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.

Why Many Evangelicals Struggle with Prayer (TLDR: We’re Winging It)

Pastors experts in church

We can learn a great deal about “spirituality” of American evangelical Christianity when we consider a 2006 Christianity Today  list of the most influential books over the past 50 years that shaped evangelicals.

For starters, most evangelicals are lucky if they know their movement’s historical background from the past 50 years. It’s safe to say that many evangelicals today have a very limited understanding of church history that has deprived us of the wisdom and practices developed over the centuries. Most telling about the limits of evangelical spirituality, the number one book on the Christianity Today list of influential books is Prayer: Conversing With God by Rosalind Rinker.

I don’t doubt that readers have benefitted from this book that was developed by a missionary who offers practical instructions in group prayer as well as some tips on personal prayer. Many small groups and Sunday schools have found much-needed direction from this book, and I can see the need for it in certain settings.

However, this book’s emphasis on spoken prayer and the overall disconnection from the prayer tradition of the church is quite typical of evangelicals. It’s not that Rinker is wrong or even misguided. The issue is that she doesn’t know what she doesn’t know, which is pretty much the story of the evangelical movement since it began. We have forged ahead with our own advice, spiritual practices, Bible studies, sermons, churches, and ministries without a clear sense of where we’ve come from, what has come before us, and what we may gather from the devout Christians of the past.

The main word that jumps out at me in Rinker’s subtitle (and all of the book’s marketing copy) is “conversation.” For many evangelicals today, we have come to think of prayer as a conversation with the goal of speaking our minds to God, and if God directs us, then we’ll be able to say even more things. In fact, many evangelicals may fear that prayer isn’t working if they don’t receive specific direction or guidance from God.

The goal though is for a conversational prayer, especially for us to speak up in this conversation. There is very little emphasis on silence or to even make silence the point. I don’t get the sense that evangelicals reading Rinker’s book would consider that a completely silent time of prayer, where there is no discernible conversation between God and the person at prayer, brings about any benefit.

Silence isn’t really on the radar of this book, even if silence was a central part of Christian prayer for centuries. On the other hand, a conversation directs us toward a goal or outcome that is measurable and easily understood, such as sensing the Lord’s direction to say certain words in prayer. This is a good thing in and of itself, but when this is our foundational concept of prayer (perhaps ONLY concept of prayer), we run the risk of missing the deeper streams of silent prayer and contemplation that have run throughout the history of the church.

Interestingly, Rinker published her book in 1959, which makes her a contemporary of Thomas Merton who, along with Henrí Nouwen and Thomas Keating, helped Catholics delve deeper into the prayer traditions of the church. However, each of these writers pointed us back to the desert fathers and mothers, the mystics such as Thérèse of Liseux, and the Eastern Orthodox monastics. They drew deeply from these streams while offering their own ideas on prayer for the church and produced rather different works.

That isn’t to set them up in opposition to Rinker. I don’t doubt there are even places of overlap. However, it’s tragic to think that Rinker lacked the deep grounding of the church’s prayer tradition in her book. How much richer and beneficial would it have been?

The phrase that comes to mind for me about evangelical spirituality is: “Winging it.” Before I grounded myself in the writings of the desert fathers and mothers or the contemporary teachers of contemplative prayer, I have felt like I have been winging it with prayer. Every Christian joke about prayer eventually gets to the “Lord we just…” or “Father God, we just thank you…” way that evangelicals have learned to pray because it sounds respectful and officious.

Before we go too hard on evangelicals here, let’s keep in mind that the evangelical movement emerged as a reform. There were real issues that needed to be changed. It’s unhelpful to assert that evangelicals were completely off-base. Put into their shoes, we would have desired to make changes as well.

The central problem with evangelicals, as is illustrated with our “winging it” approach to spirituality, is that we are unaware of our roots (especially our most toxic and problematic roots). We don’t know much about what came before us. The many denominations and off-shoots of denominations in Protestant Christianity should give us pause.

In fact, as I read about the history of the evangelical movement, I was struck by how often groups split off from each other under the auspice of calling themselves “Christians.” They thought of themselves as somehow preserving a pure version of the faith and didn’t see how they had any kind of bias or distinctives that set themselves apart.

Of course, years later, these groups of “Christians” took on more set identities as Nazarenes or the Church of Christ, developing their own history and doctrinal distinctives, but at their formation, these denominations saw themselves as somehow able to transcend their roots in order to claim the label “Christians” for themselves.

This pattern has shown up over and over again among evangelicals seeking to correct mistakes or to separate themselves from evangelicals who are in error over a particular doctrine or practice. As evangelicals debate whether to keep the label itself, some have even suggested just calling themselves “Christians” again.

While I am more than sympathetic to the sentiment, I am concerned that we are once again repeating the mistakes of the past. We need to know our roots and to own them so that we can understand where we come from, what has impacted us, and what we perhaps don’t know.

Our ignorance of our history and of the traditions developed among other Christian around the world has become one of our greatest weaknesses. We have often adopted inadequate practices and institutions as a response to flawed practices and institutions—some certainly were more flawed than others. If evangelicals desire to move away from some of our most toxic elements in the future, we need to look back at our roots in order to see what is healthy, what needs to be removed, and where we can learn from Christians in other traditions.

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

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Simple Advice for Christians: Trust Your Instincts

warning-sign

If a leader is too combative and controlling, there’s a reason for that.

If a spiritual teacher keeps giving you tasks and obligations, you’re not learning spirituality or how to abide in Christ.

If a theology system makes God sound like a monster, then you’re not learning about the God who is love.

If you are fearful of God, then your teachers and guides are in error.

You aren’t crazy. Trust your instincts.

Christianity shouldn’t be a series of inconsistencies and shocking incongruities to be accepted at face value.

There should be mystery and uncertainty when encountering the divine, but if you’re repeatedly running into one red flag after another, you can stop explaining away the obvious problems or treating them as inevitable.

You can stop listening to the leaders who demand the acceptance of inconsistencies.

If a system of theology appears to be controlling, oppressive, and harmful, then trust your instincts.

Ask questions, seek the wisdom of trustworthy women and men with more experience, and explore other traditions and perspectives within the faith. What you find may surprise you.

There’s a good chance that other people have already asked the same questions and raised the same concerns.

My faith has evolved from assenting to a doctrinal checklist to consenting to the loving presence of God without any expectations or demands.

My hands are no longer clutching lists of things to do or inconsistent doctrinal statements that require defending.

When all is well, my hands are open, ready to receive from God.

I’m still angry some days at the Christian machine with its demands, obligations, and hoops to jump through. I forget that God is present, views me as a beloved child, and desires that I share this love with others.

At the very least, I can approach each day with the relief that I’m not crazy, that so many of my instincts about Christianity have led me toward a more loving and generous spiritual practice.

I don’t have to run from questions, doubts, uncertainties, and incongruities. There is a lot that I’m still sorting out and recovering from, but the survival of my faith no longer rests in defending insufficient answers to eternally complex questions.

I can rest in the mysterious presence of God with open hands and a mind that is no longer trying to fit square pegs into round holes.