The crisis of ministry

Unprompted, our son prayed one Sunday for us to find a church home, because, and I quote, “I’m getting pretty tired of going everywhere all the time.”  We feel your pain, son.  Well, not exactly the same way, but we do feel it.

I can think of at least five churches (some connection exists in four of them) in which I have felt a significant level of interest.  Unfortunately, I also experience a lack of ability to minister within them.  There is little “chemistry” with the majority of the people in each of these groups.  The scenario constitutes an inner sense of uselessness:  I feel that I would be unable to “minister” there.  In my own tiny world, this is something of a crisis.

There was a time when I was more likely and equipped to reach to the under-served, the underprivileged, the down and out.  One time, I almost got done in by helping the down and out . . . .  I let an acquaintance borrow Picture of 1977 Dodge Colt, exterior, gallery_worthymy old car while I was out of town on vacation, and when I returned, I discovered that he not only had had an accident but had also left illegal drugs in my car!  On several occasions, people have needed temporary places to stay.  Those friends were not in the same category, really, but still, they were in life-places of need, and I was capable of ministering to a few needs . . . so I did just that.  Then.

When I consider my life situations right now, it is abundantly clear why I am not as inclined to get involved.  I have my hands full taking care of myself.  (This sounds awfully selfish, doesn’t it?  One friend who knows a fair amount about me recently suggested that I must take care of myself.  Popular self-help malarkey aside, there is some truth to the notion of not being able to do much for others unless you are OK yourself. I probably need to listen to those with insight into my scenario.)

Back to the churches—and my disinclination to minister within them.

  1. Church #1 is composed of about 15 or 20 people, about three of which seem educated.  Those three are more or less disorganized and show too laissez-faire an approach for my taste.  Several others seem to have come from places in life that I can’t seem to connect with or help with.
  2. Church #2, where leadership is much more overt and capable, has a somewhat similar clientele.  Probably half of the 60 or 70 folks seem very “other” to me.  (I can think of five couples/families to which the above description does not apply.  There is a serious doctrinal disconnect with at least one of those, depending on the day.)  To be quite frank, I don’t recall ever having heard such a fine, well-conceived mini-lesson at the immersion of a new believer ever (not in Restoration Movement churches or anywhere else).  Sadly, there is evidence that two more of the families with which I could have shared chemistry have decided to skip by me, rather than the other way around.  This church recently put forward an opportunity to get involved with re-integrating prisoners into local society.  This notion sounded like something very worthwhile.  I am just not sure whether I, as an “at-large” Christian who knows several folks at this church, could be involved.  There is also a looming sense of “I don’t have the wherewithal anymore, anyway.”  (See above paragraph on “taking care of myself.”)
  3. Church #3 carries the moniker “biker church.”  Now, many of my readers who knew me only a dozen or more years ago might have a difficult time seeing me as a motorcycle enthusiast, & I’m not a crazy or obsessed one by any stretch, but I do enjoy short rides and have owned four motorcycles in my life.¹  Anyway, the Bluffs Biker Church already has a pretty good thing going, and its leader/teacher does not need any help from me to continue what he is doing.  Nor would I have as good a manner of ministering to the unique clientele as he does.
  4. Church #4 is a more traditionally formed one.  It meets in a modest, well-apportioned building about 35 minutes from us.  We found a couple of arm’s-length connections.  This is a reasonable group that uses a rotation of traveling public teachers.  While there can be benefit in this structure, and while we have appreciated some of the presentations on some levels, it differently perpetuates the preacher-centric mentality.  This setup, along with a permeating sense that this church is staid and set in its ways, combine to limit the possibilities for me to minister there.  Eventually, perhaps I could be one of the teachers, but I am not at all sure that I’d actually be ministering to anyone if I were.  Even my ability to lead worship in song would sort of fall on deaf ears there, if you know what I mean.
  5. Church #5, just visited a second time after an initially split impression more than a year ago, still puts me in two minds.  On the one hand, I like the personality of the group as I walk in, and there are two leaders besides the recognized pastor—unusual in such a small group.  I was even oddly impressed with the simple, unassuming music (over which no one was embarrassed—they were all participating).  The problem here is not the potential chemistry with the “people in the pews” with with the current preacher-pastor, who has a sort-of irritable manner.  He has seemed persistently, mildly annoyed and punchy both times.  He’s also more wordy than he should be.  Something about the group’s “look and feel,” despite the apparent normalcy and pleasant diversity of the people, makes me feel I’d be intruding.  Or travailing.  Or simply wasting my time and theirs.

Maybe it’s just me.

After a year-long wait, we did begin an intensive study in our home last fall.  This is my primary place of “ministry” right now, I suppose.  As I type those words, the thoughts of Will Campbell about so-called ministry echo in my head.  He believed that the very idea of “ministry” tends toward arrogance—as though I can do something better than you.  Despite being better equipped and more experienced in teaching than anyone else in the group, I wonder if I truly do “minister” or not.

Perhaps I should simply be content in little connections here and there:

  • showing someone that I remember something about a past tragedy in his life
  • intentionally verbalizing, in the presence of an acquaintance of unknown or affiliation or belief structure, that I distinguish between worthwhile Christian books and patently dogmatic ones that serve the denominational interests as opposed to God’s interests
  • expressing sincere sympathy when, in the course of my job, I meet or talk with people who are undergoing hard times

Those are such tiny, tiny things, but could they be viewed as ministering?  (Potentially, I suppose.)

¹  The present bike is the best fit for me, and it is an added nicety, that no helmet is required in my state; plus, a child (with helmet) is allowed to ride on the back.  So, Jedd loves riding with me.


Impressing pastors, parishioners, and accountants

The card shown below (front and back) appears in the pew of a large institutional church near us.













Prior to the appearance of these cards in the pews, I imagine there was an extended conversation in the regular Tuesday morning church staff meeting.  Let’s listen in on the meeting. . . .

