Church Planting Lesson #18: It’s tempting to become a Pharisee

LESSON#18:  It’s tempting to become a Pharisee

As I am preparing to teach on qualified leadership (1st Timothy 3), I was reminded of a paper I wrote several years ago titled, “No More than Jesus, No Less than Jesus.”  It was written for a board that I was a part of from another church about whether or not the elders should be allowed to drink alcohol.

I don’ t post this paper to bash anyone or open up old wounds, rather, to show what can happen when well-intentioned leaders forget how to lead.  At the heart of the paper is a call for pastors/elders/overseers to remember what how they are called to lead AND how tempting it is to become a Pharisee.  Why?  Because having rules that tell you what to do every moment is easier than asking God, “What is most Glorifying here” every moment.

The Bible describes Eldership as an office filled by men, called by God, and possessing incredible responsibility. God charges us as shepherds to tend the flock; among other things this includes helping them discern what is right, wrong, good, evil, primary, and secondary. Not based on man’s judgment, our discernment must be sourced in God’s revealed Word through continual illumination by God the Holy Spirit. In fact, it’s not essential that our positions on doctrine or other issues need necessarily always be rationally or emotionally satisfying, as long our positions are unapologetically biblical.

Knowing this, we must be able to distinguish between man’s wisdom (foolishness) and God’s wisdom (truth) and must not be led astray by what we think or feel as opposed to what God has clearly said. The congregation of the church will look to its leadership for an example of how to live, for clarity and instruction. Any stance we take or position we hold will communicate something about our values and ultimately our understanding of God.

READ THE WHOLE PAPER HERE: no more than Jesus


Why Jesus Hates LOST

With a title like that, I knew you’d read. I really don’t know  if Jesus would give LOST a single thought, but maybe he would since the show’s creators felt it necessary to bring him into it.

For the last six years, I have been a die-hard, committed, and faithful fan of the television series, LOST.  I watched the pilot and every episode that followed.   I watched like an addict looking forward to his next fix.  Until that amazing Wednesday each week (Tuesdays for the FINAL season), I would  religiously review old episodes, watch the pop-up shows, download You Tube clips from freaks who looked like they’d never have girlfriends, I searched the web for clues, followed all of the fake web pages created for Oceanic, studied Dharma pictures, debated theories with friends,  every week for 6 long years.  Though it angered me to have ONE answer given for every FOURTEEN questions posed, even when critics warned me to flee, even when there were 6 and 8 month “breaks”, even when my own family condemned this unhealthy love affair…I remained true.

As the final season came to an end, however, I began to fear that there would be no real conclusion to things.   Without question it would “end”, but it would be an end without solid answers to the thousand questions we all have.   And that is just what happened.   There will be many articles written for and against the ending of LOST.  I don’t think these articles are meaningless, especially because it appears (as the graphic shows), that the writers were trying to SAY something.  I don think we need to consider WHAT they were saying if, for no other reason, because this simple television show captivated millions of people for over six years.  I know that I am disappointed, I don’t know exactly why.  I like what one person wrote:

“Ultimately, ‘Lost’ was a show for the anxious, uncertain, post-Sept. 11 nation we have become. We’ve had to accept ambiguity as a fact of life, and we seek answers and closure, though none may be forthcoming. We’re leery and skeptical about science but riddled with doubt about faith. To the extent that ‘Lost’ was about the journey and not the destination, about the drive to solve riddles rather than the solutions themselves, it was the show that best explained us to ourselves.”

Perhaps I don’t like LOST because it simply didn’t end the way I wanted.  I don’t know if I could have told you what I wanted exactly.  I think it is more because I’ve realized what LOST is: a sobering picture of a broken culture we live in holding to all too common, and broken, values like:

Ambiguity over Definition: LOST revealed that answers are meaningless.  The entire show created more questions and could ever be answered.  In fact, I believe they were asked simply to manufacture skepticism not understanding.  Good, evil, right, wrong, life, death, even time was never defined.  Such a view resonates with our culture that hates black and white and loves the varying shades of gray.

