I’m celebrating something kind of small, but significant. Though since I’m celebrating, I guess I don’t actually believe it to be a small thing. I am encouraged to see that in a small way, and with what is at this point a very small church community, the philosophy that Dan and I share as co-pastors of TCC continues to take shape.
Last Sunday morning, instead of meeting for worship, twelve of us TCCers hosted a free pancake feed for the homeless who generally hang around downtown Olympia. We met early in the morning, made a bunch of pancakes and bacon, picked up coffee donated from a local coffee shop, and headed downtown. Reid, the originator of the idea, and I, drove around town handing out flyers. Later, Reid and I delivered pre-prepared plates of food to anyone we could see that looked like they might benefit from a hot meal.
Here’s a snippet of an email I sent out to our church community mid-week last week, in which I attempted to articulate the vision of ministry and Christian community that drove how we went about this ministry:
We believe that Christian ministry happens best when the entire body is serving out of their passions and giftings. God has wired us all differently, giving us gifts that can be used for his glory and for the good of the world. One resource we use for understanding such "gifts" are the spiritual gifts talked about in the New Testament. Though there are many great ways to understand and talk about our unique passions, interests, strengths, giftedness, what we're "good at," we believe identifying our spiritual gifts is essential in understanding how we should minister as individuals and a body.
Reid has come to recognize a gift of mercy within himself, and is manifesting this gift in his desire to serve the homeless of Olympia. But we are not simply a collection of individual ministers; rather, we are community, a unit, a whole. In other words, Reid needs us to assist us in his ministry. But we don't want to simply all volunteer to do whatever he needs us to do to assist him. We would much rather people were involved in a way that reflects their gifts.
One of the beauties of approaching ministry in this way is the creativity encouraged among all involved in the church. Anyone can throw out an idea for ministry, and as a community we can rally around you and support you and make your idea a reality. It should be said that we recognize there are a variety of needs in any one ministry, and we all tend to be willing to step in and fill a need. There will be times for that, probably even this Sunday. But our hope as leaders is that people would be moved to serve in the area of their gifting first; we can fill in the holes later.
A few things to add and clarify. First, I’ve long been a strong advocate of self-awareness and understanding your giftedness and areas of strength (and weakness). I think the individual who recognizes how he or she is wired and seeks opportunities and roles and experiences where those strengths or gifts or passions can be expressed and utilized will simply be more happy, more fulfilled. I also think others around you benefit when you are living true to your design. I have not historically tended to lean heavily on Paul’s (and Peter’s) understanding of spiritual gifts as a resource for this, though Dan has helped me come to appreciate the value and significance of this resource.
But I think one key, whether a person finds the New Testament’s list of gifts sufficient or lacking as a means of identifying how God has gifted us, is to recognize the emphasis on community. I have seen more and more in recent years the ways my Christian faith has been a bit more individualistic than it should be. While I will never discount the necessity of “personal” faith, I have found that a little too much of the faith experience has been about my faith, my salvation, my ministry, my relationship with God…as opposed to our faith, our salvation, our ministry, our relationship with God as a church (and as a world).
I have some opinions about why this matters in different aspects of our faith, but relevant to the topic: I saw this weekend the beauty of a person who recognized a call and a passion, was encouraged and prodded by his church community to pursue it, and was supported by a group of people who all chipped in, mostly in ways that were true to their own gifts and strengths as well.
I think that sadly, some churches have a system in place that doesn’t seem to encourage such creativity, spontaneity, and initiative among its church members. Rather, there are existing areas of ministry (greeters, worship team/choir, children’s ministry, stacking chairs, etc.) that people are then funneled into based on the needs of the church. I suppose when your church is large in size, it’s easier to use this approach, as there are many needs. A small church certainly has this luxury, and I’m trying to savor that while we are a “small” church.
But that said, it still seems a shame to me that a lot of people in larger churches are not involved in ministries that allow them to serve others by honoring the way God has designed them. There are certainly a lot of really, really good and gracious people who are willing to help out wherever there is a need. I admire these people. I think Paul even identifies a gift of “helps” in one of his letters, so some people might really be wired this way. But does everybody really have this gift? Should every Christian simply be doing what is needed by their church to keep the ministries of the church going, or should there be more room made for people who have a God-given ministry in their heart and mind that want to manifest this is in a practical way that really benefits others, whether inside or outside the church community?
