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Saturday, 18 April 2015

*The Church as Living Water...er, na.*

If the church really wanted to survive the onslaught of the 21st century, it would go back to the bible and the concept of Living Water.

The Waikato River from above our house

Through a conversation with a very good friend recently, it came to me that the church itself is a fluid thing, although I don’t think that’s what Jesus necessarily meant when he used the phrase. Churches fill and churches empty, like a reservoir. During winter it’s full to overflowing and the building isn’t big enough, there aren’t enough chairs and the workers burn out just trying to man the kitchen for coffee afterwards. The mistake leaderships make though, is to try and build as though it will be the same forever more. They fundraise and prayerfully covet more space in which to put everyone, instead of planning for the dry season and investing in the quality of the water.

I’ve heard it so many times. ‘Our church is growing, come on in.’

I’ve been in and tried, I really have. But it swirls around me and I get lost in the sheer volume. There’s often a whirlpool at the centre where the happening stuff takes place, but I can’t get near that and I’m not sure I’d want to. The people treading the fiercest currents are frantic, busy people and everyone hangs back, watching to see who gets sucked in next. They either come out stronger with a victorious shout of hallelujah, or drown and are never seen again.

“Anyone interested in children’s work?”
“Anyone available at short notice to man the greeting desk...?”

The river starts at Mount Ruapehu, Lord of the Rings country
There are pools of stagnancy in the reservoir of a full church, pockets of stinky water that never quite make it near the filters for a variety of reasons. So those members stay polluted in the corners and have small groups where they produce green scum in copious amounts. No amount of algae chemicals squirted from the centre can ever kill that kind of secondary misery. It needs a heady concentration aimed at the primary cause and that kind of intervention in a big church is rare. But it is a game changer when it happens for those people if done in love and they become a blessing wherever they go.

The pressure from the constant winter downpours force those who once floated near the centre, out to the sides, bumping them against hard walls and making them feel disconnected from the whole. They might splash over the top and end up somewhere different altogether, running away down cracks or fissures unseen by anyone else, not missed until it’s too late.

One of two things inevitably happen to a full church, over which there is no human control. If they’re very unlucky, it can be both at once.

1. The dam gates open.
2. Drought comes.

There’s nothing sadder than a leaky church. I’ve witnessed a whole church building in an acre of grounds, maintained and funded by four people. They wanted to do Alpha so badly, the small group I was part of ran it ourselves and found money for the food. It was clear God held that place in the palm of his hand and had great purpose for it and they plodded on in that belief, faithfully ploughing and hoeing for his pleasure alone. Drought hadn’t come for them, but the dam gates cranked open one dark winter night when their pastor was caught in infidelity. The congregation flooded out and left a few small drips in the bottom of the reservoir, growing more desperate with each lick of the sunshine.

New Zealand drought can be pretty horrific for farmers

I live on the banks of the Mighty Waikato River and we lose the bottom ten metres of our paddock twice a year to flooding, sometimes more. It never happens on the day of the rains but the day after, when Karapiro Dam gets too full and those pesky gates part in the middle and send out the excess, cascading down the mountains and onto my back lawn without warning. Nobody phones me but I’m ready for it. When it’s a big enough downpour, I’m on the Environment Waikato website, watching the water volume push through from Mount Ruapehu and estimating it’s headed our way. 

Our boundary fence is under there somewhere
We go out in the pouring rain and move the standards, tape and battery for the electric fence, carting it all up out of range and placing everything at the safer level. We move the horses to higher ground because although they like to dance and play in floodwaters, they aren’t so keen when it comes at them suddenly in the middle of the night and they have nowhere to go. Then we wait. Sometimes nothing happens. The river deals with the excess and all is well. Other times we wake up next morning and all we can see is the river, fifty metres wide and growing. It’s raging, filthy and dangerous.

It’s like dissatisfied people pouring from a church, hurting, desperate and taking their crap with them. The dam gates are open and they’re cut loose and ready to fell trees with their bare hands. They end up down river, crashing around and filtering into other unsuspecting churches, pouring in and pouring out, taking the fittings with them.

