Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Breaking a Pastor's Heart

I am not a typical pastor, by most people’s standards. I like to hunt, shoot guns, and ride a motorcycle. As you can imagine, I am not usually described as a “softy.” Yet, this pastor’s heart has been breaking of late. What could break the heart of a gun-toting, camo wearing, motorcycle riding pastor? It’s simple: the lack of submission to biblical authority in the lives of those who claim to follow Christ.

Not too long ago I had a young man in my office discussing church membership. I knew that he and his girlfriend were cohabitating; that is, living together before marriage. So, I asked him if he thought their living arrangement would be a problem when it came to church membership. He said, “No. The church shouldn’t judge anyone for anything.” Some time later I got a text from a college ministry leader. He had received a prayer request from a young man in his ministry asking the group to pray that he and his girlfriend find a new place to live. A prayer request that, if God answered it the way the young man wanted, would result in the young man and his girlfriend living in sin!

Others will certainly identify with these kinds of circumstances or any number of other areas of life where the Scripture calls us to an obedience that goes against the culture. We regularly engage with cohabitating couples, people who are angry that we espouse a biblical definition of marriage, people who are more faithful to give to their retirement account than to the work of the kingdom, people who vote for political candidates despite those candidates holding non-biblical views on social and moral issues, to name just a few. In short, we encounter men and women who are driven by their pursuit of immediate happiness rather than faithful obedience to Christ. There are many reasons for this, of course: our sin nature, the battle with the flesh, spiritual warfare, among others.

It seems to me, however, that much of what breaks my heart as a pastor is rooted in a problem as old as the Garden of Eden: we doubt God’s Word applies to us, especially when it restricts our behavior. When the crafty serpent tempted our first parents, he did so by inviting them to question whether God had really spoken. He asked them, “Did God really say?” The implication is that, if God loved you, he would not impose rules that restrict you? Our first parents bought the enemy’s lie and we have been following their lead ever since.

There seems to be an increasing disconnect between what Christ followers affirm intellectually about the Bible and that to which they are willing to submit experientially. We will agree with our church’s doctrinal statement about the Bible, yet when the church begins to evaluate behavior and lifestyles in light of biblical teaching, we want to cry foul. We seem to miss the fact that if Bible is true it must be authoritative over every area of our lives. We do not get to pick and choose which parts of the Bible are true. We cannot have a Bible that is true when it speaks to forgiveness and salvation, but not when it speaks to holiness, obedience or the transformation of our behavior by the Holy Spirit.

In the encounters described above, it was clear that the individuals were disregarding the Bible’s authority over their lives. It seems people are happy to believe the Bible is true and accurate when it speaks to Jesus providing eternal life, but not when it speaks to how they live out the reality of that salvation. For example, the young man who didn’t think the church should ever “judge” anyone, obviously has not read 1 Corinthians 5:1-5 in which Paul, when discussing a man engaged in sexual immorality, says “I have already passed judgment on the one who did this” and then admonishes the gathered church to “hand this man over to Satan.” Indeed, Paul could say such a thing because he understood that we are not our own, but have been bought with a price (1 Cor 6:19-20).

The disconcerting truth is this: we are not free to live as we please. Not if we are faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Faithful followers of Jesus Christ recognize that the Bible is not only true when it speaks to salvation, but also when it speaks to how we live. In our culture that means the church must speak biblical truth about a wide range of lifestyle issues. It means we must admonish Christ followers to honor God by not engaging in the immorality of cohabitation, pre-marital sex, pornography, and drug use, among others. We need to exhort believers to think biblically about political topics and candidates before casting their votes. And, we need to tie these issues to the reality of the Bible’s authority over us.

When believers live as if God’s Word has no authority over their lives, it breaks the heart of their pastor. More than that, it breaks God’s heart. It breaks God’s heart because it results in broken lives. And, more often than not, we pastors are the ones who are called upon to help put the pieces back together. Yet, the simple truth is that God’s Word to us is not intended to restrict our behavior because God is mean or because he does not want us to have any fun. No, his Word is intended to protect us from the pain and sorrow of a life that is broken by the consequences of disobedience.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Five Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught

             I left my breakfast meeting with a young pastor and realized, with a measure of sadness, that I was no longer a “young pastor.” He was facing a number of ministry challenges that seemed very familiar to me. As I shared with him some of the lessons I had learned over the years in ministry, he remarked, “I wish I had known this three years ago.” It occurred to me that the lessons I shared with him were ones that I wish I had been told twenty years ago.

