“Maintenance” – dirty word?

Rev John Rietveld


Synod this month will be faced with usual tensions between inreach and outreach, between maintaining pastoral work and looking to the ‘fields white unto harvest’. Some years ago our now Home Mission Coordinator wrote an article on T&S appealing for balance. The editor thought that the issues raised would be relevant – not only for Synod but also in connection with this month’s Forum 2000 theme ‘Change’. We therefore offer this reprint.

With Synod behind us, The Reformed Churches of Australia have firmly taken hold of the Great Commission, we have made some great statements, and many are greatly encouraged. Some disquieting elements have crept in, however, and are causing concerns. Missions is all the go, all the rage, while the normal pastoral work? Well, that’s maintenance. Or, it’s “only” maintenance.

And the concerns are being voiced! What has happened to the high calling of the ministry? The command of God to preach the Word, in season and out? What has happened to the task of being a faithful undershepherd of the sheep? Don’t our people need visiting and pastoral oversight anymore?

When one expresses the pastoral task of the Church as “only” maintenance, we are in grave danger indeed. Add to that the fact that some Pastors are doing less and less visitation, and that a common complaint is that members don’t see their pastor anymore, then we have a problem on our hands. And, to a greater or lesser degree, in some quarters it appears as if pastors are taking more of a professional approach. Forty or Fifty hours a week! Don’t ring at awkward times! Don’t expect me to solve all your problems…!

Denigrating the pastoral role, the visitation, faithful and constant work with those under discipline will, in the long run, make the Church a spineless jellyfish. It’s not “only” maintenance! It’s the life of the church, the heartbeat of health. And through it, the Church grows, not only in grace, but also in numbers. Garry Bouma’s little study, “How the Saints Persevere” (Monash Press) is a very helpful study here. It should be read by all those who are “into” mission. It should also be read by all Sessions.

Is it possible, however, that maintenance is not a dirty word, but a misunderstood one? That maintenance is one facet of the Church’s calling, and mission the other? That traditionally and historically we have spent the majority of our time, our structures, our training procedures, and perhaps even our theological reflection, on the pastoral role of and within the Church?

Maintenance is the word coined to cover that vital area of the Church’s calling. It is not a derogatory term. It is not “only” maintenance. It is maintenance in distinction from (but not separated from) mission.

Because if “only” maintenance is one danger, then an equal danger is “only” a bit of evangelism. We also heard that in some quarters. Oh yes, a bit of evangelism is good for the Church. Yes, we have had an interest in evangelism from time to time. But don’t set too much time aside for it. Don’t train people for it. Preaching and pastoral work – that is most important.

It may well be that we need again to ask the question of primacy. Is mission first? Or maintenance? Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep!” Maintenance is a command. He also said, “As the Father has sent Me, so I send you!” Mission is also a command. What the Church needs to wrestle with is the matter of balance. It is not either/or, but both/and.

Perhaps an illustration from industry could help. Years ago I worked for a firm whose business it was to supply crushed blue metal for the railway between Townsville and Mt. Isa. They employed explosives experts, drillers, front-end loader drivers, plant operators, truck drivers, cooks and a whole lot more. Their various tasks were to blow mountains apart, crush granite, load trucks and deliver blue metal to the railway siding. Everything was geared to that. For five and a half days per week there was noise and dust everywhere, explosions, the rumbling of a monstrous crushing plant and trucks and front-end loaders roaring around all over the place.

On Saturday afternoon all that stopped. Out would come oilcans, grease-guns, steam-cleaning equipment, spanners and the like. Worn machinery parts were replaced. Engines were cleaned and tuned. Equipment was lubricated and checked. Saturday afternoon was “maintenance” time. The whole plant was undergoing maintenance so that it could carry out its mission.

The Church’s mission IS NOT TO CARRY OUT MAINTENANCE. It is to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom, to disciple the nations. It is to reach into a rebellious world, with the word of life, the call to repent and believe in Christ Jesus. The maintenance of the Church is to help struggling saints, to heal bruised hearts, to renew worn members. It is to tune those who are running roughly, to repair and restore those who are broken, to pour the oil of God’s love and the Spirit’s power onto and into Christians who are clogged with the dust of battle.

But please, let us not mistake maintenance for mission, nor let us denigrate the one or the other. Both come from the Christ who taught us the great missionary prayer: “Your Kingdom come!” When He returns, it really will be “Mission Accomplished!”

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