Twenty years ago I published my first article. My mentor had a relationship with a magazine editor in charge of one of our denominational periodicals. Rick suggested to Richard that he should invite me to write a couple of articles. What to write? Then, as today, any hint of ministry success was quickly followed by, “What did you do?” Church growth models were touted at conferences, in magazines, and in conversations. Have you tried [blank]?
Try as I might I could not offer anything revolutionary. Nothing worthy of a book. I found it hard to fill out an article length piece. I decided to just tell the story. Context meant something. Conditions could not be ignored. Convictions about the value of people and promoting healthy relationships mattered. These seemed to be more Christian common sense than mining some hidden Scriptural truth. There is no false humility here. There really was nothing earth shattering. No special method.
These thoughts came to mind as I listened to a young pastor friend who lives states away. The influx of mega-churches in his city has created more occasions for some who are church members with him to look for greener grass. He had just read an article in a popular leadership publication online. The writer of the article asserted that during the recent economic downturn and the religious malaise experienced in Christian churches in America, mega-churches are growing. As my friend relayed the content of the article he wondered at the author’s conclusions – it is all about leadership. People like the smorgasbord of opportunities, find the excellence in music and video entertaining, and “everyone is going there.”
My young friend is self-aware. He understands pastoring, the mission of God, and the needs of people. Yet, the struggle is serving in an environment where celebrity reigns. I have read the arguments that any pastor may prefigure celebrity in his community. But, there is celebrity as transcendent. Some take advantage of internet manipulations to gain notoriety. Others go through personal transformations and leverage their positions. Becoming the featured speaker is sure to push one beyond his or her context. Transcendent in this sense is beyond the local, contextual. And at that point the issue becomes and answer to the question, “What did you do to achieve such success?” It is a question of method.
The issue is deeper than method. But, if you pay careful attention many spend a great deal of time defending their particular method with an interesting hermeneutic. In fact, in a video with three pastors discussing video venues and multi-site churches, the popular pastor whose church has opted to plant churches rather than franchise, is not given much space by his younger conversation partners. His arguments are dismissed. And, worse, the methodology employed by these young pastors and others will end when they walk off the stage for the last time. There is no succession for this methodology that is buttressed vigorously by references to interesting readings of the Scriptures. Yes, the matter is more than method.
And, for my friend who may or may not read this piece, this week’s Advent reading from Matthew 11 points to more than method. Pastoral expectations often face the tension of hoping someone, anyone will listen, and the realization that being heard is not really the aim. The real aim is helping others hear the voice of God. Anything that increases the visibility of a person above the person of Jesus is idolatry. We can write books about living radically. But, when will it be that our lives reflect the radical? John the Baptist held certain expectations for the “one to come.” In the throws of suffering the indignities of prison, he could not see the means of his decrease may just be “out of sight” means Jesus will be more on the mind.
UPDATE: For more, and quite an insightful analysis of the leadership and celebrity culture, stop what you are doing and go read Bill Kinnon!