There are many life and ministry lessons that the Church has learned and discerned in these last 20 months. One lesson that has been invaluable for me as I have had time to reflect during Advent has been the importance of the language we use to tell the story of how our churches and ministries connect to making disciples for the transformation of the world.
The liturgy of the church is flowered with beautiful and poetic words that tell the story of love that lifts, grace that sustains, and salvation that hopes. From Epiphany to Lent, Pentecost to Advent, and every festival, celebration, and sacrament in between, our language helps us to communicate the church’s relevance and meaning in the lives of both those we serve and feel called to serve.
When referring to the “ministries” of the church, the daily, weekly, and monthly “waterings of the mission fields”, we typically refer to them as programs. Depending on our ministry context, local church or extension ministries like college, chaplaincy, or domestic and global mission, we use “ministry and program” interchangeably to articulate how we engage and impact the lives of others and create community.
We do programs. Programs receive their merit by terms like success and failure.
The task of the church is creating community.
We can’t do community. We become community!
As the late Rev. Junius Dotson reminds us,
“We can’t program our way back to vitality. Rather, it requires a movement toward discipleship-making, and it begins with a process that reaches into your community.”
The use of the word program in speaking about ministry cognitively connects us to the desire to measure success numerically, and to make that measurement the standard. By replacing “programs” with “communities”, we reflect the spirit of discipleship modeled by Jesus and his relationship with the disciples and reclaim the Wesleyan tradition of “class meetings” in some new and fresh ways.
Likewise, replacing “success” with “engagement” and “impact”, connotes what we actually mean by discipleship: developing a Christ-like character through sanctifying grace in order to equip and serve the church for the transformation of the world. “Success” when paired only with numerical measurement, ignores and reduces the unlimited possibilities for goodness and transformation that occur within our “waterings of our mission field” to insignificant and wastes of time.
However, it is precisely the engagements and impact of each community that orders the life of the church that creates life and love in our cities, towns, and communities. Ministry is the free flowing spirit of the church, led by the Holy Spirit, to cultivate, develop, and nourish the spaces we are called to serve. With each prayer prayed, every offer of shelter, and invitation to share a meal, we engage and impact in community for community. When the doors of our churches are closed, the engagement and impact of our ministries are not done. In fact, we know that it is then when ministry truly begins.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is not that we just need more computers, cameras, and connection. Yet we also need someone and something to engage us, to connect with us, to reassure us, and to remind us that we are needed, we are loved, and we are not alone. It taught us that even when we are not in each other’s presence we are still connected. Connected by common needs, desires, fears, dreams, and common hope.
The someone we need is each other.
The whole Church.
Not just the elder, or the deacon. Or a licensed pastor.
The lay leaders and the greeters. The nursery teachers and the women’s ministry. The youth and the children. The members who only came to church one month and those who came every Sunday. The people we invited to the church who never visited and the people who came but didn’t return because it was not the space God was calling them to be a part of.
When we realized that we needed everyone because everyone needed each other we witnessed our common needs met in abundant supply. And that was the impact God used in our ministries to keep us together while apart, to comfort each other in times of despair and hopelessness, and to love one another through it all. Our concern was not on membership (another word we should possibly replace with perhaps a more communal word like partners or friends), but on wellness, health, and connection. It would be the most detrimental unlearned lesson if we forget this going forward beyond the pandemic.
And the something we needed was love.
It is written,
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” -Matthew 22:37-38
We discovered we needed love and all the things that love is. We discovered that we desperately needed God’s love so that we could daringly love others. We saw that we needed the love of neighbors and strangers, friends and the not so friendly. We saw that kindness, respect, generosity, compassion, and grace were the attributes of love that made the impact needed most.
In the words the great mystic and theologian Howard Thurman,
“Love has no awareness of merit or demerit; it has no scale… Love loves; this is its nature.”
This love that we experienced and needed was the engagement of the ministry of the church that flowed in us and through us into the lives of those we become community with. On every job, at every school, in every square inch of the world where community is needed, community is engaged and people are impacted.
We discovered community exists both inside and outside of our local church. Communities that are quite simply, the Church. The places and spaces that are truly our parishes by which we are called and commissioned into ministry. A calling that is for…
And yet while there is still many more of EVERYONE to include and more LOVE to share in the world, as well as more evil and hatred, division and violence, and poverty and injustice to eradicate, this is why the language of ministry matters. The language and the words we use give meaning to our ministry and the work of the church that tell the real stories of life, love, and transformation of the hearts of people who go (or ZOOM) into our schools, hospitals, shelters, stores, corporate offices, courts and jails, sports and entertainment, and all the spaces we gather.
The appropriate language reflects the impact of each engagement, from the youth pastor attending a youth’s first music recital to the lunches prepared for college students by a Sunday School class. These and countless others cannot be limited to programmatic rhetoric that often cannot capture the transformative presence of God that is immeasurable. Language matters.
When we are intentional about the language we use in ministry, we allow the story of the holy presence and social witness of the church to be told in ways that reflect the goodness and transformation our churches are truly making around the world, regardless of the size of the building and the number of people connected to it.