The Dangers of Professional Christianity

Does anyone know that the liturgical calendar calls the Sunday after Christmas?

Answer – Assistant Pastor’s Sunday.

Okay, it’s not an actual liturgical day – but boy am I glad the Assistant Pastor could fill in for me.

The last time I had taken a full day off from work was when I was on bedrest following a week in the hospital – and even then I started back to work before the Doctor’s recommended timeline.  I was feeling burned out. I just had to make it through Christmas Eve – and Christmas day since it fell on a Sunday – then I could finally get away for a little bit.

I read somewhere that there are a couple of clues to when a Pastor needs to take a break:

  1. When he repeats the same sermon two weeks in a row and the congregation doesn’t notice, and
  2. When he repeats the same sermon two weeks in a row and he doesn’t notice.

I hadn’t gotten to that point, but I was close.  Spending time away from the church – which is difficult for me since I live directly across the street from it – helped me to see how close I had come to a burnout.  From the realistic understanding that the work of the Church is essential, important, and urgent, to the unrealistic expectation that I can do it all myself and in my own strength; I stood little chance of survival.  I was increasingly frustrated with myself, making careless mistakes, growing short-tempered, and becoming an overall “bah-humbug.”  (My apologies to my family for bringing this on during Christmas, too – we always hurt the one’s we love…) Getting away for a week and realizing that the church would go on, even thrive, without me gave me that little jolt I need to get back into the proper perspective.

The time away also helped me to see that while my walk with Christ is essential to  my pastoral ministry, my pastoral ministry may often be a detriment to my walk with Christ.   There are several traps that are easy to fall into as a Pastor, shortcuts that seem to help make discipleship and pastoral ministry go hand in hand, but in reality, destroy both.

Here are just a few examples:

(Warning – there’s some brutally honest self disclosure coming here!)

Substituting Spiritual Studies for Spiritual Life

My workweek usually requires writing two sermons, planning and leading two worship services, writing a Sunday School and a Wednesday night bible study, writing this blog, and the occasional bible studies, devotions, and weddings and funerals – not to mention visitations, meetings, and the administration responsibilities of pastoral care.  Oh, and did I mention I have a wife and 4 kids, too.

It is a joy to be called by a congregation to study, teach, and preach God’s Word, yet there are often times when the tyranny of the urgent, the never ending, relentless onslaught of Sundays overwhelms and incapacitates.  And then sacrifices are made.  The quiet time of study and reflection, listening to God’s Word for me personally is crowded out by the need to find something that I’m supposed to say to my congregation.  The time on my knees in prayer and fellowship with God finds its way to a prayer at the pastor’s desk.  Worship becomes work. Sanctification becomes sanctimony.  What should nourish and feed the Spirit becomes a drain, until you’re left, well, like this:

bilbo

Time away from the pulpit, from the office, from the demands of ministry, help me to find the peace and joy of stopping and dwelling in the presence of God.  Like that break in college when you went home, just for a bit, to be nurtured, strengthened, and rejuvenated for the return to reality – we all need moments when we can return to home base with God, resting and waiting upon Him.  Proverbs 18:10 says, “The name of the LORD is a strong tower; the righteous man runs into it and is safe.” I’m not one to run from my problems, but there are times when all you can do is drop everything and run to the Lord.  Only then can you find the strength and the wisdom to face what’s before you.

Worship as Perpetual Motion

I was sitting in worship in another Presbyterian Church on Sunday, with relative anonymity and no responsibility other than that I was there to worship God.  In that moment it dawned on me that I had gotten to the point where my preparation for worship, and my experience in worship on a Sunday morning had become an act of perpetual motion rather than heartfelt worship.  Like the “white-washed tombs,” I had fallen into a Pharisaical practice of having the name of God on my lips while He was far from my heart.

Okay, so maybe that’s a bit harsh, but maybe you know what I’m talking about.  Sundays came and went as a matter of course; I was going through the motions of worship, occasionally allowing my heart to actually break into what I was doing, but more often than not, that just took too much out of me – so I had to keep it all bottled up for the sake of moving forward.  When all the while, it was holding me back.

John Bunyan once wrote, “In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart.”  Amen. Worship isn’t really worship if you’r heart is a million miles away.  If you’r heart isn’t fixed on God in worship, it isn’t a praise song, no matter how many times you repeat the chorus.

It took getting away from leading worship for a Sunday to get myself back into the right perspective for worship.  I’m only too grateful that God saw fit to show me this and restoration a heart of praise.

Trusting What’s Works Rather Than The One Who Works

Finally, it is all too easy to rely on the tools of the trade, rather than the Hands of the Master.  I have a pretty framed degree from a rather prestigious seminary on my wall – that should account for something, right?  I know my Greek and Hebrew, and can exegete a text forwards and backwards.  I bring a natural comfort to the pulpit, an easy manner in speaking, and that helps me communicate with the congregation.  With all of that going for me, this whole ministry thing should come together pretty well, shouldn’t it.

