Pastors feel pressure to have the perfect congregation. We won’t ever say it, but we want to show off our “best people.”
The dynamic (and good looking) young adult.
The talented worship leader.
The pretty couple with the nice house and 2.5 kids.
Those with miraculous stories of conversion after a troubled life of debauchery.
Then we show up to church and bump into reality.
People who resist everything.
People who need more help than they can give.
People with memory loss and mental illness. The gossipy. The hypocrite. The flaky.
In his memoir The Pastor, Eugene Peterson recounted his pastoral experience in Bel Air, Maryland. He wrote that when David was on the run from King Saul in the wilderness, he attracted a company of 400 men. These misfits settled with David in a town called Ziklag, a sort of safe house given by the Philistine King, Achish. It was said to be made up of “everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt and everyone who was discontented.” (I Sam. 22:2)
Those who didn’t fit anywhere else in Saul’s kingdom found their place in Ziklag. Peterson used this as a metaphor for his church. The congregation often felt like a collection of rejects and misfits, runaways and renegades. Why wouldn’t they listen? Why wouldn’t they grow up? Why couldn’t they be “normal”?
We want our churches to be like Jerusalem, a holy city – shiny, well dressed, and full of inspiration. But then we gather with our church family and discover we’re really more like Ziklag. Peterson noted that his “Ziklag” was a congregation of stories.
Many of these are distressed, in debt, and discontent – or out of tune, angry, rude, or asleep. This complicates things enormously, but there’s no getting around it. We’re a congregation.”
One Sunday I got up to face my congregation and Ziklag came to mind. I stood in front of the altar and stared at the faces before me.
The single mom.
The family in Sunday best, but privately on the verge of divorce.
The toothless man off the street.
The limping senior with a walker.
The hyperactive 4-year-old and his frazzled parents.
The rebel teenager dragged to church by dad.
The woman shadowed by regret from an abortion 20 years ago.
I grinned at the collection of oddities. I chuckled (they didn’t know why) at the fact that I too am counted among them. A pastor stood before them with his own warts and misgivings. I felt joy for my little Ziklag as I reached for bread and wine from the altar. I love this ragtag assembly.
Your church is not perfect, save in the blood of Jesus. Our life together in Christ is less a glorious victory lap on an open track and more a stumble over stone and creek, mud and mire.
Peterson ends his Ziklag chapter this way: “This is my workplace. And every once in a while a shaft of blazing beauty seems to break out of nowhere and illuminates these companies. I see what my sin-dulled eyes had missed: Word of God-shaped, Holy Spirit-created lives of sacrificial humility, incredible courage, heroic virtue, holy praise, joyful suffering, constant prayer, preserving obedience – Shekinah. And sometimes I don’t – Ziklag.”
Thank God for your “Ziklag.” Thank him for his presence in the middle of misfits, and the miracles he works in people like them, like you.