Living Faithfully as the People of God, by our friend in Adelaide Australia, Mark Stevens.
Seven years ago last week I started my journey as pastor and shepherd of the Happy Valley Church of Christ. I’ve found that we don’t often use these words any more to describe what it is we do. We call ourselves ministers, senior pastors, team leaders. All accurate descriptors of what we do. However, the metaphor of pastor and shepherd, I think, best describes who we are. These past 7 years you have taught me the importance of these two metaphors for ministry. This anniversary gave me reason to reflect on what I do, how I do it and the one question that continually guides me as a pastor.
Leading up to my arrival our arrival at Happy Valley both Beck and I had been on quite the journey. Having left our spiritual home-land (our church and denomination) we ventured out into the spiritual un-known. We didn’t know it at the time but it would be a long 4-5 years. Eventually we ended up in our current denomination and eventually we found our way to Happy Valley Church of Christ (Church of Christ being Christian Church/Disciples of Christ in the US). It had been a long season of wandering the desert. A time of exile of sorts. Not a day goes by that I don’t give thanks for this church. They have been for us a Promised Land.
Starting out as a pastor is an interesting thing. Especially a second time around. The first time it had all been about success and how I might grow the church. Imagine a young man pushing a boulder uphill in extreme heat and you’d have a fairly accurate picture of me and my approach to ministry. A lot of sweat for not much reward. A young man growing more and more frustrated at the boulder. Eventually the boulder began to roll backwards eventually trapping me under it. Me still trying to push.
The second time around I was determined to do things differently. Eugene Peterson had equipped my mind with a different vision for ministry. One where God was in charge. One that helped me embrace the actuality of church life and not the idol of church I had created in my mind. But here I was still in search of a metaphor for how I thought I should undertake this new vocation into which I’d soon be ordained.
At the time a friend, Greg, a pastor himself, was working with me to help me transition into my new role. I’ll be honest I had no illusions of grandeur. All of them had been crushed under the boulder. All I had were visions of failure and I was scared out of my britches! Greg had given me quite a bit of sound advice but somewhere along the way he had said to me, “You just need to discern what it means to live faithfully as the people of God within the context of Happy Valley.” To Greg it was most likely a throwaway line, but to me I had found a working metaphor for it meant to be a church: The faithfulness of God and the response of living faithfully! It was my role as pastor/shepherd to help these people live faithfully.In light of this I have spent the last seven years asking, “What does it mean to live faithfully as the people of God?”
If there was one thing I had learnt through our own years of exile it was that God is faithful. The good thing about faithfulness, especially the faithfulness of God, is that it endures the varying seasons of life. Seasons of toil and hard work as well as seasons of joy and hope. The Bible tells us time and time again of God’s faithfulness. In my opinion, the entire story of God and the people of God found in the Bible is one of faithfulness: The faithfulness of God and the question of his people as to what it means to live faithfully as His people.
Faithfulness seems to me to be a lost word. Although the word is still in our vocabulary its meaning has lost its virtue, its power. Faithfulness has given way to rationalism and pragmatism. In a world that demands results and likes to see bang-for-buck return, faithfulness is an uncomfortable bed-fellow.
Faithfulness is also lost art in the church today. In fact it is more than an art it is a spiritual discipline. Faithfulness and a spiritual discipline; especially as it relates to the Mission of God in the world, is perhaps lost.
My reflections over the past 7 years is that faithfulness is what God requires of us and what he empowers us to do. The question of how we live faithfully as God’s people should always be on our heart; both individually and as a community. It is easy, as the exiled people of God discovered, to lose heart and begin to question faithfulness and let it give way to faithlessness. On my shelves I have many books that tell me how to be a good pastor and how to grow a big church. Most of them tell me what I need to do to fix the church as if the church is an old ramshackle house in need of repair. These books are a kind of DIY of church leadership. However, what the Bible tells us time and time again, is what it means to live faithfully as the people of God. Most of the time that means living with the mess and not being able to fix stuff.
The story of God reminds us that God is our God and we are his people. We are a people called to love him with all of our heart, all of our mind, all of our soul, and all of our strength. Jesus then went on to say, and love your neighbour as yourself! We are reminded on every page that God is always with us, and that faithfulness is more important than worldly success, that love is better than power, and that God has asked us to be his servant – not the other way around.
The future of any church does not lie in its ability to create a vision and implement programs. Our future is in Christ and in God’s hands. May I therefore suggest that living faithfully is about being a people of prayer, a people of the story (the Bible), a people who let God lead, a people committed not to the church but to being disciples of Jesus, and ultimately a people who love God with every ounce of their being and who love their neighbour as themselves?