Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Brothers, We Are Not Rock Stars

Over ten years ago, John Piper wrote Brothers, We Are Not Professionals. The book contained a series of short chapters written by Piper and designed to remind his fellow pastors of the biblical call to be a shepherd to God’s people. I would like to suggest the addition of a chapter to Piper’s previous work entitled “Brothers, We Are Not Rock Stars.”

In recent months I have watched two very prominent and very successful pastors have their integrity called into question. Steven Furtick, pastor at the 14,000 member Elevation Church in Charlotte and Mark Driscoll, pastor at Mars Hill Church in Seattle, which also has an attendance of 14,000 per week spread over their 15 locations, have recently both been the subject of intense scrutiny of their character. In Furtick’s case, the examination has to do primarily with his decision to build a 16,000 square foot, $1.7 million home for his family and questions about the Elevation practice of “spontaneous baptisms.” Driscoll’s case is far more involved and includes questionable practices in promoting his books, his general demeanor toward others, and even extending back to behavior he engaged in nearly 15 years ago.

My goal in this short piece is not to uncover some new detail about either man. Nor is my goal to pile on either of them. They have enough to do in responding biblically and graciously to the challenges at hand. Rather, I suggest that at least part of the reason these relatively young men (Driscoll is 43 and Furtick is 34) are embroiled in these controversies is due to something more sinister and subtle: our desire to follow (and promote and even worship) successful people even to the extent that we are willing to look beyond some obvious issues.

As much as we might like to deny it, we – other pastors and Christians – love a success. We want to be a success and we want to be surrounded by successful people. When we find someone who can draw a crowd, can motivate them and move them with his speaking, and can build an organization, we give them wide latitude in other areas. We are willing to call it “edgy” when a guy cusses in the pulpit, as long as he is reaching thousands and agrees with us theologically. We look past one who is tempted by the allure of material possessions (what else is a 16,000 sq ft house?) because there are other good things his church does (like donating millions of dollars to charities in and around Charlotte).

The scandals that occurred among proponents of the prosperity gospel was easier for conservative, orthodox evangelicals to live with. After all, we had significant theological problems with Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, Robert Tilton, Oral Roberts, Richard Roberts, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, Paula White and others. But, now we have discovered that the problem is not solely theological in nature. No, it is deeper than the ability to check the “orthodox” box next to your theology. It is a problem of the human heart. It is a problem that Paul addressed to young Timothy when he told him flee the temptation of money and material possessions (1 Tim 6:9-11). It is a problem of a Christian subculture that loves a rock star.

I have a few suggestions as to how we can mitigate the rock star phenomenon among us.

1. Serve in a small, traditional church before you plant a church.
I served in two small, rural churches that were run by just a few families. Nothing will kill a rock star mindset like Mrs. Charlene reminding you that “pastors come and go, but the church stays the same.” Most of the rock stars in our midst planted the churches they now serve in. While I am not opposed to church planting, it gives a young pastor a false idea of ministry. I planted a church too. And, I recall a mindset of the church being “mine” edging in on me; after all, I planted it, I built it, and no one would be here if they didn’t like me and my preaching. And, I was only in a church of 180. Imagine 10 or 100 times that many.

My heart breaks when I hear the old saying, “it is easier to give birth than to raise the dead.” Of course it is. And, it’s more fun too. The problem is, there are lessons that one only learns during the hard labor of working with folks who do not see you as the answer to all their problems. There is a leadership incubator in a small, rural church that cannot – under any circumstances – be replicated by a church planting boot camp. Indeed, I would argue that if you cannot effectively lead in a small, rural church, you ought not plant a church. The leadership lessons are that critical. Spend five years or so in a small, traditional church before you decide to plant that megachurch, multi-site, world-changing church in a major city. Your ministry will be better for it.

2. Find an older pastor to mentor you
John Walden, Noel Taylor, James Baldwin. These are names that will be remembered by only a handful of family and friends. But, these three men were instrumental in my life. They were all local church pastors who took me under their wing and shared ministry insights with me that were not taught in a classroom. They were not rock stars.

I remember one leadership decision that did not go as I intended. As I shared the story with Dr. Baldwin, he asked me who I thought was to blame. I immediately launched into accusations about the chairman of deacons, the family who “ran” the church, and the unwillingness of stubborn people to follow good leadership. He listened politely and then said, “Well, you got it all wrong, son. The problem is you.” He then painted a picture of how to lead people, not just tell them what I wanted them to do. The lesson made a significant impression on me.

When young, hip, cool pastor types experience success the only people they seem to listen to are other young, hip, cool pastor types. That is a prescription for disaster. I would suggest that every young pastor – no matter how hip or cool – find an experienced, small church pastor who can share wisdom with him. Who can teach him how to navigate difficult leadership decisions and how to guard his heart from the temptations that come with great success.

3. Remember you are only a steward. 
When I was getting a little full of myself about planting a church in a town of 3,000 people that were 78% churched – and it growing from 23 to nearly 180 in 5 years – I needed a reality check. What brought me back to reality – other than God’s grace – was a visit to one of those country churches I had previously pastored. It was there God reminded me that I was but a steward in His kingdom. He reminded me that the church I helped to plant had better be bigger than me, or it would not last. He reminded me to hold any church I serve with an open hand, because the church is designed for his glory, not mine.

