A Living Member of the Congregation
A Living Member of the Congregation
A few weeks ago (September 9, to be precise) we had our annual kick-off evening for the new Bible study season. The topic for the evening was the subject of Being a Living Member of the Congregation. I’d like in this Bit to Read to share the drift of my talk on that evening. In writing it up I’ve incorporated bits and pieces of the discussion that followed my talk.
I need to repeat –again– what I have mentioned more often in the past. As the elders and deacons went through our congregation in the previous home visit season, they time and again came back with reports that move one to gratitude. Elders and deacons have seen families grow in the Lord and His service, have seen parents diligent in raising their children to know their heavenly Father, have seen congregation members ready and eager to help each other, have seen members living in the community in a way that submits to God’s revealed will. This gives distinct reason for gratitude, for such fruits are the Lord’s gracious works in the congregation.
Like the churches mentioned in the New Testament, however, our church too has not reached the goal of perfection. The elders and deacons see some of the weaknesses that remain in our midst, and so we do well to speak together about these weaknesses in an effort to stimulate growth and improvement. One area of weakness that can use improvement relates to how we in fact function as a body together.
Some Congregational Details
According to the latest figures I have, our congregation numbers 376 members, of which 232 have made profession of faith. I did a bit of figuring, and learned that these 232 communicant members break down to 91 married couples (=182 persons), with the remaining 50 being widowed (6) or singles aged 25 and over (13) or singles between age 20 and 24 (some 21) or dating over the age of 20 (some 14). Of course, the numbers don’t quit add up because a number of 18 & 19 year olds have also professed the faith (and maybe because I’m not fully up-to-date with the grapevine).
Of the 144 who have not made profession of faith, more than a third attend catechism class (39 this year) or preconfession class (15 non-communicant members are enrolled). This is the body of members aged approximately between 12 and 19 years old. This leaves some 90 children in the congregation below 12 years of age.
We can cut the congregational pie in another way. We currently have 11 couples who are retired or semi-retired. These 11, of course, are empty-nesters. Another four families are still in the workforce, but also are empty-nesters. 7 more couples have children at home all over the age of 20; 10 more couples have 1 child left home under age of 20 (and perhaps some over 20); 5 more couples have 2 children left at home under age of 20 (and perhaps some over 20); 6 more couples have 3 children left at home under age of 20 (and perhaps some over 20). This leaves a total of 43 of the 91 addresses – nearly half of married!– who have completed or are nearing the completion of raising their families.
At the other end of the scale, there are in the congregation about 15 families of largely school age children (with a concentration in primary school), about 20 families of largely preschool age children, and the remainder with no children (yet).
What this means? We have in our congregation a large group of relatively older persons, all experienced in the school of life, wise in Lord’s service, with some extra time on their hand (and perhaps less energy than they used to have). We also have in the congregation a large group of relatively young members, zealous for life, full of energy, many with young families (and therefore busy), and some wishing they had families. The age group between upper 30’s and lower 50’s is relatively small in our midst.
Some more Numbers
Are all these persons happy? We’d like to think they are. But take note of the number of widowed members in our midst. There’s invariably an ache in their lives. Note too the number of (older) singles in the congregation. It is common knowledge that some of our members battle with long-term sickness. What isn’t so well known is that several in our midst struggle with secret burdens, be it a tense or cold marriage, be it an addiction with alcohol or pornography, be it an oppressive sense of inferiority, be it a troubled conscience because of sins in the past – and the list goes on. There currently are more than a dozen addresses in the congregation (married or single) were church attendance is sporadic or (virtually) non-existent (though not necessarily by all living at that address). It stands to reason that those who falter in church attendance are only remotely involved in congregational activities during the week. Others are very faithful in church attendance, but that is the sum total of their involvement in the congregation. We understand that such forms of behaviour suggest that something is lacking in their all-round happiness. There are also those who are heavily involved in several congregational activities – and yet they go through life burdened. At addresses you would expect and not expect are brothers and sisters struggling with depression and anxiety, and they find it hard to cope with what the Lord in His wisdom has put on their path. As a result, there are several members in our midst who are seeking professional counselling in the surrounding community to help them cope with life’s burdens. This includes older and not so old persons, as well as married and single brothers and sisters in our midst.
