Jesus wouldn’t choose the same leaders you would.

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In church these days, we know how important it is to choose the right leaders. After all, these people will represent our local church (and God himself) to the community around us. We nominate selection committees and spend countless hours searching for the right person who will embody the moral and professional characteristics needed to lead God’s church in the right direction, to shepherd and guide and nurture and feed us. We use “Top Ten” lists of leadership characteristics to remind us to look for church leaders who are skilful, competent, professional, influential, visionary, hard-working, energetic, charismatic, highly trained and gifted communicators.

Jesus didn’t seem to get that memo.

While we look for the most squeaky-clean, well-presented, got-it-together, charismatic communicators to lead the church, Jesus chose the most rag-tag, unlikely outsiders to be his ambassadors.

He publicly endorsed a despised tax collector who stole from his own people.

He commissioned a naked madman as his first missionary.

He entrusted a promiscuous Samaritan woman with his testimony.

He held up a Roman centurion (the military enemy of the Jewish people) as the greatest example of faith in Israel.

He let a woman sit in learning at his feet, in the place of a man.

He handpicked uneducated workmen as his proteges.

He selected a headstrong, unfaithful loudmouth to be the foundation for the church.

He chose the murderer of the church to proclaim his name to the Gentiles.

Over and again, Jesus picked the most unlikely characters to represent him – the least of these, the outsiders, the bottom of the food chain. What was he thinking?

Fortunately, we know much better now. We’ve learned from leadership manuals and business studies what to look for in the perfect leader, the top 10 list of character traits to measure up against, how to get the very best people in the right positions.

But maybe, just maybe, we’ve missed the point?

 

The hard, slow work of rooted Christianity (insights from Chapter 4 of “Subterranean” by Dan White Jr.)

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Every one of us longs for impact. Nobody wants to be a nobody. We want to leave a legacy, start a movement, and make a meaningful difference. As followers of Jesus, we are inspired to change the world (and change it now). It sounds so innocent and worthwhile – we rarely see the danger in our mindset. We are driven by a sense of urgency, a pressure to prove our worth, a commitment to having impact at any cost.

We are rarely inspired to be ordinary, go slow, think small, live local, and wait on God’s timing.

Dan White Jr. is a prophetic voice to the modern church, calling us to return to rootedness, to work on the structures below the ground, rather than the visible ones above it. In Chapter 4 of his new book, Subterranean: Why the future of the church is rootedness, Dan reveals that we have made an idol out of impact. He addresses the pressure to grow churches bigger and better, the drive to “expedite production” and bypass God’s slow and steady ways. Dan highlights the danger of our impatience by reminding us of Judas Iscariot, an ambitious man longing for impact, who ultimately took matters into his own hands in order to force God’s hand. He points out the risk of seeking impact without restraint, of superseding our limits, of having a microwave mentality of trying to speed things up, of bulldozing God’s work with the tyranny of demand. He ends the chapter by reminding us that God is not in a rush, that his ways may seem slow to us, but they help us build the patience we need to dwell in true community alongside others.

I’m a huge fan of Dan’s work. I love his writing style – he has a deft touch with words and a poetic cadence in his prose – but it’s the substance of his message that really resonates with me. Dan is calling for a subversive, upside-down approach to kingdom life. He is prophetically crying out to the institutional church that we have lost our way. He freely admits to his own personal struggle to commit to community, live locally and be ordinary rather than extraordinary. I highly recommend you get a copy of his book (you’ll get 40% off if you use the code ROOTED before 23rd October) and wrestle with what it means to choose slow over fast, small over big, local over global, and consistent over impressive.

 

I was honoured to be asked by Dan White Jr. to participate in the blog tour of his new book. Make sure you check out these recent posts, and look for those to follow, as 11 bloggers draw insights from the 11 chapters of this book.

Zach Hoag has written a review of Chapter 1: Hotels or Trees

Tim Suttle discusses Chapter 2: Excessive Personality

Ben Sternke reflects on Chapter 3: Extracted Perception

I have written about Chapter 4: Expedited Production

I’m looking forward to the next seven blog posts covering the remaining chapters! Thank you, Dan, for inviting me to be part of this blog tour.

