All of us have relatives who become so special to us that they hold a unique place in our hearts and lives. When they die, they leave a big hole in our hearts and it takes a while for the grieving process to replace the pain with only precious memories. Ten years ago yesterday, I lost such a relative, a very special uncle. As I almost always do in times of loss, I wrote, as I mentioned two days ago in introducing another similar article. I just posted what I wrote on Halloween ten years ago. Hardly anyone who reads the brief article will have any idea of who my Uncle Pete was, but I would like to introduce a man to you who was an important part of my growing up years. Hopefully it will encourage you to write as you work through your own times of grief. Enjoy!
Today, Uncle Pete passed from this life. He was a half month shy of his 79th birthday (which would have been on November 16th). His name will be listed in the obituary as “Brider L. (Leroy) Ferguson” but the only name I ever heard him called by was Pete, or Uncle Pete by his nephews and nieces. I was blessed with five uncles and a number of great-uncles, and I loved all of my uncles in unique ways and thankfully, felt loved by all of them. But for me, Uncle Pete was in somewhat of a special class. For one thing, we were reasonably close in age. I made my entrance into the world when he hadn’t yet turned ten. And he married two years after I did. For all practical purposes, we were contemporaries or at least became that in a reasonably short period of years.
However, for a decade of my life, we shared something especially important to me as a youngster growing up. Prior to my teen years, my dad and I regularly enjoyed the Louisiana outdoors together with Pete and my other two Ferguson uncles, Stanley and Jack. We fished until hunting season opened, and then started back fishing again as soon as the hunting season closed. I could write quite a long article (maybe a book) about all the adventures of the Ferguson boys. As the oldest grandchild, I pretty much became the fifth Ferguson boy. My granddad died when he was relatively young, and in time, I sorta became one of Grandma’s five sons. It was not a coincidence that all five of us went to make her funeral arrangements together when she died at age 75.
But back to what made Pete so special in my life. About the time I became a teenager, he and Grandma moved to Gaars Mill, Louisiana in Winn Parish. They lived on a 65 acre farm with its own little fishing pond and all of the trappings of farm life. Although Pete kept laying brick for a living, he populated the farm with cows, chickens, a horse or two and a couple of dogs. God provided the rest of the population, primarily rats, snakes and other assorted pests. The first two on the list were actually fun pests, in that they provided excellent opportunities for target practice. I shot the snakes with my pellet gun as I made my way around the banks of the pond fishing. Pete, Daddy, Jack and I often shot the rats at night with our .22 pistols loaded with rat shot as they were running across the rafters of the various barns and sheds. Wearing headlights and yelling and hollering as we emptied our guns time and time again would have no doubt alarmed the neighbors – if there had been any! Grandma and Pete definitely lived in the country, but that’s what made it extra special.
Pete didn’t have many rules for me when I visited them, and I visited them often – from about age 13 until they moved back to Shreveport ten years later. He often did make me get up well before daylight to feed the cows and do various other farm chores, but most of the time I did exactly what I wanted and little else. And considering the breakfasts Grandma cooked, getting up early had its own rewards. Pete was not only a really fun uncle, he was an amazingly generous one. From the time he moved to the country, he started letting me drive his fairly new car. I would occasionally pick up a certain distant relative so early in the morning that he didn’t have time to get drunk yet, and the two of us would drive 50 miles to a good fishing hole. He didn’t have much about him to endear himself to the human race, but he endeared himself to me by knowing how to catch lots of fish. It was always a mystery to me why Pete would trust me with his car to drive, knowing that I was not only an underage driver for a few years, but I carried passengers of questionable character in his car when the need arose!
Those years visiting in Gaars Mill left me with some of my best memories of my growing-up years. I could write a fairly lengthy book filled with the memories of those years, replete with chapters that could only be viewed as Ferguson craziness. Right now, I couldn’t imagine life without those years, nor without the memories that made those years so memorable and enjoyable. And all of that means that I couldn’t imagine life without my Uncle Pete. After I heard that he had been diagnosed with a serious form of cancer, I tried to make it back to my hometown as often as possible to see him, and was able to visit him on at least four different occasions between diagnosis and death. The last time was one week ago today in the hospital, and he was still lucid enough to recognize me. For that I am most grateful. I am also strangely grateful that he only lasted one more week, because being confined to bed wasn’t his thing and watching him suffer wasn’t mine.
Although I knew he couldn’t last long, and hoped that he wouldn’t since recovery wasn’t a possibility, hearing the news today hit hard. I’ve thought of little else since, and after talking to his sweet daughter, Melissa, I was able to let the tears flow and drain off some of the grief. Like all such occasions when losing someone you love, it will be a process in which the pain is gradually replaced by the special memories. The mental image of seeing him in his last stages will give way to the memories of a young uncle doing the things that he and I shared together. Even as I write out my feelings of pain now to hopefully help deal with the loss, I have a plethora of feelings of appreciation for having enjoyed an uncle named Pete for the 69 years and four days of my life. Tomorrow will be my first day to awake without an Uncle Pete to share planet earth with any longer. But that fact can never erase his residence in my heart. Good-bye Pete, and thanks for the memories. It was quite a ride.
John 10:11-18 (NIV2011)
11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
14 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me – 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. 16 I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. 17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
Leaders Know Their Sheep
Knowing those whom we lead is not just being in touch with them and their issues and needs; it is being in close enough touch that we really know them. When they believe that they are thus known and considered, they are willing followers and not disgruntled ones. Being a good shepherd begins with sacrifice. Jesus described it in the most graphic terms possible, as laying down our lives for those whom we lead. Here are some challenging words for all disciples, but they should apply most directly to leaders: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4). Valuing others above self on a 24/7 basis is quite the challenge, but it is at the heart of a Jesus’ style leadership.
Getting in Touch and Staying in Touch
You can effectively lead only those whom you know and know reasonably well. The larger the group being led, the bigger the challenge of really knowing them. While you may not be able to know them well enough to have a personal relationship with each person, you must find ways to know enough about them as a group to meet their needs. This calls for being aware of the various types of folks in the larger group and developing ways to get their consistent input. For example, the needs of single moms, divorced persons, senior citizens, persons who have lost their mates, young single persons, married persons of all ages in all stages of life, etc. are all quite different. Then add in the differences in racial and ethnic backgrounds, educational backgrounds, financial backgrounds, to name but a few, and the amount of diversity in a ministry is almost staggering to contemplate. Yet, in imitation of Jesus, leaders must know their sheep.
A good starting place is in the makeup of a leadership group. Enough variation should be a planned part of such a group to insure that much input comes organically. In addition to that hopeful composition, other groups should be selected for regular meetings with leaders at reasonably spaced intervals. Although many different groups could be suggested here, at our current time, two are absolutely essential: a racial diversity group and a younger generations group. If you are lacking either of these, I would advise you to develop such groups post haste. We are at a crisis point in most churches within these two categories of our membership, whether we realize it or not.
Recognizing the need for open dialogue on the racial front, I started writing a blog some years back (blacktaxandwhitebenefits.com). My home church was also taking steps to meet this need, a history of which can be found on my blogsite or my teaching website under the title, “DFW Church Cultural Connection History.” In our family of churches (the ICOC) in the United States, we have been blessed with an overall Diversity Group (of which I was a part for several years) designed to promote similar groups at the congregational level. We now call these groups by the term “SCUAD” (Social, Cultural, Unity and Diversity Team).
