So far I have discussed how the political shift in the traditional SBC states and our growing ethnic diversity have fed some of the tensions we are currently experiencing in SBC life. Today I want to briefly address the broader cultural changes that are impacting Christianity in America. History has often been described as a series of cycles, or some have used the image of a pendulum swing as we constantly move from one extreme to another. The book of Judges provides a classic picture during a 400-year period of Israel’s history. The book describes what happened to the twelve tribes as they constantly moved through a clearly defined cycle: spiritual health and national vibrancy, a failure to pass along a God-focused spiritual legacy from one generation to the next and a slow but perceptible turning away from God, God’s hand of blessing is removed and life becomes very difficult, people finally cry out to God and God raises up spiritual leaders, then spiritual health returns, and the cycle is repeated (Judges 2:7-19).
As a nation, we have very few remaining from what is called the Greatest Generation (those who lived through the Great Depression and WWII). As a Baby Boomer, I have experienced SIGNIFICANT changes in my life as we have moved from a time of spiritual vitality driven by the adversities faced by our parents and grandparents to a period of unparalleled prosperity. Our affluence was generated to a great extent by their sacrifices, the Protestant Work Ethic they instilled in us, and the Divine blessings that come with obedience. However, that affluence has generated a high level of self-sufficiency. We are reminded of Jesus' words: “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 9:24).
Slow and subtle spiritual shifts have taken place, yet over time they have become clear and evident. These changes have begun to accelerate in recent years. One very simple and widespread example I hear regularly is related to youth sports. There was a time when Wednesday night and Sunday mornings were set aside for church. Today, active church members regularly choose sporting events over church attendance. Sports have become gods for many in our nation. But, my goal in this article is not to rail against the darkness, but to hopefully shed light on the harsh realities of where our nation is in the spiritual life-cycle I just described, and to awaken us to the fact that a typical American church looks more like our culture than we look like Jesus.
Communication changes have deeply impacted church life. The invention and expansion of the radio and television quickly come to mind. They formed the foundation upon which our current information age has been built (internet, smartphones, social media, etc.). One blessing we have received has been the opportunity to hear great preachers. History has always had great preachers, but the ability to hear one live was extremely limited. Today, even if you miss a live broadcast, you can listen to an archived copy, or you can even choose to listen to a sermon preached by one of the great pulpiteers of the past. Subtle shifts began to take place in church life as high-profile orators became the center of attention. Inspiration and information became the focus of Christian discipleship. The idea that an individual didn’t need to “go to church” to be a good Christian was reinforced. Pride began to creep into the heart of some high-profile pastors. Consumer Christians were created as families shopped for the church with the best programs. Denominational names became irrelevant—theology began to take a back seat. Two times a month Sunday morning Christians became the norm. COVID19 didn’t create our current challenges it merely put a spotlight on where the American culture is today.
For older Baptist Baby Boomers we can remember a time when Sunday meant you were in Sunday School, morning worship, discipleship training, and evening worship. Monday was visitation, and Wednesday meant prayer time. For Southern Baptists, you could throw in the two-week spring and fall revivals as well. In that cultural context, Christian discipleship focused on providing the right Bible information within a relational context that provided the opportunity for God’s Spirit to produce genuine life transformation in those who had accepted Christ as their Lord and Savior.
Transportation advances combined with our affluence have provided us with almost unlimited opportunities and options. Who would have dreamed about having a “Destination Wedding” during the 1950s? Prior to COVID19’s restrictions, the pace of our lives seemed to be on an annually accelerating trajectory. I personally believe that God has given us the opportunity of a lifetime to slow down, to be still and to know that HE is GOD! (Psalms 46:10) The ball is in our court.
I believe the challenges we are facing in Southern Baptist life, for the most part, have been created by self-inflicted wounds. From a sports analogy perspective, we are constantly committing unforced errors. This reality tells me that we are in the world AND of the world more than we want to admit. My prayer is that we use this gift of reflection and rest to take an honest look in the mirror and ask God to let us see ourselves from His perspective. Or we can glance in the mirror and then use this time to recharge our batteries so we are ready when restrictions are removed and the “rat race” begins again
But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does. (James 1:23-25)
We get to choose how we spend our time!
