Pastor's Blog

I think one of the biggest challenges of navigating life as you age is the handling of ideals.  We all start off life with limited practical experience and most of us, based on our good and bad experiences, establish ideals – beliefs about what SHOULD be – to guide us.

 

Ideals are absolutely necessary and a wonderful thing – if used properly.  Ideals provide a target to aim at and a direction to go as you plot your path in life.  But as we gain life experience we find our ideals colliding with reality because . . . well, because reality is not ideal.  Because people are not ideal.  I’m not ideal and I can’t even live up to my own ideals, much less someone else’s.

 

So when ideals and reality collide – what do you do?  Do you grasp your ideal more tightly and attempt to force it on the reality around you and make reality conform to it?  Or do you conclude that your wonderful ideal needed a little tempering by cold, hard reality to be made more workable in the real world?  There is a time for both of those things.  Discernment, I believe, is knowing which option to choose when.

 

I’ve concluded that I and the flock entrusted to me are usually best served when I adjust my ideals to reality, working slowly and gradually toward change, toward my ideal, rather than trying to instigate a violent revolution, demanding that things be done my way – a practice that does little more than leave bloodied souls in your wake.  Better, I think, to try to persuade people of the value of my ideals, and work to bring them on board and keep them on board, adjusting to them, cooperating with them, and encouraging them to adjust and cooperate with me.  And slowly we make our way forward.

 

It’s called “compromise”. 

 

When I first came to evangelicalism “compromise” was a dirty word.  You NEVER compromise, I was told.  Compromise was seen as an evil.  There are certainly core principles – fundamental truths – that cannot and must not be compromised;  places where you dig in your heels and don’t budge. 

 

But the older I get, the fewer of those I find.  My list of fundamentals not to be compromised has been whittled down significantly since I was twenty-one.  In most practical things, in the living out of life, I have found compromise to be an expression of love and an excellent way to work towards growth and effective change with people rather than against them.  It’s a great exercise in dying to self, a central part of a walk with Christ.

 

There is an inside joke among board members at our church.  Whenever we need to raise money for a project, someone will say “Time to get out the thermometer!”.  For years I fought against the idea of fund-raising gimmicks, like putting out a board with a thermometer painted on it, and every week the red line goes up as the giving goes up.  I always believed people motivated and excited by a cheap gimmick like that have something wrong with their moral compass.  I believed people should be motivated internally, caring about the need and wanting to give to it because they genuinely understood and cared about the need.  They should have pure motivation in their souls – not the giddy desire to see a painted line getting longer.

 

And then I came to realize that the visual image of the rising thermometer helped people keep track of the amount that was needed – but in a light-hearted and fun way.  So I tossed away my ideal of perfectly pure internal motivation for giving. 

 

I still oppose using a thermometer, however.  Our church is “Mountain View Chapel”, so I believe we should have a little mountain-climber working his way to the summit of a cardboard mountain…

When I was seventeen, I traveled out west with a chaperoned group of teens from our church.  We stopped at the Grand Canyon and it was decided that we would hike down into the canyon.  From the rim at the top you could see the Colorado River.  It didn’t seem that far to the bottom.

I think we hiked for an hour and a half and I was sure we were almost at the bottom.  We finally arrived at a landing where we could see the Colorado River again.  It didn’t seem any closer than it had been when we viewed it from the rim of the canyon!  We had such a long way to go!  If we went all the way down, we’d never make it back out of the canyon before dark.  We turned around and began the even longer hike back up the steep trail to the rim.

My life has been like that hike in ways.  At twenty-one, I was an angry young man with a headful of ideals that I was certain would fix what the preceding generations had messed up.  I wasn’t out to change the world;  I just wanted to “get it right” in one little church. 

I was opposed to heavy-handed tyrannical pastoral leadership.  I believed in careful and wise decisions made by a council of wise men who interacted patiently with each other.

