Thursday, March 27, 2008

Book Review -- Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome

I took a phone call about six months ago that really got my attention. On the other end was a pastor who was having to endure some very difficult times. He was a good friend of mine and I know that his motivations are right but his understanding of “success” is all wrong. I tried to carefully and gently share it with him and the graft did not immediately take but in time it will because the pain that he is having to endure will bring clarity to what I told him.

As I listened, I discovered that I had heard this conversation countless times in the last 10 years. I noticed that there were some minor variations in the details of the call and that only the geography had changed. The geography was different but the essence of the story was not. I am coming to fear that far too many good men have allowed the American Dream concept of success to totally wreck the biblical prototype of successful ministry. If you are a minister, pastor, assistant pastor, or fill any other role in the American church, I plead with you to do a deep and careful study of 1st and 2nd Timothy, Titus, and for good measure toss in 2nd Corinthians. Paul's words to Timothy and Titus map out a job description for pastoral ministry and 2nd Corinthians gives the picture in shoe leather of what a man is to do that is in spiritual leadership especially under duress. If you choose modern books on business leadership to define your job description, ultimately what one will learn to do is gather up a host of tares and build a “tare house” of worship. The last time I checked Covey, Blanchard, Maxwell, Drucker, Holtz, Wooden, Collins, Csorba, Lencioni, and the chief heretic of all, Ayn Rand, weren't apostles and they could provide me with zero instruction of the spiritual aspects of building God's church. Sadly, I have spent a lot of time with these clowns before I chunked them all about 3 ½ years ago. I finally decided that Paul could give me a whole lot more insight into what God wanted than someone whose chief goal in life was to sit on top of a totem pole that exalted materialism.

One of the specific reasons that many pastors feel that they are failures is because they are not living up to the standards set by the business world to build the church. If the numbers were up, they were up. If the numbers were down, they were down. Everything had to do with line and bar graphs that measured attendance and dollars. The focus of ministry suddenly degenerated into one becoming a “spiritual bean-counter.” Ministry no longer focused on personal godliness of the man, holiness of life, integrity of character, and the stability of his home.

As time progressed, Satan sat in his corner and took a holiday. He decided that he would let the pursuit of “success” eat the soul out of the preacher and it would not only kill the man but it would kill his family and the church that he was serving. Kids would go haywire and a marriage would dry up, but before it did it would have to endure a thousand painful blows. It would not be long until the church would get lost in a pantheon of confusion that pursued humanism and idolatry. So presently the devil is sitting back just watching a lot of good men simply self-destruct in their pursuit of the wild numbers game called success.

In the pursuit of success, he would either get “it” or he wouldn't get “it.” Either way the devil would win out. Those who got “it” often got so busy that they worked for years building the church before they realized God had not been there in a while. In fact, success had kept them so busy that they really did not know how long it had been since God had been eased out the door on a greased track by professionalism. Don't worry about God, just make sure those PowerPoints are nifty and the lights are working and the sound is right where it needs to be. “Quick give me one of those handy little sermons that are wrapped in tight, relevant packages. Better yet, let's do a series so that things are mapped out for six weeks!” The band played on and the tares grew higher and higher until pretty soon there were only a few bedraggled stalks of wheat left. It would not be long until the tares would get them too and the whole harvest would be lost. Yet, the bars and lines on the graphs were leaping off the page. Numbers and money was up but the church was dying from a famine of Bread.

Pastoring a church in these times can be very challenging. If we aren't careful we can fall into the same trap that Nabab and Abihu did and offer a strange substitute that God isn't going to be real pleased with. It will end up costing us everything just as it did with Aaron's sons.

Back to my phone call that I first mentioned, the story went on of how that this good man had poured his time, his finances, literally his life into what God had called him to do. He rehearsed with me some of the difficult pressures that his family had been forced to endure because of his absence due to ministry demands or his work demands from a secular job. His children had been fatherless and his wife had been “husband-less” all in the process of “building a church.”

