7 Reasons Evangelicals Must Become The Most Tolerant Group In Culture.

MB PostsIn the current lexicon the word “tolerant” is about as loaded as a pub-hopping Irishman on St. Paddy’s Day. It’s the brave new litmus test that discerns whether one is an enlightened and understanding citizen, or an outdated bigot who deserves to be branded with an “ic” or “ist” tacked onto the back of some culturally untouchable word. Because of this, I need to take a moment to unpack how I’m using the word. I will do this by differentiating between new and true tolerance.

The “new tolerance,” as DA Carson christened it, is the pervading cultural pressure to affirm the beliefs and behaviors of others, provided those beliefs and behaviors are legal, consensual and/or harmless to the majority. Now, much of this definition I am prepared to live by, with the exception of the pivotal word, “affirm”. See, I expect my culture to engage in things that I sometimes find to be wrong. Equally, I expect my culture to look upon some of my beliefs and behaviors the same way. That is the nature of a democratic and multicultural society. But to impose the added requirement of affirmation is a game changer.

Lexically the idea of affirmation is an artificial addition and has nothing to do with the “true tolerance.” The Oxford Dictionary defines “tolerant” as, “Showing willingness to allow the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.” Based on this, tolerance is actually what is required of a person when they specifically do not support something. At best, tolerance asks us to respectfully co-exist with differences we do not affirm for the sake of civility and discourse.

Thus for the evangelical, true tolerance does not require unfiltered affirmation of beliefs or behaviors the Bible calls sinful, but it does require a relational acceptance of all people in the hope that the transforming grace of the gospel will penetrate their lives. In this sense evangelicals must rise up as the most truly tolerant group in culture for seven reasons:

1. Because We Must Compensate For Our Crazy Drunk Uncles.

Do you have a crazy uncle? He shows up at Thanksgiving wild-eyed, outspoken,a bubble off center and guzzling Pabst Blue Ribbon like a camel on empty at a desert oasis. In the media it seems they often manage to find evangelicalism’s crazy drunk uncle to give airtime to. The result is that many who are not evangelicals think the crazy evangelical who made it as a sound bite on “The Daily Show” is how all evangelicals think and act.

I recently experienced this firsthand when a group of people automatically assumed that since I am an evangelical pastor I hate the president, despise the gay community, watch Fox News, listen to Rush Limbaugh and carry a gun. That last point is true; the rest is not. I don’t tune in to Fox News or Rush Limbaugh. I believe the president to be a well-intended man in a very difficult position. I care about the gay community as I do the rest of my culture. And as to the gun I carry, I don’t do it to make a point at Target, and I am not a member of the NRA. This doesn’t mean I agree or disagree with everything on Fox News, from Rush Limbaugh, by President Obama, in the gay community or about gun rights, but in the spirit of true tolerance I don’t need to. Rather I need to know how to graciously relate Jesus to all the views that swirl around me even regardless of whether I agree or disagree.

Only by going out of our way to establish caring friendships, so as to show people something beyond one-dimensional caricatures, will they begin to see real life evangelicals differently than our crazy drunk uncle TV pundits.

2. Because We Are To Be Tolerant, Just As God Is Tolerant.

Romans 2:4 says, “Don’t you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can’t you see that His kindness is intended to turn you from your sin?” (NLT). Every day that Jesus does not return is another massive global tolerance campaign. If it’s good enough for Jesus to be tolerant it’s good enough for those of us who follow Jesus. And the reason for the tolerance is profoundly missional; it’s intended to see people turn from their sins. Therefore, sitting on the other side of a cultural fence lobbing condemnations and frustrations will never be as effective as crossing the fence in the spirit of godly kindness in the hopes of seeing someone we love come to repentance.

3. Because We Need To Be Understanding To Reach The Unbelieving.

I think about Paul at Mars Hill. His first reaction upon reaching Athens was nothing short of disgust. It says in Acts 17:16 that when he saw the sheer scope of idols flocking the city “his spirit was provoked within him.” (ESV). The word “provoked” really doesn’t cut it here. The original Greek word paroxyno is where we get paroxysm, “a sudden attack or violent expression of a particular emotion or activity.” When people looked at Paul that day he had a gag reflex kicking in with a nervous twitch flapping over one eye. That is, until he recalled that this city didn’t know any better. They were doing exactly what they knew how to do because no one had shown them anything different. From this Paul downshifts and begins to relate to the people of the city. He begins to compliment them, speak their cultural language, and even quote from one of the very altars that caused him to flip his phylactery a few days earlier. In doing so he has no intention of selling out (as verses 31-32 eventually shows with the words such as repent and judgment), rather he is pressing in. Ultimately Paul chose suffering long, in the hopes of seeing others rescued from suffering forever.

4. Because We Have To Model What Actual Tolerance Is.

The new tolerance is as hypocritical as a chain-smoking dad busting his kid for sneaking a cigarette. It’s a selective acceptance that tolerates only what it affirms and stands rigidly intolerant to those who disagree. And those who advocate the new tolerance are not spending a great deal of time encouraging one another to love those who disagree with them. Just follow some of the recent trends in the media and you will see exactly how the new tolerance treats those who hold a different vision of the world. The exercise of true tolerance is branded as intolerance, which in turn solicits, even demands, banishment or shaming as the appropriate response.

For evangelicalism, however, part of our core command is to love our neighbor. We are reminded perpetually of the need to love people right where they are. To invest in those whom we may disagree with, to turn the other cheek when provoked and to even do good to an all out enemy. I realize we have not always done this well. Far too often we have slipped into imposed morality or personal offense, but we must continue to encourage one another in what the Bible commands of us toward those who don’t believe or behave as we do.This is true tolerance; it is the tolerance that evangelicals are the best at displaying and we must continue to model this more than ever in a culture that is losing the spirit of true diversity.

