Stephen Dale | Speaking of religion: Seeking first
Before I entered ministry I worked in information technology in Boston for many years. I spent my days creating websites, building security systems, networks, and phone systems for networking startups. It was fun, in its own odd way.
Though I am full time in ministry now, part of how I support my ministry is that I continue to develop websites, mostly for non-profits and churches, but also for some small businesses.
The other day I was in client meeting about one such site. The meeting had several people in attendance other than myself: the organization's leader, and several key leaders of various parts of the organization.
The first thing I ask a client when I'm planning a website is this: what's the first thing you want someone who visits your website to know about your organization. No matter how many people are in the room, I always get five or six different answers. The product people want their products to be first. The leadership wants information about the company to be first. The marketing people want, well, marketing to be first. Everyone has their own idea of the most significant thing their group does, and they all want that particular thing to be highlighted.
Churches, well, they're the same. Each member of the church has their own understanding of the first, or most significant, most important thing their church does, and each thinks that's what should be highlighted. One the website, in the community, in the Sunday bulletin, any place their church is somehow promoted.
They're all different.
And it leads to conflict. One person says the church's ministry to the poor is paramount. Another says it's their work in the addiction community. Someone else swears it's their inclusive theology. Another voice says, no, it's our music.
It's hard to get at what's the most important thing, because something different is most important to each person.
And maybe that's good! Maybe that means the church is active, and vital, and transforming the community with God's love.
But still, there's got to be one thing that overrides all others.
Luckily, Jesus gives us the answer. Whether our passion is in service to the marginalized, or evangelism, or creating community in our worship spaces, or whatever our personal ministry drive might be, Jesus reminds us:
But strive first for the kingdom of God and God's righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. [Matthew 6:33, NRSV]
As followers of Jesus, we are called to go out and transform the world into something that resembles God's kingdom, here on earth, as it is in heaven. And no matter what we do, no matter how we align ourselves in our communities, it's God's community on which we should focus, first and foremost.
As we think about our priorities, this priority should be paramount. Each of the things that we do, from worship, to service, to community support, should be viewed through that lens: is what we are doing for God's glory, and the glory of God's kingdom or is it for something we are doing for some earthly reason: attendance growth, increased finances, or public acclaim?
Are we working for ourselves, or is the work we do aimed at fulfilling the first and greatest commandment: that we love God with all that is within us, with a love that is expressed most authentically and powerfully in the way we love one another?
It's great to walk into a church on a Sunday morning and see the pews, or chairs, full of people. It's wonderful to hear the music, inspiring us to an ideal of holiness, lifting our praise and worship. It's outstanding to live into the community, walking with those who need companionship on their journey, whatever their journey may be.
But as we do this work, let's remember our focus: that we love God with all we have and all we are, and that we strive first for God's kingdom, that it might be made manifest in this world, and not merely hoped for in the next. Let's live, as communities of faith, and as a community at large, to embody the grace of Christ, and the love of God, a grace that gives without expecting recompense, a love that forgives without holding a grudge.
A love that sacrifices, without hesitation, for the sake of one another, and for the sake of the kingdom of God. Here. Now. Today.
Rev. Stephen Dale is a pastor of the United Methodist Church who has come to Bennington to start the AfterDark faith community in Bennington, and is also serving as the pastor of the Pownal United Methodist Church. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (802) 440-0217, or at https://www.benningtonafterdark.org.
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