Thursday, January 22, 2009

A Congregation Suffering with Messiah

Back in October I wrote about how God was refining leaders in Sar Shalom. Most passed the test, but not all did. It was a difficult process but clearly God was in control. Sometimes (usually?) we need to overcome difficulties to grow in maturity; we should be grateful when God carefully arranges the difficulties we meet.

Also last fall the entire congregation, as a group, was used as part of how God tried to do refining with a second group, a church. This is an equally interesting dynamic, and one worth sharing because I think churches and synagogues will experience such things more and more.

I had to delay sharing this story until enough time had passed that I could retell it with a reasonable hope of anonymity for the church. I do not wish to embarrass it or sound like I am scolding it. The church failed two tests. But the fact that God thought it worthwhile to challenge this church makes me confident that God will continue to work with them. They will grow and eventually pass a similar test. The case that would warrant embarrassment would be a group that God has given up on; this isn't that situation.

Sar Shalom was part of how God tested the willingness of a church to be hospitable. The details do not really matter. The church wavered for a while but eventually decided to be inhospitable towards Sar Shalom. Certain of its leaders were too worldly and would repeatedly say phrases such as "this sounds nice in theory, but we are in the real world...". I longed to reply, "You mean 'in the world', rather than 'in the Kingdom of God'," but had prayed enough to know that it was not my place to challenge those leaders. Do not get in the way when God is doing something!

The church tried its best to be polite while not being hospitable. It had defensible excuses for why it felt it could not be hospitable. Helping Sar Shalom would require it to be liable for more things. The church smiled and gave Sar Shalom a useful gift when we parted ways.

Soon after God used an internal issue among that church's members to reveal the extent of its lack of hospitality. That church was challenged to treat its members as family. Would its leaders be willing to experience suffering and risk with some members who were in trouble? Would it be caring and hospitable to the extent scripture urges if the organization might become liable for more things? The church's leaders promptly said no. The members in trouble felt crushed and the entire church suffered.

I am sure that what God initially desired Sar Shalom to suffer through that church's successful growing pains. The church needed to be drawn out of its comfort zone to learn to extend hospitality and accept risk before its second test, which was the important one. It was a bother for Sar Shalom to be part of how God challenged the church. But it was a priviledge to be part of how God tried to build up another part of his Kingdom. I shared many exciting conversations and prayers with Sar Shalom folk or with that church's pastor about how we could see God using Sar Shalom to challenge the church to grow and mature; those days were a blessing that is not diminished because the church failed that test.

Sadly, during those days a few families left Sar Shalom. They wanted a place to worship that had stability and comfort, things Sar Shalom could not offer at that time. Saddest for me were those that left without saying farewell: these families never even got to hear about how the congregation was being used by God, which made the lack of stability and comfort worthwhile.

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