December 12, 2012

The Church in Winter

A cold and steady rain is glazing the fallen oak leaves in the yard, reminding me of yet another task undone before the grip of winter. Somewhere, 50 miles to the north and west, this rain is falling as snow in the highlands, snarling traffic, slowing commerce, chasing away our last illusions that a late Indian summer will yet postpone the inevitable. I search the garage for the boots with the waffle tread.

In seasons like this we wear sensible shoes, or else change into them when venturing down uncertain sidewalks. Chances are we won’t be taking a confident, bold stride until sometime late in March. All things are careful, guarded, tentative. The law of the conservation of mass and energy.

At last Sunday’s all-day all-church work bee, the three deacons who showed up spent until noon caulking drafty windows and installing weather stripping, grumbling that they would surely say no when the nominating committee comes calling next June. “Can’t help feeling we’re closing the place up for the winter,” said one as he stretched a sheet of heavy gauge plastic across a window frame. “Feels like the church is going into hibernation.”
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For the northern three quarters of North America the arrival of December signals a general slowing of most forms of life, including church life. Those believers fortunate enough to live in sun-kissed regions of the South and West will find this hard to believe: aren’t all days everywhere as warm and friendly as Sabbaths in Miami or Phoenix? Evangelists routinely finish campaigns before the holidays begin: who will come out to hear the truth about hellfire in the middle of a blizzard? Prayer meetings move to smaller, closer locations, or else go on hiatus. Even the three weeks of December spent singing Christmas carols and beaming at the children in the Sabbath school Nativity play don’t yield sustained warmth and momentum. “Move slowly,” a cold east wind whispers. “Don’t expect much, and then you won’t be disappointed.”

And yet, for all this, we are no less His light in January than in June, and no less the salt so needed by a tasteless world in snowdrifts than in summer. Jesus’ declaration “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt. 5:14) is neither weather-related nor season-specific. It is His identity statement for His church even when we fear to venture out, and perhaps especially when we have already lowered our expectations to conform to seasonal realities. The Sun of righteousness, who rises with healing in His wings, ministers year-round, and so should the church that gathers in His name. If we reduce our witness to the spring and fall, omitting the weeks from Thanksgiving through mid-March, and mid-June through Labor Day, we effectively become a half-time church with something less than a whole-life gospel.

Is this then a call for defying the elements, facing due north into a biting wind in the name of the gospel? No, I lived too long in the lake-effect windward of the Great Lakes to be unrealistic about the challenges of winter to a congregation’s schedule of activities. But it is a call for creative “reframing” of the great white void that winter has become for too many Adventist congregations. Why not use these months for active telephone or e-mail ministry, for phone-conference prayer meetings and virtual training sessions?

Why not focus on Bible correspondence classes, deepening your own knowledge and cultivating the faith of Jesus in those He is calling to Himself and His church? The hour you spend on the phone with a new believer, talking through the real-life challenges of maturing discipleship, will yield far more for the kingdom than any number of televised sermons.

Beneath the snowdrifts, the kingdom grows. Below the wind gusts, the Spirit speaks. When the elements are least friendly, Jesus visits His people with gifts of warmth and wisdom and renewal.

After all, that town built on a hill looks all the brighter when its unhidden light is reflected on the fields of snow. 

Bill Knott is editor of the Adventist Review. This article was published December 13, 2012.