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Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Dream of the Seventy-Seven

I had a dream the other night in which I was addressing seventy-seven young men, all in their thirties, who were about to take the pastoral helms of seventy-seven churches and each church was, like First Evan, at least seventy-seven years in existence. Such dreams always seem to follow when I read Revelation over a late-night plate of enchiladas. Here are some of the things I heard myself telling those pastors:

·         Toughen up without losing your tenderness. You will be told no sometimes by the elders of your church and that is good for you. You will not be equally loved or affirmed by all in your congregation and that is good for you. You will have to wait sometimes for what you want and that too is good for you. Faithfulness and patience, both fruits of the Spirit, do not ripen without troubles, delays, and denials. Lose the glass jaw that sends you to the mat in a heap of self-pity when you’re opposed or something you champion is defeated or needlessly delayed from your vantage point. Thank God in those times that He is still perfecting your character. If you got everything you wanted you’d be pastoring Heaven. These are real live people you’re dealing with, you know.

·         Make friends with your predecessors, both living and dead. In an “old growth” church with history, memories are deeply rooted and the pastoral eras are the rings in the tree. The pastors who went before you were compared to the pastors who went before them too. Make peace with the players of the past and pray for the ones who will follow you as you pray for yourself. Someday you too will become their “former” pastor. Endeavor to pass to your successor—who will grow tired of being compared to you—a healthy church.

·         Work to cultivate new blooms on old branches. Most of what you’ll find in your church—even if the church is withering away or a total rebuild project—doesn’t require uprooting as much as pruning. Jesus did curse the fig-less fig tree that, like the people, wasn’t prepared for His coming. But to those who have received Him, He prunes, seeking new and lasting fruit. Help your church understand its values and how to maximize them.

·         You can tolerate inefficiency but not inertia. Inefficiency or inexactitude in the structure, function, and culture of your church is aggravating to differing degrees but it doesn’t really threaten vision. Inertia does though because inertia is not simply inactivity but inattentiveness. Pastors are not babysitters. Where there is inertia in the church it means your people aren’t paying attention to God and wasting their lives, the biblical definition of folly. That’s a vision problem and needs to be addressed with a truer, more expansive view of God. You can leave your church for persistent inertia—if you’re always told no or resisted at every turn—but not for inefficiencies in its structure, function, and culture. Those you work with and work through.
(A "by the way" on leaving churches: the grass may indeed be comparatively greener in another pasture but there are sheep patties in that grass too. Go into a different line of work if you’re trying to avoid institutional or people problems—weather station manager in Antarctica might be a good choice for you.)

·         The catalytic leaders that headline Christian conferences really don’t have much to say to you. Don’t get me wrong: Take wisdom wherever you can find it and remain evangelically teachable to those who are organizationally excellent and insightful. But the young leaders evangelicals tend to bronze have often done their best to avoid, flee, or blow up the kind of church you’re in, believing it is a bastion of mediocrity. They’re not bad guys, so don’t regard them cynically. And some of them may become your friends (take friendship wherever you can find it too), so don’t behold them enviously. They’ve just never had to work for change in an entity like your church. You’re working out different muscle groups of leadership than they are, that’s all.

·         Astringency is not coercion. The difference is that astringent leadership will call people to do what they resist for a greater good they’ll later see. Coercion makes people do what they resist for the leader’s own purposes—to prove oneself in some way. Coercion will result in short-term compliance but long-term resistance. Sometimes you have to lead astringently; sometimes you need to position yourself or your proposal such that you risk being told no. But with coercion’s tools you’re building the casket into which your people’s respect for you will lie.

