The Church Needs Weak Leaders

When I read church leadership blogs, reference church leadership articles, or see the quotes and podcasts making the rounds on social media, I can’t help noticing how “strong leadership” is highly desirable for churches.

Strong leaders are organized, have a clear vision, listen well, and keep their teams moving forward.

Strong leaders equip others for ministry, train new leaders, and always prepare for whatever else is coming down the pike.

I mean, they also make time to pray and try to stay humble, but don’t forget they get alignment on their teams, properly onboard their staff, and make killer agendas for meetings. They know what they can’t do well and delegate to maximize their effectiveness.

A strong leader can initiate change, becoming the face of major initiatives. They communicate clearly, and they sometimes bear criticism, whether it’s fair or unfair.

If strong leaders are high capacity and successful, their flaws can be explained away as “quirks” or smaller matters that must be endured for the sake of the greater good. If a strong leader can reach more people for the Gospel, grow the church, and expand the ministry, then surely they can’t be held to account for some temper tantrums, power struggles, or making inappropriate remarks to their staff or congregation, right?

Leaders become icons for our ideal selves. They model what we want to become and lead us to where we want to go.

We want strength, purpose, direction, and influence. Sure, we would prefer that our leaders also remain humble and kind, but the more they deliver, the less urgent these virtues become in many church contexts.

It’s hard for us to imagine a leader proudly boasting of his/her weaknesses today as Paul did (2 Corinthians 11:30, 12:9).

It’s hard for us to imagine leaders emptying themselves of their power and influence much like Jesus did when he came to earth.

It’s so easy to get leadership, influence, and power wrong. And even if church leaders can point us to chapter and verse proofs for certain offices in the church, the truth is that we have a wide range of high and low church leadership models that all claim to be based on the same Bible. Who is to say which is the best or most faithful to God’s intentions?

I’m not so sure that a particular model is going to save us. Perhaps we could take the models we already have and ask something very simple of our leaders and ourselves: weakness.

What if we let our leaders appear exactly as they are in their weakness and fragility?

What if leaders felt free to tell us exactly how weak they are without fear of repercussions?

My guess is that such a suggestion makes the anxiety of many pastors go up a few notches. Why is that? Why is weakness and vulnerability such a liability when Paul boasted of his weaknesses and Jesus emptied himself of his power and heavenly glory to stand among us?

The average Christian in a church probably needs to expect “less” out of a pastor, not more. I mean that in the sense that pastors and other ministry leaders experience the same temptations, desires, frailties, doubts, and frustrations as all of us. They aren’t on a special fast track to holiness.

Some pastors may have dedicated more time surrendering these weaknesses to God because of the weight of their offices, but each pastor starts where we are.

As a Christian writer who encourages others to pray, I face my fair share of struggles to maintain my daily spiritual practices. Each new school year in our household brings a new schedule and fresh challenges to fit silent contemplation, the Examen, praying the hours, and spiritual reading into each day.

Without daily silence my anxiety comes roaring back. Without the daily hours, I become self-reliant and self-focused. Sloth and the path of least resistance become appealing as I seek to check out from life rather than to remain engaged with God, my family, and my responsibilities.

It doesn’t take a lot to send me off course, and the urgency of my writing about prayer comes out of the deep need I have for these practices. My weakness prompts me to write as I do, not my strength.

If anything, I often feel like a little cork bobbing around in a stormy sea, and my only hope is in God’s intervention to speak, “Peace, be still!” over my life. I can’t get myself back on track. I can only turn to God’s mercy.

I have a choice each day to surrender to God rather than to devote myself to the pursuit of my own comfort or my own entertainment. The more I’m focused on my weaknesses, the more likely I am to depend on God’s help.

Our tendency to focus on a leader’s strong organizational and interpersonal strengths can make it easy to overlook what those strengths may be hiding. Those weaknesses will come out to the light one way or another, and the sooner we face them in light of God’s mercy, the “stronger” we will be in the Spirit.

 

Replace the Superstar Pastor with a Suffering Servant

We mercilessly teased the guy in my Bible classes who styled himself as a kind of Bill Hybels Jr. He hailed from the Chicago suburbs and made no effort to conceal his admiration for the fastest growing megachurch in America and its electric pastor. He even dressed business casual, used a planner, and took meticulous notes on his laptop at a time when no one took a computer into the classroom.

Being stupid college students with seemingly nothing better to do, we gave him a hard time about his love for Hybels. That’s the way things go with the big, hot trend, right? Even if you have a grudging admiration for the person on top, you feel obliged to take a few shots at him.

Jokes aside, Hybels was pervasive in the evangelical world of my teens and early 20’s. I read his books on evangelism and the now ironically titled: Who You Are When No One Is Looking. Everyone going into ministry knew about the seeker-sensitive approach that he championed. He became a kind of icon for relevant, modern ministry.

Red flags flew up all of the time for me about Hybels. He was deeply entrenched in the business world with his pastoring style, which is somewhat understandable when running a massive ministry organization, and there were questions worth asking about the trade offs of megachurches compared to church planting. The style and presentation of Willow Creek was slick, prosperous, tidy, and organized. Everything felt scripted.

When I worked at a church that was a part of the larger Willow Creek Association, I tilted back and forth between recognizing the appeal of Willow Creek and viewing it with skepticism. I can tell you all about vision casting, strategy, friendship evangelism, and seeker friendly services. Did you know they used to sell tomatoes door to door and began meeting in a movie theater???

If we responded to the latest allegations against Hybels and the failure of Willow Creek to adequately respond to them with merely criticism of Hybels and his church, we will miss out on a significant opportunity to have a deeper conversation about the evangelical church culture in America. It’s not a matter of drawing battle lines between ourselves and Willow Creek.

