The landscape in American evangelicalism is now hitting a point where more pastors than ever are involved in either planting or revitalizing. Of course, the rest continue to take on the task of reflection and innovation to maintain vibrant local congregations. As a member of a pastoral team currently faced with revitalization challenges, let me offer some encouragement to all of us in whichever situation we serve.
Often, we encounter critical staging moments in the life of the church. It may be helpful to consider a similar moment for Jesus’ disciples. We read of this moment in the very familiar text of the Great Commission, Matthew 28:18-20. But how often have we considered the verse prior to this familiar passage? It holds a curious tension that is probably similar to what many of us feel right now in the lives of our churches.
Jesus had given instructions for “the eleven” (now minus Judas Iscariot) to meet him at a particular mountain, and they had come to that place. Verse 17 says that upon seeing Jesus, they worshiped him. That was certainly appropriate! Jesus, in his resurrection, had confirmed that he was God Almighty, and was, therefore, worthy of worship.
However, notice the next phrase, “...but some doubted.” How curious! Jesus had proven his bodily resurrection, probably by this point even to doubting Thomas. How could there still be doubting? The text doesn’t limit the “they” who worshiped – it reads like all eleven – but “some” doubted. Some interpreters suggest there is a larger group of disciples present, including the women from v. 9 and perhaps amounting to Paul’s total of 500 plus reported in 1 Cor 15:6. But this only enlarges Matthew’s subject – “they” is then a larger group of worshipers, some of which doubted. Now, I’m actually pretty curious about those who worshiped without doubting. I’m guessing that’s easier to do when you are face to face with Jesus, but for our purposes here I think most of us can easily identify with the other guys. How can some worship and doubt?
There is another occasion in Matthew’s Gospel where worship and doubt are mixed. Remember Peter, when he faltered on the water (14:29-30)? Jesus asked, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when the two got into the boat, all the disciples worshiped Jesus.
Maybe this odd combination feels familiar right now. You are committed to Jesus, to leading his church as an under-shepherd, but things underfoot feel a little unstable, like it was for Peter on the water. You are doing your best to bow at Christ’s feet as a worshiper, but you have some doubts about how things are going to play out moving forward and so do the people you lead.
Whether your plans feel like attempts to walk on water, or like more reasonable endeavors, your local church body needs to be anchored and unified in worship of the Savior. This does not eliminate all doubts, but the presence of Christ is what overcomes them, and true worship of him is what unites us all. We are authorized by his authority, charged with his mission, and directed by his teaching (28:18-20). Whatever else does change as we bring the gospel to bear on our diverse contexts, these things have not changed, and will not.
As pastors, we must be committed to following Christ in leading our congregations to pursue the same mission he handed to his first disciples. Drawing from the clear commands and teachings of Christ and his apostles, we must all work vigorously to discern how our local flocks are to be vibrant and effective as the local expressions of the Body of Christ in this and coming years.
As we wrestle through our ministry plans and re-align our resources and strategies, as we make some hard choices and struggle with misunderstandings and even dissenters, we are poised. We have the one message of hope our crumbling culture and our challenging congregations need. Now our calling is to follow through.
Our doubts – and those of the people we lead – do not have to undermine our efforts. In reality, they should serve as a catalyst for the true worship we offer the Lord on whom everything depends. The stage is set for what comes next in each of our ministries – doubts and all. Let us stay immersed in worship of Jesus and entrust our doubts to him. This is the model we offer for those we lead, and it will draw us closer to our Savior and closer together as we forge ahead!