Making my usual pastoral rounds at the local hospital some time ago, I witnessed the most unusual of circumstances. A dilapidated Buick had jumped the parking lot curb and had crash-landed in the flower garden just outside the main doors. The driver’s door was wide open, and a group of hurried and harried medical staff was doing something to someone in the driver’s seat.
My curiosity was far too strong, so I slipped out of the hospital lobby to get a closer look. To my astonishment, a baby was being delivered right there in the front floorboard of that car. Thank God I didn’t stumble upon this situation alone, for in the magnificent words of the late Butterfly McQueen, “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies!”
All I could do was offer quiet prayers – for the laboring mother, for the new life struggling to be born, for the skilled and steady hands of the medical staff, and for myself – that I not pass out and create a secondary medical emergency. Within minutes the child, a boy, was born (more through the efforts of the mom, midwives, and nurses, not my prayers), and within days the two patients left the hospital in excellent health (in that same Buick, by the way).
Granted, this birth was not typical. Some mothers labor for hours. Some children enter the world only by surgical intervention. Some babies are born in a maternity ward, some at home, some with a cadre of attending physicians, and indeed, some are born in the most bizarre of environments. What they all have in common is this: When it comes to birth, every newborn needs all the help he or she can get, to ensure good health.
This, as I see it, should be the calling of the church. Congregations should provide safe, welcoming environments for faith to be born within people. Churches should strive to be delivery rooms where the new in faith can grow, be nurtured, and become the people God wants them to be.
There are many helpful images that define the church’s mission. It is a hospital providing healing to the sick and injured. It is a fuel station for those who are exhausted. It is a banquet hall of grace open to all who will feast at God’s table. But let us not forget our role as incubators of developing faith, skilled midwives who assist with spiritual birth.
And as it is with physical birth, spiritual birth is not an invariable experience. Some come to faith easy and early, like they can’t wait to get here, and all you have to do catch them. Others get wedged in the birth canal with philosophical, spiritual, and emotional sticking points. Others arrive in grand fashion, genuinely born again, but quickly lose their way.
There are the doubters, the skeptics, the seekers, the confused, the angry, the stuck, the ready, the breeched, the premature, and those needing intensive neonatal care. None of these are targets of our marketing efforts. These aren’t clients, customers, or converts. They aren’t potential new members, and definitely not those whose vulnerability and needs should be used against them. These are precious people on the road to some kind of spiritual birth. Our role is to simply help their personal, unique faith emerge.
In my own individual journey of faith, so many people have helped me, people with a soft touch but strong, steady hands. Few of these helpers ever lectured me, formally “discipled” me, twisted my arm, force-fed me Bible verses, or beat me over the head with the latest and greatest new book guaranteed to revolutionize my life.
No, recognizing that something new was struggling to be born, they were there to gently guide, encourage, support, and coach me. They dove right in – right where they found me – skilled midwives, who let me know that life and faith are worth their struggles. And when the pain of labor has passed, the anguish gives way to joy – for all – for faith has been born in the world.