Letter to a Successful Minister

8 October 2019

This post is a composite of letters and conversations over the years. I’m posting it now because I haven’t had one of these interactions in a while, so nobody will think I’m taking aim at them in particular. I am targeting a general tendency in our culture, not a particular person.

Dear Luke,

It was good to hear from you. I’m glad Janice and the kids are doing so well, and the house is beautiful. Janice has really worked hard on the remodel, and it shows. On the ministry front—wow! It usually takes several years for a pastor to really settle into a new church, but it seems like God is already doing amazing things. I’m happy to see it all coming together for you.

I couldn’t help but notice the rebuke implicit in the way you dismissed my bivocational situation with “we all have to grow up sometime.” I suppose I could just let it pass as one of those things that love covers a multitude of, but since we’re corresponding, and since it stung, I’d like to speak to it.

I hope you will bear with me in a little Pauline foolishness. I will shortly recover my wits and have more sensible things to say, but I need to get this bit off my chest first: You look at the trajectory of my life and see a disaster, a failure to grow up. I say that we have both pursued God—not by any means perfectly, but nonetheless with reckless abandon. What do we have to show for it?

In God’s providence, you have a ministerial career. Now, I want to give you credit where it is due. You have been sensible and disciplined in your finances, and you’ve foregone luxuries and saved aggressively to get where you are. You are now reaping the rewards of your labor, as well you should. But you have also been called to labor in a particular situation: God called you to the suburbs, and you are reaping the material rewards of ministering in an upper-middle class suburban church. I don’t begrudge you that, but I certainly do resent that you think your generous full-time salary is the simple result of growing up.

You grew up in an upper-middle class church, you attended such churches through college and seminary, and you are now ministering in one. In God’s providence, those churches have been your whole world. There’s nothing wrong with that, but lift up your eyes, buddy: that’s a fraction of the worldwide church. Tomorrow, God could call you to a church in a tiny farming community that simply can’t support a full-time pastor, especially one with a wife and kids. You would then find yourself just as grown up, but nowhere near as wealthy–and definitely in need of another job to make ends meet. But right now, in God’s providence, you are where you are.

By that same providence, I am where I am. “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” I’m not quite that much like Jesus, but I’m not living the American Dream, either. I have followed where God led, to the best of my ability. I’ve certainly made some mistakes along the way, some of them errors in judgment and others due to the ways in which I’m damaged goods and I haven’t healed yet. But God makes all things new in time, and I trust His hand in the process.

Although I’ve served in a number of pastoral roles—and still do, in fact—I never achieved the dream that I had in mind when I was first called into ministry: senior pastor of a mid-sized church, with a paycheck to match, which would enable me to buy a house and raise (which in our case also means adopt) children. I wanted to serve God in the role He called me to, and I wanted a family and a house. (Which is to say, I envisioned the same thing you have.) In terms of how we were both raised, that’s not a lot to ask for—and yet I don’t have it. Nor is there any real reason to believe that the dream is lurking just over the horizon, if only I push a little harder, persist a little further. So measured by the bright vision of my expectations as a 16-year-old, I have failed.

But as you said, we all have to grow up sometime. The world is a much bigger place than I pictured it at 16, and God has a lot more variety up His sleeve than we were led to believe. And let’s be honest, what we were led to expect doesn’t match up particularly well with what Jesus and the apostles had, does it? They made a lot less money. I have come to see that there was nothing actually biblical about my dream. 

Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t think the pastor of a strong and wealthy church pulling in a 6-figure salary has anything to feel guilty about. But God called me to pastor a church of homeless folks; I’ve no reason to expect the same salary as that guy. God calls one man to be Solomon and another to be John the Baptist, and if they fulfill their respective callings, neither has anything to be ashamed of. Nor does someone like Paul, sometimes abased and sometimes abounding. There is nothing inevitable or especially holy about one of these as over against the others. They are each just one way that a life of service can look—one among many.

And so as I sling no recriminations your way, I ask you to return the favor. If you see character flaws in me, by all means speak up. I’m open to correction. But if your criticism is based entirely on my failure to attain the American dream, then I invite you to use some of your paid study time to re-read the Gospels and Acts–not to mention the Old Testament–with an eye to identifying the patterns of ministry that God finds acceptable. I think you’ll find a wider variety than you presently allow for.

