Fr. Stephen Freeman on Suffering

Today I wish to direct your attention to an article by Fr. Stephen Freeman.  Freeman is one of the largest and most influential Eastern Orthodox bloggers, and he blogs at Glory to God for All Things.  This post is entitled “Unavoidable Suffering and Salvation – The Way of Shame“.

Human suffering comes from a variety of causes, but perhaps the most difficult to bear is that which comes as a result of shame.  In this case you have suffering that comes to you as a result of who you are.  This can result in anger or depression, but both of these are escapes which result in inauthentic suffering.  The only way out is to learn to bear the shame.

The predominant characteristic of shame is vulnerability.  This is not a pleasant feeling; it is one which most people try to avoid if at all possible.  But if you learn to live with the vulnerability, then the image of Christ is being formed in you and you are in a position to receive comfort from Christ.

Christ came not to alleviate suffering, but to provide signs of the coming kingdom of God, when all suffering will one day be ended.  He made it abundantly clear that His way was the way of suffering; that in order to follow Him you have to take up your cross.

Read: “Unavoidable Suffering and Salvation – The Way of Shame”

Church Growth and Pastoral Ministry

Today we are going to talk about pastoral ministry.

Pastoral ministry is something which evangelical churches do not do well.  As a matter of fact, many in the most successful churches in American evangelicalism have a seething disdain for the very concept of pastoral ministry.  We are going to look at a couple of articles written by someone in leadership at one of my church’s strategic partners which express this disdain.

Last time we looked at a post by Charles Featherstone in which he put his finger on the one thing the so-called Islamic State does well which is helping them gain traction among young people, especially here in the West.  They reach young people organically, by connecting authentically with them and building empathetic, supportive relationships which help them see their lives, their stories, their struggles as part of a much bigger story.  Contrast this with the Western way of doing things, which is all about institutions, structures, processes, programs, accountability, standardization, mass production, economies of scale, quality control, quantifiable results, and measurable outcomes and successes.

One clear example par excellence of the Western way of doing things is the church growth ideology which has come to dominate American evangelicalism over the past couple of decades.  According to this ideology, pastoral care and pastoral ministry is something to be disdained in the strongest possible terms.  Why?  Because it gets in the way of building a strong, effective organization.  If you are a lead pastor, you are too valuable and your time is too important to be consumed by the concerns and demands of pastoral ministry.  You are a rancher, not a shepherd.  You are the leader, the visionary, the builder, the vision-caster.  Without your vision, the organization perishes and your people perish for lack of vision.  So set yourself up high.  Keep your eyes on the big picture, and let your underlings handle all the day-to-day issues.  Make yourself unapproachable to any who want you to be involved in their lives on a personal and pastoral level.  They may resent you for it, but they will understand that what you do is critical to creating a church that is worth being a part of, and in the long run they will thank you for it.  Or they will move on to some other church that is dying for lack of vision because its leaders are consumed by the day-to-day demands of pastoral ministry.

I promised you that we would look at a couple of articles which express this point of view.  They are written by Carey Nieuwhof, lead pastor of Connexus Church in the Toronto, Canada area.  The first is called “8 Reasons Most Churches Never Break the 200 Attendance Mark“.  The overarching reason he gives for this is that most churches organize, behave, lead, and manage like small organizations and therefore do not have the organizational infrastructure in place to handle larger numbers of people.  He then goes on to enumerate eight specifics as to what this looks like.

He is absolutely right.  There is a lot of dysfunction out there in the world of small churches.  If you’ve ever sat through a business meeting at a Baptist church, you could probably tell some stories.  There is a lot of wisdom out there on the subject of how to run an organization well, and there is a lot that the church could stand to learn in this regard.

But here’s the rub:  Who said that the Church’s raison d’etre is to grow?  (Why use fancy French words?  Because I can.)  Who said that the whole point of doing this thing we call the Christian life is to grow the Church?  Who said that the goal of the Church is to build an organization with a vision and mission, and a strategy to accomplish said vision and mission?  Is that who we really are as the Church of Jesus Christ?  Is that what Jesus Christ came down to earth and died on a Roman cross in order to establish?  And even if it were, is it really the pastor’s job to be the point person for this effort?

Okay.  I get that pastoral care/ministry is a significant organizational challenge in any church of 10,000 or more.  With that many people, how could it not be?  Yet there are ways to overcome this challenge.  There are ways that any organization which is serious about pastoral care can make it a priority and carry it out.  For example, a church of 10,000 might break it down to groups of 200-500 or thereabouts, perhaps by area of town, and have one person on staff for each area of town whose responsibility is to provide pastoral care to all members in that area of town (if he/she lives in that area of town, so much the better).  The lead pastor would then provide pastoral care to everyone on staff.

