Ministry in Context

They're playing our song

I sat in church on Christmas Eve and remembered...

In one of the churches I served, a parishioner named Bill would sing, "O Holy Night" at the late service on Christmas Eve every year. He had done so every year since the congregation was founded fifty years before. Even into his eighties Bill's voice was strong, clear and powerful. No quaver there. Whenever the church had a funeral, there was an excellent chance that Bill would be the soloist. The choir depended on him to lead his section, and to present several solos every year. But the unquestioned highlight was "O Holy Night."

Then Bill died. His descent was rapid. A few heart problems in the summer. Then breathing problems that made it impossible for him to sing. Bill being Bill, he tried it, but he couldn't do it. In the fall he died. Without singing, there wasn't much point in living.

When we planned Christmas Eve worship that year we took a few deep breaths and asked one of the younger men in the choir, himself an experienced soloist, to take on "O Holy Night," which he did. It was not surprising when a few of the veteran members of the congregation were offended and gave voice to their offense. Their refrain went something like this:

"How could you have him sing Bill's song?"

Fortunately Betty, Bill's widow, was a rock. When someone would commiserate with her about somebody else singing "Bill's song," her response was always, "It's not Bill's song, it's the church's song. He would want it sung."

And it was.

To take ownership of a slice of mission is a wonderful and powerful thing as long as one avoids thinking of this as an exclusive ownership. Bill knew "O Holy Night" was his and so did his widow, but they also knew it wasn't exclusively his, and that he was not the primary owner.

A pastor/intern crosses an important bridge when she stops thinking of the congregation as "their church" and begins thinking of it as "my church." The contextualization of ministry requires identifying with the context. But every now and then some gung-ho servant will forget that the place they are serving, while it is to some extent "my church," is primarily God's church. For such folks, saying good-bye becomes impossible; they cannot conceive of the congregation's mission going on without them and so wind up undercutting the ministries of their successors, in addition to buying unnecessary unhappiness for themselves.

One aspect of learning ministry in context is learning to sing your song eagerly and faithfully and energetically, to the best of your ability; while at the same time remembering that in the last analysis it isn't your song; it is a song given to you for a time by the giver of all life.

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