 

The most important skill for Christian leadership (it’s not what you think).

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If you’re going to take any leadership role in any style of church, there’s one skill you’ll need more than any other. In fact, if you are a part of any godly community, there is one capacity you’ll have to develop and use, time and time again.

The ability to apologize.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not great at saying the words “I’m sorry”. If I have a disagreement with my husband, I tend to think I’m right and he’s wrong, and it takes me a while to calm down and put things right. Luckily, he’s more gracious than I am and much faster to ask forgiveness. I deeply appreciate his commitment to reconciliation, and his willingness to humble himself to say sorry, even when I was the one at fault. He has taught me that there is always something I can apologize for – for my tone of voice, my insensitivity, my timing – and that confession and forgiveness lead to a better place and a deeper relationship for both of us. I’m still working on it (and probably always will be).

There are some church settings where you’ll never need to make up, where you won’t go deep enough with one another to ever be called on to work through an offense. But if you take Jesus’ teachings seriously, if you seek out deep, ongoing, loving relationships like a family, you will at some point unwittingly offend those you love the most. If you pursue being the body of Christ, you will step on each other’s toes. And you’ll need to work on your maturity and say those painful words; “I was wrong. I’m so sorry. Will you forgive me?“.

Nobody enjoys the humiliating, hard work of apologizing. We hate being caught out, stuffing up and looking bad. But we are called to a ministry of reconciliation, to the great and glorious task of reconciling the world to God – and the first place we need to work on this is in our relationships with one another.

One body, one head, many parts.

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To be functioning at its peak, a body needs every part to be working effectively. Our role as the body of Christ is to equip and build one another up “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). To this end, those of us who are stronger, more mature or given gifts, ought to use what we have to empower and equip others in their journey.

This doesn’t make us more important – quite the opposite, it requires an attitude of servanthood. Instead of the “hierarchy” of the world, where people jostle for power, prestige and privilege, we have a “low-rarchy” in the church – in God’s kingdom, the way up is down, the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.

We follow a king who rode a donkey, who washed his followers’ feet, whose coronation was a crucifixion, who laid aside his right to equality with God and took on the form of a servant. Unlike the power-hungry ways of the world, “leadership” in the church is always framed in terms of servanthood or building others up. We are never to “lord it over” or “excercise authority over” one another as the “rulers of the Gentiles” do (Matt 20:25) – the way of love ushers in an entirely new paradigm of inverted hierarchy, where those of us with high status need to step down the ladder to lift up those on the bottom rungs. We go down, not to debase ourselves, but to lift others up. “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt 20:27-28).”

Here is what that looks like in the church –

the mature mentor the immature.

The elders instruct the younger.

The rich share with the poor.

Those who have gifts equip others for acts of service.

The powerful defend the powerless.

The strong bear with the failings of the weak.

And nobody ever positions themselves in Christ’s rightful place, as head of the church.

Our current structures for church are holding us back from empowering and building one another up, by positioning us either as performers or audience members, as broadcasters or passive listeners. Pulpits and pews separate us into two camps, and prevent the mutual ministry and one-anothering described over and over again in Scripture. We need to rethink our meeting spaces, our seating arrangements, our use of music and our information delivery methods to find creative ways which release all of God’s people to be active participants in their journey towards unity and spiritual maturity. We need to be willing to step off the stage and into the circle, to talk less and listen more, to use our status to lift others high, and to get out of the way and let God work in his people.

This is an excerpt from the chapter I contributed to “Simple Church: Unity within Diversity“. Order a copy now to learn about simple church practices from some great writers.

The burden of one – why pastors are struggling in ministry

I put this post up a couple of years ago, and it has been one of my most-read (and personal favorite) articles. More than ever, I see pastors struggling to bear “the burden of one”, and confused about how to tap into the biblical model of “the power of many”.

Pastors are under a lot of pressure.

