A Stupid Question

6 September 2022

Can a woman be a pastor? Back in the day when we were formulating a response to second-wave (and early third-wave) feminism, that question was the practical dividing line within the evangelical world.

It was a heady time: suburban megachurches were growing, and even though the far majority of churches were not remotely that big, most churches and pastors looked to the megachurches for leadership. We were paying a lot of attention to leadership, org charts, and such things in those days, so it was only natural to formulate the questions around the church org chart. Which genders can hold which positions? You define the duties for a particular box on the chart, define the skills and attributes that go with those duties, and then put out a call for resumes.  

So in that setting, the question everyone wanted an answer to was, “Can a woman serve as a pastor?” One group said no: men and women have complementary responsibilities in the church, and serving as the pastor is a man’s job. Another group said yes: men and women have equal responsibilities in the church. This is where our two terms (complementarianism and egalitarianism) came from – two different answers to a question about a church org chart. 

But it’s a stupid question. The office of pastor as generally practiced in the American church has no New Testament precedent whatsoever. It doesn’t exist. The right question is not “Can a woman have that job?” The right question is “Should anyone should have that job?


The Longest Sentence

30 August 2022

Ephesians 1:3-14 is one long sentence in Greek — the longest sentence in the Greek New Testament. In it, Paul uses the pronouns “we” and “you” in a surprising way — to refer to Jewish believers and Gentile believers, respectively. That fact comes as a bit of a surprise to a modern reader, and you’re not alone — it was a surprise to the original readers too! But if you accept that “we” and “you” are exclusive of one another in vv. 12-13 – which you have to – then you’re stuck with it throughout. There’s no natural breaking point within the sentence. But the original readers aren’t going to know that ‘we’ just refers to Jewish believers until they hear vv. 12-13, so there’s a penny-drop moment there where they have to re-evaluate what they’ve heard, thus:

Paul blesses God for blessing Jewish believers with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, even as He chose them in Christ to be holy and blameless before Him by predestining them to sonship adoption through Christ, in keeping with God’s purposes, so that His glorious grace might be praised. In keeping with His grace, He fully accepted the Jewish believers by accepting Christ, in whom the Jewish believers have redemption (forgiveness of sins), in keeping with God’s abundant grace which He wisely abounded toward them by revealing the mystery (His household-management plan to bring all things together in Christ).

In Christ the Jewish believers have obtained the inheritance to which God predestined them (in keeping with the public presentation [Gk. prothesis] of His plans [throughout the OT]) in order that they – the first to hope in Christ – would bring praise to His glory. The Gentiles also believed, once they heard the gospel, and were sealed by the same Holy Spirit who guarantees the Jewish believers’ inheritance.

It’s not a surprise that Jewish believers would end up as Paul describes — God publicly announced His plan to do exactly that in the new covenant prophecies centuries before Christ. But Gentiles?

As Paul develops his argument in Ephesians, it turns out that the mystery to which he alludes in v. 9 is that the Gentile believers would be made one body with the Jewish believers – all who are united to Christ are united to each other in one new man, the Church. There are no longer two groups, but one, and the blessings apply equally to the whole group. That unity of the Body — with one another and pre-eminently with Christ — is the main point of the book, and it’s powerful. Paul spends the latter three chapters unpacking the practical implications.

Why does Paul begin this way? Because he is making his case to a mixed Jew-Gentile church that they need to become one in practice to reflect the oneness God has already given them in spiritual reality. He wants his Gentile readers to be grateful for the Jews who faithfully spread the message of Christ to the Gentiles. And likewise, he wants his Jewish readers to see that although the Gentiles came later, they have been fully integrated into all the blessings of Christ — nothing has been held back.

Here’s a challenge for you: knowing this is how Paul is using “we” and “you” early in Ephesians, read 2:1-10, and see what he’s doing there. Have fun!


Some Pastoral Prayers

16 August 2022

These are in no particular order; just prayers I’ve found myself praying for people who (as we all do) needed Jesus. I hope they will be a blessing and a help to you.