Early during the pandemic, we conducted a very well attended Zoom meeting for church leaders, explaining the need for such teams in each congregation and offering direction for establishing them. Michael Burns, a proficient writer and lecturer on racial issues, has a link to sources on his website (michaelburnsteachingministry.com) for starting such groups. His books and other materials are listed and linked on his website. Michael also has a podcast series entitled, “All Things to All People,” listed on the Resources page of Disciples Today (disciplestoday.org). His materials have been invaluable to me and to thousands of others.
Feeling that so many resources on racial issues were available and that those resources were provided by authors better equipped to address the issues than I, I resigned my position on the ICOC SCUAD last year (2020). I have also slowed down considerably in adding my own articles to my blogsite for the same reasons. As I heard of more and more congregations establishing their own SCUADs, I felt as though my earlier attempts had been helpful and now others were contributing more than I possibly could. I think all of that reasoning was sound and my diminishing involvement was likewise reasonable.
How Much Better Are We Doing?
However, I do need to add a footnote on this subject aimed at what is or is not taking place in some of our churches. I was talking recently to someone about the diversity group arrangement and explaining how encouraged I was that so many congregations had organized these groups. The person to whom I was talking said that their congregation was the only one who had established a SCUAD in their entire geographic family of churches. I was more than shocked; I was dismayed. The need has been publicized so much that it was almost hard to believe what he said. I’ve no way of checking up on the accuracy of his statement, but he is a well-informed brother and had to be pretty accurate in what he said.
Why would a church with a racially diverse membership not see the need to develop such a group? I just don’t get it. With all that is going on in our society at present, how could a leader not get on board quickly to help his church negotiate these troubled times spiritually, for both our members of color who are facing the challenges most directly and our White members who, as fellow members of their spiritual family, have the opportunity and responsibility to help bear their burdens. We cannot share the burdens of others until and unless we know what they actually are. We need to be helping one another in multiple ways in the racial realm.
One thing I have heard offered by White church leaders as an excuse for not addressing racial issues is that such issues are simply political and political issues have no place in the church. I do understand that all issues can be and are being politicized. Many can’t even discuss the issues surrounding the pandemic without devolving into political discussions, be they about the wearing of masks or getting vaccinations. I recently touched on that issue in a sermon, and somewhat humorously noted that I had seen a tee shirt with a universal inscription on it that anyone in the audience could wear right now. It went something like this: “Ignorance can be educated; Crazy can be medicated; but there is no cure for Stupid!” Anyone could wear it because whoever doesn’t agree with us on pandemic issues are the stupid ones, right? Good grief, Charlie Brown!
The racial issues are much more significant than the pandemic issues in the church, trust me. I will not discuss and argue about the latter. My wife and I have some differences in this realm. She can believe and practice what she believes and I can do the same. Our differences are not an issue to either of us. The racial issues are a big deal, however. We need to be able to discuss these and find solutions within the church. I know that attempts to converse about them can digress into politically loaded areas but they don’t have to. We can discuss real issues without getting hung up on the BLM organization or CRT (Critical Race Theory). We are in the world but we are not of the world and do not behave as the world. We are brothers and sisters in Christ and we must seriously attempt to meet the challenges faced by each other, together as a spiritual family.
Losing Our Youth in Droves?
I continue hearing this alarming phrase from older and younger people alike: “Our youth are leaving the church in droves.” Are we? I’m not sure how many constitutes a drove, but I know that we are losing a lot of young people. All churches are right now. Articles about losing the Millennial group started being written a long time ago, and we are way past just losing that age group now – way past. When anyone addresses the “Millennial problem” now, they date themselves. I have written some about this serious situation already and intend to write more.
The reason most give for this dilemma is a failure of churches to adapt and change to meet the needs of younger generations. That is a big part of the reason, for sure. But there is another side of that coin too. Many younger ones are so focused on what they need that they pay little attention to what the older ones may need. Plus, they are so influenced by their own generation and social media approaches that their way of seeking solutions is simply unspiritual, and thus ineffective. As I say, I will write more about the generation gap later.
What I do know is that unless church leaders find a way to connect in meaningful ways with the younger generations, we are going to be in dire straits soon and probably are already in most churches. In my home ministry region, we are just now developing an input group from our youth. Interestingly, just like our older folks, the younger ones have diverse views from their peers too. Many of them don’t yet realize how diverse in thinking they are because they tend, as all humans do, to congregate with others of like mind. Birds of a feather flock together. That’s why input has to come from all types of people, to take the wide variations of ideas and preferences into consideration. Just knowing that others don’t see things the way you do helps avoid divisions if handled spiritually.
Let me illustrate that point. We once moved into a congregation who was experiencing a firestorm, one burning nearly out of control. Knowing human nature regarding diversity of thought, my beginning point was gathering the members in small groups of six to ten at a time for discussions. I put a signup sheet on the wall with specific time slots noted and asked everyone to sign up for a convenient time that would fit their schedule. As we started meeting, to say tension was in the air would be a big understatement. I asked people to begin by expressing their viewpoints of why they thought the church was in a bad place and so disunified.
As they listened to one another, some of the listeners literally had their mouths drop open. They assumed that everyone felt just as they did, which was far from the truth. Why did they think that? They were birds of a feather who had been flocking together with those who shared their viewpoints. That’s what humans do, regardless of age. We need to hear from our youth and they from us, to be sure, but they need to hear from one another too. It will provide a balance that they won’t otherwise get and the same is true of us older ones who must hear more divergent opinions about how to “do” church.
But don’t miss the bottom line: wisely select a group of representative youth and start meeting with them immediately if not sooner. And you need to do the same with a racially diverse group, and from there, move into well planned diversity training discussions of your broader membership. Read the articles and take advantage of the resources I have mentioned already about that particular need.
Deeper Issues: Team Leadership and Beyond
In Part 1 of this article, I mentioned the book, “Golden Rule Leadership.” Probably the most novel idea in that book was regarding team leadership in the church rather than the one-man-at-the-top leadership style as most had practiced it (some still do). In my later book, “Dynamic Leadership,” I spent some time trying to help us distinguish between the concept of team leadership and that of simply having a leadership team. The former is a much broader principle out of which the latter comes, but just having a leadership team doesn’t fully satisfy what team leadership involves. That said, Wyndham and I were trying to move us leaders off the idea of one man at the top of a military modeled leadership dynamic. We were at that point (nearly two decades ago) just trying to help leaders replace a faulty concept with a better one.
I was somewhat amazed at how deeply attached some were (still are?) to the one-man-at-the-top idea, in whose hands most leadership decisions were made, or for sure, finalized. On a related topic, I am currently amazed at how many male leaders (and males in general) believe that family leadership should function basically the same way, with the husband making or finalizing all family decisions. That is illogical and wrong on so many levels that I won’t go further into it now. Later, Gator, on that one. I will say that the one-man, top-down church leadership concept may well grow out of a faulty family leadership concept. I do believe that the physical family leadership dynamics and the spiritual family leadership dynamics are very closely related in multiple ways. If you accept the wrong view of individual family leadership teamwork and decision making, it is not difficult to see why some insist on the same model for church leadership.
Here’s an important question. Have you ever carefully thought about how the one-man leader and decision maker idea could possibly have become so entrenched in our thinking at one time? Aside from the likely connection to how family leadership and decision making is erroneously viewed, something much deeper had to be involved. The only logical way it could have happened is in thinking that a designated leader (appointed in some way) had a direct pipeline through the Holy Spirit to access God’s will. That viewpoint was not absent, I can promise you. It was a terribly faulty viewpoint, but it was the only one which ultimately could logically account for the idea that the thinking of one man was better than the combination of more minds thinking together. I cannot escape the logical necessity of that being the foundation of the view. Can you? And many applied it all the way down to the discipler/disciple relationship. In retrospect, it was idiocy.
Broader Issues: Unity in Diversity?