I first served as a pastor when I was 19 years old. It was a small country church that allowed a rough, unrefined college student to get his feet wet in ministry. Following college and while on hiatus from seminary, I took my first full time senior pastorate at the age of 25. As I look back, there are (at least) five things I wish I had been aware of when I was that wet-behind-the-ears, somewhat insecure, yet unrealistically overconfident pastor.

            You Are Pastoring a Parade. The first time I had a family leave the church I was leading, I was personally hurt. I thought that I had really messed up as a pastor. And, I am sad to say, in my more frustrated moments, I thought that they “just didn’t get it.” What I failed to realize is that, sometimes, God removes people from your ministry for your benefit. And, I am sure, sometimes he moves them for their benefit! It was John Maxwell I first heard say, “every pastor pastors a parade…people are always coming and going.” As I have watched people “come and go” over the years, I have learned to trust solely in the Lord to bring people that would add benefit to the church. It is, after all, his church to build. Indeed, God often removes someone in order to drive us to him, and then blesses us with someone else who adds tremendous value to the church. So, as a young pastor, be prepared for the fact that people will come and go, and trust that God is doing so for your benefit and, ultimately, for the good of the body.

            The People Who Demand the Most. As a young pastor, my assumption was that the people who gave the most and served the most would demand most of my attention. The truth was the exact opposite. The people who demand the most are typically those who give the least and serve the least. And, upon reflection, that makes sense. When people are faithful and obedient to give of themselves and their resources to advance God’s kingdom, they are far less inclined to selfishly believe that should have a pastor’s undivided attention. So, don’t be surprised when those most disappointed in you and who criticize you the harshest, are those who have the least invested in the ministry of the local church.

            You Will See Ugly Behavior. I have to be honest; this lesson comes from my wife. I asked her what she wish she would have known when we first started out. Her comment was, “you will see the ugliest behavior you can imagine in the church.” Now, please don’t think of my wife as a bitter crank. I assure you she is not! Rather, as the wife of a young pastor, she was not prepared for the “ugly behavior” that she saw. As a young pastor it is important to remember that you are not the only one who hears the criticism of others. Your wife and your children will hear the same things you do, sometimes worse. You need to be sure to help your family understand that such behavior is sin and we ought not return sinful behavior with sinful behavior. Instead, endeavor to let the Lord defend you as you exhibit Christlikeness in the face of criticism.   

You are Irreplaceable (but not where you think). A lot of pastors act as if they are irreplaceable at the church they are serving. That is why they cancel or postpone family outings and activities to attend to the latest need of a church member. But, being irreplaceable at the church is not what is intended here. Rather, you are irreplaceable at home. Think about it, you were likely not the first pastor of the church you are serving and you, hopefully, won’t be the last. But, you are the only husband your wife can have and the only father your children can have. In other words, your role as husband and father are the truly unique roles you will have in life. I first heard this idea from Andy Stanley at a critical time in my life. I spent nearly half of my pastoral ministry taking my family for granted as I tried to be the pastor everyone else wanted me to be. Thankfully I have learned that it does not profit us anything to grow a “successful” church and lose our family. Indeed, a careful examination of 1 Tim 3:1-7 and Titus 2:6 illustrates the importance the Lord places on you faithfully discharging your duties as husband and father as a prerequisite to serving as a pastor.

            Preach the Word. Every year the market is filled with the latest books filled with advice on how to grow a church. Some of that advice is really good, being based on solid research into churches that are growing. Some others are not so good. The temptation for young pastors is to find a concept or idea that they resonate with and decide to run with it, believing that the latest method is sure to work. Or, worse, they simply attempt to copy what is working somewhere else. However, while there is much to gain from missiologists and church growth practitioners, there is one thing that must not be forgotten. The only thing we have to say that is of any value to our people is found in the Word of God. No church growth gimmicks, slick presentations, or changes in style can replace the power of the man of God, hidden behind the cross, preaching Christ from all of Scripture.

            When I was a younger pastor, I wish I had been warned about these things. As a more experienced pastor, I have to remind myself of them constantly. Regardless of which describes you, may we all be mindful to “not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Gal 6:9).