One of the sweetest privileges of ministry is for a pastor to finish well at a church, so that there is mutual blessing—the church blesses the pastor and the pastor blesses the church. Both are overwhelmed at God’s grace and the privilege of serving in His kingdom together, even though that season is now over.
The blessing of a “good” finish is not for all. It is not guaranteed. It is not everyone’s call (one thinks of the multitude of Christian martyrs). And it most certainly is not the ultimate finish for which we must all prepare when we stand before the Lord at the end of our lives. But when it comes it is sweet nonetheless.
This past month I’ve had the joy of being invited back to the two churches I served as senior pastor—the Chain of Lakes Community Bible Church (in Antioch, Illinois) had its 25th anniversary, and Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Greenwood Village, Colorado had its 30th anniversary. Both churches wisely believe that it is important to take time out to celebrate God’s goodness in the past. These anniversary milestones, for both churches, are not so much memorials, as launching pads for the future.
What a joy to be invited back to give thanks to God for his faithfulness, to preach and challenge them to be awake for the new things God has in store for them. Both churches have bright futures. Both understand the urgency of the hour. Both have able leadership for the days ahead.
In each of the anniversaries I reminded them of the unique role of the church—in the New Testament the church is called the “body of Christ,” “the bride of Christ,” “the household of God,” “the pillar and foundation of truth,” “the light of the world,” “the salt of the earth,” and “a city on a hill.” To the church is given the keys of the kingdom of heaven. God in his wisdom chooses to use the weakness of the church to open the doors of the kingdom so that others may go in. What a high and holy privilege!
The world desperately needs the church. What other institution is entrusted with the Word of God, which includes his moral law and the glorious gospel? What other institution has the wonderful privilege of proclaiming the story of redemption, the purpose of life, and hope eternal? And to what other institution has Jesus promised such endurance? It is only the church of which he said—“the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”
In other words, the church matters. Or as Eugene Peterson wrote—“the church is the institution God has set at the center of the world to keep the world centered.” It is a big deal. More specifically, your church is a big deal. Though we may forget this, or get lost, or screw up, Christ himself has given us a high and holy calling.
After 22 years of pastoral ministry, I believe in the church more now than I did when I first became a pastor. That doesn’t mean I have not been frustrated by her, and sometimes wounded by her. Like every pastor, I have. But this is part of the package of pastoral ministry and church membership.
I believe more than ever that the world needs the church to be the church. It needs strong, healthy churches that will be faithful to the gospel, to the great commandments and the great commissions of Scripture.
For both of the churches where I served, I believe that some of the greatest opportunities for gospel ministry and some of the hardest challenges we’ve ever faced, lie ahead. It is no time to “play church,” to “do church,” or to settle for business as usual. It is no time to let petty things disrupt its unity, or base things disrupt its purity. We must be ready for the unique opportunities of this urgent hour.
What a joy to be invited back into our former “homes.” That is literally how it felt—like we were welcomed back to a house where we used to live and shown wonderful hospitality and gratitude.
The way we felt is perhaps something like John felt, when he wrote these words to one of his former churches. “Dear friends, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well. It gave me great joy to have some brothers come and tell about your faithfulness to the truth and how you continue to walk in the truth. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in truth” (3 John 2-4).