Lessons Learned from Christ’s Church

By Bruce E. Shields

It bothers and often mystifies me to hear people talk about their faith in God and Jesus Christ and, in the next breath, their lack of interest in the church.

Perhaps we professor types share some responsibility for this, since we so often deal with the Bible, church history, and Christian doctrine—yes, and even Christian ministries—as though they have little connection with real people in real congregations. We present the ideal Christian community and then send students out into real—that is, messy—congregations.

I recall reading once that the church is a little like Noah’s ark. If it weren’t for the storm outside we wouldn’t be able to stand the smell inside. Well, I have grown to love the smell, sound, taste, look, and feel of Christ’s church—his real and often messy church; and I want to tell you some of the experiences that have led me to that love.

A CHALLENGE TO MENTOR

Lee Robinson was the preacher at my home church, First Christian, Tarentum, Pennsylvania, as I grew up. After my decision to become a preacher I spent time with him, just soaking up his wisdom. He was a part-time minister and full-time scientist in the Alcoa laboratory. You won’t find him listed in history books or collections of sermons, although he was a fine thinker and preacher.

He told me once that Jesus left this earth with 11 men he had discipled (we might say “mentored” or “coached”). If a person can equal that by the end of a ministerial career, he or she can be considered successful. That lesson has never left me.

LEARNING IN APPALACHIA

I got my introduction to Appalachian church life in Tennessee, up route 19 at Whitehead Hill. The church was called Whitehead Hill Christian Church of Christ then, and there was a parenthesis under the name on the sign: “(Whiteheads came here in 1777).”

An old couple, Mr. and Mrs. Miller, who lived just 100 yards or so from the church, took care of the building. They built a fire in the iron stove on Sunday mornings in the winter, and they prepared the juice and bread for Communion. However, I noticed they never partook of Communion. I asked about it and was told they didn’t think they were worthy.

Even as a college freshman I knew there was something wrong with that thinking, but I had also seen enough thoughtless partaking—enough lack of reverence and respect for the bread and cup—that I grew to appreciate the high sacramental concept of people who didn’t have the vocabulary to think about it in that way.

The next year I was actually paid a little to be youth and music minister at the Central Holston Christian Church up near Bristol, Tennessee—$5 a week, as I recall, which was doubled later. I watched and listened a lot there, realizing I had a lot to learn.

Sam Morton was the patriarchal elder there—a highly respected older (I thought “ancient” at the time) man. His prayers at the Communion table were memorable, but what sticks in my mind is the way he dressed. Bib overalls, washed and pressed, and an old sport coat—that was the uniform for Sundays. That was his Sunday best, and I figured God was pleased even if style setters might snicker.

I also watched the preacher and his wife. Ruben Sims was nearing retirement age, I figured; but he was full of wisdom. My fiancée was going with me on weekends that year, and so we watched for marriage wisdom. While eating dinner with them one day, they laughed about helping each other with memories, and Mrs. Sims said, “Between the two of us, we know just about everything.”

Her overstatement sank in to us as a lesson in teamwork in ministry. No one person can know enough to make a successful marriage or a successful ministry.

Carrie Edwards was poor—dirt poor, as people say. She lived in a little shack halfway up the mountain in Embreeville, Tennessee, southern Washington County. I was a college student preaching in the little church in that community, and she was often there on Sundays. When she missed services for a few weeks, one of the elders and I would call on her on Saturday, when I was free to be there.

I recall one afternoon I went to see her by myself. I knocked on her door and could hear her moving around inside, but she didn’t come right to the door. I could barely see through the glass in the door that she had gone into her back-room-kitchen.

She wasn’t trying to hide. I figured out she was washing the snuff out of her mouth with a dipper of water from her water bucket. She didn’t want the preacher to see her with snuff in her mouth. We had a nice conversation after she finally opened the door.

My most vivid memory of Carrie comes from my last Sunday with the church. Nearly everybody else was there that morning, but Carrie was missing. After the service the church had a little reception for us, and during the party on the lawn I caught sight of her. She was limping down the road carrying a big bucket. When she got there she came right over to us and presented us with the bucketful of ripe huckleberries she had picked off the bushes high up on the ridge.

No gift has ever meant more to me than that one—not only the berries, but the burden. I recall only one gift from that farewell party—it came from a dirt-poor, lame, uneducated, snuff-dipping, loving servant of Jesus Christ. She taught me that everybody has something to give.

