia.
I had thought, leaving that old Parkdale church behind, that I would be stepping into something different. It was different. On the surface, it was different. But at its core, it was the same as any other church. It was a broken, beautiful group of people trying to figure out how to follow Jesus. It was a group of folks wrestling with the reason WHY they kept doing what they were doing.
Some days the vision was clearer than others. But those glory days? They were a distant memory. Arriving in that community at that time, all folks could talk about was The Time When the Shit Hit The Fan.
The glory days seemed a distant memory.
The founding pastor had left suddenly and abruptly, and the community was resiliently holding things together. But they were tired. There was an underlying sense that there was a reason to keep going, but it wasn’t always clear.
And then we discovered a leak in the roof.
Apparently it’s not church if you don’t have a problem with your roof. Are house churches immune from this perennial problem?
We did some planning. We ran the numbers. We met to talk about next steps. A member of the congregation made a plea to give generously. So we could keep the lights on.
Which brings me to the question central to my ongoing reflections.
Why keep the lights on?
Why do church at all?
As we continue to watch and wait through the season of Advent, as we continue to wind our ways through the biblical stories of hope, and peace, and joy, and love, what is it about this story, above all stories, that might compel us to want to carry on? To keep the lights on? And hopefully, to do more than that.
In the moment, on the day of the meeting, I admit to feeling disappointed. Crushed, even. If all this was about – if all we had left to hold onto was keeping the lights on, maybe we should have turned them off, and never on again. If all the energy we had left was devoted to maintaining a building, that seemed like little more than a millstone around our necks, maybe we should get out of the business of maintaining a building.
But looking back now, with years of hindsight, I also recognize something now that I wouldn’t have then. I recognise the glimmer of hope. The sense that there was something there worth keeping the lights on for. I recognise now that the thing I reacted so strongly against was the smouldering wick God refuses to snuff out.
The words of Second Isaiah return to me now:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching. (Isaiah 42:1-4)
In this season of advent, a time of watching, waiting, and endlessly praying, I now recognise something that I couldn’t in earlier days: that there was more than one way to hear that statement. It could be heard as a plea to keep the lights on for the sake of keeping the lights on. It could have just as easily been heard as a plea to keep the lights on, because God wasn’t done doing ministry through this community yet.
Looking back, I’m not sure I know what the answer is. I’m not sure I know which way those words should have been heard in the moment. I guess all I know – if I know it at all – is my own heart. And my own heart in that moment burned with passion that keeping the lights on, and the maintenance of a building are only valuable insofar as they empower ministry in the neighbourhood.
If they don’t do those things, then cut them loose. But if they can – even if it’s a faint, but hope-filled sense that such things are possible, then maybe important work can be done to (mixing metaphors) tie the tourniquet and stabilize the patient. And maybe one day, the patient will have stabilized enough, and be energized enough to head back out into the world, proclaiming the good news of God’s grace and mercy, a grace and mercy that does not write off the broken and bruised simply because it was expedient at the time.