In most churches today, we employ one person (or a small team) to do the job of many. The Bible tells us that God “ordained some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, some to be pastors, some to be teachers.” And yet, we position pastors to be all of these things at once – to lead, to minister, to inspire, to challenge, and to teach – all at the same time!

The Bible clearly tells us that God has given each one of us grace to build up the church. There are at least five very different ministry roles God has given us within the church, according to Ephesians 4 – apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers. The problem is, churches try to look for one man (or woman) who fits all of these categories at once. That was never God’s design for the church.

The church already has everything it needs. We cannot outsource the work of the combined church to one individual, no matter how talented they may be.

One person (the pastor) is symbolically responsible for the spiritual growth of many. One person is responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of an entire community. One person is standing in front of many, responsible to teach, lead and inspire them, a paid role model under pressure to maintain an appearance of “having it all together”. That is a heavy load for one person to bear.

Church in rows has become the burden of one, instead of the combined power of many. One person stands at the front, symbolically taking responsibility for the spiritual growth and well-being of the entire church, while the rest of the church sit silently in rows, their spiritual gifts unused, their “spiritual” hands tied behind their backs. People who are unable to contribute or respond will shut down and become apathetic. They will lose confidence in themselves and not bother trying. They will start to believe they have nothing of value to contribute. They will never be empowered to discover their spiritual gift or to use it for building up the church.

This imbalance is bad for God’s people. It is bad for the pastor as well.  The statistics reveal how unsustainable the role of a pastor is. According to statistics, 45% of pastors report suffering such severe periods of depression or burnout that they have had to take time out from their job. 50% report that they feel unable to meet the needs of the job. 75% report suffering severe stress causing emotional issues. 94% feel under pressure to have a perfect family. Over 20,000 pastors leave the ministry each year in the United States alone, due to burnout, conflict or moral failure. That’s a sign of a seriously stressful career path.

The responsibility of the spiritual growth and well-being of the community should be shared amongst the many, not shouldered by one person. But the congregation are disempowered and not in a position to share the load. We can’t activate them by preaching more powerful sermons. We can’t shake them up by turning up the music, or adding more musicians on stage. We need to give them a voice, give them a value, give them an impact. We need to empower them and involve them in ministering to one another. We need to stop adding to the burden of one, and tap into the power of many.

What you model is what you multiply – why facilitation is healthy in church.

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They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Children grow up to be like their parents, imitating their values, their mannerisms and their way of life.

In the same way, raising generations of God’s people in sermon-centric churches produces a vast sea of Christians who believe the only way to communicate God’s message is through monologue and having all the “right answers”.

We have a problem on our hands. The world does not want to be preached at. Who can blame them? I don’t want to be preached at. I’m sure you don’t, either.

Nobody likes being lectured, but every person on this planet longs to be listened to, to be known and heard and empowered and encouraged. We will open our hearts and our lives to those who take the time to relate to us, empathize with us, see us as we truly are and love and accept us.

Jesus did that. He spent time with people. He partied with them. He asked them questions. He showed compassion, empathy, respect and value for the ostracized and abandoned – the ones who were normally chastised and sermonized for their life choices.

Since we’ve been running “Church in a Circle” with recovering addicts, we’ve discovered the power of facilitation – a radically different approach to teaching and learning. Instead of giving people all the answers, we see the value in setting up thought-provoking stimuli and asking the right questions for people to learn for themselves. We see how powerful it is simply to ask people to share their stories – and then listen attentively and respectfully. We see how people are capable of directly interacting with God’s Word, not just listening to others interpret it for them. We see God’s people taking ownership of and responsibility for their own learning, being empowered to move forward rapidly in their spiritual journey and dragging others with them.

There’s a secondary effect to facilitation we didn’t expect but which really excites us – everybody in the group seems to pick up facilitation skills along the way. By watching the leader ask good questions, and listen well, and be flexible to the needs of others, the whole group start to spontaneously minister to one another, both inside and outside of the meeting.

