Pastor, Why Do You Want a Big Church?

Does that strike you as a strange question? Of course we want big churches because that will mean more people know and love the Lord Jesus Christ. That may be true, but not in all cases. Let us not forget Jesus’ warning that Satan can grow the church or fall into that trap that equates attendance with faith. I have written other posts exploring whether pastors should be passionate about numerical growth, and I have offered a few cautions about the role of metrics in ministry. In this post I hope to explore the pastor’s desire for a big church. This desire is surely in many cases a healthy and prayerful longing for evangelism and conversions. However I think that we are deceiving ourselves if we deny that mixed motives may lie behind it. Pastors are, after all, sinful, limited and self-seeking human beings. It is this darker side of the pursuit for big ministries that I hope to address below.

Idolatry

Church growthAs with many of the things we make into idols the thing desired may be morally neutral, and in many cases positive. A large as well as healthy church is undoubtedly an honourable aim and God-honouring ambition. But this means that it easily becomes a noble idol, similar to a happy family or success in the workplace. Pastors can very easily slip into desiring something good over and above God, which is a decent but limited definition of idolatry. Surely if I can make something as ostensibly God-given and wonderfully satisfying as marriage into an idol I can do the same with growing and pastoring a large church. In many ways this point will underpin the rest, which are struggles that I believe show we are bowing to the idol of a big, successful ministry instead of the God who grants us the privilege and task of ministry.

Desiring recognition

Linked with the above, Iain Duguid describes idols as things we demand from God in order to give us significance. It is not hard to see how being at the helm of a big church could lead to locating your meaning and even your identity in that, instead of Christ. I imagine this temptation develops the longer one is in ministry. After years of faithfully teaching the Bible, caring for God’s flock and making the many sacrifices involved in full-time ministry the hunger for recognition must cry out. Other pastors less gifted than yourself are enjoying success and growth. As you compare your own work to others you become racked with insecurity that insists you deserve recognition. This will only happen if your significance has shifted from Christ to being the leader of a big and successful church. 

Discontentment

Similarly to the point above, perseverance in ministry can quickly give way to discontentment with the church God has given you. Make no mistake: the church you pastor is God’s treasured possession bought with the blood of his Son and entrusted to undeserving men and women to lead. In his Institutes, commenting on sin in Genesis 3, John Calvin writes, “Ambition and pride, together with ungratefulness, arose, because Adam [was] seeking more than was granted him” (2.1.4). Adam spurned God’s great bounty. Like our first parents who were far too easily persuaded that God was holding something back from them, pastors grow discontent when their churches remain small. Ingratitude causes many pastors to overlook the glorious gift of God’s church – and their responsibility to it – in their longing for a bigger one.

Failing to accept your limitations

MinistryIt is ironic how proud those in service of the crucified Christ can become. Pastors speak about growing churches, assuming that they will be able to cope with its compounded pressures and demands. The proud pastor forecasts numerical growth as if he is in control and without accepting that he may not be gifted and godly enough to manage that growth. There are two problems here: the first is that it is God alone who gives the growth, who begins and finishes his work in people while using weak and often unwitting humans in the process. Secondly, being aware of his own failings and limitations, his very humanity, the pastor should recognise that the reason his church has not broken the 1000 barrier is simply because God in his perfect wisdom knows he will not be able to lead a church that size. God can grow a church despite its pastor in the same way he can keep growth from those who seem to have all the gifts necessary in leading a megachurch. The point is we do not determine that. However grand our vision for church growth we must face reality: God grows his church and we do not. Furthermore, our limitations do not limit God’s action, though in his kindness he may prevent your church from growing to a size that will crush you.

