The Lord is our pastor.
He’s the best. Wise and discerning, patient, forbearing and kind: firm, yet gentle: probing yet all the while so mindful of our frailties and flaws: and always intent on leading us forward, securing our growth, and fulfilling His purpose of grace in all of our lives.
His opening gambit in Scripture is as often as not His opening gambit too whenever we’ve reached some sort of cross-roads in our life. It’s a simple, but searching, question.
“Where are you?” (Gen.3.9).
It’s a question to which both the Leadership Team and the elders are presently applying their minds as very prayerfully under God we seek His way forward for us in these days. Where are we?
The question is always important – not least because a proper understanding of just where we are enables us to know how best we travel on from here. The joke about the local who, when asked by passing tourists what the best way to the capital would be, declared with great simplicity that “If that’s where I wanted to get to I wouldn’t be starting from here!” – that joke has more than an ounce of wisdom in its punch-line.
Where you are necessarily will determine, at least to some considerable extent, what your best next step forward will be. We can only establish where we go from here, when we know where ‘here’ actually is.
‘So where are you?’ asks the Lord. Not as an end in itself, but rather so that we may be the better placed to discern just how the contours of His future for us lie. It’s an important pastoral question, and, as I say, it’s one which the Leadership Team in particular, and the elders together more generally, have been pondering for a while.
The question’s always a good one, not least because there are various different perspectives from which an answer can be given: these different perspectives serve as a series of what might be called ‘trig-points’, from which we then are better placed to ‘map out’ the lie of the land going forward.
Any conclusions as such are at present still very premature, and the elders have already diarized Saturday 18th January for a half-day elders’ conference with a view to our better discerning the mind of the Lord on this: some 20-20 vision as we start the year 2020.
It’ll be helpful, I hope, for an ongoing conversation on this theme throughout the fellowship at this time, if I set out for you here at least the general drift of our thoughts thus far as we’ve sought to wait upon the Lord.
Where are we? There are, as I mentioned above, a number of different perspectives from which the question can be viewed.
And the first of these is an historical one. Where are we on the time-line of God’s dealings with this local congregation of His people? And is there any pattern in those dealings over time which help us put down markers for the next few steps ahead?
It’s an interesting exercise to track that path and see the sovereign providence of God through this most recent century.
Back in 1929, Gilcomston South Parish Church was given a tiny parish, with next to no residents actually living in the parish: combine that fact with a minister at the time who proved to be quite sickly, and then the turmoil of the war, and you see why in the immediate post-war years we were very well placed for the radical expository teaching ministry of Mr Still to be exercised here, and for the church to be and become, primarily and very distinctively, effectively a central and centripetal ‘preaching station’.
With the closure of Denburn Parish Church (where Hebron Evangelical Church are located today) the congregation’s ‘parish’ extended first to the north: and a similar parish expansion occurred to the south, with the closure of the old Langstane Kirk (where ‘Soul’ is now to be found). For the last 25 years or so, accordingly, and certainly in the period leading up to our becoming an independent congregation, the sense of a wider ‘parish responsibility’ was impressed upon our corporate mind and heart.
And reflecting on that across those years, we’re aware of a range of different ‘constituencies’ within our parish reach. There’s a constituency, first of all, of those who day by day are resident here in our vicinity. There are those who are our neighbours as they come in to their work, in offices and businesses and shops. There are those who travel in to our environs, with varying degrees of frequency, for fun and entertainment. And there are those who simply walk the streets – to browse, to beg, to scour the shops, to see the sights; or just because their life has been reduced to but a vague and aimless wandering, and the main street is as good a place as any for their weary limbs to roam.
We’ve been made more aware across these years, that is, of both the pastoral responsibility and the evangelistic opportunity which the Lord has firmly laid upon our life here as a fellowship – always alongside and complementary to, rather than in any sense a substitute for, the ‘preaching station’ ministry which is and was and will be very much the core of all that God has called us here to be.
Having recognized that, however, it’s been important as well, from still very much an historical standpoint, to see that we’ve been (and still to some extent are) in a time of significant transition.
There is, first, the ‘ecclesiastical’ transition from being part of a major denomination, with some clearly defined parish bounds, to becoming within the last 7 years essentially an independent church, for whom ‘the world is now our parish’. That is never an easy change to make; there are all sorts of hazardous cross-currents through which such churches have to navigate as they sail into the very different waters of a non-denominational life.