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
In my two previous articles on Resolution 9, I have pointed to cultural diversity and the definition of terms as two areas that have contributed to the divisive debate that it has generated. Let me throw out a third item that makes our conversations more challenging: we are Baptists. The Priesthood of all Believers and our congregational polity that is based upon it grants to every professing Christian the right to their personal opinion. When we are Spirit-led the results are unlimited and God-honoring. When we are leading in the flesh the results are devastating and our witness is tarnished. An old preacher’s story depicts the latter:
Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!" He said, "Nobody loves me." I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?" He said, "Yes." I said, "Who is your god?" He said, "I am a Christian." I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me, too! What church?" He said, "Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?" He said, "Northern Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region." I said, "Me, too!" Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912." I said, "Die, you heretic!" And I pushed him over.
This story depicts the reality that when three or four Baptists are gathered together there will be five or six strong opinions on every topic. But the one thing I have observed in Baptist life that IS UNIVERSALLY ACCEPTED, and will CAUSE CONFLICT EVERY TIME is when our clearly defined processes are not followed or when they fail us. The history of Resolution 9 seems to indicate that our resolution process failed us, and as the debates became heated, the process of inclusive decision-making was skipped at a critical point.
Resolutions are a non-binding way for Southern Baptists to express their opinions on key issues. It seems that every year at least one of the approved resolutions brings major criticism from the secular press. In 2019, Resolution 9 quickly generated a heated debate and criticism from within our own family. I paused to ask myself a series of questions about the resolution process itself.
Healthy processes don’t invite debate on complex topics in the midst of a two-day tightly scripted meeting of the world’s largest deliberative body where there is limited time for debate. There are other times and places to have those kinds of conversations—and yes, they DO need to take place. But resolutions historically deal with issues to which “family members” can give a hearty AMEN! And as stated previously, there will be resolutions that those outside the SBC family will not like, but this one drew immediate fire from within.
But as the debate continued, the Council of Seminary Presidents felt like a time came when they needed to respond to criticisms they were facing. In case you haven’t figured it out, our predominantly African-American churches appreciated and affirmed Resolution 9 as approved. The optics are not good when six white seminary presidents opine that Resolution 9 was not strong enough in its denunciation of CRT/I. Setting that aside, my point here is that they did it without having conversations with African-American leaders in SBC life. After the fact, the Seminary Presidents met with African-American leaders and the following is part of the public statement they issued: (emphasis added)
All of us acknowledge that conversations of this nature should have happened ahead of time. The Council of Seminary Presidents regrets the pain and confusion that resulted from a lack of prior dialogue. Together, all of us are committed to condemn and fight racism in every form, personal and structural, in consistency with the 1995 SBC Resolution on Racial Reconciliation and the Baptist Faith and Message. We commit to working together to serve the cause of and to further the work of the Southern Baptist Convention. We will continue these conversations. We are committed to listen to one another, speak honestly and to honor our common commitment to the inerrant Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I do not share this to be critical of our seminary presidents, but rather to challenge ALL OF US. Jesus’ exhortation on His way to the cross echoes through my mind: “For if they do these things in the green wood, what will be done in the dry?” (Luke 23:31) Some general leadership principles apply here. One is if we as a leader do not include those who will be deeply impacted by the decisions we are considering, then we will have skipped a critical step in our decision-making process. Another is that groupthink within our leadership team will always generate blind spots. This is magnified by a third principle: if we become overconfident of our position and are continually unwilling to seek honest input from those whose opinions are different, then we have sentenced our ministry to a slow, painful death.
I am thankful that conversations are continuing. My prayer is that we will all step back, take a deep breath, and let God provide all of us with perspective. In the grand scheme of fulfilling the Great Commandments and Great Commission it is possible for us to win a battle but lose the war!
