I believe in the church, but I am not naïve about the church. I have seen the church at its best, and the church in some of its more trying moments as well. Eugene Peterson speaks of the church as one part mystery, one part messy (Yancey 1998:45). I understand this description. The church is the Body of Christ, chosen from before time to engage in mission in the world. That is mystery! The church is also ordinary people with issues and less than pure motives who come together as a local congregation. That is messy! This church—one, holy, catholic, apostolic—is not perfect and sometimes the church is far from it!
I believe in the church, but that has not always been easy. I was sitting in a hotel room in Chicago with my dear friend Ron. I said: “I am going to go back home, quit my job at church, and get a real job!” Ron said: “you can do that. I will support you in that. But you won’t be happy.” I asked why. Ron said: because you are called.” And I said: But I don’t want to be called!”
This was a breaking point for me. This was a crisis time for me. I was face to face with the joy and the burden of serving in a local congregation as pastor. My conversation with my friend Ron was the culmination of a very hard period of ministry. I had been working very hard, pushing in new directions and receiving support and encouragement, but also receiving a fair share of criticism, including a questioning of motives. We had bought some more property, built a new worship center. People were looking at our church and were quite impressed. And I was rather impressed too!
But something was unsettling for me. There was a sense of hollowness in my ministry. Maybe I was too caught up in the success of the church, and my success as well. I felt like I was playing to a fickle crowd. I felt that I was responsible for this ministry: “if I didn’t do it who would?” When things went well, while I spiritually, piously gave credit to God, it seemed like my doing, and when the church did not thrive as it should, it was my fault.
From my years as a teenager I knew that church work was my passion and my calling. Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:17 have been a touchstone verse in my life: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” That verse with the promise of God transforming people and communities drove my life. This verse expressed my deep passion.
Yet I was getting away from that conviction. So caught up in the mechanics of the church. My ministry was going stale. My effectiveness seemed meager. My church was attracting crowds, but too often it was church people coming from other locations, and soon they would be moving on. I sensed that my church was shuffling church-goers from one church to the next. For all of our activity, and we had lots of activity, we were making very little impact beyond our nice, safe Christian world. I was discouraged. I was at a breaking point. Since that time, I have discovered that I was not alone in this feeling. Church leaders long for opportunities to be engaged in ministry that transforms. They second-guess their call. Morale is low. Church leaders like me grieve and ache.
So I decided to quit. The only way, I thought, to be effective as a follower of Jesus was out in the world. I felt that the best thing I could do is resign as pastor, get a “real job” in the secular marketplace and be the best Christian there—influencing for good in Jesus’ name. I interviewed with a friend of mine who was a partner at a marketing company, (I knew marketing!) I sat in on a brainstorming session seeking ways to increase the market share of Budweiser beer among Hispanics in the central valley of California.
I realized very quickly that I was not destined for this new line of work. There was something tugging at my heart. Theologically, it was a sense of pastoral call upon my life. A wonderful, joyful burden. The Apostle Paul speaks about his burden for the church (Galatians 4:19, 2 Corinthians 11:28). I understood that weight. Reggie McNeal says that to serve a church with a call is tough; to serve a church without a call is cruel and unusual self-punishment (McNeal: 2000:99). I sensed the weight of God’s call to ecclesial ministry on my life. I was to be part of the church, working in and through the church.
So I re-engaged in the life of the church. I believed in the church—still. I began to look at North America as a mission frontier, and the church as a mission outpost on that frontier (Shenk 2001; Callahan 1990). Ministry had to become incarnational. The root paradigm of the church had to shift from a “come and see” mentality where we built attracting buildings and programs, to a “go and dwell” apostolic, culture-infiltrating stance (Gibbs 2000: 236).
This basic shift caused me to pastor differently. I helped the congregation I served to see that we were living on a mission field and church, as we knew it, would have to change. And I had to change. I determined that I would not do church the old way. I made a conscious effort to engage in the world. I became a chaplain with the local police department; I joined the local Rotary club. I wanted to model new paradigms of ministry for other staff ministers and for the congregation as a whole, but most of all I simply wanted to be a different type of person. I wanted to become a more authentic follower of Christ, for no other reason than simply this is what I was to be as a person before the Lord.
The focus of the church changed, but more than that a change occurred inside of me. For too long, I had a ministry that focused on what I could do; what I could accomplish. This wasn’t intentional, but on reflection it was true. I had a rather triumphal and arrogant sense of ministry. The process of re-evaluating church shook me to the core. A new stance in life was emerging from deep within, a stance of weakness and humilty rather than triumph.
The Apostle Paul speaks of the treasure of the gospel being in earthen jars. That clay pot was me, and my church. When I realized I was clay, my focus shifted wonderfully. It is a lesson that is learned in the crisis. It happened for Paul too as he spoke of his thorn in the flesh.
Three different times I begged the Lord to take it away. Each time he said, “My gracious favor is all you need. My power works best in your weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may work through me. Since I know it is all for Christ’s good, I am quite content with my weaknesses and with insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).
A shift in a church’s focus is not easy. Sometimes the transition is very painful, but it was a transition for the good. Our motto became “Servants of Jesus Christ for the sake of the world.” We intentionally began moving to a servant-based community-focused ministry. With this new focus,, structures and measurements of effective ministry also changed. Maybe ministry is about more than the number of bodies in attendance, the size of the budget, and the number of buildings on the church campus.
I believe in the church and even more than before, and I have great hope for the church, this messy and full of mystery, church. Jurgen Moltmann says the local congregation is the hope of the world (Van Engen 1991:31). the local congregation that gathers for worship and fellowship and service has the ability to impact lives and the world. Only the local church that can do this. Lesslie Newbigin reminds us that the local congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel; the local congregation makes the gospel credible (Newbigin 1989:227). Normal, ordinary people who dream big dreams, and sometimes who get caught up in conflicts, ordinary people who sincerely desire to love God and others, but who also can forget, ordinary people, gathered in a local congregation make the gospel credible for the world and serve the world! Who is able for this task? Not us on our own, but only in the power of God. Paul reminds us: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
The church in North America must change in order to become effective and relevant again. That change begins in the heart of pastoral leaders. Sam Shoemaker decades ago wrote: “Revive your church Lord, beginning we me.” That is still true. There is great hope for the church. I have great hope for the church. The adventure continues.
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Gibbs, E. (2000). Church Next: Quantum Changes in how we do Ministry. Downers Grove, Inter Varsity
Hauerwas, S. and W. H. Willimon (1989). Resident Aliens. Nashville, Abingdon.
McNeal, Reggie (2000). A Work of Heart: Understanding How God Shapes Spiritual Leaders. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Moltmann, J. (1977). The Church in the Power of the Spirit. New York, Harper and Row.
Newbigin, L. (1989). The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids, Eerdmans.
Roxburgh, A. J. (1997). The Missionary Congregation, Leadership and Liminality. Harrisburg, Trinity Press International
Shenk, W. R. (2001). Changing Frontiers in Mission. Maryknoll, Orbis.
Van Engen, C. (1991). God’s Missionary People: Rethinking the Purpose of the Local Church. Grand Rapids, Baker.
Yancey, P. (1998). Church: Why Bother? Grand Rapids, Zondervan.