I'm going to start with a story. One evening, when I was 17 years old and had not been a Christian for many months, I was invited to a barbecue. A retired gentleman, dapper in his blazer and shiny shoes, asked me 'Where do you worship?'. Immediately, I thought of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, and of how 'the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, worship the Father....The hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshippers will workshio the Father in spirit and in truth...' (John 4:21-24). So I replied, that I worshipped wherever I happened to be at that time, whether that be in my room, or out on my bike, or walking along the road. The man laughed and asked again, 'I mean, with which fellowship do you worship?' The barbecue I was at was with an organisation with Fellowship in its name, so I thought quickly and replied, 'Here. This is a fellowship, so I am worshipping here!' The man looked at me like I was a bit crazy, and we both went on to other conversations. I went home very upset; I really had not understood what the question was about. I had never heard the phrase 'where do you worship?' used to mean 'where do you go to church?', and I had never heard the term 'fellowship' used for a church. At the time, I was mortified because I knew I had missed the point, but did not know what the conversation had been about. Looking back, I see it as a useful illustration.
Beware Christian jargon!
It is easy to assume, especially when one has been moving in Christian circles for some time, that people understand the kind of phrases we tend to use. However, we must remember that especially in this current generation, people will not understand. As a young Christian I felt alienated and upset through my misunderstandings; how much more so may people who have never set foot inside a church be made to stumble through thoughtless use of 'jargon'.
In some ways, this was a digression, but I wanted to make a serious point. We may assume that we are all on the same page when we talk about things such as 'community', 'fellowship' or 'ministry'. Once, in a country far from the UK, we made a comment about what we saw as a lack of fellowship amongst those who attended a church together; the pastor looked absolutely astonished, and said, 'Did you not see everybody having a cup of tea togther at the end of the service?' You see, to some people, the absolute pinnacle of meaningful Christian fellowship is a cup of tea together after the service on a Sunday. Other readers here will perhaps feel more like I do, that true 'fellowship' consists of a shared life, of a sacrificial love, of a genuine concern and compassion which motivates to action, to an open door and availability for those in need. But to others, this really does cross into a foreign realm.
I've recently considered many ways in which having a slightly alternative lifestyle involving both work (and that being work in more than one continent) and home schooling children can lead to unique opportunities for the formation of community.
But what about 'ministry'?
What is ministry anyway? The verb 'to minister' originally meant to serve or help one another; overtones of religious duties have become superimposed upon that, such that some of the original meaning is lost. Basically, it is to serve one another, both those within and those outside the church.
So, how can I do it with my 'lifestyle'?
I think I'll start by considering some of the things I cannot do. There are times when I feel quite guilty about this, and I have also heard the challenge from other Christian parents that homeschooling is fundamentally selfish as it reduces our availability and opportunity for 'ministry'.
So, what can I not do?
- I find it difficult to have 'deep and meaningful' conversations.
- It is not always easy to visit those who are unwell or feeling fragile (over the past couple of years, I've had a couple of friends who have told me that they would like to see me, but would not be able to cope with the boys; and given that I haven't had an easy childcare solution, I have not been able to visit as I would have wished.)
- I am not able to be as 'intense' or focussed as if I did not have boys to be watching. There have been occasions when people have popped round (often bang on dinner, bath and bed time) and seemed a bit frustrated that I have not been able to engage in these type of conversations (although I have made clear they are welcome to help put the boys to bed and then stay for a cup of tea!)
- I am not so able to do things in small, enclosed spaces. What I mean by that is that if somebody acutally would like to spend some 'quality' time with me, then the best thing to do would be to join us for a walk in the park. The boys could run ahead, go exploring etc; but the person who was joining me would need to be willing to wrap up warm, potentially get rained on, and be willing to go off the beaten track into the undergrowth.
But sometimes by dwelling on these things, perhaps feeling quite guilty, I can forget the things that can be done, and things that can potentially be done even better given our 'lifestyle choices'. For example:
- One of us will be based at home during the day (although is likely to be out in a park, by the river, in a library, art gallery or museum, or off having some other kind of adventure). There are not many things we do where somebody would not be welcome to join us. If somebody were to text us, we would invite them to join; one or two people do this, and I would say we have really strong, encouraging relationships
- We always have plenty of food, enough for an unexpected guest, and lots of strong coffee (or a range of tea for the caffeine sensitive). If somebody was to drop by at mealtime, they would be most welcome.
- There are times when people who are needy, worn out and discouraged do not need intense, one on one time. They might think that they do, but in fact it is far more beneficial to forget the problems for a while and just relax, run around, climb trees, forage for fruit, explore uncharted territories (the undergrowth in the park) etc. I have seen that to be true in my own life and in that of others. We saw it with stressed missionaries last winter.
- I can pray. Often, as I walk around with the boys, I have time when I can bring the needs and concerns of my friends before the throne of grace.
So my 'ministry', or more appropriately, the ministry of our family, also does not fit into a box. I cannot easily say that I am involved in X, Y and Z and have these clearly defined roles, and am 'ministering' to these specific people. I can't easily quanitfy it. But I have people passing through my home. A frequent conversation that takes place is when I am introduced to somebody, and we are trying to work out where we know one another from. It might then be realised, 'I know where I met you! It was at your house'; because we often host student groups or have random, spontanoeous gatherings. We are always willing to host guest overnight, and again, this often leads onto a strong and challenging Christian relationship.
What is the point of this blog post? It is not to justify my own existence and choices! But rather, it is to challenge the stereotypes. It is very easy to focus on what you cannot do, what is not currently possible, of your limitations; and it is relatively easy from there to become discouraged. However, let me encourage you! I believe that one of the greatest needs of modern society is for family, for relationships. If you are home educating your children, you have also chosen to invest in your family in a sacrificial manner. In fact, it is likely that you are more available for 'ministry', for spontaneously reaching out to those who are needy and lonely than the average family which spends a lot of time juggling between both parents working and taking children back and forward to childcare or extracurricular activities.
We can indeed minister, but it does not fit into a box. I've reflected a few times here on my good friends, role models and mentors. These women were not heavily involved in standardised 'ministries' such as structured activities or progammes within a church, and yet I would say had the greatest ministry of all: an open home and a shared life.
Let us pray that we can use those opportunities that present themselves to us day by day.