What we have? In many ways ours is a healthy congregation, and we need to remain thankful to God for this gift. But many in our midst have a distinct ache in their lives that takes away their contentment in God’s service. In a word, under the surface not everything is as it ought to be.
What to do about it?
We can say: the Lord has given office bearers to the congregation whose mandate it is to shepherd the flock. So: the minister, the elders and the deacons need to get to work on these addresses. This is an encouragement I and all the other office bearers in this church most certainly take to heart.
There are, however, two problems here. It is undoubtedly true that the office bearers of this church can do more. They could, for example, go out every evening to tend the sheep of the flock. I can reassure you that already many of the brothers are well and truly giving up a lot of time and energy to search out and help those in need. But our elders and deacons all have their own families who require a father and husband at home, and all our office bearers also have but limited energy. Please pray for them as they strive to care well for the sheep the Lord has entrusted to their care. And give them a word of positive encouragement. They’re quite human.
It is also true that not every address in the congregation is willing or able to be open with their elder or deacon (or minister). We may not like this reality, but we well understand that a sister battling with a personal problem is not necessarily going to feel ready to open up her woes to two men at the annual home visit…. Who, then, shall help at such an address?
It turns out that the Lord Himself has given to His congregation more care-givers than only the office bearers. Paul writes to the Christians of Rome (all of them!), “I myself am convinced … that you yourselves are … competent to instruct one another” (Romans 15:14). Paul’s point is not simply that we can all teach each other a thing or two, but that Christians are competent (through the Holy Spirit, of course) to speak to each other’s minds so as to help settle the questions and problems and struggles that burden the mind. In another place Paul tells Christians to “carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), and in context his instruction refers to the burden presented by the temptation of sin as well as the burden that comes from having sinned. That Paul would tell his readers to “carry each other’s burdens” –these burdens– implies that Paul is confident that Christians are in fact able to help each other with such burdens. To the Ephesians Paul writes that the ascended Lord gave office bearers to His church “to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Ephesians 4:12). Notice: Paul does not assume that office bearers have to do all the pastoral care in the flock, but says that office bearers need to “prepare God’s people for works of service”. So the Colossian Christians were told to “let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom” (3:16) and the Christians of Thessalonica were told to “warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone” (1 Thessalonians 5:14). In a word: we’re all to be –and are able to be– our brother’s keeper.
So: when was last time you helped another member of the congregation carry the burden God gave him to bear? Who was the person you last counselled (be it over a coffee or a beer), and when was it? And how did you follow up the word of encouragement you gave him (or her)?
Truth be said, we actually don’t find counselling and supporting and encouraging each other an easy thing to do. For that reason it may be helpful to reflect for a moment on how much we ourselves share with others.
Picture a series of five circles, with yourself in the centre. The circle nearest you represents thoughts and feelings you have that you keep strictly to yourself; you tell them to no one, except perhaps to God in prayer. (Of course, even if you don’t mention them to God in prayer, He knows those deepest inner thoughts, see Ps 139:2b). We’ll call this circle ‘A’.
Beyond this inner circle is a second circle B. This circle represents thoughts and feelings we share only with those closest to us, be that a spouse, a parent or a best friend. This is the layer of personal struggles that we wouldn’t dare to share with anyone else if we suspected they would laugh or would belittle us or would pass our secret on to another.
Circle C includes the level of feelings we dare to speak about to the average friend, family member or good neighbour. These are the happy things and the sad things of our personal lives, family lives, and perhaps even business, things that busy our minds but don’t cause excessive pain. We may even share those cares and joys at a Bible study or a home visit….
The fourth circle represents a level of thought and feelings that’s a bit more distant from the heart and so relatively innocent of hurt. We’ll talk of matters of work with co-workers, matters of finance with the bank manager, etc. These are bits and pieces we won’t share with just everyone because they’re personal, and yet we don’t need a personal relation with the hearer in order to talk about these thoughts.
Finally, circle E represents the sort of chatter we’re used to at the gas pump or on train. This is the layer of thought that gives our opinion on the weather, politics, general well-being, and the like. It’s understood: the boundaries of each circle will shift and vary depending on the person and the day and the circumstances and so many other factors. Yet the picture is clear: innocent, harmless stuff we’ll talk about easily, but we’re much more reserved in sharing thoughts and feelings close to the heart.