But Nieuwhof doesn’t approach the issue of pastoral care from this standpoint, as an organizational challenge to be solved creatively.  He goes beyond this to a state of clear disdain for the very notion of pastoral care.  Reasons 1 and 8 take aim at pastors who make pastoral care/ministry a priority.  According to this article, churches don’t grow because:

–The pastor is the primary caregiver, and
–The pastor suffers from a desire to please everybody.

In other words, any pastor who makes pastoral care a priority does so because he thinks he has to do it all, and he thinks that way because he is concerned with pleasing people, not leading them.  Here it is, in his own words:

When the pastor has to visit every sick person, do every wedding, funeral and make regular house calls, he or she becomes incapable of doing other things. That model just doesn’t scale. If you’re good at it, you’ll grow the church to 200 people and then disappoint people when you can’t get to every event any more. Or you’ll just burn out. It creates false expectations and so many people get hurt in the process.

…Many pastors I know are people-pleasers by nature. Go see a counselor. Get on your knees. Do whatever you need to do to get over the fear of disappointing people. Courageous leadership is like courageous parenting. Don’t do what your kids want you to do; do what you believe is best for them in the end. Eventually, many of them will thank you. And the rest? Honestly, they’ll probably go to another church that isn’t reaching many people either.

As if this disdain for pastoral care/ministry was not clear enough, Nieuwhof went on to write a follow-up article called “How Pastoral Care Stunts the Growth of Most Churches“.  More money quotes:

Many pastors I know are people-pleasers by nature…. Wanting to not disappoint people fuels conflict within leaders: people want you to care for them, and you hate to disappoint them.

In some respect, pastoral care establishes classic co-dependency. The congregation relies on the pastor for all of its care needs, and the pastor relies on the congregation to provide their sense of worth and fulfilment: the pastor needs to be needed.

…Many congregations define the success of their leader according to how available, likeable and friendly their pastor is.

It’s as though churches want a puppy, not a pastor.

Since when did that become the criteria for effective Christian leadership?

By that standard, Moses, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, the Apostle Paul and perhaps even Jesus failed the test.

The goal of Christian leadership is to lead, not to be liked.

He then goes on to offer his own solution to the problem, which is what the vast majority of evangelical megachurches do:  Outsource pastoral care to the congregation.  Make small groups the venue in which pastoral care happens.  For the small percentage of people whose needs are too great to be dealt with in the group setting, that’s what trained professional counselors are for.

There has been a healthy discussion/critique of megachurch evangelicalism’s approach to pastoral care this past week over at internetmonk.com, one of the blogs where I hang out regularly.  Chaplain Mike draws from his experience as a hospice chaplain and discusses how the Catholic church provides a blueprint for growing the church into a healthy and effective organization that makes a difference in the community while maintaining a robust theology of pastoral care/ministry and placing it at the center of everything.  (Heads up:  The pastor doesn’t do it all.)

The point being:  It is possible to have a healthy and effective church which is growing and making a difference in the community, while at the same time being intentional about pastoral care–not as an add-on or as something which happens by accident while the church is busy growing, but as the heart and soul of everything the church is and does.

Pastoral ministry is not something to be despised, to be pushed off to the side or outsourced to the congregation, which has no specific training for the tasks of pastoral ministry or commission from God to do the tasks of pastoral ministry.  It is not something to be allowed to happen by accident while we are busy with the real work of growing our churches.  Instead it is the very heart of who and what we are as the Church of Jesus Christ.  His charge to those who would become the first leaders of the early Church was “Feed my lambs”, not “Train my lambs to feed themselves”.

As noted above, there are significant organizational challenges to pastoral care in any large church.  But there are ways to make it happen.  We need to begin the conversation about how to make pastoral care happen, because until we do we are missing out on who and what we are as the Church of Jesus Christ.

American evangelicalism is ailing because we have forgotten who we are and whose we are.  We have allowed the interests and priorities of corporate America to define who we are as churches and as a movement.  We cannot afford to let the care and feeding of those for whom Christ died get lost in the business of growing the Church.  Let us learn from corporate America, yes.  There is a wealth of organizational wisdom to be gleaned out there.  But for heaven’s sake, don’t let corporate America tell us who we are as the Church and what our priorities ought to be.  Jesus Christ has already told us.

Charles Featherstone on Daesh (The Islamic State) as Ministry

Today I wish to direct your attention to a piece by Charles Featherstone entitled “How Daesh Does Really Effective Ministry“.  You know his story, how he came to faith in Christ after a detour through radical Islam, so surely you figured he would have something to say about the events in Paris this past week.

