Recently I have found myself serving as a pastor in circumstances outside of my comfort zone. Practices of the past don't work like they once did. Congregations are declining rapidly which forces pastors and churches to function differently. As I have had to deal with these challenges in my ministry I have sometimes felt out of my comfort zone. Time to go to the back of the bus!
From the back of the bus I can see the bigger picture around me. From here I can watch the patterns of behavior in front of me. I can see people looking for authenticity and spiritual growth unable to find it in churches that are so busy trying to put on a good face to the public but crumbling on the inside. I can see committees trying to hold on to old patterns of functioning, unable to find a new way forward. It looks like we've all pretty well figured out that the success of the church in the past belongs there, in the past. Some of us are reacting in fear, thinking that if we just do the same thing harder we'll save our churches. Others are walking away from the organized church and creating new. The rest of us are standing at points in between.
It isn't easy discerning the future. God doesn't give us a crystal ball to read. But God has given us the story of followers in generations past. Scripture is filled with the stories of people seeking to be faithful in challenging times. Moses led the Israelites through the wilderness without knowing exactly where to go or how to get there. Solomon sought to be faithful by building a beautiful dwelling for God. The disciples all had their own vision of who Messiah would be. It's our turn to figure out just where God needs us today.
From where I sit in the back of the bus it looks like the most difficult challenge is to understand the heart of discipleship. Last week at the Evangelism Conference of the PCUSA, Janni Swart explained, "Evangelism is one beggar showing another beggar where to find bread." It's not a new program or event; it is building relationships with people, helping others to find the transforming love of God we have found. The first question that comes to mind is how do we do that, especially as a congregation? The answer is not a drive through, instant formula, it is listening and discerning where God is leading. It is study and conversation, it is listening to the community. For some it seems counter intuitive to spend time talking and studying and praying instead of creating a new program to reach people. The path may involve some of that, but that isn't the place to begin. We need to begin in the same place Jesus began, by being equipped to follow Jesus and lead as he led Together we need to keep our eyes open looking for opportunities that come in sometimes unexpected ways, but hasn't God always been at work in the unexpected?