Bread & Circuses

The recent implosion of James MacDonald’s ministry is a sobering reminder of how easily beguiled the church is by a pretty voice. Not only is the unfolding debacle painful to watch, it also ought to send a chill of fear down the spine of pastors and church leaders. MacDonald was no heretic. He was and is a biblical conservative. His failure, if the reports are true, was one of leadership character. I am not saying this as a mitigating factor. The pastoral epistles are clear that character and leadership style are as important in determining whether someone is fit to lead as doctrine.

My point is that the church is easily swayed by those who are compelling speakers. This is not a new problem. Paul complained about it in the Corinthian letters. Church history’s hall of shame includes many notable pulpit masters who made a name for themselves as speakers while engaging in behavior unbecoming to their office. What is surprising is not that these leaders sinned but that the church found it so easy to overlook their behavior.

We often plead grace in our attempt to excuse ourselves. Our preachers and leaders are sinners like us. They are “wounded healers.” We are sometimes reluctant to apply the biblical standards of leadership too rigorously to them out of fear that we will condemn ourselves in the process. But more often than not this kind of talk is just a smokescreen that obscures the real root of the church’s failure which is due to something far shallower. Simply put, we like a good speaker. If that requirement is met, we often don’t care about much else, as long as their weaknesses are not so public that they force us to take note of them.

The simplest explanation for such a one-sided evaluation on our part is that we have to listen to these people week after week. We would much prefer to listen without feeling that the experience is torture. But I do not think that this simple explanation is adequate. The opposite is more often the case. Many congregations tolerate preaching that is mediocre or even less because they are being cared for by a genuine shepherd.

I believe two other factors have caused the church to elevate speaking ability over spiritual leadership and even moral character. One is the church’s marketplace orientation. The other is the congregation’s growing tolerance for a distance between the church’s pastors and its members. These two are related. Churches tolerate good speakers who are weak pastors because they rely on the pastor’s speaking ability to market the church to non-attenders. This is especially true of churches that have grown large and where the pastor has become the brand. They  are “too big to fail.” There is too much at stake. The fortunes of too many people are tied to one personality to jeopardize it all by holding these leaders accountable. More than one fallen leader has sought protection from the consequences of their failure by threatening to bring the temple down on the heads of those who sought to expose them.

The popularity of the megachurch model, even though only a small minority of congregations can actually achieve it, has changed the way church members relate to their pastors. It has also changed the way Bible colleges and seminaries train for ministry (or don’t). We are being pressured to train performers and administrators instead of pastors. Those who attend megachurches do not expect to be pastored. They do not expect to relate to the preaching pastor at close range. They do not expect the pastor to invite them over to dinner or to show up at the hospital and pray for them when they are sick. They do not expect him to come to their home and ask about their spiritual well-being. They do not know what kind of office hours the pastor keeps if the pastor keeps any at all. They do not know what the pastor’s salary is, because it is masked in the budget, lumped together with all the other staff salaries. Indeed, the typical church attender has been trained to think that the pastor’s salary is none of their business. As a result, all the average worshipper knows about the preaching pastor is what they hear when the church gathers for worship. The resulting distance makes it impossible for the congregation to hold the pastor accountable for much of anything.

These cultural shifts are having a profound effect on the way churches think about pastoral ministry. The pastor is no longer a shepherd or even a preacher. The emphasis in today’s branded culture is on personality and performance. The difference is immediately felt when one hears them preach. One of my colleagues recently contrasted this new model with the pastors and Bible conference preachers of a generation ago. “Those old preachers were mostly men in grey suits, unimpressive in appearance but powerful expositors of the word,” she said. They were not interested in their image. They did not focus on style.

I do not think that she meant that they had no style. They certainly did, but theirs was the kind of style reflected in Philip Brooks’s definition of preaching as the communication of “truth through personality.” Brooks didn’t mean that the preacher should try to be a personality. “The truth must come through the person, not merely over his lips, not merely into his understanding and out through his pen” Brooks declared. “It must come through his character, his affections, his whole intellectual and moral being. It must come genuinely through him.”

There is more to what Brooks describes in these words than what is popularly called “transparency.” Brooks did not merely mean that biblical truth is expressed through the container of the preacher’s personality. Rather he meant that the preacher is someone who has been shaped by the truth. In the language that Paul uses in 2 Timothy 2:15, the preacher is someone who makes every effort to present themselves to God as an approved worker in the word, not only handling it rightly in terms of its interpretation but reflecting its truths.

These days instead of “studying to show ourselves approved” it is our preaching that has become studied. By that, I mean that our overemphasis on personality and style has made our preaching self-conscious. It is affected. From dress to tone to the way we stroll about the stage, we seem to be as interested in crafting an image as we are in communicating a message. The congregation is complicit in this. Like the ancient Romans, the average church member no longer sees it as their responsibility to weigh carefully not only what is said, but the one who says it. They have traded this duty for bread and circuses. What the preacher is off the stage does not matter so much as long he holds our attention while on it.