Over the years, it comes to my mind now that I know of several ministers whose marriages have literally fallen apart and they are now divorced because of the pursuit of “success” in the church. I am aware of a trail littered with their children who are now totally out of the church and have no intentions of every coming back because of the demands that they saw on their family. I know of more than one broken man who turned his back on his calling because of the incessant and demanding (maybe ungodly?) siren call to be successful in the ministry.

If it seems like that I am on edge with this blog entry, you have discerned correctly. I am angry that some men that I hold in high regard and count as close friends feel that they are colossal failures. I am angry that the American dream has been pulled into their ideas of what a church is to be. I am angry when I see others tossing non-negotiables over the side of the boat, things that are good, godly and necessary, that will take a church to the pit of carnality so it will be tasteful to the community.

You also might wonder what moved me in the direction of this thought and I have confess it was a little book that I recently picked up by Kent and Barbara Hughes entitled Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome. I got it yesterday and started reading it before my mid-week Bible study on 1st John around 5:30. I came home last night and picked it up again around 10:30 and hang on for the ride until midnight. So compelling was the book that I have spent much time and thought throughout the day reading it. By the way, it is such a book that you read a while and then pray a while. I have prayed for a lot of the Lord's servants today and prayed that He would deliver us from the soul-eating, mind-exploiting, and pride-inducing grasp of “success.”

I am going to give you the introduction and I believe that it will be a worthy investment of your time to go out and find it and read it.

Some onlookers thought it was unusual, but few noticed when the pastor wheeled into the church parking lot in a borrowed pickup truck. But everyone's eyes were upon him when he backed the truck across the lawn to his study door. Refusing comment or assistance, he began to empty his office into the truck bed. He was impassive and systematic: first the desk drawers, then the files, and last his library of books, which he tossed carelessly into a heap, many of them flopping askew like slain birds. His task done, the pastor left the church and, as was later learned, drove some miles to the city dump where he committed everything to the waiting garbage.

It was his way of putting behind him the overwhelming sense of failure and loss that he had experienced in the ministry. This young, gifted pastor was determined never to return to the ministry. Indeed, he never did.

We wrote this book because of this story—and many, too many, others like it. We are concerned about the morale and survival of those in Christian ministry. Pastors, youth workers, evangelists, Sunday School teachers, lay ministers, missionaries, Bible study leaders, Christian writers and speakers, and those in other areas of Christian service often face significant feelings of failure, usually fueled by misguided expectations for success.

It is true that our Christian colleges, universities, and seminaries are flooded annually with bright and motivated students. But it is also true that every year thousands leave the ministry convinced they are failures.

We know what it's like. We too almost succumbed to the enticements. It is our hope that the account of our subtle confusion about success, our near ruin, and ultimately our liberation through the truth of God's Word will aid in delivering others from this unhappy goddess.

This is a portion of the introduction.

Part One is the gut-wrenching story that Kent Hughes writes frankly of his disillusionment with the ministry and with the church.

Part Two of the book deals with the core of success from the biblical model as being faithfulness, serving, loving, believing, prayer, holiness, and attitude.

I think it is worth your time and your money to read this book. I also realize that my tone in the opening salvo of this blog may have been looked upon with some disdain. But my justification, if there is any, is that I know of a lot of men who pouring their lives into the Kingdom of God and feel like defeated failures because their churches aren't measuring up to the one across town or across the country.

Thanks for reading. . . . .

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

When Good Words Are Ruined

While the world was mired in World War II in the 1940’s, a series of columns begin to appear in a now defunct newspaper called The Guardian. The author of this series was by C. S. Lewis of whom I read after for a number of years now. C. S. Lewis will force a man to think and even lean to the dastardly proclivity of discernment, which has been labeled as a bad thing lately. We user-friendly, password, “don’t give me a manual” type personas have some disdain for thinking. The sort of check your brains in at the door mentality has led to some grief here and there.