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
Last week I opened my discussion of Resolution 9 by suggesting that our cultural diversity has created much of the controversy that has surrounded it. I also encouraged you to review several web-links that give us a history of how we got to our current point of contention. Another area that has fueled the fire has been our definition of terms--and remember your culture informs your definitions.
In the early first century, the accepted definition for the Hebrew word Messiah was that of a conquering king. However, after the execution of Jesus of Nazareth as a blasphemer and a heretical teacher, there arose a sect of Judaism called The Way. They believed that this man Jesus was also God and that He rose from the dead. They pointed to a multitude of OT passages that described the Messiah as both a suffering servant and a conquering king, and claimed that Jesus would soon be coming back as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
This teaching was also viewed as heretical and it drove a Pharisee by the name of Saul to zealously pursue men and women who had become involved in the group called the Way. Luke describes his attitude and actions in Acts 9:1-2:
Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem
As Luke continues his narrative, we read of a miraculous encounter that transformed the persecuting Pharisee Saul into the great missionary to the Gentiles we call the Apostle Paul.As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. (Acts 9:3-5a)
Saul’s definition of the Messiah was forever altered. This self-identified Pharisee of the Pharisees began to tell everyone he encountered about The REAL Messiah. How we define things is important. Defining terms reminds me of my seminary days. Having enrolled in a Masters of Divinity program with my undergraduate Bachelors of Science in Agricultural Economics, I quickly discovered that my vocabulary was limiting me. I came to realize that the only college experience I had that really prepared me for seminary was the fact that I had learned the Greek alphabet when I pledged a Greek Fraternity. I found myself studying in the library and strategically positioning myself close to the thickest dictionary I have ever seen. The first year, I got a lot of exercise jumping up and walking to that dictionary. Unfortunately, there were times when the word I sought wasn’t there. A scholar had used a Hebrew, Greek, Latin, or German word “assuming” anyone who would be reading his thoughts would automatically know what the word meant. Sidebar comment: that dictionary had a ton of words, but I don’t recall a single one of them having only one definition.
That experience helped me to see that every area of study will have its own vocabulary. Each field of study is filled with acronyms and insider insights with accompanying stories that are specifically related to their work world. Each discipline develops a unique culture and language. This complicates conversations especially when different areas of study use the same word but assign a very different meaning. Because all of us tend to “assume” that everyone defines words as we do, no one stops to define terms in the middle of a conversation. A couple of simple examples: For someone in the Audubon Society a crane is a bird in the waterfowl family. If you’re a construction worker a crane is a piece of equipment used to reach high places. For a doctor, the word arm is a noun referring to a part of the human anatomy. While someone in the military will use the word arm as a verb to describe the process of providing someone with military equipment.
Let me suggest that part of our difficulty in discussing Resolution 9 is related to a difference in the definition of terms. Theologians are talking about terms developed and defined by Sociologists who are studying discriminatory laws: Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality. I am NOT saying that we cannot understand theories developed by another field of study. What I am saying is that we can easily develop an incomplete definition if we have not taken time to dive deeply into theories developed by another academic discipline.
Pastor Stephen Feinstein submitted a resolution at the 2019 SBC Meeting which contained strong language stating his belief that “critical race theory and intersectionality (CRT/I) are founded upon unbiblical presuppositions descended from Marxist theories and categories, and therefore are inherently opposed to the Scriptures as the true center of Christian union.” Pastor Feinstein seems to view CRT/I as having been developed in the field of Political Science rather than Sociology. Remember, I suggested in an earlier article that politics DOES play a negative part in how Southern Baptists view current events.
The resolution committee, which was a culturally diverse committee, modified his original resolution to include phrases like “Critical race theory and intersectionality have been appropriated by individuals with worldviews that are contrary to the Christian faith, resulting in ideologies and methods that contradict Scripture.” The final resolution, as approved, included four separate Whereas and four separate Be it resolved clauses that affirmed in one way or another the sole sufficiency of scripture. The strongest stated “That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, June 11–12, 2019, affirm Scripture as the first, last, and sufficient authority with regard to how the Church seeks to redress social ills, and we reject any conduct, creeds, and religious opinions which contradict Scripture.”
