Eleven years ago, today, I walked back into a church as a pastor—an identity I thought I’d successfully left behind. The ending of my previous ministry left such a bad taste in my mouth that I vowed never to work in the church again.
But then Douglass Boulevard Christian Church called.
There were two reasons for my returning to work in a congregation: 1) I had done a short interim for DBCC, previously, and they were incredibly kind and supportive. and 2) I needed the money. (Yes, it sounds mercenary, but I have committed myself to speak the truth.)
At the time, I’d just finished my coursework for my Ph.D. in Humanities at the University of Louisville. While I mapped out my future as a professor, DBCC asked me to come and hold the fort, as they searched for a new pastor. The timing couldn’t have worked out better.
I never intended to stay beyond 12-18 months. I figured that would be enough time for them to find someone else. In the meantime, I could complete my comprehensive exams and start on my dissertation.
As it turned out, my work at DBCC proved quite interesting during those six months. In the end, I decided I didn’t want to leave. They were unlike any congregation I’d ever worked with before. Perhaps the best way to describe the people is to say that they weren’t afraid of trying new things (sometimes outlandishly improbable new things). They weren’t afraid to fail—which, itself, is another way of saying, they weren’t afraid to die.
They didn’t want to die, necessarily, but they had made peace with the idea.
In my experience, institutions—especially 165-year-old institutions—are acutely risk-averse. They tend to make decisions based more on what will piss off the fewest number of people. DBCC, while never setting-out to make anyone angry, has refused to balk at a decision because someone might be. They make choices based less on potential negative consequences and more on ‘the right thing to do’.
I’d always thought such a congregation possible (at least theoretically)—indeed preferable. I’d just had never encountered one ‘in the wild’, however. DBCC convinced me that the church’s destiny had nothing to do with finding its purpose in institutional preservation. It could be about a recklessly devoted community, devoted to the prospect of following Jesus and loving those he loved. Ultimately, this is the church’s only way to fidelity to Him and the radical reign of God he announced.
I grew up believing that church was where people went to get their lives in order to ensure salvation. I thought of it as a place one tried to persuade people to come to find God. The outlandish Jesus I found at DBCC, however, convinced me otherwise. He taught me that the church is a community of people that seeks to be where everyone else already is. Only there can folks embody the revolutionary impulse of Jesus. Only there can they prepare the way for a new creation where everyone who’s been left behind will be escorted to the front of the line.
1. Being a pastor, again, has shown me that church isn’t a place to “fix” people. It’s a launching pad into the world that helps others realize a new way of living together as God’s children.
2. I’ve discovered that our job doesn’t include making the world a little bit more like the church, especially since the church, in many ways, is just as broken. Our job is to be the ‘good news’ that God wants both, the church and the world, to conform to. It speaks of God’s vision of a new realm, where the rich and the powerful no longer occupy its center but sit on the periphery, celebrating the new order. There, the poor and the powerless may finally find where they belong at the very heart of God’s attention.
3. I’ve learned over the last eleven years that the reason many people have given up on the church has less to do with Jesus than with the fact that his most publicly pious followers seem to–so assiduously–avoid acting like him.
4. I’ve become convinced that the measure of the church’s success has more to do with the expanse of its hospitality than with the narrowness of its cost-accounting.
5. I’ve come to the conclusion that the building in which we gather functions as a tool, a means for helping us live out our mission, instead of a museum whose best work is no longer overseen by practitioners but by memory curators.
6. I’ve seen that my job as a pastor isn’t about dreaming up new things for people to do and then convincing them to do them. It is to help people find the voice, the resources, the courage to do that which God has challenged them to do.
7. I have come to realize that the outlandish Jesus I read about in the Gospels announces ‘a salvation’ that starts now in the often-grim reality of everyday life—not just in some diaphanous future in the hereafter.
The whole thing has left me in awe of the goodness of the brave and gentle people who call themselves by Jesus’ name, and grateful for the good work still in front of us.
A version of this post was previously published at derekpenwell.net and is republished here with permission from the author.
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