Brothers, we are not rock stars. We are servants of the King, who demonstrate our love for Him by the way we love the people entrusted to our care. These things have helped me. What has helped you to beat back the rock star mentality?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

An Open Letter to Thabiti Anyabwile


I have been enriched and blessed by your ministry – specifically your writing – on many occasions. You have challenged me and pushed me to think differently about a whole host of issues. And, I have been better because of it.

The events unraveling in Ferguson are not much different. I understand and agree with your call for evangelical leaders to do more than simply lament what has happened, and what is happening. I agree with your assessment that we have tended to ignore who our neighbor really is; that we have often failed to speak on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and the disenfranchised. Frankly, we have failed to do so because there is little in it for us. After all, unemployed, young black males are not the folks needed to build multi-million dollar facilities and international ministries. You are right to call us to more. To something better. To put the gospel into action.

I am reaching out to you in this way, because I have no method of contacting you directly. I attempted to send you a direct message via Twitter, but that option was unavailable to me. So, I have turned to my own, little read blog, to do so.

I mentioned you in a tweet today about the #Ferguson situation. That tweet read: “Defending criminal behavior because of perps skin color is sin, not understanding.” I included both you and Matt Chandler in that tweet for a reason. In both of your writings over the past few days I have detected a blindness to your own biases. A blindness to wanting to know what really happened between Officer Wilson and Michael Brown before we issue calls for actions or even make laments. That blindness was illustrated in your reply to me: “By that, do you mean we shouldn’t defend Wilson because he is white? I didn’t think so.” In so doing, you dismissively made the very kind of racial stereotype that you would call others to avoid.

You assume(d) that, because I am white, my tweet was a blanket defense of Wilson and an indictment of Brown. When, in reality, it could just as easily been read as a defense of Brown. But, you did not read it that way. Why? Simply and sadly, you judged my tweet by the color of my skin, not the content of my character – to borrow a line from one of my heroes. I’m saddened by that because, until men like you and I can engage with each other without making sinful assumptions, we will never become the kind of evangelical community that can offer help and hope to the people in Ferguson, and beyond.

Thabiti, I have immense respect for you. You have far more eloquence and are far sharper than I am on a wide variety of issues. It is for that reason that I ask you to consider, for a moment, why you would call on evangelicalism to “stop putting people on trial before you grant them mercy” and at the same time you yourself act as judge and jury by declaring police officers “perpetrators” when they have been involved in the shooting of an unarmed person. ( Do you not know that there are justifiable reasons that law enforcement officers (and private citizens in some states) have for using deadly force, even when an assailant is unarmed? Thabiti, if you want a consistent, gospel-saturated call to action by evangelicals, you must not only lead the lament. You must be consistent to do yourself what you call on the rest of us to do.

Grace to you,
Rob Pochek

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Pastoral Reflections on Robin Williams' Suicide

On Monday night, August 11th, news broke that legendary comedian and actor Robin Williams had died of an apparent suicide. On Tuesday, August 12th, officials confirmed that Williams had indeed taken his own life by hanging himself with a belt. The response to Williams’ death was immediate and heartfelt from fans and colleagues alike. Everyone was saddened to hear that one who had brought so much joy into the lives of others had taken his own life. Immediately some began to speculate about his ongoing battle with alcohol addiction and depression as the cause of his desperate act. Others began to comfort themselves with the thought that Williams was now at peace from such battles. And a few observed that suicide is the ultimate selfish act.

There is little doubt that suicide is a fierce goodbye. It is a final and ultimate way an individual seeks to end their suffering and struggle. And when something like this happens – whether to a celebrity or a fellow church member – Christians are all too ready to comment. The most prominent reactions I have observed from Christians seems to be either to say the individual is now at peace or to make some comment about the unpardonable sin. Obviously, these two reactions are polar opposites, yet both come from Christians. So, how should Christians respond to news like this?

First, we need to be very cautious about making absolute pronouncements about a specific individual’s eternal destiny. Frankly, we are not in a position to know such a thing with certainty. When we pronounce that someone has committed “the unpardonable sin” by taking their own life, we are speaking of that which we do not know for sure. Jesus mentions this sin in parallel passages found in Mt 12 and Mk 3. In those contexts, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day were accusing him of casting out demons by the power of Satan. They were, in fact, attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan. Jesus described their words as “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit.” While scholars may debate exactly what Jesus meant by this, we can be certain that he was not referring to suicide.

Second, it is not consistent with a Christian worldview or biblical truth to suggest that someone who has taken their own life “is no longer suffering.” Frankly, we do not know that. Indeed, the Bible teaches that only those who are in a relationship with Christ are in a place of joy after their death. All others are in a place of torment. But, because we do not know – with certainty – the nature of a specific individual’s relationship with Christ, it is neither helpful nor accurate to make statements about who is or who is not suffering any longer. For the person who dies apart from Christ, the tragic reality is that their suffering has just begun.

