Missing Practices

I led my first small group at my church nearly ten years ago. After assuming the title of Assistant Pastor of Discipleship and Small Groups (helpfully abbreviated APOD&SG), I started reading everything I could on small group ministry. I rarely found what I was looking for.

There was plenty to read and consider: recruiting and training leaders, practicing hospitality, writing discussion material, and easing through small group dynamics. I also learned how to develop our small groups without cannibalizing the church itself.

But the most popular materials never seemed to mention the practices of writing or prayer- practices that became necessary to do my pastoral work at all. I’m sure no one would say these practices were unimportant. They were apparently assumed. I suspected they weren’t mentioned because they weren’t practiced.

If we assume a ministry is attending to prayer without consistent instruction and practice we can create a kind of ecclesiastical Ponzi scheme. No real work is really being done in prayer. Why else don’t we have more to say about how these practices should shape our small group ministries? Pastoral work without prayer and writing is as useful as carpentry without tools.

Limited experience taught me that prayer opens my eyes to the presence and work of God. How else could I learn repentance and petition, confession and blessing? Prayer taught me that God had taken the initiative in every situation I entered. Rather than asking “what do I need to do to get things going,” I began to ask, “what is God doing here that I need to be aware of?”

“I can be a pastor who prays,” wrote Eugene Peterson in The Contemplative Pastor. Peterson was a lone voice in my wilderness:

I want to cultivate my relationship with God. I want all of life to be intimate—sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously—with the God who made, directs, and loves me. And I want to waken others to the nature and centrality of prayer. I want to be a person in this community to whom others can come without hesitation, without wondering if it is appropriate, to get direction in prayer and praying.

The Contemplative Pastor Page 29

In time, writing became a physical expression of my praying. Like prayer (at its best), writing clarifies and reflects meditation. “As I mused, the fire burned.”* Pen and paper now take on new energy as I consider the normal difficulties of ministry. We need more leaders in our church. How can I train the leaders we have? How will I handle this difficult conversation?

Small groups have great potential for helping the church in her task of spiritual formation. We all have a lot of work to do. As for me, I will write and pray.

BL

*Psalm 39:3, ESV

Always a miracle

Birth is a miracle. Every birth. And every new birth is a miracle. We are all participants in the miracle. We have all been born. Jesus used the birth imagery in his phrase “born from above” (John 3:3, NRSV) to introduce Nicodemus to an equivalent miracle in their famous nighttime conversation. God is in the business of making life, bringing into being what is not. Birth is the name of this act. It is always a miracle.

Naming an event a miracle doesn’t mean we can’t understand it. It means we can’t anticipate it. It means we can’t reproduce it. We cannot control it. There is more going on than we can comprehend. There is more to life than we can account for. Miracle is a word Christians use to name events, at least some of them, that God brings about.

~ From As Kingfishers Catch Fire, a new collection of Eugene Peterson’s sermons. Excellently edited, these sermons provide a glimpse of the candor and earnestness of Peterson’s ministry. They are a gift to the church.

To read

Since I tend to avoid book lists, this short list of my own probably requires justification. There are a small handful of authors that I try to read faithfully and studiously pursue their recommendations. I was delighted to find several of these authors publishing one after another during the last year.

So, why church?

“The short answer that I had come to embrace through the years of my pastoral formation….is that the Holy Spirit forms church to be a colony of heaven in the country of death….Church is a core element in the strategy of the Holy Spirit for providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus-inaugurated kingdom of God in this world. It is not that kingdom complete, but it is that kingdom.

It has taken me a long time, with considerable help from wise Christians, both dead and alive, to come to this understanding of the church: a colony of heaven in the country of death, a strategy of the Holy Spirit for giving witness to the already-inaugurated kingdom of God.”

~ Eugene Peterson, The Pastor (110)