Monday morning found Pastor Shipley at his desk. His right forefinger gave the fidget spinner in his left hand a quick flick. He watched the blur of color shift and segregate as the spinner eventually slowed. “That’s what these last few months have been like,” he thought to himself, “a blur.”
Back in February, Pastor Shipley had begun working with his congregation’s leaders to ask different questions. Doing so had led to some exciting discoveries, some new experiments in ministry to the community, and a renewed sense of excitement and anticipation of God at work among His people and through His people. More importantly, visitors to worship and other church-related activities were a frequent occurrence and he had several people signed up for the adult instruction class. The congregation wasn’t quite “a home expecting guests” but the atmosphere was improving; and that was a good thing!
No, what had Pastor Shipley fidgeting with his spinner this morning was the letter he had received on Saturday from Mrs. Lydia Boardman. Lydia was a life-long Lutheran. She was deeply invested in the congregation, and was the matriarch of one of the larger family trees that made up the historical timber. Apparently, his sermon last week had plucked a nerve, and Lydia was never one to hold back her opinion.
“You’re always preaching about how we all need to be God’s Kingdom agents out in the world,” Lydia wrote, paraphrasing a key theme in his most recent sermon. “What about getting people to volunteer right here in the church? Or getting more children in Sunday School? Or having more people involved in our adult fellowship?! Or in the choir? Something must be done about our youth group! We’ve got to take care of our own too, you know!” She pressed her point with a final sentence: “Sometimes I think you care more about the people who don’t come to church than you care about us who come every week!”
The tone of Lydia’s letter didn’t seem to be anger so much as hurt or fear. Although her use of the word “always” was an obvious overstatement, Pastor Shipley conceded that Lydia was entitled to her perception even if it was not technically accurate. He could admit that evangelism and mission were consistent themes for his preaching; but so were building up the Body of Christ and caring for one another. Really, as a biblical preacher, he tried very hard to let God’s Word say whatever it said as he sought to apply it to the lives of his flock. Most of all, with a shepherd’s heart, he wanted everyone to know how much Jesus loved them and what He had done for them for their salvation by His cross and resurrection.
It was clear: Lydia wasn’t feeling loved and cared for… at least not by her pastor right now.
Pastor Shipley flicked the fidget spinner another time. As it blurred, he let it balance on his thumb without holding it in place. Its momentum kept it wonderfully balanced. He could feel the gentle push and pull of the forces at work in this simple toy. Then a whirl of thoughts began spinning in his mind.
Pastor Shipley tossed the spinner onto his desk as he spun to face his blank computer screen. He frantically fingered the keys as his thoughts filled the page.
On the one hand:
- It’s clear from Scripture that God wants his people to gather together for fellowship, mutual encouragement and worship of Him (Hebrews 10:24–25);
- The word for Church in the New Testament is Ecclesia, which means “called out ones;”
- Jesus told his disciples to love one another, so that applies to us also (Jn. 13:34–35);
- God says through the apostles Paul and Peter that Christians are to be separate from the rest of the world (Example: Eph. 5:6; 1 Peter 2:11);
- There’s just a whole bunch of “one anothers” in the New Testament that instruct us to live with and for one another in the church (Example: Col. 3:12–17);
- John says that if we love the world the love of the Father isn’t in us (1 John 2:15–17).
On the other hand:
- God so loved the world that He gave His only Son to save it (John 3:16);
- Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me (into the world) so I am sending you” (John 21);
- In His high priestly prayer (John 17) Jesus basically says, “Don’t take these disciples out of the world, but protect them in the world by your name … and I pray also for those who will believe in me because of their testimony;”
- While Jesus in John 10 is saying that He’s “the good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep only to take it back again with authority,” he also says that “he has sheep that are not of this sheep pen and that He must bring them also…”
- Jesus said, “As you go, make disciples of all nations (people groups), by baptizing and teaching…” (Matthew 28:16–20).
Pastor Shipley thought, “So, what are my learnings from this mental and scriptural exchange?”
