I was invited to a retreat at Richmond Hill recently where area pastors were going to be talking about bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia. Well, how could I resist? That’s what I’ve been talking about since I got to Richmond!
So we gathered for worship in that beautiful old chapel, and then had a delicious meal in the refectory, and then moved on into a meeting room that looks out over the city, a place where people have been praying for Richmond since 1866 and still do. Pastoral Director Ben Campbell got us started with prayer and then invited each of us to share our vision for ministry.
There were about twelve of us around the table, from Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Christian, and Pentecostal churches. We took our time, talking about the work we do and the neighborhoods in which we do it. But as we talked it became clear that our primary concern was for the churches we have been called to serve, about how to make them bigger, stronger, happier, healthier. When we finally got back around to Ben he said, simply, “I love the city more than I love the churches.”
I suppose I should have expected that. Ben is not the pastor of a local church; he’s the director of a spiritual community that has as its mission praying for the city of Richmond. But something about the way he said it made me realize that we pastors have a tendency to focus on what is happening within the walls of the church rather than what is happening in the neighborhood, the city, the nation, or the world. We could easily end up with glittering edifices perched on top of garbage dumps.
But not Ben.
I pictured Ben driving around Richmond jotting down notes about the people and things his community needs to pray for: sanitation workers, educational institutions, police officers, and prisoners. He has lifted his sights above the concerns of a single church to take in the concerns of the whole city.
But here’s the thing: God’s sights are even higher. Not only does he love and care for Richmond, he loves and cares for the world. That’s his mission, and he’s looking for churches that will help him do that. So, at Richmond’s First Baptist Church we’ve been asking not, “Does the church have a mission?” but “Does the mission have a church?” In other words, does God’s mission have a church? Will First Baptist, Richmond, help him love the world?
Well, we want to, of course. We want to do whatever God asks. But it will require lifting our sights a little higher. Instead of seeing only the beautiful buildings and grounds of First Baptist Church we will have to start seeing the whole city, even the parts that aren’t so beautiful. And then we’ll have to lift our sights even higher, to see the world God loves and to think about how we might share his love with that world. That’s not easy for us, or for anyone. It goes against the grain of our human nature. But it does seem to be essential to the divine nature, and part of what Jesus was trying to teach his disciples.
In him the love of God dropped into the world like a stone into a pond, and began to ripple outward. As we follow his example may that same love ripple outward from the church to the neighborhood to the city to the state to the nation and, finally, fully,
to the world God loves.