Much of what I have written in my last several articles could fall under this heading. Within all congregations we have diversity of so many different types. Yet, we are family. Every physical family has diversity within it and usually, as a result, some dysfunction. But we are still family and we figure out how to get along most of the time and love each other all of the time. The church is God’s spiritual family, and he says much more about how to live together in his family than in our individual families. Why is that? I would hazard a guess it is because of the much broader diversity within the larger group. But yes, unity in diversity is possible if we are intent on pleasing God in our congregations.
One of my bigger concerns is unity on a broader scale, where the diversity is also broader. I refer, of course, to our entire family of churches worldwide, and on a smaller scale, to our geographic families of churches. Our being categorized as families of churches is aimed at promoting unity, effectiveness and progress. I am sure that these goals are being aided through being grouped together in geographic families of churches. But I do have concerns about how much diversity we can handle on the broader scale and still maintain unity.
For example, I have friends who lead churches and yet feel as though they are on the outside looking in. They have actually been told something to that effect by other leaders. I’m not sure of all the issues involved, but I am aware of some of them. I have spoken by Zoom in these churches and/or to their leaders. I will continue to do so. I can handle their diversities of opinion. I share much in common with those diversities of thinking, actually, regarding the specifics involved. I would perhaps have approached those differently than my friends did (or not), but in the end of the day, I am not willing to make the approaches themselves or the specifics matters of division. I do not believe that the ones of which I am aware are salvation issues. They are issues that may well raise the blood pressures of other leaders, but then I do some of that myself – sometimes unknowingly and sometimes on purpose. I can handle the disagreements because they fall into the realm of opinion matters (Romans 14). My wife and I don’t agree about everything. No two humans do, nor do groups.
I will probably write more about unity in diversity between congregations in the future. I don’t see it as a widespread problem yet, but I did spend my youth and early adulthood in a family of churches that divided over more issues than you can imagine. Thus I know where this can end up and we don’t want to go there, rest assured. An old Restoration adage was a good one, but history showed it was an exceedingly hard one to apply. It goes, “In matters of faith, unity; in matter of opinion, liberty; and in all things, charity (love).” The problem is in differentiating between what belongs in category one and what belongs in category two.
Given that the Restoration Movement of churches, out of which our group came, used a patternistic method of biblical interpretation, the problem was compounded. Matters of interpreting Scripture is another topic for another day, but it is at the heart of some of our current differences just mentioned. We need help with this one because it is a problem that we definitely have and yet most don’t realize that we have it. More later on that one too. In the meantime, let’s just work on the topics I addressed in my last three articles. You might want to reread the other two as well to get the backdrop that prompted all three. Thanks for reading (and thanks for your patience with an old guy who rambles a bit too much these days)! I love you!
My Facebook Introduction to this Article
Some years ago, I began a blog about racial issues entitled, “Black Tax and White Benefits.” One of the early blog posts was entitled, “White Church Leaders – Are You Listening?” I followed this post up with several others showing that some church leaders were indeed listening and taking action. Thankfully, my home congregation, the DFW church (Dallas/Fort Worth) is one of those who has set a very appreciated example in this regard, over the past five years. Although I still hear of some leaders who want to relegate racial issues to the political realm and avoid it altogether, much progress has been made by many churches. To encourage more progress for all of us, I asked Todd Asaad and Pierre Saget to compose a history of what we have done and are doing. I just posted it on my blogsite. Read it and you will want to post it and pass it around in every way possible. Let’s do it! Thank you!
The Article by Pierre Saget and Todd Asaad
In 2014, the Asaads saw the need for our congregation to celebrate the diversity among us while deepening the love we have for each other. Todd asked the Sagets to help meet this need by looking into a training model on the topic of diversity that would be appropriate for our fellowship. After a traumatic string of unjust killings of black individuals around the country and the unjust killings of police officers in Dallas in 2016, our need to develop a training grew into so much more. We saw the need to establish a team that could help us deepen our love and unity while we processed the harsh realities of the world through a spiritual lens and while still being a light to our communities. The team consisted of Todd and Patty Asaad, Pierre and Shara Saget, and Marcos and Kinny Pesquera.
Beginning in 2016, we were able to use the expertise of Marcos, who is the System Vice-President for Health Equity, Diversity & Inclusion at CHRISTUS Health, to put together a workshop that started the conversation around diversity in the body. This workshop was facilitated by the Pesqueras and the Sagets and was conducted first with the staff of the DFW Church. We then conducted the workshop with all of the Bible talk leaders, the singles ministry, and then with each worship center. In total, it took about a year to complete these workshops. Following the workshops, the entire staff was directed to read Michael Burns’ book, Crossing the Line: Culture, Race, and Kingdom. In June of 2019, Todd invited Michael to come to Dallas to conduct a mini-workshop based on his book. This event was held on a Sunday, during a congregational worship service. Michael also provided a time of teaching the next day to help further equip the church staff in our task of leading a diverse congregation.
To date, we have continued to expand our team to include two representatives from each of the six worship centers of the DFW Church. We did this because we recognized that the work in this area is vast and important, therefore, we needed more disciples involved. We also took on the name Cultural Connection Team because we felt it communicates, in a broad but adequate way, the objective of the team. The team has met regularly since 2020 and seeks to provide educational opportunities that will equip our brothers and sisters to talk about our various cultural and racial differences in a way that promotes greater understanding and value for each other and those we are reaching out to who are different than ourselves.
One of these educational opportunities was born out of a meeting with Dr. George Yancey, Baylor University Professor of Sociology. After reading Dr. Yancey’s book, Beyond Racial Gridlock, and finding out that he lived in the Dallas Metroplex, Todd and Pierre invited him to have lunch with a number of the staff and elders of the DFW Church. We explored his thoughts and ways on helping multiracial churches develop greater love and unity because this is an area that Dr. Yancey is particularly interested in himself. We then asked for a second meeting to discuss the possibility of him presenting some of his research to leaders of our Texas family of churches and leaders of the Chicago, Kansas City and Nashville churches who joined us. Dr. Yancey’s presentation of his research was refreshing and timely as he discussed a viable way for us to fulfill our calling to be like Jesus as we navigate the divisive times we live in.
Our relationship with Dr. Yancey has led to an invitation for the DFW Church to participate in a new research project which will help teach and inform us on how to better love all nations. Dr. Yancey is set to provide a training session that will teach us how to have collaborative conversations with each other. This training will be followed by six separate small group sessions that will test the effectiveness of the training and allow us to put into practice what we have learned. The potential for growth in our fellowship is tremendous as we anticipate each of us learning how to come together and love each other deeply in a way that values the diverse perspectives we all bring to the body. We also anticipate that participation in this research project will better equip us to be about our mission of sharing the gospel with others who are different from ourselves. Our prayer is that God will be honored and glorified as we strive to sincerely love each other deeply and be a light to our world.
Pierre Saget — DFW Evangelist
Todd Asaad — DFW Congregational Evangelist
Last week I published an article on my teaching website entitled, “Is Your Religion Focused on Christ or the Church?” My bottom-line point was that if it is focused primarily on the church, becoming disillusioned, discouraged and critical is difficult to avoid. If it is focused on Christ and imitating him, you will have grace toward the church and its leaders and can serve as a constructive critic rather than a negative one. I didn’t advise saying nothing, to simply grin-and-bear wrong practices, although some took it that way. My main emphasis evidently left that impression with them.
On this past Sunday, I preached a sermon with the same title, although the content was not exactly the same. You can watch and/or listen to it on the DFW Northeast Facebook page or on You Tube if you want. I received some critiques on both the article and the sermon which were very beneficial to me. They were basically of two types: concerns about what was included and concerns about what wasn’t included. Regarding the former, I did revise a paragraph in the article. What I said and the tone it carried were not good and it needed changing. Some of the rest of it was edgy, but I still think it was appropriate for the intended purpose.
