The Restful Church

In a world that is so often busy, frantic, draining, and constantly places demands on more of our time, energy, and moral investment, you’d expect the church that Jesus built to be a sanctuary of rest, a calm within that storm.

After all, Jesus said a life devoted to Him should be marked by peace, rest, and order (John 14:27, Matthew 11:28-30, 1 Corinthians 14:33), something that stands contrary to the portions of fear and trouble the world heaps on us. 

But here’s what I’ve found: the church is often just as polluted with busyness as the world. It’s often a place where our already overwhelming list of responsibilities and commitments are added to and our already asphyxiating schedules are put in an even greater choke hold.   

Many churches and pastors see their fundamental job as essentially recruitment and fundraising. The main goal is to start and maintain as many activities as possible—from summer camps, Bible studies, and children’s programs to gender- and age-related small groups—and to push as many people as possible into participation. 

The healthy church, it is assumed, is the busy church. It’s the one with an activity scheduled every night of the week and twice on Sundays. And the message from the pulpit is that your personal spiritual health is scored on how involved you are in church functions. 

But here’s a little insight from over a decade running on the hyperdrive-of-activity treadmill: most of the folks that are on that machine aren’t in any better shape spiritually. They’re either burned out or headed there. Their marriages are often in just as bad of shape as anyone else’s and sometimes worse. Their children aren’t necessarily any better off.  

Here’s the kicker: there are plenty of ways the Bible describes spiritual health but none of them include being oversaturated with activities and running at a pace that results in near total emotional breakdown. 

It’s much like the people who think spending four hours a day at the gym is a healthy decision. Instead, most of those folks are overworked, undernourished, and headed for injury. Spread too thin. Ready to snap. What they need isn’t more cardio or twenty more reps, but simply to rest. 

This call to “embrace the overload” is exactly the opposite of the message the church of Christ’s Gospel ought to be sending. 

A NEW WAY OF SEEING

In his letter to the Philippian church, Paul said the mode of the false teachers—those who sought to destroy the body of Christ—was to get people to focus on external practice as a grounds of standing before God instead of placing their confidence in the finished work of Jesus. In other words, it was a question of where a man found his identity, either in external performance or in an intimate relationship with Christ (Phil. 3:1-11).

As Paul did, the church ought to be the place where we keep insisting that your identity is grounded in what Christ has done for you, not on how many times you volunteered for any number of worthy causes. Likewise, the main work of the pastor isn’t as master of ceremonies but helping others cultivate an abiding intimacy with Christ.

The point is not signing up for a million activities or programs, but knowing Christ (3:7-8). In fact, many times it’s the frantic pace of our overloaded lives that keeps us from slowing down to enjoy a moment with the Savior (Luke 10:42). Too often, we push people away from Christ because we’re Martha, insisting they stop sitting around and do something.

First, this changes the outlook of Sunday morning worship. The point of the Lord’s service isn’t primarily to tell us what we need to do for Christ (give more to missions, serve more in the nursery, attend more Bible studies) but to encourage the flock to rest in what the Lord has done for us. It is we who are being served, first and foremost, not the other way around.

As a pastor, I’m calling out to the lost, weary, sin-marred sheep to come and embrace the rest of the Savior. Be fed by the Word. Let the Savior serve you a meal. Enjoy His presence.

While our bosses hand down an unending list of assignments and our children require an overwhelming amount of constant care, it is here, uniquely in the Lord’s presence, that we are invited to be still and rest in His care.

Second, a pastor’s main work during the week in caring for the flock is to listen well and encourage. It’s about soul care, not sign-up sheets. In a world distracted by smart phones and the adrenaline rush of unending digital notifications, you have an amazing gift to give: your careful attention.

I’ve met quite a few pastors over the years who simply can’t turn the recruitment coordinator schtick off. A passing interaction at the gym or post office becomes an opportunity to express how much they missed you at such-and-such function and how they wished you’d come next time.

Here’s a serious question: Why do so many of us assume that busy equals healthy? That spiritual flourishing is the same as activity overload? Is it because we believe, deep down inside, that our self-worth is defined by how much we accomplish and not by what Christ has already accomplished for us?

Maybe the healthiest thing for a family with several young children, for example, isn’t to be at every event. Maybe it’s to be at home, playing football in the backyard or reading a bedtime story before praying together about the bullfrogs and daisies and the dog that died and the kids miss so badly.

Maybe the reason family worship and hospitality (real, actual, biblical commands) have all but disappeared from American Christianity is because you can’t do either of them if you’re never home. And the church is often one of the worst culprits when it comes to encouraging families not to be at home.

This also means your life as a pastor and example to the flock can’t be a hurried, distracted rat’s nest of frenetic activity. When you’re with your people you need to be all there, but you can’t do that when you’re interrupted by calls or constantly checking social media or over-scheduled and pressed for time.

Eugene Peterson nails it when he writes:

“The Word busy is the symptom not of commitment but of betrayal. It is not devotion but defection. The adjective busy set as a modifier to pastor should sound to our ears like adulterous to characterize a wife or embezzling to describe a banker. It is an outrageous scandal, a blasphemous affront…

I am busy because I am vain. I want to appear important. Significant. What better way than to be busy? The incredible hours, the crowded schedule, and heavy demands on my time are proof to myself—and to all who will notice—that I am important…

I am busy because I am lazy. I indolently let others decide what I will do instead of resolutely deciding myself. I let people who do not understand the work of the pastor write the agenda for my day’s work because I am too slipshod to write it myself. The pastor is a shadow figure in these people’s minds, a marginal person vaguely connected with matters of God and good will. Anything remotely religious of somehow well-intentioned can be properly assigned to the pastor.” 

EUGENE PETERSON, “The Contemplative Pastor”

The world already shells out plenty of guilt when we work to protect rest in our lives or fight our addiction to the drug of busyness-as-self-importance. It doesn’t need that insidious message from the church.

Instead of encouraging overload, we should be helping our people cultivate an appropriate balance of rest and work within their lives and homes. We should be prepared to model it by saying “no” ourselves and encouraging our people to focus on the essential and say “no” to the rest.

For additional resources on carving out restful space in your life so that you can focus on what’s essential, I’d recommend:

econn

2 comments

  • Eric,
    Thanks for this article! All the staff in our church are currently tracking hours on an app called Clockify. We pastors are normally putting in 60-70+ hours/week. I often feel guilty if I’m under that. I pulled out my copy of Peterson’s book and began reading it again. So good!

    Also, great pics from Moab! We were there around the same time you guys were. Wish we could have connected over a good beer or bourbon. Let me know if you’re ever in Fort Collins.

    Keep writing, brother!
    Perry

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