Journey over Destination: The LOST saga revealed that the journey is more important than the destination.  This is not to say that we don’t learn something in the process.  The pain process of life is certainly where we learn things, but it is a journey to somewhere specific–one of two places in fact.   Like many people today, the meaning of their life is found in the process–so that is all they do.  They “learn”, but do not grow.  They ask, but never conclude.  They talk about what is happening to them, but they never actually do anything.   The writers scratched at the surface of a “final destination” but alas, it turned into a spiritual Royal Fork Buffet by the end.  In a “church”, while a man named “Christian” who talked like Yoda told his Son about the afterlife, he stood in front of a stained glass window with every religious symbol you can imagine.

Chaotic Experience over Ordered Reality: LOST writers also got a bit lucky with their timing.  The culture was primed for a TV show to go VIRAL, and that is exactly what happened.  The show went beyond some prime-time hour on television.  It extended into blogs, secret videos, fake websites, all kinds of different avenues for people to “Experience” the show.  In fact, I am beginning to believe that is exactly what the writers wanted.  They didn’t actually have answers, they didn’t imagine a story arc with a clear beginning, middle and end…or even another beginning.  Instead, they created a chaotic experience that everyone wanted to be a part of.   The final episode was indicative of the entire series, dedicated to helping us remember our emotional experience.  In the end, it is hoped that the shared experience we’ve will make the FACT that they didn’t really tell us a story at all, excusable.  Remember, “it all really happened, ” even if you were fooled into believing something else would happen.

Relationship over Justice: In the end, the writers of the LOST series wanted us to focus on the characters.   When we do, however, we see that this is a group of evil, broken, sinful people for the most part.  It is quite easy to forget what happened over six years.  A brief review will show us that all of these people did some fairly horrific things.  In the end, all is forgiven, forgotten, or whatever…because they all found love.  How nice.  I’m glad the womanizers, terrorists, liars, thieves, murderers, hooches, all get to live happily ever after without having to actually deal with any of their sin.  It is  understandable that the writers would create an environment strangely familiar to the Catholic view of Purgatory–where the sinner get’s a second chance.  The only thing more offensive that a culture of 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th chances is one where salvation is found in relationships with other people, as opposed to God himself.

Ok. I feel better.  And, although I’ll never re-watch a LOST episode, I will continue to live in community with my “brothers” who were brought together by the newest social experiment.  I just hate being a guinea pig.

Half-filled Pews

I attended a church many years ago where they would publish the name of the pastor who was going to preach a week in advance.  Sadly, because the church was polarized around this one guy, on his “off weeks”, half of the church sat at home worshiping with “Pastor Sheets.”

Before I became a pastor, I was the worst (or best) critic of pastors and their sermons.    I would size up the preacher within minutes, judging his voice, his tone, his verbal fillers, his charisma (or lack thereof), his clothes, his manliness, his hair, his text or topic, his illustrations, the length of  his sermon, his points, his theology, the number of verses he quotes, and whether or not he includes an altar call.  If the pastor or his sermon were weighed and found wanting on Sam’s Scales of Successful Sermons, I too would be staying home or visiting another church the next time his name appeared in the bulletin.  The offering plate was my own personal tip jar where I could communicate my appreciation or disdain.

This is the reason you hear people leaving churches saying, “I just wasn’t being fed.”  By reason I don’t mean weak pastors or sermons, rather, weak judgmental Christians in the audience who refuse to look at the real problem–their own hearts.  Anyone who says or has spoke those words (hand raised as guilty) fails to realize is that you’re only supposed to be “fed” by someone else for the first years of your life.  Being fed beyond that is like watching a nine-year old ask for “nummies” from Mommy. It is both creepy and wrong.  Pastors and churches aren’t there to feed everyone, but to equip people to feed themselves.