James MacDonald is not the first nor is he the worst preacher to be accused of incongruity between life and message. I am not saying this in his defense. But I do think that he is too easy a target for us. It is easy to pile on after the fact and demand an accounting.  But he was not the only culpable party. In this image-driven age, when the church prefers circuses over bread, why are we so surprised?

Get Out of Your Discomfort Zone

The other day a friend asked me, “What are you doing to challenge yourself?” “Nothing,” I replied. “I don’t believe in it.” He thought I was joking. If I was joking, it was only a little. I don’t believe in the theology which says that God’s chief aim for us is to move us out of our comfort zone. I think His purpose for us lies in the opposite direction.

Before I tell you what I mean by this, let me tell you what I don’t mean. I am not saying that God would never ask us to do something that is uncomfortable. Discomfort is a common feature of daily life. You don’t have to go looking for it. Sooner or later it finds you. I am not saying that God would never expect us to deny ourselves. The Christian life is one in which we must “put to death” whatever belongs to the earthly nature (Colossians 3:5).

My problem with discomfort zone theology is the way discomfort seems like an end in itself. Discomfort zone theology is just a new version of the old asceticism that prompted the monastic fathers to drink rancid water and live on moldy bread. This old asceticism was fueled by a dualistic worldview which saw the body as a liability. Holiness was equated with hardship. These factors were aggravated further by a theology of salvation which placed the stress on human effort combined with a well-meaning but misdirected spiritual ambition.

Of course, our version asceticism is not like that of the monastic fathers. We do not wear clothing that is so coarse it makes us bleed or starve ourselves in desert caves. Popular asceticism in the evangelical church is usually little more than a missed meal now and then or maybe swearing off craft beer for Lent. But the discomfort zone theology that I am talking about also involves something else. In its most common form, discomfort zone theology is a motivational tool wielded by church leaders to move their members to action. It is rhetoric used to urge worshippers to do something they would not normally do. Go on a short-term mission trip. Volunteer to teach Sunday school. Help out in the church’s mid-week children’s program. Pass out flyers. Get out of your seat and walk three rows to shake hands with someone you’ve never met. Get out of your comfort zone.

None of these practices is necessarily bad. Indeed, they are often quite helpful. But I do sometimes have reservations about the motives of those who make such appeals. I can’t help noticing how often the discomfort zone into which I am being urged to thrust myself corresponds with some ministry initiative that advances the church’s program. Why is it that my discomfort always seems to be to the church’s advantage? And why is God so eager to make me uncomfortable, to begin with?

Discomfort zone theology is also an ethos that shapes our approach to the Christian life. Being comfortable, it would seem, is a bad thing. As long as we are comfortable, we cannot pursue God’s will. Only by making ourselves uncomfortable can we please God. In this way of thinking, discomfort becomes more than an occasional side effect of obedience or an environment in which we are sometimes asked to exercise faith. It is now a destination. Discomfort is a mark of grace. It is proof of our genuine devotion. Steeped as we are in such a culture, we might be startled to discover that a theologian as eminent and ancient as Thomas Aquinas asserted the opposite. “The essence of virtue consists in the good rather than the difficult” Aquinas wrote. He also noted that not everything that is difficult is necessarily more meritorious.

The trouble with discomfort zone theology is that it appeals to the worst side of our religious nature. As Theologian Josef Pieper explains, “. . . man seems to mistrust everything that is effortless; he can only enjoy, with a good conscience, what he has acquired with toil and trouble; he refuses to have anything as a gift.” Not only is this way of thinking unhealthy, but it is also a spiritual orientation which is fundamentally incompatible with the Bible’s theology of grace. I can’t help noticing that the same Jesus who tells us that we must take up our cross and follow Him also seems to link that burden with the experience of rest. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus says. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

I do not think you need to get out of your comfort zone. Life will take care of that for you. Life is challenging by its very nature. Live long enough, and you will inevitably be drawn into awkward relationships, unfamiliar territory, and unwelcome experiences. Discomfort will find you. Follow Jesus long enough, and you will discover that like Peter you are not in control of where you go. Sooner or later you have to go where you would rather not go.

 Jesus’ call is not to get out of your comfort zone but to find it. His promise assumes that we are already uncomfortable. The yoke of rest that Jesus offers can be taken, but it cannot be seized by force. We do not manage ourselves into it, acquire it by bargain or even attain it by discipline. It comes to us through an exercise of faith. It is laid upon us. Rest as Jesus defines it is something that must be done for us. So the next time someone tells you to get out of your comfort zone, you should consider moving in the opposite direction. You are uncomfortable enough. What you need is rest.

To learn more check out The Radical Pursuit of Rest: Escaping the Productivity Trap published by InterVarsity Press.

Life After Death by Meeting

I have spent a significant portion of my thirty-four years in ministry attending meetings. Sometimes I was in charge of the meeting. At other times, I was a reluctant participant, required to attend by the nature of my work. These experiences prompted me to try and understand the way groups and organizations work. Over the years I have come to few conclusions.