The deeper issue is the way Willow Creek and Hybels represent a kind of safer, prosperous but not too prosperous version of Christianity that is clean and sharp and professional without all of the embarrassing glitz of stereotypical prosperity preachers. Evangelicals have blended together business professionalism, a tiny bit of prosperity preaching, and some Bible verses to create a respectable church culture that can talk about discipleship, stewardship, and strategy in the same sentence without anyone taking a moment to ask what the hell is actually going on.

The business terms creep in and begin hiding in plain sight…

The reputation of the church becomes a brand that is guarded for the sake of the Gospel.

Leaders need to learn from the corporate world and slick business gurus in order to “manage” their growing churches that have been blessed by God with larger numbers.

Congregation members become customers and stakeholders in practice without actually using those terms.

The vision needs to be big, audacious, and ambitious because we serve a big God who wants to do big things and to grow our church bigger. You do have faith that God can bring about this big, audacious vision to fruition, don’t you? God can move mountains!

The business world and general American values of progress, growth, and wealth seep into the church just enough to twist how we think.

Soon enough we begin to make allowances for our pastors, relying on their vision, wisdom, and authority to accomplish God’s work. Anyone who threatens the pastor becomes expendable, and even the victims worry that coming forward over abuse allegations could jeopardize the greater vision and progress of the whole.

Christian authors and creators rely on endorsements from pastors, know people involved in these scandals, and wonder if their future careers could suffer if they speak out right now. It’s not just about the money because it’s about relationships and being uncertain about how to use their voices… but don’t forget the money too.

This isn’t a disease in a single church. This is widespread in the evangelical movement and beyond. However, it’s also particularly widespread because the Willow Creek Association, an entity separate from the church, carries this ministry approach to thousands of congregations. Don’t forget all of the books, articles, speeches, and interviews that have permeated the evangelical subculture.

The last thing I want to do is to spend the next week or month dragging Hybels, Willow Creek, or megachurches. They are the icons of the greater challenge that evangelicals face.

If I could humbly suggest a simple next step for every church, pastor, elder, deacon, and congregation member: look at the job descriptions of your pastors and staff.

Look at what you expect them to do each day.

Do you expect them to make significant space for prayer?

Do you have a budget that allows them to gain proper training for handling abuse and bullying?

Do you expect them to manage a large group of people like a business professional?

Do you expect them to preach nearly every Sunday, building up their status and celebrity?

Do you rely on them to take the lead on every big initiative as the indispensable figurehead?

Do you expect them to spend significant time among the sick, disadvantaged, homeless, or imprisoned?

Do you expect them to exert influence and power in your community or to become physicians among those neglected and overlooked?

While in seminary, I looked at a lot of job descriptions for pastors, and seeing those descriptions turned me off from a “career” in ministry. I wanted no part of it.

I used to joke that the churches expected so much of their pastors, they wanted to hire Jesus.

In retrospect, when I look a bit closer at the particulars of those job descriptions, I’m not so sure that they wanted to hire someone like Jesus, and that gets us to the root of our problem in the American evangelical church.

Was It All a Lie? The Fallout After a Church Leader Fails

I learned something in my first year of seminary that finally made sense of church dynamics for me:

You can be good at leading a group or building a community and still be really bad at following Jesus.

I don’t know if my professor, who happened to be on staff at a local megachurch, would have said it quite like that. Rather, during his teachings on the dynamics of church ministry, from leadership development to small group ministry, I saw that there is often a rather large gap between the organizational abilities of growing churches and the churches that are struggling.

That isn’t to overlook the many other factors that cause a church to grow or decline. I mean, how long do you have to read this post?

A particular statement from this lecture caught my attention: “Sometimes the big churches can do small better than small churches.”

That isn’t to say that a church ONLY needs to manage its groups well to grow, but a church leadership team’s ability to manage certain dynamics can go a long way toward determining the numerical growth of the congregation.

We could argue that, of course, a church must have certain elements in place to be somewhat stable, if not healthy. The sermons, songs, and prayers shouldn’t be out of left field. And yet, there are plenty of small churches where the pastor faithfully teaches a small group of people a biblically grounded sermon, while some massive megachurches have sermons that amount to biblical entertainment. In other cases, crowds flock to hear the hot, dynamic preacher whose sermons are basically transcribed into best-selling books on the spot regardless of their substance.

All of this is to say, the size and vitality of a church may have very little to do with the historicity of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Plenty of churches hum along whether or not Pentecost really happened or has any measure of relevance for today. A church may grow large because its leaders have an intimate relationship with the parental love of God or because its leaders have experience as high-powered executives who get stuff done.

When a prominent church leaders fails, I remember what my seminary professor said about big churches “doing small well.” Although it’s perfectly possible that this leader has had an authentic relationship with Christ and an authentic ministry empowered by God before failing morally, the growth of a church may hinge on a leader’s ability to manage people. Maintaining that growth may call on skill sets that pull leaders away from a deeper spiritual life.

Managing people is a neutral thing. I suspect that every church leader needs to reckon with this at times, but it’s possible that a church leader could lead a massive congregation because of off the chart talents on the management side that hide spiritual or biblical deficiencies. That isn’t to make a blanket statement about megachurch pastors or leaders. I know some personally who have a stable inner spiritual life while leading a large group.

The key is that we’ve seen enough megachurch pastors fall or end up spiritually empty to say something about the elephant in the room. A pastor can grow a large church, preach a super sermon, or manage large groups of people without a deep inner spiritual life. Those things shouldn’t be our indicators of God’s authentic presence and life.

