Notes on the Crisis of Pastoral Leadership in the North American Church

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I have been a Senior Pastor of a large, non-denominational, evangelical church for the past ten years, and been in pastoral ministry for nearly twenty years now. Maybe, like me, you realize there is something happening in the life of the North American Church that could best be described as a crisis of pastoral leadership. We see it around us and we feel it in our souls. There is something wrong and we cannot turn our eyes away. We must wrestle with the deeper issues of this crisis for our own soul’s sake, but also for the sake of the church. What follows is my fumbling attempt at reflection on this crisis, my wrestling with the challenges and questions, and also my invitation for you to engage with me in this. May God guide us and make something redemptively beautiful in His church and of His pastors.

 

The pastor who uses preaching or other forms of ministry as a means to platform himself or herself is doing disservice to themselves, shaming their calling, abusing their church, and turning their back on Messiah Jesus. Ministry is not about platforming ourselves, but about directing attention to Jesus and serving others in love.

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The pastor who aims merely to write books and speak at conferences has confused after-effects with goals. We should not seek these things, but, after serving faithfully and fruitfully, agree to some of these things also, although we know they threaten to damage our souls and distract us in ministry.

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A wise pastor once told me that God is more interested in having all of us than He is in having us do things for Him. Yet we are often more interested in having people recognize us for what we have done than for the degree to which we reflect Christ in our whole lives.

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The crisis of pastoral leadership in the evangelical church is a crisis of discipleship, ecclesiology, and authority. It is a crisis of discipleship because our shepherds cannot lead us to the deep places with God because they do not regularly go there themselves. It is a crisis of ecclesiology because we have misunderstood what it means to be the church at nearly every level, from foundations to expressions. It is a crisis of authority because we have set celebrity pastors in positions of nearly unbounded power without appropriate personal or institutional accountability to Christian formation.

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Ministry arises from the overflow of our own life with God. Failure to understand this and live by it will not only hinder our vibrant ministry, but also ruin us in the process. It will ruin us because the outward appearances of ministry activity will increasingly be at odds with our personal lack of discipleship.

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To step away from celebrity and into obscurity can be a gift to the soul that strives for recognition and hungers for approval. At the same time, such a move toward obscurity can also become an attempt at escape from responsibility or another bent impulse toward recognition through reverse optics.

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Toxic leaders and toxic environments often overlap and feed one another, but are not the same thing. Health will not come merely by addressing one but not the other. Health comes in the church when we address the personal issues of spiritual malformation, while also addressing the systemic issues of spiritual malformation in the environment.

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The one who appoints himself or herself as a prophet is likely not a pastor, and is more likely someone with an axe to grind. The true impulse of the prophetic comes only from the Holy Spirit, not from the self. In Hebrew Scripture, the self-proclaimed prophet was to be killed by stoning.

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To resist sin and temptation we must name it for what it is superficially but also subterraneanly. Every weed has a root, and many times the root is stronger and deeper than what is seen at the surface. The initial longings interlaced with temptation are not necessarily evil in themselves. It is the response to the longing that makes the difference. Naming the longing correctly often leads to an appropriate embrace of our weakness in relation to that desire that may lead us toward God. Giving in to temptation most often is connected with an inappropriate suppression or denial of desire, leading toward a whiplash of activity that will neither satiate our impulsive passion nor fully satisfy our desires because the true longing is ignored. Many pastors’ lives are like gardens whose weeds are plucked from the surface, but whose roots are still strong and just waiting to burst through the surface.

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Is the vision before us the glory of God in Christ or is it something else? Is it the glory of ourselves in earthly exaltation? Is it the glory of liberated pursuits of our fleshly desire? The vision before us shapes our pursuit and the path of the road by which we travel our life’s journey. Pastor are ironically capable of seeing this in others, but often blind to the vision before us in our own lives.

 

The Church is a Hospital for Sin-Sick Sinners: J. I. Packer from a Quest for Godliness

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This past weekend in my message, “Friend of Sinners,” I mentioned an article by J. I. Packer that I read many years ago in which he talks about the church as a hospital for sinners. In searching for it, I discovered that the article was actually an excerpt from Packer’s book, A Quest for Godliness. I found an excerpt that I am sharing below:

Truth obeyed, said the Puritans, will heal. The word fits, because we are all spiritually sick — sick through sin, which is a wasting and killing disease of the heart. The unconverted are sick unto death; those who have come to know Christ and have been born again continue sick, but they are gradually getting better as the work of grace goes on in their lives.

