For example, as Ortberg points out, we need to stop talking as if arrogance isn’t immoral. And we should beware, as one former Mars Hill deacon wrote recently concerning Robert Morris’s comments at Gateway, that our attempts to restore people from a distance can actually undermine the actual work of restoration and repentance. Both of these are easy for me to say, because I know I haven’t done either of them myself, and neither have most readers of this blog (although I was surprised how many of my friends commended Robert Morris, and I wondered how many would have done the same if Mark had resigned over sexual immorality). But there are some lessons that I need to learn from the whole thing, and they’re inevitably the ones that hit a bit closer to home.
1. Ministry success is much more difficult to appraise than we think. For some of us, the temptation will be to assume success equates to numbers: number of attenders, number of sites, number of downloads, number of books written, or whatever. But good communicators can attract crowds, a multisite methodology can multiply sites quickly, controversy can generate clicks, sex sells, and even book output can be increased dramatically by careful use of resources (ghostwriters, research agencies, sermon notes being turned into prose, and so on). Personally speaking, that isn’t the way I am wired to appraise success, in the main. For me, the risk is more that I see success in terms of the truth a person teaches, rather than the extent to which the truth that person teaches takes effect in a congregation. The latter is something I will only really know if I know the people involved, and ideally have been able to see them develop over many years. If that means I have to be much more careful about pronouncing people to be “successful” this, or “world-leading” that, then so be it.
This is a hard lesson to learn in a society dominated by polls, news (literally, new stuff), and instant appraisals, likes, favourites, up-vote buttons and associated gubbins. The church, and particularly the Protestant church, and especially the evangelical Protestant church, and most notably the charismatic evangelical Protestant church, and most definitively the large-ish multisite Western charismatic evangelical Protestant church (like the one in which I serve), risks swallowing the cultural line on this one: new is good, more is more, and here’s a New Guy Who Ticks All Your Theological Boxes And Still Grows His (?) Church. More often than not, we would benefit from a bit less Church News 24, and a bit more Zhou Enlai. What are the main results of the multisite revolution / Reformed resurgence / charismatic movement? Too soon to say.
2. When I want to believe something a speaker says, because it will make my life more comfortable or more fun, I don’t run it through the same biblical checks and balances that I use when I don’t want to believe it. Several things Mark said when he came to our Together on a Mission conference should have bothered me instantly, but they didn’t, because I actually quite liked the sound of them. Like:
(a) Leaders should take steps to make themselves less accessible. No doubt there are examples of leaders whose daily lives have become so overwhelmed with invasive trivia and unnecessary personal demands, and who are already so inclined to a Messianic model of ministry that they try to solve the entire congregation’s problems before breakfast, that changing mobile phone numbers, or even (in extreme cases) going ex-directory, may be needed. But in a good many cases, I suspect, leaders need to have more people in their homes rather than fewer, not least to ensure that the potentially dangerous ministry gap - namely, between what a leader is heard to say and what a leader is seen to do - remains as small as possible. As Dave Harvey reflects:
When a leader opens his home, what happens is far more than a simple meal, dessert, or whatever. He invites people into a context where he is (a) Not special, (b) Giving others a deeper look into his marriage and family, and (c) Serving by hosting. I think that’s part of the reason God puts the home into play for leaders. The Celebrity Pastor, on the other hand, keeps the front door shut and locked primarily because (a) He’s special (and therefore exempted), (b) Unaware of his need for the deeper dive, and (c) Doesn’t tend to serve (again, exempted). For the Celebrity Pastor, people are the tax he must pay for ministry. For most pastors, people are the point of ministry.
(b) Leaders and their wives should be having sex X times a week. To this day, I’m not sure whether he was joking with this, but enough people didn’t think he was that it’s probably a point worth making anyway: there are no biblical guidelines for the number of times a week a couple should have sex (other than the insistence in 1 Corinthians 7 that they should only abstain, if at all, for a limited period). My guess is that most husbands who tried this line with their wives ended up apologising for it soon afterwards. In any case, most young men of my acquaintance are not at risk of expecting too little when they are first married (and most wives, especially with young children, have plenty of guilt in this area without needing to have it added to by conference speakers).
(c) You’ll recruit young church planters who are overconfident, zealous and somewhat arrogant, and they’ll be perfect. No they won’t. Humility is not an optional extra in the Christian life, and it matters even more for young church leaders than for other people (as much as I’d love to conclude that the sin I struggle with the most doesn’t really matter!)
(d) Leaders are missiologists, who work on the church rather than in the church. Well: yes and no. Leaders are certainly called to study the people in their town or city, contextualise the way they explain the Christian message to them, and preach the gospel to people regularly in their daily lives; whether “missiologist” is the best term for that I will leave for another day. But the language of working “on” rather than “in” the church, which he borrows from small business guru Michael Gerber, is probably quite unhelpful. In Gerber’s terms, the business owner is there to figure out the best system for doing what the business is designed to do, rather than to do the actual work of sales, marketing, finance, operations or whatever. In Driscoll’s terms, as I understand it, the church leader has a similar role: strategic design (and probably public preaching and teaching), as opposed to pastoral care, teaching the Bible in small groups, hospital visits, marriage preparation, administering the sacraments, leading people in prayer, and so on. And the reason I say that is probably unhelpful is twofold: firstly because it involves jettisoning so much of the important soul-work that church leaders through history have done, and secondly because it encourages a move away from the bread-and-butter pastoral activity of talking to and praying with ordinary people, to help shepherd them towards maturity, at a time when many (often young) leaders are leaning heavily in that direction already. Including, at the time (and for a few years afterwards), me.
3. We need to watch our lives and our doctrine, rather than implicitly prioritising one ahead of the other. An obvious comparison, which has been made many times: it didn’t take me long to have doubts about the ministry of Rob Bell, because his doctrine looked dodgy; it took me much longer to notice the problems with the other Mars Hill pastor, because they were related to his life and character, and his doctrine was orthodox. (If Rob had pulled the Strange Fire stunt or jumped in the Elephant Room with T. D. Jakes, for instance, people like me would have shouted and pointed and waved our order papers. When Mark did it, we didn’t. Except Carl Trueman, who does that all the time anyway.) Implicitly, I give people a pass if they share my doctrinal commitments, and (probably) am unduly harsh sometimes towards those who don’t.
There may well be all sorts of other things I (and “we”) need to learn from all this, besides the things I can see at the moment. That’s often how these things go. But these are the ones that occur to me for now. If you see any others, I’m sure you’ll tell me.