Those who lead the meeting rarely look at it through the same lens as those who attend. I learned this very early in my pastoral ministry.  When I led the church’s board meetings, I focused on the agenda, which often reflected my interests. I wanted the meeting to start quickly and lead to action. In other words, I wanted the board to see things my way and adopt my proposals. They had a very different focus. They usually spent the first thirty minutes or so making small talk, catching up, and talking about work or family. They were not in the same hurry as me. My goals were not nearly as important to them as they were to me. This difference in perspective results in a sort of nearsightedness on the part of those who lead the meeting. Leaders are so focused on their agenda that they often cannot read the people around them. Sometimes they do not want to.

Our interaction with people in meetings is one-sided. One of the things that surprised me most about my experience in meetings was how little others knew about me. Likewise, I found that I tended to relate to people in terms of their role and in some cases their caricature. You might think it would be otherwise. For decades I have spent hours with the same people in meetings. After all this time, I have concluded that they don’t know me at all. I don’t know them either. I know the persona that they project in the meeting, which may be very different from the actual person I pass in the hall. While this is understandable, it is also damaging. Our lack of common knowledge often leads to depersonalization. Bad behavior towards one another in the corporate world, is often justified by saying, “It’s not personal; it’s business.” The same rule holds in Christian organizations as well. Our work suffers when we lose sight of the personal nature of our interactions with one another. These one-sided relationships cause us to see others as negative stereotypes. One is the buffoon, another is the fool. There is the ranter, the suck-up and the tyrant. Depersonalization creates an environment where incivility and bullying flourish.

Meetings are inherently messy. The Gospel of John says that the whole world could not contain all the books that could be written about the things that Jesus did. Something similar might be said about books intended to make meetings go better. Leaders look for ways to make meetings run more smoothly the way the Knights of the Round Table sought after the Holy Grail. Both objectives are pretty much the same. They are beautiful but unattainable ideals. Good meetings, that is to say healthy meetings, are almost always messy. How can they not be when there are competing perspectives and agendas present? The search for an elegant process easily degenerates into patterns of behavior the squash disagreement and stifle creativity. The best thinking is born of serious disagreement that is worked out by people who have learned how to suspend their disbelief long enough to consider other alternatives. In the Christian realm, the quest for smooth meetings also fosters a climate of false civility. This consists of a forced peace which has a low tolerance for disagreement. Because we are unable to disagree well, we are unable to understand one another’s differences. Disagreement is not division. Messy does not have to be mean.

Meetings are necessary. Most of us feel about meetings the way some people do about their in-laws. We would avoid them if we could. But since we can’t, we will endure them as quickly as possible. Meetings get no respect. Books are written about them with titles like Death by Meeting, Meetings Suck, and Bad Meetings Happen to Good People. There is a way to lead without the messy collective deliberation that is inherent in all meetings. It is called tyranny, and it is never good. Churches and organizations are living systems made up of networked individuals. It is the human dimension of these bodies that makes them so messy. Meetings force us to face one another as a community and confront our differences. Most of the time the process is slow, painful, and ambiguous in its result. The messy work of disagreement, deliberation, and movement toward an awkward consensus is essential to the health of every one of these institutions. It is especially important to the church, which is a body of interconnected members. The rule of the church is not “Be sure you get your way.” It is “Have concern for one another” (1 Cor. 12:25).

In the last thirty-four years, I have only served on one committee which I feel approached this ideal. It was chaired by the associate dean of faculty Billie Sue Thompson (who is now with the Lord) and led a diverse and creative group of colleagues responsible for my school’s first-year experience program. We were a mixture of different personalities from a variety of departments. Some of us were outgoing others reserved.  Some were contemplative, while others were activistic. We occasionally got on one another’s nerves.

One of the first things that Billie Sue did was ask us to map ourselves as a group, to help us understand our collective personality. I learned some remarkable things. I discovered that the things that frustrated me most about my peers were usually the things that added value to our little community. The source of my irritation was their gift. In order to benefit from those gifts, I had first to learn to appreciate them. Before I could appreciate them, I had to know them. Most important of all, I realized that if this was true of them, it must also be true of me.

This understanding did not magically transform all of my meetings. Aggravation was not replaced by a warm huggy glow. My enemies did not magically become my friends. Those who had annoyed me continued to annoy me. But the change of perspective I learned from Billie Sue did help me to see them differently. The same change enabled me to see myself differently too. I learned to value them. In the process, I discovered that I had value too.

Ugly Duckling Theology

I was looking at the results of a major survey of pastors the other day and noticed a trend. Pastors of small churches are more likely to be less energized by their ministry than those who serve large churches. They are also more inclined to question their calling. The message seems to be twofold. First, large churches are more fun than small churches. Second, those who serve small congregations feel like they have missed the mark.

Neither of these assumptions is accurate. The epic failure of some notable megachurch pastors in the past few years might suggest not only that large churches are not more fun; in some cases, they may not even be safe. The bigger they come, the harder they fall. But this probably isn’t accurate either. Pastors of large churches don’t fall harder than pastors of small churches. They just fall more prominently. We might ask why we even call some churches small since 80% of congregations fall into this category. If 80% of the population were four feet tall, we wouldn’t describe those people as short. We would call them normal.

