Tis the Season to Be Attentive
Eugene Peterson once said that ministry often reinforces inattentiveness to Christ. Ironically, that is rarely more true than at Christmas time, when the rest of the world is most likely to attend to him.
A friend of mine—a shrewd observer of ministry who I will call Cleveland but whose real name is Dallas—recently made this comment about church ministry that rattled me: "Given the contents of the New Testament, one might expect local congregations of Christians to be entirely devoted to the spiritual formation of those in attendance. What we actually find in most cases is constant distraction from this as the central task: By the demands of the organization; and by the requirements of our 'faith and practice'—our traditions. Often there is the recognition that what we wind up 'having to do' is not what we really feel it should all be about."
(This from Dallas Willard's general musings that get typed up and taught some place but will probably never be published, and which are worth more than 99 percent of the stuff that actually does get published.)
This got me to thinking. Particularly about how I spend my time, and how others on church staffs spend their time. I have been doing church ministry for a long time now, and while I can waste time with the best of them, I do have a pretty good sense for how it gets spent. Here are my observations:
—Lots of time gets spent on "programs." This includes services that require messages to be prepared, music to be selected, stories to be told, segues to be segued, lights and sound and instruments and collection baskets. This can all be good stuff, but sometimes it feels more like Lucy and Ethel trying to wrap candy as it speeds by on the conveyor belt than like helping Christ be formed in people.
—Lots of time gets spent on planning stuff. This too can be good, and at its best can be creative and energizing. But all too often the unstated goal is: How can we get more people to come out to more events? Getting more people to our events is how we feel we demonstrate our success and worth. This is why there is often an unspoken but palpable perception on staff that the church is really an extension of leadership ego.
—Lots of time gets spent evaluating stuff. But rarely is the evaluation centered around whether or not Christ was more deeply formed in people. Or whether he was more deeply formed in us. More often it's around categories of execution, excellence, efficiency, and whether or not we got enough people to participate in it.
—Lots of attention and energy gets devoted to numbers: attendance and/or giving. We often don't necessarily want this to be the case. But our emotions seemed attached in ways that may not be healthy but are hard to re-direct.
So my ministry partner/friend Blues and I are spending more time these days thinking about what it might look like to be "entirely devoted to the spiritual formation of those in attendance."
Gary Moon is doing wonderful work alongside Dallas and others to look at how spiritual formation takes place in our day, informed by ancient wisdom. We're trying to see how we might incorporate this wisdom and these practices into a group of staff who signed on not for courses in spiritual direction but for work on a church staff—yet who need to begin by having Christ formed in us.
John Ortberg is pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California.