Pastor Being:  So I assume most of you have noticed that our offering is dropping off.

Staff of 19 (not including the custodial staff of 5) [in unison, sighing ] Yes, we know.  What can we do? 

Advisory Accountant:  So glad you asked.  Here is a graph of the weekly and monthly figures leading up to Reformation Sunday.  We are off 20%, especially after that sermon series on Ecclesiastes.  Ahem, sorry, Pastor Being.

Pastor Being:  Thank you, A.A.  Now let’s get down to business.  We at RLSC¹ need to find a way to ensure that everyone feels the tug to give.  I mean, it’s good for people to be involved, and to hear sermons and all that, but we can’t do any of this unless we put forward a new pitch for pesos, if you know what I mean.  A decisive dash for dollars.  A bigger buttload of bucks.  (Smiling winsomely) . . . hey, this Christmas, if there’s no cash-y, there’s no creche-y!

Staff of 19:  [collectively, aggrandizingly]  Hahahahaha! 

Advisory Accountant:  Projecting out current trends, it is a distinct possibility that we’ll have to cut 25-35% on holiday expenditures.  The issue, if you ask me, is accountability.  Everyone’s concerned about privacy and identity theft, so donation practices are more private then ever.  I mean, how can the left hand know what the right hand is doing if all the giving is done on an app in the privacy of one’s home?  That doesn’t make a good impression on visitors . . . and what are the pastors supposed to think when the plate is passed through the pews and only 40-50% of the parishioners are dropping in cash and checks?  We need more accountability!

Pastor Being:  Based on A.A.’s recommendation, I support the notion of accountability.  Something doesn’t smell right about the left hand and right hand thing there . . . I’m not sure why . . . but I agree that the impression left when fewer hands touch the collection plates is a downer.

Pastoral Intern:  I learned in my Church Growth class last semester that if funds are being contributed by less than 75% of the membership, there is less than a 25% chance of growth during the next two quarters.

Pastor Being:  Thank you, P.I.  We definitely need a steady growth rate if we’re going to break ground next year on the new office annex, and if we don’t increase the rate, we can kiss the organ loft and pastor bonuses goodbye.  

Staff of 19:  [Collective sigh and downcast countenances]

Pastoral Intern:  I learned in my Church Methods class last fall that organs and choirs . . .

Pastor Being:  [interrupting]  For the moment, we can’t expect to have much esprit de corps unless we all have a shared sense of everyone else’s giving.  You know, like the workplace that displays a United Way contributions thermometer, coloring in the increasing level as it moves toward the goal. . . . 

Staff of 19:  [collectively]  Hahaha! 

P.B. [continuing] I’ve been wondering about those internet-savvy hipsters, working in tech companies and carrying the latest devices.  How do we know if they’re contributing regularly?  

Lead Tech Pastor:  Some of them might have encryption devices, or they might know how to disable our spyware so we can’t track their use of our new donation app.  For the run-of-the-mill donor, we are working on flash projection, using the robotics we use with the cams for the worship team.  When the team is taking a break, we can live-stream the contribution amounts in real-time, moving the screen down the row on the robotic arms in sync with the collection plate.  Later on, we can add the number of new donation app users as a sort of soft incentive.

Pastoral Accountant:  Studies have shown that people feel more obligated to give if everyone around them is giving.

GenX Involvement Pastor:  Seriously?  We’re going to make people feel uncomfortable?  I guess so, if we have to.

Creativity Pastor:  I was talking to the Pastoral Accountant after I saw the contribution figures last Sunday—thank goodness for our lay accountancy team that counts the money during worship.  Anyway, the P.A. and I both think we need to develop a card or some object that everyone who contributes online can drop into the collection plate on Sundays.  It would be symbolic, but it would increase the pressure on others to donate, too.

Pastoral Accountant:  Absolutely.  I think it should be a card that says “I give electronically.”  A card is heavy, so the sound of them being dropped into the plates will add sonic stimuli.  An additional benefit of a card would be that it gives the lay accountancy team something more to count, and that makes them feel more involved, and then they’ll probably give more money, too.  

Pastor Being:  What biblical passages can you think of that support such a card?

Biblically Learned, Subservient Pastor:  Hmm.  None, really.  Not even a principle that I know of.  Come to think of it, not even 1 Corinthians 16 . . . 

Pastor B:  [interrupting] Well, we can keep researching that.  Surely there’s something. . . .

Devoted Sheep among the Staff:  There is another way, you know.  Has anyone read about Francis Chan’s new movement? Check this out.  According to this report, “Chan leads a house church movement in San Francisco called We Are Church.  There are currently 14 to 15 house churches, he said, and 30 pastors (two pastors per church) — all of whom do it for free.  Each church is designed to be small so it’s more like family where members can actually get to know one another, love one another and make use of their gifts.”

Pastor Being:  [Never having considered a simpler, less costly way]  That seems sort of pie-in-the-sky, doesn’t it?

Assistant Pastoral Advisory Accountant:  You can’t be serious, little follower-sheep!!  What would that kind of model do to our cash flow and our end-of-decade projections?  We would experience more decline in our contribution income, and we would default on our installment notes.  Two or three banks would accelerate the balances on our loans.  We’d probably have to tap into our investment funds—or worse, go into hock with HQ.  The tax returns would be a nightmare!  Who would want to consult for us next quarter or serve as our independent auditors if we’re right around the corner from filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy??!

Pastor Being:  [continuing and calming the others]  Okay, okay. . . .  We all know we have this wonderful facility, and we’re not going to lose it just yet.  You know what?  Look around you.  There are some really well-to-do people in our immediate vicinity.  I see no reason the Lord wouldn’t want us to reach out to them just as much as to the lower classes. 