Lord God, my friend _____ is afraid as the Exodus generation was afraid of you in the desert. Please teach him to be like Joshua and Caleb and trust himself to Your kindness and mercy. Please show him Your mercy in tangible, hard-to-miss ways, so that he can see it and learn to trust you. And as for the disordered loves in his heart that cause him to be attracted to the dark path that shrinks away from You, please excise them. We ask for this in the strong name of Jesus, who lives and reigns at Your right hand, and through the power of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. Amen.

Lord God, who revealed Yourself to us as our just and loving Father through Jesus Christ your Son, grant to this son of yours, __________, an unmistakable and unshakeable knowledge of who You are to him because Jesus Christ’s blood washes away his sin, through the Holy Spirit who seals him forever into the family of the Triune God. Amen.

Father God, you made your daughter ________ to be free, and we know that you mean to set her free from every lie and false obligation, from every bad habit and weakness. We confess that sometimes it’s hard for her to tell the difference between those things: when there’s a weakness that needs to be purged, versus when there’s an impossible false obligation that needs to be repented of. So we’re asking you to give her bucket-loads of discernment, to know the true from the false, the good from the evil, to see the difference between sin and finitude. Pour out your Spirit on her, give her Your eyes to see. We ask in the name of Jesus, who died for her, that she might be free. Amen.


Who’s in the Tent?

26 July 2022

In the story of Deborah, the job to be done is to defeat the Syrians. There’s a point in the story where we consider the question of who would be the best person for the job. Deborah (speaking for God) wants Barak to go out and do it; he’s the one. Barak says he’ll only go if she comes with him; she replies that she’ll do that if he wants, but the glory of the victory will not be his if he doesn’t rise to the challenge on his own. 

So Deborah goes, Israel wins the battle, and Sisera, the Syrian commander, flees the field looking for a place to hide. He comes upon the encampment of Heber the Kenite. At this point in the story, it no longer matters who the ideal person for the job would be. The only question that matters now is, “Who’s in the tent?”

There are church situations where you have the luxury of defining the attributes for the ideal candidate for whatever the job is, and then sifting through applications looking for the right mix of talents and experience for that particular slot on your org chart. That’s a thing that can happen. But far more often, we find ourselves at a decision point, and the only question that really matters is, “Who’s in the tent?”


Are All Who Identify As Free Grace Cessationists? NO!

8 July 2022

A few days ago, Bob Wilkin of the Grace Evangelical Society came out with a blog post titled “Are All Who Identify as Free Grace Cessationists?” Now, given the title of the piece, you’d expect it to be about people who are Free Grace and their views on the sign gifts. You’d expect that…but no.

I encourage you to read the piece; it’s an impressive little piece of bait-and-switch journalism. Were anyone at GES inclined to give the question a straightforward answer, the answer, in a word, is NO. Which, it seems, is the one thing they really didn’t want to say. So we get treated to some very clever framing instead.

The article begins by posing the question from the title and defining cessationism. Then, instead of talking about Free Grace people and their positions on cessationism, the article pivots to focus on charismatics and their views on the gospel. R. T. Kendall, Michael Eaton, and Jack Deere all get a favorable mention, and then we get this clever little sentence: “Beyond those three, I do not know of any third wave or charismatic theologians who hold to eternal security, let alone FGT.” He then continues, “My guess is that there are more. But most would not agree with FGT on justification or sanctification.”

The claims of fact are technically true, but the overall effect is lying by omission. The paragraph cultivates a general impression that Free Grace people are basically cessationists except for R. T., Michael, and Jack, the first two of whom don’t seem to have ever publicly identified as Free Grace anyhow, and we don’t know if Jack still holds to it. Hardly any overlap between the camps, it would seem….

But remember the question we started out with? “Are all who identify as Free Grace cessationists?” By dodging that question and focusing on charismatic theologians (who might be Free Grace), Bob has avoided addressing the question he actually started with, which is whether all Free Grace people are cessationist. The answer — and Bob knows this; don’t make me get my screenshots and prove it — is no. That there are a number of us non-cessationist Free Grace folks, not least the man who was for 10 years Bob’s right-hand man (until 5 days before this blog post went up). Ahem.

