One Piece of Advice Before I Take the Trailer

 

This was an article I wrote for the Church Planter Collective.

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Sometimes the words that come from your gut, unrehearsed are the most helpful.

Last year our congregation stopped being nomads wandering in the wilderness (meeting in a middle school) and landed our first permanent facility. Part of that transition meant selling lots of equipment that once served a very useful purpose but now needed to be liquidated for the new building. We had two large portable church trailers that we listed on the internet and, sure enough, the church planters started calling.

We closed the deal for one of the trailers with a church planter out of Los Angeles. He rented a truck and drove the 20 hours to pick it up. After loading the trailer to his truck, I asked him if I could buy him a cup of coffee and hear his story before he started the long trek home.

In the midst of our conversation, this wide-eyed church planter asked me, “So, if you could give me one piece of wisdom to a church planter like myself who is just getting started, what would it be?” I wasn’t really prepared for the question but out of my gut I felt the words well up:

“It’s not as bad as you think,” I blurted out. He looked really confused so I continued, “I know that sounds really depressing but there will be many moments in which you will think that this whole church planting endeavor was the dumbest thing you have ever done. You will think that you are completely alone. People will betray you or let you down. You may even think of yourself as a failure – but it is not nearly as bad as you think.”

“But, also keep in mind – it’s not as good as you think. You are going to have some great successes and people are going to think you have life figured out and are the greatest preacher since Paul the Apostle. There may even be times that it seems that everything you touch turns to gold and ministry is easy. But that is a season that will end as well.”

“I guess what I’m saying,” I continued, “is that you have to find a place to anchor your heart and emotions outside of the results of your plant. Otherwise, the roller coaster ride of church planting can kill you.”

It could be that what kills new churches more than bad plans, lack of vision, or finances is the inner emotional world of the planter. Psychologists call it “differentiation” – the ability to separate oneself from one’s task. A prayer that I have learned to pray is a reminder that I am not my job. A reminder that I am more than a pastor or church planter. It is a prayer of recognition that God does not have employees; He has sons and daughters. May we learn to live in that grace.

 

 

Dana Hicks
The College Football of the Church

This is an article I wrote for the Church Planter Collective

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Several years ago I did a lengthy interview with Pastor Don Wilson of Christ’s Church in the Valley (CCV) in Peoria, Arizona. The interview was part of my dissertation research for Asbury Seminary. Don is a remarkable and humble guy who planted CCV about 25 years ago. CCV now is the largest church in the state of Arizona with about 20,000 attending every weekend.

Don’s office was smaller than mine and was very simple in its décor. As we talked, it became clear that CCV was an institutional embodiment of Don’s passion – people. As the conversation progressed past statistical information, Don lamented how a large church can quickly become very impersonal, program oriented, and lose focus on people.

“The real ministry of CCV doesn’t take place on this campus,” Don declared. “It’s in the neighborhoods and backyard barbeques. Our focus these days is to downsize our on-campus programming in order to encourage people to do ministry where they live.”

If you have been to the CCV campus, you can immediately appreciate the irony. CCV has an amazing church campus. From the outside it looks like a Scottsdale resort. The inside is as beautiful as ANY church I have seen.

When I pushed Don on this irony his answer has stuck in my head for a long time – “Down the road at Arizona State, their football team gets more attention and more money than any other athletic program at the University. If you are on the volleyball team or the lacrosse team, this might really bug you. But the truth is, the football team brings in more than enough revenue to pay for all of the other athletic programs at the University.”

“Weekend services are the college football of the church. They are not the most important things that we do by a long shot. They are not the most effective way of doing ministry. But weekend services are what pay the bills. We spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy on weekend services so that we can do other ministries that are more effective.”

In recent years there has been a lot of conversation about “missional” verses “attractional” models in church plants.  I think what I learned from Don is that it doesn’t have to be an either/or deal.  What if we allowed the attractional part of the church to be the empowering force behind the missional part of the church?  What if attractional and missional were symbiotic instead of competitive?

Dana Hicks
An Open Letter to a Recent Seminary Grad

This is an article that I submitted to Grace and Peace Magazine.  The idea came from a conversation with a former intern about dealing with difficult people in pastoral ministry.

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There is no greater thrill than seeing someone you have mentored and discipled go on to serve God in full time ministry. James was part of our congregation as a college student. He was bright, inquisitive, and passionate about serving God and his church. When he decided to continue his preparation at my alma mater, Nazarene Theological Seminary, I was ecstatic.
James and I stayed in touch and I was privileged to officiate his wedding a couple years later at the Kansas City church where he served. When James emailed me about his first pastoral ministry assignment, I felt like a spiritual grandfather: proud and fulfilled.