Many pastors who care for small congregations think they would be happier if they served a larger flock. I know I believed this when I was a pastor. It’s not that I didn’t like my church. I just felt that I was destined for bigger things. Of course, I tried not to let it discourage me. I cheered myself with stories that reminded me of how God used people in small places to make a big difference. The lowly shepherd who becomes a king. The fifteen-year-old boy who takes shelter from a snowstorm in a little church with a substitute preacher and grows up one day to become the “Prince of Preachers.” The pastor of that little church out in nowhere who goes on to become president of a major Christian organization. The story always ends the same way. The hero starts small but ends big. “God rewards faithfulness,” I told myself, and I believed it.

Thinking this way helped me a little. But I think it harmed me too. That’s because it made me susceptible to ugly duckling theology. Ugly duckling theology is a perspective whose expectations follow the trajectory of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Ugly Duckling. You know how the story goes. The ugly duckling is a homely little bird, ridiculed and shunned by others. But when he is older, the duckling turns out to be a beautiful swan. I loved this story when I was a child because I wanted it to be my own. I think many pastors of small churches feel the same.

Ugly duckling theology promises that if we are faithful and true our long winter of obscurity will eventually come to an end. We will discover that the day of small things has passed. The small church will become large. Others will recognize us for the swans that we are. This ministry mythology takes a variety of forms. For some, it means that if you build it, they will come. Construct the right kind of space and create the right atmosphere and people will flock to your church. For others, it is the promise that if they just preach the word, the church will grow. In some cases it means that they leave the small place behind and strike out for fame and glory.

For a handful of pastors, this really is their story. We know that it is because they tell us so at the conferences we attend. They take no credit for their success but give all the glory to God. Then after the main session, they lead a workshop which promises to tell us how we too can turn our churches around. Later they meet us in the vestibule to autograph their latest book. During the two minutes we spend with them, we feel a sense of kinship. We are convinced that we are cut from the same cloth. But somewhere in the back of our mind, there is a nagging doubt. Why hasn’t our story turned out like theirs? Why is our ugly duckling church still so ugly? We aren’t alone in this. Most pastors serve in ugly duckling churches. Half of all worshipers are concentrated in a mere ten percent of churches. Six out of ten churches have an attendance of 100 or less.

When you think about it, ugly duckling theology is only a pastoral shaped version of the prosperity gospel. It says that if you believe and work hard, you will eventually be a success. Those who hold to this theology measure ministry success along an axis which has two coordinated points. They are not X and Y, as is the case with other graphs, but B and B: bodies and bucks. These two are related. The more bodies you attract, the more bucks you will have at your disposal. None of us aspiring swans intends to enrich ourselves off this interrelation. However, we do feel that our compensation ought to reflect the difference in scale. We believe this expectation is rooted in equity rather than greed. No one would expect a CEO to be paid the same as the guy who works in the mail room. Fortunately, we don’t have to deal with the ethical dilemma this kind of thinking might create right now because we are still pushing a mail cart, waiting for our big break.

“There is much that is glorious in pastoral work, but the congregation, as such, is not glorious” Eugene Peterson observed. “The congregation is a Nineveh-like place: a site for hard work without a great deal of hope for success, at least as success is measured on the charts.” Which brings me back to the survey I read the other day. I don’t think the reason that pastors of small churches are less energized is that the pastors of large churches are having more fun. I don’t think it is because pastoring a small church is harder. I think it is a result of misplaced expectation.

When I told this to my pastoral students, one of them asked: “So are you saying that we are all ugly ducklings?” “Yes, I am,” I replied. But after giving it further thought, I think I should have answered him differently. Our mistake was in thinking that we were ugly to begin with. I should have said that we are all swans.

Direction

The other day a woman stopped me on the street and asked for directions. Not wanting to be rude, I did my best to guide her and then went on my way. But after walking two blocks, I could tell I’d given her bad advice. I realized too late that she was trying to find the intersection of two streets that run parallel to each other. I’d pointed her in a direction that would never lead her to her desired destination because her desired location didn’t exist. For some reason, it never occurred to me to check the map on my phone.

I’ve found that this is often the case when people give directions. Those who tell you what direction to take mean well. Some even know where you’re trying to go. But often their guidance is less than helpful. Sometimes, as in my case the other day, the fault lies with the one providing guidance. They think they know the landscape better than they really do. At other times the problem is with the one who receives the directions. Maybe they don’t understand them. Or perhaps they don’t trust them. Sometimes they just decide to go another way.

When I was a pastor I found that the majority of people who came to me seeking direction in their lives were really looking for permission. They already knew what they were going to do. They just wanted a spiritual authority to tell them it was o.k. If I was unable to do so, they went in search of another counselor. Sometimes they just ignored my advice and did it anyway.

There were also times when I gave bad advice or at least inadequate counsel. I thought I knew the landscape. I tried to provide direction. But sometime later I realized that what I said was too simplistic. This usually happened when I found myself in the same situation and my advice came back to haunt me. What seemed clear and straightforward before now looked like unfamiliar territory.