5. Because We Already Acknowledge Our Own Sinful Short Comings.

Evangelicals believe they are saved, grown and completed by gospel grace alone. It is a faith of walking shoes, not work boots. Thus when evangelicalism begins to sound chiefly like a religion of morality, we missed a turn somewhere. We know we don’t earn our standing before God; rather we follow the One who earned that standing for us – Jesus. Because our salvation is only by the grace of God, we should humbly be aware of our own sins, our various faults and our continued weakness. This is exactly why tolerance is necessary. Paul himself even says in Colossians 3, “12 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 13 bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (ESV). True tolerance doesn’t excuse sin, but it understands the struggle with sin, comes alongside in gentleness and points to the grace that can free and refresh. A good, honest look at the sinner in the mirror, coupled with gratitude for God’s grace, helps us to love the sinner across the street in true tolerance.

6. Because We Are The Ones Who Can Maintain The Importance Of Both Tolerance And Repentance.

The new tolerance seeks to free people from their sins by telling them their sins are not sinful. It is humanities’ attempt to save itself from its sins through the gospel of anesthetization. Yet the only road to abundant life passes through the door of repentance and grace. This is where evangelicals have the perfect combination. In true tolerance we can connect with people in a way that displays legitimate acceptance and love, but not at the cost of sharing the enduring message of God’s love that can forgive people of their sins and produce in them the life that excusing sin will never produce.

7. Because We Believe Only The Gospel Can Change People.

Culture wars are not for evangelicals. Every culture war has a deeper root that is the real war, and that root is sin. Not sins, but the actual cause, the nature of sin itself, Original Sin. Therefore to think that culture is the war is like battling the fever to cure the cancer. The real conflict is internal, supernatural, generational and trans cultural. It is a war that invades every layer of life in every person’s life, thus nothing done through the means of this world can change our deepest problem. Only an invasion from outside this world can change the sin of this world…

Which is why God sent Jesus.
Which is why Jesus received the Cross.
Which is why the Spirit raised Jesus.
Which is why Jesus sent the Spirit to testify of Himself and God.

God invaded our broken sphere in the person of Jesus to bring true transformation through the Spirit. Therefore…

Only the Gospel can confront our cultural sins.
Only the Gospel can restore our cultural soul.
Only the Church carries the Gospel that can change the culture we are called to love in the true tolerance of God.

The Best Way To Create A Family Friendly Church Service Is To Stop Having A Biblically Committed One.

MB PostsYears ago I was on a return flight from a conference in California. I was early onto the flight so I buckled up, settled in and popped open my Bible. It was a risky move in that it opened up the possibility for conversation, something I very much wanted to avoid on this flight. A Bible in 8B can act as a beacon of invitation for a sweet older Christian in 8A who sees your Good Book as a good opportunity to bend your ear about church potlucks and her quilting for Jesus club. Or even worse, you might end up with a Dispensationalist in 8C who wants to know what you think about blood moons, the Trilateral Commission and Nicolas Cage starring in “The Left Behind” movie. It was risky, but I had some things on my mind and needed to do a little cross checking.

As I read, a distinguished older gentleman hoisted his bag into the compartment above and then settled in next to me. I could sense his head tilting to glance over at my reading material. For roughly 5 minutes he did this until his eastern European accent cut the air, “You are reading a Bible, yes?” Hoping to maintain a cone of silence and dissuade any further conversation I simply nodded. “I’m Jewish. I know this book. It is a dirty and vile work.” With those words the cone of silence evaporated.

“Really!” I thought. “Of all the people you could have placed next to me, Jesus, you put a Nazi-era Jewish European who thinks the Bible is ‘dirty’ and ‘vile’.” At a slight loss for an opening sentence, I simply burped one of those awkward chuckle-coughs and mumbled, “Really?”

“Oh yes, it is the darkest least moral book in the world.” Now at this point I figured he was going to elaborate on how it has started wars, fostered slavery, blamed his people for the death of Jesus or segregated people groups. Instead, I found that his thesis was a bit more content driven.

“It opens violent. The world is chaos. Then God tears everything apart to make day and night, land and sea. He then makes people where sex and domination are their first commands. It starts with violence and sex. It’s dirty.” I confess this was not the answer I saw coming. In fact, it’s an answer I had never even considered before.

“Interesting… I’ve never seen it that way.”

With a kind sincerity he looked at me and said, “How could you miss it? It keeps going like that. They are naked in a garden. Their son kills their other son. After that God destroys the world due to wicked people. All those animals die because of people. It’s very very violent. God telling people to kill men, women, children and even the pregnant women for land. You see men having sex with their slaves and grotesque animal sacrifices. Even Solomon writes a book on how to have sex – it’s a pornographic book.”

Awkwardly I responded, “Well that’s why I’m more of a New Testament guy.”

“Oh, the New Testament! I’m Jewish; I do not know it so well, but I do know it says Jesus was crucified for sins. That is a very violent way to forgive. I also know Jesus said He will send people to eternal torture if they don’t believe in Him. That is both violent and cruel.” He then paused for a brief moment, leaned in and said in a whisper, “The Bible should never be taught to children. It is not for kids. That is why Christians change the stories so much, to make them friendly for their families.” With that he simply patted me on the forearm and said, “Thank you for the talk. I think I will rest. Enjoy your book.”

This 15-minute interaction happened over 20 years ago, but I never forgot the importance. While I didn’t agree with this man’s extreme articulation, I did agree that the Bible is not exactly a family-friendly book and to make it so does violence to what God has revealed. Think about it. Even the “kids’ stories” of Adam and Eve, Noah and The Flood, David and Goliath or Jesus and The Apostles are at some juncture R-Rated stories if accurately and fully told. Even the moral parts that would be construed as most family friendly are usually set against a backdrop that is not. For example, if you want your kids to memorize the 10 Commandments you are going to have to get into swearing, murder and sex. Aside from these popular examples, the entire narrative of the Bible is dealing with the problem of sin, rebellion and wickedness and how God solves that through Jesus, the Cross and His Word.

