Church As a Toddler by Jordan Smith

A reflection for churches / ministries that are developing

Readings:
Proverbs 8:22-3; Psalm 104 1,12-19

At the start of our synod council meeting on Thursday, Bishop Pryse mentioned the stages that groups go through when they start working together: storming, forming, norming, and performing. These are the stages that many of our ministry area teams are experiencing as they start to work together and form relationships.

With a two year old and a six month old baby at home I've been thinking about children a lot this year, so I wanted us to reflect on how we would think of the "church structure" as it grows from the newborn stage.

The church as an infant: the first few years.

What are the words that come to mind, when thinking of caring for and growing an infant? Tiredness, excitement, wonder, and nervousness. The identity of what has been created is still tied to the people who created it. It can't speak for its own, it doesn't really shape people or others on its own yet. Our new committees, ministry areas, mission congregations, even the Christian church have gone through this infancy, the norming stage. It saps a lot of energy from its leaders while these projects and experiences are still new, but I want to focus on the time, when some of this energy starts being returned in the forming or toddler years. What is our church structure doing as a toddler?

I went to a bakery on Wednesday afternoon and picked up some pastries for a special breakfast on Thursday morning before I would leave for our synod council meeting. Every night Anitta, my toddler, and I talk about how our day went and what our favourite parts were. I mentioned to Anitta that we were going to have a special breakfast the next day. She voiced her hope with one word followed by an expectant question mark: Pancakes? I hope she wasn't disappointed the next morning with the danishes I had purchased.

We have pancakes fairly often, probably weekly. They are a special treat, but a regular occurrence. Some families might do them every Saturday or Sunday, on a traditional weekend, but since our family's schedule involves shift work, we don't have a set day of the week.

However, a day starting with pancakes is a sign of a special day, a sign that both mommy and daddy are home. A sign that Anitta and I are going to work together to measure the dry mix and water and stir them together. The toddler has found a routine, a patterned event that she recognizes the significance of. Pancake day is special. It is something that brings us together and I think that guests or outsiders witnessing the preparation might get a sense of that. Conveniently, having pancakes for breakfast on a weekly basis sounds similar to a ritual that we do as a church. Communion is something that people recognize the importance of. It is something that is not difficult to do, but it is special. It is something that outsiders recognize as having significance.

This morning I want to think about the "church structure" as a toddler. How do we treat it? How do we guide it? In a wider sense, how is this seen in the Christian church as a whole? Maybe Paul's letters are a representation? A basic understanding that a new faith has arisen but further formation is taking place? The young church is trying but still learning? Or represented as a new congregation, they may have a core group of members and they are aware of the community around them, but they haven't figured out how to serve that community.


What are some things that the church as a toddler is doing?

It is always learning. It has to learn the core concepts of life like sharing, playing nice with others, and manners. But it is also constantly exploring the beauty of the world. As we hear in Psalm 104 - birds, cattle, farms, trees, bread, the sun, the moon. Or in Proverbs 8 - oceans hills, clouds. "I was like a child by his side. I was happy every day and enjoyed being in his presence. I enjoyed the whole world. And I was happy with all its people." (Proverbs 8:30)

This brings us to another thing about toddlers that we should hope the church emulates: loving purely. Learning about the world and being amazed by it should also lead us to love it. Jesus didn't die just to 'do it'. We don't start new churches or ministries just to 'do it'. There is a love of others that is the purpose for these things to happen. As our programs or churches grow, they must remember to love and love purely in their service.

A sad truth is that often love comes with hurt. And when you are a young toddler hurts really hurt. A scrape on the knee is an ow. Not seeing where mom or dad are after we turn our backs at the park is an ow. Having our toy snatched from us hurts our feelings and is an ow. As churches grow, they change and this can cause ows. The Roman Catholic Church grew and there was pain leading into the Reformation. A German or Danish congregation in the city grows and original members feel left out, as the English service takes up more of the energy. As a camp ministry changes, the tent and hay mattress era tries to revive a proud history. Our churches will grow and through the toddler years there are going to be hurts.

Finally, as our churches and ministries go on, they gain independence. A church that is moving forward in the toddler stage does not depend on its parents for everything (or so it thinks). It starts to take on a life of its own, trying to do things its own way. It is the participants, not just the leaders, who start to form it. This independence is part of what causes the hurt, but also what is strengthened by loving purely. The early church went on after Paul, the Reformation went on after Luther, the Eastern Synod went on after Bishop Huras retired, and our congregations go on through different calls and departures.

The toddler years for "the church" are times of great change. For those observing, it is hopefully a time of pride as they watch their creations take on a personality and life of their own.


Prayer:

Heavenly Creator,
Just as you brought your son into the world, you have also been a part of all creation.
Your hand has guided the stars, stirred the oceans, gusted as winds through the trees,
and made the earth shake with tremors.
We thank you for all your signs that surround us today.
As we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation we join with Lutherans and others around the world in celebrating the work of those who proclaimed a certain vision of what your signs meant. Most of all we thank you for your Son Jesus who has allowed us to be a reformed people among all his followers.
Bless the people at this table that they might continue to do your good work.
Give us strength and energy when we deal with the church as an infant,
as we stay awake through the late nights and feel alone on the cold dark mornings.
Help us when we try to nurture something new, that it might start to grow and take on a personality and energy of its own.
We thank you for the people in our lives who give us support and encouragement, especially our Bishops and officers. May you provide for them so that their gifts continue to spread throughout their ministry.
We ask this in Jesus name
Amen

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