Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Power of a Pastor

Just when we got to thinking that churches in general and pastors in particular may have lost some influence in our culture along comes Jeremiah Wright. The controversy surrounding what Barack Obama may or may not believe based on whether or not he sat in church every Sunday for the last 20 years listening to inflammatory sermons from Pastor Wright demonstrates, on some level, that people value what pastors have to say...doesn't it? Is this just politics or is it some strange affirmation for pastors that they are in fact people of influence in the lives of people in their communities? I think it's probably a little of both.

It's obviously politics as evidenced in the furor over Obama's candidacy. But if what a pastor said to a potential presidential candidate is that important doesn't it make sense that it's equally important to every other person sitting in the seats around that candidate? Pastor's get the unique opportunity every single week to speak into the lives of hundreds and even thousands of people. We willingly place ourselves in front of men and women who share their perspective on God's word. People we admire and respect. People we take seriously as Biblical scholars and spiritual mentors. In case there are any pastors out there who are discouraged or feeling unimportant I'd say you should be greatly encouraged by this whole Jeremiah Wright controversy.

Coincidentally I got a phone call yesterday from a good friend of mine. He's considering a network marketing opportunity. One of the intriguing parts of the opportunity is the chance to help churches raise funds. He has some familiarity with predominantly black churches in Chicago and he's convinced that if the pastor promotes any idea that the majority of the people will accept it. This is actually an old tactic among network marketers. Get the pastor to sell Amway or Shaklee or anything and you'll get the ear of the entire congregation. I can't tell you how many times I was approached by network marketers back when I was working in the church. People know that the pastor is a person of great influence. Pastors know that they are in a place of great responsibility.

So, if a pastor is worthy of respect and aware of the responsibility why is the church losing its influence in society? Why are congregations shrinking and denominations struggling? Is there something in what pastors are saying that's not being taken seriously anymore? Are there things pastors are not saying, for whatever reason, that they should be saying for the sake of their people and their communities? If we live in a society that still takes pastors as seriously as it appears in light of Jeremiah Wright what does that mean? These are questions I'm not sure I can answer but I sure hope we'll wrestle with them.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Just Visiting

Last Sunday I had the chance to visit a church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida while I was there on business. I chose a church in the denomination I worked in for 22 years. The message was delivered by the vicar (a seminary intern) who appeared to be a second career guy. I imagine his heart's in the right place but the message was very unsettling...and not in a good way.

I think his point was that, in the end, Jesus is the only way and he will triumph. But the way he got to this point was to give some statistics and history on the advance of Islam. He talked about battles and war and the dominance in the world of Muslim thought and political control. I think he was trying to demonstrate the ways in which Christianity has come under attack as a way of addressing concerns people might have so that he could assure all of us that, in the end, Christianity wins. It seemed very militaristic to me. I kept thinking that this kind of war rhetoric didn't seem to sync up with what Christ intended.

Language is so important. The words we use have incredible power. For decades, perhaps centuries, the church bearing Christ's name has used militaristic and war language in ways that are wholly inappropriate. Yes, we are at war. It's a spiritual war, however, not a war against other human beings. Jesus called his followers to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. It seems to me that pointing to Islam in a sermon about who wins in the end makes it much, much harder for Christians to love Muslims. It makes it even more challenging to reach out in loving service to those who are not Christian.

I believe we who follow Christ should be loving, serving and helping fellow human beings regardless of what they think of us, how they treat us, whether or not they ever come to a relationship with Jesus. Our service to other human beings is driven by our love of Jesus and his love for all human beings and should be absolutely unconditional. Expecting someone to come to Jesus, join your church or stop hating you are all conditions!

What would happen if Christian leaders, pastors, preachers and teachers completely abandoned battle and war metaphors? What would happen if all our talk was beneficial, loving, service oriented and encouraging when talking about those who don't believe in Jesus? What if our hearts ached for all mankind, even...maybe especially...those who hate us? I wonder.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On Being Human

Last week I had the chance to attend the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Georgia. For those who don't know, it's a golf thing. It was due to the very gracious gift of a friend that I was able to be there as it's not something I could ever afford on my own. It was about the best vacation I've ever had. It didn't beat some of the vacations I've had with my family, but as a strictly personal good time I can't remember a better one in my adulthood. Since most of my adulthood was spent working in the church I'm wondering if that had anything to do with it.

Anyway, part of the joy of the week for me was just being around other people and not having any sense of being responsible. By that I mean it wasn't up to me to see that anyone behaved, or had a good time, or stayed with the group...or anything. I was finally able to let go of my need to see that everything went well and everyone got along. I had a good time and I think everyone else did, too. But if they didn't that's not my concern. So, what does this have to do with being human?

One of the people in the group I was with is a pastor of a fairly large and successful church. I'd not met him before and we spent very, very little time talking about church or religion or God stuff. He and I took turns praying at a couple of the meals but that was about the extent of anything that might have looked pastoral. We were just two of the guys in the group having a great time at the Masters. A couple of times I found myself wondering what the members of his church would think if they saw him enjoying himself at the Masters. Now, I'm not implying in any way that he did anything immoral at all. He was just a guy hanging out with friends at a golf tournament. The fact that it occurred to me at all is a reminder of what it's like to be in leadership in a church. Very often pastors are not allowed to be human. An off color joke or enjoying a sophomoric movie or having a drink with friends are all little human pleasures that many pastors deny themselves, at least in public, for fear they might be "found out" by members of their church.

I see this as just one more symptom of what's wrong with the church. So many people come into a church building thinking they need to hide the reality of their lives from those sitting around them. They can't be real in church because they might be rejected. This is a legitimate fear because the church has a track record of villifying folks who dare to honestly share their struggles, shortcomings and basic humanity. Often the pastor is held high above everyone else as the person closest to God in behavior, demeanor and lifestyle. This is a burden no real human being should have to carry. It's a burden other human beings should never put on another person. Many pastors will tell you what an irritation it is when someone who's told an off color joke or used foul language around them then turns around and apologizes as if their tender ears can't bear such offense. People are different around those who work in the church and, frankly, it pisses off a lot of us.

Maybe the church would once again become attractive if everyone was allowed to be human. If we could all loosen up a little and enjoy one anothers company without having to monitor, evaluate, critique and control the church would become a place people want to be because they can be real. Maybe this starts by letting pastors be human.