Third, I have occasionally seen Christians insinuate that suicide is not possible for a true follower of Christ. Such a view denies the reality of our fallen nature, the power of sin, and the devastating effect of mental illness. Christ is our deliverer, no doubt. But, that deliverance is not complete and total until we are in his presence. The battle with depression and mental illness is not unlike any other battle with sin. The Enemy attacks us at our weakest and most vulnerable spot and like other battles with sin, occasionally the battle with mental illness and depression is lost. Sadly, sometimes that loss is final.

Finally, sometimes Christians point out that suicide is the ultimate selfish act. It may be. But, saying so is not very helpful to the family that is left to grieve the loss of their loved one. In fact, in a sense, when we say suicide is a selfish act, we are acting as if people exist in a spiritual vacuum. In reality, the opposite is true. The person who is struggling with the desire to end their life is in a spiritual battle. Jesus said that the Devil has come to “steal, kill and destroy.” While the individual is responsible for the choices he or she makes, let us not fall into the trap of acting as if we do not have an Enemy that is seeking to destroy as many lives as he can. When a person commits suicide it is the ultimate win for the Enemy. He has successfully duped another person into believing that his way of death and destruction is best.

When Robin Williams took his own life, the Enemy rejoiced and a nation mourned. As Christians, let us be gracious before a watching (and hurting) world. Let us not make bold pronouncements about suffering. Let us not make sweeping generalizations about suicide. Let us be clear that sadness and sorrow at the loss of one made in the image of God is right. Let us be clear that mourning and grieving the loss of a husband and father is right. And let us be clear that, except for the grace of God, there go I.  

Monday, August 4, 2014

I Didn't Expect THAT!

If you are a leader, no doubt you have made decisions that had results you did not anticipate. In the world of economics, this phenomenon is referred to as the “Law of Unintended Consequences.” The idea is fairly simple: the actions of people, and especially of governments, always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended. A government (or business) establishes a regulation (or policy) anticipating one result, but the self-interest of those affected by the regulation (or policy) leads them to act in a way the government (or business) did not anticipate.

What, you may be wondering, does this have to do with being a church leader? Everything. The law of unintended consequences is not confined to the world of economics or government regulation, but is alive and well in the life of the local church. When church leaders are preparing to make decisions – even relatively minor decisions – we need to keep the law of unintended consequences in our minds.

Consider the following scenarios:

  • A worship pastor introduces new songs to the congregation resulting in the singing of hymns less frequently. The worship pastor’s goal is to enliven and enrich the worship of the people in the church by broadening their worship experience. The unintended consequence? A segment of the church feels their worship is now restricted, as the songs they have grown to love are no longer sung as often. 

  • Church leaders decide to scale back the children’s ministry worship experience. Their goal is to minimize the need for hard-to-find volunteers (especially at the regular worship hour) and to increase the discipleship effectiveness of the ministry by reducing the “entertainment” portion of the weekly event. The unintended consequence? Parents think that the children’s ministry is no longer important to the church. 

  • The church installs new chairs in the worship center (or new pews, depending on the church) and decides that coffee they serve in their café is no longer allowed in the sanctuary. Their rationale is to be good stewards of the resources entrusted to them by preventing spills and stains. The unintended consequence? People perceive the chairs are more important than them. 

All of the scenarios above are real. And, I am sure that church leaders who are reading this article could add dozens more. The simple truth of the matter is that, whenever decisions are made in the life of the church, there are consequences that we cannot anticipate. Indeed, consequences beyond our control. Of course, if the consequences are “unintended,” what can we do about it? Fortunately, there are a few ways to minimize the fall out.

1. Anticipate Negative Perceptions
I remind our staff that perceptions trump intentions, always. So, do your best to put yourself in the shoes of a person that will be affected by the decision. Then, try to think of the most outrageously negative reaction you can. I’m serious. Why? Because, more often than not, it is the reaction that you don’t think will happen, that will. It is the far-flung-nobody-will-ever-think-this reaction that will end up being the perception. If you can anticipate it, you can proactively respond to it.

2. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
Too often church leaders spend a lot of time in planning for a major change, and then implement it without properly communicating the entire thought process behind it. We have to be mindful that, just because we have been thinking on a change for months, does not mean our people will warm to it when we share it the first time. We need to communicate the need for the change, the impact of the change on current ministries, and what will happen if we do not make the change. We need to do this, not in a combative way, but in a consensus-building fashion. We also need to communicate in a variety of methods – one video on a Sunday morning just won’t get it. We need printed pieces, videos, skits, signage around the building, and personal communication from key leaders.

3. Change, if Necessary
This may seem counter-intuitive, but, even after all the planning, communicating, and anticipating possible, it may be that the decision we made was poor. When that happens, we need to be quick to acknowledge it and adjust what we have done. The church that wanted to protect their new chairs, for example, just could not get over the perception that they valued furniture more than people. So, they decided to give out lids with the coffee they served in their café and planned to have the pews cleaned on a semi-annual basis.

These are just a few ways to deal with the unintended consequences arising from leadership decisions. What are your stories? What decisions have you made that had consequences (perceptions) that you never expected? What did you do about it? What would you add to the three suggestions above?