Paying for School

My ongoing adventures in life and the pursuit of more...

Friday, January 11, 2019

Centered Set pt. 2

The danger of writing about something like Centered set, for me, is that it seems a little like writing a blog post describing kissing to someone. It's not only awkward to read but it may put you off kissing forever.

The importance of describing my understanding of the application of this illustration to how we "do church" is primarily in my own relationship as a pastor of a specific local church. Shedding some light on my perspective will, i hope, create a door through which others may enter to understand why I do things the way I do things and hope our whole church will follow me in this understanding and practice.

Set theory gives us a nice illustration of three ways we can organize ourselves as a church. We can choose to be a Bounded set, a Centered set or a Fuzzy set. These are not intended to limit how we think about the church as a group of people who have been called out to form community or a new family – these are just illustrations that are helpful in the broadest terms to help us picture what our life together is like.

A Bounded set picture is probably the most familiar picture and easiest to get our heads around in our church context. You have a ring that represents the clear boundary between who is “in” and who is “out.” That ring represents the beliefs and behaviors (spoken and unspoken) that a person must adopt and adapt to in order to be on the inside. If you do not adopt and adapt you are on the outside of the set. Belonging to the set is based on clear, external markers.

The Fuzzy set picture is an illustration of a group with no clearly defined raison d’etre, no unifying center or obvious boundary. Values, standards and expectations on the members of the set are kept intentionally vague in a Fuzzy set. If you tried to nail down the participants in a Fuzzy set to define the nature of their involvement with the set, they might say that the only thing that matters is coming together but more likely they will give a wide variety of reasons for being in the set. Belonging to the set is based on the willingness of the participants to identify with a particular set for as long or as briefly as they choose.

I would describe the Centered Set as being wholly dependent on the Center and the gravitational pull of the Center to define the relationship of the individual to both the set and the other individuals who make up the set. I would define the Center of the Church to be Jesus as the autobasileia, the kingdom of God in person. Moving towards the center makes us a part of the set and creates the connection with one another in the set. The Centered set in this case is based on relationship – the individual’s to Jesus which in turn defines all other relationships by the direction of the primary relationship (moving towards the Center or moving away from the Center) of the individual.

In this use of the Centered set illustration then, the questions about “in” and “out” are instead questions of orientation – “are you moving towards the Center or are you moving away from the Center?” The complication this creates then is that it means we actually have to get to know other people and engage in conversation and relationship with them to develop an awareness of their orientation. Jesus said, “Stop judging by mere appearances and make a righteous judgment.” Centered set illustrates that appearances can be deceiving, and we can’t simply Tweet someone “out” or “in” to the kingdom life.

Sometimes people describe themselves as Centered set but then take one more step to give specific definition to what “moving towards” and “moving away from” looks like in such specificity that their Centered set is simply a cleverly disguised Bounded set.

Centered set is inherently messier than Bounded or Fuzzy set. Bounded allows us to make very superficial determinations about others and requires no proximity. Fuzzy set allows us to make no determinations about others and requires no proximity in relationship. Centered set requires time. Time to accurately observe the direction a person is moving. Centered set requires proximity. Proximity to accurately observe the outside and glimpse the inside of an individual – to see the evidence of the Holy Spirit in their lives.

And we despise mess in our North American culture. Certainty, not mystery, is what we look for in our faith and in those who espouse it and desire to lead us.  

A Centered set means that the individuals in the set are becoming more like Jesus as they move closer to the center but not necessarily more like each other. Arguably to become more like Jesus is to become more like each other but not in any sense that would require us to become nonspecific or conform to a superficial appearance by which we identify one another as part of our set.

 In Jesus, God adapted to become man. He continues to adapt to those who follow him and are adopted by him. You don’t have to become a man to follow Jesus. You don’t have to become Jewish to follow Jesus. You don’t have to move and live in Israel. The pull of the Center is to become like Jesus in our day, and in our way. That may look different from another person who is on the same journey towards the same Center because their place and circumstances are different from my own.

