Some time ago I officiated a wedding in a small northern community.
When I arrived at the church for the rehearsal, I was greeted by the parish priest who gave me the nickel tour and explained the sound system. I was surprised to meet him.
I expected someone else would have been given this task.
But churches aren’t the pervasive and powerful institutions they once were.
Yes, most communities have a couple of "big-box" churches that fill up the parking lots and employ multiple staff.
But from my experience, many churches have dwindling congregations with dwindling budgets led by a pastor who does everything from leading worship to shoveling the front steps.
As we parted ways, I thanked the priest for his welcome. Feeling a little sad that he had to wait on me, I made an offhand comment about the difficulty of being clergy in a time when people aren’t interested in the church.
But no sooner had I said this and he surprised me again. He replied rather plainly:
“The church is better when it doesn’t have much power.”
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this comment.
Most of us like power. We cultivate it through our employment our volunteerism and our connections.
Power makes life easier. The more power you have, the easier it is to overcome obstacles and achieve goals.
The more power you have, the less consideration you need to give to others.
With power, you can go at your own pace, in your own direction. As for unappealing tasks, the powerful can always delegate them.
But there is a downside to wielding power. Power has a tendency to make us overlook others and their needs.
Exercising power can leave us feeling better than our peers, and justified in our cruelties.
The Christian church hasn’t always performed well when it has had lots of power.
Just ask anyone who has attended a residential school.
But power doesn’t need to be exercised in a way that is inconsiderate or abusive.
A very different approach is embodied by the Church’s founder and “CEO,” Jesus Christ.
Christians believe that Jesus wields immeasurable power.
The Gospels describe Jesus’ control over nature, sickness, and evil spirits. And yet despite this power Jesus consistently refuses to use this power to coerce or control those around him.
He treats everyone with incredible dignity.
This can be seen at the outset of Jesus’ public service.
The Gospels tell us that at the outset of his ministry the Devil wants to broker a deal with Jesus.
In exchange for his allegiance, the Devil promises Jesus control over all the Earth’s kingdoms. Jesus tells the Devil, “No deal.” Jesus won’t worship pretenders. Jesus doesn’t see people as something to be bargained for.
Further into his career, some of Jesus own followers want to promote Jesus’ political advancement.
They think the time is ripe for a revolution and want to install him on the throne, by force.
Knowing their intentions, Jesus escapes the crowd and their ambitions.
Once again, he shows us that he isn’t interested in making others to adopt his program.
At the end of his career, Jesus is arrested, falsely accused, and sentenced to death in an illegal trial.
Despite being given opportunity to speak, he won’t recant his claims or blame his followers. He won’t make a deal to save his own skin.
When he is tortured and crucified by Roman soldiers, he has no malice for his executioners.
Jesus prays: “Father, forgive them...” (Luke 23:34 NIV).
For those who believe Jesus is God’s only Son, Jesus has immeasurable power.
The Son of God doesn’t need to entertain accusations or endure abuse. Jesus doesn’t need to win the hearts and minds of anyone. Jesus can snap his fingers, and everyone will fall on their knees.
But Jesus will not compel compliance. Jesus will chide us and challenge us but he will not coerce us.
The powerful Son of God will woo and win followers by his example of loving and suffering service.
This is the approach of Jesus. And maybe it is the best approach for the church.
In an age when few people have time for organized religion, the church has lost a lot of power.
Some people are mourning this loss. Some are reorganizing politically to regain some clout.
This isn’t all that surprising. We like power for ourselves and for the groups we are aligned with.
But I wonder if there might be something to be gained in embracing the current (relative) disempowerment of the church.
I wonder if that priest who suggested that the church is “better without power” was a living example of it.
On that day, I didn’t expect to meet him. I had expected someone else to answer the door. But then and there, I was face to face with the leader of a religious community.
He wasn’t there to extract anything from me, or promote any particular agenda. He was there to meet my needs.
Maybe the disempowerment of the church puts us in a place where stripped of the ability to order around others, we might consider serving them.
Rev. Steve Filyk is minister at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, which is located in South Kamloops, at 1136 Sixth Ave.
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