When Leaders Lose Their Soul

There is a massive conversation that needs to happen within Christianity in America right now. More specifically, within the evangelical movement.

It will be a messy conversation with too many topics to cover. Nationalism and racism are priorities. But I don’t think these top the list. What does?


Right now, we have a leadership crisis in our churches and organizations.

Just today, I began reading Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton. In the introduction, she writes:

Jesus indicates that it is possible to gain the whole world but lose your own soul. If he were talking to us as Christian leaders today, he might point out that it is possible to gain the world of ministry success and lose your own soul in the midst of it all. He might remind us that it is possible to find your soul, after so much seeking, only to lose it again.

We have seen leaders reach the summit of Christian ministry (whatever that means). And yet they have lost their soul in the process. What can a person give in exchange for their soul? Jesus tells us nothing.

The timing of starting this book is providential. A friend recommended it this week and I can’t help but connect it with recent news (initially reported in November) about Carl Lentz, the now ex-pastor of Hillsong New York City, who was fired by Hillsong for a number of reasons.

This comes after a number of other evangelicals in the last ten years have fallen from leadership–or their faith altogether. There are almost too many to name, and it saddens me deeply.

I’m not here to blame fallen pastors or shame them for “losing their soul.” Of course, they bear responsibility for their actions. But while I am not a megachurch pastor, I have been a pastor and I understand the temptation to seek the praise of people or receive special treatment a minister might benefit from. Every time the news breaks about another pastor, I ask myself, “Why did God have mercy on me?”

This all goes way beyond individual pastors. This is a “capital-C” Church crisis. We are all culpable. We have created and perpetuated a culture that allows and enables pastors–and even other ministry leaders–to lose their souls while gaining the world.

In a nutshell, we’ve rejected servanthood for celebrity.

And just to be clear, the incredibly significant problems of nationalism and racism fall under this problem of leadership. We are allowing “biblically qualified” leaders to abuse their authority and undermine the Scriptures to suit their political and ideological preferences at the expense of love, mercy, and justice.

I’ve written recently about how to understand true leadership and how to pursue it. So I won’t rehash that here.

The simple point I want to make is that our North American church system is broken and something needs to change. The system we have is hierarchical, rigid, and institutional. You won’t find this in the New Testament–where leadership was shared among many, service-oriented, and community-based.

It’s easy to think this is a megachurch problem. We only hear about “failed pastors” because they are, well, famous inside and outside of the church.

But as Rich Villodas, a pastor of a large church in Queens, tweeted yesterday, “This is not a big church problem alone. I’ve seen small and medium sized church leaders act like they’re the royal family.”

How do we solve this problem? It’s not simple or easy or quick. And I hope to provide some suggestions over the coming months as I take more time to process Barton’s book and my own spiritual leadership journey.

I can briefly say that it will take an innovative, unique, and more robust approach to recruitment, training, and preparation for church leadership. It will require a concerted effort to focus on the way and life of Jesus rather than simply the truth of Jesus. It will require a fundamental restructuring of our communities and what it means to be accountable as a leader. It will require a radical reorientation of what it means to lead when you are not the Leader (that’s Jesus’ role, not yours or mine).

In the end, it will take the marvelous, matchless grace of God in and through each of us so that collectively we live out our calling as the body of Christ. So long as we fail to live out this calling, leaders will continue to lose their souls, churches will be destroyed, and a watching world will not impressed at what they see.

Life Ministry

A Prayer for Christians in Iraq

Arabic-NazareneMerciful Heavenly Father,

We do not know how to pray for our brothers and sisters in Iraq, but we trust that your Spirit prays for us in our weakness. So we cry, How long before you will judge and avenge the blood of your saints (Rev. 6:10)? How long shall the wicked exult (Ps. 94:3)? How long, O God, is the foe to scoff and the enemy to revile your name (Ps. 74:10)? Why, O LORD, do you stand far away; why do you hide yourself in times of trouble (Ps. 10:1)?”

