Pastor's Blog

In my two most recent blogs, I mentioned ideals that I held when I came into ministry.  In “Ideals, Thermometers, and Mountain Climbers” I mentioned the use of a painted thermometer to track giving towards a project, and in “Winning Alice Back” I mentioned that I believed it was the Holy Spirit’s job to apply preaching (and not the preacher’s).  Both illustrations are connected to ideals I held about how the Spirit of God works. 

When I began ministry, I expected a LOT from the Spirit of God.  The biblical theory behind my ideals is simple.  First, when we say the Bible is “inspired” we mean that it is the product of God’s Spirit.  His Word was generated by His breath.  What the Bible says is what the Spirit of God says.  That’s how He speaks and that’s the tool I expect Him to use to touch hearts.  Second, the church is the Temple of the Holy Spirit.  Christianity teaches that the Holy Spirit lives amidst the entire church and in each individual Christian.  Put those points together, and the way God gets things done is by His Word being understood by His people.  His Word, His truth, motivates and moves us to accomplish what God wants from each of us as individuals and from all of us working together as a body.

I believed ANY attempt to motivate people with a gimmick or manipulative technique was WRONG and cheapened the work of the Spirit of God.  I felt it was a failure to trust the Spirit to work.  It was an attempt to artificially do His work for Him.  The first thing I tore down when I came to Mountain View was the little wooden board at the front of the church where the amount of the previous week’s offering was displayed.  What did we need that for?  I was told people gauge their giving by the need.  I could hardly believe it.  You either pledge a percentage of your income to God or you don’t.  If last week’s offering was bigger than expected, what do you do -- keep back part of the next week’s offering for yourself? 

When I traveled with a gospel quartet in college, a church where we sang held “Pack-a-Pew Night”.  The family that brought the most visitors won a prize.  The church was full, but I was so livid at the gimmick I could hardly focus on singing.  Were people there because they wanted to be, or because they wanted to win a stupid prize?  It seemed cheap – like another church I knew of that had held a week-long evangelistic conference and every night put a $100 bill under one of the chairs, and whoever sat on that chair got the money.  Why do you think people attended THOSE services?  Did anyone care about the message?

I preached once at the Bowery Mission in New York.  I was told to fill 20-30 minutes.  I preached and then invited my unkempt and unshaven listeners to trust Christ.  I was met with blank stares.  So I closed in prayer.  I had hardly said “Amen” before all of them rose and RAN to get in line for dinner.  I was ENRAGED.  Not at them, poor souls.  But at the mission.  Why not just feed them, instead of FORCING them to sit through a 30-minute message to get the reward of a hot meal?  I WAS THE GIMMICK, and I felt cheap, an insult to the Spirit of God.  He could probably do more through the love of the offered meal than the endured message preceding it.

Occasionally people from “Spirit-filled” churches visit our church.  The first week they sing with eyes closed and hands waving wildly in the air.  They loudly whisper “Jesus, Jesus, oh Jesus, yes Jesus” when I lead in prayer.  Until they realize NO ONE ELSE is doing these things!  Each week their waving and whispering gets less and less.  Twice I’ve had such people tell me the Holy Spirit wasn’t in our church because we didn’t sway, wave, or whisper.  Both times I asked why, if the Spirit of God was moving them to worship that way, did they stop?  No one asked them to stop, and no one criticized them for what they were doing.  Both shrugged and said, “I just don’t feel the presence of Jesus here.”  From my perspective, they have cheapened the work and the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit and confused it with an emotional manipulation induced by low lighting, emotional music, and crowd psychology.

I have more to say on this topic – next week.

The central ideal I held when I entered the ministry was the belief in the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God.  The logic was simple.  The Bible is inspired – literally “God-breathed” or “God-spirited”.  His Spirit breathed out the words through the human authors, and so the Bible is God speaking.  Words of truth entering receptive ears change hearts, and changed hearts do the right thing and make both the church and the world better places.  This is how the power of the Holy Spirit works.

The conclusion I drew from my college experience was that pastors were less interested in expounding God’s Word clearly and more interested in keeping people happy in the pews, keeping the offering plates full, and running programs that watered down Christianity but that were fun and held crowds.  Pastors were watering down the truth.  Ministry was oriented toward children, and most preaching to the adult congregations didn’t extend beyond a child’s Sunday school level of understanding the Bible. 

The solution was to preach “solid meat”.  Make the message of the Bible clear to adults to make strong adult Christians who want to live out the message.