Seeking comfortable ministry

When I was heading up a youth ministry a few years back one of the teens told me that his aim was to become filthy rich, so thathe could be really generous to gospel ministry. Despite not knowing the hearts of men – much less teenagers – I asked him if his desire was not simply to be rich and comfortable. Recently I have wondered if the desire to pastor a big church, the goose that lays the golden egg, is little more than wanting to be comfortable in ministry, the pastor of an affluent church. IX Marks recently published an excellent book that highlights an uncomfortable pattern: churches are typically concentrated in middle to upper-class areas. Obviously I am not suggesting we swing the pendulum but merely that we recognise the self-preserving tendency we all wrestle with. The desire to pastor a big church can be the veil for desiring a plush position in a wealthy church, just like my teen’s intention to be generous towards gospel work was most likely a mask for his desire to be rich. 

If you have enjoyed any of the points made in this post and would like to think more about church size I highly recommend Karl Vaters’ blog, Pivot. If you are going to read just one of his posts then I would urge you to make it this one: 11 Advantages Of Having 50 Churches Of 100 Instead Of 1 Church Of 5,000.

If you enjoyed my post there are a few more in this series:

John Calvin on Scripture: Inventing God

IdolI am going to assume that you have noticed the power of social media to provide a voice and platform for opinions, however outlandish; perhaps you are reading this or have previously logged onto Rekindle and consider our biblically charged approach to issues outdated and irrelevant. Though if that is the case I am not sure why you have continued reading. Another thing I have observed on social media is that there are nearly as many opinions about God – ranging from her character to his non-existence – as there are adorable cat videos. God, it would seem, is up for definition. Tragically, it is often those who profess to be Christians whom I hear reimagining or revising God. But this does should not surprise us in a church landscape where the Bible is considered a relic, a quaint piece of our history rather than the living Word of God.

John Calvin put his finger on this human tendency when he wrote that the human heart is a “perpetual factory of idols” (1.11.8). Briefly surveying a few Old Testament passages he asserts that idolatry has plagued humanity since time immemorial. Our history and the whole earth is “polluted with idols.” If God did not exist then this would not be a problem, for we would then be free to create him in our own image. However, if God does exist then it is to our spiritual peril that we believe God to be contingent with our feelings and desires. Calvin writes, “Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity.” One of the most prevalent errors heard in pulpits around the world today is contained in the phrase: ‘I think God…’, as if what we think determines who God is. Earlier Calvin says Christians who do not approach God’s Word in order to learn from God who he is “exult in their own vanity” (1.6.2). 

Christians must therefore be committed to the study of Scripture, for the Bible is not merely human words about God but his very words to us. This is how Christians have treated the Bible throughout the past two millennia. Churches that prefer the god conjured up in their own image worship nothing more than an idol. While churches that prioritise Scripture can know God as they encounter him in his inspired word. Listen to Calvin, “No one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture. Hence, there also emerges the beginning of true understanding when we reverently embrace what it pleases God there to witness of himself” (1.6.2). When our opinions about God outweigh what God has clearly laid out for us through his written revelation we demonstrate only our pride in vain musings and obtain nothing more than the idols of our hearts. “Errors can never be uprooted from human hearts until true knowledge of God is planted therein” (1.6.3).

Do not accept opinions or settle for feelings. The next time your pastor or a preacher prefaces a point with ‘I like to think God is’ or ‘I cannot believe that God would’ tell them you prefer God’s truth to their thoughts. “God has provided the assistance of the Word for the sake of all those to whom be has been pleased to give useful instruction…Hence, we must strive onward by this straight path if we seriously aspire to the pure contemplation of God” (1.6.3). Calvin goes on to say that those who turn from God’s eternal Word wander from the only path, never reach the goal, and stagger blindly in vanity and error even though they seek God (1.6.4). To seek God is to search the Scriptures. Anything less is to search for God where he cannot be found or known.

Steve Jobs and the Creep of Technology

Steve JobsThough originally said in dismissal of market research, Steve Jobs’ now famous words, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them,” teach us something about consumerism and technology. Who would have thought before 2007 that you needed a cell phone as powerful as a computer? And just three years later we were convinced that everyone needs an almost identical device, just with a larger screen. I am talking respectively about the iPhone and iPad, two pieces of technology I cannot imagine my life without. So perhaps Jobs was right. In fact he most certainly was. But notice that he refers to what people want, not what they need.