To inspire and to impress—our twofold mission.  We as a pastoral staff do the inspiring, and that impresses our parishioners to the point that they in turn are inspired to impress all those around them by giving more.  Everyone is inspired by all the giving, and more giving is the result of that, and that surely impresses our visitors and God, too.

All:  Amen.

P.B.:  All right, it’s settled then.  Let’s develop these contribution cards and roll them out in first month of the fourth quarter.  Then we can engage independent teams of auditors and church growth consultants to study the effects on cash flow and institutional involvement. . . .

For the complete blog referred to by “Devoted Sheep among the Staff” above, click here.

For a prior blog specifically about e-giving, click here.  Near the bottom are two additional links to posts about 1Cor 16:1-2, often cited in support of Christian contributions to churches.

Annnnd . . . I had last written about contributions and tithing in institutional churches here.  That piece was a protracted tearing-apart of a very poorly done brochure.  At the end, I expressed that I hoped I had the restraint, when coming on this topic again, merely to refer to that post.  Unfortunately, the sighting of the cards above brought the topic back, and I was compelled to speak against it.

¹ RLSC:  Reformed Large Swanky Church

Over-emphasized (?): church roles in 1Tim and Titus

Over-emphasized (?):  Church Roles in 1Tim and Titus

Or, The Aging and Negative Development of Christian Thought

The letters known as First Timothy and Titus are typically the first points of investigation for anyone wanting to explore biblically based roles for elders/pastors/shepherds and deacons/servants.  Other, possibly related bits may pop in from Acts 6, Hebrews 13, and other spots, but 1Timothy 3 and Titus 1 appear to house the most extended treatments of these roles.

It is not my intent here to examine the veracity of this or that document (as though I could).¹  I merely want to suggest a possibly altered view, sort of wondering out loud.  Could it be that the probable later writing of Timothy and Titus compromises how we should see them?  Do they suggest specific or rigid ideas about the church elder/pastor and deacon roles?  Put another way:  could it be that Paul’s and/or his trusted companions’ thoughts on these topics became crystallized, over-codified, or even obscured over a period of decades?

Earlier this week, I heard a fine Christian speaker put forward the idea that Paul must’ve been so proud of a church’s health because it had progressed to the point of having elders and deacons.  From an institutional standpoint, I get that.  But my negative view of hierarchies and most letterhead-designated roles has me doubting that cause/effect relationship.  A movement may be responsive to developing needs in a cultural context, and the existence of recognized elders and deacons at Ephesus or Philippi might well have signified something positive.  Still, the presence of designated leaders who have certain traits (or “qualifications,” preferred by some) does not necessarily imply progress, let alone proving a singular reason for Paul’s joy.

I myself feel gladness in learning of a church that has multiple leaders instead of a single pastor-in-charge, but an oligarchy is only a slightly better model for a church than a (human) dictatorship, no matter how benevolent.  Mutuality and general Christian influence, a la Paul ⇒ Philemon, are more to be relied on than positional authority and power.  Practically speaking, leaders will arise within groups, to one degree or another.  Leadership has various faces, including some agreeable ones.  The real problem is when one person, by virtue of a title and/or a position, has (or is seen as having) comprehensive or absolute authority.

In probing these things, I might ultimately reveal a bias toward original intent in terms of what church was to be, and how it was to go about its business.  Whether we can accurately determine original intent or not, I should think Jesus’ and Paul’s and Peter’s (and James’s and Barnabas’s and Philip’s, etc.) ideas are inherently more valuable than the ideas of church leaders in the 3rd or 10th generation.  I’d further assert that it may be observed, no matter one’s organizational, theological, or ecclesiological bias, that things changed notably by the second century CE—and even more so in the succeeding centuries.  By the time of Constantine and Theodosius in the fourth century, important moorings had been sacrificed, and as the Dark Ages began, much light was lost for centuries.

Assuming for the moment the reality that things and situations do change over time, and further assuming that entropy plays a role here, would it not be rational to think that Paul’s ideas on “church governance” (for lack of a better term) could have gotten just a little over-codified or over-emphasized by a well-meaning person who collected some sayings and put together a document from memory, a decade or even a century after Paul’s death?

I take as a given that popery is a skewed manifestation of “church leadership” and that its appearance resulted in a centuries-long blight.  [I also take as a given that there are some very sincere believers, some of whom I have been privileged to know, that remain attached, mostly for reasons of family history, to the Roman organization, but that is beside the point here.]  I further assume that all highly “clerical,” hierarchical leadership patterns are more or less antithetical to principles of New Testament scripture.  There are degrees of variance from the original, whatever the original was, but no de facto or de jure structure that employs positional power can be a good thing in the Lord’s eyes.

We are dealing here with substantive concepts around the nature of scripture, God’s sovereignty, and how God’s Spirit works in the ekklesia (called-out people who profess faith, i.e., the church).  I believe in the reality of an open God who allows for human free choice.  So, for instance, when I question how “original” and how important the 1Tim 3 description of a bishop/overseer is, I am necessarily dealing with the nature and provenance of scripture, but I am also assuming a sovereign God who chooses to allow changes and developments among His people.  I’d actually prefer to put the nature of scripture and canon and God Himself on the sideboard, intending instead to place this question on the table in plain view:   Could the elapsing of time have compromised some of the principled undergirding of various Christian writings, given that some documents were authored as early as 15 years after Jesus’ death, while others were not finalized for several decades?  More specifically here, does Paul (and does Jesus?) expect that every growing, mature church will have such designated leaders as bishops and deacons, as described in two letters that were written into specific historical and cultural situations, sometime between 60 CE and 160 CE?

In general terms, I find that we may observe a negative impact on the status quo during the passage of time after the first and second generations of Christian believers.

