As much as I enjoyed having a week off for spring break last week, now I feel out of rhythm in my reflection of seven core competencies of pastoral leadership. I was suffering from a bit of writer’s block and just couldn’t find the words to talk about this week’s competency: resourced leadership.
In the “Learning to Follow, Learning to Lead” project, resourced leadership is the competency to “integrate Scripture, church history and tradition, as well as local history with organizational theory and best practices.” In other words, resourced leadership relates to the capacity for interpreting the world theologically and implementing a biblical vision.
I hope that I have already been demonstrating the ability to integrate skills and learnings from other fields into the practice of pastoral leadership. So here, I decided to take a more creative approach to shake the cobwebs from my brain and wrote an open letter to the church in North America that—hopefully—integrates the story of Scripture as it re-narrates the story of our lives and envisions a better way forward for the church.
An Open Letter to the American Church
To my brothers and sisters in the North American Church,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I consider it a great blessing to write you this letter. My hope and prayer is that the Holy Spirit will use it to strengthen and encourage you in ministry and in fellowship, giving all glory and praise to the one who was and is and is to come.
I am sharing with you my reflections on the contemporary state of the gospel of Jesus Christ as good news for North Americans today. My primary observation is precisely that: as we become increasingly aware of our cultural lies and our societal weaknesses, the gospel of Jesus Christ is the good news that we thirst for. For far too many decades, we in the church have inoculated ourselves against the potency of the gospel, rendering us impotent and irrelevant amidst the culture at large.
We have forgotten how to stand on the steadfast love and abide in the faithfulness of God; we have forgotten how to speak with conviction. We have given up the gospel of Jesus Christ for the gospel of me, myself, and I. In our quest to make a name for ourselves we have turned a blind eye toward glorifying the living God. We have abandoned our call—alienating our neighbors instead of loving them, and enslaving the underprivileged instead of liberating those captive to our broken systems.
In this moment of cultural exile, we are left communing with our bread of ashes and our cup of tears; we have cheapened grace so much that entire generations of people would rather starve and thirst than receive the bread of life and living water that Christ gives us to offer. Yet it is in this moment, when we are spiritually bankrupt, that we remember it is not about what we offer, but it’s about what God-in-Christ offers. And Jesus offers God’s reign—where the poor are raised up, the houseless given shelter, strangers welcomed, the sick healed, and all are fed together at God’s table.
There will be no growing income gap and no racism. No hunger, no thirst. There will be no cycles of poverty, abuse and neglect. No addictions. There will be no cancer, no AIDS, no heart disease, and no bitterness. This is a glimpse of the gospel of Jesus Christ as good news for us today. We are called—indeed sent—to creatively and imaginatively re-articulate the narrative of the people of God for our contemporary generation. Here we must remember our Egypt, our cheapened grace, lest we again approach our Savior with a sold out kiss.
We want more for less. We care little about value, so long as we get a lot by spending little. Our culture desires quick fixes for both its problems and its cravings, and our churches have adopted that mentality. We don’t teach meaning because it takes too long. We breeze through packaged liturgies to avoid having to creatively think about worship. We preach sermons aimed at self-help, hopefully finding one random verse to support our desired message because we refuse to take the risk of engaging scripture too seriously—heaven forbid, then we might actually stumble upon the real gospel!
To combat such cheap creativity, we must cultivate a high value of aesthetics—not a value of the superficial, but a value of the wholeness of meaning, of attention to detail, of engaging communication. No longer can it be acceptable not to steep our congregations in the Word. The Word of the Lord is living and active, but only if we enter it, immerse in it, and engage it. The Word cannot be active when we bind it up to serve the idols of culture. I’ve been challenged, and blessed, by making memorization a significant characteristic of my discipleship and an essential characteristic of my preaching. Internalizing something in our hearts gives it great meaning, and the commitment of Scripture to memory will help the church recover its ability to speak with conviction and stand in the riches of God’s grace.
We must walk as Jesus walked. To borrow a line from the great DC Talk, part of our irrelevance is that we “acknowledge Jesus with our lips, but deny Jesus by our lifestyle.” Church is something greater than just a building, and being the church is something greater than what goes on inside of those four walls. Just as God was not content to remain in heaven, so we too must not be content to stay in our churches. We must challenge each other to live faithfully as heralds of the reign of God in our communities. As pastors, we must lead that way by example.
The American church has been used by God to bless the worldwide church in many ways. I praise God for that. But the American church has grown soft. In falling for the lie of self-idolatry, it does not teach self-denial or self-sacrifice and it refuses to take risks—it is more about seeking comfort and security. To faithfully communicate the good news of the gospel, every church must lead by example of self-denial. If the pastor is solely focused on making a safe, comfortable living for him or herself, refusing to risk their time, money, and energy in the community surrounding the four walls of the church, then the congregation will develop a similar self-centered focus.
Thankfully, the North American church has a tremendous opportunity to reclaim its relevancy in proclaiming the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. My prayer for the church is to have a spirit of holy discontent, a reminder of the gospel in our own lives, and a renewed sense of passion, vitality, and creativity poured into our contemporary articulations of the gospel. I pray that our understanding of the gospel is not shallow or simple, but that the Word of God is rich in meaning and a protagonist in transformation. And most importantly, I encourage you all to pray for one another, and specifically to pray for your pastors. A congregation that regularly and faithfully prays for its pastor(s) is a truly blessed and wonderful family. Pray for a love of the Word, pray for discernment, and pray for the Holy Spirit’s leading in you, through you, and ahead of you.
Brothers and sisters, arise! We who have walked in darkness have seen a great light. Now shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
Grace + Peace,
PASTORAL LEADERSHIP SERIES
Read the rest of the 10-part series on the practice of pastoral leadership:
- Pastoral Leadership (21 February 2013)
- Organizational Leadership (28 February 2013)
- Learning Leadership (7 March 2013)
- Public Leadership (14 March 2013)
- Collaborative Leadership (21 March 2013)
- Reconciling Leadership (28 March 2013)
- Resourced Leadership (11 April 2013)
- Sacramental Leadership (18 April 2013)
- Pastoral Leadership II (25 April 2013)
- Leadership Transition (2 May 2013)