This piece presents a contrast between the so-called Islamic State and the Western world in one specific area:  how they reach young people.  Say what you will about the evils of the Islamic State (it’s all true).  I am not here to defend or justify or excuse anything they are doing.  Only to point out one thing they are doing very well:  reaching young people.  They do it organically, by connecting with young people and building empathetic and supportive relationships where they help young people to see their lives, struggles, and problems as part of a much much bigger story.  (Who doesn’t want that?)  Contrast this with the Western way of doing things.  It is all about institutions, programs, processes, structures, accountability, standardization, quantifiable results, and rigid controls.

Here the whole problem of the West (including the church) lies bare — we cannot conceive of anything or anyone working outside the confines of our bureaucratic and institutional structures. We cannot think outside of those structures, and we cannot hire (or call) people who don’t quite fit in them (or don’t fit in them at all) because fitting in those structures, conforming to them, is more important than actually accomplishing the things those structures and institutions are designed to accomplished. In our modern understanding, man was clearly made for the sabbath, and damned is the man who cannot or will not rest on the seventh day.

Read: “How Daesh Does Really Effective Ministry” by Charles Featherstone

This Is Not The Way to Overcome Terror

paris

ICYMI (that’s “In Case You Missed It”, for those of you who are not millennials or otherwise familiar with the ways millennials express themselves via texting and social media), there was a horrific rash of terrorist attacks in Paris on Friday night.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

The response among American evangelicals has been predictable:  An outpouring of rage against the Islamic State, and against Islam in general.  Social media is filled with posts berating Obama for being soft on ISIS and/or accusing him of secretly being one of them.  Posts about how we need to clamp down on illegal immigration.  Posts about how we all need to WAKE UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  or else the same thing will happen here.

Now is not the time for that.

ISIS is all about perpetuating a narrative of “Islam vs. The West”.  It’s how they have managed to gain so much traction in the Middle East.  If you believe all the posts about Obama being soft on ISIS and possibly being one of them, all the posts about Islam as a religion of hatred and violence (where the hell are all those moderate Muslims and why aren’t they doing anything to rein in these wackos?), about how our Western way of life is at stake here and we all need to WAKE UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! or else the same thing will happen here, then you are buying into the exact same narrative that ISIS is trying to perpetuate.  It’s what they want, because it is what gives them power and emboldens them to keep going with more of the same.  “See?  Those stupid immoral Westerners reacted just the way we told you they would!!!!!!!!  It really is all about Islam vs. The West!!!!!!!!!”

Come on, people.

Even if Islam really is a religion of hatred and violence (heads up:  it’s not.  Islam is an excruciatingly complex, many-layered religious system which can be a daunting beast to anyone who hasn’t spent a lifetime face-to-face with it.  So don’t go making simplistic pronouncements about something you haven’t taken the time or trouble to understand.  But I digress), Christianity is not.  We do not repay evil with evil.  Instead, we overcome evil with good.

I am not saying that France or America should not act appropriately to defend their interests against those responsible for these horrific events.  Governments are given the authority to wield the sword for the purpose of maintaining order in a broken world, to the extent that is possible.  Going forward, our leaders will have to have some difficult conversations and make some difficult decisions as to what actions are needed to punish those responsible and ensure that this does not happen again.

What I am saying is not about that.  What I am saying is about us as Christians.  And this gets at the heart of a fundamental confusion which has afflicted much of American Christianity.  It is the way we say “Our Western way of life is at stake” in issues like this, in the exact same manner in which we would say “Our faith is at stake” in these issues.  You see, we believe, on some implicit, fundamental level, that Western civilization and the Christian faith are one and the same.

Heads up, people:  They’re not.

Seriously, people:  Why should we care what happens to Western civilization?

Don’t get me wrong.  I like living indoors with heat, air conditioning, electric lights, indoor plumbing, and all the other technological advantages afforded by our society.  I enjoy living in a world with freedom of speech and all the other advantages afforded by Western civilization.

But Christianity can do just fine without Western civilization.  Christianity is doing just fine in many parts of the world, and has done just find for most of its history, without Western civilization.  The qualities which make for a good citizen here in the Western world and the qualities which make for a good Christian disciple are not interchangeable, and we should stop treating them as if they are.  As Christians, we have a story to tell to a world which is dying to hear it, a story which is, at the very least, distinct from the story of Western civilization.  It is the story of Israel and her engagement with God, which reached its unexpected climax in the crucified and resurrected Messiah, Jesus Christ.

