Last month—July 2015—marked seven years that I've been pastor at City Church. Seven years! That seems like a long time. That makes me kinda old. Seven years in the same job, in the same place is new territory for me. Before this job I hadn't been anywhere for longer than about four years (high school, college, grad school, my first couple of jobs). That anniversary has caused me to think about the last seven years. One natural measuring stick for City Church’s growth is our children. Our youngest was born 10 months into our time at City Church. She provides a visible gauge of growth and a reflection on the church's analogous maturing. Our daughter is not a baby anymore. She is loud and complicated, but also full of life and dynamism. Just like City Church.
There was a time early on when I explained with enthusiasm that we were a new church, just starting up and that I was a new pastor. Honestly, I can't say either anymore. There are newer churches, capturing people hungry for the latest and greatest. There are younger pastors with fresh ideas and energy. What I can say is that the last seven years have grown me and (hopefully) made me into a better leader of City Church.
Specifically, the last seven years have taught me: 1) the depth of pain in this broken world, 2) the still deeper wonder of God’s grace, and 3) the importance of just being here.
Pain in this Broken World
As I began work at City Church seven years ago bright-eyed and filled with visions of grandeur, I was unprepared for the depth of sadness and pain pastoring would bring. I was blinded by the splash of quick impact and flash of a new style that our church would bring to Richmond. Now I understand more what Eugene Peterson meant when he described the Christian life as “a long obedience in same direction.”
Recently I told a friend about the embarrassment I feel now reflecting on unseasoned sermons I gave fresh out of seminary, inflated by the conviction that God wanted me to provide the answers to all of life’s questions. I’m grateful now for the grace of the patient saints who endured those too-confident sermons and shuffled past with kind words, silently praying that God would mature over time and through pain another foolish seminarian.
The Wonder of God’s Grace
One constant through my seven years at City Church is the question I’m asked frequently: “So, how are things at City Church?” (which is usually followed quickly by, “How many people are coming?” betraying the questioner’s true intention). A friend taught me how to answer a few years ago. I say, “We keep talking about Jesus and people keep coming.”
Seven years into pastoring City Church I’m committed to the same unrelenting message of God’s grace to rebels. There have been moments when I’ve been tempted to move on, to find something else to be about. But what I need every day is to hear again that I’m loved by a big, big Love. That my worst failures don’t define me. That somehow beyond the clouds of despair, God still loves me. It is the truth that God’s grace is deeper and bigger than the world’s pain that sustains me in ministry.
The Importance of Just Being Here
Very early on at City Church I became committed to the idea of hyper-local preaching and hyper-local pastoring. By this I mean teaching and shepherding with particular and unflinching focus on the people in this place. In our connected, podcasting age, it is tempting to pastor broadly, on the scale of the celebrity pastors whose sermon links are tweeted, whose influence is widely saturating. But I feel implicated instead to speak into the personal issues and struggles of Richmond, the Fan, and the families of City Church. To speak in such a way requires that first I listen and attend to the needs, wants, sorrows, and joys of a place.
Relatedly, I’ve realize that it takes a long time to get to know a place. The old joke is that you aren’t from Richmond unless you were born in Richmond. By that accounting I’ll never be from Richmond. But more and more I’m able to say that Richmond is home and that Richmond is mine. There’s no shortcut to knowing a place and being known in a place. It takes a long time to earn being able to say “I remember when” and those words shouldn't be said cheaply.
Part of the importance of just being here is accepting the beauty and brokenness of a place. Rather than constant longing for the good of other places, I’m learning to take, in the words of Wendell Berry, “a great and present delight in the modest good… at hand.” Richmond isn’t perfect. City Church isn’t perfect. But there is modest good here. And in that, I delight.