Then, too, there has been the transition in personnel from one long and significant preaching and pastoral ministry to a new one. All sorts of emotions inevitably come into play, and all sorts of adjustments invariably have to be made. The smoothest transitions take patience, and care, and time.
Perhaps the biggest transition of all, however, is a cultural one. There has been something of a seismic shift in the great tectonic plates of Scotland’s culture over all these last decades. And as a result the whole societal context in which our life as Christ’s church is now lived out has altered, almost beyond recognition. The cultural landscape is no longer remotely the same as once it was, and all the different facets of the way in which as Christians we engage with our society – all that has necessarily had to change.
Perhaps we are loath to believe it: perhaps we are slow to wake up to the change there has been and the challenges consequent on it. But we’re surely at best still very much playing simply ‘catch-up’.
Where are we? We’re still, from an historical perspective, – we’re still at least to some extent in transition.
But the historical perspective is only one among a number of ways of addressing the pastoral question God bids us address.
There’s a geographical perspective as well to the question – ‘where are you?’
That may be obvious: but we’re minded to conclude that it’s also under God significant. We didn’t have to end up here on Union Street when we left the Church of Scotland. We might have wished to do so: we might even have presumed to do so. But we certainly didn’t need to.
The fact that we have done so, with the ownership of this particular building at this particular place entrusted now to ourselves – that has had the hallmarks of the sovereign will and providence of God. It was something of a minor miracle that we had the opportunity to buy this old familiar building, particularly in the circumstances in which that purchase was secured: it was something of a minor miracle that the very substantial sums involved in the purchase price were met within a matter of a few short weeks: and the fact that on the day when that substantial purchase payment was transferred we had precisely the substantial sum required (with a tiny bit more as the generous ”baker’s dozen” grace of God) – that simply underlined, if we had any lingering doubts, that this indeed is where the Lord Himself now clearly means that we should be.
The last remaining church to front onto the main street of our city here in Aberdeen.
Location, location, location. The geographic answer to the question is as pertinent as any: and one we therefore have to take on board. The Lord has located us here. He has a role for His people to play, right here.
There may be all sorts of aspects to that, of course, given both where we are set and what our building affords. The centrality of the location. The constituencies around the location. The consistency in the location. But one way or another this perspective is an important one which must help inform our thinking.
There is also, though, always a spiritual perspective from which the Lord’s probing question must be answered. Where are we, in terms of our walk and our life with Him? Not so much in terms of individuals, as in terms of our communal life as a varied congregation of His people in this place.
For many a long decade there has been at the heart of our life together a very intentional, systematic expository teaching of the Word of God: that, under God, has always had in view both a thorough-going equipping of believers for the work of daily ministry wherever Christ has called them thus to serve, and also a clear and constant sending into all the world of each and every member of His church. Everything, of course, undergirded by a disciplined ministry of prayer.
All of that equips us for the very varied ministry of witness and of service which each of us will individually exercise. But might it not just be that in the providence of God, across these long decades, He’s been so very patiently preparing us to exercise together as His church a challenging new ministry of engaging both a culture and a context and constituencies with each of which we’re neither comfortable nor that confident? It happens! Our old, familiar friend, the prophet Jonah, could tell us all a thing or two along precisely such a line!
So as the Lord addresses the question, ‘Where are you?’ to us, we in turn have been asking the question that Jesus was always asking: ‘what do we see the Father doing?’ Because that alone defines what we must do.
We see the Lord seeming to prosper the ministry through our Community Groups. We see the Lord seeming to have His hand upon our children’s work. We see the Lord seeming to do His transforming work in the lives of those who come off the street with huge and wide-ranging need. We certainly see the Father at work in a range of significant ways: and what we see Him doing is the only sort of compass we can have in charting out His future course for us. We must not live in dreamland. We may not look at others and decide that that’s what we would like to be and do. “If that’s where I wanted to go to, I wouldn’t have started from here!”
Here is where we are. And that must always define for us where it is we are bidden to go by the Lord, and what it is that He would have us as His people here to do.
So where are you? asks the Lord of us.
And where are you in it all?
May there be a growing sense of God-inspired expectancy as we seek His face for the future.
Yours in the service of Christ our Lord,