I parked my car and waited uneasily for the right time to make the dreaded walk across the parking lot. As I entered the worship space, I noted a bead of perspiration was forming across my forehead. I was incredibly nervous. The Sunday morning worship service was about to begin.
I knew going in, Jesus would not be proclaimed in the worship service.
The next Sunday, another worship service and a different church…No Jesus.
A third week, yet a different church. Absolutely no hint of Jesus in the worship service.
Wait. What is this all about?
In the summer of 2019, I was gifted a ten-week, seventy-day sabbatical by Weaverland. This was my first sabbatical since serving in full-time ministry in 2005. Twice before, sabbatical plans had been postponed due to other priorities unfolding in the church.
The year prior, I read several books of what a healthy sabbatical should include, and I sat with others who had experienced a sabbatical to gain their insight or counsel.
As part of my preparation, I wrote a two-page document detailing my goals and desired outcomes I hoped to achieve as result of my time away.
At the end of the ten weeks and prior to my return, I wrote a four-page summary reflecting on these ten weeks. Recently I reread this reentry document while advising another pastor anticipating a sabbatical.
I cataloged my summary reflections into three categories. My greatest surprises, my greatest joys, and discoveries to sit with. Here are a few:
My greatest surprises:
- How quickly ten weeks passed.
- How long it took to “unhook” emotionally and mentally.
- How quickly I liked being “unhooked.”
- How boring and uninteresting Outlook is with little email or calendar events.
- How quickly I lost track of time and days–oblivious about major calendar events.
- Despite effort, how long it takes before any signs of weight loss are evidenced. (I set a goal to lose 20 pounds—which I did and have kept off since!)
- Observing my stress level and heart rate in the left, “low-excellent” value.
- To rediscover a deep love of reading and how much one can read without distractions.
- That Shirley and I thoroughly enjoy audible historical fiction.
- How well the congregation truly honored the sabbatical and the space we desired.
- How freeing and incredibly good it was to NOT think about sermon prep, meetings, budgets, or ANYTHING related to my role as lead pastor, and to do so without any guilt.
- A hint of anxiety as I entered the final weeks: Will my passion return?
My greatest joys:
- Not having any meeting—daytime or evening—for ten entire weeks! (A foretaste of heaven perhaps.)
- Spending lots of time with my best friend—my beloved wife.
- Finding regular exercise to be fulfilling and rewarding.
- Exceeding my goal in weight loss.
- Eating less and more healthily…and strangely wanting to do so.
- Having delightful distraction-free days with our grandchildren.
- Occasionally bumping into Weaverland friends and receiving much care and love.
- Working very hard physically and sweating buckets in various contexts.
- Experiencing a longing in my heart to get back to ministry at Weaverland.
Discoveries to sit with:
- That I am a beloved child of God who has inexpressible joy being with me.
- Sitting in my “nothing box” is indeed a Jesus-centered, Spirit-filled sacred space.
- At my core, I am a “Martha” (doing), I must learn the better from “Mary” (being).
- The Lord revealing my addiction of overload and hurriedness.
- My banner of overload and hurriedness reflects a disordered heart.
- My lack of a weekly sabbath is arrogance to the Lord.
- The need to live and model better self-care.
- A fresh awareness of the ministry tasks that robs me of joy—how to evaluate or offload
- A fresh awareness of the ministry tasks that brings me joy—how to nurture.
As I reread this, I was reminded of an impactful part of my sabbatical–where I worshipped throughout these ten weeks. As was planned and recommended, my wife Shirley and I did not attend Weaverland worship services throughout my sabbatical.
As a Jesus-centered, Gospel preaching pastor, I preach Jesus.
So, living among a diverse pluralistic culture, a nagging question stirred strangely within me. Is a worship service where Jesus IS NOT preached and where Jesus IS NOT LORD, different from a service where Jesus IS preached, and where Jesus IS LORD?
So, one of my goals was to purposefully attend worship services where Jesus is not LORD.
A ten-week sabbatical became the perfect place for me to explore this question.
Why would anyone purposefully attend worship services where Jesus is not LORD? Well, I needed to know and experience this question for myself. God forbid that my preaching is in vain.
Sadly, Jesus-less churches are not hard to find. A quick visit to church websites will reveal Christ-centered belief, mission, and core values—or not.
Over those ten weeks I visited various “Jesus-less” worship services. Perhaps you think this strange or even a risk to one’s personal faith in Christ to do so. Be assured, I did not enter these spaces recklessly, without accountability, or without intercessory prayer.
We likely all have attended a Christ-centered worship service where perhaps the energy was flat, the message was dry, or the fellowship felt cool and lacking. It happens. However, even on the worst day among Christ-worshippers where Jesus is preached far exceeds the best day where Jesus IS NOT preached and Jesus IS NOT LORD.
Indeed, wherever the name of Jesus is proclaimed, there also is the Holy Spirit.
Likewise, the opposite is true. Where the name of Jesus IS NOT proclaimed, avoided, or is but one of many names from which one might encounter spirituality through worship, indeed, sheer emptiness and shallowness fills the space.
I cannot put into words the heaviness, even heartache, I felt as worshippers worshipped other beings, or worshipped icons or images, or even worshipped the god within themselves. I heard said already the greatest horror of hell will be the absence of God. Indeed, so it was in those Jesus-less worship experiences.
The warning of Old Testament idolatry was no longer distant. There it was—graven images and Spirit-less worship became like hollow sounding gongs echoing through the worship space.
Jesus was not there. Each service left me with a heavy and empty heart. However, this experience also solidified what I already knew in the Spirit.
Jesus IS LORD. Preaching Jesus makes ALL the difference!
The message is very close at hand; it is on your lips and in your heart. And that message is the very message about faith that we preach: If you openly declare that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is by believing in your heart that you are made right with God, and it is by openly declaring your faith that you are saved. Romans 10:8-10