So why didn’t he just say so? He could have just said, “No, not all Free Grace people are cessationist; we don’t have to agree on that to be Free Grace.” He didn’t. Why not?


Note: Unfortunately, GES seems to have made a habit of this sort of thing. Drew McLeod of the Provisionist Perspective and I discussed another instance a few months ago.


Post-Industrial Revolution Ecclesiology

4 January 2022

One of the great tensions in the 21st-Century church is the place of business operations. The vast majority of churches – especially large churches – run as corporations. Many leaders have objected to the trend. John Piper published a book for pastors titled Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. Mike Breen regularly comments on how the saints of future centuries will look back in bemused wonder that anyone ever thought it was a good idea to run a church like a business. Darvin Wallis does a particularly good job of showcasing the flaws of taking our leadership lessons from the business world. But so what?

Nobody’s listening. While the occasional dissident complains, the juggernaut keeps moving. The pragmatists among us simply keep feeding the beast, tending to the needs of the business. There’s a budget, a mortgage, utilities to pay, payroll to meet every month, big events, and more. The show goes on. Nobody’s going to stop treating the church like a business without some sort of viable alternative.

There is one. A different model to steer by, and it’s been sitting in the pages of the Bible the whole time. In Ephesians 3, Paul describes the church as the household of God.

You’re probably thinking, “So what?”

The modern household has fallen so far from what it was in the first century that it barely even registers as a category. We think “household” is a synonym for “family.” It’s not.

Our modern households are pits of consumption and consumer debt that don’t really produce anything or have any particular purpose, other than as holding pens for human beings when we’re not doing something productive. Naturally, in seeking to run productive churches, we’ve looked elsewhere for a model, and – surprise, surprise – ended up looking to business, with all the problems that entails. 

The first-century household, by contrast, was a center of production. Take Peter’s household, for example. He ran a commercial fishing concern, and the whole family would be involved — from gardening to tending the little children to mending nets to preparing the fish for market, everyone would have work to do. The household produced food, raised and educated children, and interacted in the marketplace. This engine of production was what Paul had in mind when he described the church as the household of God, and we’re so far from it, we can barely even think about what that means.

So let’s quit trying to mend our ecclesiology by thought experiment, and mend it by real experiment. Let’s recover productive households, so we can learn what the church should look like. We can’t all move to the country and homestead, but we city-dwellers don’t have to live in a pit of consumption either.

A productive household has a mission. Chiefly, it gives the world functioning adults, which it brings into the world as babies and then raises and educates until they’re prepared to enter the adult world, but a productive household is also an economic entity that operates in the marketplace. A household maintains property and tends to its business interests, but a productive household has a mission beyond maximizing profits or shareholder value, a mission for which the business interests are necessary, but to which they are subordinated. It gives something to the world, and it raises children who are givers in their turn.

So let’s get about it. What does your household produce?


Letter to a New Pastor

21 October 2021

Some years ago, a friend of mine stepped reluctantly into pastoral ministry. I wrote this letter on that occasion; perhaps it will be an encouragement to you, too. (Names and other identifying information have, of course, been altered.)

Dear Jack, 

Congratulations again on rising reluctantly to the role of pastor. I thought at the time of the announcement to set down a few thoughts for you, and as is characteristic for me, it took a while to think through what I actually wanted to say. 

It turns out that, upon reflection, most of what I would ordinarily say simply doesn’t need saying. You have always struck me as an intelligent, godly man, and I have every confidence in your ability to rise to your responsibilities with grace and good sense. So I’m going to restrict myself to commending a few oft-neglected spiritual disciplines I have found particularly helpful in pastoral work. These took me a long time to learn, and would have saved me a lot of suffering if I’d learned them sooner. Perhaps I’ll be able to save you some time and anguish.

If you are the sort of shepherd you should be, Jack, people will love you…until they don’t. We are in the trouble business, and one of the features of our work is that people lie about us. You will be lied about, outrageously. You will be surprised at who believes the lies. (And at who doesn’t — not all the surprises will be bad!) It will hurt — especially the first time, but the truth is that I’m not used to it yet, and maybe I never will be. 