I suppose at this point I should compare the Bible to the GPS system on your phone. Just take it out and ask it where you’re supposed to be and you’ll never go wrong. But it never seems quite that easy. At least, not when it comes to the finer points of guidance. The big things are simple. At least, they are easy to know. They aren’t always so easy to do. All the big things we are supposed to do (or not do) are pretty much boiled down to ten things. Jesus narrowed them down to two: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

But honestly, it’s the street by street navigation that gives us trouble. Many times when we are trying to make decisions, we are looking for an intersection when the choices before us lie on parallel tracks. The decision is not binary. It’s not a matter of either or. When faced with a choice between option A and option B, we could choose either and still remain within the boundaries Jesus sets for us. Neither one violates our love for God or our obligation to love others. Yet we would still like to have a sense of God in our decision.

There are some who say that in such cases God doesn’t have a preference. If both your options fall within the broad boundaries God has set for your life, choose the one that pleases you most. It seems like sound advice, as long as your options remain binary and you have a clear preference. But what if you have more than two options? What if you like them all? What if every one of them is something you hate? What if you don’t have a strong feeling about any of them?

There have been times when I wished God would just come out tell me the way He wanted me to go and relieve me of the responsibility of making any decision. An angel visitation might be nice or maybe a cloudy pillar by day and one of fire by night. It seems like a good idea until I realize how often that kind of direct guidance from God didn’t really seem to help God’s people stay on the right path in the Old Testament.

Knowing the direction we should take is no guarantee that it will be the direction we want to take. It is also no guarantee that we will actually choose to walk the path marked out for us. We might just bolt like the prophet Jonah and run in the opposite direction.

Lately, friends have been questioning me about a major decision I’ve made. “How do you know God wants you to do that?” they ask. I can only offer them negative proof. “He hasn’t given me any reason to think otherwise,” I say. Does God really want me to do this? How would I know? Dreams and visions? God doesn’t work that way in my life. There is no chapter and verse to cover the choice I’m making. I am left with preference and even then there are times when I feel ambivalent. St. Augustine said, “Love and do what thou wilt.” He didn’t mean that we should always do what we want. But what we want is often a good place to start. Augustine’s point was that whatever path we do take must fall between the two poles of two great commandments Jesus emphasizes. No matter whether we do what we like or like what we do, everything that we do must be shaped by God’s definition of love.

Sometimes what we must do pleases us. Sometimes the things we would prefer to do fall outside the bounds of God’s plan for your lives. Sometimes we don’t know what to do but must make a decision anyway. God does not always shine a light on the path before we walk it. But He does always travel it with us.

Divine direction is no small thing. It is pretty important. But there is more to guidance than navigation. God’s guidance operates by faith. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” Proverbs 3:5 tells us.

This implies that the path is not always clear and our ways are not always straight. We rely upon God to handle the course corrections. Then we trust Him for the trajectory those changes introduce into our lives. They don’t always make sense to us. Or to others. But God is really the only one who sees the entire landscape of our lives. He knows where we should be and how to get us there. He knows how to nudge us in the right direction when we drift off course.

When my children were small, we sometimes took long family trips in the car. We didn’t have GPS in those days. Every so often my kids asked the question that every child asks at some point during a family trip: “Are we there yet?” “No,” my wife Jane would always answer. “But we’re closer than we were before.”

Praying to a Silent God

The house I grew up in had one phone. It hung on the kitchen wall and had a long cord that stretched to the end of the hall. It was barely long enough to reach my bedroom. If I really wanted to talk in private, I had to walk to the nearest payphone. This was long ago, in the days before everyone had their own cell phone. In my teens, I mostly used the phone to talk to girls. But I wasn’t very good at it. I never knew quite what to say. I had trouble reading the mood of the person at the other end of the line. Did they enjoy talking to me or were they rolling their eyes, just waiting for the call to end? My phone conversations were made up mostly of insecure chatter interspersed with awkward pauses. Much like my prayer life and for the same reason.

Those calls, as I remember them, were usually one-sided. My prayer life feels the same. I seem to do all the talking. I know that there are some Christians for whom prayer is a dialogue. They come away from prayer filled with thoughts and impressions from God. It’s as if he has a conversation with them. That has never been true for me. For me, talking to God is a lot like trying to talk to an introvert. He is a really good listener. But he never seems to have much to say. In fact, he never seems to have anything to say, at least not out loud.

The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews says “God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways” (Hebrews 1:1). But I don’t always feel like God is talking to me. I have often wondered why. Maybe it’s like the phone on the kitchen wall. Because I can’t see his face or hear the inflection in his voice, God seems to be inscrutable. I am tempted to interpret God’s silence as indifference toward me or worse.

I find God’s silent nature to be a mystery. At times it is a frustration. After all, it’s not as if God has trouble with words. He was the first to speak. Genesis 1 tells us that God spoke the worlds into existence. He is also a prolific author. I’ve read his book more than once. Yet for some reason, God prefers to speak through others. He does not use his own voice. Instead, God communicated through prophets and the writers of Scripture.

