Graham Baird tells Presbyterians to embrace the messy life of ministry

         Yes, but the church’s life in the world is going to have to get a lot messier, Graham Baird, pastor of fast-growing Highlands Church in Paso Robles, Calif., told 1,500 Presbyterians at the closing worship service of the first-ever Big Tent event June 13.

         Preaching from the Pentecost story in Acts 2, Baird said, “Most Presbyterians don’t think that what we need is more mess, but I think we’re way too messy on the inside and not even close to messy enough on the outside. If we started to focus our mess on the outside, a lot of the mess on the inside would clear itself up.”

         The disciples huddled in the upper room were so uncertain and so afraid that they were reluctant to leave that upper room and as a result “probably were starting to get at each other’s throats,” Baird said. “Sound familiar?”

         Meanwhile, the streets of Jerusalem below were teeming with festival-goers of every tribe and race. “There was so much going on and so much they could have done,” Baird said.

         But nothing happened until the “rush of the mighty wind, the Holy Spirit, blew through the room and carried them out into the streets of Jerusalem and it was so messy, with all the tongues and everything. The first church in history looked like a bunch of drunken idiots,” Baird said.

         That messy spirit is what’s needed today, he insisted, outlining three ways that such fear and isolation can be transformed into a Pentecost experience of rebirth and renewal.

         First, of course, Baird said, “we have to come down out of our upper rooms. The Presbyterian Church is the most affluent and best-educated church in this country, but does it help us into the street or just push us further up into our upper rooms?”

         Second, the church needs to learn the languages of the people we’re ministering with, Baird said. “Languages are filled with subtleties and we have to master them.” Highlands Church is filled with both cowboys and wine-makers — “kind of like the ‘Bloods’ and the ‘Crips,’” he chuckled, but the determination to understand the people the church is ministering with is the key to successful ministry.

         And third, Baird said, “We’ve got to not be ashamed of our messiness — the outside messiness of ministry, not the internal messiness of strife and disagreement.”

         Reflecting on Highlands’ reaching out to street people, the homeless and prisoners, he said, “We should want people to say: ‘Look at them, they’re ministering to all kinds of messy people.”

         The church must come down from its upper rooms “not because we want church growth,” Baird said, “but because our God came down into our messy lives, loved us and died a messy death … for us.”

         At the conclusion of worship, a bagpiper led the crowd out onto the streets of Atlanta for a “controlled walk” (NOT a parade) to Centennial Park for a 26th anniversary celebration of Presbyterian reunion, which occurred here in 1983.

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