My heart has been filled with a fair amount of grief of late. No, nothing in my own personal life, or in the life of the church I have the privilege of serving. Those arenas are filled with nothing but sheer joy.
No, my grief is over the many pastors I have become aware of – seemingly more than usual of late – who have felt forced to resign or have been outright fired from their churches.
A tipping point was hearing of [sigh] yet another local pastor who was fired by a small group in the church that was apparently empowered to do such a thing. The congregation was never allowed a voice, much less a vote, in the matter. He had just given a “vision” talk, and apparently it didn’t go over too well with the group.
I went online and listened to the talk. For the life of me, I couldn’t find anything about it that was a) non-biblical, b) controversial, or c) not what any and every Christian church on the planet ought to be doing.
But it did involve reaching out. It did involve taking the changing surrounding community and its demographics seriously. It did involve scaling back to the new realities of a church that once was in the thousands and is now in the hundreds. In other words, it reflected sober leadership.
I have since learned that the tipping point was reaching out to people of different color and ethnicity, and [gasp!] baptizing prostitutes who had been won to Christ.
I seldom know such details. And even with those in mind, I’m sure there was plenty of fault to go around. He was a young leader who probably made more than his fair share of young leader mistakes (like we all did).
But my heart cries out because this is not the way it is supposed to be.
The church is supposed to be marked by love and functional community, not acrimony, discord, division and dysfunction. The great calling-card of the Christian church is to unity. When disunity erupts, it is always a victory for the evil one.
As has often been pointed out, when the Bible talks about such loving unity, it doesn’t mean uniformity, which is everyone looking and thinking alike. And the biblical idea is certainly not to be confused with unanimity, which is complete agreement about every petty issue across the board (though within churches there should be unity of purpose and an agreement on the major issues related to doctrine and mission). By unity, the Bible means first and foremost a oneness of heart - a relational unity. Being kind to one another, gracious to one another, forgiving of one another – not assuming the worst, shooting the wounded, or being quick to be suspicious. Biblical unity is about working through conflicts, avoiding slander and gossip, and being generous in spirit.
Hear my heart: this isn’t about taking the side of leaders who have sacrificed the privilege of their position due to habitual, public patterns of sin. This is not about honest stands over critical matters of historical orthodoxy. This is not about followers taking a stand against autocratic and dictatorial styles of leadership. This is not about the latest megalomaniacal celebrity leader getting their comeuppance.
It is about when we just can’t seem to get along, and seem to have stopped trying.
It’s about power plays.
It’s about petty disagreements regarding vision and direction.
It’s about arguing over trivial, non-essential matters of theology or biblical interpretation.
It’s about getting intense over the color of the carpet in the vestibule, who is best to hire for the youth position, or whether to use drums.
It’s about whether we should reach out to our immediate neighborhood that has changed and diversified over the years, or stay staunchly homogenous.
I could go on, but I won’t. But I hurt for the many good people in ministry who have lost their jobs, or felt forced to give them up, for all the wrong reasons. Many have young children. They do not know how they are going to support themselves. They trained their entire adult life for ministry, and that pedigree doesn’t exactly open doors anywhere else.
So can someone with more than a few years in this game offer a little counsel to both sides?
For those of you currently leading a church, pick your battles carefully. Some are worth fighting, even if it costs you your job – but many aren’t. And pace yourself on matters of change. Don’t rush in ten years worth of changes in ten months. Be patient with those you lead and serve. Most genuinely want to do the right thing. Honor the past while pointing the way ahead. And as you do, remember to teach, teach, teach, and then lead, lead, lead. And then realize you are going to need to do both, over and over again.
For those of you currently in a church, ease up. Really. Most pastors are very, very good people. They have their sin and weakness and inadequacies, but so do you. Show them the grace you would want shown to you. Don’t hold on to tradition for tradition’s sake. Die to yourself and begin living for those around you who have yet to darken your doorstep. It’s called the Great Commission. And the importance of dying to yourself in answer to its call isn’t just rhetoric. You will not always like what that death entails. That’s why it’s called death. Be known for loving and encouraging your pastor, not opposing and tearing them down. Most deserve your followership – give it.
And to those of you in the wake of all this, whether broken church or broken pastor, I’m so sorry. I really am.
But can I add one more thing?
Let’s all repent.
Let’s repent of everything loveless, and everything graceless, that led to the relational breakdown. Let’s repent for every time we assumed the worst, nitpicked the lint off of someone else’s soul, took offense when we didn’t have to, and gave in to sinful patterns of worldly behavior.
It can happen.
I once read of a church that realized it had mistreated a pastor, and years later, sought him out and collectively asked for forgiveness and reconciliation. I’m sure there are stories out there of pastors who have returned to churches and done something of a similar nature.
Churches are known for fighting and splitting, firing and dividing.
Do you ever wonder what a difference could be made in the world if we were known for peacemaking and reconciliation, investing and uniting?
So did Jesus.
In the gospel of John we have the poignant final words and prayers of Jesus to His disciples before the cross. Between John 13 and John 17, it can only be said that Jesus pours out His heart. It is considered by many to be among the most moving sections of the New Testament. What occupied Jesus the moments before His atoning death for the sins of the world? Not surprisingly, His concern that the world would recognize His gift. And how would that happen? Christ’s torrent of prayer and pleading begins and ends with a passionate call for unity among those who claim His name. The observable love between those who called themselves His followers was everything. Why? Jesus said it would be this unity, and this unity alone, which would arrest the world’s attention and confirm that He was from the Father.
We often marvel at the growth of the early church, the explosion of faith in Christ in such numbers and speed that in only a blink of history, the Roman Empire had officially turned from paganism to Christianity. We look for formulas and programs, services and processes. The simple truth is that they answered Jesus’ prayer. Yes, as Michael Green has noted, they shared the gospel like it was gossip over the backyard fence. But what did people find when they responded to the evangelical call?
As Tertullian noted, the awed pagan reaction to the Christian communal life was, “See how they love one another.”
A lost world could stand seeing it again.
James Emery White
Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church.
The Apology of Tertullian, AD 197.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones: Understanding and Reaching the Religiously Unaffiliated, is now available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. You can also find out more information about the upcoming 2015 Church and Culture Conference. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.