From all of this I see that the only way to be truly family friendly in a Sunday service is to redact much of the R-Rated Bible in order to make the whole experience more acceptable for a G-Rated expectation. Yet this fails our commission. Our calling is not to decide what we think is appropriate in the Bible, but to communicate the full council of God. We are not free to be editors, but proclaimers. We don’t possess the authority to write or erase the mail; we merely deliver it as it is. Now, I know that sometimes God’s mail makes us squirm, gets uneasy or even downright feels offensive, but not nearly as much as the sin it’s combating. Sin makes the Truth, even the ugly Truth, necessary. And as Christians move forward in the hopes of reclaiming a family-friendly world I pray it begins by embracing the fullness of the not so family-friendly, though always family-preserving, Bible.

Confessions: I Want To Preach Like A Reject

MB PostsFor a couple years one of the all-consuming sins I struggled with was that I wanted people to like me. They didn’t need to like every part of me, or even most of me. I wasn’t looking for a group of friends. No, I was looking for something far more specific. I wanted a congregation of fans. I wanted a people who loved preacher me. I wanted to assemble a crowd who would promote “Pastor Matt Inc.” because, well frankly, I wanted to be a brand. Deep down inside I aspired to become a name among the big names. I imagined being the next new funny, edgy, creative, insightful and provocative preacher. In short, I was using Jesus while praying, “Jesus, I want to be used.” In fact, my wife even confronted me on this more than once with the simple loving phrase, “Matt, I worry that you’re good enough at this that you don’t need Jesus, and that’s a problem.”

Now at the time I would push back on her. I didn’t want to recognize the validity of her insight. She was probing a bit too deep. Tenaciously I would argue how my actions were not about me. It was all about reaching the lost. But over the years a few honest stares in the mirror have humbled me to the point where I can now confess these things openly. In fact, to my shame, I would admit that my want of notoriety even caused me to abandon some of my doctrinal roots so I could “win the more” through my ability to win their will. From this, reaching people to be my listeners became more important than proclaiming Jesus so He could have His followers. This isn’t to say that I failed to preach the name of Jesus each Sunday, but the person of Jesus was driven through a filter designed to collect people more than confront sin. He was a therapeutic hipster Jesus who looked a lot like Bono, and I was going to ride His novelty to my celebrity. At least that was the unfolding plan until the devastating grace of God crushed my emergent pride.

The story of how everything changed is too long to share here, but the condensed version is that I was run through by the very doctrines I believed would produce celebrity: and what a beautiful execution it was. It restored in me an addiction for the grace, love, holiness, truth and sovereignty of God. As I looked anew upon the magnitude of Jesus, my lust for recognition began to extinguish. From this I was recharged with a determination, not for my renown, nor for our church’s growth, but to make Jesus fully known even if that meant everything else came to nothing. With fresh fire I was renewed to preach, not the Jesus people wanted, but the Jesus people needed. And the difference between the two is colossal.

One seeks a savior who loves me with my sins, the other is a Savior who saves me from my sins.

One resides on a stool alongside my throne, the other offers His throne through the surrender of mine.

One makes the offer that you can pick and choose what you want to follow, the other says you must pick Whom you will choose to follow.

The former is “a Jesus” as we want to reconstruct Him, the latter is Jesus as He has revealed Himself to be.

What the Holy Spirit thrust upon my heart is that the opportunity to proclaim the worth and excellence of Christ is in itself the reward. We see this was the same impetus in the call of Isaiah. Imagine this poor guy when he’s commissioned to preach. God rolls in and says, “I want you to go and preach to a people who won’t pay any attention. You will be known as the dude no one wants to know. You will be the preacher everyone wishes would just shut-up. Your church will be the size of pool party in Greenland. In short Isaiah, you will be a reject.” Think about that. There is, from the outset, no hope given to Isaiah that there would be national repentance. Before he is even boots on the ground he is guaranteed an anti-revival. I don’t know too many pastors who would take that gig. In fact I’m not certain Isaiah would have taken it on except for what happened.

So what seized upon Isaiah’s spirit and overcame the weight of guaranteed rejection? It was the overwhelming vision of God’s holy and gracious glory!

1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim… And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!”

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.”

Like Isaiah, it is only when we are found in God’s presence, looking upon His Holiness and experiencing the full measure of His atoning grace that our lust for recognition is vanquished with the compulsion to proclaim the excellence of His glory, and not even the guarantee of rejection can stop it.

To preach like a reject means to not be enslaved by a fear of rejection.

To preach like a reject means to not be detoured by the absence of a following.

To preach like a reject means to not be moved aside by the absence of moving ahead.

To preach like a reject means to preach Jesus for the sheer joy of Jesus.

Oh Lord, may we not preach to solicit the acceptance of men, to fulfill the want of celebrity or to fulfill our church growth idolatry, but only to proclaim the glory of Your grace revealed in the Person of Your Son Jesus. May we preach with the conviction of a reject who is incapable of human acquiescence for we are made alive by the vision of Your majesty.

Don’t Mistake Liking Church For Loving Jesus

MB PostsI recently met with a colleague who was sharing with me the focus of their church. With enthusiasm he said, “We’re not like most churches. We’re going after the people no one else is going after by creating a church that the unchurched love to attend.” The strategy he espoused wasn’t particularly novel. It reminded me of a time years ago when a buddy of mine invited me to attend  a meeting of “World Wide Dream Builders”. After 5 minutes I asked, “Is this going to be an Amway thing?” “No” he said, “It’s totally different. It’s Amway 2.0.” In talking with this pastor it felt like that conversation. I was hearing how it was unlike most churches, but it sounded like Willow Creek rebooted. In that sense it didn’t really seem to be unusual at all. Aside from this I know of a number of churches in the area that are employing the same strategy since it’s documented in a popular book that bears the same subtitle. In fact, as the discussion unfolded, he pointed me to that very book as the source of their philosophy. I have not had the time to make my way through the entire book and so my thoughts here are in no way those of a reviewer. Rather it was the premise alone that has bounced around in my head like a hyperactive 8th grader jacked up on NoDoz and Red Bull.

