Patti Duckworth, Associate Executive Minister
The last two weeks of January I spent in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, for my two week PHD residency requirement with the International Baptist Theological Seminary. While there was much to be grateful for in those two weeks, there were several things that were sobering reminders of what is at stake for us on our mission together in the Northwest. I would like to share one of those experiences that hit home.
To be sure, most of my time was spent either in study or in the colloquia sessions. But there were brief opportunities to check out the city. On my first Sunday there, I went with my friend Nancy Rowell to see the Anne Frank House. It is just a few blocks from Westerkerk (Western Church). Like many of the churches of Europe, it is a very impressive structure. (The clock tower on the left figures prominently in Frank’s diary.) This church is undergoing renovation, as you can see on the right side of the photo, and below.
We walked around that side of the church on our way to the Anne Frank House, and I was startled by the sign attached to the building – so startled that I took a picture.
What follows is not necessarily a judgmental comment on this particular church, for I certainly have not yet learned enough to understand all the reasons behind the building being used for concerts, expositions and shops as well as a church. Westerkerk still has a worshipping congregation in it. However, others are only museums, like Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), currently holding an exhibition of Chinese art from the Ming Dynasty. The churches in Europe were enmeshed in complicated church-state and Reformation issues, but somewhere church leaders and their congregations lost sight of evangelism and discipleship.
I doubt the leaders of the church several hundred years ago, much less a hundred years ago, would have included the ideas of “museum” and “shops” as a part of what the church should be about. As I wandered the streets, I found myself asking what they were wrestling with that might have caused them to become distracted from the purpose Jesus has given to his body: to seek and save the lost (Luke 19:10). I wonder if they got to the place where they ended up managing what they inherited and lost sight of mission. Some of the events and changes were probably so incremental as to be hardly noticeable; some of the events were so large and fast-moving as to be inescapable and inevitable. Perhaps the events were unavoidable. Even though the events may have been inevitable, were the responses to them unavoidable?
As I stood in one of the squares, I could see three of the largest and oldest church buildings in Amsterdam surrounded by every conceivable form of secular activity. As I watched the people, I thought of you and your congregations. Will our part in the witness to the love of Christ never involve more than 10% of the population in the Northwest as it does now? Will our churches become museums of a past ideal that the curious poke their heads in, walk around and admire the architecture or windows, and exit on their ways to other “interesting sites”? The stats say that younger people aren’t interested in the church (Jesus - yes, but not belonging to a church). They say that the culture is becoming increasingly more secular, more and more uninterested in religion, let alone Christ. They suggest we may headed the way of The Netherlands where prostitution and marijuana are controlled (and taxed) “recreation” and “entertainment.”
It welled up inside of me again we are not called to a future where Christians and congregations are odd relics of a different time. In the power of and in obedience to Christ, that is an avoidable future!
Certainly, no one is really saying, “I hope our church will become a museum” or “my vision for our church is to become a souvenir store for the community.” At the same time, we’ve too easily hung on to the comfort of how we do things now, and we get absorbed in distractions of the present moment. Yet, people do ask, “How do we avoid that kind of future?” As churches together, we are working to address these things through gatherings for training and mutual support. There were three last fall and another coming up at the All Region Conference, May 30-31 in Florence, Montana. I would challenge you to be a part of this event. In the meantime, my Amsterdam experience has led me to urge three things:
· Prayer. Maybe that goes without saying. But maybe it also needs saying, repeatedly. In addition to praying for illnesses and hard life circumstances, we need to add the underlying spiritual suffering of people. Tom Mercer—who will be with us at the All Region Conference —in his book 8 to 15: The World is Smaller than You Think says this:
“Only a lack of intentionality keeps our focus inward, provoking natural instincts to surround ourselves by other Christians who can minister to us rather than be focusing outward, to the relationships that frame our God-given purpose” (chapter 12).
In this regard, we should consider prayers of repentance if our family and friends in need of the love of Christ don’t grip our hearts. We might need to invite the Lord to “sift” us regarding how and what we spend our time on, and purifying our motives.
Pray, too, the Lord will send workers for the present needs of the harvest (Matt. 9:38).
· Vigilant focus on our purpose. In all that surrounds us – large and small – it is easy to be overcome by people and events. And if we aren’t overcome, it is easy to be distracted from our purpose: to be Christ’s instruments in seeking and offering new life to those who are lost. The practical question then is this: how do we maintain our focus? Here are the questions that Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church (Atlanta) and his leadership, ask themselves yearly to make sure they stay focused on the mission and not just fall into managing methods:
o Do we have a transferrable mission or vision statement?
o What have we fallen in love with that’s not as effective as it used to be?
o Where are we manufacturing energy? (That is not a positive thing.)
o If we all got kicked off the staff and board, and an outside group (a group of leaders who were fearlessly committed to the vision of this church) took our place, what changes would they introduce?
o What do we measure?
o What do we celebrate?
o If our church suddenly ceased to exist, would our community miss us?
He adds, “Those questions keep me from lying to myself.” (Deep and Wide: Creating Churches Unchurched People Love to Attend, pp. 212-213. This book will be read by the Leadership Learning Communities in March.)
· Purposeful partnering. Neither individuals nor individual congregations are intended to do either of the above alone. Is there someone you pray with for others and work with for Christ’s purpose? If not, please let me encourage you to look for someone in your congregation to partner with. Is there a sister ABC-Northwest church you have some relationship with? If not, you can initiate this, whether you are a pastor or a layperson. A directory of churches is available on the region website at www.abcnw.org under “resources” or this link: http://abcnw.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/2013-4-Region-Directory.pdf . What would happen if interested people from two or three churches simply met together, shared some food, maybe some music and much prayer? Huge preparations or record numbers in attendance are not necessary, only sincere hearts to pray for each other’s ministries and for those who do not yet know the Lord.
I am convinced the present reality in Amsterdam is not the future the Lord wants for the Northwest. Absolutely, there is a part the Lord must do among us through the Spirit. I believe the Lord has been and will continue to do it. However, there is a part the Lord has assigned to us. As Dr. Henry Morehouse, the head of the American Baptist Home Mission Society between 1879 and 1917 often said, “What can be done must be done.”
Do be encouraged to do your part of the Lord’s present and future kingdom in the Northwest.