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THE FIRST COMMITTEE

Audio MP3

Acts 6: 1-7
Exodus 18: 13-24

One day, a few years ago, when I was working in my office, I received a visit from a representative of a life insurance company. This life insurance salesperson told me about the product she was selling, and she said she would be very happy to make a presentation to our whole church. When I declined her offer to do that, she became a bit annoyed, and as she got up to leave she said, somewhat out of the blue, “What do you pastors actually do all week anyway?”

I refrained from saying that we deal with unsolicited sales calls, but her comment did remind me once again that many people find it hard to imagine that being a pastor is actually a full-time job. It’s like the old joke about the pastor’s kid who boasts his dad has the best job because he only works one day a week and it takes four people to collect all the money. What do pastors actually do the rest of the week?

It turns out that a surprising amount of a pastor’s time is spent on what could be called administration. Some studies have suggested that some pastors spend up to 40 per cent of their time on administration – attending meetings, preparing for meetings, dealing with requests for use of the building, planning for events, making phone calls, writing emails, planning for the future. This administrative workload can come as a bit of a shock to newly ordained graduates. They may have imagined that being a pastor involves dealing exclusively with spiritual things. Instead, they find a large portion of their energy devoted to the tasks of running an organization.

You can understand how some new pastors find this troubling. In the New Testament, the church is described as the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, the holy people of God. These are ways of talking about the church that fill us with spiritual wonder. They give us a heavenly perspective on what the church is all about, and that lifts us up out of the mundane world in which we spend most of our lives. We must never lose sight of this aspect of the church. The church is very much a spiritual reality.

So why then do we spend so much time on the down to earth details of running an organization?

There’s no doubt that if we’re not careful we can become so focussed on running the organization that we can forget we are actually the church of Christ. It’s quite possible to be a superbly run organization and do nothing to contribute to the kingdom of God.

I remember when I first came here, my predecessor, Rev. Gordon Walker, was still in the church as a retired pastor, and he talked about the story of the grease factory. The grease factory contained large and complicated machinery to manufacture grease. The machinery itself needed a large amount of grease in order to keep it running. In fact, it used so much grease that the entire output of the factory had to be used to keep the machinery operating.

The last thing we want is for the church to become like that grease factory – focussed entirely on keeping itself running without actually producing something for the kingdom of God. We always have to remember that we are not an organization just like any other. We are Christ’s church on earth. We’ve been given the vital spiritual responsibility of revealing Christ to the world, to the glory of God the Father. We’ve been set apart by God for this holy purpose.

But that doesn’t mean we can forget all about the details of church administration. Administration, it turns out, is a big part of what God has called us to do in the church. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians about spiritual gifts, one of the gifts he included in his list was the gift of administration. For Paul, administration was one of the central aspects of life in the church. The church couldn’t exist without it.

There’s a movement in some church circles these days to do away with as much administration as possible. Those in this movement say: “Get rid of the bureaucracy! Get rid of the buildings! Get rid of the committees! Be organic and flexible and creative! Be more spiritual and less religious! Be more like a gathering of friends than a corporation conducting business!”

The model that’s often pointed to is the church in the Book of Acts. This is the church in its original form, untainted by bureaucratic structures and management theories. This is the church that looks most like the Body of Christ that it was intended to be.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise to discover that one of the first things the church in the Book of Acts does is set up a committee.

Practically overnight the church in Jerusalem had gone from a small group gathered in an upper room to become a community of several thousand people. And as the church grew, there were challenges that came along with the growth.

The first issue that had to be addressed involved the distribution of food to widows. The widows within the fellowship of believers needed help. They were poor, and they didn’t have enough to eat. They depended on their Christian family to support them. But this wasn’t happening the way it should.

The problem had to do with the fact that some of these widows were Hebrew-speaking – in other words, they were from Jerusalem and the surrounding area – while the rest of these widows were Greek-speaking – which meant they were from other lands, beyond Israel. Each day the church served food for the widows. But for some reason the Greek-speaking widows were being left out. Perhaps it was just an oversight. Or perhaps there was a bit of prejudice going on – you know, “This food is for our own widows, not for you folks who have come from out of town.”

Whatever the cause, the issue had to be addressed. And the apostles knew this was something that required organization. It wasn’t going to be fixed if it was just left to sort itself out. It was time to exercise the gift of administration.

There was just one small hitch – the apostles themselves were already pretty busy. They were preaching and teaching the word of God to a rapidly growing congregation. How could they do that properly if they had to take time away every day to supervise the distribution of food? The obvious answer was to appoint a group of people to take over this responsibility. This group could draw up the lists, and bake the bread, and wait on the tables. They could look after the details the apostles did not have time for.