(in part 3 I will describe some specific, real-life situations in doing life together in which Centered set is different from the others.)

Friday, January 4, 2019

Centered Set

I want to write about Set theory and how I use it as an illustration for doing life together. But to do that I need to write in at least 3 parts. First, my pre-amble where I describe the weakness and complication of Set theory in conversation about doing life together. Second, my own personal take on three components of Set theory as they relate to doing life together. Third, and most challenging to write or read will be a conversation about real life instances where Set theory helps and hurts as we try to work out what doing life together looks like.

Along the way I have had some questions, as a pastor and a follower of Jesus, about how we do life together…how we are supposed to do life together.

Following Jesus is not a solitary journey. Our story is a story about community and “one anothering.” Someone once said that pastoring would be easy if it wasn’t for all the people. But what is pastoring if it's not about all the people? From Paul’s epistles to the present day there have been vast amounts of writing and preaching committed to explaining how to do this life together. And while there are many similarities and overlap, like snowflakes, no two takes seem to be the same.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing but it can create a lot of confusion.

Bonhoeffer’s, LifeTogether, was a big influence for helping me think through how our relationships are supposed to work.

Another significant influence has been the use, in the Vineyard, of Set theory (or Social Set theory) – as an illustration of life together that Wimber borrowed from Sociology (and Mathematics). After Wimber, other Vineyard leaders and scholars have continued to use Set theory as an illustration to answer the question, “What does doing life together look like?” as well as the two questions that seem to preoccupy the evangelical mind:

How do we know if we are “in” or if we’re “out?”
And perhaps our greater pre-occupation -
How do we know if someone else is “in” or if they’re “out?”

Even Set theory, as it has been used as an illustration to try to answer this question, doesn’t always say the same thing. But analogies and illustrations are like that – the more specific we try to get the more it tends to break down.

So why use it?
Because it is, I think, a very useful illustration for doing life together. But what we have to do is let each person’s use of the illustration stand alone as it is dependent primarily on the perspective it is meant to illustrate and not as a doctrine in and of itself.

My take on the Centered Set, Bounded Set and Fuzzy Set (the basic components of Set theory) as they illustrate how we relate to others has been influenced by the way it has been used by others. Nevertheless, I can’t illustrate my thoughts with Set theory as if I my central ideas are the very same as those of others who have used this sociological theory as illustration. When we read what other people are saying about Set theory in this same context, we should not assume they mean the same thing or arrive at the same conclusions or are illustrating the same point to  the same end. 

Or to put it another way, just because I use Set theory to talk about life together does not mean, in fact probably does not mean, that I am accurately representing
the teaching and writing others have done on doing life together using the same concepts of Set theory to illustrate their own understanding.

Jack Niewold writes:
Set theory, or social set theory, describes the relationship between organizations and their cultural and social environments. My discussion of set theory primarily concerns the church. In concept, set theory is quite simple and easy to grasp. When one leaves the abstract level, however, set theory rapidly becomes much more subtle and complex. As formulated by Hiebert and others, social set theory postulates that organizations fall into one of three models: bounded, centered, and fuzzy sets.[1]

In other words, Set theory is great as an illustration but we get in the weeds pretty quickly if we try to break it down and try to find our specific answers within the simple illustration.

So that’s my pre-amble or pre-ramble.
I want to explain my own view of doing life together in my next post and I will be using Set theory to illustrate my understanding. If you come back to read that, please keep the above in mind as you do. And please note, as you do, that I am not claiming to exegete Wimber or anyone else who has used Set theory before me.

As we move into a new day and a new way of living, where church attendance patterns have changed and giving patterns have changed and traditional metrics no longer have much meaning, figuring out what life together looks like is more important than ever.


Thursday, December 6, 2018

Church Planting Magic 100% Guaranteed to Work Every Time

You know how magicians supposedly get really mad at magicians who share the secrets behind magic tricks?

