Parade Lights

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At the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch we’ve been working hard for the past month to get our float ready for the Christmas parade. To be honest, float-building isn’t something I look forward to but it has been a joy for me to labor through it with the group of boys I work with and to see them in turn take joy from the showing of their hard work. After spending so much time on something that I barely wanted to be involved in to begin with, it feels great to finally be finished. But as always, the something I didn’t really want turned into something I really needed.

The night of the Christmas parade I sat in the cab of the truck, the float lit up behind me, idling forward inch by inch as my community, thousands of faces, gathered in the dark to see the procession of light. I heard “Merry Christmas” called out from a hundred voices devoid of self-consciousness, voices of simple joy. I watched children’s faces lift up as parade lights splendored in their eyes and they cried out for treats. I sat in the midst of it and was moved to see this swell of joy in the world and what’s more–what’s most–was that it was Christ that called the hour. Whether they believed or not, whether they meant it or not didn’t matter, they were here and the world was put on hold for an hour in the name of the One.

As I towed the float down the road with misty eyes, happy to be a part of the rising, I began to notice a strange thing. People saw our float and recognized our name and they leaped to their feet and cheered. They clapped and smiled and waved at us. As we’d approach I could hear whispers running in the crowd, “It’s the Ranch,” “Here comes the Boys’ Ranch!”, and they’d yell to me “We love you! Keep up the great work!”, “Thanks for all you do!”, or “You guys are doing great things!” I’d smile and wave and be gracious, and I meant it every time. But the thing that left me uneasy was that I don’t once recall being at a parade and seeing any sort of similar reaction to a church float as it passed. There might be an eruption of cheering when the Baptist float passed a large gathering of its members but then those same members would be silent as they watched the Methodist float roll by. No whispers ran of the coming of Christians. No praise for their work well done.

That bothered me then, and it bothers me still while I write this. Isn’t the church doing great things in the community? Shouldn’t people stand up and cheer to know that the followers of Christ are on the move?

The only conclusion I’ve been able to come to is that when people think of an organization like the Boys Ranch they instantly connect us with service to children and communities but when people think of a church they think of service, not to the community as a whole, but to the church itself. I don’t think this perception is entirely wrong. The church as a whole (I know I’m talking in generalities here) is concerned with bettering itself and its members, not bettering the community it’s a part of. I know that isn’t our intent as Christians but I wonder if that isn’t what is happening. How good would it be if people associated the Church (instantly) with community service, with family services, with helping make the world brighter. Are we doing these things? Yes, I think we are, but I’m not sure it’s high enough on the priority list. I feel at times like the Church is a last resort for people. That’s backwards. We ought to be at the top of the list.

I don’t know what the answer is and whatever is at the root of the problem, I’m sure I’m just as much at fault as anyone else. But I do know that a long time ago whispers ran through crowds and cheers filled the air when Jesus came to town. People gathered out of the darkness to see the true Light parade down the street on a donkey. I suspect that in part this was because people, believers and non-believers alike, heard that he cared more about them than he did about himself. They knew that it wasn’t about what he could get, but about what he could give. These days it seems the parades are not so brightly lit, and I’m afraid it’s us blocking out the light.

Profile photo of Pete Peterson

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


8 Comments

  1. euphrony

    One of the things of which I am most proud about the church I worship with is their dedication to touch the lives of people. Quite often, if you ask someone in the community about our church, their response will be something like “Oh, you’re the ones who have the groups for breaking out of alcohol/drug addiction (or dealing with grief, sexual addiction, financial help, the food pantry, …).” They know us for what we offer to them and try to help people with – like you were saying, trying to help the community. These groups consist of at least 50% people from the community, often who have never cared for church but need help with something and see that we are there to help. I’ve very proud of that work, and encouraged by the fact that it has continued for years.

    Before coming here, though, I had never seen a church do something similar.

  2. Katherine

    Michael Frosts’ work (and youtube videos) is a great resource for looking into being a missional church. I’m so glad you’re writing about this. The further I get developing relationships with people outside of my church, the more I agree with what you’ve said. It is fine to serve as an usher in the worship service, but I don’t believe it’s fine to let yourself stop there. If we only serve within churches, we build institutions; we must serve outside of them to build the Kingdom.

  3. Peter B

    Will the world ever cheer for the church? Given Jesus’ admonition in the last part of John 15, I don’t see that happening. Even during ride into Jerusalem, the praise — while rightly His — was for things he had not come to provide.

    Of course, that’s not to say that we in the body don’t need to be concerned with the needs of those around us; we can’t show our faith without works. The problem seems to be that we, as comfortable middle-classers, expect somebody to have a program for this… when in reality, it’s the people of God who are to shine the light wherever we go, in whatever we do.

  4. Jeff Lane

    John 15:18 states that “if the worlds hates you, remember it hated me before it hated you”….. Hate may be a strong word to reference here, but here it goes. The church I am part of and have been for several years I see as an outgoing missions based church with efforts to our community that are second to none, providing food, Clothing, fuel for weary travelers , motel rooms for those in need etc. etc…., not many thanks come from these efforts but just to know that Jesus said “whatsoever you do unto the least of these you have done to me” However great or small…..It sometimes would be great to get the cheers as Pete states and sometimes even a pat on the back. But more times than none it goes unrecognized by anyone but you and the person that is being ministered to and that is OK. What are we basing this ministry on….recognition or Christ ? I’ll do without the recognition any day, yet all the while knowing that deep down in my “knower” People see and recognize there is a difference being made.

  5. Profile photo of Pete Peterson

    Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Jeff said:

    “People see and recognize there is a difference being made.”

    I want to believe that but I haven’t decided yet whether or not I do. As I said in my post, I do believe that the church is making a real impact on our communities. What I’m trying to get a handle on is why the same act done by a church and done by a “charity” are received in and reacted to in different ways. What is exactly is the difference in the perception of the people?

  6. Katherine

    I think it comes down to the perception that churches have an agenda, while a charity’s whole mission is to help, end of story. We in our churches have made it appear as though if we help you, you owe us a conversion, or at least an attempt at one. But I would also say that we in the church need to be better at celebrating with our community, rather than just “helping” them; celebration shows we’re part of things and not above them.

  7. easton crow

    A few years ago on NPR I remember hearing a story on revitalization in a Detroit neighborhood. A spokesman was gushing about the influx of homosexuals into the area and how much good it was doing. He said something along the lines of, “We just love it when we see the homosexual community move into a neigborhood.” I remember thinking that I don’t imagine we’ll ever hear “Gee I love it when the Christians move into the neighborhood.”
    I must say ,though, that in my community, more and more churches are playing together well and pooling their resources to really make a difference in the lives of people.

  8. Andy S.

    I have been thinking about this as well. One thing I struggle with is the role of me as a Christian compared to me as a member of a certain church. I feel like most day to day service to other people can come from our own willingness to be used by God. Too many times we rely on our churches to get programs together to facilitate our own service. I agree with Katherine’s comment concerning the feeling of an agenda. I wonder if it is always appropriate to do a service project under the banner of a youth group or church and not just on your own or with others from your community under the banner of Christ. Don’t get me wrong, some things require an organization bigger than one person, namely churches. How much should we rely on our churches? Should our churches be primarily an indirect means to service by equipping the members?

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