Regarding the latter, the critiques were about not saying more about faulty leadership, the church atmosphere created by it and the individuals hurt by it. Those giving the critiques agreed that no matter what happens, we still need to go the way of the cross in how we respond to being mistreated or encountering practices which we believe violate biblical principles. On the other hand, facing such treatment or atmospheres without becoming sinfully critical is understandably very challenging. I understand. I’m in that boat with you. Hence this article (and at least one more) in dealing with some of the specific concerns about faulty church leadership and what it creates. I use the term “faulty” because it can apply to ineffective leadership as well as sinful leadership and everything in-between.
Being able to identify worldly leadership can be a challenging task. We are introduced to leaders from birth – our parents. As we grow up, we see leaders of all types in roles of all types, and we develop views of leadership based on what we have seen and experienced. Thus, our view of leaders can produce very positive feelings or very negative ones. But whatever our views of leadership are when we come into the kingdom of God, those views are so deeply embedded that we can read what Jesus said about spiritual leadership and totally miss his meaning. Our worldly views are a part of our DNA and will remain so unless we get a lot of help to see what the New Testament is teaching about the topic.
When Wyndham Shaw and I wrote “Golden Rule Leadership” back in the early part of this century, we were trying to provide that help. Simply put, if we lead like we want to be led, that alone will enhance our leadership greatly. When we wrote the book, some leaders had children who were reaching high school or college ages and they now had ministry leaders with significant influence in their lives. Hence, I worded the Golden Rule of leadership in a slightly different way, namely, to lead others like you want your own children to be led. Trust me, some leaders who themselves had led campus students very forcefully at one time were now much more sensitized to how their own children were being led.
One thing Wyndham and I learned was that some leaders don’t do well with being critiqued. In our earlier days, many of the leaders with the most influence had pretty obvious pride problems. Tom Jones has said that the book he co-authored about pride and humility, “The Prideful Soul’s Guide to Humility,” was not read by a good number of leaders because buying the book would be an admission that they had the problem! He wished he had chosen a different title. I think he was right – about them and the resultant book readership.
I wrote the Introduction to Golden Rule, and the final part of it carried this heading: Warning! I went on to say this: “The greatest danger in reading this book is to assume that you really already understand the principles being discussed and are currently putting them into practice. This is especially true for our most experienced leaders. We do not see ourselves as we are; we do not see ourselves as others see us. Our strong tendency is to think more highly of ourselves as leaders than we ought to think (Romans 12:3). Wow! That definitely set off some leaders, at which point I just smiled and said “Bingo!” Keeping pride in check is an ongoing challenge for all those who lead.
The Roots of the Problem
One root is what I have already said about our experiences in the world and the definition of leadership thus produced in our minds. It takes a lot of work (and time) to eradicate the worldly thinking in this and other areas with which we enter the kingdom. Another root of the problem in our movement was the military mindset in our singular leader in our early days as a family of churches and the military style he used and trained other leaders to use. In my later (and longer) book on church leadership, “Dynamic Leadership,” I address this part of our root system in detail. It led to a trail of woe, although in the short term, this leadership style can produce some pretty amazing results. They just cannot be sustained. Plus, people get hurt.
The prevailing leadership style of our early days hurt almost everyone in some way at some time. It was hard to avoid harshness with the military model as a foundation. I am hearing currently that some leaders are returning to these roots and again leading with a controlling style that includes harshness. This unspiritual quality sometimes shows itself in significant displays of anger, in spite of biblical warnings against “fits of rage” in the catalogue of sins in Galatians 5, as well as in other biblical passages. This is not just faulty leadership; it is sinful leadership.
I think all of us, leaders and non-leaders alike, are tempted with anger now more than ever, simply because of the pandemic atmosphere tensions under which we are living. The old illustration about a man having a really bad day at the office coming home to kick his dog and yell at his family finds many applications in our current hurting world. I have had my challenges with that, although it is usually not directed toward fellow disciples. But then I am not in a leadership role now at my age, so the temptation is lessened – not removed. Whatever our circumstances, failure to maintain self-control is not an option.
An Important Disclaimer
If I could put my finger on the biggest mistake we made in our early days regarding leadership style, it would probably be how we defined and employed what we call “discipling.” Let me begin with this disclaimer. I believe in discipling in the ways the New Testament describes it, as the exercise of our “one another,” “each other” responsibilities toward one another. Believing that my former fellowship of churches didn’t come close to obeying the teachings about our relationships with fellow disciples, this concept was the most influential in bringing me into my current family of churches back in 1985. I wrote a long book entitled, “Discipling,” back in the 1990’s, which was condensed into “The Power of Discipling” later. I believe that our movement is suffering greatly because of the virtual disappearance of discipling among most of our membership. The prevailing idea seems to be, “If you need discipling help, just go ask someone for it.”
That is not discipling; it is counseling, which also has its place. But discipling carries the idea of having at least one purposeful spiritual friend with whom you meet regularly with the specific aim of helping one another become more like Jesus – in character and in mission. Having the heart of Jesus will lead to having the actions of Jesus, including his goal of seeking and saving the lost. My early favorite definition of discipling came from an idea stated in one book, that discipling was God’s plan to help us deal with sin at the temptation level before it came in to damage our lives, sometimes terribly. Our early problems with discipling came from adopting a worldly approach to it just like we did with leadership in general. The devil was in the details of application, not in the biblical concept itself.
The Fork in the Road
When I first met this movement, it was in the campus ministry stage. That ministry was the engine, and it was wildly effective in converting campus kids in the first couple of decades, and in some places, much longer. Every new convert received spiritual help and training from having a “Prayer Partner.” That term suggested a mutuality of helping each other and praying together. When I first inquired what a meeting of prayer partners was like, the answer I received was that they talked about how they were doing spiritually, good and bad, and made plans to improve. Then they wrapped it up by praying about those things. That sounded great to me. I was all in. I knew I needed all the help I could get to be spiritual and to grow spiritually to be more like Christ. I’ve not outgrown that need, nor has anyone else.
But then came the fork in the road – of soldiering up! The term “prayer partner” was replaced with “discipling partner” or “discipleship partner.” More significantly, the approach was changed as well. While the terminology change wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, the change in approach was. Enter the requirement of “one over another,” indicating that in every case, one of the partners was now in a position of authority over the other in all things spiritual. This led to more abuses than I can address here, but the biggest was the authority model brought into the arrangement. It was now a full-blown military model, applied to every leader and every member. You had a discipler who discipled you, which meant in far too many cases they were the boss of the relationship. The list of abuses under this heading is a painfully long one.
Human beings are in general obsessed with power, position, authority and control. That is why wars are fought. That is why politics has invaded almost every aspect of American society right now. Who has the power and control? How can we get it and how can we keep it? Need I say that this approach is just about 180 degrees opposite what Jesus said in his most famous comments about true leadership? The context was when his twelve disciples, the apostles, were arguing about which of them would be the greatest. It was obvious that their view of leadership was totally worldly. Even pretty much living with Jesus hadn’t eradicated it, for false concepts in this area are so hard to dig out and discard. Here’s what Jesus said to them.
Matthew 20:25-28 (NIV2011)
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Okay, So What’s the Intended Application?
