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

church.jpg

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.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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 Weekend Wanderer: 22 December 2018

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

apocalypse“Why Apocalypse is Essential to Advent” – I am just concluding a long preaching series on the book of Daniel at Eastbrook Church entitled, “Daniel: Apocalyptic Imagination and Exile Faith.” Moving through the entire book this Fall brought the apocalyptic visions of the second half of the book into alignment with the season of Advent. I have not had a better preparation for Advent than this in a long time. Because of all that, I really could not agree more with Fleming Rutledge in this excellent essay over at Christianity Today.

 

cherries“Grace” – Over at First Things you will find a beautiful, narrative reflection on grace and Advent by Patricia Snow. It begins: “On a hazy afternoon in late May 1986, I wait, as I wait every weekday afternoon in a parking lot in Branford, Connecticut, for my son to be dismissed from school. While I wait, I listen to Ceci, another mother new to the school, whose son is in my son’s class. She is telling me about her car.”

 

The head pastor of the Zion church in Beijing Jin Mingri poses for picures in the lobby of the unofficial Protestant "house" church in Beijing

“Detention of 100 Christians raises concerns about religious crackdown in China” – The intense pressure by the Chinese government continues to be felt by minorities of all types, and specifically upon individual Christians and church communities. This latest report, occurring last weekend, highlights the ways that President Xi is ratcheting up control to degrees that have not been experienced for quite some time. Religious freedom is a real issue in many parts of the world and Christians must be aware of the present challenges. One church in China is responding more vocally than normal to this challenging situation: “‘Faithful disobedience’: An influential house church in China responds to a wave of police detentions.”

 

Beth Moore“Max Lucado Reveals Past Sexual Abuse at Evangelical #MeToo Summit” – An important event took place last week in Wheaton, IL, related to the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements. “Today, [Beth] Moore joined major evangelical leaders—including Australian evangelist Christine Caine, bestselling author and San Antonio pastor Max Lucado, and Seattle pastor Eugene Cho—for a Billy Graham Center event called Reflections: A GC2 Summit on Responding to Sexual Harassment, Abuse, and Violence. The event represents the largest inter-denominational response to sex abuse since #MeToo took off last fall.”

 

merlin_147632778_6dffd07c-9d53-48f3-b187-adaaca0217c5-superJumbo“Internet Church Isn’t Really Church” – In case you weren’t clear on what church is, Laura Turner writes to at least help you understand that online church isn’t really church. Of course, this is in part a response to Judah Smith’s launching of a church app for personal, online worship, but that is merely the latest iteration of something that has been happening for years now. Turner writes: “This, then, is the beauty of the church: not that it is perfect or convenient or fits easily into my life but that without it, my life would be deficient. I could still believe in God without the church, could celebrate Christmas without it, or go once a year. But I don’t believe I would truly be a Christian without the real, in-person, Sunday morning church.”

 

hillsong worship“Where next for contemporary worship music?” – Speaking of modern afflictions of church, here is Madeleine Davies’ exploration of the history of worship music and the challenges that it faces today. This is not a short read, which means that it is really worth reading. I would encourage you to take the time to read through this piece and reflect on what worship really means and how music is or is not a part of that.

 

Marsh-and-Fannie-300x225.jpg“Charles Marsh Delivers DuBose Lectures at Sewanee University” – At the end of November Dr. Charles Marsh, professor of religious studies and director of the Project on Lived Theology at the University of Virginia, delivered the DuBose Lectures. His topics bring within their range some of my own greatest areas of interest: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, his ‘religionless’ Christianity, civil rights, Martin Luther King, Jr., and so much more. I have not listened to the lectures in their entirety, but hope to do so soon.

 

Vitamin waterVitamin Water will pay you big bucks to give up your phone for a year – Armed with $100,000 offer and a lie detector test, Vitamin Water is reaching out to see if anyone could really go for an entire year without their smart phone. I’m tempted to go for this, but not sure I could complete all the requirements in the fine print since I preach from an iPad on weekends as a way to avoid using paper notes each weekend. Maybe you could do it!

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

The Weekend Wanderer: 15 December 2018

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

85517“When Gospel Music Sparked a ‘Worship War'” – I began my calling into vocational ministry as a music director at a church after serving as a worship leader in various settings. Music is always divisive because it ties into personal tastes, cultural perspectives, and communicates things to people beyond just the sounds and words. Kathryn Kemp writes about how the Great Migration in the early 20th century impacted the life of African American churches and sparked a ‘worship war’ of sorts during that time. This is fascinating reading for the influence that gospel music had at that time and into the church today.