My guess is that if you began reading this article with a strong opinion on Resolution 9, then you still hold that opinion. I would just encourage you to hold it with humility, and I would remind you of the provisos I mentioned in my first two articles. My prayer is that as we encounter difficult topics and conversations in the future that we are more careful and kind as we begin to clarify the definition of keywords we are using. All words have multiple meanings!Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
One of the four changes I mentioned in my opening article in this series is that Southern Baptists have become the most ethnically diverse convention of churches in America. The good news is that we have done a great job of celebrating that reality. The bad news is that we have struggled to embrace it. If you have not read my previous articles, let me ask you to stop right now and read the first two before you move to the next paragraph. For the sake of time and space, I will not repeat the significant provisos I laid out in those articles.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is one of the most familiar of Jesus’ parables. In it Jesus describes a young man at a low point in his life: “He began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate” (14b-16a). My question for you is, “What caused him to be in such dire circumstances?”
Having grown up in a culture that exemplified the Protestant Work Ethic, my answer has always been that “[He] wasted his possessions with prodigal living” (13). A few years ago I heard a missionary talk about how other cultures understand the same parable. It was only then that I was able to see that the parable actually contains three distinct reasons for his circumstances.
In SBC life, we increasingly find ourselves engaged in debates and at times divisive conflicts because of the differences created by our diverse cultural views of issues. I believe that a significant portion of the debate on Resolution 9 that was passed at the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting has been caused by our cultural diversity.
When I was sixteen, my family moved from northeast Wyoming to northeast Oklahoma. I had already accepted Christ and was an active church member and practicing young Christian, but I was quickly told that some of the things that were part of the social fabric in Wyoming were pagan and unacceptable activities for a Christian in Oklahoma. That experience and the privilege of serving the culturally diverse churches of Heartland Church Network have helped me to see that culture plays a significant role in how we view life and do church.
Resolution 9 specifically addresses two sociological theories: Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality. For some of us, these were terms we had never heard before we read the resolution. For others, they were terms we had heard, but not topics that we have actually studied. For yet others, they are terms that evoke deep feelings; however, those emotions can be found at opposites ends of the debate. Cultural differences have generated vastly different definitions for the terms and thus reactions to the resolution.
But before I jump into the already heated debate, let me remind you how we got to where we are today.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
Having laid out some principles we can use in sensitive situations in the last two articles, let me now begin to address the four major cultural shifts I mentioned. These changes provided us with opportunities that we have not always handled well. I will begin by addressing the impact that the huge political shift in the traditional SBC states has had on us.
In those states, we moved from a convention whose church members were overwhelming of the Democrat Party to a convention with church members from both major parties. It wasn’t that many years ago that in the traditional SBC states you could not get elected if you didn’t have a D next to your name on the ballot. In recent presidential elections, those states have voted primarily for the Republican candidate. I believe some of the conflicts surrounding the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) are related to this major political shift.
Remember, I said we would be talking about very complex issues in a relatively simplistic way. My purpose is to bring a broader perspective to avoid getting lost in the weeds, and my goal is to initiate constructive dialogue in emotionally charged contexts. I also admitted that my perspective is shaped by my life experiences. As a Wyoming native, my “heart language” is Mountain West. That means I will tell you what is on my mind and I expect you to do the same thing with me. And God is slowly teaching me how to say it with grace.
To the above provisos, let me add that the president of every SBC entity has stepped into a role where his personal opinions must be filtered by his leadership responsibility to the entity he serves. Also, I learned from a wise leader an important leadership principle: the higher my position of responsibility and the greater my authority, the less I can and should say on certain topics. That’s wise counsel for all of us. Just because it’s in your mind, doesn’t mean you need to say it. One last comment: We live in a politically charged and deeply divided nation. Actions and statements that can be viewed as political in nature WILL create division.