Have mercy on our brothers and sisters and bring this evil violence to an end with justice. Protect your people and give them favor as they seek to flee from the terrorists. Help them to remember that you hear their cries for help (Ps. 5:1-2). For the blameless will not be put to shame in evil times, but the wicked will perish (Ps. 37:18-19). Assure them, by your Spirit, that they are your children and are loved and secure even when they walk in the valley of death (Ps. 23; Rom. 8:15-17). Help them to believe that they are blessed because they have suffered for righteousness’ sake (Matt. 5:10). Help them to be more satisfied in your steadfast love than they have ever been before (Ps. 90:14). Help them to remember that the sufferings of this world do not compare with their future glory (Rom. 8:19). Help them know that they can flee to you as their refuge and strong tower (Ps. 61:3). Help them remain faithful to you (James 1:12), endure to the end (Matt. 10:22), and rejoice that they are counted worthy to share in Christ’s suffering (Acts 5:41; Phil. 3:10; 1 Pet. 4:13). Help them to remember that here they have no lasting city and that they are headed for the city that is to come (Heb. 11:16; 13:14).

And Father, forgive and have mercy on those who may have recanted of their faith to avoid death, even though they may truly love you. Let them experience a Peter-like moment of repentance so that they might rise and feed your sheep and stand strong in the strength of your might (Eph. 6:10)

For us, Father, as Americans, we may feel guilty that we are not suffering in the same fashion. It may even be hard for us to pray for your vengeance. But that is only because we are not suffering. We are in an air-conditioned facility free from affliction or pressure or even the slightest bit of mocking. Soften our hearts and wreck us with compassion so we might suffer with our brothers and sisters and pray for them (Rom. 12:15). And prepare us for the day when this kind of persecution finds us, because we aren’t immune (1 Pet. 4:12).

But, you O God, aren’t immune either. On the the cross, your Son cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Ps. 22:1; Matt. 27:46). Because Jesus was forsaken on the cross, help our brothers and sisters know they do not need to fear being forsaken by you. For you will never abandon them (Ps. 16:10; Heb. 13:5). Would that promise empower them, and us, to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, just as you did (Matt. 5:44).

In times of trouble, truly you do not stand far away. Jesus, you are the strength of your people; you are the saving refuge of your anointed ones. Oh, save your people and bless your heritage. For our brothers and sisters in Iraq, be their shepherd and carry them forever (Ps. 28:8-9).

Come, Lord Jesus, come (Rev. 22:20)! Amen.

Note on the graphic above: The ISIS terrorists have been marking this symbol on the homes of Christians in Iraq. It’s the Arabic letter “N,” short for “followers of Jesus of Nazareth.”


More Thoughts on Loving and Liking

I wanted to clarify a few things from my last post.  Here are four things that I do not mean when I say that loving and liking someone is the same thing:

  • I don’t mean that you have to be buddy-buddy with every person.  There is a way to be gentle, respectful, kind, truthful, and interested in their well-being without being a “friend.”
  • I don’t mean that you have to be “nice” at the expense of truth.  For more on this, read this post.
  • I don’t mean that you have to agree with — or even be tolerant of — every opinion out there.
  • I don’t mean that you have eliminate emotions and never get frustrated, angry, sad, etc.

As Christians, we are called to genuinely love every person since they are made in God’s image.  Romans 12:9, 10 says, “Let love be genuine…Outdo one another in showing honor.”  If you do not genuinely like someone, I’m willing to bet you won’t try very hard to love them, and you won’t go out of your way to show them honor.  Paul commands us in Galatians 6:10 to do good to everyone.  Doing good comes from a heart-level desire for the benefit of another’s well-being.  If you do not like someone, you will not be concerned for their well-being.

By God’s grace, let us pursue the great exhortation of Paul to the young Timothy: “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5).


Social Deviancy in Church: Does Appearance Matter?

