I’ve been at the edge a few times lately. I drove Oregon Hwy 30 from Troutdale to Multnomah Falls. Lots of edges there. I’ve been pushed to the edge a few times emotionally and physically over the past couple of weeks. Perhaps the edge that bothers me most is the sense that I am living at the far edge of a network of churches in which I was raised and nurtured. Until the past couple of years I was fully committed to the Southern Baptist Convention and its programs and ministries. I led the churches I served to fully participate in the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions. I encouraged the people attending our church – and other area pastors – to take advantage of resources such as the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (erlc.com), our seminaries and their websites, and our regional network of churches.
But something has happened that has pushed me to the edge. More and more of our missional strategy is being decided for us in places far away from the Northwest by people who often ask the question- ‘do I know how far it is from my place of ministry to their offices?’ – as if I’ve never traveled out of the Northwest. Of course I know how far it is. I’ve gladly travelled quite a distance to attend conferences, meetings, conventions and other functions. For the record I live about 200 miles from the Portland, Oregon airport which is the most convenient and least expensive option for air travel.
I pastor a small (normal, according to Mark Clifton) church. Because the churches I’ve served haven’t experienced massive growth requiring multiple campuses, the hiring of additional staff, the development of innovative discipleship programs my thoughts about ministry are regarded as, well, a reflection of the inability our church has to implement the flavor of the month for maximum church growth.
The rural community I serve (and have gladly served for 25 years) is and has been economically depressed for years. The lumber industry that created our community and on which rural Oregon depended has changed drastically in the past two decades. Young families are rarely attracted to our area and are leaving in significant numbers. The cities to the north of us are attractive job centers as well as cultural and entertainment magnets (yes, I have driven nearly 200 miles one way to attend a Christian music concert because that is as close as the artists have come). For reasons I understand financially but fail to grasp spiritually most of our denominational strategy is focused on mega-cities, meaning funds and training are generally focused on those areas often to the exclusion of rural communities.
One final factor seems to have moved me closer to the edge. The current celebrated model of church growth in our region seems to be built around a college age ministry. Don’t misunderstand. I am excited to see college age kids come to know Jesus, to be renewed in their faith. However, my church is 80 miles away from a state university. We don’t have a large mother church to help with the necessary funds to support an outreach to our community college campus. We don’t have much musical talent and so our worship team is comprised of several older adults – and one pre-teen – who love to sing, but lack training. They give their all in leading worship, but it still sounds, well, ok but not great.
So, am I asking for pity? No. OK, maybe just a little?
Don’t worry. I am not about to jump or get any closer to the edge! I have stayed here in this community believing that God has called me here and that my wife and I honor God best by being obedient. What I would ask for, however, is the following:
Not just ‘Dear God, help Steve,’ but prayer for a clearer and more compelling love for the community to which God has called my wife and me. Also, pray that God would move one or two young couples into our area who sense a call to serve bi-vocationally in a loving and energetic church family.
Being a small (i.e. normal size) church doesn’t mean we have failed or that we have missed some ‘wave’ or some ‘move of God.’ It also doesn’t mean my thoughts and ideas about ministry, discipleship, worship, and the culture are irrelevant.
Chances are there is a pastor just like me. Maybe he serves down the street, across town, or just outside of the town or city in which you live. Take some time to get to know that pastor. Listen to his heart for the community, for the people, for the advance of the gospel. You never know what God might have in store!
Thanks for reading!