Saying True Things in a True Way

I’ve noticed a trend. In many of our settings, we tend to say things that are true as far as they go, but the way we say them contradicts what’s being said.

  • We’re told that pastors shouldn’t measure themselves by the size of our churches, but we’re told this by megachurch pastors who have platforms because of the size of their church.
  • We’re told to plant small, authentic, missional, reproducing churches at a large, slick conferences in attractional churches.
  • We read books about overcoming the success syndrome in ministry written by pastors who appear to have been quite successful.
  • We read inspiring stories of pastors who suffered and discovered that Jesus is enough even when you lost it all, but they seem to be written by pastors who, in the end, didn’t lose it all.
  • We read that Jesus’ grace is enough to cover present sin, but we typically only hear how Jesus has helped someone deal with sin only in the past.

Please understand: I’m not saying that any of the above is wrong in itself. I’m glad for the megachurch pastors I’ve heard who have reminded me that our identity isn't baed on our church's size. I’m glad for many of the large church conferences I’ve attended that tell me how to plant a small church. I’m grateful for the helpful books I’ve read about not needing to be successful, even if they’re written by successful pastors. And I’m thrilled that Jesus’ grace is enough for the sins of the past.

But I wonder if we can add to the above list without subtracting from it?

  • I want to hear from the pastors who have lots to teach us, even if they don’t have a large platform or a huge follower count.
  • I want to attend a conference one day about being small, authentic, and missional at a church that is small, authentic, and missional.
  • I want to read a book about overcoming the success syndrome written by a pastor who, in the eyes of the world, looks like a failure.
  • I want to hear from the pastor whose story didn’t have a happy ending, and yet who still clings to the fact that Jesus is enough.
  • I want to hear from the struggler who is finding that Jesus is enough not just for past sin, but for present struggle.

In his book Samson and the Pirate Monks, Nate Larkin speaks of his experience attending a church where the pastor spoke of present grace for present sins:

Barely four months later I would be listening to the gospel in a church where it was safe to admit brokenness, where the pastor talked about his own sin in the present tense and celebrated the mercy of God every Sunday. Here I would hear about the covenant of grace and the steadfast love of our heavenly Father. I would be reminded week after week that I am an adopted son of God, no longer an orphan, and that my Father never disowns his own. Finally—and this was the greatest miracle—it was in this church where I would meet many of my future comrades, the men whose friendship God would use to radically rearrange my life.

It’s just one example of the five things I talked about: a pastor speaking about sin and grace in the present tense instead of the past. And it made all the difference in the world, at least in Nate Larkin’s life.

I’ve been wrestling through these issues. I somehow want to say and hear true things in a way that’s congruent with the truth, even if it means listening to people we tend to overlook, and speaking truth’s we’d rather keep to ourselves.

Can't Quit, Won't Quit

As a church planter, I don’t get discouraged often. One day, though, I wanted to quit. I thought of my brother, who told me that he doesn’t have any job-related stress. I wanted to take a “normal” job and be done with the pressures and demands of ministry. And yes, I realized even then that the idea of a stress-free job is a mirage that doesn’t actually exist.

Still, I wanted to quit.

As I thought about this, I began to ask myself what would change. Yes, I would be freed from some of the pressures of vocational ministry. So many other things would stay the same.

  • I would not be my own. I would still be bought with a price, called to glorify God with my body (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
  • I would still be called to invest everything I have — my time, money, energy, and abilities — for maximum return for the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 25:14-30).
  • I would still be called to live sacrificially as part of the church, loving and serving others joyfully (1 Peter 4:7-11).
  • I would still be called to live everyday life with gospel intentionality, entrusting the gospel to others who would likewise entrust the gospel to others (2 Timothy 2:2).

The list goes on. What would change? The option of living for myself and my own comfort is off the table, and that will never change. Whether I serve in vocational ministry or in any other line of work hardly matters. I belong to Him. The expression changes depending on my work. The calling does not.

I suppose there will be other days that I’m tempted to quit the particulars of my ministry situation. I’m glad those days are rare. Regardless, there is no quitting the calling that God has given to all believers, a calling that flows from the gospel and is big enough to encompass all of our lives from now to the grave. Can’t quit, won’t quit. There’s no turning back once the gospel grabs ahold of your soul.

In Praise of Hobbies

I’m a big fan of Sam Javanrouh, a Toronto street photographer who posted a picture a day for ten years. I’m still sad that he only posts the occasional picture now.

When we moved to Liberty Village in December 2012, I thought it would be a good time to try to take some street photography myself. I’ve taken a street photography course with Javanrouh a couple of times, and have been wandering around the Liberty Village community with a camera. I still haven’t run out of things to photograph, and I've posted a picture a day at LibertyVillage365.com for 673 days and counting.