A healthy and biblical congregation has a healthy balance of eagerly loving and caring for each other while eagerly seeking to reach those who have yet to know and trust the love of God in Jesus. We are gathered by one Spirit; and we are sent out by the same Spirit. It’s like breathing in and out.
We breathe in His Spirit through gathering around His Word and Sacraments, and are nourished.
We breathe out the same Spirit in service and witness to our community, and God brings His kingdom reign through us and people are blessed, some with saving faith in the Savior.
Pastor Shipley read over his random thoughts again. “Okay,” he considered, “Let’s say I’m onto something here that seems pretty biblical. How do I respond to dear Lydia?”
With a couple clicks of his mouse, Pastor Shipley saved his notes and had a fresh blank screen before him. He jotted some notes to guide him in his personal visit with Lydia. He wanted to make sure she understood how valuable she was to Jesus, and to him as a friend and fellow servant in God’s Kingdom. But this was also a teachable moment for both of them and he didn’t want to miss the opportunity!
Notes for my visit with Lydia:
- Thank you for your letter. It really made me think. Thank you for signing it, so we could talk this through and grow from it.
- Healthy congregations have a healthy balance of caring for one another in the fellowship of the congregation and serving our community in Jesus’ name. Both are clear directives in God’s Word.
- Some members of the Body of Christ will be especially gifted and passionate about ministering to the needs of fellow members, and they bring great value by doing so. Others will be gifted and passionate about ministering to the needs of those outside the Church by both deeds and words so that the Holy Spirit might bring others to faith in Jesus through their witness. They, too, are valuable. Again, both are clearly affirmed and celebrated in God’s Word.
- God’s Word is also clear that, regardless of your particular gifts or passions in ministry, each and all of God’s people are to care for one another and also seek to give witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ to people outside the fellowship of believers.
- These ministry functions are not just “the pastor’s job” but everyone’s call through their Baptism into Christ. The pastor is the lead servant to model this balance and equip and strengthen the saints through God’s Word and Sacraments. Your pastor has not been called to be your spouse’s spouse, or your child’s parent, or your friend’s friend, or your neighbor’s neighbor, or your co-worker’s co-worker, etc. Each Christian has this vocation (calling from God) to be Christ’s witness where he/she has been placed.
- The holy Christian church is found “where the Gospel is preached in its purity and the Holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel” (Augsburg Confession VII). It’s absolutely essential that we gather together to breathe in God’s Spirit through His Means of Grace! However, that definition of who we are does not equal God’s mission through His Body, the Church, to be His “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). It’s really “BOTH/AND”… BREATHE IN/BREATHE OUT!
- As a long-time pastor of God’s people, and with an honest look at myself, I’d say we have a general inclination to take care of ourselves, so if my preaching seems to over-emphasize reaching out to the un-believing neighbor, it’s just my effort to find a balance for a healthier congregation and a brighter Gospel “lamp” in this community.
- Thank you again for your letter. Let’s keep this conversation going!
Pastor Shipley’s email pinged, announcing a note from his Michigan District, LCMS, Congregation Ministry Facilitator (CMMF). He clicked over to read the following:
Dear Brother in ministry,
As you know, a healthy congregation has a good balance of caring, feeding, and equipping her members, while also intentionally seeking and seizing every opportunity to serve and witness with God’s love in Jesus in the community/world so that others come to trust in Him for their salvation too. Here are a few resources to help you think through that tension point in your ministry and, by God’s grace, have a healthier congregation.
- AND: The Gathered and Scattered Church, Halter and Smay, Zondervan.
- Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church can Become a Missionary in Your Community, Stetzer and Putman, Broadman and Holman Publishers.
- A New Kind of BIG, Sweeney, Baker Books.
Happy reading, friend! Remember: with a humble spirit, we can learn from anyone; but read with discernment and apply what you can!
Your partner in ministry,
Congregation Mission and Ministry Facilitator, MI District, LCMS
Pastor Shipley flicked the fidget spinner again and mused about the timing of this note. “I’ll give my CMMF a call to set up a time to talk through some of the implications of what I’m learning!”