A few months later, I got this email from James:

Hi Dana,
I hope all is well with you in Idaho! I am writing you for some wisdom. I really hope you can help me here because I just feel like I'm in over my head here!
There is a significant contingent in my congregation who are related to each other, who have known each other for a very long time, and most of whom have been a part of this church for decades. They are also the core members of this church who have treated Laura and I lovingly since we've arrived, half of whom are on the board, and most of whom seem to live within a few blocks of each other.
I've visited these folks, met with them in my study and invited them into my home to talk, and have done my best to love them and express my love to them in all the ways I know how.
It seems, when I'm with these folks, I often find myself holding back from speaking to or challenging what they say. Most of them seem to believe I need to be a “real preacher” and preach about Hell. There generally seems to be a mournfulness amongst them and in their Sunday school class about how so many people just won't go to church anymore and how younger folks just don't seem to get it.
Almost every time I speak with them, the conversation comes down to them complaining (“reporting to me,” as they understand it) about this member of the congregation who doesn't dress modestly who “has no respect for God or the church,” or about a member of the church who does this or that. I simply don't know what to do or how to interact with these folks. I feel like I need to walk on eggshells around them. I love the Church of the Nazarene, but these people baptize their judging by calling it righteous concern. Yet it’s this very aspect of their group dynamics that is causing a lot of division in the church.
I feel like if they actually knew me and what I honestly thought about things, they'd run me out of town for sure. Is this how all senior pastors feel?
Some of the folks simply don't understand the younger folks in our church and they prefer a legalistic understanding of the faith where the whole point of being saved is avoiding a checklist of sins to avoid Hell. The younger folks, in their evaluation, don't take church seriously, have too much fun in the sanctuary, don't dress up enough, and leave church and sin all over the place.
I love these people and they have so far been very receptive to Laura and I, but their understanding of discipleship and faith is driving me crazy. I don't know if this is normal for new pastors or if I'm just not doing well or what. I really could use your help and wisdom on how to best pastor this congregation that God has called me to. Also... how not to get run out of the church and town might be a good bonus too... : )
Thanks a lot in advance.
-James

 

Reading James’ email gave me déjà vu from my first ministry assignment: a small congregation on the Washington Coast. My wife and I were the youngest adults by a long shot and the only people in the congregation with college degrees. They were good, well-meaning people who loved Jesus and often sacrificed for His church. But the experience seemed like a million miles from the exegetical discussions with Morris Weigelt and the theological musings with Rob Staples that I had been saturated with in the previous three years. The issues and questions that were burning in my congregation’s hearts were not the questions I was all that interested in talking about. I knew that “success” at this assignment was not going to mean making them into Wesleyan scholars or people who knew lots of Bible trivia. Rather, if I could get them to use a biblical framework to think about their decisions more and somehow guide them to be a little more like Jesus, I would be faithful to my calling.

According to studies at the Alban Institute and Fuller Seminary, 50% of ministers drop out of ministry within the first five years and many never to go back to church again.1 A Duke University study found that 85% of seminary graduates entering the ministry leave within five years, and 90% of all pastors will not stay to retirement.2 Needless to say, the reasons for this are wide-ranging. Some of this has to do with young ministers who enter ministry with a vastly different view of the world than the people they are called to shepherd. But some of the reasons are nothing new. For centuries, pastors have struggled with how to measure progress in the people that they serve. A colleague once confided his secret desire to quit ministry and drive an earth mover. “At the end of the day, I could look back and see exactly what I did,” he mused.

As I hit the “reply” button on my computer software to James, I realized that my view of ministry over the years has become more tempered. I’ve learned that exponential and lasting change usually does not come from big decisions or sweeping changes, but rather from many minor and strategic decisions. Jesus often used the metaphor of farming to describe the Kingdom of God. Those of us who have never been farmers probably miss the significance of the slow, plodding rhythms of life on the farm. There is no such thing as an “instant plant” or a “quick harvest.” Farming, and by extension the Kingdom of God, is slow, steady and often undetectable. But it is nonetheless epic.
Here is what I wrote to James:

Dear James,
No, you are not crazy. At first glance it may seem like your situation is unique and that your congregation is unusually unhealthy. I can assure you, however, that while some congregations are healthier than others, all congregations have their own unique brand of dysfunction. To paraphrase John Ortberg, “every [church] is normal til you get to know them.” No, the grass is not greener. People and churches are messy everywhere you go.