 

Multicultural friends group using smartphone with coffee at university college break - People hands addicted by mobile smart phone - Technology concept with connected trendy millennials - Filter image“How Facebook Deforms Us” – I gave up Facebook over two years ago and have never wanted to go back. What I realized is that it was subtly shaping me and others into the sort of person that I did not want to be. L. M. Sacasas gets to this in his astute review of Siva Vaidhyanathan‘s new book, Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy. Sacasas’ thoughtful engagement with Vaidhyanathan, as well as other notable authors, provides a meaningful essay on the challenges we all face with a system of social media over which we exert limited control while it simultaneously exerts control over us.

 

image04newamericans“CIVA December Featured Artist” – The featured artist for Christians in Visual Arts (CIVA) in December is Asher Imtiaz, a portrait and documentary photographer from Pakistan currently working in the US (and a member of the church I pastor, Eastbrook Church). Describing his work, Imtiaz writes, “I believe the human face is the greatest of landscapes to capture.” Click here see more of his photography and to read about his work at the CIVA website. You could also visit his personal website here.

 

pew-846021_640“Why Evangelicals Should Care More About Ecclesiology” – Someone shared this article from a few years back with me, and my wife, Kelly, and I have been talking about it ever since. Tish Harrison Warren, author of Liturgy of the Ordinary, suggests that one of the significant factors in the crisis of moral leadership in the evangelical church today is a failure of institutional accountability. This is particularly a problem where there are not clear lines of authority within denominational structures or episcopal layers of authority. Warren’s argument is important to her out, even if there are similar issues with failure in moral authority in church contexts with institutional accountability (e.g., Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal). The fundamental dearth of ecclesiological thinking in evangelicalism is the heart of the issue, it seems to me.

 

2560

“People of African descent face ‘dire picture’ of racism in EU” – “Almost a third of people of African descent polled in a new EU survey say they have experienced racial harassment in the last five years, a report that claims racial discrimination is ‘commonplace’ across 12 European countries reveals. People of African descent face ‘a dire picture’ of discrimination in housing, the workplace and everyday life, the survey of 5,803 people by the European Union’s fundamental rights agency states.”

 

Screen Shot 2018-12-12 at 10.53.15 AM“Stephen Colbert’s conversion from atheism back to Catholicism” – Late Night television host and comedian, Stephen Colbert, talks with Father James Martin about his return to Catholicism from atheism, which was sparked by having someone hand him a pocket New Testament on the wintry streets of Chicago at an anxious season in his life.

 

higgins-inklings-243x300.jpg“An Inherently Meaningful Cosmos” – For those who follow the Oxford scholarly group knowns as the Inklings – that group gathered around the nucleus of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien – you begin to notice certain themes return in many of their works. Certainly the engagement with fantasy is there, but those familiar with “the other Inkling,” Charles Williams, begin to notice attention to Arthurian legends. A recent collection of essays on this theme, The Inklings and King Arthur: J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, & Owen Barfield on the Matter of Britain edited by Sørina Higgins, receives worthy attention in a review by Ben Lockerd.

 

85542“Christianity Today’s 2019 Book Awards” – There are so many booklists floating around these days that it is hard to know which of them to pay attention to. John Wilson always has one of the most diverse and interesting favorites listsMaureen Corrigan pulls together a great look at some of the best books of 2018 at NPREnglewood Review of Books offers a fun Advent Calendar of the best books of the year.  In the midst of the many, I always appreciate Christianity Today’s annual book awards, which helps me pay attention to some of the most insightful biblical-theological books, as well as helps for discipleship and the life of faith. This year is no exception.

 

merton“Merton & Blake, Revisited” – Michael Higgins looks at two of the most fascinating and enigmatic characters within church history of the last 250 years: Thomas Merton and William Blake. Blake’s imagination-laden approach to Christian faith during the late 18th and early 19th centuries and Merton’s iconoclastic monastic faith during the mid-20th century has attracted many interested readers and scholars. Leaning more to an examination of Merton, Higgins wonders why he still fascinates us? Higgins suggests the “stark and vibrant display of paradox is part of his enduring appeal.”

 

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]

The Church in Transition: Kent Carlson on bursting wineskins

fullsizeoutput_abdNear the end of the book Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Formation, Kent Carlson summarizes some of his deepest concern about the challenges of the church in North America. While I’m not sure I agree with his final driving metaphor about “wineskins” bursting all over the place, I do fundamentally agree with his sense that the church in North America, particularly the evangelical church, is in a crisis of transition. Let me know your thoughts.

