Our church is beginning the 40 day prayer challenge “Draw the Circle” by Mark Batterson. We start on Sunday, October 4th and I have done what I can to encourage our people to secure the book and participate.
This season of prayer comes at an opportune time for me. Several months ago, I was making preparations to go on sabbatical and would have been gone this Fall. The church, in its wisdom, included a sabbatical provision for its senior pastor in the personnel manual. I am actually two years beyond the time to go, so I’m overdue. And, I’m feeling it, too. I’ve been serving as a pastor for more than 20 years now, and here at UHBC for over eight of those. I’m grateful to have people encouraging me to do this, but it’s been hard to disconnect with all the challenges we’ve been going through. My hope is to move on this in the Spring, around the time that Cally graduates high school.
It’s also an appropriate time for the church. We’ve been experiencing a numerical decline for several decades, yet this reality is becoming more acute with the aging out of so many people. I’ve performed well over 100 funerals since I’ve been here, and see about half that many more get to a point where they can’t get out any more. I’ve observed a bit of grieving process taking place, as our members look at pews and places where their friends once were. Now, they have been ushered into the presence of the Lord to receive their reward.
This transitional phase is being felt by congregations and denominations all across our country. Bill Wilson alluded to this reality is his recent article entitled “The Beginning of the End for Baptist Entities?” It’s noteworthy that he put a question mark on the end of that statement, but it could very well have been a period or exclamation point. Wilson adds that thousands of churches close their doors each year.
Traditional churches like UHBC go through transitions too. It’s tough to bury so many devoted members. I’m reminded of the George Jones song, “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” whenever I have another death to prepare for. On the other hand, churches are receiving younger, newer members who don’t know the traditions and sacred cows of the church. It’s refreshing to hear the questions about why things are done a certain way. I can also appreciate the nervousness of remaining older members who wonder out loud “how can we get more young people?”
Jared Wilson has helped me with this question quite a bit. In his book, “The Prodigal Church: A Gentle Manifesto against the Status Quo,” he warns his readers that “if we treat people like consumers, they will act like them.” In other words, we can’t simply try to find out what will get people in the doors of the building, because what attracts them now might bore them later on. The latest and greatest events may bring people in temporarily, but they don’t provide lasting value. Wilson contends that getting more people in the building isn’t necessarily building up the church itself.
For me, I want to use the 40 days to “draw a circle” around who it is that God wants me to be as a person, husband, father, and pastor. I’m becoming more comfortable with the idea that God might have something entirely different in mind when it comes to his church.
I’m preaching from Acts 10 this Sunday, using the story of Cornelius. This is one of the most important passages in the New Testament, signifying that Gentiles were included in God’s offer of salvation through Jesus Christ. Cornelius had three character traits that I want our people to model: he prayed regularly, he cared about his community, and he was open to the leadership of the Lord. God orchestrated a “divine appointment” between him and Peter which transcended geographical, racial, and religious barriers. I’m hoping for barrier breaking to take place here as well.
It also has occurred to me that October is pastor and staff appreciation month. It’s a great privilege to lead a church, and also can be a great burden. I keep reminding myself that this church belongs to the Lord, and my prayer is that these 40 days will reinforce my need for Him and our church’s desire to seek His direction.
Even if you’re not part of our church family, I invite you to pray with us. I’m expecting great things and asking the Lord to center us as a people into seeking the Kingdom of God rather than our own Kingdom.