A guest post by Amy Pruch

In recent years, American Christian churches have become very diverse in their styles of worship, services, décor, and dress.  Different churches have a desire to reach out to different people groups, and therefore, change their style in order to fit the targeted people group. Contemporary churches may decorate with colored lights, have shorter services, louder music, and be dressed in jeans.  Conservative churches may decorate with flowers and crosses, play slower music, and dressed in suits and skirts.  It is true that a person will worship where he or she feels most comfortable and often where the congregation mostly looks, acts, and worships just as he or she does.  So, what happens when someone who does not fit that style enters the church?  Are they received well?  Is there equal opportunity for them to get involved and worship, although they may not be like anyone else in that particular church?

The norm I decided to violate is the conservative church’s dress and etiquette.   I visited two local churches in Waconia, Minnesota, Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church and St. Joseph Catholic Church, on Sunday morning, November 23.  In these churches, the dress was business-casual; make-up and jewelry were kept to a minimum.  During the services, there was much etiquette to know and respond to, such as kneeling for prayers or standing for Scripture readings.  Instead of following the norms of socially-acceptable business-casual dress, I dressed in black clothing, baggy jeans, gaudy jewelry, and gothic makeup.  Instead of following the church etiquette, I sat in my pew the entire hour, never opening a Bible or hymnal, never standing or kneeling when appropriate.  For the purpose of this project, my rules for the church services were as follows:

  • Do not approach anyone except the door greeters and welcome table.  Do not initiate any sort of greeting to those around me, even when the service calls for it.
  • If spoken to in conversation, I must ask how I could get involved in the church and/or what Christianity could mean for me.
  • My body language must be inferior with arms crossed, slouched over, eyes to the floor.
  • I must act nervous and timid, using soft speech when talking, often playing with my jewelry, and shifting from side to side.
  • After a conversation, I must reveal my true identity and purpose for the church visit.

The Setting
The first church I visited was Faith Evangelical Lutheran Church at the 9:30 service.  As I drove towards the church, I noticed a large banner outside that proclaimed, “You are Invited!”  The front doors led to the main lobby, which held a welcome center in the left corner and a table in the middle of the room for writing on name tags (everyone wore name tags).  Towards the right of the lobby was the entrance to the sanctuary. The seating for the sanctuary was split in three sections, the middle, left, and right, with the stage in the center.  The congregation size was estimated at 500 people.  The congregation consisted mostly of older adults, between the ages of 40 and 60.  The dress was casual, mostly jeans and slacks with nice shirts.

The second church I visited was St. Joseph Catholic Church for the 10:30 mass.  The front doors of the church opened to the lobby and to the left there were stairs leading up extremely large with four sections of pews, small sections to the very left and right, and then larger sections of pews in the middle, all facing the front stage of the church.  The congregation was very large, estimated at over one thousand.  The people group in this church was mostly young families (married couples in their thirties with young children).  The dress was very similar to the Lutheran church, in that most people wore jeans or slacks with a nice button-up shirt.

Deviancy and Observations
As I walked from my car to the Lutheran church, I felt embarrassed as I already noticed how differently I was dressed and how awkward this experience was going to be.  There were a few families that glanced in my direction, and as I followed a man into the building, he did not hold open the door for me.  I entered the lobby area and stood towards the back, allowing everyone who entered a view of me (I did not get a nametag, nor was I asked to).  I stood near an older lady who peeked in my direction, but otherwise, for the first five minutes, no one approached me.  As one of the pastors walked by, he looked me in the eye and extended a welcome. At this point, I had very much taken on my role and in reality felt lonely, out of place, and inferior, which made the pastor’s welcome very appreciated.  I walked over to the information booth and welcome center.  The lady behind the booth treated me as any other person in the church.  I asked how “a person like me” could feel comfortable “in a place like this.”  She had a puzzled look on her face, but then described Bible studies I could attend or volunteer work I could do in the church.  I thanked her, and then proceeded to sit down in the sanctuary.

In the sanctuary, I sat down on the left side, which faces the entire congregation.  This was intentional so I would be able to be viewed by the most amount of people.  I sat to the right of a twelve year old boy and his mother and in front of an older couple.  Throughout the service, I received several glances and the occasional stare.  I believe this was mostly from my appearance, not because of my lack of church etiquette. I acted as if I had never entered a church before, but it seemed more  people were staring because of my clothing and make-up rather than my lack of respect or knowledge for what to do during the service.