I’m going to tell you a secret, as a pastor, that is behind every successful church plant.

This is THE secret behind every successful church plant. And I’m not going to charge you anything for it.

This is a freebie.

I’ve been in vocational ministry for over 30 years now. I’ve been involved in church plants, established churches, para-church, the whole deal. I’ve been able to hang out with some pretty well known people in vocational ministry – people who cover the gamut from apostle to teachers.

I’ve spent time with people who have planted and led mega-churches and others who have planted and led churches of less than 100 people.

And everything in between.

Today I want to reveal the secret of successful church planting.

This secret is the only 100% foolproof tip that exists for planting new churches. It always works. ALWAYS. 

And it’s the only one that works without fail. Others will sell you a course, give you tips, offer you a package of messages or produce yet another book that promises to take you from zero to mega (or at least a respectable number for your particular denomination).

None of these are as accurate, reliable or as honest as the secret I am about to reveal to you.

Now, I need to be clear, I’m not talking about someone like Rob Bell who leads the Sunday night service at one church that grows to 1000 people and then moves across town to start a new church with that 1000 people. That’s something different. It’s not bad but it’s not a church plant the way most people who plant churches have lived it.

I’m talking about moving to a place you’ve never been, gathering people and becoming a self-sustaining congregation of Jesus followers.

There’s a danger in giving away this secret. Some of my fellow pastors will get mad at me. Like the magician’s lore, they won’t take kindly to me giving away this secret. And there’s another group, that curious group of experts with no real track record who sell secrets and the magic that reportedly goes with them to eager, hopeful pastors looking to plant and grow their own mini-mega. They will take exception with me just giving this info away to you.

It’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Are you ready? Have I teased this out long enough? Are you anxious to discover this secret that can lead to you too becoming the planting pastor of a soon to be mega-church?

If you’ve ever watched one of those shows where the magician gives away the secrets of magic tricks you will know this to be true – once you know the trick you will be very disappointed.

The thing is this, we want to believe in magic. Even when it comes to planting churches, we desperately want to believe that it’s magic.

A magic spell. A magic formula. A magic system.

We want assurances and certainties that some people – like David Copperfield – really can make that plane disappear. We want assurances and certainties that some people – purpose driven people – really can make a church appear and grow because they aren’t just doing a trick. They ARE magic.

And we can be magic too.

We tried this once in the denomination I am a part of. We went to people who had planted churches and whose church had grown to a great size and we said, “Obviously you have the magic. Please resign your position and turn over what you’ve built and go do this again. Because you’re magic.”

The buy in was, well, pretty much what you would expect. It wasn’t overwhelming.

But some pioneers, some real craftsmen (and women) stepped up and stepped out and went to plant again.

And WA-LAA! PRESTO! They did it again.

And sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes the magic didn’t go with them. Sometimes the same magic words that worked the magic in their old location just – well – didn’t.

Of course, this didn’t stop people from selling the magic tricks to new people starting out who felt their own inner call to the world of magic and church planting.

And conferences and consultants and books and recordings have been, are being and will be sold that offer the secrets of lightning in a bottle.

And because 1 out of many many planters actually come up with the bottle of lightning and their plant makes it – and sometimes even goes mega – this fuels the imagination of all of us that the only difference between one persons success and my own is that they learned the magic correctly and I can too.

Hopefully we never stop to think about the kingdom ethics of charging people to tell them how to plant and grow a church. Planters are generally too busy for casual contemplation.

O.K., I’ve stalled you long enough and I feel badly about that. After all, there’s a church, probably another mega-church, just waiting to be birthed once this secret falls into your hands – because I GUARANTEE this will work. It ALWAYS works, every single time – and it’s the ONLY ONE THAT DOES.

There are three ingredients to this trick and you HAVE to have all 3 in place or it won’t work.


The right person, in the right place at the right time.

Guaranteed. Foolproof. 100% certain to produce every single time.

Once in a great while the right place and the right time will make something happen but sustainability of the trick requires all 3 eventually come together.