Our story as Christians is not the story of Western civilization.  Our priorities are not the priorities of Western civilization.  And for heaven’s sake, our fate is not tied up in the fate of Western civilization.

Come on, people.

As Christians, we are called to overcome evil with good.  These people are intentional about doing evil.  So if you really want to bring down ISIS, then you need to become equally intentional, if not more so, about doing good.

Look around you.  The opportunities for doing good in our world are endless.  Ask yourself:  What are you grateful for?  Show gratitude and support for those people in your life whom you are grateful for.  Get behind those organizations which are doing things that you are grateful for.  Next, ask yourself:  What breaks your heart?  Get behind people and organizations which are doing things to address those issues.

This comes back to what seems to have become a recurring theme around here this year:  What sort of people are we becoming as evangelicals?  Are we a people defined by anger and outrage?  The crazy popularity of Donald Trump among evangelicals would certainly indicate this.  The response of evangelicals to that Supreme Court decision earlier this year would certainly indicate this.  And the response of evangelicals on social media to these Paris attacks would certainly indicate this.

Yes, we as a nation must take action against those responsible for these horrific attacks.  Yet the conversations concerning what to do, when and how to do it, are not something which needs to be treated as a matter of faith.  Whatever America does (or doesn’t do) will happen apart from what we do as Christians.  As citizens of America, we ought to be involved in the process and work to shape those conversations and actions according to what we believe is right for our nation to do in response to these atrocities.  But don’t let us conflate those conversations with how we are called to respond as people of God.

So before you send out that tweet or Facebook post about how Obama is soft on ISIS, how Islam is really a religion of hatred and violence, or how we all need to WAKE UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! or else the same thing will happen here, ask yourself:  What does love require of me?  If you can make a convincing case that what love requires of you in this hour is to make that post then hey, go for it.

But what I see is that you are simply buying into the narrative of “Islam vs. The West” that ISIS is trying to perpetuate, which is only giving them greater traction in the Middle East and emboldening them to keep going.  What I see is that you are simply furthering the culture of outrage for which American evangelicalism has become known, and which has caused us to lose influence in the hearts and minds of the wider world.

This is not the way to overcome terror.

Love in the Post-Evangelical Wilderness 4: “Guard Your Heart”

423529_10150586640952700_404624921_nLove in the Post-Evangelical Wilderness 1: “You Are Complete In Christ–Aren’t You?”

Love in the Post-Evangelical Wilderness 2: “Equally Yoked”

Love in the Post-Evangelical Wilderness 3: “Not Even A Hint”

Every so often we do this around here at Everyone’s Entitled to Joe’s Opinion:  Pick a topic and talk about it for several posts until we’ve beaten it to death and there’s nothing more to say about it.

If you haven’t guessed, we’re in the midst of a series about love.  You can click the links above to catch up on all the past installments, which are there for free and will be there for ever and ever or at least as long as there’s an internet.

If you are at all familiar with the sort of blogs where I hang out regularly, then you may have heard the term “post-evangelical wilderness”.  For me, this “post-evangelical wilderness” is reality; it is where I have lived for the better part of the previous decade.

As the proud husband of an amazing imaginary wife and proud father of 2.6 amazing imaginary kids (which is to say: a single person), love is one area in which this post-evangelical thing becomes real for me.  So in these posts I am turning a critical eye toward much of what evangelicalism says concerning love, sex, and dating.

Today we are going to talk about the phrase “Guard your heart”.  This is the idea, which has been around evangelicalism for the better part of the past decade at least and which is still strongly present in those corners of evangelicalism where the purity culture/courtship movement holds sway, that one must save oneself for marriage–not just sexually but emotionally as well.  Josh Harris leads off his blockbuster book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye” with a memorable illustration in which a groom is standing at the altar awaiting his bride, who comes up the aisle followed by a long line of men.  Who are these men?  We learn that these are all the men the bride dated prior to her marriage to this groom.  Each of them holds a piece of her heart; she gave each of them a piece of her heart during the course of her relationship with them.  Now the groom can’t have all of her, as he ought, because her heart is divided among so many prior lovers.

The moral is clear:  You don’t want this to be you on your wedding day.  So guard your heart.  Don’t give it away to anyone–don’t feel anything for anyone–until and unless you are certain this is the person you intend to marry.

At this point let me warn you:  You might want to sit down and buckle up before you continue reading any further.  Because it’s about to get real.