As I wrote in a previous post, the choice to live in the modern sea of technology is unavoidable. But the flood of devices, social media, and apps means we are in serious danger of drowning in it. Technology is not merely tailored to meet a need while remaining hermetically sealed from the rest of our lives. They almost always demand more space than we intend to give them. As James Sire puts it in The Discipleship of the Mind, technology imposes how it is used. When I finally got my hands on my iPhone 3G it was so that I could have a cell phone and music player in one device. But six years later my iPhone – no, not the same one – has crept into most areas of my life, shaping how I do things, and even my thought processes.

The word technology is derived from older ones meaning ‘craft’ or ‘skill.’ And many Christian authors trace it back to Genesis 1-2, understanding it as a part of God’s appointing mankind to subdue and cultivate the creation. With this perspective we can rightly view technology as a tool. Theologians have observed this as a distinguishing mark of our species and indicative of the image of God.  One of those authors, Elaine Graham, in her essay The “end” of the human or the end of the “human”?, says that technology is a gift from our Creator, who has made us like him, to be creators. Technology, therefore, is God-given and we should ensure that our use of it is God-honouring. The question to ask then is: What does discerning use of technology look like?

The most obvious point to make is that in an age where early adoption is gospel, we should approach technology cautiously, gauging its usefulness and potential invasiveness. For companies and developers are certainly offering us what we want but not necessarily what we need. Technology is pushed onto us every day: friends, adverts, and recommendations suggest that every product is one you cannot live without. But I did live without it, for years. I managed to have meaningful relationships apart from Facebook and Whatsapp. I was productive before the rise of productivity tools. I found music that I liked without being told, ‘Those who bought this also bought…’ Those are trivial examples but the point remains: the Christian is called to be discerning and measured, perhaps especially with regards to technology.

Let me conclude with one last point. We have seen that technology is a useful gift and tool from our Creator God. Ultimately our technology should serve us and help us to serve God and love our neighbours. But the inherent danger of technology can be summarised under two paradoxical urges: control and idolatry. Firstly, technology promises power, sometimes even omnipotence, as it enables us to control everything around us. In a sense, the elevation and heightened expectations of technology deceives us about the human condition, and its limitations. We must remember that we are creatures, given tools with which we can serve God. Secondly, we must remember that those tools are not God. When we find they are beginning to control us, determining how we live and demanding our worship, we must turn again from idols to serve the living and true God.

This post originally appeared at LifeWay Media blog and is published here with minor changes. However, I have not been able to locate the original article.

Dominus Regnavit: Donald Trump and the Idolatry of Politics

Dominus RegnavitLast week Wednesday signified a paradigmatic shift for America and perhaps the whole world. Though I personally followed the electoral race closely, in TIME – explaining my incredulity that Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton – discussions and debates around the two candidates were unavoidable, even on the distant shores of South Africa. When the result was announced my social media feeds exploded, with everyone seeming to feel that their opinion now needed to be heard. But the American system (that is, the electoral college and not the slim majority who voted Clinton) has elected Trump president for the next 4 years, regardless of how much people spew and spit online. There are no take-backs, despite some of the drivel being shared online that suggests otherwise. Instead of contributing to the sound and fury, largely signifying nothing, I found myself looking for meaningful commentary on the results and America’s future, even the future of geopolitics.