The church, however, is a hospital in which nobody is completely well, and anyone can relapse at any time. Pastors no less than others are weakened by pressure from the world, the flesh, and the devil, with their lures of profit, pleasure, and pride, and, as we shall see more fully in a moment, pastors must acknowledge that they the healers remain sick and wounded and therefore need to apply the medicines of Scripture to themselves as well as to the sheep whom they tend in Christ’s name.

All Christians need Scripture truth as medicine for their souls at every stage, and the making and accepting of applications is the administering and swallowing of it.

J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 1990, reprint (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 65, paragraphing added.

Faith in God Amidst the Beasts [Daniel 7]

This past weekend at Eastbrook Church, I continued our series on the book of Daniel by turning our attention to chapter 7, which begins the markedly different second half of the book. Chapters 1-6 are court narratives, while chapters 7-12 are apocalyptic visions. This first vision serves as a sort of parallel to Daniel 2 and overview of where the rest of the book is going.

You can view the message video and sermon outline below. You can follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.

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Anticipatory Faith with Gabriel Douglas [Daniel]

 Gabriel Douglas, Eastbrook’s Middle School Pastor, continued our series on the book of Daniel, “Daniel: Apocalyptic Imagination and Exile Faith,” this past weekend at Eastbrook Church. As Gabriel mentioned, this was an interesting message as I asked him to preach at the pivot point of the book of Daniel on the nature of apocalyptic literature and why it’s significant in Scripture.

You can view the message video and sermon outline below. You can follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.

Evangelical Dis-incarnation and Online Church: some thoughts on Judah Smith and Churchome Global

Churchome_virtual_churchThis past week, Judah Smith, pastor of Churchome (formerly ‘City Church’) announced via Twitter that the church’s latest “site” would be through an app on your smart phone. You can read an article about it here: “Judah Smith Launches Church ‘in the palm of your hand.'”  This move, listed as on of the locations on the church’s web-site, is dubbed “Churchome Global.”

I have some sympathy with Smith’s move here in that, as a pastor, in many ways I want to help as many people as possible encounter Christ and, in finding community with God through Christ, also find a community of belonging in a local church fellowship. If we have the greatest treasure, some would say, we need to share that treasure with the most people possible. However, it is worth considering whether the way we share the treasure not only devalues what it is, but changes the very nature of what we are offering.

Smith’s move is utterly unsurprising to me, as it is merely the latest iteration of something churches have been doing since the power of technology has dramatically increased our reach of people and the rise of the mega-church seeker movement has altered our thinking about what church and ministry really are.  The endeavor Smith is pursuing here seems like the next logical move beyond online small groups or campuses resulting from a radically dis-incarnate, gnostic theology within the North American evangelical church that has made the ultimate goal “connection” and “reaching people” at any cost.

Once again, this faddish push fails to realize that the “ends” do not justify the “means,” particularly when those means violate the essential incarnational communion of an enfleshed Savior. Neither does it grapple seriously with studies that show online “connection,” whether through social media or other means, contributes toward increased levels of loneliness, stress, and depression.

It is one thing to share information or resources online, but it is another thing to promise church (sanctorum communio) online.

Faith that Doesn’t Flinch [Daniel 6]

Pastor Femi Ibitoye continued our series on the book of Daniel, “Daniel: Apocalyptic Imagination and Exile Faith,” this past weekend at Eastbrook Church. This weekend we looked at Daniel, chapter 6, one of the most famous passages from Daniel where he finds himself under pressure and eventually thrown in the lions’ den.

You can view the message video and sermon outline below. You can follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.

 

Faith When the Writing is on the Wall [Daniel 5]

We returned to our series on the book of Daniel, “Daniel: Apocalyptic Imagination and Exile Faith,” this past weekend at Eastbrook Church after a two-week hiatus for our annual MissionsFest. This weekend we looked at Daniel, chapter 5, where a mysterious hand appears in the midst of Belshazzar’s feast with a divine message for the king. There is so much we could have talked about, but I chose to focus in on the challenge of hearing the message of God in the midst of letters and words that sometimes feel hard to understand.

You can view the message video and sermon outline below. You can follow the entire series at our web-site, through the Eastbrook app, or through our audio podcast.

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