And that’s a freebie, you can thank me in the comment section. Everybody else, well, they’re selling dreams and that’s not bad, everybody needs a dream. But what I just told you, it’s the only thing that actually works.

So enjoy, my friends, and let me know how it’s going for you. 

To all my fellow magicians, I apologize but some secrets should not be taken to the grave. 

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Being Better Together - What Does It Take?

We are about half-way through our series on being better together - a fellowship of differents, at our church.

In these days of intense polarization we are staking out Galatians 3:28 for this whole series and the big idea Paul unpacks for the Galatians and eventually the Romans. Being in Christ changes the narrative geography we inhabit and the relationships we share with those who share that piece of mystical real estate.

Bonhoeffer wrote, “Life Together” and gave the Church in his time and place some guidance on what that should look like for all of us sharing this home in Christ. It’s guidance nearly completely stands the test of time and the shift in cultures. We would all be better off for having read it, even better for having applied it to our everyday lives.

In this post today I want to quickly offer a few thoughts for our current time and culture – a little guidance for my friends – on what being better together and living as a fellowship of different takes today.

To live successfully as a fellowship of differents, the beloved community, the outpost of the kingdom of heaven, we need to practice self-awareness.

Self-awareness is not self-consciousness or self-centeredness. It means regularly, honestly and fearlessly taking a look at the man or woman in the mirror. And almost all of the time, the mirror for having a look at ourselves is in our relationship with other people.

Other people are the gift God gives us to discover who we really are.

I’m quite good at fooling myself. I can very easily focus on my intentions rather than my actions, my most noble thoughts rather than my more perverse ones. And on another day I find it very easy to condemn myself and find no good thing in me, wretched man that I am. Community reminds me that the truth is somewhere in between. I’m neither angel nor devil but something more like the way Brennan Manning describes himself, “When I get honest, I admit I am a bundle of paradoxes. I believe and I doubt, I hope and get discouraged, I love and I hate, I feel bad about feeling good, I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am trusting and suspicious. I am honest and I still play games. Aristotle said I am a rational animal; I say I am an angel with an incredible capacity for beer.”

Life before the mirror of community, authentic community, sharing life together, help me see myself in all my glory and all my imperfection. And this is good.

To live successfully as a fellowship of differents requires all of us sharing this home in Christ to be self-aware enough to recognize our incredible tendency to be wrong about things.

Do you know the difference between how you feel on the inside when you are wrong about something and when you are right about something?

There is no difference. 

Until you know you are wrong you feel exactly the same on the inside as you do when you are sure you are right. We need each other, this fellowship of different to help us discover the places and ways in which we are wrong – BUT STILL LOVED.

I am biased. So are you. It’s our broken default setting. We need to practice self-awareness by being willing to admit we all have bias, we all listen through our bias and speak through our bias and that’s dangerous only when we are unaware of our bias. Life together helps uncover our bias. It helps us recognize that our “normal” setting actually looks quite different from the “normal” setting of others and we might need to actually contemplate what “normal” really is.

These are two big ideas, two major practices for doing life together as a fellowship of differents, that I have seen profoundly lacking in the church today. Not just the church I attend but THE Church. I’ve seen the absence or lack of these two aspects of self-awareness tear up families, workplaces and churches.

The Red Green Possum lodge prays this simple prayer, “I'm a man, but I can change, If I have to, I guess.” Maybe it can be a starting place for us and our capacity for self-awareness.

Within the fellowship of differents, our greatest need when it comes to self-awareness is our awareness that we are in need of grace. God’s grace and the grace of God extended to us through other people, especially our friends. As followers of Jesus we often talk about grace and reference grace, even expressing appreciation for grace and maybe even acknowledging our dependence on God’s grace.

And then we promptly walk away and act like had it covered.

Jesus told this story about a guy who needed grace.

Like a billion dollars’ worth of grace.

And the guy was given grace. A clean slate. And then he came across someone who owed him some pocket change and demanded immediate repayment.

