Before my call to full-time ministry as a pastor, I worked as a mechanical engineer for almost 10 years. I was first drawn to engineering because I loved math and physics. One of the first concepts you learn in physics is velocity, which means an object in motion has not only speed but also direction. You may be driving at a speed of 60 mph, but your velocity might be 60 mph heading north.
In a seminar I recently attended on growing, revitalizing and planting new churches, we learned that one of the key qualities of an effective church leader is "spiritual velocity." In other words, the most effective spiritual leaders are those who not only lead others to a closer relationship with God, but are themselves continuously growing closer in their relationship with God.
This concept is not just applicable to pastors and other church leaders. All of us have spiritual velocity. At times we may be heading away from God at 100 mph, for instance, like the prodigal son who in the parable told by Jesus took his share of his father's estate, ran away from home and squandered it on wild living. Or like the prodigal, we may have reached the end of our road, reversed our life direction and begun our journey to find our way home to God.
Some of us may better relate to the elder son in the parable who never leaves home but is stopped dead in his relationship with his father — he's passive, blase, lukewarm. I'd call this zero velocity faith, surprisingly a temptation often faced by those who have dedicated their lives to serving God. We're not actively running away from God, but nor are we running toward God anymore.
Even some of the earliest Christians who had incredible spiritual experiences, years later found themselves stuck in a spiritual rut. They had met Jesus alive after he had been crucified and were filled with the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, but the God who once felt so powerful and real now seemed distant. Much of the New Testament was written to encourage these wavering Christians to keep up their spiritual velocity, inviting them and us to "run with endurance the race that God has set before us," which we do "by keeping our eyes on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from start to finish."
Through my own life, I've experienced the spiritual velocity of heading away from God as fast as possible, of reversing direction to find my way back to God, and at times slowing to a virtually stagnant faith. Through all of these times, God's relentless love persistently invites me to truly return home by following Jesus, the way, the truth and the life. As I continue to learn what it means to follow Jesus in deeper, more sacrificial ways, I find myself becoming more and more one with him, as Jesus is one with the Father. That's the spiritual velocity of finding our way home for good and entering into the party of a lifetime God is hosting in our honor as his beloved prodigals.
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The Rev. Gwyneth Arrison is pastor of the Merrimacport United Methodist Church, www.merrimacportumc.org.