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

Suggestions

Let’s say you’d like for me (or anyone else) to hear your controversial position on [insert subject here]. I have a few suggestions:

  1. If it’s controversial, let’s shy away from links to Facebook posts.
  2. YouTube videos are fun, but not for settling a controversial problem (unless it’s a debate showing different perspectives). Get something in print, maybe?
  3. If you share an article or book, note what section or main idea I should consider.
  4. Work hard to be specific about the point you’re trying to make. It’s easier to evaluate a single well-defined problem than a barrel of confusion.
  5. If you’d like to spark my interest, make sure I don’t have to work harder than you to keep things going. This was your idea, remember?

They might have a point

One of my books took more than a year to write, ten hours a day. Another took three weeks. Both sell for the same price. The quicker one outsold the other 20 to 1.

A $200 bottle of wine costs almost exactly as much to make as a $35 bottle of wine.

The cost of something is largely irrelevant, people are paying attention to its value.

Your customers don’t care what it took for you to make something. They care about what it does for them.

~Seth Godin, Cost and Value

Pastoral work familiarized me with the feeling of doing work others found less than helpful. You have to get used to unattended meetings and sleeping congregants. At times I would question the spiritual maturity of the flock. If they only knew, they would hear my sermons and read my writing with rapt attention. They would remove their sandals and bathe in my glory.

Writers like Godin help me reconsider. I might actually be boring. Am I creating value? Am I speaking and writing in a way that helps my congregation see things they’ve always wanted to see? Am I causing the Bible to seem boring and useless for everyday life?

I’m aware that it is God who gives growth (1 Cor. 3:6). The gardener can plant and water, but photosynthesis needs to do its thing. Pastoral work, as with most of life, often involves planting seeds and praying for their success.

Unfortunately, many pastors use this truth as an excuse for shoddy work. We leave our seed in the bag and commend its growth to God. Rather, the Apostle Paul would say things like “I worked harder than any of them” (1 Cor. 15:10).

I can safely assume that I could have done something better. I can always speak with more vitality and clarity. I’ve never prayed too long over a sermon.

The trick is to work hard on the right things in the right way. Your congregants don’t care what it took for you to make something. They care about what it does for them.

The Sampler (May 2020)

Here’s the Sampler for the month. Don’t worry, I avoided any political babble and COVID-19. For productive, interesting, and valuable content, take a look.

Articles

In writing, the race is not to the swift but to the clear. Clear writing requires clear thinking. This is one reason Rachel and I decided to school our children at home. We all need to write better than we do, and we write more often than we realize. Texts, emails, presentations, thank you cards, and notes for the next meeting all involve writing! We’re all writers, and a little effort goes a long way. Perhaps this is why the New York Times has an article in their “Smarter Living” column entitled:  How to Edit Your Own Writing. It’s quite good.

David Mathis (I’m reading a lot of his articles lately) gives a Christian Hedonist’s take on a theology of exercise:  “How might it change your exercise routine if you did not exercise for mere weight loss, or long-term health, or improved physical appearance, but you did it to enjoy God more?” Mathis shows capable Christian writing on a subject that has intrigued me for years.

Useful

In spite of the cash I spent on Logos Bible Software, I still almost always use Blueletterbible.org when I’m looking up a word or reference in Scripture. It’s free and remarkably easy to use.

Books!

My parents have been passionate about organic and sustainable farming for years. I’m usually skeptical, as wary of the organic industry as the ‘Big Agriculture’ its trying to displace. However, it’s hard to argue with fresh eggs and the satisfaction of eating meat and vegetables you nurtured from start to finish. In the interest of being open minded, I read Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food last month. I enjoyed reading Pollan’s insistence that we make food and nutrition much too complicated. He’s able to argue the nutrition science, if that’s your thing, but he prefers to summarize his book in seven words: Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants. I lost three pounds just reading that. Dad, next up is The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

In Defense of Food

Be Still My Beating Heart!

Finally, Matthew Crawford has a new book coming out in June! Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road

Why We Drive

P.S. Send me any goodies you come across in your travels of the wasteland that is the internet. You can also leave some recommendations in the comments thread.

~BL