Of stones and ants

Before I was an officer I went to a church in an area with many ‘halfway houses’ for people who had recently been released from psychiatric institutions. Given that a lot of those institutions had been closed down recently, and the residents just turned out on the street with little thought for their ongoing care, you can imagine what our neighbourhood was like.

A lot of these guys (I don’t remember any women) would come to our Sunday evening meetings. There would always be one or two coming in in various states of sobriety and psychosis. They didn’t know how they were supposed to act. And they added a certain… tang to the atmosphere.

It seemed to me that we needed to do something for these guys. They lived (almost literally) next door, whilst the rest of the church came from miles away. Why weren’t we doing something during the week? They obviously wanted to be involved in our community. We could organise a drop-in coffee lounge, or put in a pool table. We could organise a Bible study for those who were so inclined. I spoke to my officer about it.

“No,” he said. “These folk will always be welcome here. But you can’t build a church on people like these.”

“That’s funny,” I thought. “I thought the church was built on Jesus, and we are just the stones.”

We never did do anything for those guys.

Years later—in fact, just a few weeks ago—I was having a chat with another officer. We were discussing some of the issues we were having with leadership in our churches. I mentioned how we had quite a few simpler folk at our church. On the whole, we have a very faithful bunch of people, but very few of them are capable of any serious leadership roles.

The conversation continued. I made the observation that these folk were very good at bringing their friends to church. I remarked that this didn’t help the leadership problem at all, because the friends that were brought were normally just as simple as the folk that invited them!

“Yes,” replied my friend. “You have ants in your church. The problem with ants is that ants only attract other ants.”

I could see the point, but when it was put that way I could also see how wrong I’d been. When I look at all the dreams I have for our church I see lots of white middle class people with good educations coming along and worshipping in a particular way. In other words, I want a church full of people like me.

Yet as I thought years ago, I’m not the one building the church. God is. It’s not for us to tell him what stones he should use. And let’s face it, the gospels are the story of how Jesus became an ant among ants, and attracted even antier ants to himself. He didn’t show his power by strength. He showed it by being weak.

The Salvation Army has always identified itself as a church for the poor and simple. I’m proud of that fact. Yet sometimes we lose sight of it. We’ve had people advise us to not to grow churches in poor areas, but in affluent areas that are near poor areas. Once you have a good sized middle class church you will have the money and people to start working in the poorer area.

That makes a lot of sense. But it misses the point. The poor aren’t some funny group we have to help once we get our church sorted out properly. They are the very reason the Army was established.

Jesus can make a church out of anyone he jolly well likes. If they’re not all like me, that’s my problem. If he wants to use those whom common sense tells us to shy away from, so be it. Perhaps he knows something about ants that we don’t. I think it’s time we start letting Jesus build the church, and get our own petty egos out of the way.

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