We Built This City

Sometimes I look around at the state of things and wonder how we got here. Do you?

How is that we in the Church who follow the one who describes himself as the truth, end up embracing the worst of the conspiracy theories and conspiracy mindsets that seem so completely detached from the truth? How have we come to disregard logic based science, verifiable data from reliable sources and sound teaching in favor of wild speculation, innuendo and Qanon?

And if I’m honest, I have to admit that we’ve built this city. Specifically, evangelical teachers and preachers and influencers have carefully crafted the kind of culture that is ripe for the picking.

While I think there are older influences, here in North America we can start with the great cultural divide that happened at the Scopes “Monkey Trial.” This cultural moment is well documented in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, by Randall Balmer. In 1925, a teacher was taken to court for bringing the theory of evolution into his classroom. It became an Us vs. Them story, Christians against the secular Goliath, Christians fighting to keep God from being displaced by science. The Christians technically won but they also lost as their place of influence and authority in popular culture was not only threatened but started to diminish.

Since then, we’ve created our own Christian ghetto with our own bookstores, apparel, music, roman novels, children’s cartoons and acceptable forms of art that tend towards literal or dreamy depictions of biblical scenes or Bible quotes. As pastors, preachers and teachers, we’ve made much of the “conflict” between higher education and Christian faith or science and Christian faith. For 100 years now we have told people who gather in our evangelical churches that science is often inaccurate or flat out lies when it teaches us about the nature of the universe.

This was handed down to us. Our Roman Catholic friends punished Galileo for agreeing with Copernicus’ conclusion that the Earth orbited the Sun and not the other way around. Our RC brethren were only defending the authority of God’s word and that became a tradition for evangelicals as well.

But everyone loves a David and Goliath story. Coaches get a lot of mileage winding their teams up with “nobody thinks we can beat State” and Pastors have discovered we can create a sense of solidarity and “we’re in this together” by creating us vs. them scenarios. Everyone is out to get you – I’ve heard that for 35 years now as an evangelical and I’ve probably preached it a time or two in my younger days. The liberals are coming for you. The gays are coming for you. The Catholics are coming for you. Hollywood is coming for you. Unmarried women are coming for you. Evolutionists are coming for you. Academia is coming for you. The anti-Christ is coming for you.

How could you not be a little paranoid growing up in a system of “lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”? Circle the wagons and tighten your purity rings, it’s us vs. them and they fight dirty! Is it any wonder then that the evangelical church has been so deeply affected by conspiracy theories and constant fake news about “Them” that are out to get “Us”? Everyone looks like a threat when you’re told that unless they’re one of us and can prove it by saying “shibboleth” just right, they are coming to get you, your spouse, and your children.

I started following Jesus right after the Jesus People movement of the 60s and 70s. One of the “gifts” of that era was the imminent sense of Jesus’ return. The Late Great Planet Earth was being read by everyone and movies like A Thief in the Night were scaring the hell out of people or at least were meant to. Into the 80s we were all reading, This Present Darkness and by the 90s we started the Left Behind series of books. If this isn’t creating a culture of fear, paranoia and a belief that there are conspiracies happening all around us, some human, some demonic, what else would?

As evangelicals, we’ve been training people for 100 years (or much more as Christian leaders) to be primed for such a time as this. We already believe it’s us vs. them. We’ve already been convinced that the world is conspiring against us. We’ve already been taught that God won’t rescue us from anything we don’t figure out for ourselves. We’ve long been waiting and watching for the mark of the beast which we’ve named every decade (or less) as a super computer, a micro-chip, atm cards, former President Obama, one or more of the Popes, some rich dude you’ll never meet and the Teletubies.

C.S. Lewis warned us, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.” I would say the same about conspiracy theories. We have historical evidence conspiracies have occurred, and good reason to believe they continue to exist but an excessive and unhealthy interest in them is not the way of Jesus.

I’m not sure how we untangle this mess but I am pretty sure it begins, or at least OUR part begins, by owning our part in building this city. Brick by brick, we’ve made this fortress against science and logic and reason and scholarship what it is. We’ve told people that the Spirit of God in them trumps knowledge and experience and wisdom like a magical stay at a Holiday Inn Express. We’ve told the faithful that it’s us vs. the world and we’ve characterized everyone who’s not us, as out to get us, when really they mostly would just like to be left alone. Like Daniel, lamenting and identifying with the sin that landed him and the people of God in exile, we need to lift up our own lamenting confession and ask God to save us from this holy war ghetto we’ve fashioned for ourselves.

“Holy War”

by Andrew Smith

written by Andrew Smith © 2002, 2011, 2017 Andrew Smith

We have all drunk the depths of spiritual pleasure

And we’ve all become addicted to the song of ghosts

We get so easily waylaid by the sirens and the weather

And all those things that we fear the most

And I say, yah yah we are the ghosts within your machine,

within the fog of our ambition

Searching for a language of the soul

much more so than any unifying creed or militant message

And we’re hard to hold,

like fog people

Searching for a reason to waste our lives

But I don’t want to fight in your holy war

How can I defend myself anymore

I don’t want to live in your us and them world

God knows there is only us

You say we stumble like the damned trying to touch it

I know. I know we st st stammer like fools

Struggling to articulate the inexpressible wonder

All of the beauty in this broken mirror

These are the signs, these are the pains of hunger,

the very mark of our ascendency

as we rise to that table, to that feast prepared

for the least of these fog people,

tasting a reason to waste our lives

It don’t make no rhyme or rhythm, it don’t make no rhyme or rhythm to me

Take me up, take me back to that misty mountain

with a beat and a melody

Make some sense to me, speak with clarity

in images and rhythm and colours and movement

indigenous to my world

They’re all rising up like incense

for these are the prayers of a wasted life

But I don’t want to fight in your holy war

I won’t define myself by what I’m not anymore

I don’t want to live in your us and them world

God knows there is only us

credits

from This Light Lingers | A Year of Song, track released November 1, 2017

Black and White and Color

One of the dangers that comes with writing about pastoral ministry and the church is that some people automatically conclude that I’m venting. That rather than reflective writing, I’m being passive aggressive and sharing my complaints about ministry and the local church of which I’m a part. From more than 30 years of pastoral ministry, I have experienced passive aggressive communication and no doubt, over my lifetime, I’ve done my share of it. But when I write about pastoral ministry and the Church, it’s not a thinly disguised approach for yelling at the local church where I’m a pastor.

The way I’m wired, I only feel comfortable enough to share the things I do because I’m in a safe place with safe people. And at my age and stage, I don’t have the time or temperament to be passive aggressive. If I have something I need to say, I say it as directly as possible. As directly as warranted.