·         If you love your people they will love you back. Mostly true. But this old saying is never truer than in traditional-set churches: You can’t win them all. Don’t hide from anyone. Practice relational integrity with all. But don’t kill yourself pursuing people who are disinterested in what you’re calling for or indifferent to you. And be who you are, not your best impression of anyone else. If it comes to it you’d rather be fired as (state your name here). Know who you are, learn to like who you are, and be who you are. Apply the same to your congregation and unless they are Orcs you should have mostly agreeable experiences with them.
Well, I said other things in my dream state to those seventy-seven young pastors headed to older churches; things about discerning values and directional matters and how to cope when your church insists on serving Taco Salad on Wednesday nights. I’ll keep those things between them and me. But the reality breaking in on my sleep that night is that I love the church that has some age on it and want churches like First Evan to be led well. It sure makes me sleep better at night.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Pointing at Train Wrecks

In a vividly worded piece of cultural insight Kathleen Parker, syndicated columnist for The Washington Post, refers to paparazzi as “parasites that coagulate on the souls of the talented.” Souls like Whitney Houston—exceptionally talented singer yet addicted woman. Parker wrote her column yesterday against the backdrop of Houston’s death at 48 (link:
The teachable moment emerging from Houston’s hotel room, Parker says, is not about the dangers of mixing alcohol and drugs but the toxic mix of misery and celebrity. Why does it seem so many of those who “make it big” get caught in the gravitational pull of small orbits like addiction? She probes the role of intrusive public acclaim in the unraveling of lives like Houston’s. We, the ravenous public, believe that superlative gifts are bequeathed to the select few for us, the masses. So we pay for their music, books, art, athleticism, making them rich and famous. But if they show a prominent flaw or weakness—boy, do we make them pay us back. This has to take a toll on their psyche.
Jack Johnson’s song “Good People” is about the personality carnival television has become. One of the lines is, “How many train wrecks do we need to see?” Yes, Whitney Houston was her own conductor on the crazy train of a highly publicized drug addiction. The train wrecked last week and she, not her public, was at the controls of her own demise.
But Whitney Houston wasn’t the only one addicted. We are also. We’re addicted to seeing the train wrecks. It gives us something to talk and tweet about, criticize, belittle, mock, pray the Pharisee prayer in response (see Luke 18:9-14). Parker presents the media’s role in this as that of drug dealer. Being their junkies, we have allowed ourselves to regard celebrities as less than truly human.
Take Britney Spears. I don’t know her although two of six degrees of separation could make our acquaintance: I did doctoral work with her former youth pastor and her original voice teacher is a member of my church. Among evangelicals, before Katy Perry, Spears was the poster child for church girls gone wild. Christians began to view her through the lens of her celebrity and treated her as an enemy of decency and decorum. She was, after all, corrupting our girls and seducing our boys.
A few years ago Spears had a train-wreck kind of meltdown. I found it painful to watch a beautiful young woman with shaved head beating a paparazzi car with an umbrella. It evoked compassion for her and repentance in me, for I too had bashed her at times.
A little while later I bought Bebo Norman’s self-titled album (2008) on which he included this song he wrote after viewing news footage of Spears’ troubles. He called it “Britney”:
“Britney I'm sorry for the lies we told
We took you into our arms and then left you cold
Britney I'm sorry for this cruel, cruel world
We sell the beauty but destroy the girl
“Britney I'm sorry for your broken heart
We stood aside and watched you fall apart
I'm sorry we told you fame would fill you up
And money moves the man so drink the cup…
“Britney I'm sorry for the stones we throw
We tear you down just so we can watch the show
Britney I'm sorry for the words we say
We point the finger as you fall from grace…
“Britney I do believe that love has come
Here for the broken
Here for the ones like us

“I know love goes around the world we know
And you never see it coming back
You never see it coming back
And I know love goes around the world we know
And you never see it coming back
But I can see it coming back…

“It's coming back for you... yeah.”
That is a model Christian response to the phenomenon of the train wreck, I think. Not pointing at it, making light of it, or dismissing it as the troubles of those we can’t relate to. Celebrity doesn’t make one less human. It is a matter of essential evangelical doctrine that no one is beneath the love and grace of God no matter how much they damage themselves.
The next time the next train wreck plays out before us, crane your neck to see the love of God coming back around for the ones like us. Before Whitney sang it God did: I will always love you.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Should Churches Use Public School Buildings?

