Two or three Sundays a month, I attend an evening worship service at another congregation. Intentionally, it's not the same denomination as the one in which I minister. It's the liturgical style I prefer, despite the fact I will never minister in a similar style. It's a place of anonymity, for the most part, and one that I cherish.
It's interesting to be in that setting, one where always, no matter what happens, I will be an outsider. I don't make small talk. A couple of the ministers there know that I'm also a pastor, and graciously leave me alone. I smile and shake hands if necessary, but that's about it. I'm there to worship. I'm there to hear the Gospel. I'm there to receive the bread and the wine. I'm there to rest in God.
This practice has taught me a great deal about ministry. There's a reason I sit in this pew and pray alongside these people. Likely, I've already participated in two other services that days, services that aren't all that different from this one when it comes right down to nuts and bolts. It's the likely the third time I've received the bread and the wine--a whole other topic entirely.
I come because I want to have my spiritual hunger sated.
My own preparation for leading worship feeds that hunger. But there's never another time in my life when I get to sit, hear someone else read from my holy text, and simply let it wash over me. There's never another time when I sit in great anticipation to hear some bit of Gospel, something that will speak to my heart, draw me closer to God.
Unfortunately, some days, I walk away wondering why I bothered coming at all. Why, you ask?
Because our churches sometimes substitute the church's plans for the coming year for the Gospel.
Because our churches sometimes read the words of a denominational leader, that may be all well and good, but are words of guidance, not words of life.
Because our churches sometimes forget that studying the text is not the same as hearing a text.
Because sometimes, we're not sure what the Gospel is at all, and struggle to make it more palatable.
The list goes on, but it's a list of things that mean we didn't proclaim the Gospel; often, that thing is that we worried more about our congregations and their lives, which yes, are important to the Gospel, but aren't synonymous with it.
I'm sure all churches do it. I'm sure, as a congregational leader, I've done it. But those seemingly wasted twilight hours have convinced me: I'll do better.
I'll pray for the word from the Lord. I'll wait to hear the word. I'll offer it to my parishioners, trusting that it is Good News to them. I'll exegete and study to the best of my ability. I'll remember the struggles of those around me. I will speak words of grace, words of comfort, words of hope and transformation, if God will provide them.
I'll do it because I've learned my deepest hope: that somewhere, somehow, someone is doing this for me. I've learned that I come because I need to hear.