I’ve learned from years of this pastor’s story that we, as humans, often have another struggle – the belief that saying something critical, or difficult, or hard – means you don’t see anything good or positive or meaningful. To speak up about someone’s bad behavior (or an institution’s) is a rejection of the whole person (or institution). In providing pastoral counsel to people this comes up when they can’t allow themselves to say something critical about their parents or their spouse or their child or the Church. To steal a line from Asaph, the vibe is, “If I had said, “I will speak this way,” Behold, I would have betrayed the generation of Your children.”

And it’s children who tend to see life in strict categories of black and white, yes or no, true or false, logical or magical, friend or foe.

We tend to slip into black and white thinking because it’s easy. People are all good or people are all bad. But people go beyond those simple categories. Not just grey either, reality tends to be more colorful than this. And until I can accept and acknowledge the complexities that exist inside of me, in the spectrum of color that runs through my own life, and the range of shades and hues that exist inside of others, I will stay stuck in my feelings and my responses, my thoughts and my beliefs.

Brennan Manning, a man of many colors, wrote, “Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.” I can be a jerk and a saint and sometimes I come across as one when I’m really trying hard to be the other. Whenever I am offended at someone’s else taking offense with something I say or do, I have to step back and examine what part, if any, of what they said to me or about me, is true.

Once, just after we had started a new church, I was approached by an older church member after a service. I knew they had something to say and I imagined it would be something like, “worship was amazing this morning! Thank you for leading us into such an inspired time of singing and encounter with God.” What they ended up saying, with a very irritated tone, was, “Can you tell me if we’re ever going to sing a song in this church that wasn’t just written last week?” Something rose up within me that wanted to yell, “Touch not the Lord’s anointed!!!” Or at least cast out some Jezebel spirit or point out the man must be jealous of my mad worship leading skills or accuse my questioner of being cynical.

Thankfully, before responding in any of those ways, I turned to hear God with my internal listener and said, “God, what’s up with this?” Meaning: do I call down fire, cast something out or confront this rebellion? And I felt like the Spirit said, “Listen. That’s me.”

It was a moment when I realized that my freedom to not sing older songs had left a vast number of deep, rich and meaningful songs, out of my list of possible choices. Worship song choice had become all about my likes and not about what the Church needed.

Whenever I’m in a conversation with someone who is telling about their relationship with another person and it’s all good, the other person is perfect, their relationship is perfect, all they do is perfect, I know that the other person doesn’t trust me enough yet to tell me the truth or they are stuck and can’t allow themselves to be honest about the contradictions that exist inside the person or perhaps themselves. While Paul might tell the church in Rome that there’s this challenging aspect of human nature that we tend to do what we don’t mean to do and we don’t do what we mean to do, we often feel the need to pretend that reality does not extend to the people close to us. Or at the very least we must never talk about those things, even though they are as much a part of the person with whom we are in relationship with as the easy things are.

The opposite of this scenario is also true. When someone is describing another person with whom they are in a relationship, and all they can say is bad and ugly and negative, something is holding them back from seeing the person as the complex human they are.

This could be that the person has done something monstrous. Something abusive. Something so damaging and evil that the darkness eclipses whatever bit of light there might be.

Those situations do exist.

But that’s not most of the time or a lot of the time. Often it just comes back to the way we like to categorize people and institutions for ourselves. Good. Bad. Black. White. And these simple categories keeps life simple and helps us avoid the uncomfortable conversations, the hard conversations – those really difficult “let’s get to the bottom of this” conversations. It also helps us maintain any illusions we have about our own status as a “good person.”

The temptation is for us to personalize everything. To assume that if a person says a thing about another person or an institution it means they are all in, for or against, us versus them, with or opposed. But it doesn’t have to be like that at all. A doctor can diagnose your illness without meaning you’re a terrible person. A police officer can point out that you’ve violated the law without making a value judgment about the kind of person you generally are. And we know Jesus could have really hard conversations with people and powers without personalizing what he said to conclude someone was “good” or “bad.”

Sometimes, my great and beautiful memories of time spent with another person can make me deny my legitimate feelings that that same person has hurt me, deceived me or just deeply disappointed me. We struggle with accepting that both things can be true of the same person and that can keep us stuck in wildly abusive relationships and institutions.

We can be grateful for the good without ignoring the bad.

The other day I was quoting Jesus’ words to Peter in the gospel of Matthew when Peter, bless his heart, rejects Jesus’ story about what happens next. The exchange goes like this:

 “Heaven forbid, Lord,” (Peter) said. “This will never happen to you!”

Jesus turned to Peter and said, “Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s.” (Matthew 16:21-23)

That’s real talk. That’s a hard conversation.

If I was Peter, I would have missed the next meeting.

If I was Peter, I would have been on the phone to my therapist.

If I was Peter, I would have ran to my mom.

But what we must not miss is that Jesus had created a beautiful community for them to belong to that could sustain, bear the weight of, this kind of hard conversation. Jesus could call Peter, “Satan” and then they could all go for a walk and end up having dinner together without this blowing up into something it did not need to be. You know how guys are, how did all the other disciples not start answering, “Yes, Satan” every time that Peter asked them to do something after that? More than that, a relationship existed where Peter still felt accepted and that he had a place, that he belonged. And later, it still wouldn’t keep him from confronting Jesus yet again by refusing Jesus’ plans (John 13:3-8).

At a week of camp, many years ago, we finished the night with a group circle time where we had each person of the group sit in the middle for a round of the rest of the group offering one thing we really liked about the person in the middle. After the “warm fuzzy” experience, and just before we went to bed for the night, one of my youth leaders innocently asked, “How about tomorrow night we do the same thing but we each say one thing that really irritates us about the person?” I shut that down quickly and didn’t come back to it later. But in my heart of hearts I knew that this is where real relationship begins, authentic relationship, deep friendship – where we can say to one another, “I really love this about you…and it really irritates me that you do this.”

Usually a statement like that, “what really irritates me about you…” tells us all more about the irritated person than the one who does the irritating but often it does reveal something that’s worth acknowledging and owning and making amends or doing something about. And in the swirl of color that is authentic relationship, is truly knowing someone and being known, in naming our light and our darkness, owning that we are complex as human beings, we discover what authentic love really looks like.

Under Pressure

This story I find myself in has led me into a tension about my vocation. I’d call it the tension between what is and what can be. I remember years ago watching a contractor on TV who would rescue homeowners from renos gone wrong. His vocation brought him into this same type of tension which he shared with the rest of us through his show. He would dismantle parts of the house looking for the causes of problems the owners were experiencing and often find the original contractor or renovating contractor had done really poor work, sometimes just leaving things undone, out of sight behind drywall.