The Faith in Memphis panel was asked to respond to New York City's proposed ban on churches renting public school buildings for meetings:

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Stress-O-Sphere Domain

Do you ever find yourself wondering whether you’re doing enough for God? Wish you had glitzier spiritual gifts like teaching and leading? Ever worry that you’re too complacent? Beat yourself up when you don’t wake up in time to start the day with prayer and Bible reading?
Evangelical Christians introspectively wonder, wish, and worry over these and other matters of personal piety frequently. Those three w’s form their own “www” domain. The domain is a kind of stress-o-sphere wherein one continually evaluates his performance, motives, obedience, desires and devotion, only to find them all lacking. This is distressing to many evangelicals because of the weight we place on personal piety. Surprisingly (or not), it is just those Christians that others consider the most committed to Jesus—the ones who in the current vogue of vernacular consider themselves “followers, not fans”—who tend to subject themselves to the most baneful inner scrutiny.
In 1991 I participated in my second summer-long Campus Outreach Beach Project in Florida. It was the summer between college and seminary for me. I was there to lead and live with a discipleship group. We leaders arrived a week early to get everything prepared. There were a couple dozen of us. Jerry Bridges, the author of The Pursuit of Holiness, happened to be beachside doing a retreat for a church. One of the campus ministers training us knew him and got him to come over and address us one night.
Bridges, who had just finished a book called Transforming Grace, presented a scenario: Let’s say you’ve had a great week of quiet times, you’ve kept your sin issues in check, and you’ve even gone the extra mile in serving your roommates without complaint. How confident are you asking God to bless your beach evangelism efforts this weekend? Every hand went up, including mine. Our unexamined assumption was that our performance merited God’s blessing. Bridges exposed this in us by flipping the scenario: After a terrible week of oversleeping, cursing your boss under your breath, lying and lusting—now how confident are you asking God to bless your beach evangelism efforts this weekend? No hand went up.
Bridges gave it to us straight: “I see none of you have any understanding of the grace of God.” God saved us by grace but we were keeping ourselves. God blessed us only as we obeyed and performed and purified our motives, not because Jesus obeyed on our behalf in pure perfection. In focusing so much on everything I needed to do for God, everything God did for me wasn’t in sharp enough focus.
There is a place for personal assessment and evaluation. I’m always in need of reform and repentance in some avenue of living. Admitting this is not complacency but reality. Complacency is when I live with negligent or damaging realities; when I resist self-discipline to maintain lethargy, unwilling to strive, grow, change, learn, reorder or repent. For example, giving up prayer would be complacency. But not giving up prayer every day at the crack of dawn. It took me years to accept that the time of my praying was really immaterial to praying. Foregoing sleep to do it didn’t make me godlier. It made me sleepier!
I remember hearing John Ortberg, California pastor and author, address this in a roundabout way in an interview. Ortberg wrote a book on spiritual disciplines so he’s no slacker. But with exasperation in his voice he asked, “What are we doing to our people?” as he described a young mother in the church, barely getting enough sleep as it is, dragging herself out of bed early in the morning because her pastor—middle-aged with kids grown—says that’s the best time to meet with God. What she hears is that’s the only time to meet with God. The exhortation and example of the pastor is certainly well-intentioned. But what are we doing to people in actual effect?
A man in my church—a servant-hearted guy who cheerfully takes assignments nobody else wants—went to a conference on discipleship. What he heard there simultaneously excited and dejected him. It excited him to picture himself going through the Bible training the ministry putting on the conference offered him. But he didn’t think he could ask for my pastoral recommendation to the program because, as he put it, “I’m not a teacher.”
He had a one-dimensional impression of discipleship; that when Jesus said, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20), He envisioned pedagogical intensives in living rooms—content download from one who can teach the Bible to those who will learn from him. The ministry didn’t intend to give the man in my church this impression. But he left their conference thinking he couldn’t disciple anyone if he couldn’t lead them in a Bible study. He undervalued his serving gifts. And we all know—(facetious alert!)—Jesus certainly didn’t teach anything to His disciples by their serving with Him, did He?
What are we doing to our people? 
If the balance of my ministry leads people into stress-o-spheres of wondering, wishing, and worrying about whether they’re good enough for God’s varsity, I may be well-intentioned, even celebrated. But I may not be leading them to more of Jesus in actual effect. He framed the invitation to learn from Him as an easy yoke and light burden (Matt. 11:28-30). That's an invitation out of the domain of the stress-o-sphere. You coming with me?