With this background, let me state the mission of the ERLC as specified in The Organizational Manual of the Southern Baptist Convention:
The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission exists to assist the churches by helping them understand the moral demands of the gospel, apply Christian principles to moral and social problems and questions of public policy, and to promote religious liberty in cooperation with the churches and other Southern Baptist entities.
With that four-part mission in mind, I would suggest that if the ERLC or its president takes a position or makes a comment that will be seen as primarily political, then they have knowingly and willingly stepped outside of their mission assignment. Some of the more vocal among us who are very upset with the actions of the ERLC are upset because of political positions or political comments made by President Russell Moore and the ERLC. Years ago, those positions might have simply received a quiet “amen.” Today, those actions will stand in direct opposition to the political opinions held by many across the breadth of SBC life, as well as many church members in the traditional southern states.
Because of an ongoing history of such actions, the SBC Executive Committee appointed a Study Task Force to “assess whether the actions of the Commission and its leadership are affecting Cooperative Program giving.” Six specific recommendations were listed in the Study Task Force’s report to the Executive Committee. (Click here to view the full report.)
For the sake of brevity I am listing the three that are most applicable to ERLC actions that have been viewed as political (emphasis added by me):
Ultimately, when leaders continue to give personal opinions that are negatively impacting their organization, and they seemingly refuse to acknowledge those errors in judgment, then that leader’s personal agenda has risen above their leadership responsibility to that organization. In the long run, every organization will falter (church, association, state convention, or SBC entity) if it does not hold leaders accountable for actions that are negatively impacting their organization. There are times when a leader becomes such a focal point or lightning rod that an organization’s mission becomes severely compromised.
I have intentionally avoided other issues that some people have raised concerning ERLC actions. My emphasis has been on the impact of political issues in the context of SBC life that is politically very different than it has been in the past. I also threw in some leadership principles that magnify the impact of such comments. My prayer is that all leaders will have a laser focus on the purpose of the organization God has called and equipped them to lead. And, if a time comes when their personal agenda becomes more important to them than the health of the organization, then the Holy Spirit will convict them so they will either amend their ways or find a place to serve where their agenda and the purpose of the entity are compatible.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
Last week I began to share my perception of what is happening in SBC life. In so doing I began to list some principles that will help us transform the “Bad News” that occurs when we become polarized into “Good News.” I began by listing a couple of principles that can help us generate “Good News” in ANY situation. The first two were to keep your focus on the main thing and the other was to use your existing relationships to create healthy dialogue. Some additional ones are:
These reflections come in the midst of me leading another small group through Henry Blackaby’s study Experiencing God, and my attendance at the February 2021 SBC Executive Committee Meeting in Nashville as our state convention’s trustee. As I share my thoughts, I do so with some major disclaimers. First and foremost, you need to know that these are MY PERSONAL thoughts. I am not speaking in any formal capacity, nor on behalf of any other Executive Committee member, nor for anyone on the Executive Committee staff. Second, I share them with humility knowing that where you have three or four Baptists gathered together you have at least five or six opinions on any given topic. Chances are I could read this next week and wonder what kind of a nut wrote that! I also share them knowing that my reflections are an extremely simplistic way of viewing some very complex and integrally intertwined issues.
During the Nashville Executive Committee meeting, Dr. Ronnie Floyd recast his Vision 2025—a clear and compelling vision that was to be approved at the 2020 SBC meeting in Orlando, which was canceled due to COVID. Dr. Floyd’s passion was bolstered by the fact that we could hear him in person, and that we have the expectation of meeting in person for the 2021 convention this June in Nashville. Having a clear vision is “Good News!” However, at that same meeting, we had to deal with several issues that fall into the “Bad News” category. Those issues are significant enough that even a clear and compelling vision can be drowned out by the cacophony created by unrecognized and unaddressed conflicts. That reality reminded me of an old Hee Haw skit that Archie Campbell did. In the routine, he contrasted the “Good News” and “Bad News” that can arise out of any given situation: Oh that's good.
