Research Pastor?

13 April 2021

I had two conversations yesterday about the ways in which the American church has grown like other organizations, and how that has caused severe problems.

In one conversation, we were discussing this article, which compares the traits we generally hire for in a megachurch pastor with the traits comparably-sized businesses hire for in a CEO. Big surprise: same basic profile, and it comes with the same basic set of temptations and problems. Shocking, right?

I’ve written elsewhere about the problems of trying to map business culture onto the church, so I won’t belabor it here. Best case scenario? Your church gets run like a business instead of the house of God. Worst case? Your church leaders misbehave like businessmen do…which happens constantly.

The other conversation was with a church member (different church, far away) who was observing a disparity between pay and productivity. In his church, part-time (i.e., bivocational) staff members do most of the work, but the senior pastor is negotiating for a raise. In my friend’s view, the senior pastor contributes less (doesn’t counsel or disciple parishioners, preaches three times a month), and flatly refuses to be bivocational for various reasons. Offhand, I observed that this sounded a bit like the academic world. As I spun the analogy out, it worked even more closely than I’d thought, and it made me a little sick.

A lot of the necessary grunt work is getting handled by the adjunct grades. In many churches, the youth pastor position is the career equivalent of the guy who teaches the night section of freshman comp at your local community college: entry level, bad hours, but if you put a couple years in you can move up. The logistical heavy lifting (committee chairing, managerial continuity) gets handled by the mid-grades (assistant/associate professors, assistant/associate pastors). At the top of both ladders is a research professorship where you get paid to study the stuff you like and give maybe 2-3 lectures a month.

There is a big difference, though. When the research professor in the academic world comes out to give a lecture, it’s cutting-edge research. When the senior pastor comes out of the study to give a sermon, it’s first-year Bible school stuff: basic Bible exposition, basic doctrine, basic application. Why does it take 20-30 hours in the study to produce that?

The seminary I attended (and for a while, taught for) lives on the fringes of a tribe that calls itself “the doctrinal movement.” Their pastors spend 30+ hours a week in the study (actually, most doctrinal pastors would consider it slacking off to only put in 30 hours of prep!), and deliver long, detailed lectures multiple times a week. I have my differences with their approach to church, but at least they’re delivering a proportional return on the study time they’re putting in.

Other pastors? Not so much.

I do want to carve out some exceptions here. There can be myriad nigh-invisible demands on a pastor’s time, from preparation for a budget meeting with the church trustees to a steady stream of people calling, emailing, or dropping by the church to talk with him about some personal crisis. When everybody wants 20 minutes of your time, that adds up! If the pastor is actually spending time tending the flock that Christ entrusted to him, then all is well. If the pastor is wearing through the knees of his pants praying for his people, then all is well. If a pastor is a newbie, and it genuinely takes him 30 hours to get his sermon prepped — again, all is well, at least for his first year.

There’s another population of pastors, though, that’s spending days in the study preparing sermons that show no sign of needing that much attention. Those guys need to get to work.


Nee vs. Kuyper

6 April 2021

Once upon a time, Watchman Nee wrote a little book called The Latent Power of the Soul in which he allowed that various paranormal things are possible for the human soul, but all of them are off limits for a Christian. The argument goes that these ‘soulish’ powers are verboten to Christians because we are intended to draw our power from the Spirit.

This has curb appeal for a lot of people, but on closer examination, it’s pious-sounding nonsense. The nonsense is easy enough to see if we apply the same argument consistently to all such ‘soulish’ powers. You are not allowed to go to the gym and lift weights, or practice doing complex math problems in your head, or learn to tell when someone is lying to you, because you are supposed to derive your power from the Holy Spirit. 

The nonsense is easy enough to see there. Of course it’s okay to do all these things. Your job is to take all the abilities you develop and bring them into subjection to Christ.

And that’s the underlying problem with Nee’s view: he brackets out certain admittedly natural human abilities, and then says we are not allowed to bring those abilities into subjection to Christ. Abraham Kuyper articulated a better approach: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘Mine!'”

So when we’re talking about intuition, specialized powers of minute observation, subtle palpation, manual manipulation, or whatever else, why approach the matter any differently?

“How do we know that these things are even real?” someone will want to know. That is a great question. We should be interested to sift the true from the false.

We may not approach that examination with the bias of, say, a James Randi or a Richard Dawkins. We know something they do not: the materialists are wrong, from top to bottom. The world is not what they say it is. Angels are real. Demons are real. Humans are both body and spirit. God reigns over it all. It is silly for a Christian to approach reality as if all spiritual claims are automatically bunk.

We know better. And whatever human abilities are real, are designed by God to serve Christ’s glory under the direction of the Spirit. Just like physical strength. 


Getting the Questions Wrong

30 March 2021

Once upon a time, many moons ago, someone asked, “What’s the bare minimum that a person would need to believe in order to be saved?”