 

Your calling as a pastor and spiritual leader is to be a servant of the congregation that God has called you to. But there is a big difference between serving a congregation and being the co-dependent enabler of a congregation’s changing desires, time-conditioned understanding of their needs, or their secularized hopes for something better. Being a spiritual leader is not giving people what they want, but helping them to change the wants themselves.
It takes an incredible amount of wisdom and guidance from the Holy Spirit to discern the best way you can facilitate healthy change in a group of people to take them from where they are to where they need to be. In the scriptures, the dominant metaphor for our spiritual life is a journey. Like Abraham leaving Ur, the Israelites’ exodus from slavery, or Jesus heading up to Jerusalem, people in the scriptures are constantly on a journey.

 

Jesus, in his amazing wisdom, was constantly calling people to the next step on their journey. What that next step looked like was as different as the variety of people that he encountered. To the rich young ruler he said: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21). To the woman caught in adultery, he extended grace and love and then challenged her to take the next step on her journey: “…neither do I condemn you…Go now and leave your life of sin” (John 8:11). Jesus met people where they were, loved them as they were, and invited them to take the next step on their journey, whatever that might be.
 

The story of God’s revelation shows us this evolution of steps on the journey. When God gave the Ten Commandments to Israelites, it was a remedial lesson in morality. For example, when you have a dispute with someone, don’t kill them. Later in the scriptures, Jesus invites us to take the next step: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44). At the end of Jesus’ life he tells his disciples to take another step: “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13). As the people of God, we journeyed from “don’t kill them” to “love them” to “lay down your life for them.” God meets us where we are, loves us as we are, and invites us to take the next step, whatever that might be.
 

The Ten Commandments also gave us a rudimentary ethical lesson in marriage relationships. The Israelites were told to only sleep with the people to whom they were married. Jesus invites his followers to take the next step and view marital fidelity not just as a physical act, but as a concern of the heart (Matthew 5:27-28). By the time Paul pens his letter to the church at Ephesus, he tells them lay down their lives for the one to whom they are married (Ephesians 5:25). God meets us where we are, loves us as we are, and invites us to the next step, whatever that might be.

Likewise, for the people who walk through the doors of your church on Sunday, your task as a pastor is to invite them to take the next step. For each person, that next step will be different. For some, maybe it is the first time ever at church service. An amazing next step for them might be the realization that there is a God. For others, it might be the experience that God is good and that his presence is among us. Those may not seem like very big steps to us, but to them they are huge steps on their journeys. God meets them exactly where they are, loves them, and through your words and the Holy Spirit invites them to their next step.
 

I wish it was a simple formula, but being a faithful pastor is complicated. It means understanding where your people are, meeting them there, loving them intensely, and inviting them to take the next step. For your people, the next step on some of their journeys is to understand grace in a theological way. The step after that might be to experience grace in an existential way. It will take time and patience. And they may fight you along the way because very few people intentionally choose change in their lives that they don’t have to choose. But there is no growth without change, no change without loss, and no loss without pain. There is an old saying in AA that goes, “People don’t change when they see the light, they change when they feel the heat.” In other words, for most people, we only change when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.
 

Sometimes when facing an issue in my congregation where I know the members have a long way to go, I imagine what it would be like to be the pastor of a segregated church in Deep South in 1954. The church would have a long way to go to realize God’s dream of racial harmony. They will need to think more biblically about race and power issues, they will need to choose to make decisions that will open themselves up to others, they will need to confront their fears, and they will need to repent of the past. In short, there will be many steps on the journey to get them from where they are to where they need to be. An impatient and immature pastor would try to get them to take the steps too quickly and would be, as you fear, “run out of town.” The people would remain entrenched and bitter. A wise pastor would love them, invite them to take the next step, and trust the Holy Spirit to work in their hearts.
 

My prayer for you, James, is that God will give you wisdom, a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit’s leading, a deep love for the people that He has called you to, and the faith to believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in their lives even when it seems like nothing is happening!

-Dana

 

Whether you are a recent seminary grad or a seasoned pastor wrestling with a changing cultural landscape, the slow, plodding process of shepherding people can be overwhelming. Change never happens as quickly as we want. Sometimes loving a congregant takes an extra measure of grace. Sometimes it takes courage to challenge people to move out of their comfort zones and take the next step.

As you spend time in prayer about the people that God has called you to, here are some questions that you might meditate on and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you:
 What makes your congregation unique? What is its unique dysfunction?
 What is the biggest struggle that your congregation is facing right now?
 If you could wave a magic wand and change any one thing about your people, what would it be?
 Can you outline the sequential steps they need to take get them from where they are to where they need to be?

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1 Meek, K., McMinn, M., Brower, C., Burnett, T., McRay, B., Ramey, M., et al. (2003, Winter). Maintaining Personal Resiliency: Lessons Learned From Evangelical Protestant Clergy. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 31.4(9), P. 340.
2 Kanipe, R. (2007, October). Clergy Killers Are A Problem For Our Churches Everywhere. Wesleyan Christian Advocate. Retrieved December 29, 2007, from www.wcadvocate.org.
 