My children fishing in the back paddock - bit weird but hey

A drought empties the church-reservoir over time, sometimes in a matter of weeks but usually more timely, drip by precious drip. Farmers and news commentators start peering over the sides with worried faces because in NZ, drought can get pretty serious. Local councils put homes onto water restrictions and everyone starts noticing and talking about it, gazing at the sky hopefully for a small downpour. Everyone relaxes temporarily after a shower - a new couple have shown an interest and come for a few weeks but then they disappear. It’s not for them; they won’t be back. Panic stations. The reservoir is evaporating, the church is losing ground; everyone knows it. Let’s have meetings and run around screaming and beating our breasts. How can we make them come back?

So what does the church actually do?

It holds onto the remaining store with a vice like grip, coveting and squeezing the last drops of life out of it. It’s all bad news, not just natural progress or part of life. It drives its people to fulfill more duties and donate more time and money. It looks around, desperate for new initiatives and depletes its current workers as they get burnt out, fed up and depressed with the situation. We’ve walked into churches in this state; six bright believing faces in a sea of doom. They left us sitting on the back row of an evening service and had a party out front, praising God for revival, as they’d been praying for it only that morning. Then they suggested we leave as they were going to be praising for a while and it might be a bit boring for us. Oops. Someone ran out after us, remiss at having not captured our phone number and we made an excuse and left. “Don’t call us, we’ll call you!”

My back garden in flood. When life turns to crap
wear pink welly boots.

One church I was part of for years, has been dying the entire time. Every week was a body count which got frustratingly mundane. They prayed faithfully for revival whilst upsetting everyone in the congregation. It was the pastor’s fault, so they got rid of him. The new pastor was meant to be the answer to their prayers.

Oops! Let’s not put money into educating the congregation in how to be self-sufficient in God when this drought really strikes, no, let’s refurbish the lounge for all the people who will come...one day...maybe...when we stop handcuffing them to the chairs.

The early church had no walls. It was a body of people who met anywhere marginally safe.
Didn’t Pentecost land in someone’s spare bedroom on a whole heap of people gathered there just chilling?

Maybe that’s why itinerant churches work so well. One week they’re in a school hall and the next a leisure centre, a friendly cafe or a pub. There’s connection, anyone can plop into a seat and nobody cares what colour the carpet is. It’s a fluid, moving thing. If there’s drought, meet somewhere smaller and have quality time. A long weekend is a dam opening for them because most people clear off to the beach; they don’t have a crisis meeting.

In abundant times, churches sit down and shop for carpets while
clouds gather and the dam controller puts his finger over the switch
I just wish I could get my message across to the churches I watch agonise and struggle. Because it’s almost always about money. The congregation are the fund bringers. Without them the pastor’s income is gone, the building is turned into a luxury home and the ministry dies.

But that’s the point! It’s the parable of the talents. The church is burying its giftings, trapping them in buildings and digging big holes to throw it all into. It doesn’t plant, it sucks dry and complains.

When they’ve got it good, leaderships should be investing in the people who bring their funds and gifts. Show them how to BE good Christian members of any body, however big or small, even if it’s miles away downriver. They need to work out how to bless those passing through - sorry, but it is passing through. Nobody stays static forever. We’re all on a journey, whether crashing along riverbanks or evaporating slowly and without fanfare.

If your Sunday School, Ladies Ministry or Worship team rely on one person to co-ordinate it all, boy are you in trouble!

The church needs to stop counting its coffers in the shape of bums on seats and invest for the good of the harvest. Then it will receive an abundance of others rushing through from a different dam or rainfall, fresh, clean and ready to share its nourishment, filtered and cleaned by another church pastor who waved them off with a glad heart and a tear in his eye. He didn't pay them a home visit, bribe them with a deacon's hat or turn nasty when they still wanted to leave. He equipped them and wished them well.

Change the mantra from grow and plant to heal and in-reach or keep driving us all away, like a woman who talks constantly about her ex on a date.

Rant over. It rained heavily all weekend and I have fences to move...

#church #spirituality #churchlife