Stepping away from the lights, speakers, and jam-packed auditoriums; turning away from church offices packed with computers, copiers, and phones; leaving the climate controlled lobby and plush furniture behind, we may have a greater opportunity to hear the present voice of God in a whisper. It wasn’t all a lie, but perhaps we have looked at the wrong signs for the presence of God.

 

Jesus Told the Bride of Christ to Remove a Plank from Its Eye

The top defense of the abusive and authoritative in the church in recent years has become a kind of projection that reframes legitimate allegations into an attack on the church. The leaders who abuse power, harm people, and cross boundaries can assure themselves of safety by turning attention away from their misdeeds, claiming their accusers are attacking the bride of Christ (the church), and then presenting themselves as its defenders.

It’s a slick play that has become far too commonplace. In addition, they can bolster their positions by pointing fingers at individuals who may have been unfair with the scope of their criticism or who have failed to adopt a more constructive direction for their criticism. It shouldn’t surprise us that those who are wounded by the church will struggle to find the “perfect” way to critique it!

However, regular examination and critique are exactly what Jesus called his listeners to do in Matthew 7. It would be naïve for us to assume that such examination is only personal. There surely are systems, positions, and institutions that are worthy of the same scrutiny.

When addressing hypocrisy, Jesus said to first remove the plank from your own eye before attempting to scrutinize others. In other words, if we don’t want folks to criticize us, then we need to criticize ourselves first. Some have used the word “interrogate” today to describe this process. That captures the seriousness of our examination.

Of course, savvy church leaders committed to their own preservation can twist this verse against those who expose their misdeeds. This is the danger of religious professionals. They can always find a loophole for themselves if they want it.

The words of Jesus remind me that we should expect to find “planks in our eyes.” We will have serious oversights and problems to find and to address.

What makes the Bride of Christ beautiful isn’t the ability to overlook these ugly planks or to deny that they exist. The beauty of the bride of Christ is a redemptive trust in the restoration of God when we expose these ugly planks.

When we have experienced the grace and mercy of God to heal our flaws and errors, then we have grace and mercy to share with others. Whether others have a speck or a plank in their eyes, we will have more to offer than clarity. We will remember what it felt like to live with the pain and confusion of a plank obscuring so much of life.

As we work with others for their healing, we’ll transform our previous pain and confusion into a fellowship forged in the love and acceptance of God.

The stakes of exposing our planks are quite high, but on the other side of God’s healing and mercy, we will find clarity, freedom, and a capacity to minister that we could never touch while denying our deepest flaws. When Jesus points us to a time of examination and healing, he is giving us one of the greatest gifts we can share with others.

I Understand Why the Evangelical Subculture Supports Trump

Growing up in evangelical Christianity, I was steeped in the alternative Christian media that included radio stations and eventually websites that peddled current events with a generally conservative spin.

I attended seminary, and I worked in a church affiliated with the Willow Creek Association, a large network of churches that receive resources and discounts at conferences hosted by Willow Creek, a Chicago megachurch. I was deeply embedded in the evangelical subculture for about ten years as a participant, and then, following seminary, I took a more critical stance while still writing within the evangelical world.

Seeing the unwavering (primarily white) evangelical support of Donald Trump has offended my commitment to the life and teachings of Jesus, but it also makes a measure of cultural sense. White evangelical culture has been prepared for a leader like Trump. Here’s why:

The Flaws of Evangelical Leaders Are Tolerated for Higher Goals

The goal of just about every evangelical pastor is to preach the Gospel and to grow the church. Evangelicals believe that failing to grow the church means that you’re not preaching the Gospel.

As long as a church is growing, then a leader is more or less safe. It takes a significant moral failure, typically an affair, for a church to get rid of a pastor. Mark Driscoll was emotionally abusing and bullying the leaders and members of his church, but it took a misuse of church finances on his book’s marketing campaign to prompt enough people to remove him. As long as his church was growing, he could lead as he saw fit.

In the evangelical world, if a leader can deliver something defined as a higher moral good, then that leader can use borderline, if not outright sinful means to accomplish it.

Dissent of Evangelical Leaders Is Considered Divisive

It doesn’t matter how mean, divisive, or problematic a leader may be in many cases. If a church member or outsider dares to challenge an evangelical leader, the dissenter will be criticized as divisive. I have heard this all of the time for years. The people who blow the whistle or support the whistle blower are ALWAYS considered trouble makers who rock the boat.

The anger many evangelicals feel about this is fully warranted.

I am sorry to be crass here, but I have zero fucks to give about this. ZERO. It’s an epidemic, and I’m done with it. I’ve read Christian news for one of my clients for over five years, and I’ve seen this play out enough that I have no problem being viewed as the “asshole” in a church if there’s a safety issue or a leader is abusing power. I will be kind and constructive, but I will not be silent about the heaping piles of bullshit that evangelical leaders pile on their church members who try to hold them accountable.

For too many evangelical leaders, accountability flows from the leaders down to the congregation, but God help anyone who dares to speak up about their hypocrisy or abuses. Sorry folks, zero fucks given here.

Bible Stories about Leadership Are Applied Loosely (Read: BADLY)

In college, I attended a church that challenged a leader’s plan to build a giant new facility. The pastor prepared a sermon the following Sunday where he equated himself with Moses and the congregation with the people of Israel who opposed their “God-given” leadership. When the people refused to obey Moses, the ground swallowed them up.

An evangelical pastor in a seemingly otherwise normal church of 300-400 people preached this sermon. We should have all gotten up and walked out then and there. It was a ghastly and manipulative interpretation of scripture. He turned a historical account in the nation of Israel into a kind of object lesson to impose onto his congregation.

