The church and people I lead are a patient and adventurous bunch. They don’t get at MainStreet what the masses are seeking at larger, more “thriving” churches. What they do get is “challenged” and continually stretched beyond their comfort zones. When Jesus tried ministry in his hometown, he almost got thrown off a cliff. Ten years into my hometown ministry, I’m still avoiding the cliff—and lake!
In the spring of 2010, somewhere in Nashville, Keri and I were led into a room to be given “the verdict” after an intense several days of Church Planter Assessment. A committee of church leaders had turned over every stone and probed every nook and cranny of our marriage, psychological health, ministry experience, gifts and calling—everything but personal grooming and fashion preferences (hence, my holey jeans). Now they would tell us if they thought we were called and gifted to start a new church, or if I should pursue a new career as a truck driver.
We pulled up plastic folding chairs in what was, if my memory is correct, a half-lit basement Sunday school room. I only remember three things from that fateful moment (and you can add your own suspenseful music about now):
1) “We see God’s call and gifts in your life to move forward in planting a church.” Hurray!
2) “Jeremy, while we don’t recommend doing both at the same time, you also have a strong call to scholarship and will probably need to pursue doctoral studies sooner or later to feed that part of you.” Seven years later—check!
The third thing was a bit more complicated and came with a warning (increase the suspenseful music):
3) “Jeremy, you are not the typical pastor-shepherd. You are a catalytic mobilizer. Your church/ministry will be about moving people toward intentional growth and pulling them out of their comfort zones.”
I don’t remember all that was said, but the gist of it was that my pastoral leadership style is more about challenging people than comforting them, with the goal of deeper transformation, not warm and fuzzy sentimentality. He probably warned me that such a pastoral style and type of community will likely remain quite small and some folks will not respond well to this pastoral style.
When I’m an old worn out pastor sitting on a porch (finally) drinking coffee, and my memory is all but gone, I’ll still remember those two words spoken over me by Tim Morey in that church basement on plastic folding chairs with a flickering fluorescent light above: catalytic mobilizer.
I am again leaning into this “prophecy” as our leadership team casts a 2020 Vision that is all about helping people grow deeper in their faith and mobilized toward deeper healing of heart, soul, mind and body. Some pastors long to see their church organization, attendance, staff, budget, influence and momentum grow. I long to see people grow.
Standing on the bank of the River of God and knowing the power of the divine current to heal, everything in me wants to shove people — ready or not — into the water. But everyone must venture into the water at their own pace and in their own time. Once again, here’s Ezekiel’s powerful vision:
I saw water coming out from under the threshold of the temple toward the east…3 As the man went eastward with a measuring line in his hand, he measured off a thousand cubits and then led me through water that was ankle-deep. 4 He measured off another thousand cubits and led me through water that was knee-deep. He measured off another thousand and led me through water that was up to the waist. 5 He measured off another thousand, but now it was a river that I could not cross, because the water had risen and was deep enough to swim in—a river that no one could cross. 6 He asked me, “Son of man, do you see this?” (Ezekiel 47:1-6)
If you read a few verses beyond this it becomes clear that this river is all about “healing”—not deeper Bible knowledge, not deeper in good deeds, etc. Like Ezekiel, I want to be led and help lead others into the deep end of God’s healing power and love. What spiritual practices and resources can take us deeper? Here’s my take on Ezekiel’s vision.
On the Bank: You’re curious about Christianity. You’re at least aware of the river, and you might just dip your toe in eventually by going to worship, talking to a Christian friend, reading a book, etc. But you’re still not wet and you can’t understand the faith until you get wet and experience it. “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5).
Ankle Deep Faith: You are a casual church attender and you have a basic knowledge of Christian teaching. You are grateful for the River and you are confident that as long as you keep one foot in the river and follow its course, you eventually arrive at its Heavenly destination. But you are still walking on your own two feet and have rarely if ever felt the power of divine current in your life. You’re more dry than wet—a Christian in name only.
Knee Deep Faith: You have moved deeper than mere church attendance. You are involved other church-led ministries such as a small group, Bible Study, serving in a role, and forming relationships in the church. Yet, outside of church programs, you haven’t established personal spiritual rhythms and you want to grow in your personal intimacy with God. You’re heading in the right direction, but the divine current is still less noticeable in your life than some other forces and influences pushing at your back.
Waist Deep Faith: You love the River current and want to learn to swim! You want to go deeper still and are trying to do so through personal quiet time, serious Bible study, prayer retreats, listening to sermons and podcasts, reading books and attending conferences. At waist level, you can feel the divine current pushing at your back, and you’re inspired by those who learned to pick up their feet be swept away by the flow. You long for that kind of self-abandonment as well, but you are stuck in a faith that is based more on spiritual “works” than divine grace. More sermons, more Bible study, more small groups, more good deeds, more volunteer hours—but still you are longing for deeper peace and healing and transformation.