As I began to reflect on the Good News-Bad News contrast, I thought about the slogan General Motors used in their 1988 campaign to re-energize the Oldsmobile brand: “This is not your father’s Oldsmobile.” Stop and think with me for just a minute about some of the huge changes that have taken place in SBC life in the last fifty-plus years:
Before I suggest how the “Good News” in the changes I mentioned above are at the core of some of our “Bad News,” let me suggest some principles that can help us generate “Good News” in any setting.
I hope you were able to “feel the love” as I did a two-week Wyoming cowboy-themed Valentine’s Day pause in my articles. Before I pushed the pause button, I was discussing the self-diagnosis of your church’s spiritual health. So closing out my cowboy theme, let me say, “Meanwhile back at the ranch” we were talking about making disciples. In the process, we talked about several metrics—a fancy city word meaning, “What are we counting?”
The first metric we talked about was “counting the number of new people who had been identified, recruited, trained, and deployed during the time frame being evaluated.” The second metric we discussed was “How many professions of faith and how many baptisms did your church report last year?” A third metric was “measuring your effectiveness in ‘winning your own’—those who grew up and were baptized in your church.” The latter suggested a look back to see if you are actually able to identify spiritual maturity in those who had grown up in your church.
Today I want to mention a fourth metric: “How many do you have attending?” Here again, we face the reality that COVID has significantly impacted our numbers. But setting that issue aside for just a moment, let me point to the reality that in Great Commission Baptist life I have observed a major shift in the last few decades regarding “what attendance we count.” When I served as the Sunday School Director of a church in the ’70s and early ’80s, THE ONLY attendance that was counted was Sunday School attendance. The church I attended did not count worship attendance. Today, when pastors gather and “compare notes”—and they inevitably will—the number one question asked is, “How many does your church run in worship?”
Stop and think about what that subtle shift means. What does it say about our focus? Or maybe more importantly, what does it say about our lack of focus on disciple-making? Now again, I need to interject a reality check. I have experienced “Sunday School done right” while the vast majority of pastors and Christians have only seen it done poorly. What I would suggest is that the BEST disciple-making strategy in the world will not work when it is not implemented well.
That leads me back to a book I’ve already mentioned: Effectiveness by the Numbers: Counting what Counts in the Church by William Hoyt. It is the best book on church metrics that I have seen. In it, Hoyt writes:
My voice is but one in a large chorus, all singing the same tune, ‘Small groups are essential to the health and growth of churches.’ In more than three decades of observing churches and two decades of church consulting, I cannot recall a healthy, growing congregation where a significantly small group ministry was not present…A universally common factor in the decline of once growing churches is the deterioration of small groups. Yes, you do grow larger by staying small. (Pages 71-72)
To Hoyt’s observations, I can say a hearty AMEN! As I approach three decades of serving as an Associational Mission Strategist, every health disciple-making church I have seen- has had healthy disciple-making small groups. Next week I will begin to drill down into the Biblical principles I have observed in every “healthy disciple-making church” I have encountered.
Until then, stop and ask yourself, “What attendance number is most important to you and why?” Is it worship attendance or discipleship group attendance?
In my previous post, I pushed the pause button on a series about diagnosing spiritual health. I did that so in this season of love, Valentine’s Day, I could speak to two issues. Last week’s article focused on loving “high maintenance” people. In it I suggest that we love them in a way that permits us, at the end of the day, to still love ourselves. I want to discuss the second issue today: the need to feel God’s love even during times when the challenges of ministry are overwhelming.
Everyone agrees that 2020 moved us into a world of uncontrollable change. So, doing “church” is different AND difficult. As pastors we are called to be under shepherds with Jesus who is the Good Shepherd, for a few moments I’m going to ask you to think of yourself as a Wyoming rancher. Now for those who are not rural oriented, sheep and cattle are VERY different and when the Bible describes us as sheep it is usually NOT a flattering analogy. But for a moment I want you to put down your shepherd’s staff and put on a pair of cowboy boots.
