A Bigger Vision

Sometimes the details bog you down.  Sometimes the everyday gets on top of you.  When you’re struggling to keep your head above water every day can seem impossible.  It’s to such a people that Zechariah writes.  God speaks to his beleaguered people, a people living amidst the rubble of Jerusalem having returned from exile, working (once again after some prophetic prodding) on rebuilding the temple, but feeling the fragility of their existence dependent as it seems on the interplay of the whims of a Persian Emperor and the subtle honeyed lies of their opponents.  The remnant are struggling to keep their heads above water, they’ve tried escapism (lets build ourselves really nice houses) because the task they face is overwhelming.

But God through Zechariah speaks to them.  It’s not been the easiest series to prepare, the layers of meaning and possible permutations of the symbolism can be overwhelming themselves.  But I’ve loved the time we’ve spent in Zechariah because God reminds us again of his sovereignly unstoppable plan to build his kingdom.  That no matter how it looks, and it often looks fragile and feeble, God has a big vision that he invites his people to play their part in via their everyday faithfulness and holiness.

And God reminds them, and me, that his kingdom and plans and purposes are so much bigger than I am tempted to imagine they are.  That everything changes with Jesus, the King has come and God’s kingdom is relentless, unstoppable in its progress towards everything in all creation united under Christ.  His vision is so much bigger than mine of what the everyday faithfulness of his people will bring about, of its part in the bigger whole.  And essential to that purpose is God’s word which brings this people hope as it lifts their gaze to see God’s plans and their part in it.use-me

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Failure to commit

We have a problem with short termism.  We simply don’t commit to something for long enough.  And it is endemic in evangelical culture, in large part, I think, because we ape the hurry hurry, short term fix, culture around us.  I can see it in myself and my way of reacting to things that go well or don’t go as well as I hoped.  I tend to focus on the short term, the immediate, is it successful right now?  Rather than awaiting the long term impact.

As an evangelical church that causes us problems from leadership down to the everyday.  One of the most pressing problems it causes is pastors who don’t say long enough to actually pastor.

In 1 Peter 5 Peter describes being an elder as being a shepherd.  It’s a term with a rich biblical background.  It comes pulling freight loads of history, significance and meaning.  David is described as a shepherd as God’s king.  God rebukes Israel’s religious leaders for being bad shepherds  because they are only out for what they can get.  And God himself is the shepherd of his people.  And Jesus identifies himself as The Good Shepherd in fulfilment of God’s promises to the sheep without, but in dire need of and longing for,  a shepherd.

Being a shepherd involves a commitment to get to know your flock – yes all of them not just the most influential – and to lead them, feed them, protect them over the long term.  Relationships and trust aren’t easily won, they take investment, commitment and time.  Yet our short termism means that pastorates are usually short and so we forgo that long term loving, winning, protecting, influencing and shaping.  I’m not even sure if it’s possible to really pastor if you haven’t been somewhere for at least 5 years, after all it often takes us that long to really get to know someone, to spot patterns and build a relationship capable of two way gospel intentionality and discipleship.

Real pastoring calls us to go long.  Going long isn’t easy, it means staying constantly fresh in our love for Christ, his people, and his word even as we walk through some of the same issues again with the same people.  It means being there long enough to make mistakes, learn, repent of them, and show progress in Christ,  It means a commitment to teach all of scripture not just the bits we’ve done before.  But I can’t help thinking the rewards could be much greater; the joy of seeing people we’ve pastored for years grow, change, and finish their race.  Seeing children grow up, trust Christ, and go on to serve.  Having the privilege, with tear filled eyes but a joy filled heart, of commending a servant who has run their race well as we preach at one of our flocks funerals after years of discipling one another.

This applies not just to the pastor but to elders.  To be an elder is to be a shepherd, it is a long term commitment.  It is an intention to invest and develop a relationship, a determination to plough and reap and sow again and again in a congregations life one individual at a time.Fotolia_98103171_Subscription_Monthly_M-1080x675

Can we reach the cities from the towns?

Some years ago with the launch of initiatives like city to city and others there was a great emphasis on reaching the cities.  And I can see why, globally people are moving to cities, so there is some strategic sense in resourcing churches in the cities.  Though we have temper that by  remembering that not everyone moves to the cities, and we mustn’t resource cities at the expense of everywhere else.