Initially I was intrigued by the idea of creating churches unchurched people would love to attend. After all the church should have a burden to reconnoiter its surroundings with the intent of embedding the message of Jesus and His Bible. In fact, I would go so far as to say every church should be unapologetic when it comes to leveraging whatever tools, tendencies or familiarities necessary to connect Jesus’s Message to the surrounding Culture. And yet as I continued to work over the implications of “creating churches the unchurched love to attend” my initial warmth chilled to a Fargo January dressed in brass boxers.

Now, to be fair, I believe we should seek to utilize culturally familiar ideas in order to bridge biblical concepts to the unchurched. For example, in the church I’m a part of we occasionally use secular music, video clips, props, humor and other socially familiar forms to help communicate the biblical message. We do this so that the unchurched can better understand whatever section of the Bible or theological topic we are going through, but in a way that is culturally relatable. In this sense our focus is, “creating a biblically centered church the unchurched can understand.” There is no guarantee they will like or agree with what is preached since we strive to preach whatever the text is saying regardless of its potential receptivity, but we call it “a win” if they understand what is being proclaimed.

If, however, the ideology of “creating a church the unchurched love to attend” is the top tier purpose of our strategy, the net effect may be a model that considers the interests of hopeful attenders above the instructions of the Founding Initiator. For it appears that inextricably laced within the premise is the idea that success is measured directly by how much people – who don’t like church – begin to love church.

So to grapple with this for a moment let’s strip it down to a more general concept. Generally speaking, how do we usually get people who don’t love something to love it? One method is to give them more of the thing that is loved (Example: My step-mom kept giving me eggplant until I learned to enjoy it.). The other method is to remove what people don’t love and replace it with something they do. The difference between the two is night and day; the former teaches people to love the thing that you love, while the latter loves people at the cost of the very thing you want them to love. Now plug this back into our church philosophy premise. When it comes to a church creating an environment “unchurched people love to attend,” the first casualty will be anything that they say is an impediment to them loving to attend. Therefore, at the root of this ideology is the need to remove themes, messages or expectations the unchurched may not love and in their place incorporate themes, messages or expectations they enjoy. It’s the ultimate case of the unchurched tail wagging the church dog.

For now, it appears that the model is successful since there are a handful of good themes the unchurched enjoy. Many people who may be cold to church are nonetheless warm to self-improvement regarding marriage, family, communication, conflict resolution, sex, money and occupation. As a result, such themes can be marketed and deployed by churches year after year because they are inoffensively therapeutic. But what are we to do if the day comes where the Bible’s message on good themes is frowned upon by the unchurched? Does the goal remain figuring out how to create churches they love? And how far are we to go in accommodating unchurched expectations? Some practitioners will answer, “We would draw a line if we needed to start denying what the Bible says.” Really? I would like to bank on that, but in all candor it seems that a soft form of denial has already been underway long before it was imposed. It began the day a church willfully embraced selective censorship for the sake of unchurched appetites. If a church proactively adopts an omission mandate when it is merely concerned that the unchurched may be turned off, what will it do when it is altogether guaranteed?

My deeper concern however isn’t that this model may be pacing itself into a biblical showdown. Nor is it that it may mistake the concept of becoming numerically successful with the mandate to be biblically faithful. The real kernel of my apprehension is that it may foster an attitude by which it’s assumed by all parties, “If people like church they love Jesus.” In reality however, there may be a substantial disconnect between who Jesus is and what makes a church loveable to the unchurched. For example, many of the themes churches are using to help the unchurched love attending church are not anchored directly in the core message or subsequent messages of Jesus.

The “7 Themes ‘A Seeker-Focused Church’ Knows The Unchurched Love To Hear” are typically:

  • Marriage
  • Parenting
  • Communication
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Sex
  • Money
  • Occupation

Many churches that are focused on leveraging Sunday as primarily an outreach venue will see these seven as the wheelhouse. Yet the content of those seven themes is not often rooted in what Jesus actually said in relationship to them. It’s more often 35 minutes of soft psychology (where a specialist, therapist or author is referenced more than Jesus), a moving story, a homework assignment for personal improvement (create a date night, have sex twice a week, try giving 1% and see what happens, etc) and perhaps three loosely invoked verses so as to maintain the title “sermon.” It is just enough of the Good Book to feel like church, but not so much that the unchurched would feel too confronted by the Bad News that gives them a need for the Good News. From this, one could, in all reality, love church because it’s “relevant” for their life, but then resist Jesus when they realize what He really says and seeks.

Think about the simplest form of the Good News in the four Gospels. Jesus’ “Big Idea” of relevant life change was like swallowing a horse pill with an Arizona case of cottonmouth.

“23 If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Luke 9:23-26 (ESV)

That is the unequivocal Gospel of Jesus in less than 100 words. And from that the question becomes, “Is this the message the unchurched hear when they attend churches they love?” It should be, because that is the only message that saves. And notice it’s not just, “Jesus died for you.” Letting people know that Jesus died for them is only half the Gospel. The message of first importance is, “Jesus died for sinful you. And to follow Him means you are dying to yourself and embracing who He is and everything He says.” In other words, to love Jesus means to love the truth that:

  • Jesus is God who came, died and rose.
  • Jesus is the only way to heaven and apart from Him there is only the separation of hell.
  • Jesus invites us to die to ourselves by repenting of our sin and self-focus.
  • Jesus warns us of a life that will bring more challenge than ease.
  • Jesus calls us to love Him by obeying everything He has said regardless if it is personally helpful or hurtful. (Note: Jesus did speak to all 7 Themes above, but His message on those does not promote well in a land where the great idols is “personal happiness.”)
  • Jesus expects that everything He said we will protect, promote and pursue.