He was very critical of people who shared his vocation who did this kind of poor work. It was really a form of malpractice. And that tension, between what was and what could be, was visible on his face, recognizable in his voice and sometimes he lost his temper on camera at things he discovered. And sometimes I know my writing can come across that way. Even though I’m a pastor, this is my story, my vocation, I can be very negative about the practices of people who share this vocation.

It’s the tension I feel coming to the surface between what is and what can be.

In this pastor’s story life, I am also aware of the pressures that many (most?) pastors live under. The extraordinary ordinary women and men who share my vocation are often doing so under tremendous pressures that very few people know about or think about or take time to consider. For all the celebrity pastors and not-so-celebrity pastors who have turned the Church into a means to amass wealth and clout, there are many, many more who are faithful to the Jesus story and week in and week out face temptations to power and abuse and faithfully turn away from it to choose to be self-emptying and gentle.

Right now, in this pandemic season, it’s being reported that pastors, along with many others, are resigning, quitting, walking away from their jobs. Some are calling it “compassion fatigue” and others are reporting that they have been deeply disappointed over the actions of church goers over the last few years and they are just…well…over it. They have reasoned that if what they have seen is the result of their life’s work they would rather be doing something else.

I’ve written before about the pressure that comes from having your whole life, nearly every significant relationship, your career, your vocation, your financial well-being, your spiritual life, all tangled up in one giant ball of interconnectedness, you’ll live with the advice of Buckaroo Banzai to his brain surgeon friend, during an operation, “don’t tug on that, you never know what it might be connected to.”

It’s impossible to calculate the pressure that comes from knowing that telling that person in the choir who keeps saying hurtful things to newcomers to the choir could cost you their family, including the granddaughter your daughter is best friends with and could lead to two adjacent families leaving because they were offended on behalf of the choir member who says hurtful things (which are just “calling it like I see them” and isn’t that what Jesus told us to do anyway?). Of course if they leave, you know the couple who are just waiting to leave if they see people moving towards the door will likely go to and they are significant financial givers and if they leave you’ll have to decide to lay off the church secretary or the youth pastor, both of whom are friends and you know can’t afford to be a one income family so will probably have to move on to find income and you’ll not only lose staff but also good friends. On top of all this, your spouse has been ready to get out of ministry life for about 3 years now and when your daughter is heart broken over the loss of a friendship you’re almost certain it will be the proverbial straw that breaks it all.

1, 2, 3, 4…pressure.

A pastor has been told, in no uncertain terms that God is watching and will hold her or him to account for the way they’ve shepherded the flock of God of which they are a part. Most of the pastors I know believe that. That’s heavy stuff right there. In a liminal season like this when no one knows where we’re going to end up after all this (people telling you otherwise want to sell you something) pastors are as jumpy as a long-tailed cat in a rocking chair factory. Not out of a sense of fear but out of a sense of the sacredness of this vocation. Our desire is to go beyond “do no harm” and add something meaningful to the spiritual formation of everyone we know.

We want to get this right. It feels vital and important and necessary to get this right.

People have left during this season. Some have left because we supported the Republican party despite former President Trump and the behavior of his allies. Some have left because we could not support the Republican party because of President Trump and the behavior of his allies. Some have left because we encouraged everyone to get vaccinated against Covid and others left because they believed the vaccine was (multiple choice): a) made from aborted babies, b) changing our DNA, c) a mind control plot or d) all the above. If ever there’s been a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario for churches like mine, it’s been the last 2 years in North America.

Good pastors have been getting it from every side, y’all.

We’re living in a consumer culture. The constant message we are subjected to from childhood is that the customer is always right, and the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many. Both concepts are fairly antithetical to the Jesus Way, but they are so ingrained into us that we baptize them into our faith rather than exercising them from us. One thing this means is that we’ve created a competitive culture within the Church rather than a cooperative one.

I was the lone non-baptist pastor in a room full of pastors at a meeting a crisis pregnancy center was hosting. The competition vibe in the room was tangible. The guys at my table all wanted to play the “whose is bigger” game and the “who’s more biblical” follow up. Even if you don’t play the game, as a pastor you are very much aware that you are in the game. Pastors are made to compete for market shares. Hell, we’re made to market. Jesus becomes a commodity and our brand has to find a competitive edge in the market place. I’ve talked with pastors who installed “auto-tune” for their worship vocalists so they could keep up with the slightly larger church down the street.

Competition, rather than motivating us, usually isolates us and leaves us feeling adrift and unable to build trusting relationships with others. Ultimately it will cause us to resent those we feel have forced us on to this never ending treadmill of keeping up, those we feel demand the latest, newest and most cutting edge or leave us for someone who meet their demand.

Suddenly in the pandemic season we’ve also found ourselves competing with the mega-pastor on YouTube.

Mega-pastors. Plural. A multitude.

And most of us can’t afford his production values or his sermon writers. But the pressure is real. It’s on YouTube. It’s a church. How hard can it be? How much could it cost? It must be cheap and easy if these other churches do it. Few realize the thousands upon thousands of dollars some spend for their look and sound.

And we realize the congregations that we are trying to pastor are being influenced more through the week by the images and sounds of these megas than they are us – it’s pervasive. We watch the news and see some of these same pastors turned into spokespeople for the rest of us and it only increases the pressure as we cringe at the things they say and feel the weight of the knowledge that their “hot take” will carry more weight with some of our friends than wisdom that comes at the speed of life that we’ve contended for through suffering, study and contemplation.

If there are bills to be paid, we feel pressure to pay the bills. Good pastors want a balanced budget, they don’t want to spend more than what they have but no amount of diligence on our part can guarantee any income for the church other than what we ourselves contribute. If people don’t give, we are tempted to use guilt and shame and manipulation – can call it conviction. It’s a razor’s edge we have to walk so that we are leading and not pushing, inviting and not demanding, helping people listen to the Spirit instead of telling them what they ought to think.

And if your church has paid staff…every pastor with a paid staff in this pandemic has carried the weight through decisions being made, choices being faced, people fading away and figuring out the next right thing…and how those will all impact the paid staff and their families. I can tell you, it’s not a lack of faith in God that keeps us up at night, it’s an awareness that control is an illusion and God hasn’t promised any church that it will exist beyond the current generation.

Welcome to the tip of the iceberg of pressure that most pastors are facing. It’s not good for our mental health, physical health or spiritual health. Rarely do our networks or denominations do anything to help us with this pressure or even offer us meaningful commiseration. They have bottom lines and bring their own unique pressures to bear on local church pastors as well. Tod Bolsinger says in Canoeing the Mountains that our tendency at this point is to return to what we’ve always done but do it twice as hard. And that just won’t work.

