Sailboat in West Penobscot Bay, United States.

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Go forward! Only thing to do!

June 29, 2023 
My book group is reading The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. My sixth-grade teacher read it to us, and I loved it. But I haven’t read it myself since I was in my 20s. What a fun read!

In one scene the hero of the story, the little hobbit Bilbo Baggins, wakes up alone in the dark in the goblins’ cave. He realizes he has no options. He was knocked out in a skirmish between the dwarves he was traveling with and the goblins they were fighting.

‘“Go back?’ he thought. ‘No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go.’ So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.”[i]

Even before the pandemic, many churches wished they could go back. It’s been said churches acted as if their catchphrase was, “If the 1950s come again, we’re ready!” However, even for churches in 2019 there was no going back. Post-pandemic, we certainly can’t go back to the ’50s, or even 2019. “Go back? No good at all! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go.” The reality for church ministry today is that going forward is the only viable option.

None of us are quite the same after the last several years of life on planet Earth. We don’t know what’s ahead. But we can trust that God will journey with us as we “go forward!” It’s the only thing to do.

You don’t always know what that means or where exactly to go. Like Bilbo the hobbit, church leaders have to feel their way along and see what happens. Church is one big experiment right now. Rev. Joe Clifford, pastor of Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, NC said to me recently, “I think there are a lot of people trying to guess what the post-pandemic church is going to be. And I don’t really think any of us know.” This is nothing new. The earliest Christians had no idea what was just ahead. I’m sure their hearts were sometimes “all of a patter and a pitter” as they faced internal and external challenges to the fledgling church. Paul encouraged them in Philippians 3:13-14: “…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal, toward the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

My grandmother, a faithful pastor’s wife, used to say, “God can only guide a moving vessel.” In other words, get your ship going, and with God’s help you’ll get further than if you stay in one place. You don’t have to know exactly where you are going in order to move ahead. You start where you are and take the next step. Every quarter I work with pastors to help them develop a purpose and a plan for just the next 90 days. It’s a way to go forward into the unknown without feeling overwhelmed. One of the participants last year, Rev. Jeff Sievert, called it a “flashlight purpose,” enough clarity to give you a little light ahead into the darkness.

While the hobbit [spoiler alert] did come through his adventures all right, he wasn’t always sure he was going to. That’s the nature of a journey into the unknown. He was changed by the journey, by what he had seen and done. None of us are quite the same after the last several years of life on planet Earth. We don’t know what’s ahead. But we can trust that God will journey with us as we “go forward!” It’s the only thing to do.

Rev. Margaret Marcuson helps ministers do their work without wearing out or burning out, through ministry coaching, presentations and online resources.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

[i] J.R.R. Tolkien, The Annotated Hobbit: Revised and Expanded Edition, annotated by Douglas A. Anderson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002, p. 116.


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