You will be tempted to indulge a wide set of variations on the theme “Why me?” Things like “I was helping her!” “I’ve never done anything to him; why is he doing this?” “What are they even hoping to gain from this?” To the extent that these voices represent how you really feel, pour them out to God — He always meets us where we are. To that end, I commend to you the regular reading of the Psalter. Your prayer book [The Book of Common Prayer] has a schedule that will take you through the Psalter in a month, and I would suggest that you keep to it for at least a year. The Psalter teaches us to pray in extremis like nothing else can, and trust me, my friend, you’re going to need the practice.

However, keep in mind that all the variations on “Why me?” are also a temptation to feel sorry for yourself. Exorcise them with St. Symeon’s rejoinder to all self-pity: “The Son of God was tortured to death on a tree, and you want justice?” Remember who you are following; a servant is no better than his Master.

When you are slandered, and you will be, remember Jesus’ instructions: “Happy are you when they castigate and persecute you, and say all manner of evil things against you falsely for My sake — rejoice and be very glad, because your reward in heaven is great — in the same way they also persecuted the prophets before you.” When you’re keeping that kind of exalted company, celebration is in order, and I am afraid that we often hurt ourselves by failing to take Jesus’ instructions seriously. Accept the discipline of rejoicing: go out and buy a bottle of 18-year-old Macallan (or your comparable drink of choice), have a few friends over, and celebrate. Drink your whisky, and get happy. Jesus said to. And besides, celebration is a weapon against which the enemy of your soul has no defense — nothing squelches self-pity and bitterness quite like unfettered joy

It may help to realize that most of the people who attack you won’t have anything against you personally. You’re just in the way, means to an end, and a year or two after the incident, they won’t have any particular feelings about you one way or the other — however much damage they might have done you. On rarer occasions, you may acquire an actual enemy — someone who will continue to go out of their way to hurt you as opportunities arise. I have accumulated five such enemies over the years, and I have accepted two disciplines into my life regarding them. Both have done me a world of good, and I commend them to you. First, pray regularly for God to bless your enemies. We are Christians, and that’s what we do — but it’s alarmingly easy to let six months go by in which you have not blessed your enemies, so it’s wise to be intentional about it. Second, a couple times a year, take an inventory of your enemies, and ask yourself if there’s something you might do to bring peace that you have not yet done. In my experience, if I’ve been conducting myself well to start with, the answer is usually no — but I change, they change, and circumstances change; every once in a while, something comes up. Being cursed, we bless — so keep an eye out for opportunities. God may well send you one, and it would be a shame to miss it.

My final encouragement to you requires a little biblical background. Please bear with me; I am still enough of a seminary professor to insist on setting this up properly. In Ephesians 4, Paul lays out the fivefold ministry — apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. We often think of these as spiritual gifts, and content ourselves with having a sense of which of these big-box categories we belong in. Knowing our place in the fivefold ministry can certainly be instructive, as far as it goes, but Paul is actually teaching us something far subtler. In chapter 3, he describes his own ministry: “To me, the ‘leaster’ of all the saints this grace was given: that I should proclaim among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ….” Paul is not just an apostle, although he is that. The grace of God given to Paul is to be the apostle to the Gentiles — not just a gifting, but a specific calling. Paul then explains early in chapter 4, “To each one of us grace was given….” It is not just the rock stars like Paul who have a specific calling. We all do.

So you are a pastor, clearly. But of what sort? To whom? To what purpose? As God shows you answers to these questions, attend to them. They are the grace given to you — and the grace given to you will be unique to you, just as the grace given to Paul was unique to him.

Therefore, my last piece of unsolicited advice is to hold all advice lightly. We are all of one Author and we are all one volume, as Donne wisely said, but the fact remains that the Spirit blows all our scattered leaves to some very different places before He brings us all back to be bound into the Book of Life together on the last day. The Good Shepherd Himself is your teacher, and He does not train us all to be the same kind of pastor.