During the greeting time, six people came up to me to shake my hand, without me making eye contact or initiating a greeting whatsoever.  When the service had ended, an older woman in her 60’s welcomed me to the church and explained that she was “glad I had come this morning.”  I continued the conversation and asked how a “person like me” could get involved in the church.  She explained with a smile that there are many opportunities to explore within the church.  I told her that I did not know much about God and I wanted her to explain to me about what she believes.  Within a few sentences, she explained the gospel message to me clearly and adequately, after which I apologized for my deceptiveness and explained my true intentions of coming to the church.  She and her husband were quite surprised, but laughed and proudly proclaimed that God accepts everyone.  At this point, I headed out the door and caught the pastor before he left.  I again asked how a “person like me” could be comfortable in the church.  He said the youth group is a great place to start.  After a short conversation, I explained my true identity and purpose.  His facial expression revealed he was either taken off-guard or very offended; I hope it was the former.

Because of the ending time of the Lutheran church, I was ten minutes late to the Catholic mass at St. Joseph’s.  There was a minimal amount of people in the lobby as I entered the church, but I did catch a few children staring at me on their way to Sunday school.  As I walked into the sanctuary, I was intercepted by an usher who let me know where an open spot was (since I was not use to the setting, and not as many people were able to take a look at me, however, the people I sat by certainly seemed bothered).  There was a
man in his 60’s to my left who stared at me numerous times throughout the service, even when I looked back at him.  A teenager to my right looked at me once, but then acted like I was not there.  The harshest look I received was from a mother in her 30’s—her young daughter was about to step into my pew after communion, but the mother guided her away from my pew and gave me a long angry stare.  At this point, I felt very annoyed and judged by those around me.

Not only were my looks an issue with those around me, but I also believe the lack of church etiquette seemed disrespectful to those around me.  I did not stand or kneel at appropriate times, nor did I receive communion.  When the offering plate was passed, I acted as if I did not know what to do with it.  There were definite glances in my direction, as if to say, “What is she doing?” or “Why is she here?”  The most apparent rejection was noticed during the greeting time, during which I did not stand up, but I made it a point to look around for someone to say hello to.  I did not receive a single greeting, nor was I approached, nor was I looked at.  I was widely ignored, which made me feel extremely lonely amidst everyone else in the church who seemed perfectly fine looking past me.

The mass ended, and I lingered in my pew for a few moments, just to see if anyone would look at me on the way out, but again, I was ignored. Adults would have a quick glance and then stare straight ahead. Adolescents would stare for a moment, and then look away.  Children would stare and not tear their eyes away until their parents motioned for them to stop.  I shook the priest’s hand on the way out, and he said, “Thanks for coming,” just as he did for all others.  There was no “welcome table” to approach, but I saw one woman who had a booth for a Bible study.  I talked to her for a few moments, asking how “a person like me,” could get involved here.  She talked about her Bible study and said I am welcome to come.  I told her I did not know much about God and Christianity, and I needed her to explain it to me.  She offered to take me out so she could share with me everything she believes.  I declined, but asked her to share in a few sentences.  She proceeded to share the gospel in a very thorough and clear manner (in my opinion, even better than the lady at the Lutheran church).  I thanked her for her time and then explained my true intentions, after which she laughed and asked if she did a good job.

In visiting these churches dressed as a Goth and acting as a non-church goer, I realized that although I  received many stares, possible judgments, and awkward glances, I was received well once I showed an interest in Christianity and/or the church.  Therefore, my conclusion in this matter is that dress and etiquette do matter to an extent for the church congregation as a whole, however, it does not necessarily matter to individuals once in conversation.  Dress and etiquette certainly do play a role in conservative churches today, but it is a barrier than can be broken, although I believe it should not be a barrier at all.


How Should Christians (who didn’t vote for Obama) Respond to His Election?

