Taking a Vacation from God?
The local church that I have been called to pastor consists largely of young military families with small children and recent empty-nesters/early retirees. This dynamic makes for both constant turnover as well as high travel frequency during the year. At times, our church feels a little less like a local church and a little more like a hostel. People come and go at an inordinately high ratio. Many years ago, in the course of a conversation with a pastor about the dynamics of pastoral ministry in the context of a highly transitional congregation, I mentioned the difficulty of shepherding the members of a church that has the unique dynamics that we have. Having expressed my desire to help our congregants to find biblically faithful churches while they are out of town, my friend said to me, "I know what you mean. I'm always a bit concerned that members of my congregation might be 'taking a vacation from God' when they travel." That phrase has stuck in my mind through the years. We are never simply allowed to "take a vacation from God" by taking a break from weekly Lord's Day worship with His people.
A few weeks ago, one of the members of New Covenant flew to Guam to visit family members. While he was still there, his wife showed me pictures of some of the things that he had already done on this trip. Among numerous pictures of children and grandchildren, was the picture of her husband standing next to the pastor of an evangelical church in Guam. The wife went on to tell me that her husband wanted to worship with a biblically faithful congregation while he was there. I am deeply grateful to God for the joyful commitment of this man to worship the Lord in a solidly, biblical church while on vacation half way around the world.
Since the command not to forsake the assembly (Heb. 10:24-25) extends far beyond geographical boundaries, one of the things that I have longed to see in our highly transitional congregation is a commitment to find a solidly biblical church in which to worship while on vacation. I assume that I am not alone in this desire. So, what can pastors do to help encourage their members to commit themselves to faithful, Lord's Day worship attendance, even while on vacation? Here are a few things that I have found helpful.
1. Be an example to the congregation. Whenever going on vacation, a pastor should attempt to find a biblically faithful congregation with which to worship with his wife and/or family on the Lord's Day. This is not a call to some sort of self-righteous standard setting. Rather, it is a call to what the Apostle Paul taught when he said to the members in the church in Philippi, "What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you" (Phil. 4:9). Don't overestimate the power of example; but, don't underestimate it either. While there will be times when visiting a church while out of town is impractical due to location, climate or other circumstantial factors, it should certainly be the norm. Our family seeks to find a Reformed or Calvinistic church in which to worship whenever we are on vacation. While it would be far easier for us to simply go to any "church" (for the sake of "going to church") in the area in which we are vacationing, doing so, would most certainly be a compromise of biblical convictions and a detriment to our spiritual growth in grace.
2. Pray for other faithful pastors/churches around the country. I have, on numerous occasions, had congregants tell me that they visited the church or church plant pastored by a friend for whom I have prayer in corporate worship. I have not encouraged them to do so either. It is remarkable to see how congregants process what they hear in a pastoral prayer. They often love taking advantage of visiting these churches and getting to know their congregations and ministers. I have several families in our congregation who bring me back a bulletin from another likeminded congregation that they visited while they were on vacation. This is one of those sweet and beautiful acts of devotion. While encouraging members of your church to visit other churches and church plants is not the end goal of praying for such churches, it is certainly a rich and unexpected benefit that accrues from doing so.
3. Make congregants aware of resources. There are some exceedingly helpful websites designed to help those who are transitioning to a new area to find a likeminded, solidly biblical church. For instance, I often point members of our church to the PCA church directory, the OPC church locator, the ARP church locator, 9 Marks church search, Founder's Ministries Churches, Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelical churches, Gospel Coalition Church Directory, Association of Reformed Baptist Church directory and the Acts 29 church directory. While there are many others, these are some of the ones that I deem more trustworthy. Of course, it goes without saying that just because a church is listed on one of these directories it doesn't mean it is a biblically solid or spiritually healthy congregation. These sites do help, however, by serving as an index by which those vacationing in a particular place can find a biblically faithful congregation to visit.
4. Explain how congregants can be an encouragement to others. Many people pass through Savannah on their way to or from Florida while on vacation. This past week, we had an out of town couple visiting. After the service, the husband told me what a blessing it was for them to worship with us and to hear the word preached that morning. The heartfelt way in which he said it significantly encouraged me. While I may never see that man again in this life, the Lord had him to speak a word of encouragement to me. Additionally, it can mean a great deal to a congregation to have out of town visitors. It relays to them that their congregation is needed--not simply for those in the immediate area. It sends the message that part of the mission of God consists in their ministry to believers from other parts of the country/world who are merely passing through. It gives us a sense of solidarity with other believers who we may otherwise never meet in this life. Our paths, however, crossed momentarily in a worship service. What a glorious thought to think that the next time we may see them is in that heavenly worship service around the throne of the Lamb of God!
5. Teach on family worship. Since we all know that there will be times and occassions when we cannot find a good local church in which to worship while on vacation, we should still make it our goal and priority to worship the Lord together with our families. In order to help congregants commit to this, it is necessary for pastors to equip the people of God to know how to carry out family worship together. A number of years ago, I taught a Sunday School class on "Spheres of Worship," in which I gave three talks on family worship. Last year, my friend, Jason Helopoulus released a helpful little book on family worship titled, 'A Neglected Grace." Additionally, with the technology we have, listening to solid preaching has never been easier. While it is no substitute for sitting under preaching in the congregation of the saints, I heartily recommend the following resources for those times when you are unable to be in corporate worship: Martyn Lloyd-Jones, James Boice, Sinclair Ferguson, Eric Alexander, Derek Thomas, William Still, John Piper, Edward Donnelly, Ligon Duncan, Ian Hamilton, Phil Ryken, Rick Phillips, Joseph Pipa, Tim Keller, Joel Beeke, Kent Hughes, D. A. Carson, Mark Dever, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul and Alistair Begg. You don't have to lug a guitar with you on vacation to be able to sing hymns together as a family. Sovereign Grace has done a tremendous service with the Together for the Gospel Live albums (vol. 1 and vol. 2).
While much more can and should be said on this subject, it is my sincere desire that what has been said will be an encouragement for all of us to understand why we should not "take a vacation from God" while we are out of town. May our highest joy be found in going up to the house of the Lord with the people of God in order to sing His praises and to listen to His word!
Nick Batzig is the organizing pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Richmond Hill, Ga. Nick has written numerous articles forTabletalk Magazine. He is the editor of Reformation 21 and is published in Jonathan Edwards and Scotland (Dunedin, 2011). In addition, Nick is the host of East of Eden: The Biblical and Systematic Theology of Jonathan Edwards. You can friend him on Facebook here. Nick is on Twitter at @nick_batzig.