Chaplains and Spider Webs

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“Is this person relevant or irrelevant to my task.”

A senior pastor is asked de facto to take responsibility for the continuance and growth of a voluntary association. This requires that the community be envisioned, motivated and equipped. This is not an easy task. Of course in reality these things are built on multiple factors. In truth it takes a community to build a community. However the Senior Pastor often finds that their community will regard them either as an albatross or a silver bullet. Under such pressure the danger is that a pastor’s interest in people will reduce around a single utilitarian question; “Is this person relevant or irrelevant to my task.”

People inside a church community will sense this utilitarian vibe and may either be turned off by it or buy in to the jockeying for position that such a vibe often throws up. People outside the church also pick up on this vibe so that no matter how friendly the people and relevant the programs there is always a hint of predation in the church’s invitations- a hint of “‘Come into my parlor’ said the spider to the fly.” Even healthy and happy churches can find people to be wary of their invitations because they have seen or experienced that predatory or proselytizing energy elsewhere. It is one of the forces pushing new generations away from the structures of our churches. Post-moderns don’t want to come into our (the church’s) world.

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But don’t assume that “organized religion” is what is being rejected. Because while the corporate structures of congregational life in the West are experiencing a dramatic decline (most dramatic in the area of 20-somethings) there are other organisations of Christian life that are positively flowering. Development organisations that take Christian workers out of the Christian ghetto and into the world to serve and help humanity in immediate, physical and vital ways – agencies like World Vision and Compassion – are positively booming.

Another pattern of ministry that is currently booming in my country – Australia – is that of Chaplaincy. Chaplaincy puts an overtly religious worker into the worlds of people totally outside the church scene with an agenda to serve and support the well-being and spirituality of those who live and work in that world. Chaplains are being hired by schools, colleges, businesses, armed forces, police stations, sports clubs and (in the UK) even shopping malls.

My experience is that people are un-threatened by chaplains because the chaplain has no parlor! (S)he is simply there for others. Being a chaplain is a way of being present in the worlds of others in a way that is highly relevant to the needs and paranoias of postmodern people. By being a chaplain a person says “I value this world. I want to be a part of it and I want to support you in what you are doing.”It is a way of forming of an open-handed relationship in which ministry is relationally led. Through developing a presence and friendship in that niche-world interactions can follow that are pastoral, supportive of spirituality, or personal and faith-development – just as the need happens to be. I have found people to be very open to talking with a “religious” person about personal and “spiritual” things when that fear of proselytizing has been taken out of the picture.

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 In Australia, the rate of church attendance is a fraction of what it is in the States. Sport, on the other hand; now there’s at the heart of Australia’s cultural identity! If Australian churches could put a chaplain into every sports club in the country they would immediately be in contact with 75% of Australian families. 30% of all Australians participate in organised sport at least once a week – most twice! Compare that with the 7% / 8% who are intersecting with churches on a monthly basis! In sporting activity people interact in a setting of vibrancy that makes everyone involved feel alive and engaged with the present moment. Compare the scene around a sporting activity and the scene around the average morning service…And sports coaches are finding young Australians desperate for a pastoral adult presence in their lives.

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Melbourne Football Club Chaplain, Cameron Butler notes: “The closest thing to a pastor for most young Australians is their local club coach.” Cameron Butler is the National Director of Sports Chaplaincy Australia. I met Cameron in Melbourne back in 2010 and I remember him mentioning that the CEO of Australia’s largest sporting league (VCFL) had invited him to appoint chaplains to the 880 clubs in their region. Invited! Pastors invited into the world of others. That’s what chaplaincy is about. And sports chaplaincy is just one of many worlds where this form of pastoring is thriving.

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Melbourne Football Club Chaplain Cameron Butler

To an anxious mindset, scattering our best workers into the fragmentary worlds of various niche-communities may look like a recipe to dissipate the church’s strength. But in my own ministry I have seen four new churches spring up from work that began by putting the worker into the world of others with a chaplain’s hat on. (St George’s Holborn Student Congregation in London, UK, The Pan African Fellowship and the International Society of Christian Students in Portsmouth UK, and Jesus Generation in Australia would all be examples.)

In the past the church has said to the world “come into my parlor.” But today we need to reach an arachnophobic generation. I believe if we will send workers into the harvest who are happy to serve under other banners and serve as chaplains in the worlds of others, then the potential is huge. It is one powerful way in which we can fulfill our Godly calling as a prophet-hood of believers and a kingdom of priests to greater effect than ever before.