I was opposed to the church being a business, always concerned about money and getting out of debt.  The church should be a people – a family, a community, a nation – and ministry should be personal and genuine – people truly loving and caring about others, using their God-given gifts to influence others to godliness, encouraging each other and correcting each other, if necessary;  a body of friends who want to be friends for a lifetime and taste God’s good gifts together.

I was opposed to viewing ministry as a sort of cookie-cutter machine, putting people into a program at one end and getting perfectly stamped “discipled Christians” who could spit out the right answers to easy questions on the other end.  Study, question, think – and do it together.  Work through hard questions;  don’t be afraid to say you don’t know.

I was opposed to clichés and cheap slogans and gimmicks – thermometers to raise money and little packs of gifts for visitors with pens that didn’t work but that had the church’s name on them.  That all seemed shallow to me, and I despised anything fake or that was mere veneer.  Christianity had to be genuine and sincere at every level, right down to the heart of it.

Those were some of the ideals that guided me and drove me.  After twenty years of labor, we had tasted a reasonable degree of success pursuing those ideals.  The church had thrived and grown;  it had come back from the brink of death.  I assumed that what worked with the little church and then with double services would continue to work with the big church when we all got together and began to fill the new building – built to handle almost double the number of the people we had in two services.

I had figured it all out.  Now all I had to do was coast.  That’s what I thought.

It had been a long twenty-year hike – and I was certain that I heard the river and that I had reached the bottom of the canyon.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.  Getting into the new building wasn’t the goal.  It was a little landing where I could catch my breath and catch sight of the bottom of the canyon, the river, still oh-so-far-away.  There was still plenty of arduous hiking to be done.  That was one lesson God intended to teach me as I launched into the second leg of my life’s journey.

The other was that my ideals didn't work as well as I thought they did.

My blog for the past year and a half or so has been a review of my first 20 years in ministry.  It began in September 1982 and ended in June 15, 2003, the day we entered the new building.

It’s strange to look back on life and assess where you’ve been and what you’ve done, what you accomplished and hope yet to accomplish, where you succeeded and where you failed, what you’d do the same and what you’d do differently, and most of all – what your life meant and continues to mean.

I came into the ministry in 1982 with a lot of ideals about which I was certain and confident.  I was critical of large churches.  I felt they worked like machines pushing people through an assembly line of programs to produce one-size-fits-all disciples.  I felt like they were focused on programs rather than people and that they were impersonal and distant.  I believed in personal ministry – preaching the truth and people carrying out the truth.  I believed in the church as a community -- loving one another, encouraging one another, trusting one another, growing together, being faithful and loyal to the Lord and to one another, generations growing together like a spreading tree of deeply connected meaningful friendships.

During the first twenty years of ministry, I believe we had a good bit of that at our church.

But I truly believe that although the Father is interested in His church, He is also interested in molding me.  And in doing so, He seems to be having the last laugh.

The things I was aiming to develop, we had at our little church.  As a result, our little church grew into two services – two congregations.  And we had the tight fellowship I was shooting for in both services/congregations.

But things were getting stretched.  We started to experience discomforts.  There wasn’t enough parking.  The building was too small.    There wasn’t room for new people or growth.  Our bathrooms were downstairs.  They were small and there was no access to them for the disabled.  We were running out of space to handle burgeoning children’s ministries and a booming nursery.

I had been raised to “make-do”.  But not everyone else was.  Some people were getting disgruntled and wanted me to do what it took to handle the growth.

But that would mean becoming a big church.

In my prayer times I could almost hear God chuckling as He checkmated me.  I was not wrong – small, personal churches are a wonderful thing.  But when you have a wonderful thing – it grows.  And when a small church grows, it becomes a big church.

And the Lord’s personal challenge to me for the next leg of the journey was to learn to become the thing I didn’t want to be, the thing I had always criticized:  a big church.  It was as if the Lord stood back and said, “Okay – you’re the one with the ideals and the confidence and the certainty.  You’ve been the one who’s criticized my other servants who have led larger churches.  Show us, now, how it’s done.”

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God – even when He’s laughing at you!

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