A Hard Nut to Crack

As a resident of Vermont I often hear people say, “New England/Vermont is a tough place to do ministry.” Is it really? Or are they really saying, “Traditional (or more charitably) ‘inherited’ ministry forms do not work well in Vermont”?

It would be naive for me to assume that I can minister in Vermont in the same way as in my Philadelphia, my former home. And so I’m not surprised to find that few if any of the Christian ministries up here look much like what I saw in Philly. Actually, there are lots of mainline churches scattered throughout each town, since every town has to have its own sampling of denomination.

This makes for some interesting dynamics in Southwestern Vermont. You have the old school churches. Some have a trendy face and some obviously just keep the same old, same old going. You have newer evangelical or charismatic churches. They tend to be far more enthusiastic and will generally be the ones who affirm the perception that ministry is hard in Vermont.

So what do I think of all this? Maybe we’re trying to minister in the wrong ways to the wrong people . . .

First of all, there is a huge number of “new-agers” here. Have we really reached out to them? I’m not sure. Also, Massachusetts has dropped all kinds of welfare laws, so Vermont is seeing a major influx of people who are struggling to make it. These people seem to be the kind that Jesus shared the Gospel with. Adding to that, there are a host of other sub-cultures that exist in Vermont: hikers, backpackers, kayakers, painters, sculptors, and guys who drive pick up trucks who don’t have easily defined lines of work. Have Christians around here thought to minister missionally within these groups?

But more than anything, are we really hearing God and his plan for Vermont? Are we truly willing to step out of our mainline or evangelical ministry structures in order to try something else?

I am convinced that Christians who hear God and are willing to go out on a limb can be very effective in sharing the Kingdom of God and showing many the way into it.

And I stop myself on the verge of a preachy tirade and digress to my own circumstances. I have been in a continual state of deconstruction lately. Every time I think I’m on to something, God just shoots it down, tells me it won’t work, and then gives me something else to dream up. The new dream is more exciting, but that doesn’t seem to fly either. The common thread in all of these dreams is the need for deconstruction. I always find things in them that don’t quite fit with what God wants to do.

God is always closer to the edge than I would have thought. I nudge myself forward, settle, get comfy, and then he gives me a shove forward again. I drag my feet, settle in, and then wait for the next shove.

I have convinced myself that while I may someday start some kind of non-profit ministry, God plans on doing something way too odd and unusual for me to spring it on me now. Instead of springing his plan on me and then scraping my dead body off the oak floor, he’s jabbing at me, knocking me down, and then waiting for me to get up before the needling begins afresh. I have some concepts, expectations, etc. in me that are thoroughly anti-God, and it must take time. 3+ years hasn’t been enough yet.

Yes God has brought me over the hurdle of family church, brought me into an Episcopal church for a few Sundays (and that’s where I’m at for now), got me sharing the Gospel, planted me in some community groups, and and and . . . then what? I don’t know.

Get this. I’m sitting in the living room with some friends a few days after attending an evangelical church near us. They are not followers of Jesus as far as I can tell. Of course God just hits me in the forehead with a word, “This is church.” That’s it. I just can’t get it out of my head that the traditional evangelical church I had attended was not church for me. God is using that church in some neat ways. But for us it’s like a force field for the Holy Spirit. There is no freedom to go there. We only get divine approval when we sit in a living room with some friends.

And there you have it. Ministry in Vermont: hanging out with people, groups in public spaces and living rooms. I don’t know where God is taking all of this, but he’s doing something very different with me. He wants me to redefine church radically. So radically that I can’t even put it into words. He wants me to place new value on my community groups, the people we hike with, and the people we hang out with at home.

In some strange way, I believe that God wants to sanctify all of these times, all of these venues, all of these relationships and use them to build his church. Strange eh? Believe me, I’m not making this up. This is just my inadequate attempt at discerning what God is up to in my life.

Yes, I promise you that I boast not. I’m not saying how cool I am that I can flaunt the unspoken rules of evangelical Christianity by thumbing my nose at church. In a sense, it would be way easier to just hang in a church, help them develop some kind of missional/emerging ministry, attend a meeting once a month, and rejoice when somebody new joins my ministry.

There’s no ownership here. This isn’t my idea. It’s God’s. I have been fighting him every step of the way, but somehow it feels right. In fact, the more uncomfortable things feel, the more it seems that God is delighted. He’s growing me, expanding me, enabling me to do something different. He knows I’m teffified and afraid of what people will think of me and my horribly unorthodox Christianity, but he also knows these very things will drive me back to him.

I honestly believe that God is very willing and able to minister in a place such as Vermont. His heart is bursting for these people. I experienced it one night. I just sat back to pray and emptied myself of thought. In the contemplative manner I breathed in a rhythm and focused on the air in and the air out. Suddenly I was just filled with a sense of God’s love and his broken heart for people. It was staggering.

I wonder if we could open ourselves to God on a regular basis, how different would the church be? If we could hear him and obey him better, what would change? I do not claim any direct line to God. I’m no expert in prayer. But my feeling is that we would a. feel more uncomfortable and b. experience more freedom.

Writing this out has been tremendously helpful for me at least. If you’ve made it this far, I hope this doesn’t shipwreck your faith!!!