They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
This is the picture of the church that I have in my mind when I pray for you. This is the picture of the church that I aspire to be a part of as I shepherd you. This is the vision that I try to base everything that I do for the church upon. And yet this is not a description of The Bridge Church. This past spring, we asked all of our small groups to study a book by German pastor and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer entitled “Life Together.” In the opening chapter of that book is this devastating statement:
“He who loves his vision of community more than the community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter.”
The present crisis and the effect that it has had on our church fellowship has brought the meaning of the quote into sharper focus for me. As the church has been a scattered by the pandemic and the restrictions on our ability to do community as we had been doing, the deep fractures in our community that had been held together (perhaps with nothing stronger than scotch tape) have begun to widen. People grumbling and complaining about the structure and direction of the church is just an inevitable part of pastoral ministry—ask any pastor you know, and if they are honest, they will tell you that at any point in time 10-20% of people in their congregations are unhappy with the direction of the church, dissatisfied with the programs being offered, angry with the latest sermon, or just plain unwilling to get on board with a new initiative. This is something that anyone who wants to succeed in ministry needs to get used to in a hurry and develop a bit of a thick skin to deal with. However, over the past 20 weeks those small complaints, and off-hand remarks have grown in both numbers and volume, and it seems that I cannot any longer pretend that they are the background noise of a healthy ministry, but are rather indicators that perhaps I have become (hopefully not in the ultimate sense) the subject of Bonhoeffer’s quote.
As we have now concluded the month-long discernment process at The Bridge Church about the future of our fellowship, it has become apparent to me that, for many of you, the changes that we have undertaken as a congregation over the past five years since our last discernment process have been too fast, too substantive, and too numerous to contend with. In my earnest and well-intentioned desire to forge this congregation into the vision we discerned together of a healthy community of the Spirit, I have gone too quickly and not spent enough time preparing the congregation for change; nor, at times, have I listened well enough to those who spoke out in disagreement along the way. For all of these things (and more) I am deeply sorry and sorrowful. The church has not flourished under my watch in the past half-decade in the way that many of us had hoped it would and I think that it is fair for me to accept the lion’s share of the blame for that.
But now we stand at the cusp of another paradigm shift in our church, and we have another opportunity to get this right. Where we have failed, God is gracious and gives us another chance, and where I have failed, I am hopeful that you will be gracious and give me another chance. The finer details of the discernment report will take time to develop and implement and I am hopeful that a more substantive plan will be articulated as we launch ministries in the fall but before I take some holidays with my family during the month of August, I wanted to give you some assurances that I have heard you, and list some things that will be changing right away:
Beginning immediately, you no longer need to sign-up for Sunday in advance. We have the space to accommodate more people than will realistically attend under the current provincial gathering restrictions. And while you will still need to adhere to the self-screening guidelines and will still need to sign-in on Sunday morning so that we can do contact tracing in the event of someone falling ill, you no longer need to pre-register.
Beginning this week, we’re dialling back the liturgy. While it pains me that even after several years of teaching and explanation about the liturgical practices we have adopted as a congregation, I have nevertheless reached a point where I must contend with the fact that some of these practices are causing more strife than they are worth. I had hoped to be able to help you see the discipleship value of formative repetition, but I have failed to do so as a teacher and because of my failure, I will be scaling back (although not eliminating) the usage of liturgical forms in our worship.
Beginning August 16, the series on the Apostles Creed is done. I know that many of you have not been fond of this series, I have heard your objections to some of the language and to the general idea of reciting credal statements. I pressed through because I wanted to be thorough and to teach you about the richness of our ecumenical faith tradition—but I am aware that many of you have already tuned out. I failed to capture your imaginations or convince you of why it was important. I have also heard from you that the teaching was too dense, and intense, and that I failed to give you a compelling reason why it matters in your life today. I have heard all of those comments and have taken them to heart. While I am on vacation, I have pre-recorded a series of “messages from the vault” that are revisions and updates of some of the best messages that I have preached over the years (according to your feedback). I hope that you find them edifying in a way that the creed series was not. And to assuage some of your fears, the Creed was not intended to be a permanent fixture in our worship service beyond this series. To those of you who still to this day have troubles reciting it comfortably, you can relax.
Beginning this fall we will be re-evaluating our practice of communion. I cannot yet say how this will look. My earnest desire is for a weekly, embodied, inclusive celebration at the Lord’s Table with all the church family, and for that reason I made the decision in April that we would not celebrate it online except for that one special time on Easter Sunday—however that was at a time when I expected gathering restrictions to last no more than six weeks. Twenty weeks later we are still scattered to a large degree with no end in sight. It is wrong of me to deny the church an opportunity to partake of this meal together because of my theological convictions, and it is worth considering that in the light of the present reality, that my convictions may be overly rigid and lacking the grace of flexibility that is required to be a congregation in this time in history.
For the foreseeable future, we will no longer be sitting at tables. I know that few decisions have been more polarizing over the past five years than the switch to tables. Even now, there are strong opinions on both sides of the issue. I am not going to sit here and tell you that there were not good reasons for making the change that we did, or that there have not been good things that have come out of the changes. However, the present pandemic induced restrictions have made the tables a functional non-issue. And since we cannot return to them, it is a good time to pivot back to rows. My only hope and prayer is that we do not lose the good things that came from the five-year experiment in worship engagement.
Undoubtedly, a full-application of the results of our discernment process will take more time and careful planning to implement, and you can be confident that you will be consulted along the way by your Board of Elders before we initiate any substantive change as a result of the findings. But for now, and in an urgent sense, I wanted to communicate the seriousness with which I am taking your responses and to let you know that I have heard you. I can only apologize and seek your forgiveness for the part I have played in your frustrations over the past five years, and I hope that you see me doing that in these actions—but the truth of the matter is that we grow as a community, and we die as a community. It would seem appropriate as a response to this season of discernment that you ask yourself in what ways have you similarly failed the church? Have you been as committed to the fellowship as you ought to be? Have you been as committed to serving as you have been called to be? Have you been committed to inclusive compassion the way Jesus calls you to be? Have you been as committed to tithing and the support of the needs of the church as you ought to be? For many of you, the answer might be an unqualified “yes” to some or all of these questions, but as a corporate body I can say without hesitation that the answer has been “no.”
I hope and pray, that by taking responsibility for my failures and shortcomings, and by publicly naming them as I am doing right now, that I might be setting an example worthy of emulation in the broader congregation. The vision of the church in Acts 2 is not a real body of believers—at least it is not a real body that exists today; The Bridge Church, on the other hand, is. She may be imperfect, and she may have her challenges, but she is the church that I, as your pastor have been called to love and shepherd. I hope you hear my heart today and are willing to stay engaged in the work that Jesus has been doing, and will continue to do in the days, weeks, and years to come. Thank you for sticking with us as we try to follow Jesus.