But there was a fallacy that I think was embedded in much of the conversations about reaching the city.  It was that we would reach the suburbs and outlying towns from the cities.  As we’ve seen that just doesn’t happen, and we can’t afford to wait another generation to see if that changes, hundreds of thousands of eternities are at stake.  Cities hoover up people, city churches often seem to do the same, very few (though there are notable exceptions) seem to then plant out of their cities, or even equally across all areas within a city, just look at the preponderance of plants and churches in student areas or young professional or family area and contrast it to the most impoverished parts of a city.

I wonder instead if we’ve got it wrong.  What about if we resource the town churches so that when people move to the city we are sending well taught gospel hearted people. Leaders trained up as they grow up  in churches in their towns so that if (not when) they move to a city they are ready to engage in mission already.

There are lots of things about this focus on city planting that I think need challenging.  But I wonder if fundamentally this switch in thinking would help.

Pastoral plague

Statistics on pastoral burn out, moral failure, and just plain broken spirited exhaustion are stark.  How have we ended up in a situation where swathes of pastors have some form of break down, or suffer from stress and anxiety?  Or simply leave the ministry?

I want to recognise that this is a complex problem.  There is rarely, if ever, a simple answer.  There are always complexities in terms of the pastor’s heart and expectations and the congregation’s hearts and expectations.  But I wonder if there are some structural things we need to think through in evangelicalism if we want pastors to thrive long term and to teach our churches long term and it begins with our models of leadership..

A pastor is an elder, an eldership is a team responsible for the flock

How do you think of the pastor and his relationship with the elders?  If you’re an elder how do you think of it?  Is the pastor the boss or the one paid to carry out your instructions?  Are you a team of equals or is there a hierarchy?  Pastors need to think about this too.  Too many pastors talk about wanting a team of elders who are on mission together but then organise and structure things so that is at best difficult if not practically impossible.

I’ve always valued having a team of elders where we begin meetings by asking after one another’s spiritual health, prayer life, devotions, and family care.  And where we’re committed to responding to what we hear in prayer and action.  It is not an easy thing to cultivate and maintain because we want to sinfully shy away from such vulnerability, but when it works it is beautiful to be part of.  It’s probably the thing I miss most whilst we wait for God to provide elders to serve alongside me at present.  Such team eldership takes seriously Paul’s command in Acts 20 to the Ephesian elders, and Peter’s call in 1 Peter 5.

Too many churches see the pastor as the only port of call for pastoral care, if he hasn’t visited the church hasn’t cared for them.  Too many elderships settle for this and leave the pastoring to do all the pastoring.  No wonder pastoral casualties are high.  Imagine if in a hospital only one doctor saw any patients, and all the others only met with him in a board meeting once a month.  Imagine the stress levels and the rate of breakdown and the appalling patient care that would be experienced.

I wonder if in part this is fuelled by our second issue.  Maybe you’re already thinking yes but that’s what he is paid to do.

Outsourcing ministry to paid staff

I wonder if this is really the crux of the issue.  We live in a professionalised world.  We pay people to care, to clean, to deliver so that we don’t have to.  So when we pay the pastor to do ministry we assume that we don’t have to, and that multiples as we pay multiple staff.  If that thought process is adopted by elders they are left playing the role of the governor of a school, a slightly detached critical friend who key decisions are run past but who are somewhat detached from the day to day and the people on the ground.

Again that’s a worldly but holy unbiblical model.  Pastors are (Ephesians 4v16) to equip God’s people for works of service as they teach the Bible.  They don’t do all the ministry.  Yet with the professionalising and monetising of ministry we can all too easily fall into this mindset and it is crippling.

There are other factors at play, busyness (though surely an elder can’t be too busy to be an elder and be appointed or remain an elder) for example.  But I wonder if these are the two main ones.  The two major culprits in our church culture for the rash of pastoral casualties that we see littering the way.

Imagine with me for a minute that your pastor was taken ill tomorrow.  In a bizarre twist all of your church staff are hit with a contagion and are out of action for the next month.  What would happen the church?  What would happen to pastoral care?  What would happen to Sunday’s?

If some of those things wouldn’t happen we’re putting too big a burden,  an unbiblical handburden, on pastors.  And changing that begins with elders who take pastoring the flock seriously.  Who see eldership as a team committed to the spiritual care for God’s sheep under Christ, including the care of one another.  Who see 1 Peter 5v1-4 as their job description not just the pastors.