B. Casey, 5/21/17, rev. 6/7/17

¹ The letters purportedly from Paul to Timothy and Titus are letters of disputed provenance.  They might not have come as directly from the mind or dictation or pen of Paul as did Galatians and Philemon and 1Thessalonians and Romans, for example.


Pointing a finger at finger-pointing

Advance apologies to all who wish no criticisms were ever needed.

Having read yesterday (in someone else’s church bulletin) of an epicly dumb   stupid  ill-informed church leadership decision, I should probably be commenting on that.  It involves what I find to be an egregious lack of insight into real needs, and I suspect it also involves a senior minister/pastor’s arrogant assumption that he should continue to be involved in an area of church life in which he clearly has no appreciable experience, knowledge, or skill.  On second thought, it’s better that I not go on here—that church’s decision seriously yanks several of my chains; to write further would be too singularly targeted for comfort, whereas the matter I’m about to share is just an area that I think can use some more attention in most churches.

So many churches do this:

welcome you

And it is so common to say things like “We’re glad you’re here” (seen faintly above) that I fear even the few people who are acutely aware of corporate shortcomings neither notice nor care.  I know, I know—it’s friendly, and the slide’s design is nice . . . however, wordings like this betray an unintended bilateral structure in a church.

My questions include these:

Who designs the slide? 

And from whose point of view? 

And to be addressed to whom?

It seems to me that such a welcoming welcome points a finger at “them”—the “others” out there.  It’s a smiling gesture, I know, but it’s a finger-pointing nevertheless.  Here, I should interject the thoughts of a most esteemed, treasured interlocutor (read wife) who has helped me to clarify my objection.  It’s not as though we (churches or people in our own homes) shouldn’t welcome visitors.  Of course we should.  Welcoming might mean taking someone’s coat, saying “hello,” offering him or her a seat, maybe providing beverages or snacks, letting folks know where the restroom is, and more.  These things are courtesies we may reasonably expect hosts to show to their guests.

However, in the setting where I saw slide above, I don’t believe “visitors” are typically present or expected at all:  it’s a crowd of regulars that see that slide, leading me to point an inquiring finger—not at a person, but at the message, wondering what it’s supposed to be communicating.

Here, I hasten to acknowledge the commonly accepted axiom:  “when you point a finger, three fingers are pointing back at you.”  I have surely used wordings like the above many times.  I have been guilty, and I probably will be guilty again.  Subconsciously, though, I’m convinced the sign was perpetuating a status quo/mentality that deserves examination.

In the announcement below, the primary addressee seems to be the guest, the visitor.  Read this piece carefully, though, with an eye what’s communicated about the “we” and the “you”:

There are nine different personal pronouns above, and—depending on how you take one or two phrasings—most of them contribute to the sense of demarcation between the institutionalized church and the people who come to the institutionalized church.  The above message seems to be directed primarily, but not solely, to guests.  And I can’t keep from probing the clergy-fied (or staff-driven, if you prefer) assumptions that can underlie such messages.

I’m not pointing a finger at any one church (certainly not at the one represented above).  No one office staff or leadership is any more off-base than the next.  No one who writes up things like this intends to do a bad thing.  On the surface, it’s very welcoming¹ and “nice.”  Not one of the worship leaders or senior pastors or pulpit ministers or church secretaries or office managers who use wordings like these (or who put them on PowerPoint slides, or who script them for the person that gives the “call to worship”) is intentionally doing anything evil.

There is, however, a creeping influence afoot, and the “creeper” is the clergy/laity structure that pits “us” against “them.”  It’s fine to welcome visitors, to assume a generally inviting posture.  Of course!  It’s not fine to draw lines around an “us” (the staff, the pastors, the church administration, the establishment), separating those people from the regular “them” (the pew-sitters, the attenders, the “lay” people).

We are all the church.  Conceptually and spiritually, there ought to be no “we” that welcomes “you” on a Sunday morning.  “We” is all of us.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Proposed alternative wordings

If you are a guest, all of us here want you to feel welcome, because you are welcome.  Let anyone nearby know if you have questions or needs, and someone will try to help.  (guest welcome that sets up the entire church as a welcoming group)

~ ~ ~

Good morning, everyone.  I don’t know how everyone feels today, but I’m glad to be here.   My own hope is that [insert desire for feeling/participation/action].  Different leaders and all of us participants today may have different feelings, and that’s OK.  As we begin, let us all [fill in blank as desired]  (employs an individual approach at first, in order to avoid perception of being part of a group with clout)

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

To attempt to erase doubt:  I am well aware that many things are more important than any of the above.  Gratitude, forgiveness, kindness, atonement, and hope . . . food and water and sleep . . . air and shelter and the outdoors . . .  and so much more.  If staff-driven “welcome” statements that contribute to a sense of division among the people can be seen to harmonize with the goals of God’s Kingdom, well, then, by all means, keep them.  If on the other hand they seem to run counter to Jesus’ example and expressions, let’s rethink them.

¹I use the term “welcoming” advisedly, without reference to so-called “Welcoming Congregations” that use the term to express their view of the activities of practicing LGBTQetc. people.

Of demigods and demagogues

I don’t use either “demigod” or “demagogue” every day.  Probably not more than once a year.  But these words came to mind in the context of two things I’ve read lately.  First, a little mock-worshipful ditty by yours truly.

OprahOde to O(Gimme a break on the poor syllabic emphasis in the 2nd half there.)

No doubt about it:  it doesn’t matter how much Oprah weighs this year as compared to last, or that her very name is a admittedly a lazy corruption of the biblical Orpah.  Oprah is a demigod!  (She is probably not a demagogue, based on strict definitions.)  Once again bucking pop culture, though, I’ve manifest a shocking lack of awareness of most things Oprah since appreciating her “random acts of kindness” a decade or more ago.

So, I decided to read through an article about Oprah when I saw it, and it was somewhat encouraging viz. the better founded side of her ballyhooed “spirituality.”