When one looks at history, this is not a recent development as one might want or even be inclined to think. The greatest spiritual battlefield is between our ears. It is not Hollywood, the media, the political system, or you-fill-in-the-blank that is the greatest area of spiritual warfare. All of these things have their merit in the spiritual battle but they are nothing more than accomplices to the spiritual battle that occurs in a man’s mind. Trace it out and you will find that the earliest casualty of sin was found when the doubt poisoned the mind. Once the serpent had let the venom of a lie explode in the mind of Eve all other activities of failure simply followed gravity.

Back to Lewis. . . . His little columns ended up becoming a collection of thirty-one little letters. Lewis used his imagination along with some solid Scriptural understandings and formed two characters. Wormwood and Screwtape are vividly brought to life as Lewis drags them out from under their rocks fresh from the Abyss. Wormwood is the nephew and Screwtape is the “affectionate uncle” and both are literally twisted angels, in other words, they are demons on the loose. Screwtape has decidedly determined to “school” his young protégé at how to trip up humans (or vermin) in their attempts to serve God.

At times the conversation is reminiscent of 7th grade immaturity and mirth between the two but what is so alarming about the book is that the advice being dispensed is deadly in a spiritual sense. Over the years, I periodically sit down and refresh again my thoughts of how that the enemy is still at war in very subtle but effective ways with every man who is walking this path of faith.

In the last few days, one of the methods that Screwtape “enlightens” (or should we say “de-lightens) Wormwood is by corrupting good words. Screwtape writes of the Philological Arm of Hell and how it works. In our modern era this word would probably be better interchanged with linguistics. The Philogical Arm is the study of literature and the disciplines surrounding it. While this does not make much sense that the devil would want to study literature, what does make sense is that more importantly he wants to study what words mean and then daringly but subtly change what the meaning of the word really conveys.

Screwtape informs Wormwood that he needs to take some of the great virtues and associate them with bad “feelings.” If there can be subtle but effective associations that will create bad perceptions or associations so the word can longer have any useful benefit then the job has been done effectively.

One such example that Lewis cites is the word “ascetical.” Instead of the full thought of the word being associated with the discipline that one would be submitted to as Paul infers in 2 Timothy 2, the association must be changed. Instead of it referring to a faithful teacher, focused soldier, a patient farmer, or diligent workman, this “ascetical” life now is made to look like a wild-eyed, disenchanted, crazy mad-man. Make those who are separated to the Gospel look like cult figures in Jim Jones or David Koresh caricatures. “See my dear Wormwood, while we know the great value of living under the values of godliness and righteousness, our lexicographers destroys the hopes of any wanting to pursue such a course in life. We know that this sort of focused life creates great power but by changing the association of the word, it makes it hard for many to want to buy into it. It sounds too extreme.”

As I read through Lewis’ musings it came to my mind that a whole lot of good words have been changed by association in our generation. The more I thought about it the more I understood how the greatest spiritual battlefield does indeed rest between our ears. Clearly understanding that Paul counseled that knowledge would “puffeth up,” (1 Cor. 8:1) I am also queried to balance that caution out with the demand that Paul placed on the New Testament church for discernment (Romans 12:3; Php. 1:9-10; Heb. 5:12-14, etc.).

So with those thoughts rumbling through my mind, I begin to think of some words that the lexicographers from Hell have corrupted for our generation. I pass along this rambling vocabulary for your consideration.

Preaching -- This has been corrupted in several ways. First, you will be hard pressed to find a Joe Blow on the street that has a good association with preaching. Hellish Lexicographical Association: Preaching is pushy, judgmental, harsh, demanding. Preaching is moralistic and creates a wide gulf of separation. So the good word of preaching no longer gets across that there is a life-giving strength and eternal hope spelled out in such a way as to save men from their sins. Another way that preaching has been redefined follows. Hellish Lexicographical Association: Preaching is entirely uplifting, full of blessing, and puts me on a spiritual “high” of feel-good. So the good word of preaching is reduced to warm-fuzzy stories that have been circulated widely in e-mail boxes. The good work of preaching has been diminished when context and hermeneutics have been horribly violated to “encourage” the good folk.