I probably should have added a trigger warning at the start of this for all my pastor friends to see before they got this far into my post.

If you’re a pastor and you’ve read this far, there are better days ahead. The one thing I can tell you about this liminal season we are in is that things will not be the same on the other side of it. It seems certain that some will return to the form we’ve had for so long but only because they were already satisfied with the results. Good pastors living in the tension of what is and what can be will find the future offers new opportunities and new ways of being the Church in the present day, fresh and more satisfying ways of living out our vocation. But first, this transitional time that will take just as long as it takes. And ultimately we will need the courage to shed this wineskin we’ve known and become soft, and vulnerable and willing to express the Way of Jesus as never before.

Waiters and Church Staff and Safe Places

Waiting tables I learned that I could be invisible. Or I was so low on the social order that people just didn’t care what they said in front of me. While I stood waiting to write down an order, couples or families or groups would have conversations in front of me that I am sure they wouldn’t ordinarily have in the presence of someone they didn’t know. And some wouldn’t even be had in front of close friends.

In my various incarnations as a waiter, I found this experience repeated. I could stand inches away from people who would say the worst things to me or to each other or about other people, oblivious or unconcerned by my presence. And when things slowed down, when all the wait staff was sitting at a table having coffee and wrapping silverware, we shared our stories.

As an associate pastor or staff pastor, I was surprised to experience this same phenomenon in a different setting. In my role I might carry a lot of responsibility but around a group of “senior pastors” I often faded out and couldn’t be seen. Maybe for the same reasons this happened to me as a waiter.

I remember going to big church conferences and walking with my friend and senior pastor right up to the door of a meeting room with a sign on the outside, “Senior Pastors Only.” Here I wasn’t only invisible to the group, I was persona non grata. When I became a Senior Pastor and magically attained value enough to enter such rooms I can assure you that absolutely nothing is said or done in those rooms that other staff pastors shouldn’t or couldn’t be in on. It wasn’t about content and it wasn’t about numbers.

Once, I asked at such a meeting if I could bring the rest of the pastors on my staff to the next meeting so they were included. I was told this could really create problems. “What if,” I was asked, “one of the other senior pastors is having problems with their worship pastor and wants to talk about that with us?” I suggested they should talk to their worship pastor and not to us if there was a problem between them but that went down like a rat sandwich. In my last 20 years as a senior pastor, I’ve never heard anything at one of these “senior pastor meetings” that any other pastor couldn’t be in on. Ever.

At one of those meetings we were all supposed to write down a prayer request on a piece of paper that went around the room on a clipboard. We talked while it went around the room and when it came to me I wrote down a request for me and my wife to work through some communication issues we were having and to feel like we were on the same page about some important things we were dealing with. As the requests were finally read off the paper so we could pray for each other, one by one I realized I had not understood the assignment. The requests generally went something like, “Please pray we would have a greater sense of the anointing in our worship service…” or “Please pray that I would be able to have the courage to step into the manifestation of the destiny God has for me…” or “Please pray that our church would once again double our attendance for this year…” My request for prayers for my marriage stuck out like I’d asked for recovery from an STD.

The point of my story is that the best pastoral meetings were the ones I was excluded from because that left me with all the other excluded pastors where we shared the real stories of what was going on in our churches and our lives. We didn’t have any position to posture over with each other. And I can tell you there are a lot of hurting, used and abused church staff pastors out there.

Over time I’ve become convinced that people aren’t dropping out of vocational ministry because they weren’t called in the first place but primarily because we have not tried to create safe work environments for pastors. They are our invisible waiters, the people we talk to or about but not with. We use them – rolling them up from the bottom like a tube of toothpaste – making sure we get every last bit of life out of them before we start the rehiring process.

I attended a denominational meeting once and found myself in a room packed full of senior pastors who came to hear from a Duke professors talk about soul care. He innocently suggested that the pastors in the room could talk to their regional director if they were struggling with something personal. The room erupted in laughter. One person explained the laughter to the Prof – “The LAST person we would share our struggles with is our upline report.” For this room of a hundred and fifty pastors or so, neither the local church, nor the company of pastors, or the denominational leaders tasked with their care was a safe place.

Sometimes, as a senior pastor in a larger organization, I can once again feel invisible. And I’m not alone.

Often, in my experience, those tasked with our soul care are the architects and purveyors of dysfunctional systems who behave as if they are more committed to their systems than the souls they intend them to benefit. And in a situation like this, the disenfranchised will find one another, the flotsam and jetsam will gather and share their stories with one another. The secrets those in power think they have locked away behind the walls of their authority are passed along freely by those desperate for safe places to relieve their trauma through story telling.

In the same way, those who have left the church through traumatic experiences and abuse and feeling disenfranchised by those who wield power over, will tell their stories and seek safe places and will often never think of “church” and “safe place” as synonymous ever again. If we who have power to do something about this never do, the church will never come back to the building.

Church pt 2

Rich Mullins sang, “My friends ain’t the way I wish they were / They are just the way they are.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than they love the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest and sacrificial. God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idolized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands set up by their own law, and judge one another and God accordingly. It is not we who build. Christ builds the church.”

After 40 years of living this life as a follower of Jesus, I’ve come to believe that one of the primary sacramental roles of the Church is to create the sacred space of relationships with people who are not like me.

It is grace that creates space for me to have relationships with people, not because I’ve chosen them because they “fit” me but “…just the way they are.”

The challenging part of this messy grace is that we also share a story that acknowledges that there are ways of thinking and ways of living that destroy each other and ourselves. So if my friends are a certain way, if I’m my “brother’s keeper” I can find myself in a difficult conversation, a challenging moment, that can feel and even look like I’m not accepting the other person “as they are.”

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, the first one, walks the razor’s edge of this dynamic. Paul uses familial language, inclusive language, “us” language with the very people he is also very firmly warning, challenging and verbally spanking for how they have treated him, how they are treating the poor among them, the things they are doing and not doing, and their use and abuse of spiritual gifts (among many other dysfunctions). It wouldn’t be hard to say Paul had a “wish dream” for the Corinthians at the same time it’s evident from the text that he speaks to them as insiders, saints, brothers and sisters in Christ.

My best understanding of the story we find ourselves in, those of us who follow Jesus, is that we are engaged with the Spirit of God in a process of transformation and formation. Mystically, the Spirit transforms us the instant we turn to God and follow Jesus. We are brand new creatures. We are not who we were, we’ve moved from darkness to light and we are no longer orphans but sons and daughters. But then comes this harder, longer and more painful process of formation wherein we are moved from bearing the image of God to becoming the likeness of Christ.

