What If Preaching Isn’t The Primary Role Of A Pastor?

Preaching_TheoMatters3Yesterday I wondered about why it seems that so much of “American Christianity” resembles the self-help driven “pursuit of happiness” more than it does following Jesus through the Valleys as well as they plateaus.

Long-time reader, first-time commenter Jennifer noted:

It seems what you’re asking for is a Christianity in which people inside the body of Christ are authentic with one another.

“That’s exactly what I’m asking for”, I responded, continuing:

I’ve come to believe that most (well-intentioned) church programs exist because real relationships don’t. The main thing we’ve been called to is discipleship which happens best in relationships, not church classrooms. Since programs/classes are not real life, they’re not designed or equipped to deal with people’s real lives so we default by pretending everything is fine.

Many of our churches foster fake environments in which people pretend everything is fine “because JESUS” because they’re simply not designed to deal with real life. You come, sit in a sit, get told how to win at life, sing some rousing songs, maybe go to a class to learn some information and then go about your week until it’s time to charge your emotional batteries once again.

Many churches seek to fill our calendars “equipping us” with classes and programs because that’s what churches do. But what we’ve missed is that if we fostered intentional, “authentic” (the quotes indicate that I realize just how much baggage the word carries but I use it anyways) relationships. It seems to me that the trend has been to make Christians dependent on their churches for their spiritual growth. The default question has become “how will you feed me?” rather than “how can I serve?”

But we’ve been called to discipleship, not what fills the seats. Paul tells us that the role of church leaders is to equip everyday believers “for the work of the ministry” (Ephesians 4:11-13), not make them dependent on their leaders.

This has led me to think deeply about one of Evangelicalism’s (especially in “Reformed” circles in which I have traveled) sacred cows. Lately, my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been filled with posts arguing that preaching is the primary things a pastor should be concerned with. For example, Jason Allen writes in a piece about “5 words to avoid in every sermon” at For The Church:

Preaching is God’s ordained method to convey his Word and build his church. As such, preaching is every pastor’s principle responsibility and every church’s primary need. Therefore, every pastor must preach, and preach well, every Lord’s day.

Banner of Truth recently posted this memed Calvin quote:

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Let me go ahead and calm the frothing masses: I deeply value preaching. I think it should be an integral part of the regular rhythms of any local church. It is where a unified vision can be presented, it is where a church family can learn together as a whole, it is where the elders can help publicly protect from error and instruct in following Jesus. It is an essential part of what God has laid out for the local church. But what troubles me is the notion that it is the most important thing a pastor does.

I once heard John MacArthur say to a room full of seasoned, young and aspiring pastors that if they weren’t spending at least 40 hours a week in their study, then they had no business getting up in the pulpit on a Sunday morning. Their primary job, MacArthur urged, was preaching on Sunday.

There is a local church with one of those electronic billboards that flashes cheesy Christian sayings. A while back, the sign said: “Worth the drive.” What’s worth the drive? Well, knowing that particular church, the Sunday gathering is “worth the drive” and in particular, it’s “worth the drive” to hear that particular pastor talk for 40 minutes.

It seems to me that the assumption that the pastor’s primary responsibility is preaching must also carry with it the assumptions that Sunday is the primary point of a local church’s existence and that since discipleship is the primary point of a church’s existence, then preaching is the primary way we pursue discipleship. But I cannot follow such straight lines of thinking through the twists and turns of Scripture.

Pastors are compared to shepherds in the bible. As I try to make sense of all of this, I can’t help but picture a shepherd gathering his sheep once a week and lecturing them on how to live the rest of the week and then just sending them out to face the dangers of the world. Of course this is foolish, but when we over-emphasize the importance of the Sunday sermon, the analogy seems to fit. Shepherds were worthless if they didn’t spend time with their sheep, guiding, protecting, disciplining if necessary (it may shock you to know that the heartwarming picture of a shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders was because he had broken the sheep’s leg because it wandered off so many times).

I am unashamedly going off of the notion that the church should be most concerned with discipleship; that is, helping one another become more like Jesus. This conviction leads me to the conclusion that preaching is incredibly important but it is potentially harmful to tell pastors that it is the “most important” part of their job.

I would rather be shepherded by someone who spends more time with people than books. I want to be the type of pastor who values people more than doctrine. If I ever pastor again, I want to know what my people need to hear because I know my people. And, as shocking as it may seem, you can’t know people without spending time with them. With all due respect to MacArthur, his advice is terrific for professional teachers but horrible for actual pastors.

