I’ve been a practitioner of pastoral arts for so long I practically don’t remember what I did before. Interesting since it wasn’t anywhere on my “to do” list when I was working on Navy sonar systems for a fortune 500 country back before the dawn of time … or at least smart phones and PC’s … and the moment that I still refer to as “The Call”. Since that event 30 years ago I’ve been privileged to experience my calling being played out in rural, suburban, and urban settings. The journey has taken my family and I from the Northeast to the Northwest along with a 4 year layover in the Midwest. I have met and ministered with countless people and count it an honor to have had many speak words of life and encouragement. I have met plenty who have felt it their own calling to temper my journey with words that I assume were intended to infuse some humility. I have succeeded beyond my (and many others) wildest expectations and failed miserably. I have dared greatly and shrunk back fearfully. I have been both invigorated and jaded by the journey. It has been marked by infectious energy and debilitating exhaustion. I have wanted, desired, and tried desperately many times to get off the train and find a new path … but still the “The Call” remains. Once upon a time, when contemporary Christian music didn’t refer only to worship music, the group “Newsboys” had a song about pastoral calling with the line “When you called my name, I didn’t know how far the calling went”. I think I can relate.
This morning, I was asked once again, “where is your church located?”. My response … It’s complicated. After so many years in a traditional church setting where one could easily identify by building, website and social media presence, for the past few years we have had to fall back on “it’s complicated” as our standard answer. We both work for a church that we don’t attend … it’s complicated. I speak, lead, or preach at other churches on a number of occasions… it’s complicated. Our “church” is a small group of friends that we’ve been hosting/walking/serving with in our home a few times each month when planets and calendars align … its complicated. Even though countless people inside and outside the walls of churches still consider me their pastor, I often don’t feel like I’m fulfilling “The Call” … it’s complicated.
I have a feeling that it’s all about to change. I know this feeling. I’ve had it before. It’s a curious mix of anxiety, peace, and indigestion. It has usually meant a journey is approaching. Last time I wasn’t ready … I went along with it but I wasn’t ready. I should clarify … I was ready for the journey, but I didn’t do a good job assembling the companions for the journey. If I’ve learned anything of value over the years of pursuing “The Call” it is this; Success or failure is greatly influenced by those I bring along as companions. Let me be clear on this … this is in no way a reflection on those I’ve brought with me. It is almost (I said almost) entirely a reflection on my ability to prepare and cast vision to those I’ve tried to bring along. When I look back over the years and process the success and failure, I am acutely aware that failure was always marked by those relationships left behind in confusion, disillusionment, and poor communication. On the flip side, success was always surrounded and fueled by companions who fully understood the journey. There is nothing like having a group fully committed to the cause and pursuing it with an all hands on deck attitude. In case you were wondering … in a traditional church pastoring context, this is incredibly rare. A peek behind the curtain will reveal what’s known as the 80/20 rule. It most often plays out as 80 percent of the work is done by 20 percent of the people. I’d also apply it to my observation that 20 percent “get it” and are wanting to really be part of the journey while 80 percent are stuck somewhere and for various reasons watching the 20 percent. This may sound jaded but remember I’ve already confessed that. So how does all of this that fit into this upcoming journey? … this time I hope to be (more) ready.
At this point in my life, I don’t have the time or the energy to lead something that is not life giving to everyone who comes into contact with it. When I look back on the most life giving adventures that my wife and I have been on they all have some qualities in common. Whether a mission to bring clean water to a Central American village, or a local serving effort in our neighborhood, they all had a clear and pointed destination. We knew where we were heading. They all had a clear and articulated purpose. We knew why we were heading there. They all had a committed group who were passionately and prayerfully engaged in fulfilling that purpose together. We knew who would be with us for the journey … there were no spectators. That’s not to say that people were not watching us … that was actually one of the most beautiful pieces. It turns out when you are fulfilling those first three, others are watching from a distance and are inspired to join in.
The traditional model has evolved over the years to attract as many spectators as possible with the hope (and prayer) some of them “stick” and get it enough to be part of the 20 percent. It’s a regional approach throwing a big net to a wide audience. I know where that often leads … disillusionment and exhaustion. I’m going for inspired and energized. The alternative to regional is local. From the birth of the church, up until the birth of the suburbs, local was actually the model. My observation and experience is regional success demands addressing the needs of the members … so much so that they are willing to leave their own place and journey to another. In other words … are we good news to our members. Local success demands addressing the demands of the community. It comes by answering “What is good news to our neighborhood?”.
In my earlier pastoral years I would hear occasional whispers of “house church”. To me this didn’t make sense. After all, how could one possibly hope to earn a living as a pastor of a group that could fit into your living room? I’ll admit to even feeling that they seemed almost “cult like”. I know, I know, the earliest churches did meet in homes … they also had to avoid the occasional lion feeding. I realize that in a good number of countries, again because of persecution, churches only exist in the privacy and oftentimes secrecy of an individuals home. We don’t live that way here, I reasoned, so why worship like we do? So I did what any red blooded American pastoral wanna-be would do … I continued the pursuit of my understanding of “The Call”… until I couldn’t any longer. 6 years ago we began to sense something else. In a desperate attempt to pursue something more relational, more communal, even more focused, we were led to the table. It was both a stretch and completely natural at the same time. For someone who once questioned the legitimacy and sanity of something as small as a “house church”, the table was even smaller and a bit more insane. Unknown to us, we were on the frontier of what is now becoming legitimate and commonplace. We had no idea, no models, no other real inspiration other than a felt calling to lead others around a common table and then back out again into a life of loving and serving in the grace and love of Jesus … you know, making disciples. We learned quickly though that its not a great model for spectators … and certainly not a good one for less than laser pointed vision casting.
Don’t get me wrong, I have a great love and appreciation for the traditional model that the church has pursued. I was guest preaching yesterday in a wonderful congregation and there was so much about it that I miss. But then, last night, our “house church” was around a table once again for food, stories, prayer, and blessings. A good deal of our time was spontaneously dedicated to a common urge to find another outlet of serving somewhere in the city. It wasn’t me standing up front trying to beg and coerce people into a planned and scripted project. More of our time was spent talking about how we would be inviting more around our table and becoming more intentional in our gathering times. They were conversations being fully engaged by everyone in the group… no spectators. As the new journey begins for us, my prayer is that I can fully understand the extent of “The Call” on my life … and to one day soon, when someone asks, confidently declare “It’s not complicated”.