When the leadership of Mountain View Chapel interviewed me to be pulpit supply in 1982 that’s what I told them I believed needed to be done.  I would preach the Word of God accurately for adults and then we’d all get out of the way and let the Holy Spirit do the work.  That sounded good to them – and that’s what I set out to do.  I was 21 – and that’s when my REAL education began.

I started preaching in the gospel of Mark.  One of my first sermons was “John the Baptist and the Essene Community at Qumran.”  One little old woman named Alice, a long-time member of the church, listened to that sermon and the three weeks after that – and then she left the church.  I visited her and asked why she left.  “Because,” she said, “your sermons are like college classes about the Bible and history.  I don’t need to know all that college stuff.  I just need to know how to live TODAY.”

I felt my hackles rise.  People like this are the problem, I told myself.  She’s accustomed to meaningless milk.  She doesn’t want to have to chew.  She doesn’t want to do the hard work of learning.

As I was stoking the fire of my anger, justifying myself and my view of ministry, another train of thought started chugging through my head.  “She was painfully truthful with you, Chris.  That’s honorable, don’t you think?  And doesn’t she have a point?  People do need to know how to live today, don’t they?”

Yes, I argued inside my head, but that’s the HOLY SPIRIT’S job, not mine!

The other train started building up steam.  “Suit yourself.  What good is your theory if you don’t reach people where they are?  How much of the world will change if you're preaching to an empty church?  Isn't it worth it to win Alice back?”

“Alice,” I said, “would you give me another chance?  Would you come back to church?  I promise to work on being a better preacher.  I will try to do a better job on talking about how to live today.”

Alice came back and became one of my biggest supporters and good friends till the day she died.  And that little encounter launched – I don’t know if you could call it a dance or a wrestling match – perhaps both – with the Spirit of God as He worked to change, not just the way I did ministry, and not just the way I thought about ministry, but to change ME.

As I’ve thought about what I’m writing – about my life and ministry – it feels odd looking back on my beginnings as a pastor because the world, including the US, was such a different place.  People thought SO differently in 1982.  Back then, we would NEVER have imagined that the world, much less the US, would look the way it does now.

There was no internet and only rich people could afford a Commodore 64 computer.  No one owned a printer or a copier;  you had to go to a store and pay someone for those services.  There was no such thing as “social media” – no Instagram, no Twitter, no Facebook – not even email!

There were no cell phones.  Phones were attached to walls.  A few rich businessmen used beepers.  But most of us were still amazed by calculators!  People used cassette tapes;  CD’s were just out and weren’t commonplace yet.  Movies on VHS tapes were amazing.  No one had heard of a DVD, much less Netflix.

I don’t ever remember racism being an issue in the news.  Wasn’t that solved in the early 1970’s?  We had all moved on – or so we thought.

We were definitely not afraid of global warming.  Science was predicting an ice age if we didn’t stop emitting pollution into the atmosphere!

We found it shocking that homosexuality was removed from the list of mental illnesses in 1973.  But there was no gay pride, and no one in 1982 -- Christian or otherwise -- would have imagined, much less accepted, homosexual marriage, as American cultural practice.  AIDS was at yet unknown.

School shootings were unheard of, and terrorism was a term connected with the Irish Republican Army (a la Harrison Ford’s Patriot Games), not radical Islam.  Islam was stuck in the dark ages.  The Ayatollah Khomeini was just getting established in Iran and he seemed to be far away and of no real importance.  We were more afraid the Soviet Union, nuclear bombs, and people lacing Tylenol with cyanide.

The evangelical world had not yet been rocked by the tawdry stories of the sexual promiscuity of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart – much less the pedophilic priests of the Catholic Church.  “Child molestation” and “human trafficking” were not even a part of our vocabulary.  We never gave such things a thought.  People regularly left children unattended in vehicles while they ran into a store.  No one called police or emergency services.

It was such a safe and nice world.  So much kinder and gentler than the present.

Funny to remember that in 1982 we evangelical Christians were certain that America could not possibly get worse, that we were a nation ripe for judgment.  Abortion and pornography were rampant in the culture.  And Christians were compromising with the world -- using drums in church music and Christian women were getting a SECOND earring in each of their ears!   What kind of world was that and what would come next?  Never did Christian people imagine that anyone would want to pierce any other part of the body, that men would pierce their ears, or that ANYONE but men in the military would get tattoos! 

Prophecy preachers combing the prophetic books told us the biblical evidence pointed to a return of Jesus by 1990 at the very latest.  Either the preachers blew it, or Jesus did.

I recite all of this because this was the context in which I entered the ministry.  The world was different.  The atmosphere was different.  The concerns were different.  It was in THIS context that my ideals were forged – and as the world changed, and changed RADICALLY, I had to decide what to do with my ideals.

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