When I reflect on the men and women who trained me, and the “best practices” they taught me for being a pastor…well. I break many of those rules, often. I’m not at all what they hoped I would be, and it’s not because I didn’t want to be. The truth is, I would have been content to be just like them, and if God had let me be in charge of my career, that’s what would have happened. But God had other plans, and so I’m afraid I’m the black sheep of my nondenominational, cessationist Bible church tribe these days, which has had the happy effect of thoroughly mortifying my pride and ambition. An early Puritan described this as “learning to live in the high mountain air of public calumny.” It encourages me to know that however weird my path may be, others have passed this way long before me. 

The point, my friend, is not that you should be like me. God led me along a path that was perfect for me, and in the process he shaped me into something quite unexpected, something for which my friends and mentors could not have prepared me, and which I would not willingly have chosen. But it’s good, and He didn’t put me out there alone. Others have gone before me — and wherever He takes you, others will have gone before you, too.

He will undoubtedly lead you along the best path for you, however different that might be from what others envision for you. Trust His heart for you and choose your models according to the grace given to you. You may serve in one church fulfilling your expected role for decades, and be exactly the shepherd God is calling you to be. You may find yourself forced to step widely out of bounds in order to fulfill the grace given to you. The one path is no better than the other, and the ease or difficulty is never the point — the only thing that matters is Who you’re following. Stick by the Shepherd; His heart is always for your blessing, and all His ways are good. 

I have no doubt that your pastoral service will be a deep blessing to many. For what my private wishes are worth, I hope God keeps you here so I can see your ministry flourish for myself. In my experience, we all at times profit from reaching outside our customary circles, especially when things are tough. If you should feel a need, please call on me; I would be honored to hold you up in prayer. I can’t promise you sage counsel — although you’re welcome to it if I happen to have any lying about — but I will pray with you and for you. And I’ll buy the first round of drinks, so that’s something. 

If there is any other way I can serve you, please don’t hesitate to ask; your church and her people remain very dear to me.

May Christ the Sun of Righteousness shine on you, and scatter the darkness from your path.

Your fellow servant, 

Tim Nichols


Cops AND Robbers

17 August 2021

When I was a kid back in the day, we used to play “cops and robbers.” One group would be the cops, and the other group would be the robbers. In the grown-up world, there’s — how to put this delicately? — a certain amount of overlap.

I’m not particularly interested here in the single officer that goes bad and pockets a bunch of cash from a drug bust, or some such. That needs to be dealt with, of course, but that’s just ordinary human sinfulness. The temptations come with the job; screen how you will, every now and again someone yeilds to the temptations. It’s the same in any profession.

It’s different when there’s a major incentive to sin built into the system. That’s not just ordinary temptation; that’s an extraordinary problem that calls for decisive action. Civil forfeiture is just such a problem, and it has got to go.

It’s important to grasp the difference between civil and criminal forfeiture. In criminal forfeiture, the accused — innocent until proven guilty — must first be convicted of a crime by a jury of his peers. After conviction, the prosecution can seek to confiscate the proceeds of the crime. That is holy and just and good; the criminal must not be allowed to profit from his crime.

Civil forfeiture is another matter altogether. In civil forfeiture, no conviction is necessary. The person isn’t accused of anything directly; the property itself is accused of being proceeds of a crime. Why accuse the property instead of the person, you ask? Because property is not innocent until proven guilty.

So the officer can make up a story in his head about where this particular car, wad of cash, etc. came from, and then confiscate it on the basis of the story in his head. He will write up an affidavit to justify his actions, and if the rightful owner wants his property back, he will have to prove that the officer’s story is wrong. Backwards, you say? Even illegal? Sure, it would be — if the officer were accusing the person of anything. People are innocent until proven guilty. People have to stand trial and be convicted. But in a legal maneuver worthy of the Pharisees, the accusation is technically against the property, not the person. Property is not innocent until proven guilty. The gold sanctifies the altar, as it were.

Civil forfeiture is a direct (and frankly, transparent) violation of the Fourth Amendment. It is illegal, which is an important observation for Christian resistance. That’s a discussion for another day, because there’s a prior concern: civil forfeiture is sin. Even if it were entirely legal under the laws of the land, it is a violation of the laws of God, specifically the Eighth Commandment. It is stealing, plain and simple.

