So, now that I’ve laid out the material on my theology of preaching, taken time to push back on the 20 minute arguments, and laid out the challenge of preaching, why did I feel the need to blog about the subject it? Why did I not say, “awesome, during the fall we closed the book, the pastoral relations committee, after reading my arguments, signed off on it, we are good to go, never look back”?
First, because while the change is done, and we are never going back, for all the reasons I have outlined over Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, there is still a small segment that has not come around, in part - I believe - because I haven’t taught on the subject in a public way. This material that I covered over the last three days still needed to be communicated, and this is a forum that allows interaction, comments, debating, if we write comments back and forth in a thoughtful way (by the way, no anonymous comments).
Second, it was because of the mandate, and thinking about it, that my thinking on preaching was sharpened. I have a much richer and fuller understanding of why I do what I do, why I feel compelled to do what I do because of what happened. I want to share the logic.
Third, looking back on it allows me to see more clearly what I could not see when I was in it. What mistakes I made (I will only analyze my mistakes), and what I learned.
Fourth, it gets me to some thoughts about what needs to happen for many older New England churches if we are to move forward and bring the gospel to bear on our communities.
So…today, I want to take myself and those that have followed these posts, through what I’m calling closing considerations. This could will be a grab bag of closing thoughts. I want to organize it this way. What led to the preaching battle. What I did wrong after the mandate (and how the rest of life played out - because ministry doesn’t happen in a vacuum). 5 things I learned, the results, and thoughts moving forward.
What led to the preaching Battles
In some ways, you could say that the preaching war was inevitable. From the day I walked in, it was an inevitability. Stylistically, theologically, age, on just about every spectrum, I was different from my predecessors. When I was hired, I was a 28 year old Gordon Conwell man with a reformed theology and a predisposition to burn his electives on preaching classes. I following a 65 year old Andover Newton woman who was theologically on the protestant liberalism end of the spectrum (and directly following a universalist interim). Each pastors age, personality, theology, and training shape how they will lead the church, where they will seek to lead the church, and who will be attracted. On some level, it was inevitable. We switched from an older mother, to a young father, quite literally (as my son was born 6 weeks after I arrived).
On top of that, when I arrived, the word change was draped around my neck. The mission was simple. I knew it, the leadership knew it. People reminded me of it from the start. I was hired to bring new life to the congregation. Bring in families. Change the church, change the music… Change, change, change. I understood the mission, the church understood the mission. After the first few investigatory Sundays where people came and checked out the new guy we dropped to around 25, and stayed there. My wife and I were the youngest ones. Change needed to happen, my church needed new energy. Fast. I was brought to bring it, and a segment of the church had a strong desire for change in a number of areas.
But, and there is almost always a “but”, change doesn’t come simply for any organization, institution, or movement. It’s not as easy as rolling out the ball for a new draft pick and expecting things to work. Take a new quarterback. Andrew Luck, who will probably succeed Peyton Manning, for example. The system has to be tweaked for him. It’s not enough to throw him into Peyton’s system. Tweaks will be needed. They may even need a whole new offensive system.The same goes on when a church hires a new pastor, especially when they are an aging congregation making an intentional direction change by getting a young guy. This is amped up all the more by the challenges the church faces as we face a hostile and increasingly hostile postmodern world. Significant change often has to happen. Few churches are prepared for the postmodern (and post-Christian) age. By and large, we have an aging church that must be mobilized to face a postmodern, postchristian world in which we will once again have to make our appeal against the backdrop of other faiths. This will refine us, shape us, dare I say strengthen us. But it will not come easy, and it will take a new offensives system, preaching that is fiercely Gospel centered and apologetic, preaching that seeks to grow deep Christians who live out the gospel on the battlefield of life, remembering that they are citizens of heaven ultimately (Philippians 3:20). Personally, I believe that the church will need to look allot more like the first 100 years of Christianity, than the last 100 years of Christianity.
So on the one hand, there was an air of inevitability to it. But what also led to the preaching war was that I did not seek to understand and then educate those who had come from and loved the culture of twenty minute sermon and out in an hour. This was the way it had been for a very long time, and here I was, stepping on sacred structures. So when the deacons said, people are complaining, I knew they were used to shorter sermons, but I didn’t really listen. Over time, my sermons grew from 20, to 25, to 30, then 35, and even occasionally went to 40, and when the warnings came, and the deacons pushed me to cut back, I didn’t. This brought the hammer last spring, and the fault was in large part mine.
Furthermore, at the same time, I unwittingly allowed two First Baptist Medfield's to form. Newer people who preferred my style and emphasis, and those who were already in the church who preferred my style and emphasis, and a smaller, shrinking group who felt their church was being stolen. I was seeking to address the problem of feeling their church was disappearing in some ways (we were going through who stole my church by MacDonald- see book list), but by and large, my primary relational connection was to newer people or those that preferred my approach and emphasis.
