Some time ago, I attended a Century Leadership roundtable that featured Nancy Ortberg as the speaker. She said something profound that day that has resonated with me as I have thought about the state of the church. Nancy said, “You can admire someone you have put on a pedestal, but you will never be changed by them.” I think what she was getting at is proximity matters when it comes to vital spiritual relationships.
The law of proximity in science states that objects that are close together tend to group together and become more like each other. Applied to the church world, we become that which we are close to. We are changed not by how good the information the person offers, but by how close we are to the person we are learning from. Information without relationship is not enough to be changed or formed.
Which begs a very pertinent question in today’s church culture. A very large percentage of Christians today are attempting to be pastored by men and women they have never even met. The advent of the large church and technology has created this dynamic that has never existed in ecclesiastical history: we have virtual shepherds pastoring virtual sheep. Judging by the overwhelming popularity of this model, both parties seem to be just fine with the fact that they will never meet.
But what Nancy said begs this question. Can the direction of your spiritual formation come from a person you have no proximity to? We can admire what they say, but can we be transformed by them? Relationships without presence are not relationships at all. We may be inspired by someone (a celebrity, a successful entrepreneur, a famous author or a famous pastor) but will we ever changed by them? Is simply good information enough? Isn’t knowing the person we seek to be shaped by essential to our formation?
I don’t know Nancy Ortberg. What she said certainly made me think. I was inspired. But I would imagine, were I to spend time with her or work for her, she would not just inspire me. I would be changed simply by my proximity to her. I would have to think the same would be true in the local church. People can get information anywhere. Just turn on your TV. Just tune into one of thousands of live streaming churches every week.
The church is not a dispensary for good speeches. It is Jesus’ life giving body. Proximity to one another and to our spiritual leaders is not just something we do as an activity. it is the essence of the church itself. Karl Vaters once said mentoring IS discipleship. It is the most natural form of spiritual formation. The larger a church becomes, the more discipleship becomes a program instead of a relationship. Its does so out of necessity. It seems like church has been reduced to a good concert and a half hour speech by a virtual stranger, surrounded by a bunch of strangers.
Since I don’t pastor one of those churches, I will ultimately never be able to truly be able to evaluate this model. I am simply an observer. It does however challenge me as a pastor of people I know to make sure those I wish to impact know me. It’s a challenge to be known. Without it, I am simply another voice with good information.
As an Average Pastor, you have the awesome opportunity to sit in proximity to your people. You have the opportunity to be known and to know those you are seeking to shape. Take advantage of this proximity. Pour into the lives of your people. Don’t be just another person in their life with good information. Because you are an average pastor, you have the opportunity to not only inspire, but to transform people.