About this time each year, pastors and theologians will write about the need to keep Advent as a spiritual discipline. We’ll talk about how Advent gets lost in the shuffle of the Christmas shopping season, and how the return of the practices of anticipation and waiting are needed today.
I agree. I believe we lose something as followers of Christ when we fail to take seriously this season and its reminder to prepare ourselves for Christ’s return by living as the church each day. Advent cuts against the surface of modern culture and challenges us to wait, to anticipate, and to look forward to the day when justice, peace, hope, love, and joy will freely flow through the living and physical presence of Christ with us.
While I do not want to necessarily jump on the bandwagon with my fellow pastors and theologians, I do want to focus on one neglected part of the story of how Advent goes unpracticied. We focus much of our attention on what it means for individual Christians to focus on Advent, but what about the local church? It seems we forget that the local congregation, not just individual followers of Christ, also needs the reminders that Advent provides. When the local church practices Advent, as a part of its daily life, it has the potential of making a deep and meaningful impact in our communities.
For one, the local church should be known for its hopeful anticipation of something better. Many of our communities can be defined by things that simply break your heart, whether it is broken homes, struggling economic conditions, the inability of some families to put food on the table, or difficulties with various addictions. The local church should be known for its hope that is proclaimed in these situations through words and actions. The church has a hope that says that the day is coming when all these things that seek to destroy us will no longer exist. Imagine the hope we can share in our communities if the local church shared this hopeful anticipation every day.
At the same time, the local church that waits is the church that makes a willful decision to be guided by God’s direction. Our modern tendency, even in the local church, is to be rushed. Things must happen now. We cannot wait. We expect it to happen in the moment or not at all. Yet, the church is slow and for a purpose. We wait because we want to hear from God and be led by the Lord’s direction. Sometimes this is slow and sometimes this is fast. The process of waiting on God reminds us that our mission is not our own. It is God’s mission. We are messengers of God sent to proclaim hope into the world, thus we must wait to hear from God and know where we must go to serve.
This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of Advent for the local church and, to be honest, pastors. Because our world is fast-paced we expect the church to be that way. When it is not, we tend to get frustrated and disappointed. At the same time, pastors have struggle with waiting on our congregations to come along side us and to attach themselves to our “great vision” for the church and our community. Both of these aspects can only lead to struggles and conflict within the church. These can be avoided through a willingness to wait on the guidance of God and the presence of others.
Finally, Advent anticipation and waiting helps the local church to be patient in its ministries. This is a patience that calls us to allow things to naturally develop. It also means that we are not rushing to judgment on potentially failed ministries, but waiting for the full picture to develop. We must allow ourselves, in the local church, to not get rushed and to enjoy the muck and difficulties of daily ministry and life in our world.
Advent is a needed spiritual practice. It is just as important for the local church as it is for the individual Christian. What would it be like if every church took seriously the practice of hopeful anticipation, waiting, and patience?