What I did wrong after the Mandate
First, I did not honor the process. Process matters, it’s the only way real change comes. At the meeting that I was given the mandate, the decision was made to revisit the subject in june. When that didn’t happen, as I said, I didn’t work to bring us back to the table, instead, as I’ve said, I blew off the preaching mandate. I just did. it was wrong. It was sinful. I was hurting from some other things (we’ll get to that), and longing to do what I feel called to do, preach the word, in and out of season, in a way that transforms, and I said, fine, the contract is breached, I’m good to go, and over time, late summer and through the fall, I stretched back out when I should have been the person that brought the pastoral relations committee, back to the table and finished the process. The pastor should be leading proper process.
Second, in all this, I failed to love as I should. I was angry about the limit. My pride was wounded. My desire to see the church move forward and thrive felt stifled. I was angered that what I perceived to be an older guard was standing in my way. Instead of looking at them as who they are, saints of God with different experiences and perspectives, people who are looking at the world shift around them and hoping that one thing would remain constant, saints to be loved and shepherded, I got mad. Don’t you see the problem? Don’t you see where the church is going? For a season, I allowed myself to become their accuser, rather than their loving pastor. To my regret. Thank God for grace.
Third, I didn’t teach what I was learning. As I was thinking and studying, as I was researching and building a theology of preaching over the summer, putting this all together, I didn’t share what I was learning. I bottled it up. Which made me become even more self-justified for blowing off the process.
Now, have said this, I’m glad I went through it all. In the end, we did finish the process properly, and put the issue to bed, and through all this, I learned allot. My thinking was clarified and enhanced, and the result is that the gospel flows out sharper. Amazingly, in all this time, God was acting, and working, and new people connected, and eventually, conversions happened. Furthermore, I really began to see the idols in my heart. What motivated me to want to preach? On the one hand, it’s always been the Gospel. But where there other things going on? Idols of the heart? Pride? A desire to be liked? Was the thing truly driving me a radical desire to see lives changed through the Gospel for the Glory of God? Acknowledging the idols of the heart, and allowing God to set his kingdom and the winning of souls in the highest place, was probably the most important thing that happened all summer.
In all this, God worked, and he showed his grace amazingly. At the same time, God showed his grace in an even more amazing way.
As I’ve said, ministry doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Life was happening to me on other fronts. In the middle of May pain crashed down on my wife and I when she miscarried. That hurt, I hurt. I wanted the world to go back to where I thought things were moving forward. I felt we had lost all momentum, and that life was crashing in around me. We were struggling financially, and all these things were coming together in a swirl of pain. Thankfully, the Lord is good, and his love endures forever. Over the summer, Gods grace got hot through Hebrews 4. It got radioactive for me. I found myself meditating on it, and thinking about it, remembering that while I was mourning, and hurting, I have a savior who knows my pain. Hebrews tells us that “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb 4:14-15). That truth absolutely burrowed into me, and gave me hope and comfort. It got hot, and was growing me in the middle of pain and frustration and mistakes. Thank God for the grace of God that changes us from the inside out!
Lessons: 5 things I learned through all this retrospection.
First, process is important. Real change cannot happen until process is honored. You can’t move forward without real consensus, and that requires process. When I was at Gordon Conwell, they brought a new president in. He lasted one year, because ultimately, some were trying to create change through a man. But they didn’t have a consensus. If a church is really going to move forward, and break free of a splitting, cracking past, it has to honor process. Many things must change, at my church, and in THE Church. Many churches have one foot in the grave, and need to change, but it has to be done with teaching, and process, and intentional growing of people in the gospel (because the only real change comes through the gospel), rather than just letting a bull run through store full of fine china (a process otherwise known as change through a man).
Second, pastors have to be very, very intentional to love everyone in their church. Especially the ones that irk you most. If you allow yourself to play favorite sides, my people verses not my people, problems ensue. You are the pastor of all, and you should work to remove the faction creation that happens in churches. Ultimately, you cannot lead, unless you have relationship. Without relationship, no one is truly following you as you seek to lead them to Christ (at least in a small church).
Third, remember the other side’s pain. Many structures must be rebuilt. They just must. We can’t get around it. Sometimes sacred cows need to be slaughtered. But, with that said, we change agents must remember that the lemons being used to make lemonade, are someone else’s treasured structures.
Fourth, find ways to teach the material that is pertinent to changing the church structures. For me, it’s probably going to be the blog. This will probably be my secondary teaching forum, because we are go, go, go.
Fifth, everything that was in the posts on Tuesday and Wednesday, and Thursday, things that all came together in a richer and fuller fresh way.
