tell all the stories

We work very hard at our faith; we agonize over it; we struggle with it; we grimly and determinedly set our jaws to make it through. The empty tomb is a monument against that. Persons active in religious leadership very often become patronizing to God, treating him as someone we must take care of. We think that what we do determines his effectiveness, and fail to see that that is the position of a pagan toward an idol, not a creature bowed before the Creator.

When we reflect on our projects as Christians, we are good at telling positive stories: an orphanage built in Thailand; numerous church plants in British Columbia; fundraising to support a local Bible college. To repeat Peterson above, “we work very hard at our faith,” and many times, this is a good thing. So we rightly tell these stories. They bring a necessary inspiration to continue making a difference in the world. We need to know and be reminded, I believe, that change is possible.

One problem. These aren’t the only stories to tell. And in our enthusiastic cheers for success, I think Peterson offers a sobering reminder: Christians can make idols of their success. We forget that change isn’t always possible. Or at least not in the way we envision. And we don’t always tell these stories.

Which is why my attention was caught when I recently read this news update from my denomination (Canadian Mennonite Brethren):

The Agora, a 13 year-old MB church located in Halifax, N.S., officially closed its doors on Sunday, Sept. 26…

How do we process this type of news? The congregation’s own response was mixed. Reflecting on their final gathering, the consensus was this:

We do so with grief in our hearts for what is no longer, but also with thanksgiving for our history and hope and expectation for the future,” said several long-time supporters in the congregation. “The formal institution is ending, but the mission of the church and the relationships that have been formed and cultivated live on in its people.

I was encouraged to read the peoples' reaction. Their disappointment is clear, even if understated. But their 13 years weren’t a waste either. Failure – if we even venture to call it that (I’m not sure closing a church has to be considered a failure) – isn’t wasted.

I’ll admit, I don’t particularly like to hear the “unsuccessful” stories. Yet I need these stories. We all need these stories. In them we’re reminded of our own frailty, our own inability to make everything work out for the best. I like how John Stackhouse puts it:

Most of us live in a world that is grayer than these black-and-white options, and some of us earnestly want Biblical guidance for such living. Indeed, most of us make our way in a world in which success means asking for ten, hoping for eight, and settling for six. We experience compromise, disappointment, unexpected impediments, and unintended consequences (Making the Best of It).

By being realistic about our experiences in the world, we are reminded that as followers of Jesus – the Church – we are exactly that: followers. We’re not firstly creators of human institutions, but imitators of a creative, yet subversive God; a God who’s highest point of victory (resurrection) came through a submission to failure (death).

So as Christians, let’s keep telling our stories. Let’s just make sure we tell all of them…


Anonymous said...

Thanks Dave,

This helps to remove some of the angst in my own life which is created by living in a church culture that only dwells on success stories. It is freeing to understand that our role is to be faithful as followers of Christ. This is especially a challenge for those in leadership.

Margaret Marcuson said...

If our sense of ourselves comes from our successes, we are in trouble spiritually. I'm coming to think that God wants us to be freer than that, to truly realize that God loves us apart from what we do, accomplish or produce. This is a hard lesson, especially for overachieving firstborns like me. And we can project this onto others, being judgmental about failure or envious of success.

David Warkentin said...

Hi Phil and Margaret,

Thanks to you both for adding your thoughts to the conversation. I heard someone today talk about the need to expand our "metrics" for church. I agree. And Margaret, your reminder that God's love forms the basis for all we do should be the foundation for any measuring we do.

Phil, any wisdom on leadership to add to the discussion (coming from your weeks of wisdom:-)?

Diane said...

this is great and just what I wanted/needed to hear right now!

on the other hand, on the other hand, we like to diss successful churches.

You know, we have Theology of the Cross, and we're actually a little suspicious of those who are doing too well. (envious, but suspicious.)

David Warkentin said...

Diane, glad these words we encouraging to you. And true, envy and suspicion can cloud our process of these ideas when we start comparing our own situations with others.

Just curious, are you able to elaborate on how you see a "Theology of the Cross" leading to suspicion?

Anonymous said...

Hey Dave,

With another 'week of wisdom' under my belt I think I'm ready to respond :)

No, actually, this reflection is very timely for me at the beginning of my vocation as a full time pastor. The first couple of weeks have been a bit frantic and disorienting. It's especially weird starting in November when fall programs are already in full swing. I've resonated well with this call to listen and follow as opposed to charging forward. My own desire to feel needed or significant is in danger of disrupting the healthy rhythms of our church.

David Warkentin said...

Wise words Phil, thanks! I especially liked this comment:

"My own desire to feel needed or significant is in danger of disrupting the healthy rhythms of our church."

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