It’s happening again. It’s that time of the year. I can feel it. I can see it. I can read it on the Facebook updates, hear it in the voices of people, sense it in the tone of church updates and announcements, read it in the interminable requests from good Christian organisations for us to “do things” and partner with them again.
What time of the year? The “Jesus is coming,! Quick, look busy!” time of the year.
In other words, it’s late February and ministries are gearing up, whatever that means. People are being signed up, called up, drummed up and, often by the middle of the year when it’s cold (in the southern hemisphere at least), and they’re sick or emotionally wrung out, used up.
Now I know I am the pastor of a church and that’s what I am supposed to thrive on. I don’t. Not at all. I hate that busy running about life. Hey, maybe I’m just a lazy pastor. Who can tell, given all that discretionary time I am supposed to have at my disposal and all.
But here’s the thing: I’m not sure that the busy schedule that professional ministry has established over the past few decades is serving our people half as much as it is serving itself.
The over-busy attitude and constantly frantic deadline approach that has infested the secular office is in danger of being baptised by the sacred office (for want of a better term).
Part of that is because the church struggles to swim against the cultural tide of justification-by-busyness that is all pervasive. And part of that has to do with the professional ministry’s insecurity about its own role in the culture, a much diminished role over the past forty years.
Now I am all for churches for running things, especially things that encourage and energise God’s people with the gospel. But to be honest, that’s probably a lot less stuff than most ministry leaders think, and definitely more than most pastors think.
Incidentally, why are so many pastors on the verge of burnout, in therapy or reaching retirement age no longer in ministry? I know it’s a tough gig so often, but if hurt people hurt people, then there’s a good chance that burnt out people burn other people out.
But here is what I have found. The busy habit at church is hard to break. It’s almost as if the wide empty space of not being too busy is a threat. We’re addicted to it, or fear that its absence will be filled with “something bad”.
Simply put, sometimes it just easier to unthinkingly fill the schedule, rather than question it. Rather than allow ourselves a “Now what?” moment. Even for pastors. Even for this pastor.
Hence in our church, rather than this ramping up of busyness that pushes the year – and the people – harder and harder as the calendar ticks over, we’re taking a counter intuitive move this year. We’ve decided to put three big rocks in the jar for what the community of God’s people will look like together. And that’s it. It’s a pretty basic three rocks.
First rock: Gather weekly for prayer/praise/Scripture and communion.
Second rock: Gather monthly for a meal in a pastoral group at someone’s home (about 20 people plus kids). Each of these is overseen by a host and a pastoral leader who overviews briefly where they sermon series is at and poses a few questions to discuss around the meal.
Third rock in the jar: Gather monthly for a prayer evening as a church for specific prayer issues. With coffee.
That’s it. Nothing else. If all you did during the year was that it would be enough, and it would disciple you. Does that shock you? Well if you add it up that’s 72 occasions in one year. Once every five days.
What about small group Bible Studies I hear you ask? Ones-on-ones? Twos-and-threes? Well, get on with it, that’s what I say. If you add a low-key one-on-one once per month into the mix that’s 84 times a year meeting with God’s people for spiritual and pastoral encouragement. Once nearly every four days.
Look, if a pastoral group of twenty people grown people who are Christians cannot either encourage each other to meet to pray and read Scripture, or are incapable of organising each other in such a way (despite many having jobs in middle management that require infinitely more organisational skills than this requires), then no amount of pastoral cajoling will them do it over an extended period of time for anything more than perfunctory reasons.
How do I know? Because in most church settings the number of those who sign up to small groups is higher than those who attend them, and far, far higher again than the number who are actually attending some such group by the end of September that same year. Go on be brave, keep a stats count this year and see.
And then if you add in all of the “have-to” meetings that leaders must attend, the myriad conferences that are on, the pastoral crises that wipe out two or three families every year you’ve got one very busy church schedule.
Oh, and on top of that pastoral teams are committed to helping their congregation members flourish in their vocational lives, work on their family life and extended family life, have down time, have space for mercy ministries to those outside the church, and occasionally, just occasionally, have a gospel conversation with someone in their hard secular, privatised work setting. You are committed to that aren’t you pastors? You are committed to that huge swathe of life that your congregation lives that you will never see?
The litmus test is to ask some key people in your congregation how they would explain the upside of belonging to a Christian community to an unchurched person. They’d of course talk about the love and joy and Christian family experience that the Holy Spirit brings as part of the new creation. They’d also want to explain some of the perceived downsides to it too that have huge benefit in the age-to-come; the need to serve others not just oneself, the call to costly forgiveness when we don’t want to, the call to lose our lives in order to gain them.
But the last thing they’d want to tell their unchurched friend is that if they came to church and became a Christian their lives would suddenly look a whole lot busier. Yet instinctively, and given their own experiences, they know that that is usually going to be true.
So they look at their tired work colleagues, who have kids in two schools, a boss on their back, a sick father, a little league team to coach, and a long commute home, and they wonder, just wonder, if what they’re offering them is good news for busy people, or just more stuff to do in an already stretched life in a frantic age which has lost the art of a good rest.
Yet so many people will read this, and despite the increasingly stretched franticness they experience this year, will gird their loins in late November and prepare everyone – and themselves – to sign up for it again in 2018.