07 May 2013

the denomination and me: missing the personal jesus

A week ago I supposed to attend, but I didn't go.  When I started they told me that it would be a requirement, but this is the second year that I simply decided that other things were more important.  Nothing was said to me before, and I doubt I will receive any reprimand this time.  Now it appears that there were many who made the same choice.  And, even though I haven't spoken of this with anyone else, I think I know why.

Now, before you get too wrapped up in this, or think that I am guilty of derelict of duty, let me tell you that I am a pastor, and the event to which I am referring is our annual church conference (well, one of two that we're supposed to attend).  To the average person, this doesn't seem like a big deal.  Perhaps the average person is quite insightful on this matter, but before you jump to any conclusions please understand that such conferences are seen as important to those in denominational leadership.  And, yes, it is a requirement that their licensed and ordained folk make a point to attend.  Until two years ago I was a part of denominational leadership, and held firm in the belief that these can be important events that connect and equip our church leadership.  I still do, when they are worth it.

I have come to realize that most pastors will endure a lot for the sake of their calling.  One of the areas where pastors will typically be willing to endure is the amount of denominational meetings, conferences, classes, and other such requirements that form a necessary part of our vocation.  This means that, for the most part, ministerial clergy will go ahead and take a day out of their lives to drive a few hours and sit through a litany of reports and speakers, even if most of it can be described as a 'waste of time.'  There is always the sense of duty, the more compelling sense of community and fellowship, and even the eternal optimism that can identify the crumbs of the good (think: "Well, at least we heard that one speaker mention a book that sounded good for me ...").  But what I have discovered is that even a sense of ministerial duty, which can overcome 'time-wasting,' cannot overcome long and dry discussions of irrelevance.

But there is a growing lack of pastors showing up at these events.  Although I can understand a lot of frustrations with the entire process, I have always felt a sense of duty that was more important than all of that other stuff.  Now that I have made the intentional decision to not attend for the past two years, I am beginning to understand more of the psyche of our average pastor.  Let me first clarify that my decision was not based on my own 'frustrations with the process,' but with a specific situation in which I was personally involved (a longer story that doesn't fit in well here).  My experience is letting me see things from the outside, and I believe that there is a great amount of clarity out here.

I have had the opportunity to see the program/report book for the conference weekend, and I have read through the list of denominational reports - both national and district.  The overwhelming sense that came from reading it was that we are a group that is completely irrelevant to the gospel.  I do not say this lightly, and I must immediately add that I believe a few of the pages reflected some good folk who are doing the best they can to work for their faith.  But the system - the overarching context - of our denomination is broken.  This is not true of every denomination, certainly.  But this is not true of our denomination alone, certainly.

I feel as though so many of our churches are slow dancing in a burning room.  In our small denomination we speak a lot about church multiplication.  But if anything multiplied by zero is nothing ( x*0=0), then it is imperative that we ask ourselves what it is that we are seeking to reproduce.  I say this because I cannot find, in any of the pages or conferences or talk that comes from within my denomination any truth that seeks to change lives.  The family is being pummeled by our culture (and our government), yet we speak about how important it is to plant churches.  The healthcare mandate is shoving immorality down the throats of moral people, and yet we want to hold a seminar on how treasurers and moderators can work together on church vision strategies.  The economy is leaving many people in financial disaster, forcing many people into a welfare state that is both unsustainable and demoralizing, yet we speak about churches leaving "legacy gifts" as though it is of the highest priority.

We have become so distracted from our primary mandate to make disciples that we are drowning in a sea of ecclesial stupidity.  Ours is an age of the church where there is a seminar or book for every conceivable situation of ministerial leadership.  If we have a church in conflict, there is a peacemaker seminar.  If we have a church that is financially tight, there is a conference on how to produce better tithers.  If a church is in transition, there is a forum on being an 'intentional interim.'  The list goes on and on.  And it appears that we have developed a certain need for these gatherings - some simply do not feel refreshed unless they have been to their annual hype-up-Jesus-the-rock-star show for the year, typically with a name like combustion.  If you've been around church, you probably know what I mean.

The ironic piece of this is that our saturated church culture has come to convince itself that this is 1) new, and 2) beneficial.  I believe that neither is the case.  Humanity was told a few thousand years ago that there is nothing new under the sun, yet we still think that our generation is the exception.  Even if you forget that divine perspective, there is the benefit of those voices in the church who weren't so long ago.  One of the most prophetic preachers in American during the last century was A.W. Tozer, who was somewhat 'radical' in his own day (over his critique of culture and church life), but who was able to foresee the very trends of the church that we have been witnessing in our generation.

He gave a sermon once in which he said: "I am quite amused and somewhat disgusted with some of my ministerial brethren who are so busy studying psychology in order to know how to handle their congregations.  When you have a Bible and a mind, a mouth and the Holy Ghost, why do you have to study psychology?"  The same can be said of our current state of affairs.  So many in our pulpits, our pews, and even our overseeing leadership seek out these conferences, self-helps, terminology, processes, and spine-tingling light-and-sound shows because we have lost, in large measure, the transforming power of the presence of Almighty God.  We have been searching for relevance and have missed out on the Spirit, which results in the warning of C.S. Lewis that aiming for earth gets neither heaven nor earth, while aiming for heaven inherits both.

I said that many pastors are beginning to recognize this.  Regardless of whether their own descriptions would look like mine, there is a growing undertow of lifelessness that is allowing our denominational movement to deflate quite quickly.  We use the word transformation quite a bit, yet very little evidence of Spirit-driven change exists in our midst.  Every now and then we get a glimpse of what could be, and it is incredibly exciting - I have shared this with a good number of folks.  But there is a failure to surrender all of this to a radical experience of a radical God who has sent his radical Spirit to do radically great things.  Until we can embrace that, then we will never know what the kingdom of God looks like in our midst.

Ultimately, I do not know what to do.  I am conflicted over this situation, mostly by a sense of duty.  It is overly simplistic to say that I ought to step forward and work for change.  So I must wait and pray in that direction, and do the work in front of me in the meanwhile.  I have become silent in the denomination, for this and my personal relationship with the church.  This is alright for now, for there is a time to be silent and a time to speak ... the Spirit has not asked me to open my mouth quite yet.

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