People sometimes ask me, "How big is your church?" Occasionally I get asked the size of the budget. I rarely get asked questions like:
How faithful is the church you serve?
How generous is your church?
Does it attend to the real problems in the surrounding community?
Does it love and support its children? It’s elderly?
Are strangers welcome?
Are the people there merely nice or do they love with costly, genuine love?
How prayerful is your church?
Does your church worship in spirit and in truth?
Are the members of your church gentle with one another?
Are the members of your church free to be honest? Genuine?
Is there room for brokenness and failure at your church?
Is forgiveness practiced at your church?
Is your church the kind of place that encourages you to believe in God?*
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus offers the Beatitudes, which might also serve as useful standards by which to measure church.
"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Is this a church that is poor in spirit? Are people encouraged to let go of the illusion of self-sufficiency and to recognize their own neediness? Most especially their need of God, but also their need of one another?
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
Is this a place where mourning happens? Traditionally this has been understood to mean mourning for our own failure and sin. Is this church a place where we are encouraged to mourn our sin individually and corporately? Is repentance practiced? But, is this also a place where people are permitted to mourn the hurt, heartache, hardness of life? Or do we try to slap a smiley face on everything? Is this a place that mourns with those who mourn? Is this a place that mourns the very real suffering in the world around it? Does its mourning provoke action to address the suffering?
"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
Is this a church where meekness is encouraged? Gentleness? Is humility, modeled on the self-emptying love of Jesus Christ, typical here?
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.”
Is this a congregation of people who hunger and thirst for righteousness? Is holiness encouraged and pursued? Is righteousness understood to be about right relationship with God and right relationship with others? Is this a community that knows what the LORD requires: to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
Is this a church where mercy is practiced and received? Are we patient with one another? Do we bear one another’s burden? Do we bear the burden of one another? Do we practice the art of forgiveness?
"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Does this church encourage and cultivate such devotion to Christ that our hearts are aligned with his and that every decision is made with the intention of being drawn deeper into his heart?
"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
Is this a church that knows and lives the art of reconciliation? Do its members seek peace? Do they resist the society's indulgence in anger, resentment, and vengeance? Its fascination with "redemptive" violence? Do its members know themselves to be agents of God’s ministry of reconciliation in the world?
"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
Though we live in a time and place where real persecution for righteousness' sake is unlikely, are people formed in this church such that they at least seem odd or peculiar to their neighbors because of the way they act, talk, and live? Are members encouraged to go against the flow? To question the status quo? To recognize that what passes for wisdom in this world is often foolishness in the light of God's wisdom?
And is this a church that is engaged with members of the body of Christ who are truly persecuted on Jesus’ account? Does it support and encourage those sister and brothers?
There are lots of ways to assess the health of a church. Most of them have little to do directly with the kinds of things that can be counted, weighed, or measured in the usual sense. Still, a church that is growing in the ways that matter is likely also to grow in the more conventionally measurable ways. Increasing attendance can be nothing more than ecclesial obesity or it can be a sign that the Holy Spirit is moving among the members of a church, birthing new life and drawing new people who desire to be a part of such a community and the resulting love, truth, and joy. A bigger budget doesn’t necessarily indicate spiritual health, but a growing budget can be a reflection a spirit of generosity, commitment, and thanksgiving.
Any church worth its salt of the earth and light of the world ought to be growing in tangible ways precisely because it is growing in the ways that really matter. Let us recommit ourselves to becoming more and more the kind of people and kind of church that can answer "yes" to the above questions. In many ways, the congregation of St. Barnabas does embody many of the above attributes. But, if that is true, we should be inviting everyone we know to come join us and welcome everyone who comes. We really ought not to hide this light under a bushel. But that is next week’s Gospel.
* This list is inspired by a similar one by my friend, the Rev. Steve Ellis, which he wrote for his parish newsletter several years ago.