Dana Hicks
A Mild Case of Narcissism

This is an article I wrote for Grace and Peace Magazine on narcissism and pastoral ministry.

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Several years ago, my sister was working on a graduate program in counseling at a large Christian university. During an abnormal psychology class, the topic turned to Narcissistic Personality Disorder. If you are unfamiliar with this psychological disorder, it is defined as “A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy.”1 In layman’s terms, it is a person who has an excessive sense of how important they are. They demand to be admired and praised and are limited in their ability to see life from someone else’s perspective.
The professor relayed something interesting to my sister’s class. He said: “Without question, the profession in which I have seen the most narcissists, is pastoral ministry.” As my sister relayed this story to me, my gut reaction was complete skepticism. Most pastors I know are humble servants. They are often underappreciated and underpaid. But since that fateful conversation several years ago, I have observed behaviors from pastors that, from a lay-observer, looks like her professor knew what he was talking about:


 Pastors who exaggerate (lie) about their achievement, talents, or attendance numbers.
 Pastors who remove or sabotage associate ministers from the church who become popular in the church family.
 Pastors who take enormous financial risks with the church’s finances in order to prop up an appearance of success.
 Pastors who think their children are entitled to large salaries from the church in spite of their children’s lack of ability or experience in ministry.
 Pastors who are constant name droppers of high profile ministers or denominational figures that they imply come to them for advice.
 Pastors who refuse to disclose how the money in the church is spent OR who keep two sets of books.


Certainly pastors have a fair share of narcissists among their ranks and hopefully churches get wise to them before they destroy what is entrusted to them. Overall, I am confident that most pastors are doing the best they can with limited resources, trying to make a difference for God’s Kingdom, in places that will never be recognized this side of Heaven.

That conversation with my sister gnawed in my brain and had affected how I viewed my own ministry. Clinically speaking, I am not a narcissist, but I think at times (especially in my younger years) I acted not out of humility or with a servant’s heart, but with an amplified sense of self. I suppose it is a job hazard, but most pastors, are often vulnerable to mild cases of narcissism from time to time. For example:


1. Wanting to be liked --- Everyone wants to be liked. There is nothing wrong with this. However, some people have entered into pastoral ministry with the mistaken belief that it is a way to get people to like them. Moreover, we are usually hired because we are likeable. The desire to be liked becomes destructive to a church when pastors are more interested in being liked than in being significant, when our desire to be liked overpowers our ability to have difficult conversations or deal with difficult problems.
When I first became a pastor, the only employee that the church had, besides me, was a part-time janitor that was related to half the congregation. She was terrible at her job, but I was afraid of hurting her feelings to ask her to do her job correctly. Instead, I avoided talking to her about the issue for months. Out of the blue one day, she submitted her resignation because we weren’t paying her enough money. It wasn’t until she left my office that I realized that I was held captive by my dysfunctional need to be liked and to not rock the boat. I wanted admiration but didn’t want to do the hard work of gaining it. As a result, I realized that every leader in the Bible faced opposition and any pastor worth their weight will probably not be liked by everyone either.

2. Confusing position with influence – I began pastoring my first church at 27 years old. My first week as a senior pastor I was stunned by the number of questions that people asked me. They gave me the benefit of the doubt even when I had no idea what I was doing.

Over time, when a pastor makes wise decisions that move the church forward, they gain influence. When pastors make poor decisions, we lose influence. Pastors often crash and burn in a ministry when the decision they want to make is bigger than the influence that they carry. They may still have the position, but they do not have influence.

Bad pastors will leverage their position to try to garner influence by using theological gymnastics and language like, “covering” and “umbrellas of authority.” Some pastors hold on to their titles as leverage for entitlement. These pastors may be able to coerce people to comply, but can never make a lasting impact in their lives. Erwin McManus says it this way: “You can either invest your energy in attempting to control people’s actions and thereby lose their hearts, or you can focus on winning their hearts so that, in the end, their actions will represent the values that are important to you.”2

I learned, after the first year in a ministry assignment, a person’s title really doesn’t make much of a difference. Our wake is felt most by the influence we garner over time.

3. Confusing “artist” with “servant” – I once had the opportunity to interview the founding and Lead Pastor of one of the largest churches in the US for some academic research I was conducting on evangelism. In the course the conversation, he told me that his church was hiring a new worship pastor. In a rare moment of unfiltered transparency, he said to me, “This whole movement in the church these days about musicians being artists is bunk. Here is what I tell the musicians at our church: you are not an artist; you are a servant. Your job is to serve this church and to help us to focus on Jesus. Your job is not to express yourself artistically. If you need to express yourself, get a gig playing in a bar.”