Evangelical pastors tend to avoid the teachings of the prophets or the Pentateuch about justice or caring for the poor. You won’t hear much about the Year of Jubilee or the types of sacrifices that God finds acceptable in evangelical churches. You will hear plenty of stories about good kings and bad kings. That isn’t a mistake. Just like the people at the time of Samuel, evangelicals love having a “king” (i.e. CEO) like the other groups in America. They’ll bend over backwards to defend the authority of the American government by citing Romans 13.

Evangelicals Nurture a Persecution Complex

I’ve read many different explanations about this, tracing our persecution complex back to either a poor reading of scripture when Christians were actually persecuted (as in, killed) for their faith or a smoke screen perpetuated by Christian media outlets. Every slight, insult, or lawsuit that can in any way be twisted into a persecution narrative is exploited to the hilt.

For instance, I used to attend a church that met in a high school in Ohio. It wasn’t an issue at all for us to rent a public space, but in Hawaii and New York City there have been debates about the tax issues related to the rental of a public school by a nonprofit church. Both states had different nuances to the issue, but at the heart of the matter, no one was trying to keep Christians from gathering for church. The concerns were about special tax preferences for churches.

None of this mattered for Christian media, where each case was stirred up into a seething froth of fear and anger over the persecution of Christians. This story just reinforced a narrative that, for some evangelicals, has been part of a lifelong siege mentality.

Traitors Are Dehumanized and Dismissed by Evangelicals

For many evangelicals, there is a fine line between the truth that saves and the error that condemns. Those living in error who aren’t saved are condemned to hell. While many evangelicals will tell you, and demonstrate on paper, that they care very much for the people who are going to hell within their theological framework, the reality is much more complex.

Yes, there missionaries and evangelists who may have a very compassionate and personal approach to those viewed as outside their camp. However, for many evangelicals already living in fear of persecution and believing that their theology is under siege from liberal Christians and atheists, it’s very easy to begin dehumanizing or at least dismissing those who differ from them.

To dialogue with those outside the camp invites the danger of changing theology and falling into error. “Compromise” is a dirty word in evangelicalism. There is no room for tolerance and political correctness when you believe your religion could be outlawed or your movement’s beliefs could fall apart at any moment.  This leads to a rigid dogmatism that refuses to see the thoughtfulness and, at times, humanity of those who disagree.

Connect the Dots Between Evangelicals and Trump Supporters

If you want to understand why 81% of white evangelicals supported Trump, this list provides some ways to connect the dots between a Trump supporter and an evangelical. The tolerance of flawed leaders alone explains why evangelicals, who have been obsessed with pro-life Supreme Court justices, will tolerate anything else Trump has done.

I wish I had a clear call to action for how to address this problem, but I don’t. I do have a few suggestions for evangelicals who see Trump and our movement for what they are:

  • Practice quiet contemplation to center yourself in God’s love for you and compassion for others.
  • Assure your evangelical friends who support Trump that you love them, but you disagree with their political views.
  • Point your evangelical friends to news that is supported by multiple, credible sources.
  • Remember that it’s not your job to change people, but it is your job to love them.
  • Spend more time asking how you can love and serve those impacted by Trump’s destructive policies.

 

I Understand Why Some People Can’t Trust the Church

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When I have to attend a Catholic mass for a family event, such as a funeral or wedding, I can’t rid myself of a deep unease and defensiveness. I have spent years trying to understand this reaction, and the best that I can determine is that the Catholic parish and high school of my youth were very instrumental in dividing my family, and I cannot view the Catholic Church outside the lens of that experience.

Although born and baptized a Catholic to parents who soon divorced, I took an interest in the Baptist church my dad attended at the age of 12. When my mother and her Catholic family caught wind of this, they arranged a meeting with the Catholic priest of their parish who told me to stop reading the Bible and to keep away from this Baptist Church.

However, I’d already started reading the Bible for myself. While I had lacked motivation for a while, this opposition felt like they had something to hide and only emboldened me. The priests routinely pushed for me to stop reading the Bible and to place myself under the interpretive authority of the Catholic Church. This led to years of conflict and division in my family.

When you’ve experienced a particular church or denomination as a closed system that demands control and allegiance, setting itself up as the only correct path, any doubts, questions, or personal investigations are classified as rebellion. I didn’t necessarily set out to leave the Catholic Church. I was certainly drawn to the Bible and a Baptist Church, but I didn’t need the Catholic Church to set down an all or nothing, scorched earth approach.

I recognize that my experience of the Catholic Church is not uniform by any means. Some have had far worse experiences under the authority structures of Catholicism and some have had far more positive experiences. However, the key finding of my experience is that I will never, ever consider placing myself under the power of the Catholic Church ever again. Even entering into a Catholic Mass still feels suffocating.

For years I assumed that my resistance and discomfort were the products of my own flaws or failures to appreciate a different religious group. Today, I can see with a little more clarity that my feelings during the mass after those experiences are a direct result of the way the priests treated my interest in the Bible and sowed deeply painful division in our family.

When a religious system has betrayed you, it’s likely that you’ll never return.

I have watched many friends struggle through abusive church situations on the Protestant end of the faith. They have generally either left the church altogether or found a very different denomination. As they’ve run away from controlling and sometimes abusive power structures, many of them still do so with mixed feelings. They want to affirm Christianity or at least Jesus, but damaging experiences have made it impossible to feel safe in Christian community.

At the very least, I have felt safer in the more decentralized Protestant churches, but we all know Protestants have had their fair share of scandals and failures as well.

Just the other day I happened to overhear a man praying, and he more or less was telling God what’s up. I started to panic before I even realized what was happening. I wanted to run away. I wanted to shout “Get behind me Satan!” I wanted to tell him to stop trying to control God.