It has occurred to me that God’s silence may actually be an act of mercy. When the Israelites heard God speak on Mount Sinai, they begged Moses to act as their go-between so that they wouldn’t have to hear it again. “We will die if we hear the voice of the Lord our God any longer,” they said. “For what mortal has ever heard the voice of the living God speaking out of fire, as we have, and survived? Go near and listen to all that the Lord our God says. Then tell us whatever the Lord our God tells you. We will listen and obey” (Deuteronomy 5:25-27).

It seems that prayer isn’t about hearing God’s voice at all. It is about speaking.  “Prayer is the simplest act in all religion. It is simply speaking to God” the 19th-century church leader J. C. Ryle observed.  “It needs neither learning nor wisdom nor book-knowledge to begin it. It needs nothing but heart and will. The weakest infant can cry when it is hungry. The poorest beggar can hold out their hand for alms, and does not wait to find fine words. The most ignorant person will find something to say to God, if they have only a mind.” The essence of prayer is in the asking.

Although the answer to a prayer is no small thing, it is not the only thing. We do not always get what we want when we pray. Sometimes we make our request and find that we must wait for the answer. Sometimes we ask and get something different. There are times when we ask and it seems that we do not get anything at all. Prayer is not about getting but about being heard. It is also about being known. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” Jesus assures us in Matthew 6:8. I usually know what I want, but I do not always know what I need. My prayers are often ignorant. God’s answers are not.

We find God’s refusals, when they come, hard to accept. Indeed, we have such an aversion to them that some of us have developed a theology of prayer which leaves no room for God to say no. If we do not get our request it is our fault. It means we do not have enough faith. Or the right kind of faith. But God’s right of refusal is proof of the relational nature of prayer. “The essence of request, as distinct from compulsion, is that it may or may not be granted” C. S. Lewis observes. Lewis offers the prayer of Jesus as irrefutable evidence. “In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him” Lewis explains. “It did not. After that the idea that prayer is recommended to us as a sort of infallible gimmick may be dismissed.”

I think my problem with prayer is that I have misread the silence. Silence can mean many things. It is true that silence is sometimes a signal of irritation. It can be a mark of contempt. But silence is also the comfortable space that has been carved out by long familiarity. Two people who sit together for hours in silent happiness do so because they enjoy being in one another’s presence. Silence is a mark of someone who is listening carefully.

I am not a great man of prayer. I know that don’t pray as I ought. What I have to say to God is usually dull and unimaginative. I am repetitive and sometimes whiney. I am pretty sure that if I had to listen to myself pray, I would soon grow bored. I have moments in prayer when I lose heart. I also know that the fault is mine. I misinterpret the silence on the other end of the line, mistaking it for boredom or contempt when in reality it is the silence of presence. I know that I do not pray well. But perhaps I do not have to pray well to know that God has heard me.

Stuff Christians Hate

The other day I was thinking about the stuff Christians hate. In particular, I was thinking about the people Christians like to hate. Well, maybe hate is too strong. Let’s say, the people that Christians like to dislike. Or maybe, the people that Christians like to deplore. I was reviewing an article for a conservative publication which included a quote from a noted theologian whose views have sparked controversy in the past. I wondered if I should mention it to the editor. There was nothing wrong with the quote. But you know how these things go. Sometimes the mere mention of a name is enough to spark outrage among Christians. It’s not what is said that prompts the reaction. It’s the person who said it. We often don’t even understand the nature of the controversy. We just know that someone told us that the author said something somewhere else that was bad.

Concerns about what people have said or written are reasonable, especially when it comes to the faith. It’s not so surprising that we don’t understand finer details of such matters. Most of us rely upon the opinion of others to help discern good teaching from bad. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Bible says that it is the duty of the church’s leaders to warn God’s people about false doctrine. Even theologians depend upon other theologians for their opinions.

I’ve noticed that our tastes in these matters also tend to be cyclical. That was the question I wrestled with when it came to the quote. We hated this guy five years ago. But do we still hate him today? Well, maybe hate is too strong. Let’s say that he made us uncomfortable. We didn’t doubt that he was a Christian. As far as I know, his Christian walk is exemplary.  But people in my theological tribe disagreed with his position, some of them strongly. But after a while, something changes. We feel differently. Maybe we decide this issue that separated us wasn’t that important after all. Perhaps we are tired of controversy and decide to overlook it. Or more likely, some new person or issue captures our attention and pushes our discomfort with the other guy to the margins.

If we wait long enough our old enemy might even become a new favorite. It’s like furniture. The ugly furniture my parents used to decorate our house in the 1950s is now hip. Theology is like that too. Some of the people we used to decry are now merely thought to have been misunderstood. When I was in seminary, my conservative teachers considered Karl Barth to be a liberal. Today he is insightful.

This doesn’t just happen with people. When I started to follow Jesus, I smoked a pack and a half of cigarettes a day. I liked smoking. Well, all except for the cancer part. But in general, I like the smell and the way I felt when I smoked. I thought it made me look intellectual. Then an older believer I respected told me that serious Christians don’t smoke cigarettes, so I quit. It wasn’t easy for me. It took me a while. It took the grace of God.