Today, I am more convinced than ever that while I blew the process, and failed to love and teach, in this, God worked. The church became more gospel driven. People were getting hungry, and are getting hungrier, and God is moving here, using humbled, flawed people for the glory of his name. I truly believe that as a result of experiencing all of this, I will be a better pastor. I love my people more. As I sought to really intentionally pastor some, great relational fruit happened in some surprising places. There is still work to be done, but overall, I believe I am a better pastor because of this experience. Remember, Pastors make mistakes. They are people. They can sin too. Luther said that people are "Simul iustus et peccator" - "At the same time righteous and a sinner. Saints and Sinners- at the same time- everyone! Even pastors. But what is key is learning from your mistakes, prayerfully, humbly, repenting, and allowing the gospel to pick you up and send you out to lead your people more wisely for the glory of God’s name.
Thoughts moving forward
All this leads to some closing thoughts, for New England churches if we are to move forward and really be churches that are ready to face the future. This pertains to my church, but I believe it applies to many Old New England churches as well.
First, the replant factor. Something I had to discover is when a small church shrinks below critical mass, it is basically a replant. It may have two hundred years of history, but if it doesn’t begin to think and act like a plant, and have a hunger to win souls, it will not get healthy (mine is on the way). Sometimes, churches that have existed this long need to stop and ask themselves again:
Why are we here?
What is our mission in this community and region? What are we hoping to accomplish on Sunday morning -what’s the goal of worship time?
Who are we aiming at?
Are we just interested in keeping the faithful happy, or reaching the lost?
What makes our church unique?
What distinctive does our church have in it’s DNA, and how can they be used for the furthering of God’s kingdom?
What is the goal of preaching?
(Is it just an entertaining speech, or an exposition of God's word, and a proclamation of the gospel? Remember- Acts makes clear that the church grows through the preaching of the Gospel - the life, death and resurrection of Jesus! It grows through God’s word being taught - to be sure, it is through studying on our own, and ministering in his name, but I believe that there is something real that happens when a church gathers that cannot be replicated elsewhere).What stream do we stand in or want to stand in?Are we aiming at those that want high church, or low church (this is a liturgy question)? This is a question that doesn’t pertain to all denominations, but Baptists can go from robes to blue jeans and T-Shirts. High or low church? Who is our target? What language do we speak? Blue collar, youth culture, pop culture, academic and intellectual?
Churches need to face these questions, and go through the process of redefining who we are called to be and who we are to reach. Not what have they have been, but what they are called to be in the future, in the communities that exists now, and will exist in the future as they seek to win the lost to Christ. We need to look at the past years and rejoice, and the future with energy in our step as we seek God’s glory in our lives.
Second, Churches need to develop a hunger for the word and a love of the gospel. We need to understand the position of scripture as the word of God, and get people to develop a hunger for the word. This relates to preaching in a real way. It’s been noted that if the people are feeding on “spiritual food”, the word of God, communal and private bible study, books that help them grow in Christ, if they are practicing spiritual disciplines like prayer, and meditating on God’s word, or even fasting; if they are feeding on these things during the week, they will have an adequate appetite for more (not less) on Sunday morning. They will want to have the text opened and have a desire to understand it more deeply, and apply it to their lives. We need get a hunger into people to do that.
Third, we need to confront sinful idolatries. Every church has them. Things that they have taken, good things, and made them ultimate. Every church has them. Every person does, every church does. One that plagues the American church is the idol of time. For many, time is sacrosanct. But that brings us around to the question, why are we here. Is it just to fulfill a duty, or to worship God and hear from Him? Here’s a practical thought. To have a good number of songs (4-8), some real prayers (not just 1 minute ones), Scripture reading, offering, and the other parts of the service (such as offering, doxology, Glori Patri, Creeds, etc) takes about 30-40 minutes in themselves. Then if you add communion, which really should be done every Sunday… you’ve got 10-15 more… now you’re close to an hour. Before you include the sermon. But really, does time matter? Worship. Have a full worship set, and full preaching.
Fourth, churches need to seek to have a unity around the gospel. Jesus high priestly prayer in John is about the church having unity (john 17). But a church will never have unity unless it is gospel unity. Look at acts. All their unity was rooted in their relationship to Christ. In 4:31-32, we see that “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. All the believers were one in heart and mind”.
Finally, we need to grasp that at the end of the day, status-quo probably won’t work. Lots of little churches are dying, and need to change and re-energized. We just do. My church made a strategic decision to change direction, because status quo wasn’t working. They sought me out, and to my shock, hired me. It’s been a long road, I’ve made mistakes, and I’ve done things right. And I've sought to do the most important thing, teach the gospel, proclaim the timeless truth that will bring new life not just to our churches, but to our communities and our world. Slowly, Gospel change is happening. My question for every church is, yes it will be hard, but will you do it? Will you run into the flames, knowing that this is where you are refined, and rebuilt, for the glory of the kingdom? Will you do it, knowing that everyone will make mistakes, and tempers will flare, but the grace of God will work if you really grab hold of the Gospel, and the product, when it comes out, will be something refined, reshaped, redirected, renewed by God, ready to be agents of the gospel who can bring gospel change to your world? Will you do it?