If people only love the loveable words of Jesus, they don’t actually love Jesus.

If pastors only preach the loveable words of Jesus, they may never know if people have been given the opportunity to love (or reject) everything Jesus loves.

If leaders seek to love unchurched people only by creating churches they love to attend, we may be failing to love them fully by failing to cultivate a church that above all else – Jesus loves to attend.

 

An Interview On “10 Things Pastors Hate To Admit Publicly.”

RoRHere is a link to an interview I did this last week with my UW Professor buddy Tony Gill at Research On Religion. It is a more personal reflection on the “10 Things Pastors Hate To Admit Publicly.”

I encourage everyone to check out Tony’s podcast. He hits a niche aspect on religious studies that many advocates of religion do not have the opportunity to highlight in a more neutral capacity.

The 10 Things I Try To Do To Be Sanctified By The 10 Things I Hate To Admit.

MB PostsRight now I feel a bit like the final season of Seinfeld. I started this blog a month ago and now its peaked. I should drop the mic and walk away since it’s all downhill from here.

I am blown away by the viral nature of the previous post. When I decided to put it out there I figured at best it might receive a couple hundred views, not 165,000 in a week. It struck a deeper cord than I could ever imagine. From this I have now heard from countless pastors (along with spouses or kids) who feel a sense of silent solidarity. To know you’re not alone is a powerful counter-force to the isolation the Enemy labors to impose on those called to pastoral service.

Reflecting back on the post I was reminded of how articulating a problem is much easier than offering solutions. Perhaps this is why even the dumbest dude in the room can still effectively play “The Devil’s Advocate.” Critique is always easier to produce than clarity since the latter requires reflection while the former is shot from the hip in about the same amount of time it takes a frat guy to slam a Bud Lite and belch.

The other difficulty is that sometimes the solutions offered come across as Sunday school platitudes without a practical map for very real challenges. In comments to the post there were a few individuals who were quick to remind me, in some variant form, that, “It’s Christ’s Church NOT YOURS so you should get out of the way.” Thanks Sherlocks for Jesus! We know that. In fact we can go a step further and say, “It’s Jesus’ Universe and we should all get out of the way.” In reality however we all seem to perennially get in the way with fear, worry, anxiety, pride, fatigue, bitterness, control, idolatry and the like. We live a bipolar existence where the Spirit leads in one direction and the flesh snaps our head around. It’s this spiritual whiplash that is the essence of our fallen plight.

Therefore while I would love to title this follow-up, “The 10 Solutions To The 10 Things Pastors Hate To Admit Publicly.” the reality is that only the Resurrection will accomplish that task. Now does that mean we just throw our hands in the air with an apathetic, “Well that sucks!”? We can, but it’s not a very fruitful way to move forward: for while we may never eradicate every insecurity in life, we can be sanctified through every situation of life.

So with a more personal perspective here are “The 10 Things I Try To Do To Be Sanctified By The 10 Things I Hate To Admit.”

#1. When People Leave I Try To Remind Myself Of What I Know.

Early on in ministry people would leave the church and it would hit me for weeks or even months. This was especially the case when it was people who were particularly close to me or mission critical to the church. But what I have learned over the course of time is that those feelings always evaporate. Therefore now days when someone leaves I just say to myself, “Matt… down the road you know this isn’t going to bother you, so how about you just take that bridge right over there and get over it.” I know that may sound a bit trivial, but it really works for me. Now days when someone leaves for what I perceive to be a lame reason (and honestly some are unequivocally lame reasons) it only bothers me for about a day. When it happens I remind myself, “You won’t be irritated by this tomorrow so just get through today. Look at everyone who is still here and focus on reaching those who are yet to be here.”

#2. When Feeling Pressure To Perform I Try To Resist The Chase.

Now days I can discern when this lure is slipping through the water because I feel a sudden urgency to ramp up for wrong reasons. As soon as I start thinking we need a newer, bigger, louder, cooler, funnier (fill in the blank) because the church down the street just introduced something – I intentionally slow down. I kill the chase on the spot because I know the chase will be a waste of resources fueled by ego. If however I think we need a newer, bigger, louder, cooler, funnier (fill in the blank) so we can advance the Kingdom for Jesus – I proactively ramp up. The difference is an honest look in the mirror to see whether I’m chasing to compete with men or creating to please Jesus. The latter fills me up and makes ministry exciting, the former stresses me out and makes it exhausting.

As a side note: If the church you’re in sits in the shadow of a mega-church, don’t drive yourself crazy trying to match up (unless Jesus has specifically called you to that style of ministry). I say that because Chucky Cheese is cool, until it’s next door to Disneyland and then it’s just cute.

#3. When Struggling To Get My Worth From Ministry I Try To Elevate The People Around Me.

Sin at its core is a deep lustful gaze upon the self. Thus when I am not experiencing a sense of worth from ministry I have two options. The first is to get everything around me to make much of me and perform to my expectations. The second is to look away from me and to make much of those who are around me. It’s much harder to focus on my own disappointments if I’m attempting to celebrate others’ accomplishments.

#4. When I’m Seriously Thinking About Quitting I Try To Quit For A Couple Of Weeks.

I don’t literally submit my resignation, but I step back and take a 2-3 week break. My reasoning is that if after a couple of weeks I’m dreading going back, then I may need to seriously consider an occupational change. The team around me nor the church will be healthy for very long if I don’t really want to be there. In my case what I have found is that my love of pastoral ministry begins to outweigh the hardships or frustrations I may be experiencing. After a week I become antsy without an outlet. I begin to tinker with a sermon idea, ministry issue or some other pastoral curiosity. In other words I find I can’t do anything else because I don’t want to do anything else.