His ranting made me think about the ways all pastors (music pastors, senior pastors, youth pastors) can succumb to the temptation of wanting to “express ourselves” – all the ways we trick ourselves in to thinking that what is going on in our heads has to be seen by others. When I am working on a sermon now and I am tempted to rant and rave about my pet peeves or to say something that will make me look smart or clever or funny, I hear this wise old pastor’s gravelly voice in my head, “If you need to express yourself, write a blog. When you preach, you are a servant of God’s people; not an artist.”

4. Dealing with Dissent – My older brother is a layperson who was elected to serve on his local church’s board. After his first few board meetings, he called me and asked, “Why is it when the church board wants to help our pastor think through some important church decisions, the pastor thinks we are against him? I thought that was our job.” I wasn’t sure how to respond to him, but I know the tension he was talking about. Pastors are often tempted to view dissent as a personal attack or to frame it in spiritual terms.

Most sane people do not like disagreement. It is a lot easier to have a church board that is passive and will go along with any plan the pastor comes up with, no matter how foolish. What some pastors do not recognize is that a compliant board is a disengaged board. Usually a board is compliant not because they agree with the brilliance of a pastor’s plan. A board is usually compliant because they don’t care about the outcomes. They don’t have the time or energy to do the hard work of seeing if the pastor’s plan is credible and they are not invested enough in the outcome if the decision fails.

If we truly believe in the priesthood of all believers, than we can be confident that pastors are not the only ones to whom God speaks. We can trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in our disagreements. In the words of Patrick Lenceoni: “Trust is knowing that when a team member does push you, they're doing it because they care about the team.”3 When people don’t feel like they can express how they really feel, they may comply with a decision but they will not be engaged with executing the decision.

Pastoral ministry comes with a precarious temptation: whether we like it or not, we often represent God to people. Sometimes, in some people’s minds, we even speak on behalf of God. If we are not careful, sometimes we believe that we really do. When we begin to believe our press clippings, when we feel a sense of superiority because of our ordination or training, when we fail to listen to others by virtue of our position, we are succumbing to mild cases of narcissism.

Jesus has modeled for us another way to lead: in the position of a servant. Servant leaders are like a shepherd defending his sheep or a mother protecting her young. They sacrifice without grumbling, give without calculating, and suffer without groaning. Years ago, I read this quote from one of my seminary professors. I wrote it out and taped it to my desk in hopes that this daily reminder would keep me from the temptation of pastoral narcissism:

“Stand and lead. But never forget that we purchase the right to direct the church with the currency of our obedience. Therefore, speak only after you have listened. Lead only as you follow. Stand only after you have sat quietly in His presence. Raise your chin and command, only after you have bowed your head and obeyed.” 4

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1 American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV), Fourth Edition, American Psychiatric Association, Washington, D.C., 1994.

2 McManus, Erwin Raphael. An Unstoppable Force: Daring to Become the Church God Had in Mind. Colorado Springs, CO: Group, 2001, p. 103.

3Patrick Lenceoni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002.

4 Calvin Miller, The Table of Inwardness Grand Rapids: Inter-Varsity Press, 1984.

Dana Hicks
Osama Bin Laden's Porn: A Parable About Missional Evangelism

This is a chapter I wrote for the book, "Missional Discipleship" (Beacon Hill Press: 2013). 

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In the wake of Osama Bin Laden’s death, perhaps the most stunning revelation was that Osama Bin Laden had a pornography stash on his computer. To most outside observers, Bin Laden was a mass murderer, so it seems that his pornography issue was a few notches below mass murder or Bin Laden’s other moral problems. But for those of us who wrestle with what missional evangelism should look like, Bin Laden’s pornography is a living example of the tension in our lives -- the tension between individual transformation and cultural change.

The modern era was the age of individualism, and the theological child of the modern era, Evangelicalism, has reflected the values of individualism for many years. Evangelicals have always been concerned with getting individual souls into Heaven by focusing on making personal (existential) decisions to be Christian. We use phrases like: “Accept Jesus as your personal savior” to describe our desire to see faith as more than what we adopt from the social structures around us. Faith for Evangelicals is personal; it changes us from the inside out. Personal piety and dealing with one’s own sin and brokenness is highly valued for Evangelicals. This focus on existential commitment has made the Evangelical movement a defining force in American culture.

But there is a shadow side to this individualistic focus. If faith is only about the individual, our expressions of faith quickly become consumeristic. Our conversations focus around having my needs met, finding a church that fits me best, or finding a music program that fits my tastes and programs that meet my needs. In extreme cases, one could call it spiritual narcissism – getting God involved in our lives where we are still the center of the universe.