My original intention was to use photography as a way to make connections in the community. It’s a creative and technological community, and I thought a photoblog could allow me to build relationships. Along the way, I discovered that I enjoyed photography. Not only that, but posting a picture every day gets me walking in the community, and it slows me down to observe what’s around me.

In some ways, the photography hasn’t done what I’d hoped. It hasn’t led to connections in the same way that other initiatives have. I’ve participated in one art show, and I’m about to participate in another. I’ve been able to publish a photobook using Kickstarter, and I’m about to order a few more for a Christmas show in a couple of weeks. I’m still posting a photo every day. We’ve been able to use some of these photographs in our ministry. I've met at least one significant community leader through the photoblog. All of this is good, but I won’t be writing a book about how to grow your church using street photography anytime soon.

When are you free to be fully yourself without your ministry leadership role? In what ways are you developing your hobbies?
— Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving

But I’d do it again in a minute, not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself. I’m learning the joy of avocation, and in taking the time to enjoy my community in ways that I might not in the busyness of life and ministry. Plus, it’s fun to know that my photos are hanging in some people’s homes now.

I’ve met a few other pastors and theologians who enjoy photography too. If you’ve ever thought about pursuing photography as a hobby, I’d encourage you to pursue it. Today, I’d like to sing the praises of hobbies when they’re rightly pursued.

The Number-One "Vision Problem"

I believe in the importance of vision and leadership. Still, I've grown almost allergic to the statements that seem to be so common about having and casting a vision. It's why I love this quote by John Ortberg in Ready, Steady, Grow, a book by Ray Evans. Ortberg says:

Vision is fundamental to the health of your church, but it’s probably not the kind of vision you’re thinking about.

Someone gets gripped by a vision that will not let them go. But it is not a vision of what they’re going to do. It is not a vision of a preferred future. It is not a vision of human activity. It is a vision of what already is. It is a vision of God, and how good he is, and how wonderful it is to be alive and a friend of such a Being.

Out of such a vision flow desires to do good things for such a God. Sometimes these activities may lead to results... And then other people may gather, and some decide they’d like to be involved...[But] people begin to pay more attention to what they are doing than to the reality of God.

At this point the mission replaces the vision as the dominant feature in people’s consciousness... people are living under the tyranny of Producing Impressive Results.

The number-one ‘vision problem’ with churches today is not (as is widely held) leaders who ‘lack a vision’. The real problem is when our primary focus shifts from who God is (a vision alone that can lead to ‘the peace of Christ reigning in our hearts’) to what we are doing.

Great quote. The number one problem with vision in our churches is that we lack a vision of God. Until we have that, almost nothing else matters.

The First Priority of Leadership

What’s the first priority of leadership? Character. It matters more than leadership techniques, skills, or even results. The results that matter, after all, flow from character.

I’ve been thinking about this recently in light of three different books: The Deep Change Field Guide by Robert Quinn, Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer,  and Redefining Leadership by Joe Stowell.

To my surprise, Palmer has a lot to say about leadership in Let Your Life Speak. Because pastors are (among other things) leaders, and “a leader is someone with the power to project either shadow or light onto some part of the world and onto the lives of the people who dwell there,” character is crucial. Palmer writes:

A leader shapes the ethos in which others must live, an ethos as light-filled as heaven or as shadowy as hell. A good leader is intensely aware of the interplay of inner shadow and light, lest the act of leadership do more harm than good.

Leaders, he writes, have a tendency to “project more shadow than light.” Positive thinking doesn't change this, and it also ignores some dangers:

By failing to look at our shadows, we feed a dangerous delusion that leaders too often indulge: that our efforts are always well-intended, our power is always benign, and the problem is always in those difficult people whom we are trying to lead!…If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone “out there” into the enemy, becoming leaders who oppress rather than liberate others.

Parker outlines five issues that we tend to face, including insecurity about identity and worth, a tendency to view everything as a battle, functional atheism (“It all depends on me”), fear of chaos, and denial of death. I think I've seen all five in leaders, including myself.

What is a good leader? Parker writes:

Good leadership comes from people who have penetrated their own inner darkness and arrived at the place where we are at one with one another, people who can lead the rest of us into a place of “hidden wholeness” because they have been there and know the way.

It’s no accident that Scripture puts such high value on the character of a leader. It’s the difference between what Joe Stowell calls “character-driven leadership” and “outcome-driven leadership.” We need more focus on character. Character, Stowell writes, is the defining priority of leadership. His book, along with Let Your Life Speak and The Deep Change Field Guide, are striking similar notes.

We will inevitably project who we are. All the leadership techniques in the world will not change this. Apart from a character that is shaped by the gospel, we will project shadows. The first priority of a leader must be character: to be remade by the gospel, to experience the deepest change, to be the chief repenter, the most enamored with the gospel, and the most real about life.

Character is the first priority of leadership.