When I was growing up, one of my favourite “westerns” on television was the show Wagon Train. Perhaps part of the allure was the fact that the old wagon master was played by actor John McIntyre! How could a show with a McIntyre in it not be great?
It was a typical western of the 1960s, filled with stereotypes and predictable scripts. The good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats and often had mustaches and sneered a lot. Of course, there were always lots of Indians ready to attack and prevent the wagon train from reaching its destination, and the Indians were always wrong in getting in the way of the white man’s vision.
While both the artistic merit and social conscience left a lot to be desired, over the years I have often thought a lot about the image of the wagon train, particularly as a metaphor for the church. That is not to suggest that Scripture does not have enough wonderful visions of the church of Jesus Christ. For instance, the portrait of the church as the Bride of Christ reminds me of the wonder that Jesus looks upon us, his people, with that kind of enraptured love as a groom might have for his beloved. In the eyes of love, we are seen as holy, spotless and perfect. (Which is also why we ought always be very careful about demeaning comments about other fellowships—the church of Christ is the precious bride of our Saviour, and when we demean her in any of her forms, be it denominational or congregational or small fellowship, we are sinfully demeaning the wisdom and grace of Him who loves us.)
The Body is another great scriptural image of the Church, which also challenges us in our arrogant readiness to set ourselves apart from the Body as if we, a mere eye, ear or finger, can exist on our own without the rest of the Body. We were made for community and have been engrafted into the Church by Christ; and how dangerous it is for us to think we can willfully ignore the Lord’s purpose by thinking we can maintain our Christian life without the life-blood of community.
There are, of course, other images of the Church, such as the army of Christ, the ark of Christ, the temple of God or the people of God. Each has wonderful things to tell us about our identity, call and purpose.
But a pastor, I often find myself coming back to the image of the church as the wagon train, particularly in terms of leading change. The wagon train was the convoy of settlers travelling from eastern communities to homestead in newly opened areas of the west. The various conveyances in the train would be a motley mix. Some might be high class covered wagons—the ancient version of the motorhome. Others would be only simple carts. Some were pulled by teams of horses that could move along at good pace; others were drawn by oxen and plodded along steadily but slowly. Then there would be the cattle and donkeys also being driven along and all manners of people simply walking. The wagon train could only move as far or as fast as the slowest cart or slowest walkers. And remember: the task of the wagon master was to get everyone to the new homestead area, not just the fastest travelers. There were times where some of the folk in the wagon train would choose simply to stop in their travels and not continue, or else detour to where they believed greener opportunities existed. Sometimes crises happened. Horses died and wagons had to be abandoned and the goods and owners loaded in with other travelers who carried them along. But always the goal was to get everyone to the new land.
I confess that when it comes to change and venturing into exciting new opportunities which the Lord may be opening, I can easily forget the reality that not everyone deals with change as quickly or excitedly as do I. And the bigger, the more emotionally complex or the more wounded the life of the church, the more likely that change can only happen effectively when we gear ourselves to the pace of those who are most struggling to keep up with the lead. There is no glory to Jesus Christ when leadership gets so intent on the destination that it thoughtlessly looses folk along the way who just need more time, more help, more explanation or prayer or encouragement in their journey. True, there is no glory to the Lord when the church allows itself to be hijacked in its journey by any one person or group that refuses altogether to trust or to change or to allow and bless others in changing and growing and moving. But my experience in leadership is that generally, people are far less resistant to change when they know that the leadership steadfastly refuses to leave them behind and will do all and everything to aid them in whatever scary parts of the journey may be encountered.
The other part of the metaphor of the church as the wagon train which I find helpful is that of the scout. I often think of my role as pastor in that way. Equally, I think part of the role of the eldership as a whole is highlighted by that image. The scout would rise in the morning and ride well ahead of the wagon train, searching out the safest, most easily travelled route and looking out for any dangers that might exist. Then the scout would come back into view of the lead wagon and signal, “this way! Come this way!” Pastor and elders have a special task of praying deeply and listening hard for God’s directing voice. Pastor and elders are called to the front line of discernment of the challenges and call of God for his people. Sometimes the route that seems to be indicated may seem, from the ranks of the wagon train, to be scary or uncertain. But our prayer would always be that the scouting has been careful, prayerful and diligent, so that we can wisely signal, “This way. God would have us go here.”
I like the image of the church as wagon train for one other reason, and that is the focus and existence of the wagon train was all about the journey, not the destination. I often think that our congregations become too comfortable with the image of being settlers, not pioneers. We like church to be something staid and stable, settled and secure, non-moving and predictable. But I’m not sure that Jesus, who bid his followers to follow him, ever meant for our communities of faith to be quite so staid and stable, settled and secure, non-moving and non-adventurous as we often try to make them become. I believe the church, at her best, most Spirit-led, is always exploring, changing, growing and journeying into the new place where Jesus would draw us. A friend once said that if the church isn’t finding itself jostled about in its seeking after Christ, and if we aren’t facing a certain amount of discomforting challenge and uncertain future, then we are probably just dead.
Leadership in St. Andrew’s is striving faithfully to hear, discern and follow God’s call for days ahead. “Wagons, ho!” anyone?