Moreover, our place in the broader world, according to Evangelical practice and theology, is akin to being a passenger on the Titanic: we are a lot less worried about saving the ship (this world) than we are about getting people into lifeboats (heaven). In the church I grew up in, I was told that Jesus said, “the poor will always be with you”1 so worrying about oppressive systems, racism, and the overall health of planet earth were futile concerns. We loved to talk about the rapture and would reflect with a longing affection for the day Jesus would come and rapture us out of this pathetic world so that we didn’t have to deal with it anymore.

Until about a few hundred years ago in Western culture, this idea of an autonomous individual did not exist. For most of the world, people live their lives in the context of a community. It is the community that defines their identity and the community that gives them meaning. Faith has value to the individual, but mostly in the way in which it transforms the community.

In the 20th Century, there were various theological movements in the US that attempted to rediscover faith less in individual terms, but in social terms. What we now call “The Social Gospel” came from theologians like Walter Rauschenbusch who were less concerned with individual transformation and focused instead on the transformation of oppressive systems and helping people become fully human.2 Addressing issues like greed, crime, alcoholism, racism, education, and health became ways of expressing Christian discipleship.

In recent years, writers like Leslie Newbigin have pushed Christians to think of faith not in terms of EITHER for the individual OR for the betterment of society, but as BOTH/AND.3

Faith is for BOTH the individual AND the broader society. Newbigin cites God’s call to Abraham in Genesis:

GOD told Abraham: “Leave your country, your family, and your father's home for a land that I will show you. I'll make you a great nation and bless you. I'll make you famous; you'll be a blessing. I'll bless those who bless you; those who curse you I'll curse. All the families of the Earth will be blessed through you.”4

The great heresy of monotheism, Newbigin says, is hearing only half of the Abrahamic blessing. Yes, God will bless, make us famous, bless those who bless us and curse those who curse us. This is Evangelical passion: the transformation of individuals so that our individual lives can be blessed, good, rich, full, and meaningful.

The second half of the Abrahamic blessing is just as important: “All the families of the Earth will be blessed through you.” We are blessed in order to be a blessing. God does his transformative work in us as individuals so we can be the kind of people who take His grace, love, and goodness to others. Brian McLaren likes to say, “We are never end-users of the gospel.”5 God’s blessing, grace, and Gospel always comes to us on its way to someone else. We are not meant to simply be receptacles of God’s blessing, but conduits of His love and grace and mercy to the rest of the world.

Which brings us back to Osama Bin Laden’s porn stash. Part of Bin Linden’s delusion was that through suicide bombers and mass murder, he was partnering with God’s transformation of the world. He had millions of supporters in the Islamic world for his cause. As misled as it was, Bin Laden’s spirituality went beyond his own personal faith to something bigger than himself – a Jihad against the Western world and its infringement on Muslim faith and values.

As a result, the porn stash of Osama Bin Laden is more than just a late night TV joke. In the Muslim world, Bin Laden would famously preach against the evils of the US and the dress of American women and could rally the faithful to double their efforts at personal piety. But underneath it all, Bin Laden’s personal life was full of hypocrisy. Trying to change the world without authentic transformation of one’s inner world smells a lot more like a grab for power than an expression of one’s heart.

Missional evangelism believes both aspects are important. We get our own sin and brokenness healed and transformed by Jesus’ cross (individual) so we can be part of his agenda for the world (corporate). God’s hope for the world is what Jesus called “The Kingdom of God coming to earth.”6 Jesus taught us to pray, “Your kingdom come your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”7 But Jesus’ kingdom will generally not come through rallies, protest marches, and legislation. The way Jesus focused on changing the world was by investing his life in 12 people whose lives were radically altered by a profound existential encounter with Himself. In this regard, evangelism – the individual transformation of people in to Jesus’ likeness – remains one of the most important tasks of the church.

VIEWS OF EVANGELISM

I have three kids, and like every other parent, I came to quickly recognize that they are all very, very different. Some kids are stubborn and need lots of discipline. Some kids are adult pleasers and need coaching in how to not be co-dependent. The point is that every child is unique. Every child will have their own unique struggles with life. Simple parenting formulas don’t work; parenting must be tailored to every child.

God’s children are also like this. One of the most important realizations of the last decade is that discipleship is not a cookie-cutter approach8. Because of the infinitely different ways in which we are wired, we learn to be followers of Jesus in an infinite number of ways. Moreover, what drives a person to an existential encounter with Jesus is different for every person. Over many years of pastoral ministry, the people I have observed making existential decisions to follow Jesus tend to fall into at least four categories:


Ken: Personal Crisis – Ken was married to a woman who attended my church, but he had very little interest in God or spiritual things. When Ken’s cousin was killed by a drunk driver, it shook Ken to the core. After his cousin’s funeral, Ken and the rest of his cousins went out drinking to drown their sorrows. After a few too many beers, one of them suggested that they pay a visit to the drunk driver and give him the “what for”.


