Five years ago I was on staff at one of the fastest-growing churches in the nation led by a pastor with worldwide fame. As soon as my picture and email were on the website I received questions from all over the world on how to run a successful youth ministry, and I answered them.
I had no business answering them. I was 23 years old. I had never held a staff position before. And to be honest, our student ministry was pretty standard.
Where did I get this arrogance? Don’t get me wrong, some of it has been in me since birth. But some of it was handed to me by the culture I was in and church culture in general.
It gets worse than just the email coaching. I had people with quadruple my experience asking to be my intern. I remember one guy who had been on staff with his church for seven years telling me he was willing to relocate and be an unpaid youth intern just to be around “what God was doing." Upon further investigation, he “felt led” to position himself in a place with more “influence.”
Where did he learn to follow a guy blindly for a chance at more influence? Why did he feel the need for more? I think the answer is current church culture.
The Question That's Going to Hurt Us
As a pastor who spends plenty of time online, I see all of the offerings of church experts who can help you solve church problems. For a few years now, I’ve been keeping up with these discussions even if, at times, it was just as an observer.
A lot of the problems discussed are everyday things like structure, authority, handling visitors, and branding. Once in a while, some of the advice given is game changing. Many times, however, it’s just a simple restating of the obvious. Still, nothing is wrong with this exchange.
It’s the underlying question that is driving all of the exchange that is the problem. (And I fear it may be a big problem).
The underlying question that we've been asking for a long time is, “How can we be a prideful church?"
I know you've never asked this question directly. But you may have wondered how you can build an awesome church or a better church. If you dig, you may find that your definition of “awesome” and “better” is actually prideful. That is, if some of your motivation is your glory.
To make matters worse, we’ve been answering these questions for each other. Instead of, "Why do you want to double in size?" we've said, "Come to our conference and we'll guarantee your church will double in size!" It's like a vicious cycle, and I don't even think we realize we're doing it because it's all masked with phrases like, "We just want to be missional."
What Are the Results?
Well, knowing Jesus and how he loves his church, the result will be mercy, grace, healing, redemption and thousands upon thousands saved.
The meantime, however, may be painful. In the last five years, I know of a handful of pastors with incredibly influential churches that have had to step down from ministry due to a fall of some kind. Most of their churches have fallen to some degree as well. The Bible says pride goes before a fall. I fear we’re going to see more churches fall. Like the ones I'm referring to, it may continue to be the ones you never thought would.
Why the pastors/churches you never thought would? Because if a ministry has presented itself in such a way that it doesn't look like it could ever fall, it's the most prideful of all.
A ministry that looks like it could never fall typically only publishes its wins. In fact, the constant repeating of these wins is what gets people to trust a ministry, and thus it grows rapidly. Pastors explain the growth as God's blessing, but too many times it just means that someone somewhere is hiding the losses. A church without losses doesn't exist.
When we hide losses, pride is involved. The losses then tend to be incredibly devastating when they eventually come to light. They will come to light, then that church/pastor which was once proud will begin to fall. And no one ever saw it coming.
That church I used to work at, the one where everyone emailed me and asked me how to run a youth ministry – yea that doesn’t exist anymore. It took less than two years for the church, a church with nation-wide influence mind you, to fall.
Now, as I said, Jesus had mercy and several new churches have started in place of the old one with many new people coming to Jesus each week. But the path there wasn’t too fun for anyone.
If I’m right, and there’s a sweeping culture of pride in the church, then a season of falls is definite. I’ll be honest, my question isn’t IF more pastors will fall or IF more churches will disband, it’s “who’s next?” I hope it's not me. I hope it's not you.
Let me tell you first what the solution is not. The solution is not to ride the pendulum out the other way. I’m not suggesting that we all go to incredibly small churches, or try to make church unimpressive on purpose. I'm not saying that we should never seek to have any movement or anything large. There is nothing wrong with large churches; there’s nothing wrong with influence. There is nothing wrong with helping each other get to the next level. The issue is simply pride.
Therefore, I think the solution is to change the underlying question in all of our visions and consulting. We need to start asking, “How can we be a church known for its humility?” We need to start picking apart the things we do, and instead of just asking, “How do we make this awesome or better?” we need to ask, “Is this as humble as we can be?”
I mean, what if you got all of your leaders together and spent an entire meeting truly searching your hearts and asking, “If we could flip a switch and make all of the churches in America 100x more fruitful and influential than we are, would we flip it?”
Wrestling through that question with Jesus will start the humbling process. Interestingly, as far as I can tell from the scriptures, the fruit and reach we’re looking for will be given to us in the humbling process. So even if you could flip that switch, you'd lose nothing and gain everything.
I have to ask myself questions of humility as well. I asked myself if it was even humble to post this. I've been asking if it’s humble for me to have a blog at all. I know that as long as questions like these are my underlying questions, I will land somewhere closer to Jesus than I deserve to be. And I'll probably spend a little less time on email.
Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rodlewis/