The woes of modern church leadership

Shaun King the founder of cutting edge, 700 plus congregation of Atlanta’s Courageous Church created a stir in September when he stood down stating “I have pushed as hard and far as my mind, body, and spirit can healthily go before crashing”. He had tried to transition the church to a emergent style missional church and it killed him. My stomach churns as I read the story that his wife Rai told on her blog.

2 years into it, after 300+ sermons, who knows how many songs, people coming, people going, stressful lead team meetings, raising money from outside sources because the people who attended the church didn’t actually give enough to support the church, Shaun got frustrated, a few leaders got tired and left, …

Thus Shaun had a vision for “the shift”…as it has come to be known.  After searching the scriptures and seeing Christ’s ministry for what it really was we decided we no longer wanted to participate in the spectator sport we Christians call CHURCH.  So we said, let’s stop meeting every Sunday.  Let’s instead, meet in small groups in each other’s homes.  Let’s share a meal and learn how to be true disciples of Christ.  Let’s all serve together.  Let’s have each small group belong to a cause group that addresses a need in our city. 

We talked about it, met about it, argued about it, preached about it, sang about it, and read books about it for months.  And for the most part, people were buying it.  As a matter of fact, the month before the shift, when Shaun was preaching the hows and whys of what were about to do was our highest attendance and our highest offering in all of 2011.  We thought that meant people were actually ready to be radical and courageous.  4 months later, it’s clear that what that meant was that people love HEARING about being radical and courageous.  It gets our juices flowing and makes us feel all powerful.

(We thought) let’s… create time to serve God instead of serving ourselves by getting high off of church services.  If people aren’t in church every Sunday, maybe they’ll serve instead.…FAIL!  What most people did after “the shift” is go to another church on the Sundays we didn’t meet….

Shaun and Rai fought tooth and nail to lead their congregation out of a Sunday-focused, program-oriented, volunteer-intensive all-consuming contemporary church, but after three months, 85% of the congregation wanted it back to the way it was. They both burned out and crucified themselves on the altar of ministry in the modern church and fell on their own sword. My heart goes out to them after experiencing similar pain for similar reasons when we transitioned somewhat unsuccessfully to a cell based church.

Rai went on to say

The truth of the matter is, Shaun is simply exhausted.  Pastoring people has been 10 times better than my best hopes and 100 times worse than my worst nightmares.  Unless you’ve done it, you will NEVER understand it.  It looks one way from the outside looking in, but trust me, you don’t know the half.  Pastors are the sickest, loneliest, most depressed people in church.  That’s why they have affairs, that’s why they die at the age of 42 from heart attacks and drug over doses.  That’s why every time you turn on the TV there’s a new scandal, and a fresh news story about the latest greatest to fall from grace.  Taking criticism day in and day out from people who swear up and down they know better is exhausting.  Having people leave for stupid, selfish reasons is exhausting.  The divorce rate for pastors is among the highest of any other group in the country.  Shaun and I have decided we’d like that to not be our story.

Another good pastor burns out and falls by the wayside leaving us just one more reason to wonder, is there a better way to do church?

After burning out, would I ever lead again?

I’ve been in church leadership since 1990, and full time staff from 2000 to 2009 when I was forced to resign due to depression and anxiety. Would I lead again? Up until now, I would have refused to even contemplate the idea. But my wife just came home after attending church – my former church, fuming about things like hypocrisy, in-authenticity, and PR bullshit (we’ve been made a scapegoat for anything that was bad about church) and we had a great discussion about what church could be like if we could start with a blank slate.

If this burned out, back-from-the-brink pastor could dream a little dream, it would go something like this:

If a pastor didn’t have a budget to meet, rosters to fill, attendance wasn’t measured, and behavior modification wasn’t on the radar, then I reckon it would be a ball. We would be free to do what we’re gifted for.

One caveat would be that I would not be paid – and therefore not full time and not on staff. I don’t think I would even have anyone “reporting” to me in any official capacity, and I definitely wouldn’t have a job description. I would do what I am gifted and led to do and what I’m passionate about. That beautiful little sector where the circles of gifts, strengths and passion overlap is where I’d live.

I’d think more about following Jesus than leading others. I would let Him lead them and remain only a catalyst.

I’d think more about two-way conversations than preaching messages at or to people.

I’d focus more on relationships, than productivity and efficiency.

I would hasten slowly.

I would concern myself more with journeys than destinations.

I would be brutally honest and leave PR spin to politicians, salesmen and con artists.

The life of the church would not revolve around me. I would not be the primary vision caster or motivator. I would allow people to get their own vision from God.

The church wouldn’t be exclusive. It would be a place for followers or non-followers alike.

Relationships with God and others, underpinned by love and acceptance would be the highlight.

Being would take priority over doing.

We wouldn’t own buildings or take on any debt.

The Sunday Service would not be the peak spiritual experience of the believers week.

The arts would have equal place with the spoken word.

Busyness would be a swear word.

I would not burn people out volunteering.

People would be more important than things, issues, ideas, structures, programs, productions, goals or causes.

I would tell stories. God’s story. My stories and others’ stories.

Yes it’s just a fantasy and no I don’t think this will ever happen, but there’s nothing wrong with dreaming is there? Some like Small Boat Big Sea are at least heading in the right direction. A transcript of an interview with them really gives me hope.

Wanna write a Christian bestseller?