But before we get to that, let me direct your attention to a piece by Charles Featherstone which will guide our thinking in the direction I wish to go in this final installment.  In a post entitled “The Tyranny of Choice“, Featherstone leads off with quotes from essayist Polina Aronson at Aeon magazine which contrast American and Russian approaches to romance and relationships.  Aronson describes a “regime of choice” which is the American way of doing romance and relationships, in which a savvy, sovereign chooser approaches it by understanding himself/herself, putting in all the work to gain such understanding, whether through counseling, reading self-help books, learning “love languages”, taking personality tests, etc.  She contrasts this with the “regime of fate” which is prevalent in her native Russia, in which people are frequently carried away by their passions and this results in all sorts of mayhem and destruction in family life.  Featherstone sees in this contrast some penetrating truths about the nature of modernity which transcend the subject of romantic coupling:

Modernity promises an end to pain and suffering, and in doing so, tells us that pain and suffering have no meaning except as things to be overcome. Passion and emotion have no value except as things to be mastered and eventually suppressed. Life will be plotted out carefully, deliberately, and properly, so that all of the right choices will be made and minimal suffering experienced or inflicted. Because, as Aronson notes, the modern autonomous individual (she uses the term “psychological man”) is “a romantic technocrat who believes that the application of the right tools at the right time can straighten out the tangled nature of our emotions.”

…The ideal emotional technocrat Aronson describes here doesn’t just control how he or she reacts to emotions, but has learned how to feel the right kinds of things. It is the ultimate triumph of ideology and technology over humanity.

And I hate it. It isn’t human. At least it doesn’t seem human to me.

If you suspected during this series that there must be a reason for me to be talking about love right now, that there must be something going on in my life that is prompting this, well you would be right.  You see, there is a beautiful young woman on the horizon of my world.

Alas, there *was* a beautiful young woman on the horizon of my world.  Turns out she has a boyfriend.

This is the story of my life.  The other guy always gets the girl, while I get to go home to my imaginary wife and 2.6 imaginary kids.

I’m happy for him, this other guy, that his prayers are being answered.  That the Lord has seen fit to bless him with the love of his life.

But God.

With apologies to Ed Sheeran, people fall in love in mysterious ways.  It is all part of a plan, and the Lord has cut me completely and totally out of it.

Yes it hurts like hell.  Yes my heart is breaking.  And yes it makes my heart sick that even after all these years nothing has changed, it’s still the same old story where the other guy always gets the girl and I get to go home to my imaginary wife and 2.6 imaginary kids.

And yes I could have saved myself all of this if I had properly guarded my heart.

But life is messy.  Relationships are messy.  It’s the price we pay for being human.

We don’t know anything for certain, except that we’re all going to die someday.  You meet that pretty young woman or that guy who’s so tall and handsome as hell and you fall head over heels in love.  Your heart runs away with exultation at the thought that today could be the day she (or he) says “YES!!!!!  I’M YOURS, TAKE ME AWAY!!!!!!!!!!!!”  But you have no idea what it would be like to actually be in a relationship with this other person, if you get that opportunity.  You may find yourself at an altar saying “I do”, if it ever gets to that point.  Great.  Now you get to find out and to work out what it means to be committed to this one person for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do you part.

Western culture and its “regime of choice” have imposed way too much predictability and control upon parts of the human experience that, by their very nature, are messy, unpredictable, and uncontrollable.  And American evangelicalism has bought into all the lies of Enlightenment-influenced Western culture that all the chaos and messiness of human experience can be rationalized and systematized away.  We believe that if we just apply the right principles (which are all right there in the Bible for anyone to read and learn), then it will all be happy ever after.

It’s a lie, people.  The Josh Duggar story this summer should have disabused you of any such notions.

I could have “guarded my heart” and saved myself all of this.  I would have also missed out on all the exuberance of the last few months, of having this beautiful young woman on the horizon of my world and knowing that any day could be the day she says “YES!!!!!  I’M YOURS, TAKE ME AWAY!!!!!!!!!!!”–something I had not felt for years prior to this.

This is normal human experience.  Being in love, and all the feelings that go along with it, good and bad, are all part and parcel of normal human experience.  I refuse to believe in a God who demands that we sacrifice our humanity as the price to be paid for our sanctification.

Don’t buy the lie of Western culture or of American evangelicalism, which has bought into all the lies of Western culture, that everything must be neatly planned out, all angles examined and well considered, that we must choose wisely (or be judged harshly for failing to do so), before we dare to make commitments or enter into relationships.  It’s a lie, people.  It’s the opposite of what it means to be human.

Relationships are messy.  Life is messy.  We love, we make commitments, we enter into relationships not having a clue how it will all end up.  It’s the price we pay for being human.  And there is no John Piper sermon or Josh Harris book that can change that.