And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. Revelation 21:2
When I was in 4th grade, our family lived in the Wet Mountain Valley. We rented a house from Lee Adams right in the middle of the valley. A large, three-story red barn was on the place. When folks would come to visit our family all you had to do was tell them, “When you get to the valley, look for the Big Red Barn. You can see if for miles. We live next door to it.”
One day I watched a movie about gladiators. Like most boys, I wanted to then play “gladiators” with my brother and little sisters. I told them the game would include sword fighting and dying. They decided they didn’t want to play. That meant that I was going to need to find other combatants. The only combatant I could find was an evergreen tree about my height. I found my enemy in the front yard.
I drew my curtain rod sword, lifted my trash can lid shield and the battle began. Shortly, there were appendages of my new combatant laying on the ground; I felt pretty sure I was winning the fight when my mother came out and stopped me. Said I would have to explain to my Dad why I had nearly destroyed a beautiful tree in the front yard. I tried to explain to her that it wasn’t a tree, but a barbarian from Germanica, but she would have none of it.
When Dad got home, he scolded me in such a way that it is etched in my memory as if it happened yesterday. I don’t remember everything he said, mostly I remember the emotion in his voice and ominous of his presence. But I do remember one thing he said, “You have no right to destroy that tree. It’s not your tree. It’s Mr. Adams tree and now I have to explain to him why and how his tree in the front yard of his house was destroyed.”
“It’s not your tree, son.”
I sat yesterday on one of the back pews of my church beside my father as we were looked out at the congregation sparsely seated in the auditorium. The guitar, flute, and keyboard were playing gentle strains of music as more masked Baptist shuffled in to find their seats. Our conversation turned to the difficulties of holding worship services during a pandemic.
I said that I was saddened by the impact the Covid-19 precautions, the racial unrest, the peaceful and violent protests in our cities, and the incredible strife the election season of 2020 was having on our ability to gather as a people of faith without an underlying layer of fear and anxiety if not outright anger.
Then I turned to him and said, “Dad, if anyone should be willing and equipped to model for the watching world how to behave during this kind of national crisis, it ought to be the followers of Jesus that meet week after week in this country. But, sadly, they are often the most toxic and divisive people in the culture. Christians have become a laughingstock in our culture. Dad, I said, I feel like as a pastor, my generation failed to teach and lead the church to be prepared to model for the world a better way to live in these strange times. I feel like we failed.”
He said, “Not just your generation of pastors failed. Mine did too.”
Then I stood up and walked to the front of the room and led in prayer and we began to sing our halting songs of worship to Bridegroom of the church.
Your discipleship program is perfectly designed to produce the disciples you have. – Dallas Willard
Many times, during the rest of the day I mulled that conversation over in my mind. And, to be fair, I can only really speak for myself when I say that for a long time, I led the church from mixed motives. For the most part, I was hell-bent on building a kingdom for myself. I used the church to work out my own spiritual pathologies and insecurities. When the church grew, I felt good about myself. Public affirmation became my addiction and the pragmatism of church growth became my methodology for acquiring that affirmation. I was using the church as if she were my own private ego enhancement tool.
That objectification did incredible damage to the bride of Jesus. When you objectify a person or a people, you distance yourself from a soul-to-soul relationship with them. And without that soul-to-soul relationship—prayers (if they are uttered at all) are tainted, love is manipulative, encouragement is weaponized, and the eternal kind of life is pinched off from flowing soul to soul.
I have repented of that sin of betrayal years ago. I am extremely sensitive to the idea of manipulating the people of God these days. But I see the residual effects of my style of leadership today when I see how the church across our country is behaving during a national crisis.
One day I will stand before Jesus and must give an account of how I brutalized his bride.
I can almost hear Jesus say, “It’s not your church, Joe. Never was.”
Gratefully, the Jesus I have come to know is gentle and forgiving of leaders like me. And he is more than willing to walk with me through these times of upheaval and show me how to treat his bride.
As a friend of mine has said, “We pastored our way into this mess, and we are going to have to pastor our way out.”
First step: Acknowledgement. “Hi, I’m Joe. I used the church for my ego enhancement.”
Second step: Repentance. “I am walking with Jesus moment-by-moment from now on, anyone want to walk with me?”
Third step: Humble inquiry and submission. “Jesus, where would you like us to go?”
I have a hunch that Jesus will say, “Come and see. But be certain you have thought this through—because we are headed for a tree.” But this sober journey is made joyful because we are going with Jesus—our bridegroom.
It’s His church, after all.
I think of the times I have been a party to the type of church leadership you describe.