WHEN GOD POINTS SOMEWHERE ELSE
I hate it when my plans get changed. I can be a little pigheaded about it. The other day, my wife and I were headed to a larger town 45 minutes away for a date together, and we were rushing to get there in time for a movie. I forgot to look at the gas gauge. When we ran out of gas, the movie was out the window, but after we got some gas, I was still headed to that town (at least there were different places to eat), regardless of whether we were sure we had enough gas to get to the next station on that route. We made it, but I had to do a little praying along the way.
Because He is God and we are not, God is sort of in the business of changing our plans, and that can be hard. We can see God at work changing our plans all the time the small events of daily life. It’s hard to allow God to alter the course of our days to fit the agenda the Holy Spirit is trying to reveal to us. It can be even more difficult when God changes plans on a wider scale.
There are two biblical examples of God changing the plans of His servant that reveal the extremes of the ways we can react to God pointing us in a different direction.
In Acts chapter 16, we find Paul and his companions preparing a mission into the province of Asia. They tried twice to go past the coastal towns into the mainland of modern-day Turkey but were prevented in some way “by the Holy Spirit” (Acts 16:6-7). Then Paul received a vision for them to go to Macedonia instead. Knowing the will of God, Paul and his team “got ready at once” to take the gospel to where God called them to preach. It was immediate and wholehearted obedience to the call.
We find the opposite extreme in the book of Jonah. God directly and explicitly called his prophet to preach to the wicked city of Nineveh, and Jonah immediately got on a boat headed to the other end of the earth (Jonah 1:1-3). Paul wanted to preach to the Turks, but God called him to the Greeks, and so Paul rushed to fulfill his new calling. Jonah wanted to preach to Israel, but God sent him to Assyria, and Jonah refused, running from God’s call.
There is ample opportunity in ministry to choose to follow the example of Paul or to be like Jonah. One is for pastors as we choose our place of ministry.
When I was first looking to pastor a church, I thought I was best suited to go to a familiar setting and try to reach people that were mostly like me. That meant sticking to suburban areas in Texas, near my family. I think a lot of us think that way, and it’s not necessarily wrong. God gives us life experiences that equip us for where He wants to send us, and often it’s to people of similar life experiences. But what if God is pointing somewhere else? What if you are all prepared to go and preach in one place and among a certain type of people, and the Holy Spirit won’t open the door? We have to be willing to see the need in places that don’t necessarily match all that we envision our ideal place of ministry to be.
The choice to have the heart of Paul or the heart of Jonah is also there for churches, particularly small churches in small towns or other changing communities. A church may have existed for decades as a white church that reached middle class, family-oriented people, but now their area is in decline and the racial, social, and economic demographics are changing rapidly. How does a local congregation react to these changes?
The church should see these changes as a change in calling. A local church is not like a pastor or missionary who has to discern God’s calling and then go, because the church is stationary. The church’s duty is to see God’s call in the people God has brought to the streets and neighborhoods surrounding the church and faithfully and lovingly bring the gospel to these people. The church may still prefer to reach the same type of people they always have, but God has placed His lampstand in this neighborhood for the purpose of reaching the people God has sent to live there.
Churches can spend years running from the call of God, clinging their culture and trying to remain the same type of church, reaching the same type of people, even as that mission field disappears around them. Many of these churches find themselves in the belly of the whale, with one last chance to repent and obey God’s call or to die.
While many churches will die (and are dying) while still on the run from God’s call, others are trying to respond with obedience and go where God leads. But the story of Jonah reveals that being willing to go is just the first heart-choice a person or church faces when God calls you to a place you didn’t originally want to go. I will discuss the second choice in my next post.