Christians who think sermonizing is the most effective evangelism tool drive away their friends and family by lecturing them and always trying to have the right answers. The world needs more Christians who can interact and listen respectfully, ask the right questions and admit they don’t have all the answers.

What we model is what we teach. Sermon-centric churches produce passive listeners who only feel they are able to spread God’s message if they have a seminary degree or can deliver a convincing monologue (which is rarely socially appropriate in any setting). Facilitation allows God’s people to pick up helpful interaction skills which are valuable in developing kingdom relationships within and outside of the church community.

Children often grow up to look like their parents, and God’s people often end up looking like their leaders. Let’s encourage our leaders to move from preaching to facilitation, from speaking to listening, from performance to empowerment.

This article was recently published on the House 2 House Magazine website.Be sure to head over there to read a fantastic range of articles by simple church advocates. The theme for this month has been “Multiplication“.

Let the Spirit lead – unscripted, participatory worship meetings (not as scary as you might think).

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Steve Simms and his wife lead a non-traditional, participatory, interactive Salvation Army church in Nashville, Tennesee. He blogs regularly at Free Gas For Your Think Tank. I asked Steve to share a little about their congregation and experiences…

As a freshman in college in the 70s, I walked into an unscripted, unprogrammed campus meeting and saw the living, resurrected Jesus Christ in action in the words, actions, and faces of ordinary people. I went back to my dorm that night, a changed man, with the fire of Christ burning in my heart. The rest of my college days I met weekly with this group, seeing the Holy Spirit prompt ordinary people to do amazing things.

After graduating I began to search for a church like those campus meetings (even moving back and forth across the country a couple of times). However, it was all to no avail, because I never found anything even a little bit like those meetings.

Then in 2008, the Salvation Army in Nashville approached my wife and me (who were employed by them), and asked if we would like to start a “non-traditional corps” (church) in East Nashville. We saw this as a God-sent opportunity to begin meetings similar to those I had experienced in college and The Army agreed.

We began to ask a different person each week to lead us in Spirit-anointed worship that goes anywhere from 20 to 40 minutes as the Spirit leads. Afterwards, we encourage the people present to listen to the Spirit and say or do whatever He says.

The results are always amazing. People share testimonies, Scriptures, prayer needs, short teachings, words of encouragement, prayers, gifts of the Spirit – and each week it all blends into a common theme.  It is obvious to all present that this is not random, but is being led by God.

Since we’ve started we’ve had more than 60 different worship leaders. Several have become regular attenders.

Here’s the amazing thing; in all this time (although we’ve had several hundred people meet with us at least once), we’ve never had anyone share false doctrine or something inappropriate.  In such a whacky world as ours, that’s got to be evidence of God’s presence and protection.

Several times we have literally seen this Scripture fulfilled in our midst as a first time visitor opens her/his heart before God:  “But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or an ungifted man enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all; the secrets of his heart are disclosed; and so he will fall on his face and worship God, declaring that God is certainly among you.”  1 Corinthians 14:24-25

In unprogrammed church meetings, you see people transformed right in front of your eyes. One Hindu man began to attend. We welcomed him and loved him. After about a year, he came to me and told me that he is no longer a Hindu, but is now a believer in Christ. Now, several years later, he is a mighty man of God who testifies, prays with people, witnesses, and reads the Bible one to two hours a day.

When we have a conversation with a friend or family member, we don’t want every word to be scripted. We want a two-way conversation that is spontaneous and from the heart. Why should church be any different?

I encourage everyone to step into unscripted, participatory worship meetings. If you can’t find one in your town, start one in your living room. It only takes two or three people (see Matthew 18:20). Everybody gather, listen to the Spirit, and do whatever He tells you to. You will be astonished by the results!

Recovering from ministry – one pastor’s journey after closing a dying church.

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Last week I wrote a post with the title; “Are we setting pastors up to fail?“. It was a question that came out of our personal experience pastoring a local church for six years, with all the shame, guilt, frustration and confusion we carried. It was a question that resonated with readers and pastors around the world, including a friend of ours, Gareth Williams, who is currently involved in humanitarian work in Kenya. Gareth wrote this post to share some of the grief, doubt and sense of failure he has struggled with after pastoring a dying church.