Some of us, myself among them, were silly enough to venture an answer to that question. I have since repented.

There are two problems with this question, one exegetical and one practical. The exegetical problem is that the Scriptures never answer the question directly, which makes it very difficult to substantiate a “Thus saith the Lord” answer — which, in this case, would be the only answer worth fighting over. An answer based on theological reasoning isn’t out of the question — logical consequence is fair game in theology — but difficult, in that it’s easy enough to put forth an answer, but very hard to rule out competing answers. Thus far, nobody’s in any danger of decisively winning that argument.

But the practical problem with the question is the real clincher: why would you want to give anybody the bare minimum? Where does the Bible suggest giving no extra? No matter what you think the bare minimum is, you will find very few, if any, biblical passages that present only your bare minimum content. Meanwhile, there will be many, many passages that present additional (from your perspective, “extra”) content, and even more damaging, a number of passages that leave out something you regard as essential.

But over here in the real world, we don’t aim to convert anybody to a minimum understanding. We want them to get all of Jesus that they possibly can. We want them to know Jesus, and the more of His word we can give them, the better.


Forgiveness is HARD

23 March 2021

I had occasion to preach at Faith Community Littleton this past Sunday. When I teach people how to make disciples, I tell them I’m from the “open a vein” school of discipleship: we don’t teach in the abstract, we invite people into our own struggles and let them see God at work in real time. Well, this was an “open a vein” sermon. It may be the least polished thing I’ve ever preached.


Like Begets Like

20 March 2021

When a human man and a human woman make a baby, what kind of baby do they make?

A human baby.

Frogs make more frogs, fish make more fish, and dragonflies make more dragonflies. Like begets like; you reproduce what you are.

The same is true in education. When I was learning to be a school bus driver, all my instructors were school bus drivers. When I went to massage therapy school, all my teachers without exception were massage therapists.

Makes sense, right?

So if you want to be a professor, it makes all the sense in the world to spend years of your life with professors. How else would you learn to be one? It takes a group of academics to make an academic; how else would you get one?

But if you want to be a practitioner, you need to spend time with practitioners. Nothing is sillier than thinking you can spend three to four years in classrooms with professional academics and emerge a fully-formed ministry practitioner. In what other context would you accept such a ludicrous idea?


Washed

9 March 2021

I had occasion to finally summarize my research and teaching on baptism over the past decade or so. Here it is.


No Jobs; Plenty of Work

2 March 2021

When the farmers settled the Great Plains, they were often farming a homestead many miles from the nearest town. Establishing a farm like that, there is never a shortage of work to be done. With winter coming fast, you don’t have a lot of time to build, so you probably throw up the smallest shed you can get away with and spend the first winter sharing it with the animals. Speaking of animals: they need daily care, and there’s new ground to break, weeds to pull from the garden, equipment to fix, and on and on — an endless amount of work.

Work that nobody pays you for.

If you do your work hard, quickly, and well, you will survive the winter so you can expand it all next spring. If you’re industrious and the harvests are decent, by the time a few cycles have gone by, you’ll have a house, established fields and garden plots, a barn for the animals, and so on — a thriving homestead. Maybe you’ll have a little spare time and garden space to raise tobacco or some such for a cash crop. Or set up a still to turn your leftover grain into whiskey you can sell.

But you still won’t have a job. Nobody pays you to work the homestead. You have the fruits of your labors. Either that’s enough, or it’s not.

That’s the kind of ministry to which many of us are called. The harvest is plentiful, but nobody’s gonna hire you to bring it in. Either you will do it anyway because Jesus said you should, or you won’t.

There may be times you’re able to make a paycheck doing ministry work, or people give you gifts that enable you to devote more time and attention to the work. There’s nothing wrong with that; Paul did it at times and so have I. But Paul’s decisions about where to minister don’t seem to have ever been determined — or even influenced — by the availability of paying ministry gigs. He cheerfully went places where he had to support himself to do the work, and so have I.

And so should you.


Serving the Corporation

23 February 2021

I went through a period of about a year and a half where my floridly bivocational work situation necessitated missing church some Sundays, and visiting a handful of different congregations on the weeks I could attend church. I had deep, regular accountability with multiple different believers and close friends during that time (as I still do), and I made worship a priority even on the weeks that I wasn’t able to get to a service. But one of the things I remember most from that time is the look of concern on pastors’ (and other church people’s) faces when they asked where I went to church and I explained that I didn’t go to the same church every single week.

Here’s how the conversation would go down: they would launch into an explanation of how important it is for a believer to have accountability and regular fellowship. I would explain that I met weekly with two different small groups of men who kept me accountable, and spend time in the homes of three Christian families for regular fellowship. They would express  relief that I wasn’t totally neglecting fellowship and accountability, but usually still have some reservations. Didn’t smell right somehow. 

It’s laughable, if you think about it. How many Christians do you know that have two accountability groups and close relationships with three families? I was enjoying some of the best fellowship and accountability of my whole life, and somehow it didn’t meet expectations!