There is no doubt that the church in North America is in a time of great philosophical and institutional turmoil. When I started Oak Hills twenty-five years ago, the menu options were quite limited. The majority of evangelical churches in North America, apart from the obvious superficial differences, were essentially the same. But that has all changed. Today we have formational churches, missional churches, emergent churches, monastic community churches, house churches, unchurches, simple churches, deep churches, organic churches, ancient-future churches, not to mention the old standbys of traditional, charismatic, seeker-sensitive, seeker-targeted and seeker-driven churches.

It is increasingly obvious that we live in a transitional time in North American religious culture. The future is uncertain and many pastors and Christian leaders are struggling and groping and trying to find their way. I am fairly certain that the large, entrepreneurial, attractional model church is not the wave of the future. It is not sustainable as a model of authentic Christian community. But I truthfully am perplexed about what will replace it.

The story of Oak Hills church reflects the story of this groping, this trying to figure it out. We became convinced that something was wrong, and we set out to find another way. But we have not arrived there yet. We’re not actually sure we ever will. When we reflect on these things, we often think of Jesus’ parable of the wineskins. Jesus said that “people do not pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins” (Luke 5:37-38).

Sometimes we wonder if the reason for all the turmoil of this past decade is that we have been trying to pour new wine into old wineskins. This has been troubling to us at times, but we have come to peace with it. If God is doing something new in our day, perhaps there will be burst wineskins all over the place. There may even be some honor in it. When you think about it, that might be a wonderful name for a church in these day.s The Church of the Burst Wineskin. A church that falls apart trying to get it right might not be a failure at all. It just might be a part of the larger story of what God is doing in this world. If we have learned anything, it’s not about an individual church’s external success but the advancement of the kingdom of God.

5 Must-Read Statements on the Church

This past week, I spoke at Kaleo, our Thursday night young adults gathering at Eastbrook, overviewing 1 Corinthians. I shared a quotation on dealing with disillusionment within the church from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His book Life Together is, in my opinion, the best book written on the nature of true community in the church. Here are 5 must-read statements on  the Church from Bonhoeffer:

  • “Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world.” [26-27]
  • “Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.” [27]
  • “Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together – the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.” [28]
  • “If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even where there is not great experience, not discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so paltry and petty, so far from what we expected, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow according to the measure and riches which are there for us all in Jesus Christ.” [29]
  • “A pastor should not complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him in order that he should become its accuser before God and men….Let him pray God for an understanding of his own failure and his particular sin, and pray that he may not wrong his brethren. Let him, in consciousness of his own guilt, make intercession for his brethren.” [29-30]

[These quotations are taken from John W. Doberstein’s classic translation of Life Together. A more recent translation with thorough annotations and a helpful introduction is found in Volume 5 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works.]

The Church: A Multi-Ethnic, Kingdom-Oriented Community

Church Vision Series GFX_16x9 Title.pngThis past weekend at Eastbrook Church, I continued a two-part reflection on the nature of the church. My working title for this series is “The Multi-Everything Church,” which is an outworking of our vision to become a Revelation 7:9-10 type of church with attention to some other aspects beyond multi-ethnicity.

Following last weekend’s message on the church as an intergenerational family, this weekend I looked at two more important aspects of the church, first as a multi-ethnic community and second as a kingdom-oriented community.

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.

Read More »

The Weekend Wanderer: 8 September 2018

The Weekend Wanderer” is a weekly curated selection of news, stories, resources, and media on the intersection of faith and culture for you to explore through your weekend. Wander through these links however you like and in any order you like.

 

pew-846021_640“Why Evangelicals Should Care More About Ecclesiology” – At the Mere Orthodoxy web-site, Tish Harrison Warren writes about the crisis in evangelical integrity and moral leadership highlighted by the current political divides and failures of pastoral leaders. What I appreciate about Warren’s article is the way in which she connects this failure with a tendency within evangelicalism to become enamored with celebrity leadership while simultaneously not paying attention to the “boring” institutional necessities that sustain the life of the church.

 

d4e13e1c5865740384133e7da6be19“The rising political power of Evangelicals in Latin America” – This is old news with a new twist as evangelicals continue to have rising influence within Latin America, including in the political sphere. “It would seem that the reach of these religious organisations in Latin America is not only expanding in terms of the number of followers but also in terms of their influence on government policy. The various Evangelical churches are seeing rising electoral support for their moral conservatism.”