I was on Facebook Wednesday morning after the election looking to see what my young, conservative friends thought of Obama’s election to the presidency.  I only saw one status that said anything about it.  It went like this:

I am crying for our nation.  That man will never be my president.

I couldn’t hold back.  I had to respond.  I typed: “Ah, but he is your president!  And you need to pray for him and respect him.”  My friend, thankfully, has since relented of the frustration.  Things like that get me angry at Christians.  They act as if God is not sovereign, as if we Christians should always get our way, and as if we can blame non-Christians for voting for someone who is a gifted speaker, charismatic, intelligent, and looks good in a suit.

Anyone who’s been on this blog knows that I didn’t vote for Obama.  I think some of his policies are awful.  I think he’s dishonest at times.  I think that he’s fooling himself and everyone else when he says we can “turn things around” (though he did say progress might not come in his first term).  I think he’s wrong on his abortion and gay marriage stance.  I think his tax policy is terrible.  His past friendships with some people are foggy.

Yet, I love him.  I think he ran a great campaign.  I think he’s a good speaker.  He tells parents to get their kid off the Xbox and TV.  (That might be the only way he’s similar to John Piper.)  He obviously loves his wife and two daughters.   I might not like Barack Obama’s policies, but he’s still made in the image of God and as of right now, there’s still hope that he’ll change, because he’s alive.  (After all, Jesus’ slogan is, “Change that’s already happened,” isn’t it?  Perhaps Obama will experience that life change.)

I need to love him.  If I don’t love him, I’ll be indifferent, and that’s the worst thing to be.  Because then, I’ll hate him.  Let me know how that works out for you.

There are two ways Christians can respond to Obama’s election as president.  They can be defiant,  heardheaded, stubborn, and accusatory, looking to blame Obama for everything and just waiting to crush him when he does wrong.  Or they can be respectful, thankful, honoring, loving, kind, compassionate, and gracious, willing to forgive him when he makes mistakes.

Christians hated it when liberals attacked Bush for mistakes made.  We’d cry, “You can’t blame one man!”  Let’s not do that with Obama.  Take the 2×4 out of your eye instead of focusing on the saw dust in your friend’s.

Let me tell you what I am not saying: I’m not saying that you cannot tell your Christian brother or sister, “I told you so,” if things go bad for America after you warned them not to vote for Obama.  Your responsibility as a Christian is to judge and keep accountable other Christains.  Tell them, “I told you so,” (in a loving, non-condescending way so that they might turn to Jesus and not to hope in politics).  In fact, if we read 1 Samuel 8 after Saul was elected king by God, we see Samuel warning the Israelites about the perils of having a king (vv. 10-18).  In chapter 12, Samuel even scolds the Isarelites for wanting a king (v. 13-14).  He says, “You saw the other nations and you said, ‘A king shall reign over us.’  You got what you deserved.”

To say that to non-Christians (or Obama) is sensless (1 Cor. 5:12-13).  To point fingers at liberals and curse them and picket with signs and mock our president will not do anyone good.  Most likely, it will drive people further from Christ and closer to Obama.  Most probably, it will give non-Christians more ammo to shoot at Christians for our un-Christlike behavior.  Pointing fingers and writing nasty blogs and picketing only reflects poorly on Christ and the Church.

How do we do this?  We have to do two things.  Pray that we’ll love Obama.  Pray for him.  You don’t pray for what you don’t care about.  If you want him to be cursed and damned, you won’t pray for him.  If you want him to know Jesus and be a man of integrity and honesty, you’ll pray for him.  In 1 Timothy, Paul said, “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions” (vv. 1-2).  Paul and Timothy dealt with more ruthless leaders than Obama.  Right now, we aren’t going to be beaten, evicted, and imprisoned for loving Jesus.  If Paul can say (and do) it, so can you.  He even says in verse 3 of the same chapter, “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people [even Barack Obama] to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Christians have a choice to make.  You can sneer and jeer and talk badly about Obama.  Or you can pray for him.  It’s going to be hard, because we are sinners.  But I know what I want to do.  I know what God wants us to do.