I.  Barbranda Lumpkins Walls, “Spirituality According to Oprah”

Excerpts from the article:

She constantly gives thanks to God throughout the day for everything—from safe travel on city streets to having food to eat to raising her arms to wash her hair—and keeps a gratitude journal listing at least five things daily.

She kneels to pray every night before bed, a “ritual of reverence” learned from her grandmother.

“I would say my faith has become strengthened every time I have faced what I considered to be a trial. . . .”

“I can’t define ‘God,’ so to be open to the mystical and mystery of God is a natural part of myself.”

“I believe I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.”

Not bad.  Many readers of this blog could also say a few of those things, right?  Yet O is a mere mortal, and I was only humorously, poetically addressing her in the song-ette with the classical, reverential interjection “O.”

A second article also prompted this dichotomous post:

II.  Dana Milbank, “Donald Trump is a bigot and a racist,” in The Washington Post, 12/2‎/15 (excerpt)

Let’s not mince words:  Donald Trump is a bigot and a racist.

Some will think this an outrageous label to apply to the frontrunner for a major party’s presidential nomination.  Ordinarily, I would agree that name-calling is part of what’s wrong with our politics.

But there is a greater imperative not to be silent in the face of demagoguery.Trump

From what I know, Trump is a demigod to a small cross-section of the U.S. population.  He also appears to be guilty as charged of demagoguery.  Regardless, I’d agree w/Milbank on her last point above as a general principle.

What about preachers and pastors?  Only a few display the patently bad behavior of demagogues, but they may sometimes be elevated to demigod status.  If so, it’s not their fault; it’s ours.

We are all mortals.

Order and organization (3 of 3)

[Continued from 9/2 post, found here]

Church leadership structure may not be a particularly crucial area of Christian doctrine, but it is worthy of consideration as a practical matter.  In my personal history, most churches have had deacons.  This last installment will deal a bit with these church servants.

The word “deacon” is a transliteration of a Greek antecedent—a word that may also be translated “minister” or “servant,” depending on context.  Sometimes, a designate-role seems implied; other times, not so much.  It might well be deduced that, in terms of function within the Body, a staff minister such as a youth minister is the same as a deacon who isn’t paid but who, say, takes care of the building and grounds:

One has one job; the other has another.
One gets paid; the other doesn’t.

I suggested this idea once and lost a friend and (staff minister) collaborator soon after.  Not that my assertion was the only cause of the separation, but the professional hierarchy of an institutional church does have its pitfalls.

Where churches have elders and deacons (and also where one or both of those subsets don’t exist), there is most almost always a man who stands and preaches sermons, along with various other roles assigned to him.  This man may be called “preacher” or “minister” or “evangelist.”  The last term, evangelist, while perhaps somewhat more intentionally biblical, rarely corresponds to actual evangelization in the biblical sense.

A few churches, including one whose website I recently browsed, have “ministry leaders” that include Christians of both genders.  Never have I known personally of a church who used the word “deaconess” to refer to someone within its midst, but the case against doing so is not strong.  If one is designated as a mere “ministry leader,” s/he is probably not paid and probably will not be respected as much as a staff person would be, yet there is much to be said for authentic ministry that is unfettered by denominational dogma, employment agreements, and the need for a salary.

Sometimes, after a few years of languishing with less ept leaders, the well-meaning preaching minister—and there are many like this—will begin to conclude that, after all, I have a gift with administration and spiritual leadership, and, yeah, I also have a degree in ministry, so doesn’t it make sense that I can serve this church better if I am recognized as an elder, too (or [muffled choking sounds from this writer] “senior pastor”)?  After all, Timothy and Titus did this kind of thing in the 1st century, sort of, so it’s justifiable, isn’t it?

It’s not entirely fair to find fault with the staff minister/preacher who reasons this way.  It’s more the people’s fault than his; they have abdicated their kingly, priestly roles in deference to a dubiously authorized high priest, a/k/a “pastor.”

The above is not by any stretch a thorough treatment of the organizational roles in churches.  It has been a mere glimpse into roles in a subset or two within Christendom.  Additional time could be spent on the nature of “membership” in an “organization,” but even using those words sours my stomach a bit.  I renounced the practice of “placing membership” a couple decades ago, preferring to let my intentions be made known by action rather than registration.

I might just mention the curiosity of being “in” but not “of” a congregation:  one relatively small denomination, an Ohio nondenominational church I visited once, and a larger denomination that friends attend in Missouri, all have at least two “levels” of membership:

First level
“covenant members” who buy in to everything

Second level
“community members” who attend and generally support but who take exception to one or more tenets and/or who aren’t as committed to the whole program

On the one hand, having two levels of membership begs the question of why one would choose to be a second-level member if s/he doesn’t buy in to the whole she-bang.  On the other hand, with all the superimposed dogma to which one is subjected in an institutional church, having a less committal version of membership may be the only way for said churches to survive.

When it comes down to it, I’m not sure that patterns of church organization seen (or hinted at) in the scant records of the primitive church were intended to be standardized.  Whatever organizational structure exists, or doesn’t exist, within a local church, I’d say two things, in order of increasing importance:

  1. A local church should use whatever organization and identified roles work for it, regardless of any larger denominational structure.  For the moment, and only for a moment, let us accede to the perverse reality that churches are businesses.  I would assert this truth for any business:  there is little validity to be found in people’s making decisions from four levels up in the off-white tower, unless they live where the people live on a regular basis.
  2. A local church should manifest the clear knowledge that no believers are in any sense to be set above any other believers.  All Christians are ministers; all Christians are priests; all Christians are saints.  There is no place for positional hierarchy within a church.  The subtle effects of the blind acceptance of de facto clergy/laity systems (on the part of blurry-visioned, lame sheep) may be more insidious in this regard than de jure hierarchies boldly emblazoned on signs and imprinted on letterhead.