#5. When Tempted To Be Transparent I Try To Remain Opaque.

Yes you read that right. I believe opaque is healthy for pastors and their families. We are called to a higher standard and because of that we automatically face higher scrutiny. This was no secret going in and to resent that fact may invite more burden than we want or need. Now we don’t have to like it. We can think people are critical for it. Some individuals are demonically abusive with it. But we still need to accept it.

Aside from this is the reality that we are – by the nature of our calling – leaders. This anticipates that we show no anxiety even when fearful: display strength even when worn. It’s simply part of the job that shepherds remain composed so sheep feel secure.

Ultimately I seek to be genuinely transparent to the degree that people know my life is very much like theirs, but also opaque enough so that they don’t wonder if the craziest guy in the asylum is running the joint.

What this doesn’t mean is that we should seek to be opaque with everyone. I am very transparent with a core of friends, all of whom are actually in the church I’m a part of. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, I have opted for the deepest transparency with the people I spend the majority of my ministry time with. I’m not saying that is a great rule for everyone, but I have been blessed to be a part of a church that is remarkably receptive regarding pastoral humanness while maintaining a clear biblical expectation of leaders.

#6. When Driven By The Numbers I Try To Stop Counting.

Since it’s birth our church has taken weekly attendance. I have not looked at the totals once in those 2 1/2 years. At one point numbers became my idol, so I dethroned the idol by ditching the metrics. Others on our team keep track of these things because that is not their idol, but they kindly don’t share that information with me. Now can I tell generally when things seem to be on the incline or decline? Sure. Does that general perception still mess with me from time to time? Absolutely. Right now we are in a growth phase so I’m in a “good mood.” When it seems like we are in decline I can get discouraged (for both godly and ungodly reasons). But not being bound to the numbers is personally liberating.

On the same front I want to stress that to not care about numbers is as potentially sinful as being motivated by them. Dr. Luke was all about celebrating the numbers as was Moses and Nehemiah. If the numbers are Jesus’ numbers, I should rejoice. If the numbers are my numbers, I must repent.

#7. When Feeling Discouraged I Try To Hang With A Pastor Who Has It Tougher Than Me.

In my opinion no pastor has it tougher than a solo or bi-vocational pastor. In that situation one must serve as a spiritual Heptathlete; mastering preaching, visiting, counseling, budgeting, marketing, marrying/burying and inevitably cleaning the church as well. It’s a lonely service, requiring a ton of output, often with minimal return on investment. These are my hero pastors and the kind I try to spend time with when I’m down.

I do this because sometimes when I’m discouraged it’s a grave case of “first world problems: church edition.” I get bummed because I wish…

  • we could hire a fourth pastor to strengthen our small groups.
  • we could have our own building for better control over environment.
  • we could have $400,000 of surplus in the bank since $135,000 is just not enough flexibility for our current “needs.”

Boo-Flipp’n-Hoo right! Then I go and spend time with a hard working faithful Heptathlete for Jesus whose tireless investment probably brings a bigger smile to Jesus than anything I’ve done in a decade. After that I am remarkably grateful for what Jesus has allowed me to be a part of.

Obviously there are other times where discouragement is far more legitimate and deep. In those circumstances I find a seasoned pastor (65+) who is active or retired with at least 40+ years of ministry under his belt. Those dudes have weathered it all. Three hours with a Jedi Master like that offers a perspective unmatched by a conference or leadership book.

A final aspect to this one is that I immerse myself in the Psalms. When I see how jacked-up David’s life was and yet he still managed to praise God it always makes me feel better.

#8. When I Worry About What The Church May Think I Try To Pray For Them More Than Myself.

There has been more than a few times where I have given an announcement I didn’t want to make, preached a passage I would have desired to skip or released a pastor that many would prefer we keep. Every one of those circumstances makes me uneasy. Therefore in those times I pray for strength, not for myself but for the church since they are the ones who suddenly receive something without warning. It would be terribly self-absorbed if my deepest concern is having the courage to say the hard things. My greater concern should always be that the church would have the strength to receive and I would have grace in the sharing.

#9. When I’m Feeling Competitive I Try To Worship With The “Competition.”

I hate to admit that it was only a couple of years ago when I casually viewed every evangelical church within a 10-mile radius as competition. They were brothers and sisters in Christ, but it was a sibling rivalry. Then something unexpected happened, a couple of other pastors approached me about the idea of having a citywide worship night for the evangelical churches. At first I was about as interested as Ted Nugent being asked to join PETA. Then one of the pastors, a man named Randy, said to me, “I feel like God called me to try to start this because, well to be honest, you have been the competition and only the Devil wins with that attitude.” Wow, he said it out loud. He said what most of us don’t have the courage to admit to anyone. With that admission the Spirit confronted me and Randy won me. Within weeks an evangelical worship night called “One Voice” was born and with it a brotherhood of once jockeying churches. In worshiping with the “competition” I fell more in love with what Jesus is doing with His Church and thus I wanted to pray for these churches far more than contend against them.

As a great byproduct I have found that this also helps with #1. When someone from the church I am in goes to one of those churches I’m actually cool with it because I love the people who are there.

#10. When I Feel Like I’m Failing The Church I Try To Preach More And Think Less.