Which circle, now, would Paul have in mind when he tells us that we are competent to instruct others and need to carry each other’s burdens? We realize: to receive help from others we need to share where the pain is. This may be at level A, but this level we don’t want to share with anyone. In real terms, when it comes to sharing life’s hurts and so helping each other bear the burdens of life, we’re dealing with level C, or more likely level B. Yet we share the thoughts of level B with so few…, and then only with those we deeply trust. It makes the point: to be effective in helping each other, we need deep relationships wherein we dare to open up to each other, can trust each other, and are willing to serve each other in love.
Here, then, I want to issue a plea. Ahead of us is a new study season. At Men’s Society, Women’s Society and Young People’s we’ll seek to discuss God’s Word as it instructs us in various areas of life. In the discussion the stuff of level C (let alone B!) will scarcely be tabled, even though some brothers and sisters will have acute aches and pains that need assistance. My plea is this: learn to hear the cues that are expressed (be it through what is said or left unsaid, be it through body language, etc), and then follow up your observation with a private visit. More: use the opportunity to learn together at Society to equip yourself to help others better, both in the art of listening as well as in the ability to give good counsel. For good counsel is, of course, God-centred counsel, and it is through Scripture study that one learns to cast God’s light on our problems. In a word: let it not be because of negligence on anyone’s part that another of us remains lonely, that the anxious remain anxious… – and the temptation remains great to seek professional help elsewhere coz you can’t find in the body of Christ a person you think you can trust….
In reality, though, a large percentage of our men and women (and young people too) do not attend study society of any form. That simply means that other points of contact need to be established to find out whether these brothers and sisters need help in any way. And several do; remember what I mentioned earlier about too many in our midst seeking counselling in the community somewhere. What are the means, then, to build a bridge to a lonely brother’s heart so as to be in a position to help?
Here we all need to use our imagination. A church picnic gives an opportunity to (re)establish contacts with persons you haven’t spoken to for a long time. A birthday party or a hockey game or a school function offers the same opportunity. A ward elder could organize an evening with the members of his ward in order to discuss any item of mutual interest he pleases, and as a result people mingle and talk who would otherwise not mingle together. The people of Greendale can do a function with each other, and so can those of Vedder and of Yarrow and of Sumas Prairie. For the last couple of years the Young People have put on a dinner for the older of the congregation – great idea! They’ve gone to visit the older in their homes; well done, and keep it up! The possibilities are as many as our collective imagination is vivid.
But the point of getting together is not simply to have a nice evening. It’s about establishing and maintaining and growing relationships, and hence learning to trust each other with life’s secrets. It is on the strength of that trust that opportunity opens up to push past level D into level C and even level B, so that in turn we open up about the burdens we carry, and be in a position to help each other carry those burdens.
Here I want to come back to the makeup of our congregation. We have in our midst a large number of addresses who have completed, or are nearing completion, their parenting task (which is not to say that parenting is ever done, but the reader understands). These are addresses that have picked up a lot of wisdom and experience in the thrust and cut of daily living, and have learned far more than the younger about how to live the Christian life in this broken world. Many of these addresses also receive from God’s hand the health and the time to be able to touch another positively. It seems to me that this age group is uniquely positioned to help so many of the younger addresses in our midst with the challenges life offers the younger. The apostle Paul picks up precisely this thought in his instruction to Titus:
“Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance. Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God” (Titus 2:2-5).
The picture is clear: Paul would have the older women visit in the homes of the younger in order to encourage, teach and assist. The older men are to carry themselves with respect, self-control, and a life of faith – and that’s obviously with a view to being a blessing to the younger men around them. Point: the Lord would have those to whom He has given more experience and time to develop relations with the younger in the congregation in an effort to encourage and assist them in life’s challenges. It is the fundamental principle of Christian living learned from the Saviour Himself: we are here not to be served but to serve.
Should members of our congregation seek the support they need to cope with life’s questions in the community at large? That members have needs is inevitable in our fallen world. That there are members who do not find the help they need from brothers and sisters within the congregation is an indictment against our congregational health.
October 7, 2010