“There is not an honest pastor in the land who is not deeply aware of the slum conditions that exist in the congregation and, therefore, the unending task of clearing out the garbage, finding space for breathing, getting adequate nourishment, and venturing into the streets day after day, night after night, risking life and limb in acts of faith and love.”
– Eugene Peterson, “Under the Predictable Plant“
Yesterday, I spent the morning in three separate meetings.
The first was with a young man fighting a battle with alcohol.
The second was a strong leader in our congregation hungry for more of God and less of religion.
The third was a pastor with more experience in ministry than I have years in my life.
All day long I found myself battling a very “to-do list” mentality to my day and an attempt to be fully present in the lives of these congregants and friends. Truly they were great meetings–very practical times filled with seeing God at work in the everyday lives of those who worship together on Sunday mornings. We call ourselves a church beyond Sundays, so it’s nice to actually see that lived out.
But, before any of those meetings, before any of the life circumstances and the tasks at hand, I read the quote from Eugene Peterson above. Of course, I’m a long-time fan of Peterson and believe he has spoken prophetically to many of those in the ministry world, including myself, about the work of pastoral ministry. But this hit hard… “the slum conditions of the congregation…”
Four years ago I spent about two weeks in the slums around Nairobi, Kenya. It was a place of desperate poverty (of course) and overwhelming joy (surprisingly). Orphans, widows, and lonely hearts passed each other everyday in a way of living that was appalling to me and often content for them. I remember leaving the slum on our last day thinking that while I treasured my time there I also could not wait for a break… for some time away from these conditions. It immediately hit me that the slum residents could never step away.
A year and a half into our church planting adventure here in West Virginia, I realize that Peterson’s slum description is spot on. Every Sunday morning I lead a congregation of “slum residents,” who find themselves in life conditions and spiritual poverty looking for the joy that comes in community. They live into our time together on Sundays, but it does not remove them from their own residency. They go home to their battles, face their heartbreak, and smile in spit of pain every, single week.
The difference now, from the slums of Kenya, is that I find myself residing in the slums as well. The weight of “shepherding” is something that can easily consume my life and pull me into a place of desperation. The sense of being overwhelmed by others’ needs is all too often, and it is only resolved from the Word of God. Literally, I find myself desperate for time with God because it feeds my soul and heals the wounds I often face. I sit in these meetings knowing I can do little besides pray and listen, and I step out of the meetings longing for time with the Savior.
The work of ministry is a work of slum living. And I don’t mean that in a degrading sense. The slums of Kenya were some of the happiest places I’ve ever seen. Those in desperation have no choice but to find joy in each other. As you follow Christ into the broken parts of your world, don’t forget that the hope to fill you will emerge from your time with the Father. Be faithful and be broken as you walk each day with those around you.