Last week, I compared a church's time of transition between preaching ministers to Israel's wilderness experience in the Old Testament. (Of course, some churches' experiences are more accurately described as "wilderness wanderings" than others!) The wilderness is a time of "in-between" — caught between the past and an unknown future. What was familiar has been left behind. Disoriented and often underprepared, God's people move across uncharted terrain toward a new reality. That new state of affairs is a wonderful promise and a glorious hope, but not a part of their present experience. Life in the wilderness is difficult at best; more typically, it is painful.
Yet these rigors of the desert have a God-given purpose. Moses, reflecting on Israel's 40 years of wilderness wandering, said:
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you (Deuteronomy 8:2-5).
The Wilderness is a Place of Discipline
As the author of Hebrews tells us, parental discipline is not pleasant, but painful, yet it gives rise to righteousness and peace (Hebrews 12:11). Israel's painful time in the wilderness was God's parental discipline over his untrained children. Likewise, God's people today can grow toward maturity only as they experience and submit to their Father's discipline.
Pharaoh's freed slaves were not capable of living as a free people in their own land, surrounded by hostile neighbors. Their only hope for survival was to trust God implicitly and commit themselves to learn and follow his ways. The experience of want in the wilderness was intended to imbed these values deeply into the collective psyche of the people. God brought hunger on his people, not because he delights in human misery, but so that that his people might learn that he could be trusted, even in the midst of seemingly hopeless conditions.
We've had to take on a lot of tasks that we used to depend on the preacher to do. We didn't know how to do them, we were overwhelmed by them, and we didn't think we had time for them. But we've discovered that with God's help, we could do them and do them effectively. I think that was for the best. Now we can bring in a minister and free him to use his gifts to their full potential, without burdening him with tasks that we can do ourselves.That shepherd and his congregation had matured in the wilderness under God's loving discipline.
The Wilderness is a Place of Provision
The purpose of God's discipline, which Moses describes as "testing," was to demonstrate God's reliable power to provide for his people. And provide, God did! Where human wisdom and effort were futile, God came through time and time again. Sometimes, he filled needs by means that could have only come from him, as in feeding the Israelites with manna. At other times, he prevented problems that, from a human standpoint, seemed unavoidable — evidenced in the fact that their clothes did not wear out and their feet did not swell in the desert.
Churches and church leaders need a fresh experience of the God who provides for his people through unexpected and improbable, if not impossible, means. Such first-hand experience of God's sustenance gives rise to a boldness that allows us to face future challenges fearlessly. That kind of confidence in God's faithfulness is best forged in the crucible of the wilderness.
An Experience to Remember
Not only does God's provision in the wilderness need to be experienced; it needs to be remembered. Moses cautioned the Israelites about the consequences of forgetting the lessons learned in the desert:
You may say to yourself, "My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me" (Deuteronomy 8:17).Such prideful arrogance, Moses warned, could only lead to the loss of God's blessings and ultimately to destruction.
Church leaders should expect the interim period between preaching ministers to be challenging. However, I would urge them to also see this time as an opportunity for the church to be trained and matured through the discipline of the wilderness. Such discipline can equip the church and its leaders for immeasurably greater kingdom effectiveness in the future.
For other help on the "Interim Season" we encourage you to check out Interim Ministry Partners who work with churches as they go through this important time of transition.