“It’s like loaves and fishes in here!” That was my comment as I made my way through the Lion’s Club building at Olcott Park for our All-Church/Outreach Picnic.

Just two days before, Carolyn Olsen had caught me before worship and said, “We’re in trouble: there are 66 college students signed up for the picnic.”

So I climbed into the pulpit, put on my “Jesus” voice, and said, “You yourselves give them something to eat!” (Matthew 14:16)

That’s just what you did. People doubled up on what they were planning to bring. We had dishes contributed by people who didn’t even attend the picnic. We ate. The football players ate. They ate some more. They took leftover chicken home. People took their leftover contributions home if they had family to share them with.

And then we gathered up four boxes full of leftover food that didn’t have a home, and I got to spend a day later that week getting rid of it. As part of our informal food-donation program, I called up some of our guests and offered them what we had. Add another 15 or 20 meals to the total served.

This story was on my mind last week as the Presbytery Council continued our discussion of Reggie McNeal’s book, The Present Future (see the July newsletter). We spent some time chewing on McNeal’s claim that “the reason for much burnout, lack of commitment, and low performance in our churches among staff and members is directly related to the failure to declare the clear results we are after. We don’t know when we are winning.” We struggled with how to talk about results in a way that doesn’t hinge on the numbers we’ve traditionally used: membership, budget performance, or worship attendance. It’s not that these numbers don’t matter in appropriate context, but we have to be honest that our numbers may never look like they did a generation or two ago. How, then, can we know whether or not we’re winning?

Well, the All-Church/Outreach Picnic was a clear win in my book. We can be glad that we fed so many, that there was so much left over, and that we even came out ahead on the money donated versus what we spent on fried chicken. However, those numbers all point to the real winning score: dozens of us were joyfully engaged in welcoming others to our community. We spent a day (and some of us much more time than that) giving away signs of God’s generous love. We can count the number of people welcomed, but we must keep even that number in the context of the deep joy of sharing God’s love in this way.

The other numbers reveal that joy, too, but always in context. Take the contributions toward chicken: we “came out ahead,” but that only points to a more profound success. I would venture to say that if we had just asked people for money – no picnic attached – it wouldn’t have turned up. As it is, we went out on a limb, and the money was there to support us. That’s not a fundraising tactic, but it is a testament to the spiritual value of the activity. If we find at some point that the money begins to run out, that may indicate that we’re being called away from fried chicken to a different kind of ministry – not that this appears to be happening any time soon.

In the rhythm of our life together, we’re approaching “stewardship time.” You should receive a letter about our annual pledge campaign in the next couple of weeks, and as always we will appreciate your prayerful and generous support. However, the point of the pledge isn’t, and never has been, strictly to raise money for the church. The point is to invest in the worship, activities, and relationships that deepen our spiritual lives and extend God’s welcome to others. In the way of the world, those things cost money, but our philosophy is to care for the mission first and let the money follow.

I know that we often get a little tense when pastors start to talk about money, so in place of the word “money” in this conversation, you may want to substitute “time,” “energy,” or “people.” I don’t want this reflection to come with a guilt trip. The point is that we can tell what occupies our lives by where our resources are going. We can tell where God is acting by watching where our investment – of time, effort, or money – comes back to us with joy.

God is indeed active in our church. Thanks be to God for the courage to follow the Spirit, and for all those times and places when the Spirit so boldly arrives among us.

In Christ’s peace,

Nathan

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