I have felt that urge to run away from the control of religion time and time again. I’ve avoided church, I’ve had panic attacks in church, I’ve felt like I simply didn’t have the words to explain to someone why attending church felt so difficult and negative for a season of my life. Many times I was a negative voice of criticism and division because I simply couldn’t see my own wounds.

I’m sure that many have assumed I’m just a sinner. They’ve quoted from Hebrews 10:25 about not forsaking gathering together, boiling down my hesitation if not revulsion at the church down to a black and white matter of obedience. Never mind that it’s likely the author of Hebrews never had something like modern church meetings/power structures in mind when writing this letter, it’s even more likely that the author of Hebrews could never have imagined how horribly church leaders would control, divide, and alienate those in their care.

Until you’ve experienced healthy church leadership that you can trust and that you can believe genuinely cares for you as a person, not as an attendance number, tither, or cog in the ministry machine, you’ll struggle to heal from past church damage. I know people who have grown up in what I would consider unhealthy denominations, but they were cared for by relatively healthy church leaders, and that has made all of the difference for them today.

They weren’t expendable. They weren’t controlled. And perhaps today they struggle to imagine why so many struggle to trust church leaders or to even attend church in the first place.

While I know that many find beauty and holy mystery in the mass, it has only felt oppressive and constricting to this day. Any person in his right mind would run away from that. I have only sympathy and compassion for those who struggle to attend church or have walked away altogether for those same reasons.

I can’t imagine that God would fault anyone for taking the very natural steps of protecting themselves after going through damaging church experiences. Perhaps that is the place where we can find hope—God’s mercy and compassion. This is the God who relinquished control, took the form of a servant, and showed us the way forward through resurrection. We can’t change the judgment and control of the church leaders from our past, but we can see the true mercy and grace of God with a clarity that exposes the frauds and may one day lead us to a place of peace.

 

When Your Parent’s Simple Religious Answers Don’t Work

 

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I have watched time and time again how the older generation of evangelicals interacts with the youth and young adults. I have seen parents supply the answers to their children before they even knew what the children were asking. It’s like the teens and young adults with questions and, gasp, doubts are laden with theological TNT that could demolish the whole enterprise of the Gospel.

I see the appeal of the safety of evangelical Christianity for some, especially the churches and denominations that thrive within largely closed theological systems. Within the system and the community, you have the assurance of answers and practices that all work… as long as you stay within the system. Frankly, it doesn’t even matter if all of the answers are proven true because you’ve learned that they HAVE to be true. If the answers of your group don’t work, you’ve got nothing left—no community, hope for the future, and no way to explain how the world works.

Teens and young adults are often caught in the bind between the simple answers of their communities and their honest questions. And don’t think for a moment that children can’t tell when they’re safe to ask questions and when they’re not.

Having been that young teenager within the closed system of the Catholic Church, I knew exactly what was going on. When a priest met with me to “answer” my questions, I could immediately tell that he was fully confident in his ability to smash my answers into his tidy box of Catholic doctrine.

There was no mystery, no humility, and no mercy for my dissatisfaction. Either I accepted his authority and his theological system, which was all presented as reasonable and fully true, or I was just being rebellious and sinful, rejecting my God-given spiritual leaders and the truth of the Bible.

Is it any wonder that closed religious systems like conservative evangelicalism and Catholicism are both equally capable of creating mini inquisitions of their own? Their adherents learn that truly embracing what is taught and seriously practicing it will require them to at one point or another to stuff their questions and doubts down deep and to ensure that everyone else does the same. If you let someone else doubt or ask the hard questions, what will stop you from facing your own uncertainties and misgivings?

What so many young people suspect and what so many religious leaders fear is this: our beliefs, practices, and institutions are deeply flawed and in error.

Here’s what I suspect: We’re so flawed and in error that we don’t even know which parts are flawed and in error. We could spend the rest of our lives attacking the mistakes and hypocrisies of each other while defending the purities of our own traditions without realizing we’re really all in the same boat.

Yes, if you’ve ever doubted what you’ve been taught in church, you’re not rebellious. You’re just being honest. Most importantly, you could even be on the right path. Not that we want to spend the rest of our lives doubting, asking questions, and deconstructing so that we never find anything. I assure you, Jesus said that those who seek will find, but he doesn’t guarantee what we’ll find.

The problem is that those raised in closed religious systems think that these tiny little havens are the only places to find God. While God is most certainly within these systems in one way or another, there is a larger reality that is often obscured in the midst of the rule following and defenses of doctrinal territory.

There is the bedrock certainty of God’s grace and mercy that roam free regardless of our systems and boundaries, his endless oceans of love for us, and his streams of life that promise us a different kind security. I have found that I don’t need to worry about defending doctrine or truth, I need to live in it. The simple answers and the doctrines we’ve learned had their place, but as many of us suspected, these were just scratching the surface. The difference then is whether you toss all pursuit of God aside or you take the risk of seeking God’s larger reality of presence, mercy, and love—truth isn’t opposed to these, but it can stop you from pursuing them. At one point or another your religious system will fail you, even if you don’t admit that it has failed you.

I’ve been there, clinging to the fragile structure of theology, Bible study, a few seemingly spiritual experiences, and the hollow assurances of others around me. God’s love for me was strictly theoretical and largely wrapped up in the acceptance or rejection of those around me. If they could reject me because of what I said or believed, then God could do the same. If I was expendable to them, then it seemed like I was expendable to God.

I am learning to surrender to the darkness and the silence. I have done so kicking and screaming, wanting to keep shouting praise songs, hoping I could think my way out of this vast unknown land, and trying to spark a light by reciting one scripture verse after another.

