I enjoy my church.
I also enjoy vacations.
I especially enjoy going to church while on vacation. For this pastor, there is a particular pleasure to attending a service as a guest. Trading my pastor’s hat for my participant’s hat often serves up fresh experiences within a worship assembly.
There is a shallower level of experience too. It is the comparing and contrasting of how “church is done” in this new setting versus my home congregation. This includes styles, logistics, tradition, and such. A recent such experience was unusually impacting, moving dramatically beyond such mental note-taking of operational details from an unfamiliar venue. Such casual observation is typically comfortable and harmless. But God was waiting for me on this particular day at this particular church, and neither comfort nor harmlessness was on the menu.
Imagine my shock when the path to God led through Satan’s playground.
All was normal for an abnormal Sunday. My children were settled in alongside unfamiliar tots in a children’s service, my sermon was not waiting to be preached, and I was seated beside my wife with no duties to fulfill up front. We sang, we read, we prayed, we listened.
And one of us got to wondering.
This particular church was booming.
The website had described a few years of existence with rapid growth from tiny church plant to multiple building projects, one of which we had witnessed in the parking lot. A sense of optimism was evident. Life appeared to be flowing here. A casual observer like myself picked up an obvious focus and excellence within the structures and ministries supporting the congregation.
The truly marvelous thing about thought is its speed, isn’t it? Nearly instantly, a process of private assessment regarding this church was unleashed, involving hundreds of thoughts within a second. “Speed kills” is nowhere more true than in my own head. It was the speed of the thoughts and the unforeseen, though quickly approaching, corner that blew my wheels off.
Don’t misunderstand: There is something quite natural about a pastor gauging a given church environment. We swim in such details everyday. We are always hunting for ideas, critiquing our status quo, aspiring toward better. Much of this is normal, like a mechanic intrigued by cars or a retail manager wanting to peek in shops’ back rooms.
But normal can mutate.
It does everyday. And when it does, it brings dysfunction and death.
Listening to Scripture proclaimed in a sermon can quickly become a thumbs-fest with Roger Ebert. Mark it down: Many pastors have a horrible time listening (I mean, genuinely listening) to preaching. Their time spent “behind the curtain” often robs them of the simple pleasure and power that can arrive with the Word of God falling like rain.
An entire worship service can become a wrestling match. Despite efforts to stifle this critic’s posture, judgments are snapped, assessments are made, variations are noted, and the one fatal worship-hijacking act is committed.
Comparisons are drawn.
Reasons to avoid this deadly movement are plentiful. You know them. I know them.
But still my mind embarked on the journey, innocently at first:
This is a sweet little church.
I could imagine attending a place like this if I lived here.
What is behind that positive feeling I have toward a place that I hardly know?
I wonder what tone people perceive when they visit my church. What feeling do we give off?
That building project is impressive. People are obviously invested to make that happen.
They sure are dreaming of how they can impact their community.
Some of the staff sure strike me as impressive.
I wonder where they trained. How did they become “who they are”?
What would it feel like to work on a large staff?
I wonder if I could even qualify to work in such a setting.
It sure is great to see a church that is growing.
I wonder how they’re doing it.
I hope they’re not watering anything down.
My church hasn’t grown in years.
In fact, it’s shrunk during my time there.
I wonder how we are doing it.
I wonder how I am doing it.
That was where the pit really began to develop. It’s slopes were subtle but steep.
Our family vacation was filled with fun. The pace was relaxed, the weather was pleasant. We walked and shopped. We played and ate. We lingered and toured. It was a perfect holiday for two parents and two small ones.
And I was present for most of it.
There was just a sliver of me that lived in that hole by himself.
He couldn’t get free of Sunday’s stream:
Why is my church shrinking?
Why do we seem stuck?
What is different about our church “culture” from those that appear to be thriving?
Can a church’s culture be changed?
Am I a part of the problem?
What if I am holding the church back?
Do we even want to grow?
What our church really needs may be several things that I am not.
What do I do with that?
How am I such a poor leader?
You’re making this too much about yourself. It is God who brings the growth.
That is true, but what is keeping Him from bringing it our way?
Are we destined for nothing nobler than a slow decline?
Surely we are.
How do we get there?
Do I even know?
Comparison is a killer. I knew that, but I confess that I could not free myself from those jaws. Eventually, the grip released, and I pulled myself home to lick my wounds.
And now six months later, I’m still licking. The place of grace?
God found me on that tangent of a trail. Satan may have queued the confusion and envy, but the inner turmoil led me a God who had a number more questions for me:
Do you think this is about you?
You think real fruit can be grown by your groans?
What is the place of your best-but-insufficient efforts in the building of my Kingdom?
Do you believe that I can make you into exactly what you need to be: You as a pastor, and your congregation as a church?
As has become my nearly standard experience of God, the message was astoundingly accurate in its tone: It was completely convicting and entirely encouraging (well, almost entirely).
When God met Jacob unexpectedly one night (see Genesis 32), Jacob departed the next morning with a lasting limp.
Over the past two years, I have felt a number of moves from God’s grappling arsenal. He is amply able to get a hold on me, to confront with perfectly balanced fierceness and affection.
Along the way, a limp has certainly developed. But I have a growing awareness that walking strong and straight was never all it was cracked up to be. Divine strength flexes most mightily in human weakness. Resurrection power only flows through the collapsed vessels of corpses.