The officer who initiates the forfeiture is a thief, taking that which does not belong to him, justifying his theft with a story he made up in his head. The property clerk who receives the stolen goods into his custody is committing the same crime that any fence commits. The chain of command that condones the officer’s actions and any judge who approves of it — thieves, the lot of them. The fact that their jurisdictions have conspired to pretend the theft is legal doesn’t make it right; it just implicates the voters in the theft as well.

This is one of the things we have church discipline for, and in jurisdictions where civil forfeiture is going on, churches should be exercising it.

For further information, read Policing for Profit.


Aiming for the Bullseye

22 June 2021

I talked in a previous post about the tendency to weasel-word our mission statements so we can pretend that whatever happened is what we were aiming for all along.  There’s a second issue also in play in our evangelical culture of ineffectiveness.  When we do aim for something definite, we often aim for the wrong thing.  Often a good and glorious thing — but God didn’t tell us to aim for it.

For example, we focus on planting churches, but where does the Bible ever tell us to plant churches?  It doesn’t.  The closest we get is Paul’s instruction to Titus to appoint elders in all the churches — which is not church planting; it’s organizing the churches that are already there.  Jesus said He would build the church: “On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”  What He told us to do is make disciples: “Go and make disciples of all the nations….”

The evangelical church in America is pretty good at building churches, but has forgotten how to make disciples.  In fact, we’ve gotten so bad at disciple-making that at least one major ministry operation I’m aware of gets paid handsomely to travel around the country and teach churches how to do it effectively.  They’re pretty good at it, too.  I’m glad they do what they do, but I can’t overemphasize the absurdity of the situation.  A church that doesn’t know how to make disciples is like a library where the staff can’t read or an army where the soldiers don’t know how to shoot.  It’s crazy — this is the primary mission Jesus gave us.

What are these pastors and their flocks doing, if they’re not occupied with making disciples?  They’re building churches.  When we focus on building churches, we tend to get preoccupied with marketing, building programs, group dynamics, corporate papers, committees, and all the appurtenances of 21st-century organizational structure.  In the process, we lose sight of the priority of making disciples, and we end up not making very many…if any. 

There’s a very compelling built-in motivation to focus on building the church organization rather than on making disciples.  Building an organization is a process we understand and have some control over.  Send out x number of mailers to get y number of responses, do demographic surveys, run some focus groups, meet the felt needs of the community, buy some radio spots, etc.  There are definite action steps to take, and far more often than not, they work.  The hard part is getting the money to do what needs to be done.  

Making disciples is a lot cheaper, but it’s a slippery, messy process.  We have to trust God to operate in other people’s lives, and we have to be willing to accommodate what He is doing rather than try to program it to our convenience.  Disciple-making doesn’t work in semesters, or 10-week series.  It doesn’t confine itself to Wednesday nights from 7 to 8:30.  It’s about inconvenient phone calls, spur-of-the-moment painful conversations, dropping everything to attend to a crisis. It requires being present, involving people in your life, getting elbow-deep in theirs.  It doesn’t just end at a pre-defined point; disciple-making creates relationships (and obligations) that last for years.  

Churches are a good and glorious thing.  If we focus on making disciples, we will eventually have churches — Jesus said He would build His church, did He not?  But we have to trust Jesus to do it His way while we do what He told us to focus on.  That’s really uncomfortable for us.  

There are a lot of other areas where similar loss of proper focus has occurred.  The “worship wars” of the 80s and 90s were about whether we ought to sing the old hymns or the newer spiritual songs.  Paul says twice (Eph. 5:19 and Col. 3:16) that we should do both — and sing psalms, too.  We focus on social justice programs for third-world coffee farmers and Albanian victims of human trafficking because Jesus said we should love our neighbors — but we don’t even know our literal neighbors’ names, much less tangibly love them.  I could go on, but you get the idea.

But if we focus on the things God told us to, and those things are messy and impossible to program or control…then what do we do?  What does that look like?  Stay tuned….

