On the final day of General Assembly, five individuals from across the country shared their reflections on two questions: What does it look like for the church to be on the edge of new possibilities? And, what does it look like for church to take those first steps into the crossing?
Here is a transcript of Dale Woods’ reflection:
What does it mean to be on the edge and what does it mean to dip your toe in the water? I think we need to accept what that’s like personally—what does it feel like to do that kind of work? To dip your toe in the edge of the water? This is what it’s like for me inwardly a lot of the time:
You don’t know what’s going to happen when you do this, and there’s kind of a wonderment and a kind of huge doubt—should we really do this? I don’t think we should underestimate that when we’re going to do something new, when we’re going to take steps into the future in a new way, anxiety is going to be part of that experience.
I happily believe when we look in the story of Joshua crossing that river [Joshua 3:1-17], there are at least a few people in the lineup waiting to put their toe in the water who are probably turning to the next person and saying, “Do you think following this box is really going to work?” It’s a rather weird story. The reality is the anxiety and all the unknown that’s part of making that move.
It does something important for us if you name it. It draws us into dependence on God. Because you don’t know; and so you have to go to the one place with the One who does know. And my experience has been, in those kind of times in my life, it deepens my awareness of and dependence on God. I think, if we want to learn what it means to be a church on the edge, we have to learn what it means to be a church that’s dependent on God. Because we’re going to be fearful. Believe me. We’re going to be fearful of making some of those moves. We’ll have to find a place to address that fear. I don’t know any other place to address that fear except God.
And you see it in the scriptures. How many times do we hear that phrase: “Do not be afraid.” Why does God keep saying that? I think it’s because they’re afraid. I don’t know if that’s good biblical scholarship or not, but that’s how I read it. And the answer to that is to draw back into relationship with God.
The second thing I would say is this: that in my experience in terms of putting my toes in the water, when I’ve done these things the response of others has generally been laughter. Usually the response is, “You’re kidding, right?” I think we need to accept that what we do—if we’re going to do something new—might look very strange to other people. It might even look strange to people within our home tribe. It’s new. It will always appear strange, and there will probably be a little bit of laughter. I think that can go back to the Joshua story. I mean, think about that:
“We’re gonna cross this river, and then we’re gonna take over this land.”
“Oh. How are we gonna do that?”
“Well, we’re gonna follow the box.”
You can hear the people in the land getting the story: “There’s people coming; they’re gonna take over the land.”
“How are they gonna do that?”
“They’re following a box.”
Bring the psychologists in and the psychiatrists in, they need help. When you read these stories, they’re pretty outlandish. There’s a certain sense of “ah, are you sure?” And I think we need to accept that if we’re doing something new, those kinds of comments are going to come. We need to be ready for them; they’re going to be there. And you can’t let them draw you off your intention and your focus.
The third thing I want to say is: I’ve never put my toe in the water and done it alone. I’ve always put my toe in the water with other people with me going across that river. What I think that means to me is, if we’re thinking of doing something new and on the edge, we have to do it in partnership with others. We have to find those people who share that sense, that vision, that mission and be part of ours.
Personally, I’ve never put my toe in the water when it has been primarily head-oriented. It’s usually heart-oriented. I’ve done it because I’ve felt passionate about a feeling that God is calling me to do this.
I’d like to suggest this to you—there’s a great book called The Answer to How is Yes. It’s by a guy named Peter Block, who’s a consultant. Peter Block found he’d go to all of these various organizations and do a lot of work consulting because everybody wants to make change. And then he’d sit down and write a report and say, “Here are eight things you can do.” Then the answer back would be, “Yes, but how are we going to do that?”
At first, he said, of course I’d try to answer that question; and then I realized that it’s a ruse. As long as you keep asking how are we going to do that, you don’t actually have to do it. So let’s just keep asking.
And so Peter Block started answering “how?” with “yes.” And what he means by that is, if you have the passion to do something, you will find out how. I think that’s true.
We set up a Bible college on the West Coast, five of us, from prayers. We were so stupid that we didn’t even realize there was a tide. There are no tides in the Prairies. We had this property on the waterfront and we had to put up a wharf. And one day this guy says, “Well, have you looked at the tide book?”
“Oh. No. Tide, Tide Plus, I don’t know which Tide…”
“No you get it at the marina. The tide book.”
“What is it?”
“Well it tells you when the water is going to be higher up.”
But we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. The point is there was no magic that we could find that said, here are 15 safe ways to set up a Bible college on the West Coast of B.C. It doesn’t exist. You have to learn as you go through it, and you learn by your mistakes. But what got us through, what pushed us on, was the passion. We really thought we were called by God to do that.
So Peter Block’s question, and I think a question as the church we have to explore in ourselves is: is the real issue that we don’t know how, or is the issue that we might not have the passion? Because that’s a different question.
The last thing I’d like to say is this: as a pastor, to be the church on the edge we have to help people who are discouraged and who have given up hope of actually having ministry or mission.
I’m going to end with a story. I was interim moderator with a very small congregation, and one Sunday after I’d preached the clerk of session said to me: “We’re discouraged.”
And I said: “Why are you discouraged?”
She said: “Well, there’s only about 12 of us on a Sunday morning and we’re just really discouraged.”
“You’ve got 12 on a Sunday morning, right? Okay. How many did Jesus have? Eleven. Alright, you’re already ahead of the game.”
She said: “Well, I don’t know if we have a ministry or a mission for our church.”
And I said: “How many people does it take to do ministry? To do mission?”
“I don’t know.”
“Two. It takes you and one other. How many people in your town?”
“Good, you only need two and you’ve got 698 more.”
“Well, there’s no minister right now, and nobody visits the sick in the hospital. Do you think we could do that?”
“Yeah, you could do that. Go ask the hospital administrators.”
So they went and did that. She called me up one day and she said: “Dale, there’s a lady in our congregation named Mary. Do you think it would be okay if we went and visited her? She’s dying and we’d like to pray.”
She calls me up later and says: “Dale, we went and we visited with Mary. We prayed with her and she was so grateful that someone would pray with her. And I want to host the funeral next week.”
I think that’s a lot. There’s a church, 12 people on Sunday; is that not mission? Somebody sitting beside somebody’s bed at their death, lifting them into the presence of God with prayer. That is mission. They just didn’t believe that they had a mission.
I hope as a church we encourage our congregations—every congregation—to find a mission somewhere. I’ve closed congregations for various reasons; I’ve never yet closed a congregation that didn’t have options.