Now we all know that if I’d just said, “I go to XYZ Bible Church,” the follow-up questions would have been different. They’d have asked things like “How do you like it there?” or “What kind of music is the worship?” There would have been no follow-up scrutiny of whether I was getting real fellowship and accountability at XYZ Bible Church; the bare fact of my church attendance would be satisfactory. But why is that? Don’t we all know people who are regular church attenders who aren’t plugged into any kind of meaningful fellowship or accountability? In fact, don’t we all know people who, despite regular church attendance, struggle to “get plugged in” at their church? We all know that church attendance doesn’t actually solve the fellowship and accountability problems, yet we act as if it does.

Here’s a useful tool for thinking about life: anytime there’s a visible gap between our behavior and what we say that we care about, that’s something worth paying attention to.  In this case, our words say we care about fellowship and accountability, but our actions say we care about regular attendance at the same building. What’s up with that?

As we’ve been discussing, the Body and the corporation are two separate things. On the available evidence, it wasn’t my lack of body life that made people nervous. I demonstrably had more body life than many of the people I was talking to. No, they were nervous that I didn’t belong to one particular corporation.

Now, I can’t see anybody’s heart, but I have a nasty suspicion that the real source of the nervousness here is the demonstration that the status quo isn’t inevitable. Very few people are cynical enough to try to drag me to their church specifically so they can collect my tithe money (especially considering the small size of my tithe!) However, the vast majority of pastors are committed to — and reliant on — a corporate structure that depends on congregants devoting their tithe money and volunteer hours to one specific corporation. That’s how their salaries get paid.

Just by living as I was, I showed that a believer doesn’t have to be the property of one specific corporation. If believers no longer regard a corporation as a one-stop-shop, if we rely instead on the organic body around us, without regard to which corporation a particular person might belong to…that could be a game-changer. Such a network of believers is not a threat to any one specific church, but it’s a profound threat to the entire system.

Maybe that’s a good thing. 


Killing Vision

16 February 2021

We’ve done a couple of posts on the troubled relationship between the church body and the church corporation. The first one focused on the fact that these are two separate entities with conflicting needs. Another post addressed how to manage the two sets of needs properly.

In this post, I want to spotlight another area of conflict between the corporation and the body: vision. Inconvenient as it is for the corporation to expend its resources on the things most necessary for spiritual growth, it is even less convenient to empower the rank and file to hear and respond to God’s leading in their own lives.

They have a way of getting involved in their neighbors’ lives, their local elementary school, all kinds of things that take their time, effort, and money away from the corporation’s vision. And they make mistakes — mistakes a slick ecclesiastical professional wouldn’t make. Better they stuck to proper channels and put their effort into fulfilling the institution’s Five Year Plan.

If you’re gonna have a vision-directed institution in the manner of such churches, the very first order of business, oddly, is to kill off the vision in the congregation. Such an institution enlists its people in the vision cast by the corporate leadership, and crowds out opportunities for its people to hear God leading them, and respond to the opportunities He is giving them in their own lives. To be fair, not every church does this. But many do it half-consciously, and some churches are deliberately, ruthlessly effective at it. I’ve heard pastors bragging about it. I’ve heard conference speakers bragging about it to a roomful of pastors. (Not, happily, anyone in my city!)

But no. You can’t schedule a revival. The Holy Spirit doesn’t have a booking agent you can call. The Wind that is the Spirit of God blows where He wills. He is gloriously, thoroughly untamed. He certainly does plan…but He doesn’t do your plan.

The best churches I know find ways to notice what God is doing among their people, and support it. In small fellowships like they had in NT times, that’s easy to do — you can’t not notice what God is doing in a group that size. In bigger, corporate-model churches, that’s harder to do, but by no means impossible. The really tough problem is that it’s harder to want to do.


Living with your results

9 February 2021

In my experience with grad schools, I’ve found that unfortunately, they mostly think of character formation as someone else’s job. The church should do it, or the students should find a mentor on their own, or…well, someone else, anyhow. The school focuses on knowledge, and somebody else can worry about the students’ character.

It makes a kind of sense. Grad schools are classrooms, doing what classrooms are good at: book knowledge, and lots of it. They’re sticking to their strengths. But the brutal truth is, the church looks to the schools to prepare people for ministry, and the schools expect someone else to handle the character component, because they’re not set up to do it. All too often, no one does the hard work of character development. Who loses? You do. And so does everyone you minister to for the first few years while you catch up…if you catch up.

Grad schools have the luxury of taking a hands-off approach to character formation because they don’t have to live with their results. You go to them for training, and then you leave, and become someone else’s problem.

Apprenticeships work differently. If we’re mentoring you, we have to live with your mistakes the whole time you’re with us. Also, we hope to keep some of our apprentices even when they’re ready to launch, because the harvest is plentiful around here, and we could use the help.