Good question, right? As I’ve already said, some leaders appear to be returning to their roots and going heavy on the authority and control issues, complete with harshness and sometimes anger. But I think they are in the minority. My bigger issue with a majority of older leaders within their congregational leadership role is that they are not leading the charge to change the world. They are too comfortable to really lead a radical charge in carrying out the Great Commission and evangelizing the world. But this type can also be harsh if someone tries to pry them out of their comfort zones. Some are describing one form of harshness as “boomerang discipling,” meaning that instead of humbly hearing critiques, even well delivered ones, they turn it back on the person delivering it (or trying to). Leader, just how approachable are you? Don’t trust your own answer – ask around.
The one ministry that still uses more of an old leadership style is campus ministry, in my opinion. The situations I hear about give me that opinion. And by the way, when I am offering critiques, I am not saying that every leader is guilty of the sins I describe. That has never been the case. When Wyndham and I wrote our early book, we didn’t believe that all of our leaders had the problems we described. I don’t believe that everyone has the problems I addressed most recently in writing and in a sermon. But enough problems exist among us to motivate me to address them.
Campus Ministry Challenges on Both Sides
Those leading campus ministry are trained, at least partially, by older leaders who themselves led campus ministries in their younger years. It was often during those years that the military model was most popular and during those years, the model was often amazingly effective. But to repeat an important point, this model has a short shelf life. In time, if not changed it will implode or at the least become much less effective. When the young campus trainees hear about the results their trainer had in his or her youth, they want to see the same results in their ministry (who wouldn’t) and assume that using the same approaches will get the same result. When it doesn’t, they can feel like failures. Michael Burns addressed this well in one of his books.
The shocker is that they don’t seem to realize that it has been decades since those leaders had those results and their present ministry results are not nearly the same. Times have changed; society has changed; results have changed. Approaches need to change too, but often don’t. Traditions are hard to abandon, especially if they worked well at one time. We are slow to adapt and figure out new ways to be effective. We are in a post-Christian culture, especially in the thinking of our younger generations. The churches they have seen are not just out of step with society in ways they shouldn’t be. Their version of Christianity is a polluted one. American Christianity is in general a far cry from what I read about in the Bible, politicized almost beyond recognition. No wonder younger generations are turned off by it. I am too.
Back to the Story
Yes, old style leadership is found in our campus ministries probably more than in any other ministry. Some of the reason is the training received which promotes it. But it is a double-edged challenge that has to be understood by youth and leaders alike. Leaders have to understand that every individual they work with is different and in need of having those differences taken into account in leading them. They also have to understand the differences in those raised in a strong church culture by their parents and those who didn’t experience the same blessings (and sometimes curses). When youth from church families are treated exactly the same as those coming into the church without the same spiritual training and values, it is challenging for the church kids. I have often spoke of age-appropriate leadership. If you treat fifteen year old kids like you treated them when they were five, rebellion is likely coming. But background appropriate leadership is a related need.
The ones with different backgrounds often need more by way of guidelines to protect them against themselves. This is nothing new. I remember one of our well-known leaders describing how the dating guidelines back in his campus ministry days came about in the first place. We are talking about the 1970s here, when the sexual revolution was breaking out everywhere. He said that after conversion, without guidelines for relating to the opposite sex, he ended up having sex with a sister in the church. He took responsibility for the origin of what came to be accepted guidelines, and too often, rules.
It is essential that we have guidelines in relational areas for young people (and sometimes, older ones as well). But when they become rules, we have problems. What’s the difference? Guidelines are explained well and often and applied with individuals in mind. All don’t need exactly the same guidelines. Many times the young people with strong spiritual backgrounds don’t have the same challenges that others do. But, I would say this to you if you think you are in this category. It is really hard to have varying guidelines in campus ministry, because less mature kids have a difficult time understanding why they are treated differently when the guidelines are not applied uniformly.
I have been in a number of situations in the church where I was expected to do the same things as new Christians. Understanding the challenges just described, I just went along gladly with the expectations. I didn’t want to be seen as an exception to what others were being taught to do and not do. I may not have needed the same teaching, but they needed my example of submitting to what was requested of us. As a somewhat older guy when I came into this movement, I understood the importance of my example in this regard.
I would appeal to our younger church background folks to try hard to appreciate this principle and not allow yourself to be too critical of group guidelines, even when many in the group have different backgrounds, needs and challenges than you. I understand your feelings, but I also understand the challenges of leaders trying to work with young folks who are still trying to figure out life. And please don’t think you have figured it all out yet either. Life is a lot more complex than you imagine right now. Being open minded and flexible in the process of continuing to mature will protect you from yourself too. (smile…)
One Request of Older Leaders and One for All Leaders
One of my biggest concerns for the leadership of our movement is that a disproportionate number of leaders with the most influence in developing directions for the future are old (okay, older if that helps you). I’ve nothing against old people, since I am about to turn 79. I understand how our movement leadership developed as it did during this century. We lost a generation when we had a serious challenge in the early 2000s. Financial contributions decreased considerably, and understandably, the younger ones were laid off first. Changing careers was much easier for them and we needed our more experienced leaders to help us maneuver through the crises.
When we did reach more stable ground, we were able to start hiring young people again, but their opportunities in supported ministry were mostly limited to working with youth. I describe this situation in an article entitled, “My Hope is in Our Youth.” You can read it on my website. Bottom line, we didn’t made opportunities for the younger set of leaders to have much of a voice in determining directions for our movement’s future. We still haven’t. The same older set are leading in the same older ways, and innovation isn’t highly visible, to put it more gently than I did in the article just mentioned. Please read it. This issue needs serious attention immediately, if not sooner! Our youth have voices that must be heard.
Speaking of reading, I would strongly suggest that all leaders (and many others) read “Dynamic Leadership,” even if you have read it before. The very first chapter about the difference between offices and titles, and roles and relationships – through the lens of Jesus’ statements in Matthew 23 is so fundamental. We need truly spiritual leadership and this calls for spiritual leaders. One of my dearest and most respected elder friends, now deceased, gave my book the highest compliment I ever received on it. He said that he would never recommend a second book on church leadership until my Dynamic Leadership had been read first. I’ve never taken the words of that elder, Ron Brumley, lightly. I hope you won’t in this case.
Thanks for reading this article. Another to follow soon addressing additional leadership concerns. The Lord bless you and keep you!
The question posed by the title is one of the most important questions that any individual can entertain and it is one that you will answer with your life whether you realize it or not. No one can avoid answering it. We are all in the process of answering it right now. Let me explain.
Becoming a Christian means that we come into a saved relationship with God through Christ. Prior to that point, he is our Father by right of creation but when we are saved, he becomes our spiritual Father and we his spiritual child. At the same time, we become a part of his spiritual family, which the Bible describes with many different designations, but church is the most common one. Coming into that saved relationship with God means that we also come into a spiritual relationship with the rest of his children, and together we comprise the church. When we are baptized into Christ we are also baptized into his spiritual body, the church. They go together, as the following two verses show.
Galatians 3:27 (NASB)
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
1 Corinthians 12:13 (NASB)
For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Of course, the church is used in two basic senses, the universal church which includes all of those who are saved, and the local church. The local church is our local family of believers with whom we fellowship. Years ago, I remember a popular saying, “Up with Christ and down with the Church.” Those voicing this concept were basically saying that you could have a satisfying relationship with Christ without being a part of a local church fellowship. It sounded good – if you knew nothing about what the New Testament actually says. You cannot have Christ without the church. Satan works tirelessly to get you to believe that, but it is a Satanic lie. The multitudes of verses that speak of how we function together as family make it clear that we are a family, not a DIY project.