The temptation in ministry is to rely on my skills, my professional development, my education, my talents, my resources… You see what’s happening there.  If that’s the source of ministry, then all you’ll get is me.  Trust me, no one needs more of me.

Instead, all of this pedigree for ministry is simply rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus.  How does Paul put in in Philippians:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:7–11)

Interestingly, that was my foundation verse when I was in Seminary. Whatever I was confronted with, I would come back to this passage – I want to know Christ above all things, before all things, in all things.  It’s funny, that need never really goes away.

So – a huge thank you to my congregation and elders and assistant Pastor for making time away possible.  A huge thank you to my family and friends for bearing with me as I worked through all of this.  And a huge thank you to my savior, for being eternally patient with this work in progress.

SDG

Ministry in the Middle

It’s been a few months since I’ve written anything for the blog (three, to be precise). It was not my intention to stop writing, I just got a little preoccupied and never felt particularly inspired to write. I’m sorry for those who were looking forward to the posts, and I hope I haven’t driven you away through my absence.

One of the reasons I was feeling uninspired was that I wasn’t reading as much as usual during the summer. Usually I’ve got about four or five books that I’m reading at once. I don’t say that to boast. It’s just that in the process of sermon prep, study groups, and personal development, there’s always a handful of books that need read at once.

As I was saying, I slowed in my reading over the summer. We were trying to get settled in a new home, church, and community – and there were some shows on Netflix that I just had to watch. Thus, the reading suffered, and the inspiration to write suffered, too.

Well… good news! I’m back into the full swing of reading again, and – bing! – feel like I’ve got something to say.

(How’s that for clearing the throat?)

I had the opportunity to take my older children to the Life Light Concert this year – a free, open air, three day concert with some of the leading Contemporary Christian Artists. Sunday night’s headliner was Matthew West, whose music I’ve enjoyed for quite some time.  Wests’ concert was great, his music inspiring, and the message was uplifting.

What got stuck under my skin, however, was the artist who came on before West. I’ll not share his name here, I don’t want this to become a personality thing, but in between his songs, this guy liked to “preach.” Now, I’ve got no problem with an artist sharing his testimony. I’d never discourage someone from sharing how the grace of God in Jesus Christ has saved them and transformed them.

What frustrated me was that in his “preaching” he would harshly criticize the church. He had been talking to Christians from all over the world – Christians who told of the blind gaining sight and the lame walking. “What are we doing wrong, Church?” he would ask. “How many people have you healed?” And having shamed the Church for its complacency, he would then start another song, and suggest we buy his album.

To top it all off, he called this concert “worship.” Now I get that worship can come in varying styles and formats – but I believe it should have some essential qualities: Prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, the reading and teaching of Scripture, and a call to discipleship and commitment.  Simply singing (to use the broadest sense of that word for this particular artist) and rambling about the state of the church is not worship.

The crowd might have been worshiping.  Tens of thousands of people screaming and cheering for the artists – that might actually be worship.  False worship, but worship, none-the-less.

Neither should the concert tour be considered ministry.  When you step off the stage and onto the tour bus, never interacting with those to whom you preached – such is not ministry.  It is “strafe-bombing” an unwitting audience with faulty exegesis and half-truths.  Jesus pronounced woe upon the Pharisees and teachers for such things, “For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15).

I just started reading through Reversed Thunder, Eugene Peterson’s meditation on the book of Revelation.  In it, Peterson describes John as a prophet, a poet, and a pastor, and in reading of his vision in Revelation, we should listen as we would to a prophet, a poet, and a pastor.

Strikingly, Peterson describes the role of the pastor saying, “The pastor is the person who specializes in accompanying persons of faith “in the middle,” facing the ugly details, the meaningless routines, the mocking wickedness, and all the time doggedly insisting that this unaccountably unlovely middle is connected to a splendid beginning and glorious end” (Peterson, pg 8).

A pastor is one who reads the Bible, mindful of the glory of God, the goodness of the gospel, and the pressing needs of his congregation. He celebrates the births and the weddings and the graduations. He weeps with the widow, the grieving father, the soul lost in sin.  He knows the fragrance of joy, the stench of despair. The pastor stands in the middle, pointing not to himself, but to the only One who can make anything good come from all the “stuff” we face. He comes with the message of the “Alpha and the Omega, the One who is, who was, and who is to come” (Rev 1:8).

Pastoral ministry is messy. It is often the ministry of interruptions. It is painful, and it is wearying. And the crowds are smaller, quieter, and the lighting isn’t as good.  But Pastoral ministry, ministry in the middle of God’s people, is glorious. There’s no place I’d rather be!