When I was in high school my teachers would say, “Use your brain Boswell.” Well I finally started doing that and I have regretted it ever since. As a natural pessimist thinking often drives me to notice the worst in a circumstance or how something is problematic. My solution for this: think less, preach more. Not longer Sunday sermons, but out loud confrontational preaching directed at myself from the Bible. For example:

  • When I’m dealing with an angry person and I start thinking about all the ways I could cut them off at the knees in an argument, I stop thinking and start preaching “Love your enemies and pray for them – Matt” Matthew 5:44
  • When I’m beginning to feel irritated by the angry person and I sense a bitter preoccupation with them, I stop thinking and start preaching “Let no root of bitterness spring up and cause trouble because many will be defiled by that – Matt” Hebrews 12:16
  • When I’m thinking the church isn’t going right and the wheels are all going to come off the wagon any day, I stop thinking and start preaching “Upon this rock I will build My church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it – Matt.” Matthew 16:18
  • When I’m beginning to listen to the Enemy and feel like I’ve failed, I stop thinking and start preaching “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved – Matt.” Ephesians 1:3-6

You get the idea. I preach the Word with the deepest conviction possible – directly to myself – because at the end of the day only what God has said has the power to override and heal any justification I have created to maintain how I feel. What I know is that only Jesus, His Gospel and His Word can effectively engage and alleviate “The 10 Things Pastors Hate To Admit Publicly.”

Last Thoughts

What I have not sought to offer up in this list is a formula to fix our problems. We are chock-full of formulas in the church today. In fact it’s sometimes the formulas themselves that have exacerbated the problems. Yet my intent was simply to remind us that sanctification isn’t the implementation of more tactics, but the avoidance of the things that tempt us along with the desperate pursuit to find the real us in Jesus. As C.S. Lewis wrote:

The more we get what we now call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. There is so much of Him that millions and millions of ‘little Christs’, all different, will still be too few to express Him fully. He made them all. He invented— as an author invents characters in a novel—all the different men that you and I were intended to be. In that sense our real selves are all waiting for us in Him. It is no good trying to ‘be myself’ without Him. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires. In fact what I so proudly call ‘Myself’ becomes merely the meeting place for trains of events which I never started and which I cannot stop. What I call ‘My wishes’ become merely the desires thrown up by my physical organism or pumped into me by other men’s thoughts or even suggested to me by devils. Eggs and alcohol and a good night’s sleep will be the real origins of what I flatter myself by regarding as my own highly personal and discriminating decision to make love to the girl opposite to me in the railway carriage. Propaganda will be the real origin of what I regard as my own personal political ideas. I am not, in my natural state, nearly so much of a person as I like to believe: most of what I call ‘me’ can be very easily explained. It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.

Mere Christianity – C.S. Lewis

Thank you Peter Svensk for reading me this quote yesterday. God has perfect timing.

10 Things Pastors Hate To Admit Publicly

MB PostsWhen Ellen and I were first married ministry was not our 20-year plan, the Navy was. We had it all planned out; we were to spend the next 20 years with me being gone for 15. The Navy explained to my sweet new bride how grueling it would be, that I would be gone often and that even when I was around my mind would be elsewhere. Knowing that my particular career path in the Navy would be a marriage destroyer I pursued a discharge for the pursuit of higher education. With the promise of a difficult future behind us we embarked upon an easier dream where everyone would love us and things would be calm: pastoral service.

Twenty plus years later I can tell you it has been a ride we never could have anticipated. So much so that only now do I feel equipped enough to share a few things I either lacked the clarity or courage to share until this season of life. I want to share the 10 things we as pastors don’t really want you to know about us. Now in doing so my aim is not to rat out my fellow pastors. Nor am I doing this so congregants sleep with one eye open regarding their leadership. My intention is precisely the opposite. I hope that from this:

  • Churches will pray all the more for their pastors because they understand the challenges.
  • Churches will be doubly grateful for the fact that so many pastors stay in the saddle despite their fears, hurts and frustrations.
  • People in churches will think twice before engaging in things that sink deep into the soul of their leaders.

Therefore I give a glimpse into what we as pastors don’t like to admit about ourselves.

#1. We Take It Personally When You Leave The Church.

It’s just a straight up fact. We pastors eat, drink and sleep the local church and with that have a deep desires to see it thrive. Therefore when you leave to another church because…

  • you’re bothered by a recent decision, but didn’t ask about it…
  • the new church has a bigger and better kids wing, youth group, worship team, building space, (fill in your blank)…
  • your friends started going there…

… it hits us personally.

For us it feels disloyal, shallow or consumer driven. People affirm that church is a family, thus when you up and leave because the church down the road has Slurpee dispensers, a fog machine or it’s just cooler, well it jams us pretty deep.

#2. We Feel Pressure To Perform Week After Week.

The average TV show has a multimillion-dollar budget, a staff of writers and only airs 22 weeks out of the year; that’s what we feel we’re up against. Where the pressure is doubled comes from the previous point. We know there are churches near by with a multimillion-dollar budget or a celebrity pastor who have the ability to do many more things at a much higher level. From this a sense of urgency is created in our mind to establish the same level of quality, option and excellence to meet the consumerist desires of culture.

Now if this were exclusively in the hopes of reaching new people this wouldn’t be so bad, but increasingly pastors feel the need to do this just to retain people who may be stuff struck by the “Bigger and Better” down the way.

#3. We Struggle With Getting Our Worth From Ministry.

When the numbers are up, the complements are flowing and the people are lively we feel great. When everything is level, it feels like it’s in decline. When things are actually in decline, it’s a full-tilt tailspin in our soul. We almost can’t help but equate the growth of the church with our ability/inability to produce growth. Therefore if there is any appearance of waning we feel defeated and wonder how long before the church board wises up and trades us to another team. The “Idol of Ministry” comes on and off the shelf pretty regularly in a pastor’s office.

#4. We Regularly Think About Quitting.

This comes in two very different forms.

One form is the variation of perhaps leaving ministry all together. While there are some really great things about vocational ministry, there are also less enjoyable realities such as: pastors’ families are noticed (i.e. judged) routinely, pastors’ purchases are observed (i.e. judged) overtly and pastors’ words are weighed (i.e. judged) consistently. Therefore the ability to hide among the masses and not be noticed is very appealing.

