Yesterday, I had an experience of church at its best. It wasn’t a worship service or fellowship event, or a specifically church-related outreach activity. Because those things are rarely, in my experience, church at its best.
As I’ve posted before, a young relative has undertaken an enormous fundraising effort on behalf of children with cancer. Camp Good Days and Special Times has had some serious flood damage this year, and Alex has found a way to combine his love for canoeing and concern for these kids. He’s borrowed a replica Iroquois war canoe, and with a crew of seven other canoeists, will be paddling down the Erie Canal in an effort to raise money to help the camp.
What has church got to do with this? Alex is a member of the First Church of Evans. It’s through his connection to the church that he was in touch with adults who have done this before, but he’s the first person under 20 to undertake this. The gentleman who originated the effort some while back is now deceased, and the baton has been passed.
Sure, he’s had help from his parents, but he’s solicited raffle prizes and financial contributions, and so far (as of yesterday), Alex told me that there are “thousands” of dollars in contributions he will be delivering to the camp in about two weeks’ time.
I don’t have the kind of money I wish I could contribute to this cause (and to the cause of encouraging young people to undertake ambitious projects to help those in need). But I can cook, and so when Alex told me there would be a day where people from church would join together to prepare, pack, and freeze meals for the canoeists and road crew to take, I told him to send me the details.
Yesterday afternoon was that “event”. I was told we would assemble in the church’s kitchen at 12:30 (after worship and coffee hour) to work. I got there a few minutes early (and got to see the canoe, and a few gentlemen in Iroquois costume), and then went into the church hall. Alex’s parents were finishing off the raffle in support of the canoe trip. I awaited instructions for the cooking, and was told that everyone decided that, rather than cook in the church kitchen, it would be easier to take supplies home, prepare and pack at their leisure over the week, and bring things back to the church the night prior to the departure on 2 August. So, I awaited instructions, and followed Alex and his parents to their house, to help with some preparation for a couple of hours.
While the end of coffee hour was being cleared away, I had a chance to speak to Steve Ridge, the pastor at First Church. He was very proud that the congregation was behind this project (and that one of their young members was spearheading it), but that it was not the church’s project. First Church is helping by being a conduit for funds (the raffle tickets were paid in cash, which the church is happy to deposit and write a check to the camp). They’ve given space for preparatory events. But they are not controlling it in any way.
That, to me, is church at its best. Three reasons come immediately to mind:
It reaches out to those in need, and supports the effort, but doesn’t control it or impose obligations on those who receive the benefit.
It encourages people to help out (like the cooking meals), but doesn’t demand to supervise it, or have everyone doing it together in the same time and place.
It even welcomed me, as an outsider, to take part in helping–making no demands on my belief, my commitment to this particular local church. Just happy to have someone on board who shared the values embodied in this activity.
Those things, I think, are going to be important considerations for the church of the future.
Not using power or guilt to turn beneficiaries into members.
Letting people serve God and humanity on their own schedule and in their own way.
Welcoming non-members into meaningful activities, even on an ad hoc basis, even if there is little to no chance those non-members will become congregants.
I think this last is especially important with the increased numbers of people who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious”. People may well be seeking ways to help others, and they may know that religious institutions are one important way (but not the only way) of doing that. They may want to support these kinds of activities, but not take on all the baggage of conventional congregational life. I think churches should embrace this–seeing the SBNR as being on our side, if not of our numbers.
I don’t know if this is the way First Church of Evans typically operates, but I hope it is. Because I really do think that these are important ways to cope with cultural change without compromising core Christian values.