None of us want to spend a life in ordained or lay ministry, serving to build up the Church and serve the world, only later to realize that it makes no difference. We don’t want to build sand castles, only to watch the tide wash them away.
Sand Castles at High Tide?
Even if we believe the Gospel is powerful and true, we might be afraid that we make no difference because the Church in our generation is ineffective or misguided. We might believe in Jesus, but see little of him in his followers (including ourselves). Or we might question the effectiveness of strategies and structures that Christians use in the visible, public aspects of our ministry.
And there are always voices that tell us we are building sand castles near the rising tide. Some don’t believe in the Gospel, so it makes sense that they might believe we are wasting our lives. Others believe in Jesus, but not in the Church, and draw the logical conclusion that aspects of our work that build up the visible Church are wasted. These voices help us face the question with integrity. They keep us from just working away without prayerful reflection and readiness to “give an answer.”
So is it worth it? Are we making a difference in the world?
Making a Difference
What does it mean to “make a difference”? Churches and Christians arguable make a difference in the world, in terms of serving material and social needs. Recently President Obama said of the Catholic Church,
From my time working in impoverished neighborhoods with the Catholic Church in Chicago, to my travels as President, I’ve seen firsthand how, every single day, Catholic communities, priests, nuns, laity are feeding the hungry, healing the sick, sheltering the homeless, educating our children, and fortifying the faith that sustains so many.”
Evangelical communities are also out serving the world in ways which almost everyone can celebrate. Barna recently reported that:
Evangelical Christians tend to give more to charity than their peers, according to a new study by the Barna Group, Baptist Press reports. The study finds that 79 percent of evangelical Christians gave money to a church or charity last year, while 65 percent donated items and 60 percent volunteered their time.”
However, while this is heartening, and important, I think that those of us in Christian ministry believe that making a difference in our world goes above and beyond meeting social and material needs, while still including those needs. We won’t be at peace about our calling until we believe it serves the whole person, body, mind, soul, and spirit – and whole communities of people.
What Human Beings Need
What do human beings really need? This question is important. For all of recorded history, people have asked what is wrong with the world, and how can it be healed. We seek the answers in intuitive, experiential ways, as well as intellectual and philosophical/theological ways.
For many people in the world, human beings simply need food, shelter, stability, and loving relationships. So the things we do in ministry that feed, shelter, make peace, and facilitate community might be celebrated.
But there is something beyond even all of that. There is the spiritual.
Human beings need God. We long for God. We long to know and be known by God. And we are given to know that something is wrong in our world, that we are involved in it, and that it needs healing. Most human beings in history have expressed these things in writing, in dance, in poetry, and in the way we form relationships. Our sense of desiring God draws us to ask about the meaning and purpose of existence, of the universe, and of our lives. St. Paul said that “all of creation groans” toward this purpose.
So we will never believe that we are doing more than building sand castles unless our ministry is one of reconciliation between God and humanity.
The Scandal of Particularity
But when we actually seek to reconcile humanity and God, society will never praise us, or see us as productive in that effort. Not because society is not spiritual, or doesn’t recognize a need for a god or higher power. But because the societies around us will never be able to celebrate our specificity. We don’t just believe in a god, we believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. We believe that there is one way of salvation, in Jesus Christ. Preaching that message will never be universally celebrated as a good, productive way to spend ones’ life by those who don’t believe it. It will likely not be recognized as a universal human good for the community. It will be seen as too particular, or as merely private, or as wholly speculative.
Worship and Theology Matter
Because of that reality, there is a temptation to see our works of community building and charity as real and practical and helpful but to see our worship and theology as merely theoretical, aesthetic, and optional.
However, that approach will always lead us to question our ministry, because it will fail to meet the ultimate needs of real human beings in real life.
Worship of the true God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is what human beings ultimately need. For example, human beings have tried to sacrifice to appease a god for millenia, including even our own children. At the eucharist, rather than just having a nice ceremonial meal, we are participating in the sacrifice of Christ, the “final sacrifice.” We aren’t killing animal sacrifices or offering up our children. Instead, we are receiving God’s offering of himself as the sacrifice. We are experiencing peace with God. What deeper need can there be for a human than to know that God does not demand a sacrifice, but rather has become the ultimate sacrifice? Yes, this has a theoretical aspect, and should have an aesthetic aspect, but it is also very real, practical, and helpful to real, everyday human beings.
And that’s just one example. The Trinity is a vision of God as a community and union of love and relationships, a vision that speaks to our deepest longings. The story of the people of God in the Bible roots us in a history of people, a continuum, that helps us see where we came from, and where we are going. The church buildings we erect visibly signify the centrality of the worship of God and our desire to pray for our own communities.
Christian theology matters because it answers real human questions and heals real, human hearts and it answers with a particular and proven cure: Jesus. Christian worship matters because it connects us to the reality of God and others. Evangelism matters because people seek to know the name of the true God, and we know that it has already been revealed. Christian ministry matters.
When we begin to see how deep our human needs are for salvation, for worship, and for meaning, we can reassure ourselves that our particular ministry, however flawed, is not wasted. Leading a worship service, teaching a catechesis class, or laying hands on the sick is reality. It is practical. It is worth it.
Jars of Clay
And yet the fact remains that the Church in our generation is flawed, misguided, and often distracted…and has been in every generation. We don’t stop being a part of this fallen world after we are baptized. Yet we are a sign of God’s love and forgiveness, even in our brokenness. We are holy, set apart, for God in Christ. And yet we are also sinners. We aren’t “holier than thou,” we are jars of clay, filled with the Holy Spirit.
When we embrace that mystery, we can begin to have peace about Christian ministry. Our efforts and strategies won’t always work in the way we intended them. We will make mistakes. Time will be squandered and opportunities will be lost. All this despite (or because of) our best efforts to be faithful servants.
Our Anglican communion is fractured. In North America we struggle to find unity, to be together on mission, and to define common customs and practices. And yet we are a part of the mystery of the Church. We are worshipping, we are serving, and we are present. Our family of churches is worth the effort, the love, and the lifetimes of service.
We remain a sign of God’s love. We remain a people seeking reconciliation. We remain houses of worship of the true God. We remain a people of history with a future. We remain present.
Ministry of Presence rather than Production
We need to move away from a production oriented ministry, and toward a ministry of presence. The ministry of presence does not mean that we don’t address the sins, mistakes, and poor strategies of the Church in our time. We have to seek to repent, to strengthen, and to encourage the Church. However, a ministry of presence does means that we don’t tie the meaning of our ministry into the success of failure of such efforts.
We are to follow Jesus in the incarnation. We are to be present in the world, in our communities, and in our congregations. We listen and serve, we gather, and we worship. We teach, and we learn. We are here. In the ministry of presence, we know that we make a difference. Not a difference that can always be measured, but the kind of difference a mustard seed makes in the ground. Its small but growing. Generation after generation, the Church grows and the Kingdom is revealed in the world.
So keep going. Keep serving the material and social needs of communities. Keep leading worship, keep praying. Keep teaching and catechizing and theologizing. Society will praise some of it, laugh at some of it, and even oppose some of it. But we believe in what Jesus told us to be doing, going into all the world to make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to observe all things he commanded.
At the end of our journey, when we look back, we’ll see a human life behind us, with its ups and downs. But if we’ve served in our particular calling as best we can, if we’ve been present, if we’ve been a sign of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, we will have made a difference.
Photo: Public Domain