Neither Ken nor his cousins had thought through the plan much when they showed up at the guy’s house. When the guy saw who was at the door and the state they were in, he locked the door and called the police. This only infuriated the mob of cousins more, so they began to yell and taunt and demand that he come out of the house. Ken had a handgun that he carried with a concealed weapons permit and shot into the air two or three times.

When the police arrived, they arrested the cousins for disturbing the peace. However, since Kenny had discharged a gun, a Washington State law mandated that he had to serve time in the state prison. Kenny was sentenced to six months in the state prison.

I arrived to visit Kenny during his first week of prison and was brought to a drab, institutional green room where I could talk with Ken privately. Ken was in an orange jumpsuit and escorted to a metal folding chair by two prison guards. They un-cuffed him and closed the door behind them.

The moment I heard the door slam shut, without saying a word, Ken buried his face in hands and began to sob. I have never seen a six foot three inch fully grown man cry like that. When he finally pulled himself together, the first words he said to me were “I need God in my life.”
Ken’s story is what we typically think of when we think of evangelism – someone hits rock bottom and comes to realize that they need God. It may be a relational crisis, an addiction of some kind, a financial meltdown, or some other major crisis. When we come to the end of our rope, people instinctively cry out to God. I like the way Eugene Peterson paraphrases Jesus’ beatitudes: “You are blessed when you are at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.”9

But most people we know who are far from God are not having a major life crisis. In fact, their lives may be going quite well. Evangelism for them might require a lot more patience.


Steve: Persistent Love – Steve and I met because our kids attended the same preschool. Our wives became friends because our kids played together. After our three year olds had a couple of play-dates, our wives conspired to have the four of us hang out.

Steve owned a successful small business, was a good husband and father, voted, and gave to the United Way. As a young child his grandmother would take him to a small Presbyterian church for Sunday School but once he turned ten, he never went back.

Steve and I shared an interest in Major League Baseball and since the Seattle Mariners were making a playoff run that year, it afforded a lot of conversations. Once baseball season ended, however, I had to think of new reasons for Steve and I to hang out. I offered to help him with his house remodel. Between me messing up some parts of his house with the best of intentions, Steve and I would talk about life, family, and work.

A couple weeks before Easter I told Steve, “Easter is coming up and it’s practically un-American to not go to church on Easter. You should come to our church.” He and his family did. But they didn’t come back to church right away.

Steve and I kept talking baseball and fixing stuff together in the months that followed and slowly they would attend church more and more. It was starting to be a habit. Steve would ask me questions about the Bible and issues in his life where he struggled. One day Steve and I were working on his house and I said, “You have been hearing a lot about Jesus the last few months. Do you consider yourself one of His followers?” Steve let his cordless drill drop down to his side and looked past me. He paused and I could see the wheels turning in his head. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “Yea. I think I am. I don’t know when that happened, but I am.”

Sometimes people come to Christ slowly. One thing I have learned from my African pastor friends is that Americans are way too impatient. Sometimes it takes years of being a spiritual advocate for someone -- loving and caring for them-- before they understand the beauty and goodness of God. Because of our cultural demand to see results quickly, we sometimes give
up on what God is doing in someone’s life. In Africa, many of the strategies to break into “closed” countries involve 15-20 year plans. Sometimes our role in people’s lives is to be a patient and faithful friend.

But some people are not passive in their spiritual quest at all. For some reason they are in full pursuit mode of meaning, purpose, and truth. This was the case with my friend Danya.

Danya: The Spiritual Quest – Danya started attending our church because she was dating a guy who came on occasion. Danya grew up in a very conservative Jewish home - her father lived most of his life in Israel until Danya was born. Danya spent her formative years attending private Jewish schools that taught her that Jesus was a “Jew gone bad” who was trying to drag all the good little Jewish children down to Hell.

Danya worked for an alternative radio station in our town that boasted the highest rated morning drive time audience. Danya was the weather and traffic girl and sidekick to a shock jock named Frank on “The Frank Show.”10 During their Monday morning on-air banter, Frank would ask Danya what she did over the weekend. The Monday after Danya first visited our church, she surprised everyone by declaring, “I went to church!” Frank replied, “Church?! You are not a church kind of person.” Danya told Frank, “I know. But I’m learning that Jesus has some interesting things to say about life.”

As the weeks went on, members of my church would listen on their Monday commute as Danya updated Frank on her spiritual journey. For Danya, Jesus was becoming no longer the “Jew gone bad” but someone whose life and teachings were captivating. There was something to this man, but she couldn’t put her finger on it just yet.

