For someone who is in the business of words, being speechless is a big thing. And not speechless because I’m in awe, that happens more often than one might think. But speechless in response to a question.
A friend of mine from university got married when I was in Wisconsin, and spending some time with her step-children, one of them asked what my job was, and I said, “I’m a pastor.” And he asked, “what’s a pastor?” Spending most of my time in a context in which, even if people were not part of a faith community, everyone had some rough idea of what a pastor was. But how would I explain, to a child, what my vocation was in life? I could say that I talk to people, but it’s more than that. And his mother is a therapist, and that’s not really my vocation. I could say that I run a church, but that is not what I do. I don’t run the church, this isn’t my church and I’m not ultimately in charge here, the consistory is, but I know where this line of explanation goes—to glazed eyes.
I don’t even remember what I said, but I do remember stumbling over an answer. But it did cause a great deal of reflection. What is my vocation? What is my calling? I preach and teach in the local church, but that is not all I do. I also write and teach and lecture for the broader church. And I’m involved in the community, and I have some administrative responsibilities. And I marry people and bury people, and I visit people. And I read—a lot. Eventually, I settled on a response should the question arise again: I help people learn about God and love their communities.
This caused a great deal of reflection on my particular way of being a pastor looks like, how it takes shape. And I also wonder if we, as a church community, would have an answer if someone asked: “what’s a church?” (and, I wonder if any local church would have a good answer to that). What is our reason for existing? Why would anyone want to be a part of a church or our church in particular?
While we often grieve the cultural changes which have pushed the church from the center of the society, this also offers some great opportunities, as well. Namely, to figure out what we are about. For generations, one was a part of a church because everyone else was. Or because you wanted to find community and meet people. Or because the church was the largest community organization and everything that happened tended to revolve, to a greater or lesser extent, around the church.
But now we find ourselves in a situation when not everyone else is a part of a church, and you don’t need church to meet people, because we can find community in other places or because we spend more time with people with whom we work in Albany or Schenectady or somewhere in between. And no longer does all the activities in the community circle, in one way or another around the church. There are other organizations that can do programs, and often much better than we can.
And so this all leads to the question of why we exist, or why someone would want to engage with a church or our church in particular. It leads to questions of: what are we to do? Often churches have sought to compete with other organizations to do stuff, which was really the phenomenon of megachurches. But the reality is that we cannot compete for programs and activities. And we don’t have to. And once we realize that we don’t have to do a whole bunch of stuff to keep people busy, we can then be freed to be who the church is called to be.
How are we to exist as a foretaste of the Kingdom of God? How are we to shine the light of Christ throughout our community? How can we point to restoration and redemption? What can the church do that no one else can do? What can the church say that no one else can say?
With deep and abiding love,
The Rev. Matthew J. van Maastricht
Pastor and Teacher