Holiness -- Hellish Lexicographical Association: Prudish, harsh, judgmental folk who sneer at tattoos, body-piercings, and wreckages of sin. They are funny-acting, funny-dressing, funny-talking folk who are dumb as rocks. Watch out for legalistic rule-minders who drag around yard-sticks of condemnation and are ruled by preaching (see above definition part 1) that makes God a horrible and heavy-handed dictator. Instead of allowing the real definition of holiness to be an insatiable hunger for God and the things of His Word, a greater desire to move into avenues of a depth of prayer and revelation, the new inventors make it something that we want to hold at arm’s length.

Ministry -- Hellish Lexicographical Assocation: Big barns, cool lights, nifty Powerpoints, relevance, thousand dollar wardrobes, rigged out cars, and all the other stuff that will be corrupted by rust, eaten by moths, and stolen by thieves. My heart is torn by some of the things that have occurred in the charismatic world in the last few months. While we as Apostolics are widely separated from them in doctrine and lifestyle, the world at large lumps us all together and their view of “ministry” has been soiled by the tawdry evidence. Divorce at will, domestic abuse, extravagant lifestyles, and perverted and salacious living is crippling our credibility. The apostles and the early church were given to prayer, fasting, and ministry of the Word and it turned their world upside down. We must ever remember that the ox is not to be muzzled but at the same time one has to remember that gluttony has to do with more than just food, it has to do with appetite. If Hell can change our job description to something beyond what the pastoral epistles stipulate, particularly 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, we are sunk. Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 4 refers to the ministry as one who are “stewards” or under-rowers of the mysteries of Christ. To further dig into this chapter proves that ministry will be challenging and not always easy.

Doctrine -- Hellish Lexicographical Association: Divisive, useless argument, camel-slapping and gnat-guffawing, dull, impractical (un-relevant, not relevant, lacking relevance), too deep, too demanding, and besides doctrine has now a dirty word. The facts say otherwise. A church and minister that is doctrinally sound has a very solid foundation. Doctrine also keeps one from spiritual error. Just a quick study of the Pauline epistles reveals to us that the Apostle spent much time and energy refuting false doctrine and false teachers. The modern Apostolic church must “nerve up” and face down the errors of our day. Salvation is more than just repentance and baptism, if there is no active evidence of tongues in the initial infilling it becomes another gospel. Paul had his share of miracles, signs, and wonders and he also had his share of solid biblical instruction to the new converts.

I have some other odds and ends but you and I are out of time and I shall not weary you with more.

As always, I am thankful that you have dropped by this blog and read through some of the ramblings.

1 Timothy 4:16 KJV Take heed unto thyself, and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Book Recommendation -- American Idols by Bob Hostetler

Over the last several months it has come to my attention that I have neglected one of the early practices of this blog—book reviews. I have been reading but I have failed to continue to write about books that I have gleaned something from.

If you are an avid reader, I am certain that at some points that you have talked back to the books that you read. I figure that if I buy a book, it is my property and I can treat it as such. Therefore, if I want to mark it up, write in the margins, or talk to it, I can have such liberties because it is my property.

Ever since our little Dave Ramsey journey through Financial Peace University, my book purchases have had to be much more judicious. The bad thing about this is that I have been unable to purchase books at a “beyond my ability to read them rate.” The good thing is that I have picked up some older books that have been in my personal library for quite some time and either I have not finished them or had not read them. Because of the Dave Ramsey effect, I now have to wait out my book purchases and instead of impulsively buying them, I can now only get them on a really “need” them level.