Danya had a lot of questions for our community: questions about Jesus’ life; questions about how Jesus viewed the Old Testament law; questions about grace; questions about being kosher; and questions about why Christians had abandoned the Jewish festivals. After many conversations, reading books and countless cups of Starbucks coffee, Danya began to see Jesus in a different light.

All of Danya’s questions weren’t perfectly answered, but one Sunday afternoon Danya was laying on her bed thinking about the spiritual journey she had been on when she felt overwhelmed by a presence. She said, “It felt like hands were holding me up and supporting me. I can’t explain it other than I was overcome with emotion and knew that I was loved by a gracious Messiah would never let me go.” Danya invited Jesus to be her messiah and announced on the Frank Show the next morning that she was now a follower of Jesus. A couple weeks later, through tears and sobs, Danya blubbered through her story to our community and was baptized in one of our member’s swimming pools.

Sometimes people like Danya come to faith because they are in full pursuit of truth, meaning, and beauty. In these cases, our job is to be a kind, spiritual coach and mentor, helping them think through their journey. By far, however, the most common type of spiritual conversations I have with people revolve around coming to grips with the spiritual baggage of their past.

Kacy - The Baggage of Religion – I first met Kacy at the concert of a mutual friend. It may have been due to the number of drinks that Kacy had, but when she found out I was a pastor, she shared an unsolicited description of her spiritual past. It turned out that Kacy grew up in a house church in a small town. The small house church was very exclusive. In fact, they believed that their small movement was the only group that was going to make it to Heaven. Kacy’s childhood was full of rigid and legalistic practices.

When Kacy hit her late teen years, she began to wonder about her family’s church. She had a lot of questions for the leaders of her church, but questions were strongly discouraged in their sect. At some point shortly after high school, the cognitive dissonance of her life became overwhelming. If her church was so amazing, she wondered, why did it make people worse human beings and not better people? Not knowing any other alternatives, she left the only faith that she knew and gave up on Jesus.

As the years went by, there was a nagging in Kacy’s soul. She realized a lot of the religious baggage from her childhood church had nothing to do with Jesus. She also knew that underneath all that baggage there was something real. There was something undeniable that she couldn’t live without.

So in a noisy concert hall late one Friday night, Kacy spoke over the music and asked me, “How can you separate those things? How do you get around the baggage of religion to what is really real?” I didn’t know how to give her a short answer so I said, “Come and do life with our community of faith.” To my surprise, she did.

Kacy has been at our church for a few months now, interacting with the people of our community. She even joined a small group for the first time. A couple weeks ago, I asked her how she was doing on her spiritual journey. Kacy’s eyes began to well up and after a long pause she said, “When I am able to get some words out, I will try and tell you.”

More than anything, people like Kacy need to see examples of a healthy community. They need to see firsthand the power of the local church. Bill Hybels is fond of saying, “There is nothing like the church when it is working right.”11 But I would add a corollary to that axiom: “There is nothing more messed up than the church when it is dysfunctional.”

Ironically, to be effective at evangelism in a post-individualistic era, we need to focus less on old formulas and sales pitches of evangelism methodologies of the past12 and more on understanding people as individuals. What drives a person to an existential encounter with Jesus is different for every person. What all of these experiences have in common is this: a person may learn something about Christian truth-claims through a sermon or a book, but the beauty and goodness of the Christian faith can only be evaluated and experienced through a relationship with a live Christian, called an “advocate” by Lewis Rambo13 A real life human being embodying the love, grace, and beauty of God is how God reveals himself to humanity. The gospel can change the world. As Jesus modeled, this happens through the transformation of human beings through a personal encounter. The word for that is evangelism.

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1 Matthew 26:11
2 Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for The Social Gospel. (HardPress Publishing: 2012).
3 Leslie Newbigin, The Open Secret: An Introduction to The Theology of Mission. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing: 1995).

4 Genesis 12:1-3; The Message
5 Brian McLaren, A Generous Orthodoxy. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), p. 107.

6 cf. NT Wright, How God Became King. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2012).
7 Matthew 6:10

8 Hawkins, Greg L. and Cally Parkinson. Reveal: Where are You? (Chicago: Willow Creek Association, 2007).

9 Matthew 5:3 (The Message)

10In an ironic twist, it turned out that Frank is the son of a Nazarene Pastor. Frank’s website can be found at: http://www.klpx.com/page.php?page_id=17

11 Hybels, Bill and Lynn Hybels. Re-Discovering Church. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997).
12 Kennedy, D. James. Evangelism Explosion. (Grand Rapids: Tyndale, 1996).
13Lewis Rambo, Understanding Religious Conversion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).

Dana Hicks