And I believe a great deal of this formation is facilitated by the Spirit of God through the body of Christ. Through the relationships we share with people who don’t look like me, live like me, come from the same places I come from, believe what I already believe, who don’t laugh at what I think is funny, or cry over what makes me sad. My faithful presence in their life adds to their formation and their faithful presence in my life, adds to mine.

One of the daunting challenges for workers who’ve been at the vineyard since dawn, working away for our agreed upon reward, are the people arriving an hour before closing time, smelling like they’ve been “day drinking” and clearly a long way from the seasoned, veteran vinedressers the rest of us are. And scandalously, we’ve heard it’s been agreed they will receive the same reward for their hour’s labor that we will receive for our day’s. We can spend our remaining time criticizing how they are doing what they do or we can come alongside them, accept them into our union and (in whatever time we have left) pass on to them what we know about vineyard work.

There is, of course, a danger in approaching life together in this way. We all know hurtful people who explain themselves with, “…it’s just the way I am!” They might call it “visionary leadership” or “strong leadership” or being a “Type A” leader. Often, because of desired results being reached, numerical or financial goals or both, we actually reward leaders like this, turning a blind-eye to the bodies under the bus, which further empowers them to do more harm. “All that matters is the kingdom is growing…” or “…you can’t argue with church growth…” or “…people are getting saved!”

But again, if the way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that’s coming, we ignore this evil way of doing things at our own peril. And we run the risk of being the kind of people of whom Jesus said, “…you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!” Jesus said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave.” And the apostle Peter wrote, “Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example.”

How we respond to people in these situations will contribute directly to our journey of formation. In some circles, this means that we submit to our “leaders” and we “trust” our leaders. People in power often see a hierarchical structure in Scripture that oppressed people look to and find liberation from such structures. Paul was adamant, “So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders. I know that false teachers, like vicious wolves, will come in among you after I leave, not sparing the flock. Even some men from your own group will rise up and distort the truth in order to draw a following. Watch out!”

A primary role of leaders in the Church is to protect the Church from other leaders who would pervert their role to take advantage of people, to boss people, and destroy the beloved community for the sake of their own appetites. Sometimes that means leaders like me need to disqualify themselves from leadership when they realize they (often with the best of intentions) have become lords instead of slaves.

And sometimes it means that we, as the collective flock of God, need to have really hard conversations with our pastors and leaders, because we’re contributing to their formation, just like they are contributing to ours. We need to be able to say out loud (as Tim Mackie from the Bible Project did at the recent National Conference of Vineyard USA), “…if the structure and form, the social form of my community is communicating another story about power and status, you just have to step back and ask…are we ever going to be compelling to anybody, even ourselves that we’re actually a community of this good news?” He said, “…it seems to me we all, individually and in our communities, need, need, desperately need, to find ways to make sure that the medium is as much the message, that the way our lives and communities are actually structured and do the things that they do actually are in sync with the value set of the story of Jesus. When that disconnect grows it just becomes, it becomes very obvious especially to non-religious people, they usually catch on a lot more quickly than people in religious communities that can’t see that disconnect.” 

Our “Authority,” Mackie said, “is integrity. It’s that our lives and communities match this inverted good news: that weak is strong, that poor is rich and that fame is about not being famous…the leaders…doing it best right now are leaders that give away authority and who decentralize themselves…”

Sometimes, being the Church means having hard conversations for the sake of formation, our own and our communities, so we can work through the places in which we’ve set aside the story of Jesus for a story that promises expediency, power and less mess. Being the Church means speaking up, not slipping away, until we finally come to the point that we have no voice left, we are not being heard and meaningful conversation has been cutoff. Sometimes, being my brother and sister’s keeper means choosing to risk the good trouble that comes from telling each other the truth.

Church

When I went to Bible College (I have a paper that says I graduated), I took a class called, New Testament Church. The course started with a simple thought experiment that led us to multiple readings through the New Testament, to compile a list and verify our conclusions. We started with a simple question, what makes a church, a church? From there we went on to explore, “what are the practices of the Church as described in the New Testament?”. What we came up with, and it must be right because I got an “A,” was that there are actually very few “necessities” for a group of people to be called, “the Church.” As for essential practices, we settled on two categories: ethics and observances. Our fear of sounding denominational kept us from using a better word for “observances,” which would be “sacraments.”

The thing this course highlighted, that we all quickly set aside on a high shelf to ignore, is that very little of the ethics or practice of the contemporary Church would resonate with the first century followers of Jesus.

A friend of mine told me that one of the ways he knew it was time to retire from full-time pastoring was when he was stopped, in a hallway of the church building, between morning services, by an older woman who was there for the service with her mother. “Do you think,” she asked my friend, “that we could do something about the volume level of the music for the next service?” The answer he gave was softer than the answer he wanted to give but it was one of those moments when he knew the clock was quickly ticking towards retirement.

None of us became pastors in order to navigate the mysteries of public opinion on sound levels. As a wise old soundman once told me, “no two ears are the same, even the two on your own head.” But opinions we have and the thing is this – it is often our opinions that divide us, our preferences, and not the way of Jesus and the small list of things that actually matter.

It’s often how many songs we sing

or how long the sermon is

or what the temperature of the room is set at

or how often we take communion

or just how communion is taken.

 Often, in North America, the health of a church is measured by attendance numbers, “conversion” numbers and financial (giving) numbers.

While I am a big believer in metrics and measuring things, I also have been around long enough to know that some wildly toxic church cultures have nailed all the above metrics and monetized their approach to doing so and marketed it to the masses so that we might reproduce their “success.” Are you feeling what I’m trying to say?

The last four years in the North American church has caused me to deeply question our “conversion” metrics. Our denomination asks me for a yearly count on these metrics. They separate conversions and baptisms. I think that’s wise. I can tell you if someone has been immersed in water. It’s going to take me a few years to tell if someone has been converted. The overt politicization of our faith here in America has been revelatory. The recent viral video of a mega-church engaged in chanting together on a Sunday morning a popular Right-wing slogan that is openly or commonly known as a euphemism for “F*ck Joe Biden” should alarm everyone who follows Jesus. Not for President Biden’s sake or because of Democrats or politics in general, but because a group of Christians are gleefully chanting something known to be so anti-Christ.

I remember when I was told I shouldn’t say, “Shoot!” as a Christian because it was just a euphemism for “Sh*t!” And I was told a Christian shouldn’t say, “Jeez!” because it’s just a euphemism for “Jesus!” and taking the Lord’s name in vain. And now we’re euphemistically (and gleefully) chanting, “F*ck Joe Biden” between Holy, Holy, Holy and How Great Thou Art.

That’s messed up, y’all.

And for me it calls into question exactly what we’ve been converting people to.

Which brings me back to Church and how we do it.