Blessings,

Tim


Our Own Elsas

17 September 2019

So I’m sitting in Johnny’s Pizza on my lunch break, and the radio’s playing. “Red Letters” by Crowder. “Play that Funky Music” by Wild Cherry. “Let it Go” by Idina Menzel.

Let It Go?

How many songs from a Disney kids’ movie are getting radio play 6 years later?

The movie came out in 2013. In pop culture, that’s ancient history. To put it in perspective, that’s the same year Planes, World War Z, and Iron Man 3 came out. You don’t see anything off those sound tracks getting airtime.

But here is Idina Menzel on the radio, singing the one thing from that movie that turned out to be an enduring addition to our cultural legacy (enduring in pop culture terms, anyway).

The plot of the film follows princess Elsa through her journey:

  • hiding her ability (and loathing herself because she has it),
  • exposure to the whole kingdom
  • her community fears and rejects her
  • she isolates herself from the community, freezing the whole kingdom and nearly committing murder as a result
  • she eventually comes to terms with her ability, the community receives her, and she’s able to use her gifts for the benefit of the community.

Now, taking a look at that story arc, ask yourself: which one of those story beats is immmortalized in the song that has outlasted every other part of the movie?

It’s not the ending, where Elsa integrates with her community. No, it’s when she’s maximally alienated, inadvertently freezing the whole kingdom, and about to nearly kill a few people. (On that last: if this were an action movie instead of an animated kids’ flick, Elsa would definitely have killed the two assassins, with the audience cheering her on.)

When she doesn’t care about anyone. When she is ignoring everyone else so hard that she’s destroying her entire country–that’s what resonated with the culture so well that we’re still playing it on the radio 6 years later. For that matter, that’s what resonated with the makers of the film so much that they built the musical centerpiece of the film around it (no such iconic anthem adorns the narrative climax of the film, or the resolution). Why is that?

Because as a culture, this is where we are. We identify with mid-film Elsa — alienated, isolated, unwittingly destructive, possibly murderous. And you know what? There are some things to repent of there, but there’s also something to celebrate. Elsa’s story didn’t stop there; ours doesn’t have to either.

We live in a cultural moment when the supernatural is making a comeback. We went through a phase of profound materialism; we didn’t believe in miracles; we believed in electricity, vacuum cleaners, penicillin, and 401(k) plans. But we’re waking up. And waking up, many people—who were told their own version of “conceal, don’t feel” in early life—are now going through Elsa’s teenage rebellion.

They absorbed the culture’s fear and rejection until they couldn’t take it anymore, couldn’t hide it anymore, and now they’re done. And they don’t care about a culture that didn’t care about them. My hope and prayer for them is that they recognize this as a stage that will pass, and they grow up and reintegrate, as Elsa did.

We like to think that in the church, none of this has much to do with us. Baloney.

We accommodated the culture, hugely. We suppressed the supernatural in our midst — we were (sometimes) happy to believe in miracles and supernatural doings in the past, so long as we could remain safely insulated by the padding of many centuries. Many of us refuse to believe such things even in church history, still less in the present day. When it comes to supernatural doings in the church, if it’s not in Acts, it didn’t happen, and if it is in Acts, it’s “transitional,” not to be expected today. They get you going and coming — and this is why many people with genuine supernatural gifting find no home in the churches.

But we cannot afford such comforting lies. We have our own Elsas out there on the mountainside. It’s time to go get them.


Seven Theses on Practical Unity

30 July 2019

Since moving to Englewood, I have been blessed to be involved in the nuts-and-bolts practice of Church unity. The pastors here talk about the One Church in Englewood, and mean it. They love each other, pray fervently for each other, and long for the unity they enjoy to spread to their congregations. Among the participants are Messianic Jews, Dutch Reformed, Anglicans, Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God, nondenominational folks. It’s not every tribe, tongue and nation, but we’re getting there.

As I observe discussions in the wider Christian world about unity across churches and denominations, I see some key points being overlooked, and so I’d like to offer the following seven theses on the practice of unity:

