Just because something may not be newsworthy does not mean it isn’t of public importance. Last week I carried out responsibilities of the church office I hold, by attending our denominational synod. The lens through which that activity is viewed is usually in reference to God and the members of the church. I would contend, however, that it also should be viewed as a public act of citizenship. The world is a different place as a result of such meetings and impacts many, including those who would prefer to have no regard for church life.
The very existence of churches and the witness of how they conduct their business provide a living example of an alternative way of dealing with the challenges of life. Church meetings begin not with bold affirmations of “we the people” but rather with times of worship. Those gathered are created beings acknowledging the authority of the God who made them. They are also forgiven beings realizing it is not merit but grace that enables them to gather. A church may be incorporated and have a charitable number, but her real identity is as the bride of Christ, loved and being prepared for the great wedding feast. True, such lofty ideals are muddied by church politics that can end up as ugly and messy as the secular sort. Still, the continued existence of an institution existing not for the benefit of her members but in order to provide a tangible witness to the reality of a God who is real, active, and cares about what goes on in the world is in itself a public statement. There is more to the world than meets the eye, and every steeple is a reminder of that reality.
A church also provides witness by what she does. To use our modest meeting as an example, we reviewed initiatives that had tangible consequences for those facing challenges in refugee camps around the world, schools in Guatemala, and villages in Malawi. We considered the implications of modern day reproductive technology as well as how to understand the importance of keeping Sabbath in a world whose frenetic pace makes it difficult for people to stop for what matters most. Among those we seek to help are a ministry to migrant workers in our own backyard, reaching Punjabi-speaking people around the world through the printed word, and a minority Christian group in Israel. A back of the envelope calculation suggests that almost $1 million of support is sent from our small federation of 4,500 members for causes that do not focus on our churches or membership. This is simply at a denominational level and does not begin to count the local ministries in which each of the twenty churches are engaged.
A church also provides a witness by how she does things. At last week’s meeting, we heard reports of church members who lived lives in contradiction of their confession. Sadly, abuse, unfaithfulness, deceit and other forms of sin live in the church. We heard of churches proceeding at a local level with various steps of church discipline, in some cases leading to excommunication. Joyfully, we also hear of cases of repentance and reconciliation, with the restoration of broken relationships. Dealing with the reality of evil in our lives, recognizing the possibility and reality of forgiveness, and resolving to live in community where we pray for one another and hold each other accountable is a powerful, albeit sometimes painful, part of church life.
It is neither necessary nor appropriate to share the gritty details of the matters that fill church meeting agendas. But flying home last week, I reflected again how important the church is not simply to her members but also to society as a whole. Most of the world will neither notice nor remember a not-newsworthy meeting that took place last week in a small Ontario town. But the churches represented at that meeting, and at the thousands of similar gatherings that take place each year, make a real difference in the world. Church meetings matter even when we don’t notice them.