Considering the Church as chaplain
Canada is, for all intents and purposes, a post-Christian nation. That’s hardly a point of debate these days, even if we don’t fully agree on what it means.
More to the point, what can or should Jesus-followers do about it?
I’ve met many chaplains serving in the military, hospitals, prisons and airports. These people have a special and honourable call. I also think they may give us insight into what it means to be the Church in a post-Christian era.
In my past career as a seminary professor I had the privilege of seeing several of my students become chaplains, many of them in the Canadian Forces. I learned chaplaincy was all about the ministry of presence, as they often put it. In the military that means being with soldiers wherever soldiers are, whether in training, deployment, in grief and trauma – and yes, even at religious services.
Recently I spoke to a chaplain who serves at a major Canadian airport. Before our conversation I had a limited understanding of what chaplains might do in an airport. Frankly I was a bit skeptical of their importance.
"Chaplaincy is a ministry of being there," the chaplain said. "Airports are often places filled with quiet crisis. Whether people are going to an emergency meeting, on the way to take care of a sick relative or leaving on short notice to attend a family funeral, people often turn to the chapel – and chaplains – to help them through those difficult times."
As I reflected on these words I began to wonder if chaplaincy might in fact be a helpful model for the Church in a society increasingly suspicious or even unfriendly toward faith.
Chaplaincy is all about the ministry of presence.
On the one hand we could withdraw into small communities of faith where we devote our resources to supporting each other and the next generations of committed followers in the midst of encroaching darkness. Such a monastic approach has worked at some points in history. For some of us today, that may in fact be the most important option to exercise.
On the other hand we could step up our game by strategically seeking to infuse all kinds of dedicated believers into influential positions in society, whether in education, law, health, government, business or media. In so doing we can hope our society might begin to see the Kingdom coming to earth – if not immediately, in a generation or two. This is also a good option provided we are wholeheartedly willing to support youth entering these vocations and see them as fulfilling the Church’s commission to go into the world and make disciples of all nations.
But chaplaincy is also a surprisingly good model for thinking about the Church’s ministry in our day. Our churches are already present in communities. Like chaplaincies in general, sometimes we are small and often significantly underfunded. But we are there. And many of us have been there a long time already.
The question is: Do our communities know we are there?
My airport chaplain friend lamented this was one of the harder parts of his work – making sure people knew chaplains were available to travellers.
Does anyone know we are here? How we answer that question might yield painful insights. But asking such a question is a good place to start. Because whatever else we might think we need to do in a post-Christian society, we need to think and pray about what it means, really and truly, to be present as Christ’s Body in the midst of people who still experience pain, crisis and need – and still need someone to care.
I read about such community outreach in every issue of Faith Today. In the current issue there’s the counselling offered to students at Waterloo Pentecostal Assembly (page 18), for example, or the ministry of the Raw Carrot soup company (page 12).
Jesus followers are called both to "love one another" in such a way that "everyone will know" (John 13:34–35) and also to "love your neighbour as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18 and quoted in many New Testament books). For all that God asks us to speak and do, let’s not forget about opportunities that arise from faithfully "being there."
David Guretzki of Ottawa is executive publisher of Faith Today and serves The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada as executive vice-president and resident theologian.