Such is the book that I mention now by Bob Hostetler. I went to Lifeway over a period of about two months before I finally pulled the trigger and bought this one. I must admit that I had read large portions of it before I purchased it. Finally I got tired of shifting from one foot to another and reading it in the isle as people busily walked around me.

The whole premise of the book is that America is filled with idols. Hostetler works up a good Bible study beginning on page 9 as he walks through the process in Exodus 32:1-7 that led the children of Israel to build their golden calf. He entitles it “The Alchemy of Idolatry.” I will list the following steps that he brings out that led to their graven image:

  • Impatience -- They got tired of waiting for Moses on the mountain. While Moses was receiving the most powerful of revelations for their wilderness passage, they could not wait long enough for God’s timing to develop. “We seek for satisfaction from illegitimate sources because we don’t want to wait for our legitimate Source.”
  • Unbelief -- They allowed the impatience of the day to put unbelief into their heart about Moses’ whereabouts. They said “we wot not what has become of him.” This KJVese could be translated, “we don’t even know what has happened to him.” This incited their lurch toward idolatry. We don’t know about tomorrow. Or our prayers. Or our troubles. Or what is awaiting us around the corner. Suddenly the God who had gotten them out had them boxed in.
  • Pragmatism -- They desired for someone to make them a god that will lead them on. It did not really matter if the god had life. Aaron, just build us something we can see. It is quite ironic that Moses was getting the instructions for the Tabernacle that would house the most sacred things of Israel while they were clamoring for another god. The demand for a god to make them more comfortable was the thing they wanted. Give us a god we can use. Easy. User-friendly. A serviceable idol.
  • Ingratitude -- Another contributing factor to their idolatry was their quick ability to forget where God had brought them from. Romans chapter 1 mentions the wrath of God’s abandonment. One of the characteristics of the godless is that they are “unthankful.” When our prayers lose their gratitude and thankfulness, trouble is brewing. Ingratitude leads on toward a sense of entitlement.
  • Regression -- Their spiritual impatience led to a spiritual regression. Aaron’s choice of a golden calf was not a mistake. He was taking one of the most important of the Egyptian gods, Apis, the bull god of Memphis, who was associated with Ptah, the creator of the universe. Anytime our spiritual aspirations sink, we will serve a lesser, earthly, worldly god.
  • Compromise -- Notice in Exodus 32:4-5 that Aaron called this golden bull the Lord. In effect he was saying, “Ok, if you must have an idol, let’s at least call it the Lord. Let’s not abandon the first commandment, even if you insist on breaking the second.”
  • Corruption -- When the idol set in on them, it devoured them. Their worship became corrupted. The things they once offered the Lord were now placed at the hooves of a surrogate god. It turned into a drunken and debauched deal. “Corrupted worship of the one, true God is not worship of him at all. You cannot mix Living Water and sewage into a potable blend. You cannot make dance partners of holiness and idolatry.”

This book is literally loaded with examples of how that our culture is serving up very weak surrogates for God. This book is worth the time and money. I promise you that your highlighter and red pen will make many marks in the margins.

For the sake of your curiosity I list the chapter titles:

  • The eBay Attitude (Consumerism)
  • The Darwinian Conjecture (Naturalism)
  • The Cowboy Ethic (Individualism)
  • The Rock Star Syndrome (Celebrity)
  • The Microwave Mentality (Instant Gratification)
  • The Superman Myth (Humanism)
  • The Cult of Personal Experience (Experience)
  • The Lexus Nexus (Success)
  • The Eros Ethos (Sensuality, Sexual Freedom)
  • The Burger King Way (Choice)
  • The Passion for Fashion (Appearance)
  • The La-Z-Boy Life (Comfort)
  • The Modern Baal (Money)
  • The Martha Malady (Busyness)

The Appendix mentions some characteristics of a good church which serves as some extra food for thought.

A Prayer Pouring Out of Psalm 119

--> I am presently preaching through the stanzas of Psalm 119 and it has been a spiritually enriching exercise.   Toda...