Churches aren’t meant to close; they are to stay open, add new people and grow. Yet what do we do when a local expression of the body of Christ is no longer viable or fruitful? That was the choice I was faced with whilst leading a church through the process of closing last year.

This particular church started dramatically in 1925 with a tent mission that led to a property being donated and a building erected in a single day. Depending on whom you spoke to within the church, it had either struggled for most of its history or had its heyday in the 1970’s. However, by the time I arrived on the scene in 2008, the church consisted of 25 people with an average age of 85 years old. I tried my hardest, my wife supported me, we recruited some younger people who gave their all – but ultimately we had to close the church.

As part of our tradition and constitution we needed to hold a vote. Our board had come to an agreement that closing was the best course of action – not a unanimous decision (these things rarely are). Between the vote and the final service some interesting and difficult times ensued. One elder disappeared and has never fully explained why, a deacon disappeared but later resurfaced, we had to call the Police to escort one church member away from our house (one of the downsides of living in the church manse), and we were continually dealing with the sadness and grief from long standing members.

Through this time I was grappling with what I’d done, the emotion from the church (including incredible anger and abuse from said member above) and what my family and I would do next. I was also dealing with my own thoughts and feelings regarding failure. Could I have done more? What if I’d done things differently? What if I were better? These questions struck me hard, and have reappeared at different times in the year since we closed. Many people affirmed me saying that no-one could have done any better -comments that helped but did not fully expunge the feelings of guilt and shame.

There is a great deal of pressure on Pastors to “win” – to grow big churches and become a celebrity. Many of us fall into this trap; I know I did. However I failed spectacularly at these goals. The Bible doesn’t tell us much about success; at least what we normally associate with success. It speaks of faithfulness, something I find hard to define.

Was our church faithful? In some ways yes; people attended services and gave of themselves, yet we weren’t able to produce enough fruit. In order to become a fully-laden tree we needed to change beyond what many could handle – trust me, I tried.

For me, I am learning from this to redefine what failure and success are. I want to be successful, I long to be the Christian guru, the one asked to speak at big events. I struggle going to conferences or events where someone else is the speaker. I want to be the chosen one – I could do so much better than whoever has been picked! But am I the only one who wants that? Do I get a better seat in heaven based on how many events I speak at? Pardon me, you mean I don’t? So why do I want it so bad? Dare I say pride?

I don’t know if I’ll return to pastoring. I don’t know if I can deal with the expectations – those from others, but more importantly my own. I desperately want to abide in Christ more and listen to people’s opinions less. I want to be okay with failing the deadly “ABC test of church success” – Attendances, Buildings and Cash. But I want to live in God’s grace that tells me I am loved as I am.

Gareth has been reading J.R. Brigg’s latest book, “Fail; Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure“, which is helping to bring some healing and closure. Do you have any words of encouragement to share with Gareth and his wife at this time? Do you relate to their experience in any way?

Are we setting pastors up to fail? Epic Fail – an initiative from J.R. Briggs

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Nobody likes to talk about it, but our church systems are setting pastors up for failure.

Most of our churches operate from a model where one man or woman is employed to be the “professional Christian”, the ultimate spiritual role model, the expert and example for the whole community. Sure, there may be a support team around them – but it’s easy for the people in the pews to see who they are expected to follow (and critique, and blame if anything goes wrong).

The emotional and spiritual burden on pastors is huge. And absurd. And unbiblical. One person is positioned to be the paid Apostle / Prophet / Evangelist / Shepherd / Teacher (all at the same time), while the rest of God’s people sit passively in pews like a critical audience, unable to give input or contribute even if they wanted to. The typical Sunday format of singing and a sermon places a spotlight on the stage, and a disproportionate emphasis on the sermon as the main vehicle of change, and discipleship, and transformation. In the eyes of the congregation (which is literally the employer as well as the client), the pastor bears responsibility for the spiritual growth and wellbeing of the entire community, as well as the perceived measures of “success” – the numerical growth and financial sustainability of church as an organisation. No wonder pastors are burning out, breaking down, screwing up, and abandoning ministry in droves.

