A Mustard Seed Future For the Church

This is adapted from a letter to a friend some 6 months ago. It’s quite personal. I share it because I hope others can relate and will be encouraged and inspired if they find themselves in a similar place .

I was reading through my old journals, and came across one entitled, “My Inner Amusement Park,” or something like that. I was rambling on about being a quiet contemplative pastor in a loud and pragmatic society. I often feel like I’m not “producing” enough “results” in ministry to justify my existence; outwardly I might even look “idle”—perhaps the deepest and darkest sin in my family of origin.

But my journal went on the defensive, insisting that if people could only open up my mind and peek into my thought-world, they’d find an amusement park full of wild ideas rising and falling like rollercoasters, a hyper-colored circus full of spiritual insights roaming like elephants a under the big tent, and outside the box ministry visions shooting across my mind like clowns out of a cannon. So, “How goes my walk?” I answer with the words of St. Teresa of Avila whom I have been reading recently:

“My head sounds just as if it were full of brimming rivers, and then as if all the water in those rivers came suddenly rushing downward; and a host of little birds seem to be whistling, not in the ears, but in the upper part of the head, where the higher part of the soul is said to be.”

How’s that for an opener? About 2 years ago I turned 40, and my midlife crisis revisioning process began. I realized I had spent my first half of life learning how to scramble and hustle to earn my place in this world, to prove myself worthy of others’ respect and show myself useful in society. I had accumulated tons of bible knowledge and theological truth, and “accomplished” one of the high-water marks in the church ministry world: we planted a new church from scratch.

But these were sometimes merely the external pursuits (of the ego), and I managed to keep my eyes so focused outwardly on certain ministry goals and spiritual projects, that I did not have the time (or courage or training) to dare look inward at my inner terrain. Jesus’ words have rung out with fresh poignancy, urgency and meaning: “What good is it to gain all that the world deems valuable, but to fail to nurture your own soul in the process” (Mark 8:36)? #JesusMicDrop

I can wax eloquent about our Father who art in Heaven, but I was untrained in what it might mean to nurture a holy intimacy and mystical union with the Christ who dwelleth in me! For years I have preached sermons urging people to “Let the peace of Christ rule your hearts” and to drink deeply from the inner spring of living water that never runs dry. Yet, I found anxiety and restlessness were often ruling my heart, and my own well of inspiration repeatedly running dry.

So, a couple years ago I began what I have called my “Pilgrimage of the Soul”—a slow and meandering trip into the contemplative side of Christianity, getting to know the Desert Fathers and the Medieval mystics. I’m finding my heart brimming with curiosity and hope, longing and eagerness to go deeper and bring others along. I’m finding that the Lord is faithful to “lead me beside still waters and green pastures” and “He prepares a table for me in the midst of my. spiritual enemies” (Ps 23).

I am also finding the 21st century church in America approaching a major crisis and I’m predicting the slow demise of consumeristic forms of Christianity in the coming decades. Springing up from the ashes of shallow, comfy, entertainment-based ‘churchianity’ will be little pockets of spiritually hungry people longing to return to “the ancient paths” and seeking out capable spiritual guides and contemplative sages who can take them into the deep end of the pool. (We had just 4 people show up last night for a rich time of spiritual wisdom-seeking, and that’s okay.)

My centering scripture the past couple years at MainStreet undergirding our vision shift to a new mode of ministry has been Jeremiah 6:16:

“This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’

So, how goes my walk? I’m standing a crossroads with regards to what kind of church model I want to pursue and what I believe a pastor’s vocation should really be about. In my doctoral dissertation, I looked back into history, and forward into the future, seeking the ancient paths that can produce thick souls and Christ-formed character. I don’t want to peddle cheap spiritual trinkets and marketable fleeting experiences. I want to be led by (and then lead others to) Jesus Himself who is the “Good Way.” I don’t want to just think about it and write about it and preach about it. I actually want to “walk in it”—that is, to live it experientially; to come down the mountain with my face all aglow and need to wear a veil lest others be blinded by Christ’s countenance in me.