If the way the kingdom comes IS the kingdom that’s coming, what does the WAY we do Church say about the kind of kingdom that’s coming?

Is it largely sitting and watching?

Is it largely monochromatic?

Are spiritual gifts primarily for supplying workers for the Christian Industrial Complex?

Is the Beloved Community engaging the World the same way I’ve been accused of – only working one day (and not even a whole day at that!) a week?

I’ll confess again that I listened to more sermons in a week than is probably good for a person. In my defense (*I need to defend this?*), I believe preaching can be a beautiful form of art and I try to engage with it as such, both as a practitioner and a listener. Something I’ve noticed is that messages by pastors of really large churches today, often contain a significant component of – let’s call it ‘consumer assurance.’ The preacher will spend time in their talk assuring those listening that really great things are happening in their church, together they are doing more, together they are winning, and the listeners listening and attendance and faithful giving is accomplishing extraordinary things.

I’m not judging those who do this. I am saying that it’s something new. Something I did not hear preachers of large churches preaching 30 years ago (yes, we had recordings back then) or read preachers preaching 50 years ago or more.

Church has changed. What I’m wondering is, has it changed in a way that is taking us closer to the TELOS of our Story as we’ve known it – OR – are we operating from an understanding we have some new or different TELOS than Paul and the Gospelers?

This week I want to expand “pastoral ministry Tuesday” to the whole week and talk about being the Church and what I think the future might look like for those who want Jesus but are already over the Christian Industrial Complex and what comes with it.

Help me out by telling me what you see as our essential ethic and what are our essential practices or sacraments as the Church Jesus builds?

Recommendations

Talking with friends this morning, the topic of books came up and turned ugly when the idea of giving books away entered the conversation.

After a great deal of thought about making room on my shelves for new books, I’ve decided to giveaway some book recommendations but keep my books on their shelves. Otherwise, I would miss talking to them every morning.

So today I want to share some recommendations – books I think we would all benefit from reading and that deserve a place on your shelf. These are not new books but they are good books. I’m offering them in no particular order as I’m recommending ALL of them to you. They are all friends of mine.

A Church Called TOV, Scot McKnight.

(As the spotlight hits the epic failures of our church systems, how can we develop a goodness culture that offers us something better? Honest, thoughtful, direct and practical.)

The Blue Parakeet, Scot McKnight.

(If you want to get the most from reading the Bible, if you want to get a handle on how the first readers were processing what they read, if you want to learn what to do with verses of Scripture that make no sense or don’t fit with all the others, read this short, interesting and even entertaining book.)

Learning from a Legend, Jared E. Alcantara

(The distillation of wisdom from legendary preacher/teacher, Gardner C. Taylor. It’s a gold mine of insight and understanding.)

Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas & Wil Willimon

(This one re-oriented my perspective on almost everything and it made me a fanboy of Hauerwas. It’s what I want to be about.)

The Pastor, Eugene Peterson

(As a pastor, I long wondered, am I living it right? Peterson’s description of the Pastor and what it means to be a pastor made me feel less crazy and more at home. I want to grow up and be like Eugene some day.)

Thinking in Tongues, James K.A. Smith

(A book I thoroughly expected to hate and in the end – well, long before the end – I came to love it. It frames “Pentecostal” in a way that makes sense and feels like home to me.)

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory, Randall Balmer

(Everyone who thinks of themselves as an evangelical or who loves an evangelical should read this one.)

Out of the Saltshaker, Rebecca Pippert

(Pay no attention to the cover. This book is really about ‘how to be a decent human being while also being a Christian.’ An easy, fun, insightful read.)

Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann

(For me, life changing. If I say more than that, I’ll start preaching.)

The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone.

(There are certain books that everyone should read if they say they follow Jesus. This is one of those. It’s a hard and truthful conversation we all need to have.)

Grieving

One of the recurring themes in my conversations with my therapist is grief and the grieving process.

An important shift in my way of thinking and feeling has been to acknowledge grief is the name of the experience when death comes, not only to people in my life, but to hopes, dreams, expectations and even to my “normal.”

Whether you believe in 5 stages or 7 stages, grief is a process and very late in life I’ve come to recognize all the little deaths that have provoked seasons of grief in my life – as well as the traumatic deaths that I was already aware of. If you wanted to label 7 stages of grief for the sake of giving name to some of the feelings and experiences that we go through, you might use this list:
Shock and denial.
Pain and guilt.
Anger and bargaining.
Depression.
The upward turn.
Reconstruction and working through.
Acceptance and hope.

I sank into the grip of a strong depression during the pandemic before I knew I had to get in to see a therapist. Finding a therapist is a story for another time, an adventure that was probably not best taken on during a depression. Thankfully I landed with a very good therapist who has been immensely helpful for me. Early on he said that what I was describing I was feeling sounded like grief and while that might have been obvious to everyone else in the world, I had missed it. He didn’t talk me into it or convince me of it, naming it was all that was needed and it was a “ta-da!” moment of revelation.

When the pandemic started, I naively thought that we would all hunker down for 3 weeks and then we would get back to normal, virus eradicated. Then I realized that while some localities in the world took this approach, worldwide it would not be done so easily and in my own locality the direction to “hunker down” sounded like “burn the Constitution and hate Jesus!” I was stunned by the hoarding of toilet paper and cleaning products – not so much by those who grabbed more than they needed out of fear but by the vast number of people who hoarded essentials as an opportunity to make money off the misery and need of others. I was stunned by the politicization of the pandemic response. I had failed to see how deeply the divide had been drawn in this country. What I had thought was a negotiable difference in ideology turned out to be, for many I know (or knew), the contrast between light and dark and good and evil. And while I thought my Christian friends would rally around “the least of these” and be moved by the compassion of Christ to deny ourselves and inconvenience ourselves for the safety and well-being of others, I had quite a different experience of the Church. “Mask” and “Vaccine” became the new shibboleths of fidelity to Christ. Virtual meetings for the well-being of our neighbors were “faithlessness” and “forsaking the assembling of ourselves together” in direct disobedience to Jesus.

And the political division just went wider and deeper and people who I feel really love Jesus were on the side of the divide I wasn’t on and looked, to me, to be willing to turn a blind eye to evil on their side (as I am sure I looked to do from where I was from them) and the relationships that I thought were secure, the values of the Church I love and the Way of Jesus that I felt was clear and connected me with so many beautiful people – all of a sudden didn’t.

