Just before Easter I read a great, little book: Love Big, Be Well by Winn Collier. The book consists of a series of letters written by the pastor of a small Presbyterian church in Virginia to his congregation. (Sound familiar?) The letter-writing begins when the church’s Pastoral Search Committee writes an honest, pull-no-punches letter to prospective candidates as an attempt to push past the formalities of a typical pastoral search process.
In his response, a candidate and the eventual pastor, Jonas, writes, “If I were you pastor, I’d want to continue this letter writing thing. We’re on to something.” As I read the book, I kept thinking that he was right. They were on to something. As a letter writer myself, I believe there is something about the joy of receiving hand-addressed mail, something about the feel of paper between our fingers, something about words written into the specifics of a congregation’s life that matter.
Inspired by the example of Jonas McCann and Granby Presbyterian Church, I wrote you all at City Church this letter...
I continue to be filled with gratitude to you all whenever I think about last summer’s sabbatical for me and for my family. What a gift! One of the fruits of that period of rest was time for reflection on City Church, nostalgia over the road we’ve traveled together these last ten years.
Ten years! Can you believe that? I’ve resisted church anniversaries in the past. I tend not to make a big deal out of birthdays either. When it comes to the church I want to be careful to avoid a romanticizing of the past and I think anniversaries can feel exclusionary to the many people who are new to the church and don’t remember the “good old days” we might be prone to celebrate. But I have to admit that there is something valuable about recognizing God’s faithfulness to our little church over the last decade.
We’re old enough now that some of the original members of the church have moved away and now are back in Richmond. We’re old enough that I’ve officiated weddings of couples who first came to City Church as single young professionals fresh out of college. They're married now and in some cases they’ve had children. For a few, I’ve baptized those children into the family of God. We’re old enough now, too, that we’ve got some scars—wounds of people who are gone, battles fought, damage done.
More than anything else, reflecting on ten years of ministry at City Church gives me a different perspective on the nature of church—what it is we’re all about. When I started I thought it was all about the rush to arrive, to become a “big-boy church.” Now I see that really we’re about gathering people and forming people, including ourselves.
The mysterious work of the church is gathering God’s beloved sons and daughters from different places and stages and stations and then living together as a family the best we can. The mysterious work of the church is being formed more and more into the likeness of Jesus, not despite our failures and suffering, but often through our failures and suffering.
This spring we’ll be talking a lot about gathering and forming. It’s work that we do and that is done to us. It always starts with (and always continues to depend on) God’s gracious work. But by the power of His Spirit we’re also invited into the wild work of formation. As the Apostle Paul told his friends in Philippi, because God’s at work in us, we work, knowing that He will bring to completion what He’s started.
Well, that’s my letter to you, City Church. I wish I could send it to each of you in a hand-written envelope, with a hand-placed stamp just slightly crooked in the top right corner. But this will have to do.
What do you think? Is this letter writing thing worthwhile? Were Jonas McCann and the saints of Granby Presbyterian on to something? Val’s told me before that not too many people even read this blog. But maybe you have today. And maybe it’s helped you think a little more about how God is using His church to gather you and form you.
Love Big, Be Well