Placing so much emphasis on the sermon creates passive Christians who tend towards a knowledge-based (rather than an experiential) faith. Placing so much emphasis on the sermon is a large part of why so many pastors feel so discouraged. Once, after a sermon, I had someone come up to me afterward and, very nicely, tell me that they really struggled to follow that week’s sermon. The very next person in line to talk with me told me that it was the single most moving sermon they had ever heard and they would remember it for a long time. Placing so much emphasis on the sermon creates unrealistic expectations that the pastor always “be on” and owes more to our desire to be entertained than our desire to be more like Jesus. Placing so much emphasis on the sermon has helped fuel the “celebrity pastor” movement rather than reminding us all that pastors are strugglers through this life just like they people they’ve been called to shepherd.

If we have primarily been called to discipleship then it seems to me that relationships are the single most important thing a pastor does. Sermons rarely serve to deepen relationships. In fact, sermons are sharpened the more a pastor knows the people to whom he is speaking. Shepherds must spend time with the sheep or they’re a lousy shepherd.

Again, I’m not discounting preaching (though I do question the monologue approach in its effectiveness to really equip the saints but maybe that’s another post for another day). I value preaching and it’s something I personally love. I’m simply asking if we have over-emphasized its role in discipleship. Are we actually hindering pastors from their true role when we tell them that the 45 minutes a week when they lecture people is the most important thing they do?

I look forward to your thoughts.

Is Pastoral Aspiration Permanent? What Happens If It’s Not?

a-preacher-in-blackI used to be a pastor. Generally speaking, it was something I loved doing. I was exhilerated when, through my equipping, believers began to not only take responsibility for their own spiritual well-being but also for those around them (Ephesians 4:11-13; Galatians 6:1-2, etc.). I love teaching, preaching, discipleship, counseling and leadership development. In many ways, it was my dream job and I’d love to do it again some day. But after ten years of pouring out our lives for others, our church’s needs shifting from visionary to implementation and some major family changes, I resigned.

I would not say that I had reached “burnout” (a topic I’d like to write more about soon, especially considering the stigma of spiritual failure and the spiritual machismo surrounding the idea. But more on that later.). In fact, part of the reason I resigned when I did was to protect myself and my church family from burnout. There were, of course, many factors that led to the decision to resign but they may all be summed up simply by saying that I didn’t want to elder at that time in my life.

This isn’t something many pastors talk about. In fact, you’re led to believe that your’e somehow selfish or that your faith must be in question if you entertain the idea. But I think it is something Paul himself understood deeply. When introducing the characteristics of spiritual leaders (overseer, elder, bishop, pastor, etc.) Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:1: “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer.”

A lot of time is often spent on the idea of “aspiring” to the office of elder when men go through whatever their local church’s process to become an elder might be. A lot of time is spent talking about the difficulties that lie ahead; almost trying to talk the potential elder out of it. Are you sure? And this is good. There might sometimes be people who, though they might possess the right characteristics, simply don’t want to serve as an elder in a local church. Someone taking on the task of caring for other people’s souls should do so wide-eyed and they should certainly want to do it because, though incredibly rewarding, it can also be incredibly difficult.

What seems to be discussed less is the question of whether or not this aspiration is permanent? Just because someone had that aspiration at one point in their life, is it simply assumed that they want to continue indefinitely? Is this something that should be gauged at regular intervals and if so, how? Some churches impose “term limits” on their elders and have a rotating board of elders but I’m not sure that designated periods of time are necessarily the best option.

Complicating the issue is the fact that this “aspiration” is certainly tied to one’s spiritual health, but it is not correct to simply say that if someone does not wish to serve as an elder then their spirituality is not healthy. And yet, there is a sense of guilt often experienced by those who realize that, for whatever reason, they don’t want to serve at that time of life.

I wish I had some practical answers to wrap up with but I don’t. These are issues I’ve been wrestling with for over a year now. What I have concluded is that, in many cases, we need to be more sensitive to those in leadership. It is a very difficult thing when your job is tied to your spirituality. It can be really hard when your job is to care for people who will often criticize the way you try to serve them. How can we make sure that our leaders are there because they want to be?

What if it were as simple as our leaders being approachable and open and people treating them as real people; with care? What if it were as simple as our leaders being humble enough to realize that there might be seasons to leadership and the best way to lead is sometimes to get out of the way? We need to make it easier for those in spiritual to be real people.

I don’t regret my decision to resign and I think it was the right time to resign when I did. But after nearly a year away from vocational ministry, the call to serve in that capacity is returning and I’m trying to make sense of it all. In some ways after this break, I “aspire” to serve more than ever. But what about those who are struggling? How can we be sensitive to those who may be second-guessing? How can we encourage those to stay who should and give freedom to those who realize that it is not their time in life to serve in that capacity?