These days, such a warning would be considered legalistic. Christians don’t hate smoking anymore. Indeed, I know some Christian leaders who are proud of the fact that they smoke. Of course, it has to be the right kind of smoke. Cigarettes are still considered gauche among conservatives, but not cigars and pipes. They are a common accessory with a certain brand of pastor. He is usually Reformed, young, and bearded. The nagging issue of cancer is still there. But we won’t think about that today. We can think about that tomorrow when the doctor calls with our test results.

The same leaders who don’t hate smoking don’t hate drinking anymore either. They have cast aside the old misgivings some Christians used to have about the consumption of alcohol. They consider abstinence to be an outdated vestige of the sort of legalism that once claimed: “real Christians don’t smoke, drink, or chew or go with girls who do.” Jesus drank, they point out. He changed water into wine. Paul advised Timothy to “use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake” (1 Tim. 5:23). Not only does this new order of Christian leader like to drink, but they like to post selfies of themselves drinking on social media. This practice seems to be a kind of manifesto, a testimony to Christian liberty.

However, just like smoking, to be truly acceptable, it must be the right kind of drinking. It has to be craft beer or at least wine. One can hardly imagine Jesus tipping a can of Bud. In the interest of fairness, I must confess that I am not a neutral observer on this issue. Both my parents were addicted to alcohol. I also recognize that, although the Bible does condemn drunkenness, it doesn’t condemn the consumption of wine outright. I understand that not everyone who drinks is a drunk. But I also know that ten percent of drinkers consume sixty percent of all the alcohol that is sold. Maybe alcohol isn’t as hip as we thought.

The list of things we used to hate is growing, but that doesn’t mean we hate fewer things, it just means we have exchanged the items on the old list for new things. There is still plenty of stuff for Christians to hate. For example, we hate to sit down while singing in church. We hate to go to church on Sunday night. We hate to go to church on Sunday. Some of us hate to go to church, period. We hate one another’s politics. We hate the music in church if it’s not ours. Sometimes we even hate each other.

It’s a challenge to hate the right things. We often fail to get it right. Some of us don’t want to hate anything. Others hate everything. We seem to have a penchant foolish alliances, like Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah. I sometimes wonder if the prophet would say to us what he said to him: “Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord?” In the end, our real problem it isn’t about what we hate at all. It’s about what we love.

Do Dogs go to Heaven?

Each time I have watched a pet die, the experience has prompted me to ask questions about death, eternity, and God’s goodness. How can I love something so much and suddenly find that it no longer exists? My theological sophistication evaporates along with my detachment. I am shaken to the core. I ask the question that every child asks: Do dogs go to heaven? If not, why not? In this podcast, I reflect on grief, pets, and the nature of heaven.

Why Do Churches Put Up with Narcissistic Leaders?

Another high profile pastor has been accused of abusive leadership. The story is so familiar to us by now that it has become monotonous. We are sorry, but we are not surprised. Or maybe we are not sorry. The debacle holds a macabre fascination for us. Like watching a horrific accident while it is in progress, we can’t look away. The fall of a great leader appeals to our egalitarian sensibilities. We like to see the mighty cut down. Americans love to hate their leaders. The story of abusive leaders has become so familiar by now that we ought to ask a question. Why do churches tolerate such pastors? Churches stick with abusive leaders for the same reasons people remain in other abusive relationships.

We are Attracted to Them

No church that is looking for a pastor says to itself, “Hey, I know! Let’s hire a conceited jerk!” Churches give a lot of thought to the characteristics they want to see in their pastor, and most of them are good. Nobody who decides to attend a church is thinking, “Where can I find an abusive pastor today?” The church is drawn to narcissistic leaders because they are attractive to us. Narcissistic leaders have a presence. They are exciting. They hold out the promise of great things for the church. Many produce impressive results, at least for a while. Those who see through the hype recognize it as pretentiousness. But for churches who are hoping for a messianic leader, narcissistic style can be very appealing. These churches are willing to tolerate the abuse in the hope that the pastor will lead them into the Promised Land of ministry success.

They Reward Us

Any co-dependent relationship is built upon a dysfunctional system of rewards. We enable narcissistic behavior because we get something from the leader. Sometimes the reward is small. It may only be that we are addicted to the adrenaline of crisis that comes with this style of leadership. Or maybe we like the pastor’s preaching. Churches tolerate narcissistic leadership behavior because they fear that no one else will be able to produce the same results. Churches with narcissistic leaders are often so identified with the pastor that his departure will have a negative effect on attendance. The larger the church, the more difficult it is to disengage because there seems to be so much at stake. Churches enable narcissistic leaders by developing social systems that reinforce their abuse.  Narcissistic leaders surround themselves with other leaders who make them feel special. This inner circle experiences a vicarious thrill by being associated with the leader. Because narcissistic leadership comes with perks and special treatment, the inner circle often gets rewarded along with the leader. The result is a co-dependent loop which blinds those who should be responsible for holding the narcissist accountable.