*****

Prayer Exercise

“God, what are my real priorities, the things I really focus on?  Not just the things I would say on paper, but what I really do?”

Take some time to list them out.

“Father, is there something You want to adjust in my priorities?  What is it?”

Wait in silence and see what God will say to you.  


A Pauline Thicket of Prepositions

15 June 2021

A few years ago, I was talking with a good friend who has been deeply involved in church ministries for years.  She’s a psychotherapist, and part of her professional responsibility is to manage a crisis response team at work (24-hour hotline, that sort of thing.)  Her church recently set out to start a Christian crisis response team, and naturally they asked her to serve on the team that was setting it up.

So they get the team together — a rep from the pastoral staff, people from the congregation with expertise, and a consultant who helps churches do this kind of thing.  One of the first orders of business (after sorting out the snack schedule, of course) was a mission statement.  

The conversation was productive.  The team didn’t just want to pass out band-aids to people with problems.  Any crisis hotline does that — what difference would it make that this was a Christian hotline?  They concluded that in addition to connecting people to the resources they need, they wanted to help people meet God in the midst of the crisis.  Not hand out holy-sounding platitudes, not “evangelize” them, just introduce them to God, for real. So far so good, right?

So someone came out with a mission statement that started off “To redemptively shepherd people in crisis…” and then continued into a string of prepositional phrases and gerunds worthy of the book of Romans.

“Hang on,” my friend said.  “If what we want to do is connect people in crisis with the resources they need and help them meet God in their crisis, then why don’t we just say that? ‘Our mission is to connect people in crisis with the resources they need and help them meet God in their crisis.’”

Well, if you’ve been around churches much, you already know what happened after the hemming and hawing died down. Further chattering ensued, and in the end they adopted a mission statement: “To redemptively shepherd people in crisis…” plus a Pauline thicket of prepositions.

As my friend was telling me the story, somewhat baffled by it all, it suddenly hit me: I know why we do this!

It’s about accountability.  Say the ministry adopted my friend’s suggested mission statement: “Our mission is to connect people in crisis with the resources they need and help them meet God in their crisis.”  Say I take the Tuesday night shift. How would they check to see if I was fulfilling the mission? 

My friend: Jack, I understand you recently called our crisis line and talked to Tim.
Jack: Yeah.
My friend: So, did Tim connect you to the resources you needed?
Jack: Uh, I dunno.  I guess not.
My friend: Tim didn’t connect you to any resources?
Jack: No.
My friend: Did Tim help you to hear from God?
Jack: No.
My friend (turning to me): Tim, what did you do for an hour?

But if I’m working under that “redemptively shepherding” monstrosity of a mission statement, I can let Jack cry into the phone for an hour, do nothing that actually helps him, and still make it sound awesome.  “Mindful of the biblical command to ‘weep with those who weep,’ I provided Jack with a sympathetic ear and built rapport that would allow me to speak into Jack’s life.  I feel Jack is very close to recognizing his true need for a savior.”  Notice I didn’t say that I did speak into Jack’s life, just that I might be able to.

(Now, I recognize that from time to time a particular person in a particular moment needs something that’s off-mission for the ministry, and God will use that ministry to meet the need anyway.  Wise leaders recognize that when it happens and don’t choose that moment to get cranky about the mission statement.  But we’re talking about the overall mission of the ministry here.)

Moral of the story?  Not only do we have a culture of ineffectiveness, at some level, we know it.  So we avoid spelling out what we’re going to do in ways that would expose how little fruit we really see.

Why is that?

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Prayer Exercise

Ask God to show you if there are areas of your life where you are afraid to ask Him to do specific things — things where it would be obvious if He showed up or not.  Wait in silence and see what He will show you.  

Don’t be concerned if nothing comes to mind; just remain attentive over the next few days and see what comes up.

If God does bring an area to your attention, pray, “God I confess that I am afraid to ask You to show up and act in definite ways in this area of my life.  Please give me the wisdom to know what to ask for, and the courage to keep asking.”  

Then keep praying for wisdom in that area until God shows you what to ask for.  When that happens, keep praying for it.