In the story as Jesus told it, God does not take kindly to those who gratefully receive grace but do not willingly extend that grace to others.  This wasn’t a “get to heaven” parable, it was a story about how you and I are supposed to get along together, as different as we are.

Because here’s the deal. You need grace.

We're both the first guy in the story AND the second guy in Jesus' story.

You don’t just need God’s grace, you need grace from the people with whom you are doing life. 

Here’s an exercise – think of someone you know in your own little world who bugs the crap out of you. Someone you hope isn’t at the meeting, meal or get together. Someone who doesn’t even have to speak before you are already on edge around them.

You are that person for someone else. Someone close to you. Someone you think of as a good friend. Some days you are that person to many people. 

I promise.

If you don't already know this it is because people around you don't feel like you can bear hearing it, worry what hearing it would do to your relationship with them or you have power of some kind over them and they fear reprisal.

But the truth of doing life together is that people you love sometimes think you stink and some people you're doing life with who you feel like you or are with you ALSO think you stink. Doing life together with love and mercy at the center can bear this.

I have a friend who killed someone.

He was driving downtown in a heavy downpour and had several more drinks than anyone should have when they are behind the wheel of a car. On the road ahead of him a young man tried to run in the rain as quickly as he could from one side of the street to the other. My friend saw him, but didn’t react quickly enough – and there was plenty of time – and hit and killed him.

My friend turned himself in and did time and on his release he sought out the father of the young man he killed. He sought grace. He was looking for forgiveness. The father of the young man showed mercy and extended forgiveness and grace and even reconciliation so that he became a guiding influence in my friend’s life.

But here’s the part of the story that I need to get to – this friend of mine practiced grace in the most irritating relationships he found himself in after that because he was self-aware enough to know that he had killed another man and that a father had given him grace and forgiveness for what he thought could never be forgiven.

My prayer would be that we all catch the revelation of how much we have been forgiven, you and I. May we all have the self-awareness to see how much grace we need and more freely extend that grace to the people we know and don’t know. I would ask God to expand all of our capacities to walk humbly with one another and gracefully with one another and instead of judging we might extend a hand of mercy.

After all, mercy does triumph over judgment. When we practice self-awareness we will embrace mercy as a way of life together.

Brother’s Keeper
by Rich Mullins

Now the plumber's got a drip in his spigot
The mechanic's got a clank in his car
And the preacher's thinking thoughts that are wicked
And the lover's got a lonely heart
My friends ain't the way I wish they were
They are just the way they are

And I will be my brother's keeper
Not the one who judges him
I won't despise him for his weakness
I won't regard him for his strength
I won't take away his freedom
I will help him learn to stand
And I will, I will be my brother's keeper

Now this roof has got a few missing shingles
But at least we got ourselves a roof
And they say that she's a fallen angel
I wonder if she recalls when she last flew
There's no point in pointing fingers
Unless you're pointing to the truth

And I will be my brother's keeper
Not the one who judges him
I won't despise him for his weakness
I won't regard him for his strength
I won't take away his freedom
I will help him learn to stand
And I will, I will be my brother's keeper

…to be continued…

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Being Better Together

The church I’m a part of is about to begin a new series that is meant to be an invitation for us to think and feel and discern what it means to be a fellowship of differents.

What does living that out look like?

The old story goes like this…you can build a better and bigger church by making as much as you can of the principle of homogeneity. Like draws like and the more you are the same the more comfortable people will be gathering together. It’s a kind of “path of least resistance” to getting the maximum number of people under the same roof.

There are a few problems with that story but not least among them is that this bears no resemblance to the kingdom Jesus came to build.

Martin Luther King Jr. called the church out when he observed, "it is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o'clock on Sunday morning." We’ve segregated ourselves. No one did this to us. And that is the most appalling part of it for me.

We segregate ourselves by ethnicity, by culture, by age, by socio-economics, by theology, by politics, by a multitude of preferences so that we can gather together to convince ourselves we’ve got something everyone else needs.