Most days I feel like even less than a novice when it comes to the still small voice of God or the presence of God. For as little as I know and have experienced, it has been a true awakening to God’s mercy for me and for the religious leaders and their closed systems.

I see the well-meaning spoon feeding teens and young adults simple answers and doctrines that they can take or leave but must take if they want to be accepted and loved. I see some slump over with indifference because deep down they know that they’re wasting their time. As soon as they can make their own decisions, they’ll most likely drop away from the faith because it never was their own.

They never learned how to receive nourishment from God directly because their parents or church leaders feared that they may leave the faith if they start asking too many questions or let their doubts take root. I have seen the exact opposite among so many of my friends and colleagues. Once we stepped into the darkness and learned to make our faith our own, however imperfect it was, we found a God who is deeper and stronger than the simple answers and systems.

Speaking for myself, I’ve found a presence and love that I can’t explain or quantify, and it can co-exist with my imperfect theology and the theological questions that hang in the wind without resolution.

If I could say one thing to these teens and young adults who slump in the back rows of church today and hope to make their escape in the not too distant future, I would say that my faith never took root until I surrendered everything I thought I knew and learned to receive God’s mercy and love on God’s own terms.

God’s love for you and for me doesn’t change if I rebel against the answers and systems we were told to accept. Jesus has already overcome the world. He alone is worthy to unlock the deepest secrets of eternity past and the mysteries that await us. Are you tired of lugging around these questions? Are you weary of hiding your doubts? Are you thirsting for God’s presence and life instead of demands for spiritual conformity?

Jesus has a single word for you and for me: Come. There are no strings attached or limitations. Come to him with your reservations, disappointments, discouragement, and brokenness. He alone can give us rest and peace.

After spending most of my life fearing that I wasn’t good enough for God or that my doubts were too much, I found that his love for me truly overcomes every barrier I could put in the way.

People Are Expendable: My Root Struggle with Church

home-flowers

Growing up with divorced parents prompted me to become a reconciler who desires nothing more than making sure everyone gets along. Underneath this way of functioning day to day, I’ve absorbed an underlying fear of the fragility of relationships. I know that things can fall apart dramatically and horribly, and even the most basic things like your family and your home could be taken away from you, either by your family themselves or by a judge.

My two sons enjoy peace and stability where the foundational issues of their parents, their home, or their future are as solid and steady as can be. I write that without judgment of my own history, but there’s no mistaking that the things I worried about and feared as a child are completely different from anything my kids have faced so far. They have a stability that comes from knowing these relationships are steady, permanent, and secure. When I developed nervous ticks in elementary school and continue to struggle with talking fast when my social anxiety kicks in, it’s hard to communicate all of this succinctly to people who say things like, “What’s wrong with your eyes?” or “What? WHAT? I have no idea what you’re saying.”

“Oh, I just spent the first 15 years of my life fearing that a judge would take away everything that I love.”

When it comes to the stability of family, our closest relationships, and our homes, their security, or lack thereof, can underpin so many of our struggles and fears. These are also some of the core issues behind why so many people struggle to commit to a church or feel like they can never return again after a church let them. Issues of control and rejection are a big part of why I still can’t attend a Catholic mass with any measure of freedom or openness.

Put bluntly: in many churches, the people are expendable.

The reasons why people become expendable vary, but the common traits between the churches where I have felt secure and able to belong vs. the ones where I have not have tapped into this deeper need to know that I am not expendable. Those who struggle to belong in churches often sense that they are in some way expendable.

Just as I feared saying the wrong thing in front of my parents, a judge, a lawyer, or a psychologist, churches can foster atmospheres of fear, suspicion, and defensiveness where everything can change after supporting the wrong doctrine or admitting to a particularly taboo action.

Extreme situations aside (such as those involving criminal activity), I wonder if our core problems in the church boil down to how welcoming we are prepared to be. Or more to the point, under what circumstances will we kick someone out of a church or make him/her/they feel unwelcome?

I have seen friends who attend fairly conservative churches with strict doctrinal statements, and these friends struggle mightily because “belonging” means they need to sign documents, take classes, and jump through various hoops in order to be a part of the group. In other words, the message is that being part of the community or even the “family” is contingent on putting a signature on a list of doctrines. If you can’t sign the doctrinal statement, then you aren’t fully a part of things.

The doctrines are essential for churches, but the people are not.

However, these aren’t problems isolated to conservative churches. Anytime a group of people gathers together to form an organization, there is an inevitable struggle to define insiders and outsiders. Those who say the wrong things in a liberal congregation can just as easily be labeled and dismissed.

As our family prepares to move to a new city, we’re going through the rather agonizing process of researching churches in the area. The stakes feel especially high since we have kids who have a very particular, and overall positive, experience of church that is noisy, joyful, and full of freedom to be themselves.

The question I keep returning to about each church is how expendable we would be if we entered into their little subcultures.

Will they value particular doctrines over us when they learn what we believe?

Will they value a quiet service over seeing my son jump around with joy in front of the band?

Will they require signatures on documents and covenants and statements over sharing in our joys and struggles?

Will they demand commitment and service before they even think of inviting us to their homes for a meal?

These tensions may appear to be false dichotomies. Perhaps reading this you think to yourself, “Our church values people AND doctrines!” That could be the case, but what happens when the rubber really meets the road? I admit that I have struggled with this myself. Where would I draw the line personally with someone? Of course there are situations where boundaries are necessary. However, what does it look like to hold out compassion and mercy for people outside of the boundaries set by our faith communities?

I have seen good people in both liberal and conservative denominations fracture when someone comes along who doesn’t fit the mold.