Family Equals Relationships
There are over 60 verses using the phrases “one another” and “each other,” and even more that speak to our close personal relationships with each other. If we understand what the term family means in a physical sense, we should be able to use that understanding to grasp some of the basics that also apply to our spiritual family. For starters, no family is perfect. No parent is perfect and no child in the family is perfect. That means that we had better figure out things like forgiveness, conflict resolution, teamwork, grace and the many other qualities necessary to enjoy happy family relationships. Did your physical family of origin have any dysfunctional aspects in it? Mine certainly did, enough in fact that I wrote a yet unpublished book about some of our dysfunction that I call “weird humor.” It was pretty weird, but we were still family and we still loved one another and we functioned reasonably well even in the midst of our dysfunction. You understand, right? You weren’t raised in a perfect family either, were you? If so, I would love to meet you and hear your story. You would be the first and only one on my list of perfect families.
But I Want a Perfect Church!
If you understand the basics of what I just said, then how could you expect the church to be perfect? Do you think the first century church was perfect? I know you can quote the last few verses of Acts 2 and say, “Yes, that was about as close to perfect as I can imagine.” But if you keep reading through Acts and the other writings describing the history of the early church, you are going to find out that the human element emerges. We wouldn’t have a New Testament if the early church had been perfect. Most of the epistles were written to correct wrong doctrines, wrong living and messed up relationships. Surprise, surprise – but what did you expect with human beings? My subheading for Romans 1-3 in my exposition of Romans is: “The Best of Us is a Mess!” And when you compare us to the standard of Jesus, only an idiot would argue with my wording. We are a mess.
So your church has problems that you would like to see fixed. I understand. I feel the same way. I imagine just about all of the members have a list mentally of what they would like to see done differently. But our lists don’t agree with each other on every point and maybe not even on most points. Through my ministry of over a half century, I’ve seen little groups with the same concerns, which could be called “gripes” if found in a not-too-spiritual group, but other little groups of folks have a different list. What bothers one doesn’t necessarily bother everyone else. But in our pride, we can come to think that we are zeroed in and if others are in the same ballpark of spiritual perspective we are, they will see it the same way. Are you starting to see the huge impact of our pride?
Perspectives Come From Focus
I am addressing much more than our perspectives here; I am addressing what gives us those perspectives in the first place. Our perspectives come from our focuses. Here’s my best illustration to make the point I am aiming at. I have been married for 56 years to Theresa. I am so much in love with her that I can’t keep from talking about her to others. One of my preacher buddies and his wife were once in the audience for one of my teaching days, and in one day, the wife counted how many times I mentioned Theresa. I think it was somewhere over 50 times. She then, with some edge to her voice, asked her husband why he didn’t mention her nearly as much in his preaching as I mentioned Theresa. I didn’t mean to get the dude in trouble. I just can’t help myself. I am married to a cutey pie, fun and funny little angel and I’m delightedly held captive by her. I can’t help it. I don’t want to help it. I wrote a whole book about our marriage, “Fairy Tales Do Come True” (and mine did). One of the last books I wrote was “The Power of Spiritual Relationships.” It’s no surprise that one chapter was just about her.
BUT – there have been many times when I was so mad at her that I couldn’t see any of what I just said. She had become a little demon to me and not an angel. Have we had our so-called “bumps” in our relationship? Oh yes, in fact we have had our “mountains.” My perspective has in those times been so different than it is most of the time. Why? Because perspective is determined by focus! I had started focusing on her very few faults and stopped focusing on her multitude of positive qualities. If you are stupid enough to do that long enough, you may well end up in the divorce court. I usually come to my senses and repent pretty quickly, for she keeps being like Jesus even when I am being the opposite. It’s so humbling when she does that!
Now I don’t think you are stupid. I think you can make the connection and understand just how this illustration correlates to your view of the church. Your focus determines your perspective. If you are mainly negative toward the church, your focus is the reason. Paul wrote to the church in Philippi and used the terms “rejoice” and “rejoicing” repeatedly. But who was rejoicing? Paul – not the church. Read Philippians and you will discover that the church had a number of problems which Paul was addressing. One of the ways that he was trying to help them was in using himself as an example. He was a prisoner in chains when he wrote the book and yet he was rejoicing. How in the world did he do that? Focus! Just listen to him.
Philippians 4:4-9 (NASB)
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice! 5 Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near. 6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7 And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 8 Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. 9 The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Did Paul know that the church had problems? Of course, that’s why he wrote the book, to help them start dealing with their problems and to make progress in being better children to God and better brothers and sisters to each other. Was he ready to give up on them and throw in the towel of being an apostle? Far from it. They were his family and he loved them. They were closer to him emotionally than his physical family members who were not in the church. Is that true with you? The answer you give is determined by your perspective and your perspective is determined by your focus.
How Can You Help With Change?
Thus far, I have addressed how we view and feel about the church. I can see a number of things about the church that I would like to see changed. I’ve never felt differently during my many decades in the church. I will never stop desiring to see every individual member, certainly including myself, become more and more like Christ. I will never stop desiring to see every church become more and more like Christ. After all, it is the church that is said to be the “fullness” of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23). As individuals, we need to be full of Christ as his image bearers, but it is the church that is said here to be the flesh and blood demonstration of Christ to the world – his fullness.
That said, what are we to do with an imperfect church? You might ask yourself first what God does with it. What do you do with imperfect children or other imperfect family members? Cannot you see the connection? Can you make the connection personally? Better yet, will you make the connection? I see at least two ways we can deal with our imperfect church and I’ve tried them both. Hopefully, my example can help you with your decision about how to proceed.
Be a Constructive Critic
You can either be a constructive critic or a destructive critic. The former tries to help from within as a friend. The latter type ends up outside throwing stones and doing absolutely nothing to help anyone, least of all themselves. I became a part of what we now call the ICOC family of churches back in the summer of 1985 when we moved to San Diego to become a part of what we then called the “Discipling Movement.” Those two and a half years were the most beautiful ministry years of my life. The church had less flaws and more outstanding qualities than any I have ever been a part of. Theresa and I used to say that we thought we had died and gone to heaven. To all of those brothers and sisters there, some of whom are watching from above now, I praise and thank God for you.
But then we moved to Boston. The church in Boston was growing very fast and the growing pains were obvious. I saw things that I didn’t like or think right, and since it was the biggest church in our movement at the time with the greatest influence, it gave a pretty accurate picture of what our movement as a whole was like. I was one of the older leaders, and an implanted one from another family of churches. Most others like me who tried to become a part didn’t last long. They saw the flaws, focused on them and became such destructive critics that they left on their own or were asked to leave. Some of them were my good friends.
It was decision time for me. I unloaded my critical attitudes on people like Wyndham Shaw time and time again. I was mature enough to realize that I had one of two options. I could do like some of my friends did and end up throwing my rocks and flaming arrows of criticism from the outside, doing no one any good, or I could become a real insider and offer constructive critiques that might have a chance to yield some good influence for change. Of course, you know already that I chose the latter option.
Yes, a Critic Still
Was I a critic? Yes. Am I a critic? Yes. Wyndham and I wrote a book almost 20 years ago, “Golden Rule Leadership,” that called a number of our movement leadership practices into question. We got enough criticism from leaders that my wife suggested that we just get tee shirts made with a target on the back of them. Haha – but not too funny at the time. But that book made a difference. I later wrote “Dynamic Leadership,” and Wyndham wrote the Foreword to that one. I think it has made a difference too. I have spoken and written many, many things about us that could accurately be called constructive criticism. Some, usually better-known leaders with the most influence, have not appreciated my efforts. I think God has.