That said, we all have to fight the temptation to dismiss the any pastor or his sermon because we think or feel 1) it isn’t what we need right now 2) it isn’t the way you would preach or teach it 3) it isn’t like what I’m used to 4) it isn’t like (or as good as) the church I came from or the pastor I podcast (from the church I wish I could go to).  That is not to say that we don’t use discernment and test what is preached by Scripture.  Notice, I said we test by Scripture, NOT by the theological school of which we find ourselves raised or affiliated in.  Scripture dictates truth, not tradition.  If we hear something that doesn’t accord with “what we’ve been taught”, we must be careful NOT to plug our ears or close our hearts to what God might be teaching us through this “heretic.”  In short, we must avoid using any form “righteous judgment” that causes us DISMISS truth, especially because of how or by whom it is communicated, in the name of discernment.  .

If we allow ourselves to be governed by a critical spirit, we may find ourselves working harder to avoid the truth rather than find it.  I believe that, whenever the gospel is preached, our hearts are working hard to avoid the truth.  As the Holy Spirit works to pull the veil from our eyes, we fight against Him and pull it back over ourselves.   

1Corinthians 4.1-4 Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. 2 But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. 3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. 4 In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.

Go on a technology fast…

“atechagoraphobia – the fear of being w/o technology”  Read this great post on Drew Goodman’s blog about our interaction with (and possible idoltary of) Technology.  It will make you consider going on a technology fast.  If doing so sounds painful or impossible…consider whether your enslaved.

(And yes, there is an irony to reading this on an internet blog)

5 “Trustworthy” but often ignored “Sayings”

Many people try to boil down Christianity to simple truths.  In the process, they will create pithy little statements that eventually become the meaningless mission statements of churches like: “Loving God and Loving People”;
Real Friends, Real Faith, Real Adventure…”; “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”  While all well-intentioned, if we are not careful, such memorable statements can become clever biblical sounding phrases that have little or nothing to do with the truth of the gospel.

In his letters to pastors, Paul writes five different, “trustworthy sayings”.   Appearing only in the pastoral letters, these five statements represent simple and important truths that every pastor (and Christian) should remember.  As Paul wrote in 1Corinthians 15.3, “For I delivered to you as of first important what I also received”, these statements reveal that most important thing is Gospel Truth:

GOSPEL PERSPECTIVE: 1Timothy 1.15 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. We need the gospel first before anyone else. Like Paul, our relationship with self, others, and all of creation is dependent upon our relationship with God.  We do not make horizontal comparisons with those around us, only vertical ones with Jesus.  The deeper our relationship with God, the more we meditate on the cross, the more aware of our own depravity we become.  If we are not always the worst sinner we can imagine, then we will not have the humility to love others as Jesus has loved us.

GOSPEL LEADERS: 1Timothy 3.1 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. We need gospel leaders who lead with the gospel. We cannot resign ourselves to be fed and fat forever.  As Jesus said, we need workers to bring in the harvest and under-shepherds to pastor the sheep.  It is easier to follow than it is to lead.  Leaders are held to a higher standard by everyone.  They are criticized, questioned, and even despised.  Most people will refuse to lead. Most people will choose comfort and compromise over standing for Gospel truth and miss out on living a life of suffering AND joy, like Jesus.

GOSPEL CHANGE: 1Timothy 4.7b-9 “train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. The gospel is the way we train ourselves for godliness.  The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom; we are not saved by the gospel and then changed by obedience though you’d think that by some of the sermons you hear preached today.  Accepting the gospel itself transforms us (II Cor. 5.17), then meditating on the gospel is the way we grow (Gal. 3:1-3) how we are renewed (Col. 1:6).  The gospel the solution to each problem and the power through every barrier (Rom. 1:16-17).

GOSPEL ENDURANCE: 2Timothy 2.11 The saying is trustworthy for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful–for he cannot deny himself.” The gospel tells us that Jesus is faithful even if we are not.  The gospel is not that “it doesn’t matter what you believe, as long as you’ve been good,” but that “it doesn’t matter if you’ve been good, as long as you believe in Christ as your Savior”. The gospel is not that we go from being irreligious to being religious, it’s that we realize that our reasons for both our religiosity and our irreligiosity were essentially the same and essentially wrong. We were seeking to be our own saviors, develop our own righteousness, and thereby keep control of our own life. When we trust in Christ as our Savior, we turn from trusting self-righteousness OR self-indulgence, from either moralism or hedonism, to self-denial, or a life like Jesus.

