Today I was pointed to an excellent and thought-provoking blog post by a former classmate of mine hit the web. The Reverend Doctor Lucas Woodford posted, “Getting the Message Out or Getting the Message Right?” on his blog at http://thisweconfess.wordpress.com/2011/09/19/getting-the-message-out-or-getting-the-message-right/. I encourage you to go and read it, as it forms the impetus for this, the first blog post I have felt compelled to write in many, many months.
I’m writing today as a man on a rough and difficult journey. It’s a journey in which I’ve seen my dreams shattered and the future of my vocation threatened. On this journey, I’ve been driven to reevaluate basic, fundamental, underlying assumptions of mission and ministry, and I’ve been repeatedly shocked to discover how much I’ve had to learn. I’ve gone from a man who had specific notions about what I wanted to achieve and where I wanted to be in ten years’ time to a man who wakes up every day not knowing what the challenges of the day will bring and not being entirely certain if I have the wherewithal to face them.
In short, in encountering the real, stubborn face of pastoral ministry, my grandiose dreams and plans of “mission” have been burnt from me.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when I believed myself to be fully missional. I spouted statements to fellow pastors that were both bold and brash. I believed that to be missional, one simply had to follow the standard playbook: Attract people to church with a worship band with a cutting-edge sound, relax the unwritten rules of worship to allow people to feel more comfortable, dress down, preach relevant sermons on topics that people wanted to hear, generate a buzz in the community through advertising and events.
But beyond that, I believed that the traditional church was dying. Populated only by selfish, self-centered, out-of-touch pew-warmers that Amish-ly insisted upon living in a different era, those in the traditional church were not interested in proclaiming Christ to their neighbor. In pastoral gatherings, I advocated simply shutting down dying churches and giving their resources to churches that were genuinely reaching out.
I wasn’t the only one. Surrounded by a circle of like-minded, missional friends, we talked of turning the world upside-down. No goal was unattainable, and in fact the size of the vision we had for the church was the marker of the degree of our faith in Christ. Small pastors with small faith had small dreams. Big faith was demonstrated by big visions. Though we did not suppose life and ministry would be without challenges, we did believe that through the strength of our leadership and the courage of our vision, we would prevail and people would flock to our churches. Many would be saved. Mission would be accomplished.
And then something happened. I failed at planting a church. And on the heels of that failure I found myself relegated to a small, traditional church in rural America. A church that in many ways had her glory years behind her.
Though some will tell you otherwise, I took my time. I watched. I observed. I remembered my lessons from seminary in which I was advised to learn the church and community before introducing changes. I bumped my nose on numerous unwritten rules. I barked my shins against unspoken expectations. And in the process, I formed, evaluated, and re-formed many, many ideas as to what “mission” looked like in the life of the church.
In observation and good old-fashioned trial and error, God began to teach me the dangers of substituting activity for mission. I watched other churches busily grow and thrive under the influence of capable leaders, but when I searched for indications of people growing in Christ, I saw very little. These churches taught me that you can draw a crowd by being an exciting place to be in, but having crowds in and of itself did little to accomplish true church growth—the growth of a church community in their understanding of Christ’s redemption.
Again, through observation and trial and error, God also taught me the dangers of substituting new methods for mission. Very early on, I recognized that while I could—if I so chose—by claims of pastoral authority and by sheer will force new methods upon the church. I could—again, if I so chose—force the church to have a very different public face: making worship look radically different than it had been, changing the old, staid church name to something new and far more catchy. I could re-brand the church using images and techniques and technology. But I wanted the people to love Jesus. Stripping away their history and identity would only serve to distance them from the church and from genuine mission.
Through observation, insight, and yes, error, I came to realize that I had been guilty of the sin of idolatry. I had idolized methods. I had idolized vision. I had idolized mission. And true to form, idols always lie. They always promise what they cannot deliver. The always draw you further away from—and not closer to—the One you truly need to be close to.
It was as a pastor that I finally learned the true, undying value of grace: that though God never denied that I was a mighty sinner, nevertheless in Christ He had bound Himself to me, and pledged to remain united to me for all eternity. I learned to put to death my hopes of redeeming myself through the works-righteousness of activity. I learned to confess my sin of putting faith in the greatness of my faith. I learned to hear His voice and believe Him when He said, “I now forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” I learned to covet not a bigger, better, fancier church, but the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, given and shed for the forgiveness of my sin. I learned to lay aside my idols and instead run to the places where He had promised His Spirit would always be working: His Word and His Sacraments.
In other words, I learned to live with Jesus. To trust in His love for me, rather than trying to prove my love by living for Him.
And still, through the depths of pain that only dying to self genuinely produce, I realized that all along I had really only wanted one thing: I wanted people to be redeemed by and know and love the same Jesus that had redeemed, known, and loved me. And I realized that while Jesus had indeed used many different activities, many different methods, and many different technologies to draw me ever closer to Himself, that there had always been one, single, underlying common denominator in it all: the voice of the One, True God calling out to me, saying, “Come unto me, you who labor and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.”
I still consider myself missional, but not because I want to use a particular method or approach, but because I want to tell people about Jesus Christ. When I see complacency inside the church, I desire the complacent to grow in Christ. When I see the lost in my community struggle through their lives without Jesus, I want them to know His peace. When I see people die without Jesus, I am heartbroken over the future they are denied, but could have had. I want to spend my life with Jesus telling people about Jesus.
As to what method is used to proclaim Him, I’m unconcerned. It doesn’t matter much to me if a rock band is playing or if a pipe organ is thundering. Not as long as people are clearly and deliberately pointed away from their idols and clearly and deliberately shown Christ. As long as they are drawn away from focusing on the glitz and glamour of what we do and shown the stark, humbling reality of what He has done, I will be satisfied.
But I am no longer guilty of the sin of idolizing mission, because I have learned to take my focus off my work of mission and instead look to God’s work of mission to me in Christ. I have learned that being “missional” is simply this: to point people to search for Christ in the things that He used to find me. In other words, to proclaim Christ in His Word and to offer Christ in His Sacraments.