I obviously believe in the latter, which is why Dan and I are trying to foster this kind of church culture where church members know that the primary ministry of the church does not rest on church staff but on the church community, who Christ has called to be salt and light and hope and love to the world. And when people are inspired to honor God with what God has given them, the impact of the community's ministry is enhanced. I believe the church's corporate witness is stronger when it's full of self-giving, inspired, collaborating, and supportive individuals, operating as a body rather than disconnected individual parts.
Anyway, to come back down from the philosophical and back to the practical—Sunday morning was beautiful. It was simple, which I want to stress. This was not a grand project, and we had no illusions that this endeavor to provide a meal was going to transform Olympia. What felt great about it was that we were doing our part, and doing it in a way that “fit” us. Being a presence right now in Olympia means being a small presence, being ambitious for living faithfully to God’s call, not ambitious for a flashy, far-reaching, impactful ministry. I’m not saying God can’t take us there as a church; I just don’t think that’s my/our concern.
There are several important things I observed on Sunday that I think are still stewing in me as I explore where to go from here, aside from the manifestation of the philosophy we are trying to foster as a community.
More obviously, I observed several hungry men and women get a good meal, no strings attached. I was touched by how generally warm and friendly most of these homeless people were, as opposed to cold and hardhearted. It was reinforced for me how “stuck” homeless people are in their lifestyle (Dan and I are trying to help a man get the proper ID so he can apply for jobs…apparently this is a common problem among homeless, one that can make changing one’s lifestyle a bit more of a challenge than we’d assume).
For our church, I was struck by the unique contribution of every individual. There was a moment where three of us from TCC were all listening to a homeless man talk about struggles with depression, and all of us seemed to be responding in different ways. I was pouring my efforts into being sympathetic, not trying to give advice as much as show compassion. Linda drew a picture for the man that emphasized his belovedness and worth. Jeff prayed a beautiful prayer for him. I don’t think I would have acted as Jeff or Linda did in that moment, because it didn’t really fit me. But while our styles were different, I think, in retrospect, that our efforts combined made at least a small impact on this man. He may not remember our words, but hopefully remembers the glimpse of Christ he caught in us, all showing this Christ to him in slightly different (hopefully) God-guided ways.
While I wouldn’t want to be homeless myself, I was struck by the freedom from a lot of the pursuits and “gods” those with wealth possess that homeless people are consequently forced to be a bit more detached from because they are, in ways, living very simply (there is also a lot of bondage in homelessness…I just hadn’t ever considered the potential freedom some may experience).
I was struck deeply by our obvious call to care for those with little and address the crisis of poverty in our nation and around the world. Capitalism, though I’m grateful for the life it’s enabled me to live, hurts a lot of people (I’m not a commie, I swear), and can maybe encourage a false sense of righteousness. After all—have I really created for myself the life I’m now living, or am I living this life simply because of when I was born, where I was born, who I was born to, what community I grew up in, the people who formed my thinking and interests, etc.?
Or more to the point, is it simply blind chance that I’m not homeless and that guy I passed on the street is? Is he responsible for his homelessness because we are all personally responsible for our choices and that’s part of liberty and being human, or is he the victim of a much longer, unfortunate history of circumstances that preceded him and brought him to where he is now?
I’m asking questions that are over my head, I think. And I’m not suggesting a course of political action that will fix this problem, nor do I think anyone should feel guilty because they have money. My point is really that homeless people deserve to be seen as humans, deserve respect, deserve compassion, deserve to not be judged, and deserve to let their condition force us to wrestle with the way things are, and what we as Christians can do to help. My other point is that life is a gift.
My theology doesn’t really lead me to believe that the Church will ever really eradicate such widespread evils and tragedies as poverty completely (feel free to disagree/push back…I’d love to dialogue). I think that will take a supra-historical act of God. But I do think we have a wonderful opportunity to at least make a “dent” in it, and in so doing bring the love and compassion and hope of God to people, reminding them that they are not alone, and that God will one day bring justice and peace to the world.
I pray that TCC might continue in these very simple, humble ministries and in so doing be a source of light, love, and hope. We won’t ever play the part of God, but we can certainly remind people that God is trustworthy and good by the causes for which we advocate, the action we take, and the holy lives we live.