The thing is, we’ve been at this for 2000 years and counting. Wouldn’t you think we’ve had sorted this out by now? Am I the only one that thinks our will to segregate negates our authority to speak to the dominant culture?

Scott McKnight, in his book A Fellowship of Differents, writes, "The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together are designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a family."

I don’t know if anyone has ever been given an “F” for show-and-tell but we definitely deserve one.
If our churches – no, if our lives – don’t reflect the diversity of our community, we are not living like Jesus.


The early church didn’t take to this like a fish to water either. This is hard work. Read James or 1 Timothy or 1 Thessalonians or 1 Corinthians or the Didache. Doing something new means doing hard work. There have been some bright lights, some hopeful communities, some tastes of what this beloved community can be like but we struggle to sustain it.

Because it is hard work.

Because it is costly.

Because it is the path of the most resistance.

But it is the good life.

Can I be offensive and suggest that I’ve seen as many or more people who are not Christians living this good life than I have seen Christians who embrace it?

Can I risk being offensive to tell you that the evangelical system of the last 100 years has taught us to be partisan in the worst ways and called “holy” our bent towards division?

There is a movement of churches of which I am familiar that published a resource for their churches on how to have difficult conversations. It’s a key practice for anyone who wants to be in the beloved community, a fellowship of differents. But here’s the deal, as a movement of churches they kind of suck at having difficult conversations. I’m sure they happen. I’ve heard they happen. But I’ve also heard from more people who didn’t get invited to have them than I’ve met people who did get invited to have them.

Why bring that up? Because historically we, as Christians, are great at telling everyone how they ought to live, what’s wrong with them, the way things out to be done, but when it comes down to us doing it – being better together – embracing each other in a fellowship of different – we kind of suck. 

But we don’t have to.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Thoughts on Worship to Alienate More Friends

The other day I received an email that offered to help me up our game when it comes to stage lighting.

Quoting lighting and worship leaders from various churches, the article extolled the virtues of being able to set mood, adjust the lighting temperature for video cameras, use LED panels for dynamic backgrounds…generally to create a vibe.

One hard-working lighting pastor even spends part of his work week contemplating how to use the lighting to enhance the preaching pastor’s message.

The other day I was messaging with a pastor friend who was displaced by a recent hurricane and moved his whole congregation of 300 people under a big top to worship together in a parking lot.

And then another hurricane came through and shredded their “tent of meeting” and left them, I guess, with just the parking lot to worship in.

The juxtaposition of these two situations got me thinking about what we’ve made of worship through technology.

I’m not a Hutterite. I’m not against technology. I love electric guitar, amplification and bass that I can feel in my chest. I even like lighting, especially when it helps me see what’s going on. I prefer projected lyrics and I use powerpoint and video clips when I preach.

But there comes a point when we have to ask whether we are using technology appropriately for our worship context and even whether we are using it ethically.

I’ve watched over the last 30 years (wait, what? Am I really that old?) as the “vibe” has changed. I’ve embraced most of that change, even lobbied for a lot of it.

But if I’m honest, I have to admit that there are some unintended consequences.

People sing less and watch more. Not all people, not everywhere but as I travel I have noticed in the various places I go the congregational singing that happened as we held onto our hymnals has become more spectator and less participant as the lights have gone down and production value has gone up.

I don’t mind saying the worship team is performing or even that I am performing when I preach. But I think we’ve rigged the game with the amount of technology we use and created an atmosphere, a concert vibe, that affects both the worship team and the worhippers in less than helpful ways.

Years ago I was leading worship and we were approaching a moment when the electric guitar would carry the song through a time intended to be reflective. As we came to that moment I caught, out of the corner of my eye, my young, electric guitar player doing “the walk” until he reached his stage monitor, put his foot up on it and proceeded to bang his head during one of the slowest rock n roll solos I have ever heard.

We all loved him but I knew then that we had created a sort of Christian Karaoke out of our worship. Some folks like Karaoke. Some folks are bored by it. Some are just mystified by it. Some look for another bar.