I’d love your thoughts.

 

Let’s Pause For A Concern About Concerns

CONCERNI am a verbal processor. I know that sounds like I’m saying I’m a computer, but I glean a lot by throwing ideas out and working through the feedback they generate. I like to present ideas as questions, often holding back my own personal opinion until I’ve had a chance to look at it from several different angles after gathering some feedback.

This is fine in and of itself, but but it can sometimes lead to some confusion and misperception. Lately, I have been “thinking out loud” about a number of ministry-related issues, from my resignation, to the call to ministry, my own personal experience, and whether or not the current model of American church actually hinders some otherwise qualified men from the ministry.

Taken as a whole, I realize that it might seem like I am having some struggles, doubts or jaded feelings. In fact, last night I received an e-mail from someone I respect very much expressing concern that it seems like I am wrestling with some pretty dark thoughts towards the church in a pretty public forum. I appreciated this e-mail because I sometimes don’t stop and consider how my verbal processing approach might mean that it sounds like I’m just unloading a bunch of complaints. Nothing could be further from the truth (at least in intent) so if I have come across as negative or biting, please forgive me and please don’t hesitate to point it out.

So, with that being said, I want to take a moment and just throw a few things out there for consideration:

  • The views expressed here are entirely my own. I do not speak here for the people/leaders of Church of the Cross. I hope that’s a given but let’s state it clearly anyways. This is my personal website containing personal views and opinions. I love my Church of the Cross family dearly but as with any family, there are often very different perspectives. We find beauty when we find ways to express those opinions in exchange for thoughtful dialogue and we all grow in the process. But your crazy uncle does not speak for you. And, on this website, I do not speak for Church of the Cross.  When I have written something that does speak for the Church of the Cross family, it has appeared on the Church of the Cross website.
  • Church of the Cross is healthy and has not been the impetus for the questions and concerns raised so far. Please do not read into my ramblings that I am frustrated with Church of the Cross in any way. Due to God’s leading through life’s circumstances, it is just time for me to step aside. I am not upset. In fact, I believe that CotC is an extremely healthy church and I don’t just say that because I planted it. My family and I plan on staying. They are family and most of my philosophizing is not about them, our structure, our leadership, etc. My comments from life in the American church as a whole and from relationships. In fact, just so you know, yesterday’s piece questioning whether the American model of church is geared more towards certain personalities was prompted by the experience of several friends rather than my own experience. If the piece had a heavy tone it was because I hurt for these friends.
  • I can only speak from my experience. I realize that many people have had terrific experiences with the mainstream American church. God uses all kinds of churches for His glory and our good. Voicing concerns about mainstream practices is not the same thing as discounted your experience or the people behind it. But God often uses broken things and through years of personal experience in various churches and church culture, I have come to believe that we need to start talking openly about what may be broken. If your experience has led you to different conclusions, let’s compare them and learn together. Part of the reason I put stuff in the public sphere is because I need to hear from people with different experiences.
  • Humble dialogue is necessary for the church to grow. That will certainly mean that we must own “our” collective shortcomings  and strive to correct them. But that means that we must openly discuss whether the typical American church succeeds at making, maturing and multiplying disciples. If so, great, let’s just perfect the status quo. But if not, then we’ve got some BIG discussions to have. That means that concerns will be raised but egos should not. We should believe the best of all and our speech, even when raising concerns, should convey a heart of unity. Concerns and corrections must be filtered through love. That is a difficult task, and one that I often fail at.
  • I too often speak from cynicism rather than optimism. Please forgive me.

I hope this helps set a healthy tone for open dialogue about real concerns. I am wrestling with some pretty big questions about the way we, the “American church as a whole” do things. I could certainly be asking the wrong questions and coming to wrong conclusions so that’s where I’d love for you to chime in. Let’s help each other grow.

Why Do We Make It So Difficult (01)? Why Many Good Men Are Discouraged From Ministry

abandoned-church-1382330-mThe decision to resign from ministry has not been an easy or quick one. It has led me down more than several rabbit-holes in my thinking. I have written about some of those things so far: I have thought a lot about “the” call to ministry as well as my own call to vocational ministry and I plan to write about more soon.

As you might imagine, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of “ministry” and the way we (I speak as a native North American raised in the “American/Evangelical Church” because that is my context) practice church.

