Well, I’m in Rutland, VT. Again. The downside of meeting with pastors and church planters is that they are very busy guys. Not all of them can meet when you’d like to meet. And for me, that means I do a lot of back tracking. Takes a toll on the gas budget. But I’ll be cutting the trip short a day, which means I’m driving home Friday morning, trying to push as hard as Raymond (my plucky CR-V) can hussle. It’s been a quite ride here in New England so far. Your continued prayers are very much needed. Been equal parts discouraged, excited, flummoxed, and bedraggled lately. Always tired.
Here are a few standout lessons/observations I’ve picked up on the trip so far:
1.) I need to relax. I have the type of personality that, once it gets going, can’t stop. If I get into the mentality of go-go-go, work-work-work, I will kill myself in pursuit of results. Merely a year ago, I was pulling down 70-80 hours a week, working three jobs while working through grad school part time. So when I go on a trip to interview church planters and pastors in New England, my mind says, “This is a business trip and I must perform well.” But God, in his unrelenting playfulness, shoved the Vermont Institute of Natural Science right across my path today. It just appeared on the side of the road, up in the mountains. It was like something out of a folk tale. I giddily spent over an hour gazing at bald eagles, great horned owls, golden eagles, turkey vultures, ravens, and one very aggressive cardinal who chirped and snapped his beak at me from behind his screen cage. It was magical. The forests in Vermont are something out of Tolkien. So, I was reminded today that I need to remind myself always to slow down and actually enjoy life. And I used to be such a slacker, too. Shame.
2.) I don’t know what I’m doing and neither does anybody else. Churches love to figure out “what works” in a culture. How can they best thrive and succeed? What’s the best 10 step program to grow a church from 50 to 500 in two years? What’s the best method for sharing the gospel so that everyone in your office or dorm will come to Christ faster than you can say “awesome”? But what I’ve found is that methods don’t really work in New England. The people here are so closed off and independent that any attempt to sell them a product (i.e. some flashy gimmick or marketing scheme to make the gospel appealing) immediately crashes and burn. Outside of preaching the Bible and consistently loving people, the church planters in New England will readily admit, “No one knows what they’re doing. We’re all just trying stuff.” That’s the method. Try stuff. Stay faithful to God and to your people and, in terms of the how, you just have to figure out what works best in your context. And that’s a load off. Ministerial technique doesn’t mean much up here. It’s all about honesty and faithfulness for the long haul.
3.) At least in northern New England, the people are the most theologically ignorant folks you’ll find in America. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. I was sitting down with a pastor in the Upper Valley area (in New Hampshire) yesterday. He told me he’d been there for 12 years. In those 12 years, the larger evangelical church in America has gone through a ton of controversy (the new perspective on Paul, the whole Rob Bell/hell thing, the recent Elephant Room/T.D. Jakes goat rodeo, to name a few). But he never had to deal with any fallout from those bombs in his New England church. Why? His people don’t know about the controversies. And frankly, they wouldn’t care. You can’t impress your congregation there by dropping names like John MacArthur, John Piper, or Charles Spurgeon. They have no idea who those guys are. They are a very practical, very here-and-now people, and they just want to know what the Bible says. In the more religious places I’ve lived (Dallas- big evangelical town; St. Louis- big Catholic town), we have the luxury to recline at our local Starbucks and argue over theological tidbits. We can knit pick to our hearts content and come out feeling edified (or at the very least, smudge and arrogant). But as one pastor in Concord, NH told me today, “We’re just trying to survive. We don’t have to time to deal with all that stuff.” It sort of puts things in perspective. And it really frees a pastor up to actually love his people without having to deal with important questions regarding controversial books. Those questions are important. They just don’t come up in northern New England. Boston and Providence might be a different story. I’ll hear about that in the next couple of days.
Last.) New England demands the long haul. A church planter who’s been in his community in New England for a decade is still planting. He’s not yet established in the community. Everything here is old. The cities, the buildings, the cemeteries, even the forests seem older than the things back West. The families here can trace their ancestry back to pre-Revolutionary America. They are rooted in their communities. Anyone who comes in from the outside to tell them how they should live (even if they preface it with “thus saith the Lord”) is met with immediate suspicion and even contempt. To belong in New England, you have to stay in New England. If you move here to plant a church, you better be willing to root for the Sox, root for the Patriots, wear a lot of flannel, grow out your beard, and become one of them. You can’t be a foreigner trying to reach the natives. That’s stupid. It won’t work. You have to love them and you have to love the process of becoming one of them. And that requires complete relocation of being, of thought, of manner, of speech, of lifestyle. Hardcore.
So, that’s all I got on a Tuesday night. I’m going to go look for a place to crash here in Rutland. I’ve been glued to their local Bread Co. for the last five hours, working on stuff for seminary and Sunday school and children’s stories and my brain is, how you say, le scrambled. Boston tomorrow. Providence and Brookfield, CT on Thursday. Driving home Friday morn.
Pray for me?
Until next time…
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