Here is what you cannot afford to miss – I am a constructive critic, registering my concerns as a trusted “insider” and not as an outside flame thrower. Isn’t that what the early apostles were in all of their corrections of wrongs within the church? They were a part of the family. I am a part of the family. If you are focused so much on the negative that your perspective is mainly negative, and you don’t have a mind change sooner than later, you will likely end up leaving. Although I would hate to see you leave, without a mind change, your negativity (which will come out of the pores of your skin if not your mouth) is going to hurt others, and those others are my brothers and sisters too. They have enough to deal with in this crazy COVID messed up world right now. They don’t need your negativity. Please, just take responsibility and repent instead of playing the victim card and blaming the church.
Who Gets the Blame?
Speaking of blaming the church for the things you don’t like, what does that even mean? You don’t blame the church; you blame the leaders. I know you do. They represent the church and are the ones guiding it and the only clear targets you have. Of course you blame the leaders. Leaders do carry much responsibility for the direction and condition of the church. That’s why they have qualifications and directions given to them in Scripture. I have personally fired or helped fire more leaders on staff than anyone I know. I have never subscribed to the “Old Boys Club” philosophy that staff members are untouchable. Quite the contrary. I have always quoted Spock from the old Star Trek series, when he said, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Translated in spiritual terms, “The needs of the membership outweighs the needs of any ministry staff person.”
That said, having served on staff for about 50 years, I know the challenges. I know the burdens and the feeling that you can’t please everyone, and often don’t feel like you are pleasing anyone. I will not support unspiritual staff or unspiritual leaders in any role and my track record shows that clearly. But I will also absolutely refuse to focus on the faults of any leader or group of leaders and not note, and be thankful for, their hearts and efforts to serve. I’ve been a part of a number of different church ministry staffs. I may have had my reservations about some of the leaders, but not about most. I believe that most of them loved God and loved the church and were doing the best they could with the gifts that they had. No leader has all of the gifts. All of us wish we had more than we have and could do a better job of leading than we do. I also wish I could be a better husband, father, friend, neighbor, etc. I wish I were more like Jesus. I’m trying very hard to become more like him and I will never stop trying.
We’ve been in Dallas for almost seven years. I was a part-time member of the ministry staff for the first year, but not since. I have been around many of our ministry staff members and I trust their hearts. I can’t speak with any certainty about what leaders in other places are all like. I suspect that the large majority of them are like the ones I know best. Their hearts are in the right places and they are trying to do their best for God. They are not ignorant of the fact that God expects more out of them than anyone else in the church. They know that they will one day stand in front of God to be judged. I trust that and I trust them. If I discover that they aren’t worthy of that trust, I will deal with it in the same way I always have and speak my mind. I will not be a gossip and slanderer and talk behind their backs. Doing that is the way to be the least like Jesus possible. He spoke up and he spoke out to the ones with whom he had issues. Are you imitating him or listening to Satan and being like Judas rather than Jesus?
The Most Important Focus of All
Let’s just assume that you are correct if you view the church of which you are a part as a really messed-up, broken church. What then, beyond what I’ve already addressed about focus and perspective? Christianity is much, much more about you and God than about you and the church, as important as the church is. Let me introduce you to a really messed-up, broken church – in fact one that God himself said was dead. Whoa? Yes, dead!
Revelation 3:1-5 (NASB)
“To the angel of the church in Sardis write: He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars, says this: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. 2 ‘Wake up, and strengthen the things that remain, which were about to die; for I have not found your deeds completed in the sight of My God. 3 ‘So remember what you have received and heard; and keep it, and repent. Therefore if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you. 4 ‘But you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their garments; and they will walk with Me in white, for they are worthy. 5 ‘He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.
What did God do with this dead church? He called them to repent in no uncertain terms. But there were a few members who were worthy of the name of Jesus which they wore. What about them? What were they told to do? Start a new church, a small church and build it right? That sounds good, for if the good guys started it, it would be a perfect church or near perfect church, right? Our world is full of little church groups who have done exactly that – left their spiritual family, who certainly had their faults and probably plenty of them. But is that what God said to do?
What Jesus did say here is that one relationship is by far the biggest priority in Christianity – our relationship with him. All churches go through stages, ups and downs, better times and worse times. In the midst of that, I am responsible for my own personal relationship with God. The down times in churches and the down times in my own life have been historically the times when I have grown most in my personal relationship with God. On the Day of Judgment, God is not going to call us up by church group or by our physical family to give account. He is going to call us up one by one to give an account of how we have responded to him and his Son – and to the hard times in our lives.
Pulling out your victim card will not only do no good, it will make matters worse because you didn’t accept responsibility in how you handled this gift called life. There will be no one to blame besides yourself. We had better get a grip on these truths and respond accordingly. My religion and your religion are not about the church. They are bottom line about our relationship to God, but how you deal with your relationship to the church is going to be a fundamental part of how God views your relationship with him. The church is his family. It is called in Ephesians 5, “the bride of Christ.” I would suggest that you stop telling Jesus how ugly his wife is, and that begins with you ceasing to tell members who make up his collective wife the same. This is serious business. You and I are going to meet God, some of us much sooner than others.
How Did You Answer?
So how would you answer the question posed in the title of this article? Is your religion focused on Christ or the church? It had better be the former if you expect to please God and be right with him on the Day of Judgment. It is time to develop the right perspective by having the right focus. It is time to help the church change too, but through an approach that imitates Jesus. He came to minister to the sick, to effect change from within. Is your church in a bad place? Then why not be like Jesus and his apostles and try to help like they did (and still do)? Jesus was a critic for sure, but a constructive critic who identified with the sinners enough to become one of them and give his life for them. Does that describe you and me? It had better if we hope to spend eternity with him.
I have expressed my alarm many times about the current teaching and emphases of American evangelical churches. Honestly, the emphases are in many ways more disturbing than the specific doctrines with which I disagree. Living in the Bible Belt and interreacting with those having a past or present history in these churches shows me what they really believe in their heart of hearts. They are in the majority quite comfortable with wrong teachings about both doctrine and lifestyle. Regarding lifestyle, Jesus made it abundantly clear that his followers had to be “all in,” “sold out,” “heart and soul” disciples of his. This means far more than just getting a vaccination to protect you from the consequences of sin when you die and then going on about your business as usual, with little changed. Just look at a few of the many passages that could be listed which teach this truth.
Then he said to them all: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.
In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Is total commitment to Jesus and his spiritual body, the church, the emphasis of evangelicalism? I don’t think so, based on what I hear from individuals and preachers and what I read in their writings. Their main focus is usually on “getting saved,” a part of the basic stated definition of their purpose as evangelicals. It is quite common for preachers or the more committed members to urge the “unsaved” to invite Jesus into their hearts or to pray the sinner’s prayer, with little or nothing said about what becoming a follower of Jesus includes from that point forward. Not only is what is being offered as the salvation process not in line with New Testament teaching, becoming a sold-out disciple of Jesus for a lifetime is not taught and/or emphasized. The offer of salvation in this case is much more of an offer of “fire insurance” to keep you out of hell when you die than a lifetime commitment to Jesus as the very Lord of our lives.
The Problem Compounded
But this is only the first part of the problem. Most evangelicals still believe and teach that once you are saved, then you are always saved. You cannot lose your salvation. One of my good friends related a conversation he had with the preacher at his girlfriend’s church decades ago, and it illustrates my point well. He told the preacher that his girlfriend wouldn’t marry him unless he was a Christian, and since he really wanted to marry her, he needed to know what becoming a Christian entailed. The preacher said that he simply needed to accept Christ as his personal Savior and that was it – he would then be a Christian and set for eternity. Of course he would, if you accept this answer as the way to enter a saved relationship with Jesus, and if you cannot lose your relationship with him once you have it. My friend said, rather incredulously, “So what’s the downside?” The preacher said, “No downside; at that point you are set for life and eternity.”
