I first learned how messy “doing” church was on a Thursday morning after an “out of control” Wednesday night with Jr. High students. I was in my early years of ministry and hadn’t anticipated the response the kids would have to the activity our leaders had proposed. And yes, first thing in the morning the custodian was in the youth ministry offices looking for “help” cleaning up the flour which was everywhere in the youth area. That learning about the messiness of church was written off to bad decision-making, and working with Jr. High students.
Then there was the time when “too many” people showed up for a conference I was organizing. We thought everything was “under control” but then the whole atmosphere changed. Things suddenly had to be rearranged and several people kicked it into high gear making sure everyone had meals and materials and a place to sit. That learning about the messiness of church was written off to poor planning, and church leaders tendency to procrastinate.
And what about all of those ministry trips – be they mission trips, choir trips, adventure trips or trips to camp – aren’t they messy? So many moving pieces, so many people with varying expectations and so much communal living. And to top it off, it is ministry “out of the church box” and in the world where it is hard to control. Messiness at its finest. What was that messiness written off to?
Ministry is hard to control, and messiness usually comes when things are out of our control. And then I got thinking. Maybe church, when it’s truly being church, is messy? Think about it. Our food shelf ministry – messy! Our grief and loss ministry – messy. Our ministry with Sr. adults -messy. Why? Perhaps ministry is at its best when it is in in our control. Maybe when we try to “control ministry” we too often push God out of the equation.
This past week I lived in the heart of the messiness of the church, and as I did, I saw the heart of ministry. Let me tell you one story. For almost a year now, a group of churches in our area have been planning a joint mission project. Week to week, month to month, the number of congregations on board changed. At last count, I think it landed around 20. For those focused on strategy, anyone would tell you having this many people jointly planning an event is a bad idea. The project – pack over 3 million meals for Feed My Starving Children. Have you ever worked with this project? If you have you know, it’s messy. Rice, soy, veggies and protein dust – everywhere. And now we are going to find a place, a church building none-the-less, and pack 3 million meals. That’s crazy messy. Who does that? And not only is the leadership complicated, the packing messy, but this group has to raise money to pay for each of those 3 million meals. At about a quarter a meal, that’s a lot of money to raise.
But here’s the deal. It happened. And today, less than a week after the last bag was packed, the meals are already on their way to Nicaragua to feed hungry kids. And in the process 10,500 people volunteered. Area basketball teams and scouting groups, Rotary groups and Bible Studies small groups, confirmation students and senior adults, public school kids and teachers…all pack into a church sanctuary, Sunday School rooms and fellowship halls to make a mess. (Can’t imagine it – check out this video.)
One of the beauties of this “event” was how chaotic and messy it was. No one tried to control it. Guide it, yes – control it no. We didn’t know how it would happen, because no group had done such an event before. We didn’t know if we’d have enough volunteers to fill all the packing stations at each shift. But each shift meals were packed, one meal for one child, at a time. And at the end of each shift we heard a story, a story about one kid who’s life was changed because of this food. And suddenly it all came together. The number wasn’t 3 million, it was one + one + one.
In a recent blog post, Seth Godin said this, “I think most of us are programmed to process the little stories, the emotional ones, things that touch people we can connect to. When it requires charts and graphs and multi-year studies, it’s too easy to ignore. We don’t change markets, or populations, we change people. One person at a time, at a human level. And often, that change comes from small acts that move us, not from grand pronouncements.” (See Our upside-down confusion about fairness for the full post.)
Change comes from small acts that move us…and church is its best when it drops into the lived experiences of human life. And human lives are complicated, broken…and messy. And that is where the church is called to enter.
I’m thankful for ministry moments which are messy, messy because they connect with people’s experiences and their story. And in the week ahead I’m going to focus less on control and more on small acts that move. Will you join me?