The second form comes with the desire for a change of scenery. Pastors are shepherds, thus we love greener grass even more than sheep. To leave for a bigger budget, better building or a place with less difficult people (yeah, we get delusional sometimes) stands out as lush Kentucky Bluegrass when contrasted with the dusty patch of ragged earth called “our current church.” This “Greener Grass Gawking” usually occurs when we become too proud (“My gifts are better than this place”) or too insecure (“I stink and just need to start over”) and flows from #3.

#5. We Say We Are Transparent – It’s Actually Opaque.

Today pastors are generally more open about their struggles than previous generations, but we still sense there is a threshold that is not to be crossed. People want open, honest and real, but not too much. Generally churches want just enough so they feel safe with you, but not so much that it spoils the expectations they have of you. Unfortunately the threshold is a blurry line by which pastors never know how much is too much until its too late. After a couple of infractions we learn that opaque is safe – even if it’s isolating.

When pastors’ wives are polled on how it feels to be the spouse of someone in full-time ministry the #1 answer is one profound word, “Lonely.” They are around hundreds of people every week, but they never feel they can let their guard down because they know people have opinions on how a pastor’s wife should be. Now I know people say they don’t, but literally every church I have served in has shared unflattering stories of the previous pastor’s wife. Many of these stories came from the spiritually mature leadership who considered the pastor and his wife to be their friends. The real irony comes in when later in the conversation I would be told, “But don’t worry, we don’t have any expectations on your wife. We just want to love on her.” Right! Now I don’t blame people for this natural human tendency, but being aware of how things are keeps you relationally opaque. And it’s not merely pastors and their wives who insulate. Pastoral families at large feel alone because there is a certain level of unknown expectations buried like landmines through the field of the church and so there is a constant mode of mostly transparent.

#6. We Measure Ourselves By The Numbers.

Numbers don’t matter! Yeah right. No matter how badly we want to slap that bumper sticker on our Ford the reality is that numbers matter to us. And they matter to us it part because they matter to God. The problem however goes back to #1-3. The absence of growth in our churches can cascade into an internal turmoil by which we begin to scrounge for “The Next Big Thing” that will bring “Radical Growth” “Guaranteed.” So we read books on how to be a “Deep & Wide, Vertical, Purpose Driven, Radical Reformission, Creature of the Word, Big Idea, Center Church.” Then we jet off to a conference with thousands of other pastors who are seeking to glean the secret of success. And what is the first question we ask one another between sessions? “So, how big is your church?” Yep, we measure ourselves by the numbers.

#7 We Spend More Time Discouraged Than Encouraged.

Occasionally people say to me, “Must be awesome to get paid to study the Bible all day.” Every time they do I think to myself, “Must be awesome to be able to give someone the finger on the 520 without people saying, ‘The pastor at Redemption Church flipped me off today during rush-hour.’” I’m not fully sure why that is the comment that flashes across my mental dashboard, but I think part of it stems from what I perceive to be the tone of the comment. Rightly or wrongly I infer they are saying, “Must be nice to have such a cush gig as a paid quiet-time.” In all honestly it is pretty awesome to be paid study the Bible, but it’s a major downer when people:

  • tell you – after 2 minutes of un-investigated reflection – that your 30 hours of study and 2 collegiate degrees were wrong.
  • tell you that they just couldn’t stay awake today during your sermon, but no offense. (How about I fall asleep at your kid’s graduation and we’ll call it even.)
  • tell you how you should have also said…
  • tell you how Pastor So-N-So says…

Aside from these particular examples I find that for most pastors it generally feels like the boat is taking on water more than racing with the wind – regardless of size or rate of growth. Lead pastors particularly suffer from this since much of their job is to focus on seeing things get better, which often translates into focusing on the broken, lacking or unfilled parts of the church more than enjoying what is right and working. Many of the most faithful and fruitful pastors in history have suffered deeply with anxiety and depression for the same reasons.

#8. We Worry About What You Think.

We’re human and we want to be liked. Therefore when we know we’re going to do or say something people won’t like, we worry about it. Now when I say that I don’t mean to infer that it causes us to avoid the hard things. There are some of my fellow pastors who avoid challenging topics or decisions out of fear of people, but most of the ones I run with still choose deliver the mail regardless of the popularity of its message. Yet we still worry about how you may take it.

#9. We Struggle With Competition And Jealousy.

We like to hold ourselves above the petty fray and reiterate, “It’s all about the Kingdom,” but in reality pastors are a competitive bunch. As soon as one pastor asks another, “How big is your church?” the game is on if the two churches are within 20 miles of each other (past 20 miles we lighten up a lot and think each other is pretty cool). Within 20 miles however we begin to assess one another’s style, focus, message, sophistication and marketing. We gauge to see if it’s a “Goldilocks Church” – not to deep, not too shallow, but just right (like us). If you’re too deep we benchmark you as internally focused. If you’re too shallow we brand you as consumer-driven. If however we conclude that you too are a “Goldilocks Church” we then figure out how our church is still better than your church. If you have lame amenities, we critique that you will never grow until you reboot that 70’s sanctuary. If you have awesome amenities, we criticize that you grow only because people are shallow and care more about stuff than Scripture.

Yes we know it’s not right. We know that it’s ego driven, but we still fall victim to it. We believe our church is the best church ever and we can’t understand why everyone doesn’t see it.

#10. We Feel Like We Failed You More Than We Helped You.

Most pastors will never be famous. Most churches will never break the 100 mark. Yet we all entered ministry to change the world and reach the masses. With this we know it is the expectation of churches that we accomplish this very thing. Every job posting reinforces the idea with the sentence, “We are looking for a man that will take our church to the next level.” Then when the next level isn’t hit in the way anticipated or within the timeline envisioned – we feel like we failed you. This is especially true in light of the reality that we are our own biggest critics. We came in with expectations higher than anyone in the church. You look to us for direction and when we feel like we failed to produce we feel like we failed you.

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