Recently I was asked by our City Fraternal, a network representing many of the mainline denominations as well as other church groups in our Metro, to address the bi-monthly Fraternal (male/female) Breakfast, which seeks to promote inter-church fellowship and encouragement. The chairman asked me to share because of my ‘seniority’ age-wise and in terms of pastoral experience. He was aware that in recent years I have been facilitating non-institutional church groups engaging in community outreach. I honour his willingness to ‘take the risk’ of asking me to address the approximately 100 leaders present! [my current position is that while I said farewell to denominationalism and the institutional Church years ago, I desire that our organic house churches in the city be part of that one ‘true Church of Jesus Christ in the city’ that Watchman Nee was so passionate about. Some of my readers might be critical of my addressing for the most part institutional church leaders: while my own conviction is that you can’t change the institution, I believe we can be of blessing to those who in their more serious moments are questioning it]. I was sharing a little of this fraternal talk with a local pastor last night, and he suggested I blog it for his and others’ benefit. So here goes…
[I prefaced my talk by referring to two recent conversations I’d had. The one was agreeing with the Fraternal chairman that whenever we are feeling very comfortable in ourselves and with our own ministry, we are in great danger. The second conversation was one with a ‘senior pastor’ of an influential city church who had opened up to me about his profound hurts during a time of merciless ‘church politics’ (been there, done that, got the tee-shirt)]
1st point: a true prophet will always ‘afflict the comfortable’… Whenever we are in a comfortable position in our own discipleship and leadership, with things ‘going well’ in terms of church growth and people buying enthusiastically into the ‘senior pastor’s’ ‘church vision’ (a-la-business strategy but not in the Bible, NT particularly), we are in trouble.
Our Lord, after Peter’s confession of his messiahship and Jesus’ reference to imminent suffering, challenges all would-be followers in Lk. 9:23, “‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.'” This requirement is usually preached with great gusto to ‘our members,’ but surely applies first of all to ourselves as leaders! (audience chuckles knowingly)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred for his opposition to Hitler’s anti-semitism, wrote in his ‘The Cost of Discipleship,’ ‘When Christ bids a man come, he bids him come and die.’ (i.e. to our self-centredness, selfish ambition, pride, etc: own comment).
I recently listened to the aged Jurgen Moltmann, renowned German theologian, refer to two kinds of ‘crosses’ in our time:
- The real cross, that of Golgotha, the cross that kills (and gives life)…
- The dream cross, the cross of Roman Emperor Constantine who in the 300’s AD saw the sign of a cross in a dream by which he was to conquer his enemies. Constantine institutionalised and professionalised the church (resulting in the clergy-laity divide, which has bedevilled the Church for the past 1700 years: personal comment), a mere symbol, an ornament, lifeless and powerless…
I asked the leaders who were familiar with the writings of A.W. Tozer, imho a prophet in his time and a prophet still: quite a few raised their hand. Tozer declared, ‘The cross of popular evangelicalism is not the cross of the NT... the old cross slew men; the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemned; the new cross amuses. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it… current Christianity has moved away from the standards of the NT. So far have we moved indeed that it may take nothing short of a new reformation to restore the cross to its rightful place in the theology and life of the Church.’
Eight years ago the crucified Christ utterly ‘wrecked’ me for the second time, the first time being my conversion 55 years previously. He set me free: ‘Once I was a Baptist, now I am free!’ (laughter). God drove me to a re-reading of the Gospels, especially the Synoptic Gospels, and I re-discovered the real Jesus. Why don’t you try doing the same some time, and then, Listen to Jesus! (and him only). These last years I have been taking the Good News to the poor, and finding that they are bringing the Good News to me.
Second point: a true prophet will always ‘comfort the afflicted’…
Consider with me Jesus’ well-known story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector in Lk. 18:9-14: v. 13-14a, “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God…”
Shane Claiborne, American activist for the poor, in his excellent The Irresistable Revolution, suggests from this passage that a Christian community can be built around a ‘common self-righteousness’ or a ‘common brokenness.’ (check out your own faith community. How closed or open is your community to the poor and the broken?)
I believer all leaders need to belong to ‘a community of brokenness.’ It should be his/her own community, but in reality if it contains self-righteous people, it can be the cause of your brokenness. At this point I briefly mentioned my/my family’s own journey of pain over the years, including clinical depression/burn-out on the part of three family members, the gang-rape and attempted murder of one of our daughters at the hands of vicious criminals out on parole, the public questioning of my integrity and character on the part of a minority group in my last congregation, ending in our dismissal, etc. I point out that among my listeners there are those who are currently bleeding because of different or similar sufferings, and that sooner or later, each one will be faced with demonic attack on their character and calling. We are not playing games – we are in a deadly warfare! (many agree: I sense I have touched a tender spot…)
What to do? Under God ensure that you belong to a small group of people who walk with a limp or are willing to walk with you through the desert place. I have shared regularly with a small bunch of leaders in the Western Suburbs of our city over a period of some 30 years: folk willing to speak the truth to you, yet also walk with you through personal pain in a non-condemning and compassionate way. They, and one or two organic church brothers, are my safety-net, a soft place to fall, brethren with whom I can dare to be ‘weak.’ This can only happen in a small group, with maximum confidentiality and true relationship. It requires from us both giving and receiving (why are leaders often so ‘super-spiritual’ that they would rather die than admit a need and be vulnerable? I guess they’ve been hurt before: but we can’t be non-trusting forever).
One of the great ‘servant-passages’ in Isaiah speaks of one who ‘will not break a bruised reed, or snuff out a smouldering wick – in faithfulness he will bring forth justice’ (Is. 42:2), We bowed in small groups at our tables, praying for one another.
[next time dv we shall take another look at aspects of true leadership, which hopefully will help prevent leaders becoming too comfortable or hurting all on their own]