  1. The unity of all God’s people is internal to the gospel, not simply a natural downstream result of it.
  2. Jesus prayed for His people to be visibly unified in a way that would induce the world to believe in Him. Unity has been essential to our testimony and evangelism from earliest days. (John 17:20-26)
  3. Paul rebuked Peter for failing to eat with some of Christ’s people, and described it as “hypocrisy,” a failure to be “straightforward about the gospel.” Unity is essential to our confessional and practical faithfulness to justification by faith. (Galatians 2:11-21)
  4. Since practical, visible unity is so important, we must obey as far as we can. Like perfect sanctification, perfect unity will have to await the last day, but we can and should anticipate the unity of the last day now, as Paul insisted and Jesus prayed for.
  5. Jesus told us to love our neighbors. A mentality that defines “neighbor” as “those like me” (ethnicity, confessional agreement, denominational ties, or something else) is exactly what Jesus was speaking against in the parable of the good Samaritan. Loving our neighbors starts with whoever is physically closest. Loving our Christian neighbors starts with whatever Christians are physically closest. (Luke 10:25-37)
  6. Therefore, your neighbor churches are the churches that, in God’s geographical providence, are right down the street. Confessionally allied churches further away are also your neighbors, and you ought to love them too — but not at the expense of the churches nearby. “A friend nearby is better than a brother far away.” (Proverbs 27:10)
  7. The task of the moment is to meet the folks in nearby churches and start getting along with them. Institutional unification of the denominations–and all the problems that will attend it–is not a necessary prerequisite; it will be the last thing that happens. The zipper starts at the bottom, not the top.

I can tell you from experience that when you dig into practical unity, you will have problems. Of course you will. We’re all sinners, and on top of that, we have an enemy who hates what we’re doing. I can also tell you from experience that the overwhelming majority of the problems you think you’re going to have–those are never going to happen. (And of course, many of the problems you do have will be surprises. Such is life; we are not as good at prediction as we think.) Bottom line: future problems–real or imaginary–should not stop us from obeying the Scriptures to the extent that we can, right now.


Grinding Down Mountains

16 July 2019

The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were very focused on moral and ritual purity.  If only Israel would be pure enough, they believed, God would return to Jerusalem, and bless her as He had in the days of David and Solomon. They were so focused on purity that when God actually did return to Jerusalem, they missed it. Jesus wept over the city:

“For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
(Lk. 19:43-44)

Where we focus is very important. It’s possible to make a serious mistake by focusing on the wrong true thing. The Law is holy and just and good, Paul says. But if you focus on the Law, you run headlong into the rocks of Romans 7. You can’t keep it, and the Law does not confer the power to keep it. Nothing does.

In my corner of the Evangelical world, we have mostly learned this lesson when it comes to moral purity. If we focus on moral and ritual purity, we will become Pharisees, and we know it. So we avoid that mistake…and focus on doctrinal purity instead.

Purity is a good thing. Doctrinal purity is a good thing. But if we focus on any form of purity as the bullseye, we will develop the same trouble the Pharisees always had. It’s just a different version of the same basic mistake. Like the Pharisees, we will make ever-finer divisions in a pursuit of ever-greater purity, and the price of our impatience will be disunity.

If we focus on love and unity–which is what Jesus told us to focus on, in the upper-room discourse–it’s been my experience that we will grow toward greater purity together. Slowly. The speeds can be glacial at times. But glacial speed has its advantages: even mountains cannot stand in our way.

 

 


Insight from Business?

9 July 2019

As an organization, 3DM largely packages its materials to appeal to large corporate churches, and those that aspire to their ranks. In contextualizing their materials to that environment–which is to say, to American corporate culture–3DM opens itself to a range of pernicious influences.

…but if you’re gonna…

Now, all truth belongs to Christ. We can profit from insights in psychology, group dynamics, neuroscience, physics, finance…you name it. We are free to read business books about organizational change just as we are free to read books on neuroscience. But just as we need to carefully filter out the evolutionary presuppositions of the neuroscience book, we need to filter out the various pagan presuppositions in the business book–and that’s going to be harder than we think. Christian thinkers have been waging war on evolution for generations. We haven’t been working nearly as hard to discern good from evil in business culture. And look at it — this is the culture that gave us record label accounting, Enron, the housing bubble of 2008, and so, so much more. It’s a disaster, and uncritically accepting insights and recommendations from that culture is not going to be good for us.

Before we try to metabolize any business advice, we need to go back to first principles, in Scripture. What is it that we’re actually supposed to be doing? Until we have an answer for that, we’ve no business trying to use business principles to “be more effective.” A lot of ugly presuppositions are being smuggled in through that word “effective.” Similar smuggling happens under the guise of “leadership.” Leadership is an important field of study; I’ve seen a lot of damage done by unskilled, untrained leaders. But the wrong training is sometimes worse than no training at all, and Jesus taught His people to lead differently than the world does.

