Pastoral authority in a travelling world

“All my congregation are travelling.  The older generation visit their children and grandchildren.  And the younger generation for work and just about everything from music gigs to sport to pleasure travel in and of itself. What should I say to my travelling congregation?  That’s what you should write on next.”

It’s what I’ve been told or asked several times in the last week or two.  So what’s my response?

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Travelling for the bank holiday weekend in Ireland: I made sure I went with other church family, and with the goal of mixing and mingling Christians with non-Christians too.

Well, although I didn’t write the book primarily for the church pastor, I hope that what I say can still be very helpful at demonstrating how to speak to someone with their heart set on travel.  In chapter two of the book, I touch on a [borrowed] metaphor for humanity that my blog name actually derives from – beautiful ruins.  Everyone on earth is beautiful but broken.  Everything on earth is beautiful but also fallen, to some degree on another.  But it creates life hard for us all.  Because it’s far easier to see the extremes of the spectrum in anything.  To brand people, things or viewpoints as entirely bad or wonderfully good.  And so pastors who have travelling congregations could quite easily do the same.  They’re looking for a quick fix to tell people to stop travelling and start committing to church.

“…quick fixes aren’t available in the Christian spiritual world.”

But I wryly smile, because quick fixes aren’t available in the Christian spiritual world.  Convictions of what church is, and other such things are taught and caught over years of pastoral ministry.  Even if I did think it was the answer to tell people to sit down and stop travelling (which I don’t, primarily), a book that told everyone to do precisely that, wouldn’t exactly be a best seller to travelling people.

But because there’s far more to travel that just “is it good or is it bad?”, I write to help people think for themselves and see both the potential and the harmful sides of travel in their life and the lives of others around them.

So the way I identify with my fellow travel-lovers, the language I use about it all, the emphasis I take and much more, will hopefully be an example or a sharpening to those who teach and those who lead churches, in how they can do similar.  A book about that, would only end up exampling and repeating so much of the same things again.

But a final note to pastors or those who are frustrated at the amount of travel their congregation or certain individuals do:

If I can boldly say so, I think in saying this, you’ve often been steeped in the same individualism as your young travelling congregation have.  Pleasure travel has thrived in the extreme individualism of the western world.  But so has pastoring-from-a-distance.  It’s amazing how we have churches now where everyone drives in from miles around, and never sees each other from Sunday to Sunday (or occasionally at the midweek).  Living out the tens of “one another” commands in Scripture (love one another, forgive one another, confess to one another etc) which seem to dominate the discipleship patterns of every letter in the New Testament, seem virtually impossible without seeing people from one week to the next!  Relationships will never thrive and sin can always be hidden from each other in such contexts.  Conversations will always be shallow after church on Sunday, if we don’t know each other better than that.

“So how was your week?”

“Oh, alright thanks.  I had a cold on Tuesday and work has been busy but good apart from that.  Did you see the football on Saturday?”

“Oh sorry to hear!  Yes, great game, wasn’t it?”

Etc.

But many of the younger generation won’t go to this type of church – they want real community.

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“They want real community”

And so as a pastor/elder, gone are the days where you can get away with saying “I’ll meet with you if you have a problem or if you’re new, but apart from that, I’ll focus on other things” (if you ever could say that).  I’ve heard it numerous times from students, that the student finds it impossible to get to know their elders or feel like they’re accountable to them, because they’re not known by them.  It’s led many of my students to find their church leaders authoritarian (because rebuke comes outside the context of deep relationship), or for them to not respect local church at all (just leaning towards a worldwide church and taking “elders” to be those who they respect across the city/world, because they actually feel understood and known by these people).

Now of course it’s a two-way thing.  And to willingly forsake a regular Sunday local meeting of God’s people around His Words and His sacraments, is just silly.  But I’ve rarely found young travelling people to be away so much when there is genuine connection and community.  It excites people, despite the messiness of true community being with people who aren’t like us.

What this means for city centre churches in big cities, or for churches that aren’t made up of geographically proximal people, is hard to see.  I think we have to be more creative than to tell people that they must just go back to the old way of life of living and spending time with all our physical neighbours (chapter seven of my book touches on why I think this).  But in other ways, I’m increasingly convicted there has to be more geographical proximity than we currently have in most churches in Ireland.  We must preach the gospel to ourselves and to each other regularly.  It’s partly why I believe Christian Unions see so many coming to faith, because of the beautiful [geographically proximal] community that models the good news for onlooking people.

(It’s also why, although I’ve been away from my Cork church two Sundays in a row launching this book, I’m quite content that I’m not forsaking the gathering of God’s people.  Not only am I visiting my sending church, and at a friend’s church on those Sundays, but I’m also intensely involved in the lives of my Cork church family during the week, often spending whole days with some of them (partly due to the flexibility of my job, admittedly) in ways that I can be vulnerable even with my elders).

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So in short?

Elders, please do be involved in your congregation’s lives and seek to know them and “one another” them regularly.

Travelling friends, please do seek to get to make yourself and your schedule open to rubbing shoulders with your elders and sharing your life with them.

It’s a two way thing.  The fault is rarely just in those we point the finger towards.

Further thoughts or advice?  Get in touch or comment below.

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