Over the years, I’ve met a lot of guys who have been discouraged from “the ministry” for all the wrong reasons. They meet the characteristics laid out in Titus and 1 Timothy 3, including the key “ability to teach”. They genuinely care for people, they invest in others, they know the Bible, can explain and apply it well. They have healthy relationships , good finances, blah, blah, blah. You get the picture, these are good, qualified guys. But then, why, you ask, do they feel discouraged from the ministry?! Good question. I’m glad you asked. They simply don’t fit the mold, especially if we’re considering church planting in addition to eldering.

The American Church has created a fairly peculiar model for doing church. Not only is it peculiar, I wonder how much it has directly led to many otherwise qualified men from serving.

From what I can tell, the New Testament model of “church planting” seems to have primarily been something like this: God’s people lived as a blessing to those around them. As they were faithful in the task of “making, maturing and multiplying disciples” (Matthew 28:18-20) in a particular geographical area, the need for structure arose. The “practical” ministries of the local church were handled by the deacons and the public vision/instruction/shepherding/equipping was handled by the elders.

It seems to me that the American model puts the cart before the horse when we think of pastoring and church planting. We plant churches by beginning with the structure and then recruiting people to it. When we think of church planters, we tend to think of very entrepreneurial people because, in the American context, “planting a church” also means starting a legally recognized business. You have to incorporate, navigate tax codes, you have to present a clear vision to people of what will make your church different, and in most cases, you have to raise money. Lots and lots of money. And all the while, you need to motivate others to join in the creating of this new institution.

Of course this mindset marinates ministry beyond church planting. The model pastors are often those with a very particular skill set; someone who can excite a crowd and get stuff done (using a “tri=perspectival” model, we’re talking Kingly Prophet). There’s troops to rally and new series to build excitement for and vision to cast. And there’s pre-natal classes and nursery ministry and toddler ministry and kids programs and pre-teens programs and Jr. High ministry and High School ministry and college ministry and young adults/and/ormarrieds ministry and new parents ministry and mid-life crisis ministry and retiree ministry and “golden years” ministry. Not to mention Teen Bible Study, Men’s Bible Study, Women’s Bible Study. Men’s Breakfast and Women’s Tea. The Father/Daughter dance and Father/Son fishing trip. And youth camp. And family camp. And VBS. And backyard bible clubs. And budget meetings. And committee meetings. And children’s worker’s meetings. And youth worker’s meetings. And deacon’s meetings. And elders meetings.

American pastors/church planters are expected to be inspiring public speakers, effective strategists, and motivational managers. In other words, the American model of church planting and ministry is geared towards certain personality/leadership styles more than others. And otherwise qualified men who might not be a good office manager or a strong fundraiser or even the most charismatic public speaker are discouraged because they see the guys who have those traits as somehow more spiritual. When spirituality often is not the issue.

Our current model of church almost necessitates that we consider certain extra-biblical characteristics as much as we consider the biblical ones. We highlight the church planters who can initially recruit the most people or raise the most money. While God seems to delight in using those the world would least expect, American Evangelicalism seems to delight in pretty predictable leaders. Until the American church lets go of our fixation with performance and our correlation between pastors and executives, we will continue to teach many qualified men that there is more to “successful ministry” than the Bible tells us. Until we honor those who can make, mature and multiply disciples more than we value those who draw a crowd, we will continue to see many qualified men left to believe they don’t measure up.

As long as we view Sunday worship as a performance, we will idealize performing pastors. As long as we view the local church as a business, we will value those men searching for “CEO Leadership Lessons From Jesus”. As long as we allow church to be an institution, we will value pastors who could just as easily manage a business. While some of these traits may not be inherently bad, I’m pretty sure that we often find ourselves holding pastors up to standards the Bible doesn’t. And I’m pretty sure a lot of qualified men have been discouraged from ministry for the wrong reasons.

Aside from another wholesale reformation of the American Church, or perhaps the increased persecution of the American church, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of answers on the table. While Scripture certainly permits pastors to make a living from the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:14, etc.), it seems to me that once we develop an institutional budget, we have also changed the role of the pastor. Perhaps it’s time to break free of the way we’ve always done it? Perhaps it’s time we unleashed the Gospel from the shackles of institutionalism. Perhaps I’m just a curmudgeon.

A Lightning Bolt It Was Not (My “Call To Ministry”)

high-voltage-1089875-mA lightning bolt it was not. There was no Luther shock from the sky charging me instantaneously in to ministry. I have known guys like that; successful or not, living in some other world, business, IT, entertainment, what have you. And one day, God suddenly and quite often unexpectedly “calls them to ministry”. They drop everything like it’s hot and like Abraham, follow obediently to only God knows where.