There’s also, I think, an ethical nature to the kind of production this article talks about. The word “manipulation” isn’t used but it’s really at the heart of the article. We have the technology to manipulate people’s emotions and through their emotions we can manipulate their wills.

I get that worship does that on a natural level. The words and music have their effect on us. But like the old preacher who would start his invitation for salvation at the end of his message by telling a dead dog story, a story to elicit strong emotions, we are using technology in our worship that elicits a strong emotional response which people are confusing for the Spirit. My hope is that as followers of Jesus we can agree that manipulation is wrong.

Here’s where I need to bring up the beard.

How many whiskers does it take to make a beard? Two? Four? Twenty-four? It’s difficult to say how many whiskers make up a beard. And yet we know a beard when we see one.

I bring up the beard because someone will inevitably ask, “How much technology does it take before it becomes manipulation?” or something like that.  We don’t have to come up with percentages to know manipulation when we see it. And we need to avoid manipulating people.

“The way the kingdom comes is the kingdom that comes.”

Back to my friend, Lucas, in a parking lot without even a tent to meet in. I suspect that they will find a way to worship and their worship will not be harmed by the lack of LED panels to control the lighting temperature for live streaming nor would it be enhanced by the same. Worship is not in our production, it’s what we bring in our hearts and heads when we gather.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far way called California, some hippies started a revolution. Some of them plugged in. But it was simple. It did not require fog or haze. Follow spots did not help enhance the mood. LED tape did not elevate people. There was no auto-tune to make it sound just right.

Technology has always come with this promise of an easier lifestyle. I think we’ve embraced this in our contemporary worship here in North America and used it to create “vibes” because that’s a lot easier than a lifestyle of worship that carries its own “vibe” with it.

My hope is that we discern the difference between worship and manipulation, between production and producing and between the end and the means. The juice is worth the squeeze, as my friend Jason says. Worship offers us a better promise than technology can ever deliver on.

Now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go watch my Facebook friends count go down.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

When a Pastor Eats Roast Lamb

I am introspective by nature.

Ask me what I think and I will take a few minutes to answer. Ask me what I feel and I will have to get back to you in a few days.

Turning inward is my “go to” move.

As a pastor of a local church I know that I disappoint, hurt, confuse and frustrate people all the time. John Ortberg said, “Leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can stand.” I lean into that.

But the events that have transpired at Willow Creek and the stories of the women who have been used and abused by their former founding pastor are stories of another kind.

I’ve read articles and listened to a podcast and the gist of these has mostly been “pastor, look inward for there but for the grace of God you too will go…” and the more disturbing, “the only person who can sit in judgment of Billy Hybels is someone who has risen to the same level of responsibility and authority…”yada yada.

And while I think we all need to look inward more – well, most of us, some of us probably need to pull up because we spend so much time down that well – this is not a “there but for the grace of God…” situation.

Unless your thing is to be a serial user and abuser. A predator.

I know people who have had a slip. I know people who have become involved with someone who was not their spouse through work proximity or a counseling session that broke boundaries. I know people who have strayed one click too far on the internet.  I can relate to all those scenarios. I am capable of all of those scenarios.

But setting women up, over and over and over again, multiple women in various situations, in and out of the local church in order to use them for my own gratification or need to feel powerful? That’s not a slip.

That is called a pathology.

That is a person who is locked into a compulsion that is destined to wreck lives, eventually including their own.

This week a report was released from Pennsylvania that details in over 900 pages the abuse of over 1000 individuals by Roman Catholic priests over a period of 70 years.

In Pennsylvania. Six dioceses in Pennsylvania.

This should not be read as a call to introspection. It should be read as, “If you are abusing women or children, sexually or otherwise, get the hell out of pastoral ministry.” You are caught in a pathology of sin, not a victim of ordinary temptation.

Get out. Confess your sins. Get help. But stop hurting people through your position as a pastor.