Just as the pandemic was becoming a thing, I went on a Sankofa journey with our local church. We walked through the hanging graveyard of the lynching museum and read the names and numbers of black and brown bodies who had been hung on trees like Jesus, their futures stolen, because a white person didn’t like the way they looked at them or didn’t look at them. We walked among the hanging garden of the murdered and felt the injustice in our souls. And then over the last year I listened to Christian leaders arguing and lying about the meaning of Critical Race Theory and pushing for our educational system to deny the reality of what white people as a group have done to and against black people as a group. And I can only grieve the vitriol, the accusations, the false claims of my colleagues – even those of color – who deny the truth that the north American church is still practicing racism. We talk about the black person we’ve given a seat at the table like I’ve heard white people say, “but I’ve got a black friend, so I can’t be racist.”

I thought I knew the Gospel. I find myself grieving over what “gospel” means to me and what it seems to have come to mean to the people in charge of the narrative.

I’m not sure how to be a neighbor anymore.
I’m not sure how to do my job as a pastor anymore.
I’m not sure what my people value anymore.
I’m not sure what it means to be a good citizen anymore.
I’m not sure what the word “facts” and “truth” and “integrity” mean anymore.

I’ve been part of a network of churches or a denomination (it’s hard to say what the difference is) for many years now. It’s been a big part of my identity, to be honest. For my wife and I, finding this network was like finding the home you always looked for but didn’t know where it was.

But over the couple years of this pandemic, we’ve entered into a re-organization process that I’ve been extremely uncomfortable with. The narrative is that my discomfort is because I’m stuck in the past and more committed to what God WAS doing than what God is going to do next. But if you know me, if you’ve read me, you’ll understand that I love reformation. I’m really big on becoming more like Jesus and leaving things behind. You also may have picked up on, via this blog, how much I think our network/denomination needs change at some very fundamental levels. I’m not afraid of or against change. It’s simply that I believe the way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that’s coming. And that process has troubled me. Millenials using the ways of modernity keeps us firmly planted in modernity, not in post-modernity.

It’s pretty simple.

I say all of that, not to rehash my issues with my network but to acknowledge that his has been one more aspect where I’ve been in grief. I feel like I have lost my family. I feel like a dream has died rather than evolved or matured or developed into something better. For me it’s like replacing Darren Stevens on Bewitched or Vivian Banks of Fresh Prince. Some of us won’t be bothered and some of us, people like me, will. I don’t need anyone to grieve this with me but I have needed to name this pain as the grief it is so that I can begin to move through this process to acceptance and recovery – no matter how long that journey takes.

I’ve been grieving. Maybe you have too. Sorrows shared is a good thing and I’m available if you want someone to sit shiva with you as we grieve together what was and what won’t be and what could have been.

I’m not through my grief yet but knowing what to name this has opened up the door to a future I was starting to believe could not exist. And for that, today, I’m grateful.

Whatever you are going through, whatever pains and emotional weights you are carrying, I encourage you to find a good therapist who can walk with you on a journey of discovery and healing. There can be better days ahead.

Following the World

One of the million things I wrestle with is a comment I regularly hear from platformed evangelical leaders that is some version of “we’re not following what’s popular, we’re not going to follow the world.” Usually this is in reference to a matter they consider orthodoxy – believing the right thing – or orthopraxy – doing it the right way. It can come up in platform comments about accepting LGBTQ+ followers of Jesus as legit. Or it can even still come up in platform comments about women in ministry. It can come up in platform comments about getting the Covid vaccine or following the mask mandate. Or it can come up in platform comments about Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a lens through which we can understand what has happened and is happening to Black people in America.

I wrestle with platform comments like these in evangelical spaces because Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour of week and White evangelicals (as a whole, not necessarily as individuals) continue to imitate racists more than we do Jesus in the treatment of People of Color. We talk about the inclusion of Black and Brown bodies around our tables of power as if we’ve actually changed our way of thinking and living. Doubtless you will quote, “don’t despise the day of small beginnings…” which feels good in the mouth of the dominant culture but still tastes bitter in the mouths of people who have waited for hundreds of years to be treated as fully human by those with power.

The judgment on how we’re doing in this regard can’t be found in the opinions of the People of Color we include at the table, it must also be found in the collective heart of those still marginalized.

As long as evangelical platformed leaders continue to make comments about CRT that are misleading, factually incorrect and obvious straw men, we sound more like politicians from the Right than we do imitators of Jesus.

I’ve had more than one conversation with an LGBTQ+ Christian friend who is ready to walk away from the Church once and for all because Christians with whom they are in relationship but don’t feel safe to be “out” with, say ugly things about LGBTQ+ people that sound a lot more like hate than love, more like the dominant hetero World than they do Jesus.

I’ve heard several platform speakers zero in on the LGBTQ+ “issue” as the very thing they won’t conform to the World about, even while their language and attitude are exclusionary in a way that Jesus never is but the World, in my experience, has often been. It’s entirely mythological and a story that hetero-normative Christians tell each other that the World leans towards LGBTQ+ people but none of my LGBTQ+ Christian friends feel that way. My friend who died of AIDS didn’t feel that way. My celibate gay friend definitely does not feel like the whole World is for him. We need to grow up and stop talking and acting like we’re the oppressed on this one and stop saying from the platform that excluding LGBTQ+ is more like Jesus than it is the World.

I struggle with this because of the rhetoric and silence from white, evangelical platforms about American politics.

The prophets of Israel were not silent about politics. It’s not God who asks us to keep our mouths shut and not offend anyone. God isn’t afraid of losing numbers. That’s the World.

I struggle because the white, evangelical church that I’m experiencing often speaks lies from the platform about Covid, about socialism, about democrats, about republicans, about America’s place in the world – and we sound a whole lot more like the World than we do Jesus and the Bible.

I’m coming to believe that what we really mean when we are on the platform and say that we won’t imitate the World or follow the World, what we really mean is that we will only follow that which reflects back to us our own image of ourselves. And in finding our own image reflected back to us, we find certainty that we are right and God is on our side.

What I’m trying to get at is that when we kept slaves and kept them from the Gospel, we were still singing, “though none go with me, still I will follow.” Only we weren’t following Jesus, we were following the World. When I preached against women being in church leadership, I promise you, I argued that “me and my house” would serve the Lord and not a woman elder. We wouldn’t follow the way of the World. What I’m getting at is that often, in my lifetime, the pursuit of God has somehow put the Church absolutely in league with the Powers and Principalities of her day, much more like the World, and much less like Jesus.

These are the kinds of things I think we need to get worked out before we launch a hundred new campuses because my fear is that in the end we will hear, “What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you cross land and sea to make one convert, and then you turn that person into twice the child of hell you yourselves are!”

This has been your Wednesday downer, brought to you by the letters “M” and “E” and the number “0.” See you tomorrow boys and girls.