Order and organization (2 of 3)

[Continued from 8/31 post, found here]

Church leadership structure may not be a particularly crucial area of Christian doctrine, but it is worthy of consideration as a practical matter.  In my personal history, all churches but one have had elders (and a few other roles designated for serving, leading, or accomplishing tasks).  This installment will deal a bit with the role designated by the word “elder.”

An elder might also be called “shepherd.”  An even less common appellation in modern and postmodern times is “bishop.”  Each of these three words has been derived from a corresponding Greek word, and each suggests a different aspect of what one of these men might do and/or be.

Carrying the above a little further . . . I sometimes wonder whether there might be a practical separation of roles and responsibilities, according to the ranges of meaning of the terms elder, shepherd, and bishop.  In other words, maybe there could be distinct groups or individuals, delineated something like this:

  • the oldest, most respected in the church, perhaps dispensing general life wisdom and helping with life situations (elders?)
  • those who primarily cared spiritually and physically for sheep (shepherds, not necessarily the oldest wise ones in a church?)
  • tasked with decision-making and executing plans (bishops, perhaps businesspeople, but not necessarily as wise in terms of individual life or things of the Lord?)

The above, which would probably add hierarchy instead of enhancing function, is probably of little value.  One can sometimes observe that the “slate” of elders/shepherds includes one or more from each of the above types, though.  Elder and bishop are not as distinct from one another in NT usage as both of those are from shepherd.

Personally, as a teenager, I aspired to be a church elder/shepherd.  I’ve decidedly lost that desire through the years, having observed what elders are actually called on to do in most churches.  (It’s not enough for me that there are good groups of elder-shepherds who regularly use meeting time to pray together for people.  Through no particular fault of any individuals, the working model is off kilter in pretty much every church I’ve been a part of.)

Speaking pragmatically, most congregations’ institutional needs require a bunch of folks to make decisions—usually by group vote or consensus.  That bunch of folks is usually the group of elders/shepherds, although there is little to no biblical precedent for elders’ functioning as a group.  Yes, fiscal decisions must be made, and program decisions may arguably fall within the realm of spiritual shepherding, but it’s not necessary that either of those fall to elders.  It’s a shame when deacons and other “ministry leaders”—not to mention Jane and Joseph Pewpacker—aren’t empowered more often to do these things.  If there were less organizational hierarchy and less of a business model, the elders/shepherds could care more for individual sheep and for the flock as a whole.

Next:  Deacon/deaconess/minister, member, and a couple of bold summary statements

Order and organization (1 of 3)

We’ve been settling in to a new (read:  30 years old, rented) house, getting organized.  When life has hiccups, new opportunities arise for organization.  Some stuff is found; other stuff is rearranged; some stuff is embarrassingly useless, and it gets discarded.

Another kind of organization comes to mind, as well.  Although I don’t find church leadership structure to be a particularly crucial area of Christian doctrine, it is worthy of consideration as a practical matter, at the very least.

While some churches appear not to follow patterns, whether real or imagined, most churches take a cue or two from scripture with regard to organization.

The Belmont Church in Nashville, a nondenominational, happenin’ place in the 60s and 70s and still going, once got a bit creative with its organizational hierarchy and had an administrative pastor and an executive pastor (or something close to that).  Those titles made some sense to me, logically speaking, and I still have no quarrel with their functionality—in a church I was not a part of, anyway.

Recall this, though:  the idea that a pastor is a public sermonizer/preacher/head of church is not a particularly biblical idea.  Ironically, the label “pastor” often denotes a CEO of the congregation.  It is a word used to label someone other than those leaders who primarily shepherd/feed/care for sheep.  Here, it’s not my point that “sermonizing” and preaching are unbiblical (although, see here if you want to pursue that line).  Rather, it’s that the “pastor” package—whatever its label—is comparatively human in origin and is not denoted by the biblical instances of the word “pastor.”

In the case of Belmont, the label “pastor” probably didn’t itself carry biblical ideas any more than in other churches, yet that church’s executive pastor, the one with top-level decision-making authority, also happened to be the church’s chief teacher, and he presumably cared for the “flock”—so at least that much was on track.  Actually, I suppose that most pastors care and do some shepherding.  It’s just that their job descriptions focus in other areas . . . and churches are the poorer for it.

It seems to me that some organizational structures are useful, and others are not so useful, suggesting they need to be discarded.

Next:  observations on elders, deacons/deaconesses, ministry leaders . . . and a summary assessment

Negative effects of positive #s

Pagan Christianity? (2002, 2008, 2012), a book with a title clearly designed to shock the eye, systematically examines a series of routines inculcated in most churchespagan xianity, pointing out the pagan origins of many practices—and tacitly challenging the thoughtful, courageous reader to do something about them.  A few days ago I posted some of this book’s thoughts about the preacher’s role and sermons.  

Below are some strong words from Viola regarding tithing and clergy salaries, from pp. 171ff in the book.


[Malachi 3:8-10] seems to be many Christian leaders’ favorite Bible text, especially when giving is at low tide.  If you have spent any time in the contemporary church, you have heard this passage read from the pulpit on numerous occasions.  Consider the rhetoric that goes with it:

“God has commanded you to faithfully give your tithes.  If you do not tithe, you are robbing God Almighty, and you put yourself under a curse.”

“Your tithes and offerings are necessary if God’s work will go on!”

(“God’s work,” of course, includes paying the pastoral staff and footing the monthly electric bill to keep the building afloat.)

. . .

Tithing does appear in the Bible.  So, yes, tithing is biblical.  But it is not Christian.  The tithe belongs to ancient Israel.  It was essentially their income tax.  Never do you find first century Christians tithing in the New Testament.

. . .

