Part 9 of series: Missional and Formational?
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Yesterday I began to offer some thoughts on the intersection of missional and formational in John 15. Here, Jesus says that he is the vine and we are the branches. We will bear much fruit (i.e. fulfill our mission) if we remain in him (i.e. be formed through relationship with him). In the process of remaining in Jesus as a branch, his Father, the Heavenly Gardener, prunes us so that we might bear more fruit. I mentioned yesterday that this pruning process, however necessary it might be, is not one of my favorites. It usually involves losing something that one values greatly, and this is never much fun.
Perhaps the most obvious example of recent pruning in my life came a couple of years ago, when God was pruning away my ministry at Irvine Presbyterian Church. Leaving this dear church was one of the most painful experiences I’ve had in ministry, though it was pain saturated by love. I felt strongly that God was calling me to Laity Lodge, even though I wasn’t quite sure all of what he would do with me in this new ministry.
One of my major concerns was that God was cutting off my preaching and teaching ministry with a congregation. Not only did I enjoy communicating God’s Word to people on a regular basis, but I also believed this was a responsible use of the gifts God had given me. At Laity Lodge I’d have some opportunity to teach and preach, but not like I had at Irvine Pres. It was hard for this part of my ministry to be pruned. (Photo below: The congregation at Irvine on my last Sunday as pastor. Yes, I did take this photo in the worship service. You can get away with things like this on your last day.)
Within a few months of my working at Laity Lodge, an unexpected opportunity opened up with one of our sister ministries, The High Calling of Our Daily Work (www.thehighcalling.org). This web-based ministry had been running a daily devotional, based on a series published by Eugene Peterson. Not only could people view the Daily Reflections on the website, but also they could have it sent to their email inbox each day. But the High Calling was getting to the end of Peterson’s material, having gone through the whole Bible in five years. In conversations with the producers of The High Calling, it seemed good for me to try my hand at the so-called Daily Reflections. Though I felt nervous following Eugene Peterson, I did my best. The response from readers was positive, so I took this on as an ongoing project. (I predict it will take me at least ten years to go through the whole Bible.)
Though writing the Daily Reflections isn’t exactly the same as preaching, it is fundamentally similar. In both media I take the Scripture, study a passage, interpret it for people, connect it to their lives, and, through prayer, help them to grow in their relationship with God. At Irvine Presbyterian Church I was able to do this for about 650 people, for twenty-five minutes once a week. Now, through The High Calling, I’m able to provide reflections for about 7,500 people every day. Ironically, if you add up the words in a weeks’ worth of Reflections, you come out with almost the same number of words as in an average sermon. And I spend about as much time each week on the Reflections as I did on sermon writing. (Photo: The location of my Daily Reflections on The High Calling website.)
Of course I do miss the personal dimension of preaching, being able to look into the eyes of my congregation as speak with them. But I get a steady flow of email notes from those who receive my Reflections. I am beginning to feel about my readers much as I felt about my congregation at Irvine. Plus, I’m getting to know many of my readers personally when they join retreats at Laity Lodge. Moreover, some of those who receive my Daily Reflections write to tell me that they pass them on to friends and relatives. I’ve heard from some pastors who circulate them to their church staff members. I share this with you not to brag, but to let you know how God is blessing this new opportunity to share his Word with people.
So, I am now able to impact many more people for the kingdom than I did while Senior Pastor of Irvine Presbyterian Church. Numbers aren’t everything, of course. And there is nothing quite like being a pastor (though I don’t miss some parts of the job, let me tell you). But God has pruned me in the past two years so that I might bear more fruit for his kingdom.
Plus, it goes without saying that my effectiveness in writing the Daily Reflections is entirely related to how much I am abiding in Christ and letting his words abide in me. If I skip on the formational elements of this ministry, I will soon be writing empty Reflections that will not help people grow in Christ. Abiding in him means everything if I’m going to be an effective devotional writer, just as if I’m going to be an effective preacher.
What I’ve experienced in being pruned by God, and what I’m experiencing through studying, meditating upon, praying, and wrestling with his Word as I write the Daily Refletions, are parts of God’s forming me for his mission. I have been and am being formed so that I might be more fruitful for the sake of the kingdom. And I am more fruitful for the sake of the kingdom because I have submitted, however unhappily at times, to God’s pruning in my life.
In this example of pruning I have not talked about the extent to which my formation and my mission is not mine at all, but rather part of a corporate experience and ministry. I’ll share more thoughts about this in light of another passage in John’s Gospel. Stay tuned for the next post in this series.