This way of doing things was not new. There was a famous example of it in the Old Testament. When Moses was leading the people of Israel in the wilderness, he found that he was spending a lot of time acting as a judge in disputes that arose. From morning till evening people were coming to him to get him to decide their cases. When Moses’ father-in-law Jethro saw this he said, “What are you doing? You can’t do this all by yourself. You need to organize a system for dealing with these things. You need to select a group of trusted individuals to handle the simple cases, and the really hard ones they can bring to you.” Moses said, “You’re right”, and that’s what he did. An organized system was set up, and everything worked much better.

God is a God of order, not chaos – and that is a strong reason why we should be organized in our life together in the church. This kind of organizing is not intended to stifle creativity. It’s not intended to block the movement of the Holy Spirit. It’s not intended to put up barriers to doing the kinds of things we feel God is calling us to do. Rather it’s intended to give people permission to contribute to the work of God in the church. It’s intended to provide a structure through which we can work more effectively. It allows us to function as a team, so that we can do together things that we could not do individually.

It’s very popular these days for people to criticize what they call “organized religion.” You’ll often hear people say, “I believe in God, but I don’t want to have anything to do with organized religion.” You get the feeling that for them organized religion is on something of a par with organized crime.

As a Baptist I’m inclined to say that Baptist life is neither organized nor a religion. But I think we need to acknowledge that some of the greatest things the Christian church has accomplished over the centuries have been because the church has been organized. Christians have been behind the creation of countless hospitals, schools, nurseries, and social welfare centres of all kinds. They have provided shelters for the homeless, food for the hungry, care for the sick. They have advocated for justice on behalf of the oppressed. And all of this was possible only because Christians were organized. They paid attention to all the down to earth details that went into making these things happen. They exercised the gift of administration.

I don’t think it’s an accident that the very first committee in the church was organized to address an issue of caring for the poor. Jesus himself displayed great compassion for the poor. It was inevitable that his church would do the same. And when they did so they showed that it’s not so easy to separate the spiritual and the mundane. The attitude the church took toward the poor was, at its core, a spiritual issue. If they really were the Body of Christ, they could not turn a blind eye to those who were hungry – any more than Jesus himself would. If they really were the holy people of God, they needed to display the values of God’s kingdom. They needed to show that God’s values were their values. And the way they could do that was by turning their attention to some very down to earth details – details that involved pots and pans and aprons and serving bowls. They had to get their hands dirty with the work that’s involved in addressing human needs. As they did so, they were proclaiming deep spiritual truths – truths about a God who loves, a God who cares, a God whose heart is filled with compassion.

Sociologist Rodney Stark wrote a book a few years ago about the rise of Christianity in the early years of the church. He says there were a number of factors that contributed to the remarkable growth of the church in the centuries following the New Testament period. But he says one of the most important was the way in which Christians organized themselves to care for those in need. This was particularly the case during the many plagues that swept through cities during Roman times. According to Rodney Stark, when the plague arrived, pagan priests and doctors were among the first to leave town. But the Christians stayed. They stayed to look after one another. And while they were doing that, they also looked after their non-Christian neighbours. Those who received this care were much more likely to become Christians themselves. And thus the church grew, neighbour by neighbour, as Christians enacted the love they had received from God.

There was preaching and teaching that was part of all this too, of course. There were opportunities to share the reason for such compassionate care. But those opportunities only came because the Christians had acted in an organized way to respond to the needs of those they encountered.

One of the committees we currently have in our church is a committee that’s reviewing our church structure – the way we organize ourselves as a congregation. At one of our meetings we thought it would be good if we listed all the things we do as a church. By the time we had listed everything we could think of, we had filled eight pages on the flip chart. Much of this had to do with normal organizational things such as maintaining the property and managing our finances. But we also listed all the ways we engage in outreach. We actually came up with eight different ways we are currently involved in outreach – ways such as our Caregivers ministry, our Life Transitions Counselling ministry, the new play group that’s been started, the Out of the Cold program we’re a part of, and the services we lead at Elginwood nursing home. All of these ministries have to do with reaching out to people who are in need. And all of them require organization. They require someone to exercise the gift of administration. And they require other people to come alongside and add their efforts to the work that has to be done.

When we do these things, we’re a long way from being a grease factory. We’re a long way from merely keeping an organization going just for its own sake. We are doing the down to earth, hands-on work of our spiritual calling. We are doing what the church is supposed to do – making God’s kingdom visible in the middle of the everyday reality of life in this world.

It is for this purpose that God has called us into his church. It is for this purpose that God has gathered us together in this place. As we each play our own part in the work God has given us, may God guide us and bless us as we seek to serve him.

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