Why this? Why now? Because I desperately want and need to “find rest for [my own] soul” if I am going to keep going in ministry long term and find joy in my everyday life. Saint Teresa invites us to an inner journey into the “interior castle” of our own souls, where Christ dwells in the most inner place, longing to meet and commune with us there. She boldly asserts (and I love this), “It is foolish to think that we will enter heaven without entering into ourselves.” She invites us to probe the divine mystery that John’s Gospel dares us to discover that Christ wants to make his dwelling in us, so that we can share union with Christ resembling the union the Father shares with the Son. Teresa writes:

“This Beloved of ours is merciful and good. Besides, he so deeply longs for our love that he keeps calling us to come closer. This voice of his is so sweet that the poor soul falls apart in the face of her own inability to instantly do whatever he asks of her. And so you can see, hearing him hurts much more than not being able to hear him…For now, his voice reaches us through words spoken by good people, through listening to spiritual talks, and reading sacred literature. God calls to us in countless little ways all the time. Through illnesses and suffering and through sorrow he calls to us. Through a truth glimpsed fleetingly in a state of prayer he calls to us. No matter how halfhearted such insights may be, God rejoices whenever we learn what he is trying to teach us.”

Well, this is a kind of full-color brochure describing my wild, inner circus and contemplative jungle-gym. But I’m in a beautiful place of discovering and growth, all flowing out of my doctoral research which centered on pastors recovering their role as spiritual guides and doctors of the soul in a culture where many pastors settle for playing organizational leaders, business managers, vision casters, program developers and, worst of all, people-pleasing promoters of shallow Sunday experiences that may bring the crowds but too little inner growth. (Is that too harsh?)

At the end of the day, I grew tired of just trying to run and grow a church organization, and the endless game of monitoring and managing people’s excitement level and expectations, and the endless cycle of striking up the band every 12 months to rally people around a new undertaking (as if learning to follow Jesus isn’t enough?), competing with school activities and constantly trying to boost organizational momentum. (As if we can actually control such things in the end.)

In this next season of ministry, I am eager to spend my gifts, my time, and my wisdom in leading an intentional community of spiritual pilgrims who want to go deeper into the Wisdom and Ways of Jesus. I hope there are some people out there, tired of church-as-usual and tired of all the marketing gimmicks, who are looking for a pastor and a church offering a rugged pathway to real formation.

But before we get our hopes up, let’s go back and read the devastating final line in the Jeremiah passage. How do the masses of Jeremiah’s day respond to God’s invitation to walk the good and ancient and soul reviving spiritual ways? They say, “Sorry man, we will not walk in it.” “Sorry, we’re fine just doing the Sunday 1-hour rah-rah each week.” “Sorry, we’re happy to have a Jesus who provides eternal fire-insurance, but doesn’t meddle in my politics.” “Sorry, I’m happy having Jesus as Savior, while being discipled in my everyday life by the latest “patterns of the world” (Rom. 12:2). “Sorry, I’ll just let the political talking heads on the Right and Left shape my social ethics, not Jesus and His upside-down Kingdom.”

“We will not walk in it.” Scary words. Sad words.

How about you? Will you seek the ancient paths, the Good Way, and decide to intentionally walk in it? The era of large McChurches and programs that attract the masses is in decline. The era of small, no-name Mustard Seed communities in gathering inconspicuously in living rooms and coffee shops and, yes, that small mainline church down the road, is the future (and past!) of Christianity. Get ready to embrace the small, the authentic, the deep, the slow, the enduring. Get ready to say goodbye to the big, the superficial, the shallow, the quick and efficient, the trendy and attractive. Jesus warned us from the beginning saying:

“Pursue the unpopular, cross-shaped Way. For the ideologies and lifestyles that lead to personal and cultural demise are broad, and the masses are flooding those paths. But Jesus’ ethical vision leading to human flourishing is narrow and few find it” (Matt 7:13-15 my paraphrase).

Let all who have ears to hear, listen.

2 replies »

  1. I encourage you to keep searching for those who want more than the “latest program” or the Sunday “rah-rah” hour. We’re out there quietly living the gospel in the everyday-ness of casseroles, contemplation, and Christlike love of God and neighbor. Each one of us a mustard seed seeking growth.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s