We all long to fit in, to become a part of the group, and to be accepted as who we are. If we make enough investments in relationships, there may even be grace for messing up or believing “the wrong thing.” I suppose the question becomes where that grace could run out. Can grace and goodwill be exhausted or negated?

I have dedicated the spirituality of my 30’s to rediscovering the God of the Bible who doesn’t turn us away or discard us but welcomes those who turn back to him. We aren’t expendable in the eyes of our loving creator. For some reason, it hasn’t been that hard to believe that he would die for us in the past before we screwed anything up. However, once we start to actually fail, mess up, disappoint people, struggle with doubts, or start to shift our beliefs, it’s easy to believe you’re expendable.

If you’ve been immersed in a church culture with clear lines you can’t cross in order to belong, it’s hard to believe that God would be any different from that. The more I immerse myself in the Psalms each day, the more I confront a God who meets us with compassion, blots out our sins, and shares unceasing steadfast love and mercy with us. I’m also convinced that believing in a God who views people as expendable will create churches where people are expendable.

A missionary friend once shared with me that we must find our homes in God, and I can’t get that image out of my mind because God wasn’t safe or a sure bet for so many years. If I was expendable to God when I couldn’t get my act together, how could I truly find my home in God? Wasn’t this the same kind of insecurity that I endured in my childhood?

Once again, the Psalms describe God as a shelter, a rock, a strong tower, and a fortress. As I reach and grasp for God, asking for help and security, I fail to look down at my foundation. When I reach out to take hold of God, I fail to realize that I’m already being held.

I often think that God acted to save me before I had a chance to mess up, but it’s also true that God saved us before we could prove ourselves worthy—worthy enough for God to keep us around.

The home I have longed for is found in God, even if I still need a home and a place where I belong here on earth.

We aren’t expendable in the eyes of God, and at the end of the day we long for a church home that reflects this. Perhaps the greatest challenge some days is to rest in the love and acceptance of God without letting that reality hinge on what those in our communities believe, do, or say.

We’d Rather Stay with the 99

church stage performance Christianity

 

Have you seen the size of our congregation?

Can you fathom how many lives have been transformed by our hard-working ministry… I mean, by the Gospel?

Our outreach programs and community service teams are missionally engaged in the surrounding culture. We have strong attendance numbers. Our baptism services are more packed than an MTV beach party—at least, what we imagine an MTV beach party would be like if everyone dressed super modestly.

While everyone’s writing about the decline of the church in America, we’re celebrating new salvation decisions every week. Our membership classes are always packed. We’re going to open a new campus next year that will expand the reach of the Gospel into yet another unreached suburb.

It’s true that some people have been damaged, spiritually abused, and manipulated by our pastor. We’re the first to admit that he has some flaws.

We say let him who is without sin cast the first stone. Our pastor is a sinner like everyone else who is no longer under condemnation. We are all under grace, and the least we can do is extend that same grace to the leaders who are running ministries that are too big to fail… I mean blessed by God with astounding attendance numbers.

We can’t let the gates of hell prevail against the church, can we?

We know some wounded people keep criticizing the spiritual abuse, manipulation, and all-male elder boards who use church by-laws and covenants to control people. It’s not our fault that these critics, at one time at least, wanted to follow our biblical model and signed up to join our congregation. It’s not our fault that they refused to abide by the covenant that we established through our culturally bound and arbitrary… I mean inerrant interpretation of God’s Word.

Yes, it’s true that some people have left the faith or have been deeply wounded because of our ministry. Shouldn’t any business… I mean empire… I mean church, expect some collateral damage?

Those calling for “accountability” and changes for our church and our leaders simply don’t understand the numbers involved in successful business… I mean church growth… I mean Gospel-centered ministry. It really all comes down to math… and some grace… especially for our leaders… but usually not for the people they hurt since aren’t preaching to thousands of people every Sunday.

Let’s deal in some round numbers for the sake of simplicity.

Say there are 100 people in our church (Not that we’ve ever had less than 150 since our launch in our pastor’s massive basement). Through the spectacular preaching of our pastor and the extremely male headship of our elder board, 99 of those people come to a saving knowledge of the Gospel, join the membership class, pledge to tithe regularly, volunteer on a regular basis, and begin reaching friends with the Gospel in order to expand our empire… I mean ministry. That’s amazing, right? What church wouldn’t dream of a 99% conversion rate?

However, let’s say that one person out of the 100 has a run in with our pastor, perhaps while he’s jet-lagged from speaking at a conference, or a disagreement with our elders who are simply asking for accountability that requires acquiescing to their demands despite everything that person believes about healthy personal boundaries. For the sake of argument, let’s say that person is deeply wounded and even spiritually manipulated, although we’re not sure how that could happen since people living under godly accountability technically can’t be manipulated. They just need to submit to their leaders and call it a day.

The wounded person may leave our church or the faith altogether. Either way, it’s not our job to cater to the whims and needs of one person. We have important work to do. We have 99 people to instruct in theology, to train in outreach, and to engage in our latest giving campaign.

It’s an unwise allocation of resources and the highly valuable time of our leaders to chase one person out of the hundred who wanders away.

If that one person out of 100 simply wanders away from the Gospel altogether in order to pursue a sinful lifestyle, then our hands are truly tied. If the Gospel has been preached and the elect have responded, what use is there in seeking out the one person wanders away?

Whatever the reason may be for one person wandering away or leaving our ministry, the key point here is that leaders need to keep focused on their vision and mission. If someone doesn’t want to “get on the bus” or play ball with your God-given vision and mission, then let them go.

Don’t leave the 99 behind in order to pursue the one who wanders away. That’s a terrible way to manage an organization or to fulfill a vision.