 

macarthur.jpeg“The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” – John MacArthur has been at the center of a series of debates on social justice and the gospel culminating in The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel. More than 4,000 evangelicals have joined MacArthur, and others like Voddie Baucham and Douglas Wilson, in signing this statement, which equates the emphasis upon social justice within the evangelical church as a cultural distortion on theological and a misunderstanding of the gospel. This seem at least in part to be a reaction to the works of Tim Keller (see his Generous Justice), Matt Chandler, Thabiti Anyabwile and others within conservative evangelicalism who have been calling for engagement in justice and racial reconciliation as an overflow of living in the gospel. Underlying it all is a deep divide about the nature of the gospel and the life to which it calls us as a response. Jemar Tisby has a word of advice about how to respond to the ministries of those who signed this statement: “avoid them.” Ryan Burton King outlines why he cannot sign this statement, even though he was invited to do so.

 

02allen-superJumbo“The Biblical Guide to Reporting” – In an OpEd in The New York Times, Marshall Allen reflects on how his Christian faith has helped him become a better journalist. “The editor scowled and said, ‘So what makes you think that a Christian can be a good journalist?’ He emphasized ‘Christian’ as if it was some kind of slur. I liked that he spoke his mind, but I was taken aback. I explained what I saw as a natural progression from the ministry to muckraking, pointing out that both are valid ways of serving a higher cause. The Bible endorses telling the truth, without bias. So does journalism. The Bible commands honesty and integrity. In journalism, your reputation is your main calling card with sources and readers. Obviously, many people have succeeded as reporters without strong religious beliefs. But I told him my faith had made me a better, more determined journalist. He replied with a noncommittal grunt. But I got the job.” [Thanks to Makoto Fujimura for sharing this article.]

 

ct-aretha-franklin-funeral-eulogy-reaction-201-001“Old-school eulogy at Aretha Franklin’s funeral ignites social media backlash” – Aretha Franklin’s funeral received a lot of attention but it seems to have turned a little too “old school” than many desired when Rev. Jasper Williams, Jr., stepped up for the eulogy. Speaking for roughly 50 minutes, Rev. Williams’ statement that “black America has lost its soul” received intense backlash on social media and other outlets. While it seems as if a lot of people feel like America has last its soul these days, the real problem is that we don’t know what a soul is anymore and what to do with it if we discovered we actually had one.

 

Carl Jung“From Myers Briggs to the Love Languages: the renaissance of the personality test” – I know a lot of people who are obsessed with personality tests, as well as a whole range of other personal assessments. I have subjected myself to many of them over the years, sometimes finding aspects helpful, but oftentimes feeling like I don’t really want to be put in a box like that. If you think that is just an INTJ talking, then maybe you should read Sarah Manavis’ article about how personality tests, in some way, have a renewed attraction because they become a personal gospel by which we can justify the way in which we live our lives. [Thanks to Micah Mattix for sharing this in the Daily Prufrock.]

 

the first testamentThe First Testament: A New Translation by John Goldingay” – Old Testament scholar John Goldingay brings us a new translation of the Hebrew Bible. “Most translations bend the text toward us. They make the rough places smooth, the odd bits more palatable to our modern sensibilities. In every translation something is gained and something lost. In The First Testament: A New Translation, John Goldingay interrupts our sleepy familiarity with the Old Testament. He sets our expectations off balance by inviting us to hear the strange accent of the Hebrew text. We encounter the sinewed cadences of the Hebrew Bible, its tics and its textures. Translating words consistently, word by word, allows us to hear resonances and see the subtle figures stitched into the textual carpet. In a day of white-bread renderings of the Bible, here is a nine-grain translation with no sugar or additives. In The First Testament the language of Zion comes to us unbaptized in pious religiosity. Familiar terms such as salvation, righteousness, and holiness are avoided. We cock our ears to listen more carefully, to catch the intonations and features we had not caught before.”

 

wessex“Medieval Tiles Unearthed at Bath Abbey” – “A team from Wessex Archaeology has uncovered brightly decorated 700-year-old floor tiles during excavations at Bath Abbey, according to a Somerset Live report. The abbey has been a religious center for well over 1,000 years, and the current Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul—completed in the seventeenth century—is a renowned example of gothic architecture. The tiles, however, provide a glimpse into an earlier Norman cathedral at the site that was constructed in the eleventh century but fell into decay in the late Middle Ages, and lay in ruins by 1500.”

 

C3PO-R2D2-header“The 100 Greatest Movie Robots of All Time” – Okay, this has little to do with anything other than fun. Why not traipse through the history of film searching for the greatest robots of them all? Sure, there are a lot of reasons not to spend your time on this article, but it might just be entertaining to see who else appears on the list, other than C-3PO, R2-D2, Hal, and the Borg.

[I do not necessarily agree with all the views expressed within the articles linked from this page, but I have read them myself in order to make me think more deeply.]