Again, I could quote passage after passage showing the total commitment Jesus is asking for – demanding, really. But in our Christian culture, you just need to get your eternity set and then you can go about your business just like everyone else does. Most who claim Christianity appear little different from those who don’t. Of course, you are encouraged to attend church and avoid the really “bad” sins, but rest assured that no matter what, you will be pronounced “at home with God” and “safe in the arms of Jesus” at your funeral. If you have been to many funerals (or pretty much any funeral), you know what I am saying here is correct. Jesus in Matthew 7:13-14 talked about a narrow way to eternal life found only by a few, and a broad way that the majority end up on, the way of eternal destruction. He taught that most will be lost in eternity, not saved. But you will not hear anything close to that in the Bible Belt, rest assured.
Enough Preaching, Gordo!
Okay, I’ll quit preaching and get back to teaching – teaching about what is wrong with the doctrine of “once saved, always saved.” Interestingly, this doctrine is a part of historic Calvinism and the only part still accepted by most evangelicals. Yet, it rests upon the foundation of the other four parts of the Calvinistic system. In short, the word TULIP represents the basic tenets of that system. T stands for Total Depravity. John Calvin (and many others) during the period of the Reformation overreacted to the focus on human works in the Catholic Church and went to the other extreme. Now it was all up to God in way that boggles the imagination (and contradicts the Bible). Thus, children were said to be born totally incapable of doing good, lost sinners at birth.
If that is accepted, then the U stands for Unconditional Election. If you are totally depraved and cannot choose good, God must make the choice for you and so only those whom he unconditionally elects will ultimately be saved. By the way, those not elected to salvation are by necessary logic elected BY GOD to be lost. Next comes the L, which stands for Limited Atonement, meaning that Jesus died only for the elect, not for the the rest of the world. Then comes the I, standing for Irresistible Grace. If you are born totally depraved and unconditionally elected, with Christ dying for you as one of the fortunate elect, then you certainly cannot resist God changing your heart and saving you. It’s his choice and not yours.
Finally, we get to the P in our TULIP system, and that stands for the Perseverance of the Saints – another way of saying “once saved, always saved.” In my first book, “Prepared to Answer,” I devoted a full chapter to these five tenets of Calvinism. Regarding the perseverance doctrine, I will use some of the material in my book here. It is still quite relevant in this one area of teaching which is a part of evangelical doctrine, although an increasing number of evangelical teachers are questioning it or outright rejecting it. Get ready to dig in and dig in deeply!
Digging in More Deeply
This doctrine is about the only part of the Calvinistic system that remains in many denominational groups which once accepted the entire system. In the introduction of a book on election by a former Baptist writer, another Baptist scholar had this to say: “Let it be remembered that, less than a hundred years ago, all five cardinal points of Calvin’s system of theology generally prevailed among Baptists, as theological textbooks of the times will confirm. Today, only one point remains to any appreciable extent among Baptists, inevitable perseverance, and there is growing evidence that Baptists are increasingly questioning this last vestige of the central core of Calvin’s system of theology.” (Elect in the Son, by Robert Shank, p.16).
Back in 1960, Shank wrote a book entitled Life in the Son: A Study of the Doctrine of Perseverance. He started writing that book for the express purpose of supporting the Calvinistic position, since that position was the accepted one within his denomination. However, as he looked carefully at all of the supposed Calvinistic proof-texts, they did not support the position. His book is especially good in looking at the Greek tenses of the verbs. He shows that perseverance of the saints is completely tied in to a perseverance of faith. In other words, a Christian’s security is always intact as long as his faith continues. The idea of the security of the believer is a beautiful biblical concept. But the truth is that a believer can become an unbeliever, and at that point, there is no security at all. What does the Bible have to say on the subject?
In teaching those who are not really entrenched in this doctrine, pointing out a few passages often solves their problem. The entire book of Hebrews is dealing with the possibility of apostasy. See especially 2:1-3; 3:7-13; 6:4-6; 10:26-31; 12:25. James, in his epistle, told brothers (1:2) that sin can become full-grown and bring about spiritual death once again (1:13-15). Paul clearly stated that if we deny Christ, he will also deny us (2 Timothy 2:12). He wrote in Romans 6:16 that “Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey–whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness?” In 1 Corinthians 10: 1-12, the disobedient of the Old Testament are presented as examples, that New Testament people should “be careful that you don’t fall!” An unbiased person should be able to grasp this point readily, for the NT is absolutely full of such passages.
The Real Security of the Believer
However, some are so rooted and grounded in this error that time and patience must be expended with them before they are willing to give it up. With such people, we suggest approaching the subject from a slightly different angle. Admit readily that the NT does teach the “security of the believer.” The key to the whole misunderstanding is found in the term believer. A believer is one who has become a Christian through an obedient faith, and who then continues to exercise the same obedient faith. Once he stops exercising this faith, he ceases to be a believer. A believer can become an unbeliever. It is just that simple.
Notice carefully the wording of Hebrews 3:12: “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.” Therefore, a brother can become an unbeliever and, as such, fall away. In John 5:24, we are told “I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.” Then, in John 3:36 we find, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.” Now, which will not is stronger? Why should either of these statements be irreversible? If an unbeliever can become a believer and escape the wrath of God, a believer can turn back to the state of unbelief and thereby be under condemnation again.
At this point, a trained Calvinist will usually say something like this: “Well, if they fall away, they never really were saved in the first place.” If they resort to this even after we have studied how believers can become unbelievers, their minds may be closed. In this case, about all that we can do is turn to a passage like 2 Peter. 2:20-22 and camp there until they either deny the passage or deny their error. Do not be sidetracked. Stay with this passage until they accept it or deny that Peter was correct when he wrote: “If they have escaped the corruption of the world by knowing our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and are again entangled in it and overcome, they are worse off at the end than they were at the beginning. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled therein and overcome, the last state is become worse with them than the first. For it were better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment delivered unto them.”
For further study on the perseverance issue, see John 15:5-6 which shows that a branch in Christ can be cut off and burned. In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul states: “No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.” 1 Corinthians 10:5-12 uses the OT people in the wilderness wandering period as examples of those who sinned and lost the grace of God. Can a Christian fall from grace? If we wanted to prove it beyond any doubt in words that are precisely to the point, no better statement could be penned that the one in Galatians 5:4: “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”
Yup – I’m Talking to You Too!
I have two cautions with which to end the article. One, never focus so much on the fact that we can lose our salvation that you forget the beauty of Jesus’ assurance of the security of the believer. Insecurity in a child of God is hurtful to everyone, especially to our heavenly Father who loves us so dearly. I love this passage and I need this passage: “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:5-7). Walking in the light is not sinlessness or there wouldn’t be any sin from which to be purified. The verb, “purifies,” is a continual action verb, meaning that if our lives are characterized by walking with Jesus, sins are continually taken away by his blood on the cross. As Paul put it in quoting from David, “Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord will never count against them” (Romans 4:8). Perseverance of the believer is a precious doctrine indeed!
Two, while I wrote this article addressing a teaching found mainly in evangelical circles, I am concerned about any supposed Christian with a watered-down commitment to Christ and his Cause. I continue to see a lessened commitment level among members of my own family of churches, the ICOC, and the pandemic lifestyle has surely increased this malady. When (sometimes I just say “if”) this pandemic ends and we are able to return to mixing and mingling with others at will, I am concerned about what we may likely see – that many have become too comfortable with isolation. Being an active part of a church fellowship may seem too high a price to pay at that point. I pray to be wrong, but the dangers are there. We need to be helping each other right now by being in each other’s lives in every way possible. Brightly burning coals don’t last long when removed from the fire and left alone. “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:23-24).