Some Reflections on Our Time at Annual Conference
By Mike Ivaska
In retrospect, this is really the only post I should have written about our time at the Northwest Ministry Network's annual conference. Because I already posted a little about the conference and described the theme, etc., I will only offer some reflections in this post.
Our time at annual conference is always valuable and I always appreciate this church's help and support in going. It's good for ministry teams to get together and do things outside of the daily grind, and this conference is a great time for the pastoral staff and spouses to get away together. Important conversations take place, and the distance provides some needed perspective and fresh thinking. Unless someone decided to skip everything, there is really no way that a conference works out to be a "vacation," but annual conference is always refreshing and enjoyable.
Reflecting on this year's theme (ONE: One Gospel, One Mission, One Church) has highlighted for me how Vashon Island Community Church really is not very deeply connected to our district and to other churches in our Assemblies of God tribe. Some of this comes naturally from living on an island. Some of this comes from the independent nature of most small AG churches. And some of this honestly comes from the fact that few of us who call VICC home do so because of denominational, or even theological, affiliation. Those who call VICC home do so either because this is where we met Jesus, this is where we have found Christian friends, or this is the church on Vashon whose preaching and/or worship most fits our taste. And, of course, most of us would say that this is the church in which God has placed us - and I would agree! Nevertheless, as our world continues to shrink, and as Vashon becomes less and less isolated from the outside world (and more and more a suburb of Seattle), I think it is important to deepen our connections to our fellow Network churches - of course, without losing our sense of independence, which is a hallmark of Assemblies of God polity to begin with.
Another important emphasis at this year's conference is our churches' unity with their surrounding communities. Historically, I think it is fair to say that VICC's attitude toward and relationship with the surrounding island community has been less than stellar. Mostly, we have just operated completely independently of anything else going on in our community. Because of clashing values, there has also been at times a steady stream of antagonism toward the community, or a feeling that the community is antagonistic toward us (though in reality I am not even sure the community is very aware of us). I even remember one former deacon of years ago say that he felt that living on Vashon was like living in Sodom, and he wondered out loud if maybe he was even sinning living here! Needless to say, indifference and hostility are not the only feelings people in our church have felt toward our neighbors, but they have been more common than one might be comfortable admitting. If Vashon Island Community Church is going to reach our neighbors with the gospel, and if we are going to find other gospel-believing churches to partner with, those old feelings (which I do believe are mostly in the past) are going to need to be uprooted and removed. If we feel hostility toward our neighbors then we need to ask ourselves hard questions about how much we view the world through the eyes of Jesus Christ.
Lastly, I was impressed by the need to reconsider the very way we do church. By this I don't mean that we need to rearrange the furniture or change the names of our Bible study groups. I mean we need to reconsider the "believe-behave-belong" pattern where people remain outsiders until they come to faith and find acceptance within the church mostly only after their behavior changes. This isn't a policy we have, of course. And I am also not saying that we, as a church, are consciously unkind or judgmental. But I think that I, at least, mostly want to see "outsiders" get on board with us and what we are doing. I want people to wake up on a Sunday morning to attend my church. Then I want them to be convinced by my sermon and become a Christian. Then I want them to clear up a couple evenings a week to attend our Bible studies which may well be over their heads or operate on assumptions they don't have, at least not yet. Then I want them to start looking and acting like us, at which point their assimilation will be complete.
In reality, however, engaging outsiders has to begin with wherever they are. Then, as relationships build, "outsiders" have to be welcomed into our gatherings and lives while still being allowed to be who they are and think what they think. Of course we would hope for and expect them to be respectful if they came to a church service, but only on the basis of respect we have already shown them as we have learned about their lives, experiences, opinions, and beliefs. When we look at Jesus' relations with his followers, even to an extent with the twelve disciples, people belonged in Jesus' group long before they had a completely clear grasp of who he was. Their faith developed as a process of being exposed to the love and teachings of Jesus and experiencing that love as participants in his community of disciples.
How this works out in a modern day church, of course, has to be worked out. The gospel message and the truth of the Bible would have to remain central, even as Jesus did not waffle on his message whether he was spending time with prostitutes or debating with scholars. And membership in a modern church would need to remain limited to believers only. There is a distinction between those who have given their lives to Jesus Christ and those who have not yet done so. But our gatherings, our friendships, our conversations around dinner, have to become places where people with genuine doubts, strongly-held alternative beliefs, and lifestyles outside the biblical standards find themselves welcomed as neighbors rather than opponents, listened to the way we all want to be listened to, and shown the truth of Jesus Christ both in word and in deed. I don't think we are too far away from being just such a church, and at times we nail it, but I for one know I need to keep moving forward.