It’s always working for somebody

In order to see the problem, we need to think about the way broken systems work. Russian communism was a horribly broken economic system, but members of the Politburo never lacked for food, medicine, or even entertainment. Washington Mutual was a total disaster, desperately broken, but Kerry Killinger, the CEO of that disaster, made millions–and when he was fired, walked away with a $15 million severance check. Washington, D.C. public schools are consistently failing (just look at the test scores), but D.C. school principals make 6 figures anyway.

The broken system is always working for somebody. Putting someone who benefits enormously from the status quo in charge of reform is just a recipe for failure; those are not the voices we should be elevating. In the church world, those voices are the successful church professionals, who are doubly acclimated to American business culture: first, because their churches run like businesses, and second, because the backbone of their donor base lives in business culture, and thinks of business culture simply as The Way Things Are Done.

So now what?

If we’re that deeply acclimated to business culture, then where will reformation come from? Here, history is our guide: real reformation does not come from a Staupitz, who functions smoothly within the system, nor even from an Erasmus, who lampoons its failings while remaining part of it. Real reformation must come from a Luther — someone for whom the system is not working. Let’s pay more attention to those people.

 

 

 

 


Neighborhood Sacramentology: When to Baptize?

28 June 2019

In the church we have the tendency to take certain truths about the sacraments and make applications in directions that we shouldn’t, but God has a much different view of the sacraments than we do. We’ve made the Lord’s Table something to be protected, lest some heathen get away with a wafer. No; it is the body of Jesus, and Jesus gave His body to and for the world. Of course it’s blasphemy, but it’s God’s blasphemy. Our job is to submit to what God is doing. 

Likewise, we recognize the importance of baptism, and therefore delay it in order to get all the logistical ducks in a row to make a big to-do. We want to do it in church on a Sunday morning. We want the person to invite all his unbelieving friends and relatives to the baptism so we don’t miss a recruiting opportunity. It somehow escapes our notice that there is no biblical example of delaying baptism for these reasons. A new convert is baptized in the first available body of water by whatever Christian is on hand to do it. 


Neighborhood Sacramentology: Fencing the Table?

25 June 2019

If it is the church’s responsibility to fence the Table, to keep people away from it who aren’t going to partake in a worthy manner, then  that implies a whole authority structure to make that happen. Only certain authorized people can serve communion, only at appointed places and times, and so on.  The Roman and Eastern churches certainly took that position, and speaking broadly, so did the fathers of the Reformation. The marks of a true church, our Reformed fathers said, were word, sacrament, and discipline, and part of the function of discipline was to fence the Table. It was therefore possible in a Reformation church for a member of the church to be encouraged to come to church, but suspended from the Table as a disciplinary measure. At a commonsense level, it’s not hard to see how they got there — it’s the ecclesiastical equivalent of sending a child to bed without his supper.

The New Testament knows nothing of such a practice. There are no appointed places and times. When did the NT church gather that was *not* church? They didn’t have a church building; it was all houses. They didn’t have Sunday mornings off from work. They gathered where and when they could, and when they gathered, the church was gathering. There are no authorized servers, no one appointed to fence the table. Is it ok to serve the Lord’s Table in a private residence to a bunch of your close friends on a Thursday night? Well, WWJD? That’s how the first one happened…. The church’s role is to celebrate early and often, and invite the world to come.

There is, of course, a warning that the one who partakes in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself. (In the immediate context, the unworthy partaking is a matter of the rich shaming the poor.) But there is no suggestion that the elders should stop someone from partaking because he might be doing it unworthily. The only examination Paul commands is self-examination. Nobody else is responsible to do it for you, and God has not delegated that authority to anyone. 

An egregiously sinning, unrepentant believer may be expelled from the community entirely until he repents, but there’s no concept of allowing him to remain in the community without coming to the Table. If he is spiritually weak, then he needs strength; why would you withhold spiritual food from him?

The Table is pure grace. You want Jesus? Then come to the Table. Is it blasphemy for some spiritual tourist to come and partake of the body and blood of Christ as an act of curiosity, with no regard for what he’s really doing? Yes, of course.

But it’s not my blasphemy; it’s God’s. Jesus incarnated in the world and gave His body to and for the world; He gave His body to be abused and crucified by sinners. Some heathen getting away with a wafer is the very least of the blasphemy going on here; why would that be where we draw the line? You don’t have the right to fence the Lord’s Table because it’s not your table; it’s His.