#106 The Side HugMy cousin is a real thinker. He graduated an engineer, then became a patent attorney and never married, so not only can he think, he’s got the time and energy to do it. He’s basically a self-taught theologian. I really applaud thinkers. They get a bad trot in Christendom – written off as all talk, no action. But I think generating ideas is action and can certainly be a catalyst for action.

Anyway, cuz really has a message about the Father heart of God – which he says is the apostolic message that’s getting drowned out across modern western Christendom by speakers and authors talking about principles for the successful christian life – e.g. seven steps to a powerful prayer life, three easy stages to holiness, five ways to a horny God-honoring marriage. He wants us to come back to the Father heart of God but to do it, he needs to do some pretty solid and heavy exposition of Ephesians 1-3 and Romans 6-8 and everything else in the bible.

When I asked him who his audience is, he says the man on the street – average Joe Believer. But when he tells me what it’s going to take to support his position it sounds like the only people who would be able to digest this high-fibre, zero fat, low carb, extreme protein power bar of thought will be  scholars. I explained to him that there are a couple of issues with the rest of the audience.

Firstly, there is the dumbed-down audience that love reading the latest from TD Jakes and John Bevere on a certain topic usually outlining how to master a certain aspect of the Christian life (western christian mindset). Today’s Christians are saved by grace and then bust their boilers and give themselves nose bleeds working out their salvation by mastery i.e. applying “proven” principles to get results to be a successful, God-honoring believer (never mind that following Christ and the idea of “mystery” has fallen by the wayside). We might be saved by faith, but we definitely live by trying to figure it all out in individually wrapped bite-sized portions.

The dumbed-down audience want to read “safe” authors who are recommended by their pastor or someone else “safe”. Author’s must be able to demonstrate their personal success (i.e. mastery) by leading a large church, loving a happy family (all smiles), speaking at big conferences, owning two large houses, traveling to over 40 countries, writing best seller books translated into 93 languages, having 80,000 twitter followers, with a ministry on TV broadcast to the said 40 countries and soon into outer space (don’t laugh about the outer space, I personally know a pastor who is trying to broadcast their worship and music into outer space).

Cuz, I said sagely, we all know you write to this audience to make money – a necessary evil, but then you pour this money into your “vision” so the ends justify the means.

The other audience he could try is the non-churched Christians, post moderns and emergents. The issue with these guys is that they don’t want to look at the bible as a text to be sliced and diced and analysed. The bible isn’t seen as a constitution or wiki on the Christian life. It’s seen as a true, earthy, primal story made up of many stories about many people, the central character being Christ. The overarching story is about God and people. So if the bible is a narrative, your writing might want to be…. a narrative! And it better be released for Kindle as well.

I explain that modernism takes a technical, analytical, systematic view of the bible producing works like “systematic theology” but emergents don’t want to analyse, they want to synthesise. They don’t want technical, they want organic. They don’t want more information, they want relationship. They don’t necessarily want more knowledge of good and evil, they want life, community, worship and they want this in a social justice, eco-friendly, sustainable and all-inclusive package…. don’t even think of using the word “exposition”.

If you write to these guys, you might want to invest in some pop culture (Erwin McManus has his own clothing line and Rob Bell should definitely have his own line of spectacle frames) or maybe you could practice writing stories. Christian fiction is the new non-fiction! Just look at the success of The Shack. After all, everyone loves a good story don’t they?

Brian McLaren – Are you a heretic?

I love Brian McLaren. After my burnout, someone bought me a copy of A New Kind of Christian, and it was just what I needed. I’d started to rethink what I had inherited in terms of my paradigms and philosophy. I needed new ways for tough times, and McLaren offered me some new ways to think. It’s all fairly controversial stuff for conservative evangelicals, but adventure is part of my ethos, and what’s an adventure without dabbling in a little danger?

He was recently interviewed by Scott McKnight to try and clarify Brian’s position on key issues that has led some to brand him a heretic. Here’s the video and my response to it.

I totally get what McLaren is saying in this video. Instead of answering some of the the questions in a yes/no fashion, he’s trying to say that the question itself arises out of a mindset or paradigm that is asking the wrong questions.

He’s taking umbrage with the philosophy behind the question, which is the very thing he’s trying to change. I love it! He’s turning the heat up on the paradigm that asks the question. He knows the other paradigm as well as his new paradigm, so he’s fluent in both. It would be easier to answer the question, but not as useful. The conversation would be so much better if the questioner was also fluent in both.

If McLaren answered yes/no, that would enable dogmatic Christians to definitively write him off as wrong, never to listen to him again rendering his role in the kingdom as a thinker, provocateur, trail blazing, paradigm pioneer ineffective. There’s something greater than knowing right from wrong (the promise of satan in genesis) – McLaren wants people to think! But most Christians don’t want to. As he says, they just want to first know if an author is right, then they’ll listen or read their book.

I love his analogy to listening to music. I don’t give a toss what an artist believes in or if a musician is right, I’ll listen to his music if it sounds good and I’ll buy it and enjoy it.

Finally, I love his thoughtfulness and tone. He’s not antagonistic or defensive, he embodies what he advocates – that conversations about what we believe , rather than defending what we believe is the answer to being able to engage all people in meaningful dialogue and relationship, rather than having Christians bang on from one side of a very high, self-erected  wall at “non-christians” on the other, who either aren’t really listening or worse, listening and hitting back.