I spent several years acquainting myself with the myriad sleeping positions my 2006 Honda Accord afforded me. After graduating college I set out to become a vagabond musician. As my travels crested past 100,000 miles, the highway had worn down not only my tires, but my soul as well.
My only comfort was the hope that I would soon be back on 71-N headed to Ohio. The hills surrounding the sweeping, downhill left turn through Covington, Kentucky would soon part and the Cincinnati skyline would welcome me home. An old friend’s small attic on the outskirts of downtown had become my midwest headquarters. The city became one of two familiar places left for me. I didn’t need directions to get a good hamburger and I had friends there.
On the road, I felt a constant sense of being out of place. I assumed it was the late nights and long stretches of highway getting to me. Looking back, I see clearly what my Father was showing me: just as a tree must be rooted in the soil, the human soul needs to be grounded in a specific place while surrounded by a particular people in order to flourish. These realities continue to shape my understanding of calling.
A Specific Place
Our culture sacrifices the virtue of locality on the altar of consumption. ”Locality” is the commitment to a specific geographic place and all its unique textures, where as “consumption” is the compulsive striving for more and better. An example of this trade is the Evangelical conference craze.
Conferences can be wonderful, but few consider the consequences of conferencing. As we hop from one summit to the next, our souls can become increasingly unstable. The latest fad is branded and handed to us by an anointed leader. We are convinced to buy in after hearing the Acts-worthy stories from his/her ministry. After all, no one drops $500 to hear Tom Binkowski talk about his train wreck of a church plant.
The conference craze leaves us constantly reevaluating and jumping from one model to the next. Forfeiting the virtue of locality leaves us restless and afraid. In a letter to Michael Card, author Harold Best describes the dangers of the conference craze:
Think about fame as a 100 percent efficient way of disappearing as a simple individual and joining the mythologized world of exaggeration and oversize.
The lure of the crowd and platform can easily trap us in a fantasy. Believing bigger is better, and better is essential, corrodes our souls by forcing us to live up to something that doesn’t even exist—that perfect ministry. Harold continues with God’s invitation in the midst of this pipe dream:
Think instead about the value of staying home and becoming what our culture so sorely needs: a local, hometown hero.
If he wishes his life and ministry to flourish, the pastor must have a commitment to be a pastor in whatever specific place he finds himself. As you consider your calling, is your potential new home a place you are eager to love? Is it a place whose history you are passionate about learning and owning as your own? Are you more invigorated by the thought of being a celebrity or a hometown hero?
God has created each of us to inhabit, know, and serve a specific place. We will not flourish in our calling so long as we reject God’s good design.
A Particular People
Similarly, the pastor who sees his people as the problem instead of God’s gift is equally vulnerable to frustration and despair. The drive for bigger and better can leave us dreaming not about the people we serve, but of a movement we might create, join, or lead.
Driven by a “movement” can tempt us to cast aside the uncertain or unwilling for others more eager to get on mission. Jesus was giving us his vision for what a pastor was when he implored Peter to feed his sheep. People are not the problem: Satan, sin, and death are. People are suffering under their sin and so God sends pastors to care for their souls.
Consider: is God calling you to run a church/movement or pastor a people? Running a church is not intrinsically bad, but Jesus did not invite Peter to efficiently manage his organization. Where is our focus? Is God calling you to lead a movement, or care for the souls of his people?
The gospels record Jesus asking over 300 questions. By asking questions, we learn the nuances of a unique people. What made the gospel good news for you may not sound like good news to them. Will we preach to our people, or to our podcast? Will we offer them textbook solutions, or listen for their unique struggles? And will we learn the distinct contours of the culture where God has placed us? Or will we assume similarities and generically serve our city?
If your ministry would look just the same in any small-town-USA church, it’s a good indication you have yet to accept God’s calling to care for a specific people. This leaves the pastor increasingly disconnected from his people. And it fuels a greater sense of alienation from his place, which once again leaves the church and all her souls at risk.
The Story of Place
God put our first parents in a specific place. For all of our days in exile since, the longing of the human soul has been for a place to belong. Abraham was made to sojourn through foreign soil. We can see his yearning for the place God had promised him. The slaves in Egypt cried out to God for deliverance. They cried for safe passage to the land God made just for them. The Psalmist yearns for Jerusalem while displaced at the mouth of the Jordan river. Isaiah points God’s people to a day when we would come into a place of justice and flourishing.
Jesus comes not simply with a message, but an invitation into a kingdom. A city with real walls and boundaries. A realm of real people who walk real streets. How can we teach people what it means to love and serve the place God gave us if we are always anywhere but right here? How can people experience the particular love Christ has for them if our eyes are always fixed on the generic masses? And how can we possibly walk in obedience to God’s call unless we commit to a specific place and particular people?
The longing in my soul would quiet when I crossed the Ohio river into Cincinnati, but it would not go silent. Even now, leading a church I love with a family I love in a city I love, the longing for place remains. We will not be at rest until our feet touch the soil of Christ’s kingdom. Until that day, though, we pursue the city of Jesus and learn to be human. This is done by responding to God’s call to a specific place and a particular people.