Herein is the heart of God in Malachi 3:8-10:  He opposes oppression of the poor.  In scores of sermons I have heard on tithing, I was never told what the passage was actually talking about.

. . .

We are all priests now . . . all Christians should tithe to one another.

Long ago, I read an essay by one Charles Holt, who was from a Restoration church and was a friend of a friend.  The essay was titled “Stop Paying the Bills,” and it rather forcefully, even belligerently, argued that serious Christians should simply stop financially supporting their congregations (and, by extension, their sects / denominations).  That way, the un-biblical systems would break down, he figured.  And it’s true:  if enough people did this, some kind of change would be forced.  However, it seems to me that few pew-packers will be influenced by extreme rhetoric, whether or not it’s on target.

Of course, most Yellow-Pages-identifiable churches assume, and/or explicitly request, that their adherents contribute money regularly.  Some make the assumption/request in a more palatable manner than others.  For Restoration Movement churches, no exceptions to this norm, the offering/collection becomes another item in the list of musts—the list of ways that those who purport to serve God should act, in relation to the principles and laws in scripture . . . the problem being that no such principle or law can be found.  Side note:  Also in RM churches, one frequently encounters a feigning of separation—the silly declaration that the collection is “separate and apart” from the Lord’s Supper—when the reality was that it wasn’t separate at all, given how the acts were just performed.

I may be a little unique (read:  odd) in some ways, but I am run-of-the-mill in this:  I always, always experience a surge of resistance when church staff members spend time publicly encouraging a higher contribution level.  This M.O. seems so obviously self-serving that it embarrasses me for them.  “Give more money, please, so I can continue to draw my salary or maybe even get a raise . . . and remember that the Lord said, ‘Bring forth the whole tithe.’”  Aarrgghh.

However one feels about one’s specific church finances, the fact is, both the historical tithe proportion (10%) and the legislated action are Hebrew, not Christian.

For a couple of decades, I have not regularly contributed to a congregational “pot”—I find it to be a) a questionable use of limited funds, b) not requested by the Lord, and c) non-intentional and non-specific, and so, d) less meaningful.  However, although I share Holt’s underlying frustration, I think his advice is stated a bit too vehemently, so I’m not making it convenient for readers of this blog to access his essay.  The more calmly thoughtful, methodical approach offered by Viola in his Pagan Christianity chapter appears more likely to produce positive results in people’s minds, if not in their “church lives.”  (Hint:  in the last sentence lies an implicit challenge to you and to me.)

The simple fact that tithing is not a Christian thing ought to make all sober Christians stop and think about using their resources more purposefully, if nothing else.

1.  Charitable, free giving is one thing, and one may certainly freely give to his/her congregation as well as to other good things.

2.  The presumed perpetuation of legislated tithing is quite another thing, and the targeted words of 1Cor 16:1-4 aren’t directly related to tithing.

Next in this series:  
“Affirming positives from Viola”

For more on the offering collection, here are two links:, at which is found a longish essay, at which I decry the inhospitable pressure put on people by handing them collection plates

Negative effects of good words

An introductory word:  I have a couple of dear, trusted friends who are making, or have made, a living in “preacher” roles.  Each of them is honest and thoughtful enough to realize there are serious issues with the role.  In addition, I’ve respected other men’s sermonic offerings from time to time; plus, I rarely write off a potential new friend simply because he makes his living doing the preacher (a/k/a pastor) thing.  A couple of guys with whom I’ve become solidly acquainted through internet-based groups are as sincere as servants come, considering their hearts and their work with local churches and with the broader Body.  That there are good men preaching relatively high-quality sermons in the world is a given.  However (read on). . . .

Pagan Christianity? (2002, 2008, 2012), a book with a title clearly designed to shock the eye, pagan xianitywas written primarily by Frank Viola and also by George Barna, of religion survey fame.  The book systematically examines a series of routines inculcated in most churches, pointing out the pagan origins of many of the practices—and tacitly challenging the thoughtful, courageous reader to do something about the existing dissonance.

Reading this entire book has never been a goal of mine.  In fact, it rankles me enough to page through a chapter—not because I get mad at the authors, but because they are way too on target, and I get righteously indignant at the status quo—that I have intentionally skimmed, reading only selectively.

Rather than bringing forward Viola’s worthwhile research on the origins of the sermon, I’d like to share a few points he made in the fourth chapter on “How Sermonizing Harms the Church.”  In other words, this is not about the non-Christian beginnings of the method/genre but about the present-day effects.  The larger, italicized wordings below are abridged, but all of them are Viola’s:

1.  The sermon makes the preacher the virtuoso performer of the regular church gathering.  As a result, congregational participation is hampered at best and precluded at worst.

2.  The sermon often stalemates spiritual growth.  Because it is a one-way affair, it encourages passivity.

3.  The sermon preserves the unbiblical clergy  mentality.  It creates an excessive and pathological dependence on the clergy.  The sermon makes the preacher the religious specialist—the only one having anything worthy to say.

4.  Rather than equipping the saints, the sermon de-skills them.  It matters not how loudly ministers drone on about “equipping the saints for the work of the ministry,” the truth is that the contemporary sermon preached every week has little power to equip God’s people for spiritual service and functioning.

Much of the above could be applied to worship leaders and so-called praise teams, as well.  Now, twenty years ago, I would have been very surprised if you foretold that I’d end up writing that last sentence.  After having lived in five more regions, and after having visited probably 50-75 more churches, though, I now find it a truism:  the customary appearance of any “virtuoso performers” in the assembly tends to neutralize and hush the pew-packers, as opposed to energizing them.  Something in me still thinks that a well-conceived, wisely used praise team can be a good tool to enhance congregational worship; I myself have been stirred to worship through the visual and sonic leadership of praise teams.  It simply has not been my observation or experience that praise teams have an overall positive effect in churches over the long haul.