Pastors literally can’t afford to leave the 99 behind in order to pursue the one who wanders away.

Can you imagine the CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies doing such a foolish thing?

Stop thinking about the one who wandered away! Invest in the 99 who are committed to your vision… and to the Gospel.

We want to see the Gospel reach all people, not just one person. Judging by the size of our congregation, you should stop listening to our few critics and start taking notes on our church management… I mean, disciple-making process.

 

[A Note to Readers: In case you were wondering, yes, this is satire. It’s not based on a particular church. It addresses some broader trends I’ve observed and experienced in many churches and materials written for church leaders.]

 

 

I Would Rather Be an Atheist Than Attend the Village Church

truth

UPDATE: The Village Church has apologized and reconciled with Karen Hinkley, admitting wrongdoing and pledging to review all policies related to this situation.

 

When I compared the people who rejected Jesus with the people who accepted Jesus for a recent book project, there is one stark difference between the two.

Those who rejected Jesus had systems of religious practices and theological constructs to rely on and defend. When Jesus came to fulfill the law, impart the Spirit, and offer access to God outside of religious authorities, they saw him as a threat.

Those who accepted Jesus were generally the sinful outsiders who had little to no previous connection with God. They had been rejected by the religious institutions and the leaders who controlled the insiders and outsiders. They didn’t rely on laws or rules to get in with God. They were no doubt living in sin, but they also didn’t have a false sense of connection with God. They were ready to receive God’s genuine freedom, not a man-made counterfeit based on proof-texting and laws.

I’ve been following a recent series of events involving a missionary named Karen Hinkley affiliated with The Village Church in Dallas, a congregation that is led by Matt Chandler. Chandler, it should be noted, leads the Acts 29 Network, a church planting network that had long been affiliated with well-documented spiritual abuser Mark Driscoll until Driscoll’s misdeeds became too much of a liability.

I’ll offer a brief summary of the situation involving the Village Church. Karen (now Hinkley) and Jordan Root were serving as missionaries, Jordan confessed to viewing child pornography (and later admitted to abusing young girls when he was underage), Jordan also has a long history of being in situations with young, vulnerable children, Karen opted to annul the marriage and leave Jordan, the Village Church disagreed with Karen and placed her under church discipline, Jordan is allegedly a member in good standing because he “repented” despite his history of lying, Karen is under church discipline, and The Village Church has denied her request to terminate membership.

Karen has pleaded with The Village Church to be more forthcoming about the details surrounding her husband and has asked them to work diligently to uncover any inappropriate contact he may have had with children as proof of his repentance.

Rather than apologize for the creepy, cult-like “denial” to Karen’s letter terminate her membership, The Village Church dug in further and sent a rather terrifying self-justifying letter in which the church leaders described Karen as a covenant member who must abide by the counsel of her church leadership and work to restore her marriage. The biblical proof-texting in this letter is unfeeling and almost robotic. Any sense of empathy or common humanity evaporates so long as Bible verses can be piled up.

It’s as if Jesus said: “A new commandment I give to you, that you proof text one another: just as I have proof texted you, you also are to proof text another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you proof text one another.” John 13:34-45, New Village Church Translation.

The Village Church has an allegedly air-tight, biblical rationale for everything, and that is their biggest problem. They can justify unreasonable expectations about exercising control in the lives of their so-called “covenant members” because they honestly believe they have the Bible behind them. They see themselves as the direct messengers of God who have correctly discerned the authoritative Word of God, and any disagreement with the “God-appointed” elders is a direct offense against God. How else can you explain such a heavy-handed, laborious response to Karen Hinkley when all they had to do was say, “Good bye”?

I would much rather start out at square one as an atheist or unrepentant sinner than place myself under the spiritual abuse, distortion of scripture, and controlling leadership of The Village Church. Honestly, such a closed, tightly regulated system will eventually fail many people eventually any way, so you may as well start out with a blank slate spiritually.

You won’t see your need for a savior if you’re constantly looking at the ways that the Bible makes you right.

While in seminary and in the years following, I have continually been challenged by the words of Jesus about this error: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39-40, ESV).

It’s not that The Village Church can’t preach the Gospel or hasn’t led people to salvation. It’s that the Village Church ties on burdens that people cannot bear and distorts or obscures the message of the Gospel with man-made laws. The Village Church leadership has a clean cup on the outside with shining scripture verses, but they distort a filthy inside that is rooted in over-reaching leadership and a lack of emphasis on love for the sake of being as “biblical” as possible. They have strained so hard at the gnats of “biblical leadership” and “biblical eldership” that they have overlooked the more basic commands to love one another.

I have been in conservative churches where these unhealthy dynamics have lead to spiritual abuse, judgment, severed relationships, and division. There is no doubt that people who are new to the Gospel without such a background are far better prepared to receive the Gospel. I’ve personally detoxed from negative church experiences for years and watched many friends do the same.

For every time I hear someone point to the “souls saved” by The Village Church or the Acts 29 Network, I’ll point them to the many friends I know who have either left the faith or struggled mightily for years to find peace with God after being exposed to such toxic theology and leadership.

I know that such a provocative post title must be difficult to read for people affiliated with The Village Church or who have benefitted from the work of Matt Chandler. I don’t write such words lightly. It’s my sincere hope that a post like this helps us have frank conversations about what healthy and unhealthy churches look like.

Most importantly, it’s my hope and prayer that the Village Church leadership rethinks the way it overreaches into the lives of covenant members. If they persist in their ways, I fear that they’ll be receiving a lot more requests to terminate covenant membership. Will they continue to deny the right of covenant members who disagree with them to leave?