In God’s providence I was down to preach Psalm 97 last Sunday. The psalm has the Latin title Dominus Regnavit, meaning ‘the LORD reigns,’ but you do not have to be able to read Latin, for the first verse says just that. Belonging to a small collection within the psalter (Psalms 93-100), the psalmist is celebrating God’s cosmic kingship; James Hutchinson says these kingship psalms reassure God’s people that Yahweh is “the world’s Creator-Ruler-Judge” (The Psalter as a Book). Preaching on Sunday, I commented on how many Christians are taking to social media to remind each other that the LORD is still enthroned, even though Trump will take the helm of America in January. Unfortunately, my guess is that the truth that God reigns is only being touted by those who feel they lost in these elections. But God’s sovereign rule and ordering of our world should always determine our confidence for the future, win or lose. Our God is enthroned: “justice and righteousness are the foundation of his throne” (Psalm 97:2), and the heavens speak of his justice (97:6). For the Christian this is not a cliché, but real assurance that God is working all things for his glory and good of those who love him. And for the Christians who voted Trump it is a corrective, reminding them where their real hope lies. That the LORD reigns is not cheap consolation for the political losers, nor is it to be confused with the rulers of the political winners.

Christians ought to know this. But then why are so many speaking as if they do not? The answer can be found in Timothy Keller’s excellent work on idols, Counterfeit Gods (see his chapter titled The Power and the Glory). Keller observes how American politics has become hugely popular and powerful idol. The indications he cites are numerous, with all of them having been remarkably apparent in the recent elections. The opposition – candidates and policies – are demonized. Despair, bordering on a kind of existential death, is felt by supporters, when the result does not match their hopes; they can be heard exclaiming “This is the end! There is no hope,” in defeat. Fear and disillusionment flow from an unfounded dependence on the outcome. Reactions to the results are extreme, with people openly talking about emigration. Observing the trends is fascinating, but Keller goes deeper, arguing that the overblown hype and radical expectations are the result of investing in political leaders the kind of hope that was once reserved for God and the work of the gospel. He then quotes philosopher Al Wolters, “The main problem in life is sin, and the only solution is God and his grace. The alternative to this view is to identity something besides sin as the main problem with the world and something besides God as the main remedy. That demonizes something that is not completely bad, and makes an idol out of something that cannot be the ultimate good.” The heated and hateful fallout in America – and across the world – only reveals that we struggle to believe that the LORD reigns. We look to our idols for the security that he provides.

William BlakeRussell Moore makes a similar point to Keller in an article well worth reading, “The most important lesson we should learn is that the church must stand against the way politics has become a religion, and religion has become politics. We can hear this idolatrous pull even in the apocalyptic language used by many in this election.” The religion of politics will in the end thoroughly disappoint those who hoped in it, for ‘all who worship idols are put to shame, those who make their boast in anything that is not God’ (Psalm 97:7). Again, that verse cuts both ways, comforting the losers and warning the winners. The Christian takes their stand first with the LORD who reigns, rejoicing in his universal dominion (97:1, 12) and resting in his just judgments (97:8). These emotions do not leave no space for feelings of anxiety, wariness, and deep concern, but they must temper them. Dominus Regnavit.

Managing Technology

TechnologyIn Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis grumbled about how modern transport has annihilated space, “one of the most glorious gifts we have been given. It is a vile inflation which lowers the value of distance, so that a modern boy travels a hundred miles with less sense of liberation than his grandfather got from travelling ten.” The point of this series of blog posts has not been to denounce technology, pine after a bygone era, or deny the many benefits of the digital age. Rather I have hoped to convince readers that we are often blind to what technology takes from us. If you are like me, then Lewis’ reflection is striking, since you never considered how modern transport might deprive travellers the joy of a journey. It is a silly example, but it reiterates how we have been trained to receive new technology with open hands and tightly shut eyes. In this final post I want to suggest a few ways we might better manage technology.

I will start with a point made in an older post on technology. Etymologically the word technology means ‘skill’ or ‘craft’, but – as I suggested in that post – humanity has a tendency to bow down to what it has made; “technology that was once held in our hands, now has many lying prostrate at its feet.” We cannot imagine life without our devices, we become despondent when we lose connectivity, and we check into on our digital worlds and profiles obsessively. So must ask to what extent we are in control? Does technology serve you, or is it slowly enslaving you? Let me state that technology is a wonderful gift, endowed by our Creator to further equip us for the task of subduing the created world. We should therefore receive technology gratefully and put it to work, assisting and serving us in most areas of life, but we must guard against being controlled by it. Each of us needs to carefully consider the status technology has earned in our own lives, for while its functions will vary, the human propensity to worship the created world rather than the Creator is always present.