We are Afraid of Them

Narcissistic leaders are bullies. They develop organizational cultures which are marked by fear and punishment. Church members who question their agenda or practices are accused of being divisive and undermining God’s plan. In a misapplication of 1 Samuel 26:9 & 11, those who criticize the pastor are sometimes warned not to “raise their hand against the Lord’s anointed.” Threats and retaliation are explained away as “church discipline.” Narcissists use the power of their spiritual position to shut down anybody who challenges them. They create a culture of fear which silences objections and penalizes objectors. There is always a cost to those who challenge a narcissistic leader.

What You Can Do About It

What can you do, if you believe your church has a culture of narcissistic leadership? First, pray for divine intervention. This sounds overly simplistic, but it is the most important strategy for dealing with a narcissistic pastor. Narcissistic leaders are extremely difficult to correct. They do not see themselves as narcissists. They do not understand why others criticize their motives and actions. They explain away criticism by attributing it to Satanic attack. Churches with deeply entrenched narcissistic leaders need to ask God to bring the true nature of its dysfunctional leadership to light.  In most cases, things get worse before they get better.

Second, refuse to cooperate with the co-dependent dynamics of the church’s narcissistic culture. You have no control over the narcissist. You cannot force a narcissistic leader to see himself as a narcissist. But you can introduce an element of disequilibrium into the culture by not participating in the game. Dysfunctional cultures are a kind of dance. Everybody has to keep in step. When you refuse to follow the dysfunctional rules you create a dynamic that makes change possible. The foundational rule in a dysfunctional culture is the code of silence. We break that rule by speaking the truth in love. But recognize that there is a cost to this.

Finally, look for a healthier church. This is extremely hard, especially if you have invested your life in the church. Your friends and your ministry are there. Nobody likes to start over. Sometimes the best thing to do in a church system which tolerates narcissistic leadership is to leave. If the pastor is deeply entrenched and surrounded by a team that protects him, you should look to your own spiritual wellbeing. Nobody likes to leave a church. But sometimes it’s the wisest and safest thing to do.

Narcissism appears to be a deceptively tame sin. We tend to think of narcissists as buffoons that everyone can see through. In reality, narcissistic leaders are profoundly damaging to the church.  They are bullies and spiritual abusers who demand that that church serve them. They are the kind of shepherds the Lord condemns in Ezek. 34:2-3: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.’”

Click here to listen to my conversation with Chris Fabry about narcissistic leadership.

Self-Absorbed

I sometimes worry that blogging is narcissistic. After all, what could be more self-absorbed than expecting people to read your thoughts as you think about yourself? Well, perhaps video blogging, which expects people to watch you as you talk out loud about yourself. There are some people who engage in this sort of listening and get paid for it. We call them psychiatrists, psychologists, and pastors. Most wives do the same thing but for free. Narcissists, on the other hand, don’t listen to anybody, unless they are listening to hear themselves praised.

Narcissism may be the most debilitating side-effect of sin. It is the vice from which all sin’s ancillary vices emanate. The perspective of the narcissist is the point of view expressed by Haman in the story of Esther, who thought to himself, “Who is there that the king would rather honor than me?”

It bothers me that Haman is the person I identify most with in Esther’s story. I know I should dislike him and I probably would if I encountered him on the street. Yet there is something so familiar about the astonishment and shame Haman felt when he learned that the king intended to honor someone else that I cannot help feeling a pang of sympathy for him. He “rushed home, with his head covered in grief” (Esther 6:12). The narcissist cannot bear to go unnoticed. A true narcissist would be jealous of the corpse at a funeral.

Yet narcissists seem genuinely mystified when others accuse them of being self-absorbed. They do not consider themselves to be narcissists. They view themselves as benefactors and martyrs. They believe they have earned their position at the center of all things by means of personal merit and hard service. It does not occur to them that they would be anywhere else.

Sin, however, does not always produce narcissistic personalities in the classic sense. Sometimes it moves in the opposite direction. What passes for humility can be just as self-absorbed as stereotypical narcissism. The poster child for humble narcissism is Uriah Heep in David Copperfield. “A person like myself had better not aspire” Heep declares. “If he is to get on in life, he must get on umbly, Master Copperfield!” Heep is a caricature we easily recognize in others but with whom we find it difficult to identify ourselves (which, of course, is a feature of all narcissistic behavior). Our ventures into the realm of humble narcissism are usually more subdued than his over the top exclamations but they amount to the same thing. Narcissistic humility may be a peacock adorned with shabby feathers but it is still a peacock.

Haman was grieved over Mordecai’s elevation because he saw Mordecai as an enemy who had bested him. Haman was also afraid. He worried that Mordecai’s rise in fortune foreshadowed a reversal in his own. Here is another feature of narcissism. It is a self-absorption that tolerates no rivals. It is no accident that narcissists are often obsessively competitive. Even the drab narcissism of Uriah Heep will vie with others for the lowest seat at the table.

Self-absorption is endemic to human nature. C. S. Lewis observed, “If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realize that one is proud.” Yet even this does not go far enough. The narcissistic tendencies of sin are so deep-seated that they cannot be rehabilitated, repurposed, or disciplined into submission. In most cases, they cannot even be recognized by those who are so afflicted. The only real remedy is the grace of God and the gallows of the cross.