GOSPEL LOVE: Titus 3.8  The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things so that those who have believing in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works.  These things are excellent and profitable for people. The gospel informs and directs our good works. Our hearts our bent toward self-salvation–working our way to God by doing ‘good things’.  The gospel tells us that:  We obey not because by our works we are accepted, rather, that by the work of Jesus we’re accepted, therefore we obey.  Our obedience is a response to God’s love and our works are an effort to bring our Lord and King glory.  And in truth, they are not effort at all.  Adoration and praise are always a natural responses to what we love.  We love others because Jesus first loved us (1John 4.19).  All of our works are responses to God’s grace and, even the works themselves, are a result of that grace working through us (Ephesians 2.8-10).

When wolves are (mis)leading the sheep…

1st Timothy is a letter to a leader of a church about leadership.  In preaching through the first chapter in Paul’s letter first letter to Timothy, it occurred to me that we/I approach it from one perspective.   We know that Timothy is a godly shepherd and that his flock is being attacked by the wolves Paul identifies.  This fact is clear from the books of Acts and the letter itself.  As pastors then, we naturally preach through Timothy, assuming God is speaking to everyone else but me  (the common error we all make).  In other words, pastors assume they are the “godly shepherd” and that their critics are the wolves.  It seems that those listening might assume the same thing–that the critic, questioner, or person who leaves is always the Big Bad Wolf.

As I preached in the last sermon: ” this is not a charge for pastors or anyone to become Wolf-hunters, marking every person they don’t like, or has caused a problem in their “church” as a wolf.  It is also not an excuse to avoid dialogue with people about difficult things because you feel threatened by strong personalities or difficult questions.”

There is a reason why Paul warns Timothy time and time again to “watch himself” before he charges him to watch the flock. The truth is, though many wolves instinctively point the finger at the shepherd (esp. when confronted with the truth) as the real threat; sometimes the accused are actually the true sheep and a wolf is in fact masquerading as a shepherd.  How do you know if the shepherd is in fact the real problem?  Here are a few signs:

SIGN #1: The shepherd talks like a wolf.  In essence, the shepherd stops preaching the gospel.   The gospel is lost and replaced with either legalism or some sort of liberal theology.  Both lose the gospel in different ways.  Having begun with gospel truth, the shepherd now preaches a mosaic of orthodox truth, self-help, and pop culture.  Like the wolves of the Bible and every children’s tory we know, wolves use flattery and manipulation (not truth) to get their way.  This is easy to spot for anyone who knows their Bible but very difficult for those who’ve been part of the flock for a long time.  We’ll often excuse what is said because of what is experienced through relationship and history together.

SIGN #2:  The shepherd acts like a wolf.  The shepherd is slow to listen, quick to speak, and quick to become angry.  Like wolves, if they feel threatened, they growl.  This is the very anti-thesis of the attitude of humility inherent in gospel.  Wolves are deceptive, hiding many things for fear of being found out.  If they are challenged, they flex their muscle, bear their teeth, and threaten.

SIGN #3: The shepherd tries hard not to look like a wolf: Instead of engaging with difficult questions, dialogue about biblical truths, or confessing and repenting of sin, the wolf will begin to blame shift.  They will pull the victim card and, if they’re a leader, will start talking about being “persecuted” or “suffering” for Jesus.  This is NOT to say that this doesn’t happen from time to time to good leaders.  It is the say that bad leaders, wolves, will be quick to abuse Scripture, tout their resume, or demonize anyone’s reputation if their’s is threatened (make them worse than you).