I will now briefly comment on the remaining points raised in my posts, having dealt with freedom above:

Attention: adapting something Donald Whitney wrote, I think that if we spent money as readily as we do our attention people would call us reckless. Surely there are times when uninterrupted focus is necessary. Multi-tasking – which Michael Horton says is often just a euphemism for distraction – is not always the most productive or beneficial use of our time. I know these suggestions are unthinkable, but you can turn your devices onto ‘do not disturb’ and block your internet connection in order to give undivided attention and time where it is required, be that people or tasks.

TechnologyThoughtfulness and introspection: please forgive my use of this abused, potentially misattributed, dictum from Socrates: The unexamined life is not worth living. Regardless of who said it, the sentiment is an urgently true one today. We need to move away from consuming information to contemplating knowledge. We need to recognise that the first hit on a Google search is not necessarily the most accurate or formative article on a subject. We need to put effort into reading and reflecting on – even studying – ideas and concepts. We could all use more quiet time and solitude, away from the invasive presence of our devices and demanding digital platforms.

Memory: I have heard it said that our brains have many similarities to muscles; that is, when exercised they are healthy, but left unused they atrophy. The outsourcing of our memories and immediately accessible information means that while we have answers quickly we rarely have our own answers, nor do we see any need to furnish our minds. The result of this is weakening of our ability to retain information and ideas. I am not talking about what Mega Memory can offer you, as useful as being able to recall the order of two packs of playing cards might be, but rather a mind that is sharpened and in shape. The ways to achieve this are endless: learning a language; slowing down to consider a point in an article, book, or film; trying to remember a piece of information before Googling it; learning quotes and sayings off by heart; and so on.

TechnologyValues: this was the final point made in More Ways Technology Takes and, for lack of a better heading, I argued that today we are inundated with information and easy entertainment that warps our values and thrives off of undiscerning consumerism. This is well illustrated in an exchange between Hermoine Granger and Rita Skeeter, in Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix. Hermoine is entreating Rita to write the truth about Harry and the return of You-Know-Who, but Rita tells her that the Daily Prophet cannot run stories that will unsettle the comfortable wizarding world. Then Hermoine scathingly asks, “So the Daily Prophet exists to tell people what they want to hear, does it?” And Rita retorts, “The Prophet exists to sell itself, you silly girl.” We need to be deliberate about the data and dramas we greedily ingest. Work hard in discerning what you read and view, its purpose and bias. Remember that just because something is being broadcast or receiving masses of media attention that does not necessarily mean it is significant. Lastly, it is undeniable that we are subtly shaped, even if only slightly, by what we consume.

Let me leave you with three concluding points for reflection: firstly, technology is a wonderful tool, given by God, but let us be wary of the human inclination to worship the creation; secondly, though technology is almost always morally neutral, our use of it is often not; thirdly, managing our technology means more than benefiting from its many positives, we must be alert to its many drawbacks.

More Ways Technology Takes

Two weeks back I posted on some of technology’s drawbacks. Reiterating a point made by Tim Challies, I started by arguing that our eyes are only open to the positive benefits of technology, meaning we blindly embrace the latest apps, devices, and digital advances without considering what their negative effects might be. After making that point I highlighted three areas where technology is adversely impacting human life: fragmented and interrupted attention, unhealthily increased dependence on tending towards enslavement to technologies, and the loss of critical engagement or thoughtfulness due to the superficial nature of technology. In this short post I want to point to three more ways I think that technology is having an adverse effect on human life.