As if to answer an anticipcated objection, Viola follows the above section by affirming that preaching and teaching the Word of God are obviously “scriptural,” but that . . .

The contemporary pulpit sermon is not the equivalent of the preaching and teaching that is found in the scriptures.  It cannot be found in the Judaism of the Old Testament, the ministry of Jesus, or the life of the primitive church.

B. Casey, 6/28-7/11/15

Addendum 7/19/15:

I reviewed this post one last time before its scheduled publishing in a few days, and I found its title ironic.  If certain people (who are at this time deeply troubling my soul) were to see this post’s title, it would naturally lead them to think it was referring to something else, but the relationship of the two matters is happenstance.  

It is a shame when words intended for good—even those that may contain something amiss—are taken for bad and are used to further ill will among people.  If Frank Viola’s and my words about preachers’ words end up being taken as spreading ill will about people, they will have been taken poorly and incorrectly.  The sharing of the Viola thoughts above is a word against a practice and a habit, not against any person or class of people.  

Good words and good people are what they are.

Next in this series:  

“Negative effects of positive #s”
“Affirming positives from Viola”

For more on the preacher’s/pastor’s role:

More on division ÷

In my last essay, a meandering one titled “Long Division,” I shared at some length about some ironically divisive aspects of the ostensibly unifying concept of marriage, following that with a few words about divisive flag(s).  Now, I’ll invite you to think with me for a few moments about church division.


Speaking ideologically, division among Christians shouldn’t be a practical reality (and it isn’t a spiritual reality).  Whether we’re thinking of 1Corinthians 1, or of the “seven ones” of Ephesians 4, or generally of the 1st-centuring uniting under the Christ of Jewish and gentile believers, we all realize that Jesus doesn’t want us spiritually separated.  Some physical division of Christian circles is inherently neutral.  Even a racially based divided state need not be appraised as evil, if it’s based solely on choice or geography/distance and not on racism.

Paul’s 1Cor 1 polemic against using names to divide believers (Apollos, Cephas, etc.), by the way, is part of a larger rhetorical structure and shouldn’t be used presumptively to attempt to eradicate every divided scenario, necessarily.  In other words, denominating (i.e., naming) and dividing are inherently neutral, not necessarily wrong.

Now, if division occurs, i.e., if it is an event within a single church, it is very likely to be a bad thing; it’s doubtful that humans can navigate a dividing of a group of people and sustain all-around positive feelings and results.  (Intentional “multiplication by division,” a church growth ideal, is an exception.)  On the other hand, if a divided state is merely observed as status quo, it may be just fine, at the time in question.

Case(y) in point:  when CofC families moved to northern Delaware during my phases of life there, they were presented with a choice of either the Newark or the Cedars congregation.  At some point down the road, one of these transplanted church members would often wistfully wonder “why Newark and Cedars don’t do more together.”  These folks thought they’d identified a unity problem, but most of us Delaware fixtures never wondered about it ourselves.

The status quo was just fine:  it was a division based mostly on geography and, I suppose, somewhat on “style.”  More Cedars-ites came from North Wilmington, Hockessin, and mid-county, while more Newark-ers were from Newark, Bear, and Glasgow.  I believe there were slightly higher per capita income and education levels at Cedars, and those aggregated factors probably influenced a few “style” choices.  But there were many friendships that crossed congregational lines, and I never once knew of any animosity or unkindness between leaders or anyone else in either the Cedars or Newark congregation.  It was simply the way things were—two different bodies of the same, general stripe, divided by about 12 miles and perhaps somewhat by socioeconomics.

On the other hand (and it’s a very large hand, with long, bony fingers and misshapen, protruding knuckles!), some things are historically divisive within the context of groups.  Take politics, for example. . . .

I’ve written several times on matters related to political, patriotic, or militaristic expressions within church congregations.  Here, I’ll simply mention that, about 20 years ago, one sister was heard to say something about never wanting to sit anywhere near a certain brother, because “she couldn’t stand his politics.”  Had neither of these believers publicly made their political positions known, sustained disunity wouldn’t have been created.

I’m currently aware of a church in the Northeast that’s increasingly characterized by right-wing diatribes unbecoming to Jesus’ disciples and unworthy of the gathered saints’ time.  The focus is way off!  The politically motivated statements, as they create deeper divides, also betray undue interest in political goals and not enough faith for eternity.  General patriotism may not be divisive on a large scale, but expressions of partisan politics in a congregation are divisive by nature.  For that reason alone, partisan politics must be left out of church gatherings.

Staff ministers regularly prove divisive, no matter their frequent intentions to unify and rally the people.  People naturally gravitate to one personality type or to one style of ministering, and they just as naturally may be repelled by another staff minister.  This dis-unifying reality constitutes one argument against paid ministry; things get even more intense when money is involved.

The congregational assembly and worship may also be divisive, inasmuch as focus moves from God to peripheral matters such as leader personalities, music styles, or liturgical order.

Almost anything may be divisive.  If it’s spiritually divisive, problems ensue.  If it’s mere geography or preference that leads people to one “side” or another, and no disunity is created in significant matters . . . well, “no harm, no foul.”

I’m just tickling the bear’s ear here.  Better not poke him.

B. Casey, 7/12-14

Two from Thoman (2 of 2)

In this blog, Roger Thoman lists some very good reasons to believe in simple house gatherings.

Along these lines, I looked up a few things in James Rutz’s book The Open Church (which I hadn’t read in several years).  There are many dynamics to consider when opening up a church to a more mutual model.  Not the least significant is the arrangement of chairs.  Rutz believes the diagram below represents the best seating plan, at least at first.  Note that it is not a circle.

      _____________    _____________
||                                                             ||
||                                                             ||
||                                                             ||
      _____________    _____________


What comments do you have — on seating, on openness, on mutuality, on officials and staff pastors, on church real estate, on simplicity, etc.?