What is God up to?
I’ve been hearing that phrase over and over lately. It’s the focus on a book I’m reading, the Crucifixion of Ministry by Andrew Purves. It’s the sense that instead of engaging in the business of ministry as if it’s all up to us, Purves wants pastors to step back and let go. God is the one that saves and redeems and it isn’t us.
I will admit, that frustrates me. You are taught all these skills in seminary and the culture around us tells us very plainly that if we aren’t doing something that can bring in more people to come to worship, then it’s all our fault.
I’ve been at my congregation now for seven years and in those years we haven’t really grown much over that time. It’s hard for me to not wonder if I’m doing something wrong. Am I praying enough. How about reading the Bible. I need to start a Faith on Tap!
But wondering what God is both intriguing and maddening. It’s intriguing because finding out what God is up to means trying to be attentive to what God is doing in our world and especially in our neighborhood. What have we missed by being so involved in busy work?
But looking for God is also scary, because it feels like quietism- meaning just end up doing nothing and waiting for God to do something.
Maybe that’s not what it means. Maybe it means living our lives and observe how God worked in our lives and the lives of others.
This past week, I was in a drive thru lane waiting to get my food. I come up to the window ready to pay for my meal when I find out that someone, probably the person that was ahead of me, paid for my meal. It was fascinating that this happened to me once, but it happened TWICE. Two times I was in a drive thru lane and twice someone paid my bill.
I do wonder if I should have done a good deed and paid it forward for the person behind me. I didn’t and I wonder if should have. What was God up to in those moments? What does it mean for my life or for the ministry I’m involved in.
Elizabeth Eaton, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, wrote in early 2019 about the church is worried about our church. Churches are shrinking, budgets are tightening, people are leaving. We want to know what we can do an we spend time at conferences wondering what we can do to help our congregation grow.
But Eaton thinks we are asking the wrong question. We should be answering what God is up to. She quotes from Isaiah 43 about God doing a new thing and are we open to seeing it. Can we see that new thing happening or are we trying to recreate a past? Eaton writes:
If we want to attract people to our congregations to rebuild a memory, God will not bless our efforts. But if we—grabbed by the Spirit in baptism, changed by the word, intimately and lovingly connected to Jesus and each other in communion, and set free by grace to serve the neighbor—invite all people into true life, then we shall become part of the answer.
This takes attention and devotion. Worship, prayer, Scripture study, generosity and service—not in order to save the church, but in response to the new life God has given us in Christ.
What we are being called to do is basically to live our lives faithfully. Go to worship. Pray daily. Serve others. As she says, we don’t do this to save the church and we shouldn’t be spending time “saving the church.” What we are called to do is live a life of thankfulness to the new things God is doing.
I still don’t know what that paying forward meant, but maybe it’s reminding me to be thankful to God’s work in the world.
I pray that I not tie myself in knots in trying to “save the church.” I can’t save this congregation because it was never mine to save. But I do want to take the time to live out my ministry and see God working in the world. Who knows? It might lead to a renewal of my church and maybe your church as well.