I like to take photos. I think it’s because I know I have a long way to go before I would be considered a good photographer, at least in the professional sense. That desire to be considered among the gifted image-capturers I have had the privilege of knowing makes me strive to do my best when I’m playing with the camera.
I use photography as my stress relief. I enjoy venturing out just to see what grabs my attention. And then I try to put together my two passions: capturing images of our beautiful world and provide some inspirational words for our beautiful faith.
On a recent Saturday morning, my wife and son had to travel to a high-school band competition. I had other responsibilities later in the day, and because I had to stay closer to home, I decided to head out early that morning with my camera in the Lincoln area. The area was blanketed with fog, which provided some neat opportunities to see the landscape in a somewhat shrouded light.
Not long into my journey, I decided I needed to head east, and I came across a sign that reads, “Pavement ends.”
It’s a simple sign – a quick warning, really – for drivers on this particular street that the pavement that provides for a relatively smooth driving surface is about to give way to a much harsher gravel road. Motorists who see it know they are about to leave the comfortable and head into an area that will require a little more effort to navigate.
Oh, you can still drive on it. In fact, you have to use it to head east on this particular path. But you have to decide if you’re OK heading down a less-traveled, less-refined, harder-to-navigate path. Past the sign, you notice a slight incline, meaning you don’t really know what lays ahead.
And it’s dusty.
To make matters worse, this gravel road is particularly susceptible to becoming like a washboard after a rain, so continuing along this route means you’ll have to keep both hands firmly on the wheel or risk weaving back and forth as you bounce over the rocks that make up its surface.
You could stop and turn around. The street, headed the other direction, connects to a major thoroughfare. It’s smooth. It requires little risk. It’s an easier path.
But the decision to travel past that sign and onto the gravel road also gives you some inspiration, a sense of adventure. As a motorist, you can have faith that there is, indeed, a road past that line of sight. Otherwise, there’s no need for a “Pavement ends” sign, right? Besides, heading down that gravel road gives you the chance to explore. What exactly is on the other side of that hill? How far does this road extend? What’s the scenery at the top?
Take the gravel, bumpy, but adventurous road, or turn around and play it safe?
Not only is that final question the one a motorist on this road has to ask, but it’s a question we should be asking in many of our churches. Are we willing to take a risk along the bumpy road of ministry? Or do we stay on the safe road?
The adult Sunday school class at my church is studying the Old Testament right now. We’ve learned how the Bible is really a story of one man’s family. From the time Abram is approached by God, and a covenant is offered, the Bible becomes a story about that man – eventually renamed Abraham – and his family as God reconciles His rebellious people back to Himself.
You can read the beginning of Abraham’s story in Genesis 12:1-4: “The Lord said to Abram, ‘Leave your land, your family, and your father’s household for the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and will bless you. I will make your name respected, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, those who curse you I will curse; all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you.’ Abram left just as the Lord told him, and Lot went with him. Now Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran.”
Abram didn’t have the benefit of a “Pavement ends” sign. But God gave him a direction to take. Abram didn’t know what was on the others side of any hills he came to on his journey, but he didn’t choose to turn back. He didn’t take the easy way out by staying put or turning back. In one of the most impressive, short portions of scripture I think there is in the entire Bible, we read “Abram left just as the Lord told him.”
The man who would become Abraham and the patriarch of the Jewish people embraced the gravel road of his time. He continued past the pavement to a land promised by God.
I think many of our churches today are comfortable. I think we’re locked in to our route of discipleship, convinced that it works for us even as our own statistics tell us our route is flawed. We go to worship on Sunday morning. Maybe we present a tithe to God. Maybe we stick around for Sunday school. We might get involved in a mission project. But we don’t take risks. We stay on the pavement of ministry. As a result, our churches do the things that we did 10, 20 or 30 years ago.
Along the way, society has changed. But God’s message of grace stays constant.
The reality of life today is that the very people who need to hear about who Jesus is and the tremendous ransom He paid for us live and work past the point where the pavement ends. They are the marginalized. They are the people who in many cases have lost hope. They seek a church that is relevant to them. They need someone to show them love.
How do we, the church, respond? We have to be willing to get a little dusty. We have to meet people where they are without passing judgment. We need to practice radical hospitality so people who visit our services feel welcome and feel like they belong from the very beginning of their journey with us. We have to be willing to share our faith, love unconditionally and try things we haven’t even thought of yet.
In other words, we have to drive our ministry over that hill.
We start by noticing the sign in our collective ministry.
We have to understand what seeing that sign means. This route could be bumpy. We may not know exactly where we’re headed all the time. We might weave a bit from side to side as we figure things out.
But as He did with Abram, I firmly believe God will provide the direction we need, when we need it.
We just have to listen and follow God’s call in our lives.
And then we have to drive onto that gravel road.
Todd Seifert is communications director for the Great Plains Conference of the United Methodist Church. He can be reached via phone at 402-464-5994, ext. 113, or via email at email@example.com. Opinions expressed are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Great Plains Annual Conference or the United Methodist Church. Follow him on Twitter, @ToddSeifert.