DEATH, AND BIRTH

My first full-time ministry with the Cogan House Christian Church near Trout Run, Pennsylvania, lasted only four years, but it left me with so many memories and lessons that I find it hard to focus on just one. So I’ll try two.

Jess Taylor was a gentle elder. He had been a farmer, but had turned the farm over to his two sons and retired. Then he was stricken with cancer and within a few months he was bedridden. One Sunday evening I got a telephone call that he was not expected to live through the night and would I come? Of course!

His wife, two sons, and daughter, along with their spouses and children, were all there, plus a nurse, who was the wife of another of our elders. As Jess breathed his last, the family, the nurse, and I were gathered around the bed. What a privilege! I had officiated at several funerals before, but had never watched death happen. They taught me about a good death that night.

Cogan House was also where our son James was born. Our world fell apart when the doctor told us he had Down syndrome. Actually, that nomenclature was not yet common. They called his condition “Mongolism.”

One of our deacons and his family lived on the road we drove on our way home that day. We stopped. We had to talk about it with somebody. Later that evening we visited the homes of two elders. At each house those loving people held the baby and us. They wept with us and supported us.

Two years later, when we were preparing to move on from that community, we visited those three families again to thank them for their help during that time. They all looked at us with surprise. They were puzzled that we would thank them. They said they thought we were helping them and through them the church. I heard in their responses Jesus’ words, “When did we see you . . . ?” I learned about selfless Christian service from them.

LOOKING BEYOND OURSELVES

We moved from there to Princeton and soon on to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where for the next eight years I learned lesson after lesson while pastoring an urban church. I was in my third year of seminary when I went there, so I might have known a little more than I had before.

I tried something there that appears to have worked. The church was small and struggling, but determined to grow. At one board meeting I suggested we develop a mission program. One man said the church could hardly afford to pay me my $50 weekly salary. How could it add missions to the budget? I told them I was willing to take the risk because I thought we would not begin to grow until we began to look beyond ourselves.

I am convinced the decision to start a mission program was the turning point in that congregation’s life. We doubled the membership and tripled the budget in the next few years until we could construct a beautiful worship center and begin to hold our heads high in the community.

The church had been meeting in a basement. Later I told them I had to preach the basement out of them before moving them out of the basement. I’m convinced a church will die if it focuses all its energy on itself.

I guess I heard some of my own preaching, since when we heard of the need of a pastor in Tübingen, Germany, we went for it. Five years preaching in German and dealing with a different culture and people with different mind-sets offered many lessons, some positive and some negative.

We were riding at a typical German speed on the Autobahn with one of our church families in 1974, when one lesson came home to me. Our family had spent the previous summer in the States and were glad to be back in stable Germany. Some of you know what was happening here that summer. I confided in our hosts that day that we had checked out a few possible ministries in the States but decided to return to Germany.

I thought the husband was going to drive right off the road. After he calmed down a bit he said he was shocked we had not discussed such a possibility with the congregation before flying to the States. “Is the church a family or not?” That was the gist of the conversation.

A lesson in the nature of the church came home to me that day in a frighteningly direct manner. If the leaders of the church can’t be open and honest with one another, then it isn’t the church.

LESSONS AND ACTION

I have had helpful courses and great teachers in a number of fine institutions of higher education, but none has taught me more than Christ’s church itself. With the help of God’s people, members of the church, many lessons have come home to me: the nature of the church, the need for an outward look, the blessing of selfless service, the peace present in sharing the pain and victory of death, the facts that everybody has something to give and together we can know all we need to know, reverence for the sacraments, the importance of focusing on persons—all these and many more.

So now I challenge my students to get involved in the lives of God’s people—the life of ordinary congregations. That is where the action is. That is where the wisdom is. That is where the loving service is.

The church—whether we call it traditional, contemporary, emergent, or missional—the church is the body of Christ at work in the world. Even Jesus couldn’t teach his disciples everything they needed to know. The book of Acts is the continuation of his teaching as his followers learned from one another. It begins with reference to a book, but the rest is experience.




Bruce Shields is the Russell F. and Marian J. Blowers professor of Christian ministries emeritus at Emmanuel School of Religion, Johnson City, Tennessee.

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