Several years ago, I spent an hour with a couple who were foster parent for two small children. The amount of energy released by those two little ones during our visit caused the foster parents to glow with what I’m guessing was probably nine parts sweat to one part joy. Our conversation turned to the children (how could it not?) and I remarked how deeply I appreciated the ministry they were doing in the form of parenting.
These foster parents talked about their ministry to care for these wee siblings as their own until their birth parents were able to safely care for them. For a time, they were theirs and treated as their own. In an attempt to be profound, I made some comment about how they were doing all of this work for these children on behalf of all of us (i.e., “society”) and therefore on some level, they were really “our” children.
I was gently corrected. “We’re not doing this because these children belong to society. We’re loving these children and giving them a safe place because they belong to God”.
Dang. Nothing like having folks preach to the preacher.
It’s even better when I can use my own “foot in mouth” blunder to help frame yet another misconception of the church:
MISCONCEPTION #4a: IT’S NOT YOUR CHURCH
We get tripped up with the limits of language with this misconception. If I’m inviting someone to the Chicken BBQ (or, better yet, worship!) at the church where I spend hours every week, I will likely say something like, “hey, my church is having a BBQ… why don’t you come?”. This is grammatically correct, if theologically askew. On some level, we know the church doesn’t actually belong to us, but there is a relationship there, which gives me the right to use the first-person possessive.
We run into problems when that first-person possessive becomes actually possessive. We will sometimes counter that with making it the plural possessive “our” (profoundly showing that we know the church collectively belongs to all of us) leading to…
MISCONCEPTION #4b: IT’S NOT OUR CHURCH
We are stewards of this incredible collection of God’s children – caring for their needs, working for justice, teaching, preaching, baptizing, evangelizing – but we need to understand that we do so not because the church is “ours”.
The church universal has long debated the language of Matthew 16:8 in which Jesus says “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Step away from the debate about apostolic succession and look at the use of the possessive. It’s not our church.
Those foster parents loved those children mightily with the understanding that using any sort of possessive was complicated. In the same way, we love the church and in serving fully we also glow with that nine parts sweat to one part joy. It’s not our church, but we will love it as fully as we can.
I don’t know what will happen in the next few years in this church I serve. I am fairly certain that the church that I have known all my life (“my” church) reached a tipping point some time ago and we’re just starting to pay attention to it. I grieve as congregations conclude their ministry, and as certain programs and mission are deemed unsustainable… but at the same time I hear the words “and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it”.
God is still in the middle of this. What emerges may not look anything like OUR church, but it will be the church of the Living Christ, and that will be enough.