Memory

Technology‘I know this…hang on…um…alright, Google it.’ How often is that the answer to a question, and if you are honest: your own answer. In his now famous article, Is Google making us stupid?, Nicholas Carr writes, “For all that’s been written about the Net, there’s been little consideration of how, exactly, it’s reprogramming us.” In the article Carr makes numerous prickly points, from the commodification of information to the way the web discourages contemplation in favour of amassing data, but central to his article is the observation that we are outsourcing our memory and mental capacity. Carr says, “The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.” Admitting that he might just be a “worrywart” or Luddite, Carr acknowledges that – in the same way the technology of bound books “would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom)” – the internet may result in a “golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom.” Yet he remains sceptical, as do I. The easy access to endless amounts of information means we retain less, find it hard to recall what we have read, and see no need for growing in knowledge. Surely, that is not progress. 

Introspection

In his lecture on private prayer, Charles Spurgeon lamented how an inward poverty means that many people find silence unbearable; the corollary of this is that we cannot stand undistracted solitude. When I was in high school, Shakespearian soliloquys struck me as highly odd and obviously theatrical, but today I think they are a haunting visage of something we are no longer capable of: internal dialogue and introspection. In the outstanding collection of essays Stop What You’re Doing and Read This, Jane Davis challenges our preference for the comfortable shallows of human life, and I firmly believe that much of our technology enables or even encourages such superficiality. Davis strongly posits, “Consistently ignoring the inner life has put depression and anxiety high amongst the world’s most serious epidemics…Despite our desire to amass, consume, and be mindless, the ‘unspeakable desire’ to know ‘our buried life’ is ancient and implacable.” We use social media to express invented and pliable versions of who we want to be, yet hardly know ourselves. We impulsively comment on blogs remonstrating others, but find it impossible to internalise thoughts and ideas. We peruse infinitely scrolling feeds for hours on end – liking, retweeting, and pinning – only when we come away from them we are none the richer. Constant connectivity leaves little time for careful contemplation. As Malcom Gladwell has said, today we are experientially wealthy and theoretically impoverished.

Values

TelevisionIn my previous post I admitted the potential of being melodramatic, so I might as well run the risk of sounding like a crank. In Marilynne Robinson’s masterpiece, Home, Old Boughton is discussing the news and asserts that, “In six months nobody will remember one thing about it,” for, “It’s television that makes things seem important whether they are or not.” What comes to us through our screens is very rarely weighed or thoughtfully evaluated. According to my news feeds and Facebook, the death of Cecil, a protected lion, is the most significant event from the last couple of weeks. Worse than that is the grossly unhealthy celebrity culture, which considers Kim Kardashian’s baby bump more newsworthy than a massacre in Kenya. As D. A. Carson notes, in Basics for Believers, TV is the dominant reference point or moral ‘bottom line,’ for many people, resulting in grossly warped values. Carson points out how parents are anxiously concerned that their children have the right kinds of friends and role models, for all of us learn by a kind of existential mimicry, only we naïvely overlook the vicarious friendship provided by TV. With the average person spending over 3 hours in front of one TV daily, the results are undeniable: “We no longer have authentic heroes. People are celebrated for extravagant behaviour or conspicuous consumption, not for their value to society. Wealth is preferred to worth, glamour to virtue. There are many ‘personalities’, but few show evidence of character” (Edward Donnelly). Not everything that appears on our screens is significant, but the TV industry, click bait, and social media sites thrive off of our woeful discernment, and from confusing our values. 

Conclusion

Living in the world of technology is unavoidable. But being aware of how technology shapes us is a crucial step away from being dominated by it. We have seen that outsourcing our memories incapacitates our minds, the digital world discourages introspection, and how confusing presentation of information on our screens erodes values. Since I have not read anything better on the impact technology has had than The Next Story I will let Tim Challies have the last word: “So here we sit today, surveying the landscape after the digital explosion. We live in the glare of screens; we outsource our memories to bits and bytes; we experience some of our deepest and most important relationships through the ethereal networks powered by electricity and computer hardware. We are a digital people-a digital generation, dependent on our devices.”