Paul warns the leaders at the fledgling church in Ephesus, “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! Remember the three years I was with you—my constant watch and care over you night and day, and my many tears for you.” (Ac 20:28-31 NLT)

Someone reminded me that this passage is about guarding against false teachers, not serial sexual predators. My thought is that if we don’t think that abusing the sheep teaches them something false about the gospel, and doesn’t do damage to their faith, then we don’t understand teaching or the gospel or both.

As leaders and pastors we’re supposed to protect the sheep, not eat them. Roast lamb is never supposed to be on the menu.

Jesus told his followers, “But 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.” (Ma 18:6)

I think we need to take this as seriously as Jesus does. I think that’s what followers of Jesus do and I think it’s what the watching World needs us to do.

The World, I think, can tell the difference between a pastor who makes a bad choice and sinfully wrecks his own marriage and family and a pastor who preys on women and/or children in a series of manipulative and abusive encounters.

Sesame Street taught us that one of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong. If we treat serial abuse the same as or equate it with a pastor who has fallen into temptation to embezzle funds, have an affair or get charged with a DUI, we are communicating something to the victims of these serial perpetrators that is not true and will do harm to their souls. We also communicate something false to other pastors that we believe that at any time they themselves will start down this path of serial abuse which will create unintended consequences for those who become consumed with fear.

I have read articles suggesting that accountability partners are the answer.  Not lying to people is the answer. A serial abuser will look at you and lie to all your accountability questions because they are lying to themselves and everyone else already.

I have read articles that point to all the good that Bill Hybels has done. “We can’t read all those books and see all those people who have come to Jesus and throw it all out!” This response has made me question who we think is really behind all these good things. Did God build Willow or did Bill? Did God speak truth to us through books written by Bill and his ghostwriters or was it dependent on Bill’s “anointing?”

Bad people can do good things.

Good people can do bad things.

But we cannot respond to serial abusers the same way we respond to people who slip and fall, own their stuff and get back up again.

Finally, please do not say that the only people who can speak to someone who has done the things Bill has unless they have the same life experience that he has. That’s precisely the kind of thinking that perpetuates the environment and culture in which this kind of abuse takes place. I heard the same tripe with Mark Driscoll and it was old then.

Predatory sexual manipulation and abuse is wrong. Period. Full stop.

A six year old has all the authority he needs to tell you or anyone else, king or queen, that one of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong.

 So, Jesus doesn’t love Bill and God’s grace can’t redeem him? Neither I nor anyone else I know is saying that. But being the object of God’s love and the work of his redemptive love does not give us a free pass to eat other sheep. We should not react to predatory behavior in leaders the same as we do another brother or sister who sins – or another leader who sins.

 So what do we do?

We co-create healthy systems with God by his empowering Spirit.

We avoid dysfunctional systems that perpetuate this kind of serial abuse.

Here are some of the rules dysfunctional systems live by – avoid these, run from these, confront these:

·       Don’t talk about problems. 
·       If you must talk about problems, never talk about the real problem.
·       Don’t talk about your feelings.
·       Never talk to another family member directly.  Always go through another person.
·       Do as I say, not as I do.
·       Don’t rock the boat. Ever.
·       Don’t tell people outside our system about our troubles.
·       Don’t trust people outside our system.
·       Keep our family secrets.
·       Resists outsiders from entering the system to observe, interview or critique.
·       Unclear personal boundaries.
·       False loyalty to the family system.
·       Members are never free to leave the system.

To my brothers and sisters in pastoral ministry, things just keep getting harder but don’t let that keep you from caring for the flock of God of which you are a part. We need each other, now more than ever. We need to share our burdens with each other and stop buying the success illusion. Be faithful and don’t give up on your amazing calling to shepherd and protect. May we have the courage to dismantle the unhealthy systems we have created together that have turned the flock of God into ground lamb and may God empower us to say, “No.” to the  opportunities to take advantage of our role whenever and wherever they present themselves to us.