Deconstruction: Recovery

One of the aspects of being a pastor like me is that you become a story collector or a story depository. Over the last 35 years I’ve absorbed the stories as they have been told to me, shared with me, sometimes through tears and sometimes through sobs, that have shaped people, left their mark on people, and defined, for many, their view of God. We are story people and as a pastor I count these moments as sacred confessions of the narratives that have a hold on people.

Sometimes this has involved the sacred act of listening to someone’s fifth step in recovery. More often it has involved people sitting in my office, calling me on the phone or meeting me somewhere for coffee or a walk and talking together long enough or in a time of crisis in which their soul-shaping stories emerge. I never ask for these or look for them, but I welcome them as a gift of trust and as a holy moment.

Deconstruction is full of stories. Deconstruction is full of the reinterpretation or reframing of stories. And some of the stories, the most painful stories, are those shared with me by survivors of abuse. I’ve come to believe that for many of these friends of mine, deconstruction is another name for recovery. Often the abuse that has happened to them is so deeply embedded in the context of faith, God and the Church that for them to find healing, their faith has to be deconstructed so all the enmeshing that has taken place can be undone (as much as it possibly can be).

The number of stories of abuse in the Church that I’ve heard about leads me to believe that it’s an epidemic that has claimed far more casualties than we like to admit. I don’t mean that all the dead from this epidemic have left the Church, far from it, but they exist like numb, sleepwalkers or as happy clappy “overcomers” who have learned to live with masks firmly fixed in place. “If it’s so bad, why wouldn’t they leave?” is a question that lacks understanding asked of abused spouses and of people abused by pastors, Church leaders and the Church system.

Deconstruction, in this context, is the untangling of trauma, identity, faith, relationships with those in their community of faith, their own family system, their own relationship with God or to God and their relationship to the person or persons who abused them. It’s a multi-layered entanglement that is not easily unraveled. Mentally, they are often made to feel guilty about what’s been done to them, feel guilty about how they feel about what’s been done to them, feel guilty and ashamed if they tell anyone what’s been done to them, feel responsible for what’s been done to them, feel isolated by what’s been done to them…you get the idea. Deconstruction is the path to healing because deconstructing faith, for them, means getting free from all the things that were used against them to control them and take advantage of them and that includes their faith in God.

Women have told me stories about how they were sexually abused or interfered with inside a church building. Some inside a pastor’s office.

I’ve heard the stories of young women made to feel shame by the Church because other women in Church chastised them for the way they dressed because they were provoking their husbands to lust.

It’s important here to note that Jesus never centered the lust story on the person being lusted after but on the one doing the lusting.

I’ve sat and listened as women have shared their stories and their guilt over having an “affair” with their pastor or Christian counselor. People in power who have sex with people under their care are abusing people. No matter how consensual it feels, it is their vocation to protect you – from themselves if necessary.

I’ve heard the stories of countless churches covering up sexual abuse by pastors and church leaders “for the sake of the good God is doing” through the church or the accused. This is compounding evil with evil.

I’ve heard women and children blamed by the Church for what men in power did to them.

And as much as I think deconstruction is the path to recovery for those abused in and by the Church, I have been around long enough to know the “official” answer. Forgive. Just forgive. That’s what Jesus wants you to do. Forgive.

Let’s fact check for a minute. What else did Jesus say on this topic?
“…if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. What sorrow awaits the world, because it tempts people to sin. Temptations are inevitable, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting.” So let’s be “biblical” about this. Forgiveness makes way for healing. But Jesus was just as serious about the state of those who mess with the vulnerable and do them harm. You don’t get a “forgiveness pass” you get a millstone.

The New Testament says there are wolves in our story. Sheep eaters. Leaders and shepherds who roast lamb and slap each other on the back and make up rules to protect each other while they pick their teeth around the campfire. Deconstruction is often the work of survivors of abuse coming to terms with the mess this has made in their lives, their sense of self, their relationships with others, their feelings about faith, God and the Church, and it doesn’t help them when pastors like me scold them for not coming to Church or for “backsliding.” It’s especially not helpful when we tell them they just need to forgive.

Stop it. I’m pleading with you. Telling survivors of abuse to just forgive their abuser sounds just like, “get over it.” Don’t compound the abuse by telling them to do something that is literally impossible for them to do until you’ve followed Jesus’ prescription for those who did the abuse.

And even then.

But this is not the only kind of abuse I hear about.

I’ve listened as church staff members have told me about senior pastors pushing them to work 60+ hour work weeks. To neglect their own families to “be there” for the Church. I’ve heard of people who have been physically choked by their pastor in an altercation over a difference of opinions, who felt compelled to keep it on the downlow “for the sake of the Church.” I have talked to people who told me how a confrontation with their pastor about the way they were being treated by their pastor led to them being ostracized by the whole church as he spun the story. I know staff pastors who have been fired for sharing their opinion that was in conflict with the senior pastor’s opinion.

A man who was a senior pastor who was in charge of a network of churches who was confronted by one of the senior pastors of a church in his network. It was a David/Nathan moment as the network pastor shared a concern he had about the relationship he was observing between the leader of the network and his personal assistant. Once he left the office, the leader of the network used his power and influence to have the man confronting him quietly removed as the senior pastor and relocated to another church in the network that was smaller and more remote to diminish his voice.

A few years ago, Christianity Today ran an experiment where they mailed churches inquiring about membership. They used a basic form letter but when signing they used “ethnic sounding names.” Often the responses of predominantly white churches encouraged those with “ethnic sounding names” that would probably be happier somewhere else. A person of color was spotted on a security camera in a side room off a church sanctuary during a service where he wasn’t expected to be and wasn’t recognized which led to an awkward confrontation that felt to him very much related to the color of his skin – he had been asked to be there by another staff pastor and security jumped to a conclusion.

One of the most common abuses is the opportunity of the senior pastor/leader to spin the story. I’ve heard countless stories of senior pastors who took pulpit time to tell “what really happened” and “what was really in the heart” of people who had noticeably left a church. They were able to tell the story without any time or space for rebuttal from the people they were talking about. We use words like “rebellious” and “gossip” and “wannabe leaders” to discredit and cast doubt on anything people might say about us.

This is abuse of power and it’s wrong.

Abuse in the Church takes many forms and wears many faces. I’m barely scratching the surface of the stories I’ve heard, first hand from survivors and from perpetrators. My point about talking about it in this context is that we have to reckon with the reality that people haven’t left the Church or deconstructed their faith because they were running from God, it’s because they are running from us. They are questioning or leaving unhealthy systems. Their deconstruction is about recovery from harm done to them that has been so enmeshed with all their personal relationships, their sense of self, their faith and spirituality, that they could not heal in the context in which they have been harmed.

They need space. They need time. They need to heal.

And for them, deconstruction is just another word for recovery.