Having done so, you have now found yourself staring at an oncoming herd of stampeding cattle—obviously far more intimidating than a herd of sheep. This stampede is the kind you have seen in western movies. So, what do you do? You could ignore that the stampede exists, and the inevitable result will be that you WILL get trampled, and the stampede will continue. Or you could stand your ground and wave your arms like crazy. Maybe even take off your hat or jacket and wave it over your head. You can shout at the top of your lungs, but let me warn you, the result might be a few seconds slower in coming, but it will be the same. “You’re going to get run over, and the stampede will continue!”
Maybe you’re real lucky, and you’re on your trusty steed. And you’re fortunate enough that he’s a fast horse and you can outrun the herd. But that still does nothing to stop the stampede. Now if you’re an experienced cowboy and you’re on a good cow horse, what you’ll be able to do, over time, is get to the outside front edge of the herd and slowly move the cattle into a circle. It won’t be done quickly, but you should be able to get them to settle down. The stampede will be over.
Jesus encountered people whose life circumstances overwhelmed them, and Matthew records His response: “When He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd” (9:36). When God called me to be an Associational Mission Strategist, one of the responsibilities He gave me was to be a “pastor to pastors.” In today’s world, pastors, who are called to be under-shepherds, are caring for men and women whose lives have become wearied by the ever-changing landscape of life. Plus their own lives have become weary. So let me draw some implications from my stampede analogy in an attempt to encourage you.
First, let me say that standing and waiting for the stampede to stop so that you and your church can get back to normal is not a winning strategy. You and your sheep are weary today, and no one knows if, or even when things will be “normal” again. Second, we can cry out against the darkness that has consumed us. But simply denouncing or complaining about our circumstances will not help either. A third option is to run from the difficulties. Because of the stress placed on pastors today, I believe we will see an unusually high number of resignations in the months ahead. But my prayer is that if you are considering this option, remember you are not a hireling (John 10:12), but a man called by God. My prayer is that you will pursue a fourth option. Make a commitment to address the stampede. Then prayerfully and lovingly begin to apply the basic ministry and pastoral skills and principles you have used throughout your ministry.
Let me expand my analogy for just a minute. Even if you’re a good cowboy and you’re on the best cow horse that’s ever lived, you’ll never get a large herd of stampeding cattle turned by yourself. Too many pastors try to do ministry Lone Ranger fashion. In the book Finishing Strong, the author points to research done by Dr. Howard Hendricks in which he identified three key reasons pastors fail. One of them is that they were not involved in a small accountable support group with other pastors. Don’t try to turn the herd alone!
Cowboys who can get the stampede stopped are those who are simply doing what they have done hundreds of times. They learned in Herding 101 class to make sure the cattle out front are headed in the right direction and that the stragglers aren’t wandering off. Researchers tell us that it takes 10,000 hours of experience to master a task. If you’ve been pastoring very long, you know the basics. They are second nature to you. And getting back to the basics is THE BEST thing that you can do in times of duress.
When things get dark and difficult, stop and look up to God until He refreshes your call. Then look out unto the fields that are white unto harvest and unto the sheep that are weary and scattered. Then reach within yourself and find the strength to keep doing the things you already know need to be done. Get back to the basics. Keep the main thing the main thing. Being “exciting and exotic“ might be something God can use in a different season, but TODAY is not that day. My prayers are with you.
Mark is in his twenty-seventh year of serving as an Associational Missions Strategist. He served in western Iowa for almost eight years, and is in his nineteenth year with HCN. He has a passion to see pastors and church leaders grow in their abilities to lead their churches. He continues to have a heart and desire to see new churches planted and God continues to use his strategic thinking skills in this area. Mark also has a wealth of experience in helping churches clarify who God has created them to be, and what they can do best to reach their community. He has had ample opportunities to help churches in times of conflict, and has seen God do exciting things to restore a spirit of harmony, returning churches to a time of fruitfulness. He also helps churches in transition by working with search committees. Mark and Phyllis who were married in November of 2018 have four children and three grandchildren. They will enjoy their combined 87th anniversary in just a few days.