A few years ago, J.R. Briggs wrote a brief blog post, imagining an unusual kind of pastor’s conference, where pastors could gather as equals to share their failure, their shame, their disappointment, grief and despair (instead of listening to a superstar give a pep-talk on how to “succeed” in ministry). To his surprise, the post went viral, resonating with hurting and wounded Christian leaders everywhere. Soon after, he organised the first “Epic Fail” conference (“for failures, screw-ups and losers”). Pastors drove halfway across America to attend the three day event. They met in a bar. They shared brutally honest stories of failure, and fear, and frustration. They opened their hearts to total strangers and found the love and acceptance of brothers and sisters in Christ. They gathered around tables, broke bread together, worshiped together, and ministered to one another.

I’m really excited about the format of these conferences – because this is what church should look like. A place for broken people to extend grace to one another. A place of honesty and acceptance. A place where we don’t strain for success, but live in faith out of our weakness and failure. A place where no individual human is expected to shoulder responsibility for the community, and Jesus is allowed to be the head of his body.

J.R. continues to host Epic Fail Pastor’s Events across the U.S. (contact him if you’re interested in organising one in your city). In this 2 minute video, he shares some sobering statistics, and talks about his new book “Fail; Finding Hope and Grace in the Midst of Ministry Failure“, which comes out in just a few days. I pray his work brings great comfort and healing to pastors in pain. I also pray that our churches re-examine the success-seeking, pastor-centric model of ministry, and move towards a grace-filled, empowering expression of church life which values honesty, authenticity – and even failure.

My Mother – a living example of spiritual maturity.

Mum and Dad

When I was 18 years old, my Dad took me out onto the front porch and told me Mum had cancer – and she had it bad. She had six months to live at the most, possibly only a week if the internal bleeding didn’t stop. I was the eldest of six kids, and my baby sister was only 8 months old. My world crumbled at that moment – although my sense of God holding me has never been stronger.

Mum’s story captured the hearts and minds of believers around the world, who began to pray for her survival. Over 22 years later, my Mum is still alive and living life to the full – by God’s miraculous healing power. I cannot begin to express how grateful I am that she is still part of our lives, that she is Grandma to my four kids and a dear friend and mentor to me still.

My Mum is an extraordinary woman. People who know her compare her to an angel, or Mother Theresa (she laughs at them when they do). She is probably the most selfless, intelligent, joy-filled, missional, God-centred person I know. Her faith guides everything she does – whether she is lovingly caring for my significantly handicapped brother, or housing an ex-prostitute single mother trying to overcome heroin addiction, or getting up an hour before anyone else to spend time in prayer and reading Scripture, or opening her house up to a constant flow of visitors, many of whom are drug addicts and convicted criminals, but are all welcomed with a cup of tea, freshly baked treats and a warm hug.

I love my Mum. She and Dad introduced me to a God who embraces the outsider, who empowers the disempowered, who loves the unlovely, who willingly goes low to lift others up. Their faith in action has taught me more about God than a thousand eloquent sermons, four years at Bible College or the best-worded theology books. When I read the descriptions of how the New Testament church were to love each other, it makes sense to me, because I’ve seen it lived out in front of me.

This morning, we sat around a campfire with Mum and Dad, and my sister and her husband, and we sang worship songs and shared about the faith of our mothers. It struck me again how amazing God’s plan for his church is – a community of people living as family, discipling one another, showing how to follow God is their everyday lives. My mother is a true spiritual elder in my life and in the lives of so many that she touches – a beautiful example of spiritual maturity for others to follow and learn from.

This Mother’s Day, I thank God for sparing my Mum’s life, and for the incredible life-changing work he has done through her in so many lives, including my own. I pray I can follow in her footsteps, as she follows in the footsteps of her rabbi, Jesus Christ of Nazareth.