Just after Pharaoh allowed the Israelites to leave Egypt, we find this verse in Exodus 13:17: “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, ‘Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.’” Scholars believe that while the shorter route would have taken the Israelites about two weeks to arrive in the Promised Land, the longer route took them nearly a year. Yet, God was not as concerned with time as he was with the destination. He wanted His people to eventually dwell in the Promised Land, not be quickly frightened back into slavery. Thus, in His great wisdom, God led the Israelites down the longer path.
I have had the great privilege of pastoring a church in a revitalization context for fifteen months now, and this passage is one I have returned to quite frequently. Despite the best efforts and best intentions of pastors and congregations, achieving our God-given mission, or even taking steps towards it, is often a slow process. Like the Israelites, there are many instances in ministry when it is very clear that we are heading down the longer path.
As I have reflected on our journey as a church thus far, there have been several factors that often contribute to this slow progress.
First, vision buy-in takes time. I have spent countless hours visiting with church members, meeting with church leadership, reading God’s Word, and spending time in prayer seeking the vision the Lord has for us here. Yet, far too often once that vision is casted, I expect the congregation to believe in mere minutes that this is the Lord’s will. Just as it takes times for the Spirit to convince pastors of our God’s vision, it takes time for the Spirit to convince members as well.
Secondly, pastors often inherit structures in churches that do not lend themselves well to quick changes. Although we are in the process of moving to elders and deacons, we are currently a church governed by several committees, all of which only meet once a month. Therefore, major decisions have to be discussed over several months, and then require several people to sign off on those changes.
Thirdly, discipleship takes time. Personally I have been a believer for seventeen years now, and yet I am still an unfinished product. However, I am still tempted to believe that if we run everyone through a certain program or ministry that in 1-2 years they will be a fully mature disciple capable of making more disciples. Simply put, if our timelines for making disciples are shorter than that of Christ’s, then we have a bought into a lie.
Finally, we often find ourselves heading down the longer path due to God’s protection. Last Fall we had a conversation with some of our leaders about having a larger church-wide outreach in the Spring to our community. The leaders opposed it for several reasons, which they expressed. As it turns out, come Spring most of our church was tired and burnt out, and having a huge outreach would have only increased that burden. Although, I was initially frustrated in the Fall, the Lord protected us from greater fatigue and potential dissension by delaying that outreach.
Despite many of these delays and frustrations with the longer path, the Lord has also used the longer path to grow both myself and the church in the following ways:
#1: The longer path grows our humility. Achieving mission quickly and easily only increases the likelihood that we will pridefully say, “Look at what I (or we) have done.” When our quick solutions fail or our plans are drawn out, it draws awareness to our humanness and our desperate need for Jesus in order to accomplish anything for His glory.
#2: The longer path grows our trust in God’s goodness and wisdom. When growth does not happen according to our schedule or our master plan, we are moved to trust God that there is a reason why. In these times, we can cling to the truth that God had a good and wise reason for delaying Joseph’s ascension to the throne, for leading the Israelites down the long path, and for waiting to send His Son to dwell among men. Similarly, when God leads our churches down the long path, He has a good and wise reason for such a plan.
#3: Finally, the longer path grows our worship of the Lord when the end goal is reached. All of us are now able to look at the three instances above and praise God for his goodness and wisdom in delaying those plans. If by God’s grace our churches continue to persevere on the long path, we too will one day be able to step foot in the Promised Land, look back at the disciples the Lord made, and with them, turn and face the throne, joyfully praising our God who sits on it.
Matthea Haecker serves the Lord at First Baptist Church in Muscatine, IA as their lead pastor. He is a recent graduate of Denver Seminary and is passionate about assisting the Lord in turning dying churches into disciple-making communities for His glory. In addition, Matthea has the great privilege of serving his incredible wife, Jen, and with her, discipling their adorable kids, Halle and Malachi.