But neither was it an ever-present undercurrent; something that had always been there. I’ve known those guys too. The ones who always knew that they wanted to be a pastor. They started preaching when they were nine and became a deacon at ten, hit the preaching circuit at eleven and there was really never any other road for them to travel. Friends and family alike affirm that they could never imagine anything else. In fact, I have a friend who, at age four, lined up his teddy bears to preach sermons to them. This was not me. In fact, if you told many of the people from my youth that I had become a pastor they would likely tell you to shut the front door in disbelief. 

And neither did I go kicking and screaming into ministry. It was never as though God twisted my arm behind my back until I gave in. It was a natural progression as my path simply seemed to lay itself  down smoothly step by step. It was an evolution more than it was a revolution.

18 or so years ago, I found myself teaching the adult Sunday Morning Bible Study for the church we were a part of (I taught an 18-week redemptive historical study of John 1 among other things). In many ways, I felt inadequate for the task (then again, it could have been the material I chose), so I enrolled in a distance-learning seminary program. Except for the fact that the assignments didn’t have due dates, it was a great idea. So, except for the fact that I didn’t do my assignments, it was a great idea. It just wasn’t the right idea for me.

During this time, I was working at a Christian treatment center for women and adolescent girls battling eating disorders. Our company had some lay-offs after 9/11 and I remember asking myself what would happen if I did lose my job. Would I simply open the Want Ads and find something else to pay the bills? It was a great job and I loved my co-workers, but I wasn’t passionate about it. It was just a good way to pay the bills. Though I didn’t audibly hear God’s voice, I knew, as clearly as you can, that God was telling me He wanted me to “make, mature and multiply disciples.”

So I told my wife Kristi that I thought we should move somewhere and take seminary seriously. At the time you could not do a full seminary degree in Phoenix. Without missing a beat, she asked: “OK, where are we moving?” “Well, crap in a basket,” I thought. I had no idea where we were going.  After requesting information from 20 or so seminaries, we ended up in Louisville, KY where I attended Southern Seminary.

I went to seminary with absolutely no-way, no-how, never-ever intention of being a pastor. In fact, when professors would make comments like, “When you’re pastoring and . . . “, I would internally snicker. I was sure I had the angle on this. I would get my MDiv, transfer to another seminary and get my PhD. Then I would be a book-writing, ETS paper-presenting professor. I would have all the cool parts of teaching theology and none of the crap of dealing with people’s lives. But God often picks the unlikely ones to be His ambassadors. That way, there’s no explanation for success other than God’s faithfulness.

Around half-way through my MDiv, two things happened fairly simultaneously. First, I took a J-Term class on “The Doctrine Of The Church” with Mark Dever. Though there was nothing I hadn’t heard before, I had honestly never been challenged to put it all together in a way that forced me to consider the role of the Church in God’s plan of redemption. As a church member, I had rarely been challenged to see my role in God’s story as anything more than attending a weekly performance. I began to develop a conviction for seeing God’s people develop real community.

Around the same time, my Grandpa passed away. Being the token seminary student, the family asked if we would fly back and do the memorial. Never having done a memorial before, not knowing what I was doing and nervous as all get-out, I stumbled my way through the memorial and graveside services. Afterwards, my Dad said something to me that has stuck to this day. He said “You could affect more lives from the pulpit than in the classroom.”

The only way I can describe what happened next is to say that God simply broke my heart for the Church. I wanted to make, mature and multiply disciples. I wanted to serve God’s people and teach them to serve one another. I wanted to help people understand and apply the Bible better. I wanted to see people love Jesus and live more like Him.

On the way back to Kentucky, I told Kristi that I thought God was “calling me to be a pastor.” After few bars of the “I didn’t sign up to be a pastor’s wife blues”, she affirmed that God did indeed seem to be leading us that way. God had not only seemed to call me but also equip me with a particular skill set that lends itself to public teaching and interaction. After prayer, we found ourselves serving in a church in rural KY. But that’s a story for another day.

I tell you this rambling tale because I worry that, because we have professionalized the ministry, we tend to idealize the role of pastor. Many people have come to believe that “ministry” is somehow out of reach. But my story demonstrates that anyone can find themselves on an unexpected journey.The “call to ministry” certainly looks different for different people. But the point is that pastors are normal people who, somewhere along the way, felt prompted to give their lives in the service of others. No matter how they got there, lightning bolt, kicking and screaming, life-long desire or unexpected turns, they have had a long journey and they need to hear from you more often than when you’re upset about something.