SIGN #4:  The shepherd hangs around with other wolves: The Bible teaches that bad company corrupts good morals–the same goes with wolves.   Anyone hangs out with a wolf long enough, they will either get eaten or “turned” (to use vampire language).   Wolves always hang around in packs, they hunt together.  Typically, if you want to know if a leader is a wolf, check out who their friends are.  We’re not talking about their facebook friends, rather, who they read, learn from, and view as their mentors.  More often than not, wolves breed wolves breed wolves.

SIGN #5:  The “flock” acts like a pack of wolves.  The problem with a wolf calling the shots as the Shepherd is that most of the flock will turn on you to.   Some sheep are brave enough to say something, to take a stand, to speak the truth for the love of the flock.  In doing this, they hope that the flock will see the truth (this is a grace of God) and that changes will be effected.  Unfortunately, a “good  wolf” or a VERY bad leader, effectively controls his flock.   In other words, most people will pick the shepherd’s team because of the trust (control) that has been developed over the years.   Once good friends will suddenly become defensive wolves, ready to bite anyone who might threaten the pack…err…flock.

SIGN #6:  There are a lot of dead sheep near the shepherd. For every shepherd who is in fact a wolf, there is a trail of blood going back years.   Many sheep have been eaten and many faith-lives destroyed.   No one is perfect and this is not to say that there exists a pastor who has never made a mistake or hurt someone.  It is to say, however, that there are an inordinate number of bleeding sheep who have crossed paths with this leader.

SIGN #7:  People are scared to confront the shepherd:  Sadly, eventually the shepherd paralyzes the rest of the leadership of the flock.  Strong men become weak nancy-boys afraid to stand for the truth.  Though everyone sees the true identity of the leader, they are afraid to say anything, and don’t.  Meanwhile, the flock dies even if it grows.  A once healthy fear of God has been replaced by a fear of the approval of men, or of a man.   Ultimately, the head-wolf perpetuates a worship disorder where a position, reputation, or paycheck is more important than Jesus and His Word.

I hesitated to even write this blog as I have my own critics.   I pray that all pastors, most of all me, will proceed with the utmost humility as they minister and that we will all live out the attitude of 1Timothy 1.15 when dealing with wolves or sheep.

Church Planting Lesson #17: Finish how you started

LESSON #17:  FINISH HOW YOU STARTED (as long as you started with Jesus)

Below is an excerpt from my a journal I wrote when we first started gathering as a church.  It was written the day after our FIRST OFFICIAL GATHERING.  I have this torn piece of paper from my journal(who knows where the rest is) taped into the front of my Bible.  The words and the tone of it reminds me that, when we first started, we really didn’t know what we were doing.  Thinking back, it must have looked completely ludicrous to everyone who watched–it even seems like that a bit to me.  But in the moment, it is exciting.  In the moment, you have nothing BUT the cross to hold on to, nothing BUT to wait on Jesus to move, nothing BUT to trust that Jesus is the one that plants, grows, shrinks, and closes the doors on churches.

The journal below helps me to remember who is really in control and what is most important. The journal entry appears exactly as written. In the margin there are a few notes, some of which remind me of what we’re still seeing three years later: “most a half hour late…I was worried…white board…taught the gospel…”  Here is the entry:

“The First Core Mtg. –> Sat. July 1

There were 14-16 people here.   Most of the people have followed DR since its inception.  1/2 of the people were in leadership and there were a few surprised.  I guess I could be disappointed if I allowed my mind to go there–I won’t.  I must focus on the fact that you brought who you wanted to this meeting.  I realize that Summer is quite possibly the worst time to start gathering, so it will be hit and miss for a while–even with leadership.  But we had a church service, the first of many I pray.  We fellowshiped, worshipped, and heard the gospel together.  I probably taught as if there were 200 people there, but so be it, we had 17.  I must remind myself that you began with one, then two, then12.  You never really got too much bigger, but there was a following.  You have a church out here somewhere.  Help me to keep my eyes firmly fixed on the mission, not to measure success by anything else but only how closely we stick to the proclaiming the gospel (Mark 16.15) and the healing of the sick and sore (Isaiah 61).”