Christian Complacency Thrives in Multiple Locations

Shockingly, Mark Driscoll is back on the evangelical news radar. While this is no surprise to anyone, it is getting tiresome. Evangelicals devote far too much time to “All Things Mark Driscoll”.

In fact, I’m thinking of buying that as a domain name right now, so that I can sell it later as a retirement investment.

The latest comes in an article from Matthew Paul Turner concerning Driscoll’s covert activity on message boards some years ago. Let me warn you: The language and the descriptions in Driscoll’s posts are not for the faint of hear or the easily offended.

Let me also point out that this was 14 years ago, when Driscoll was an up-and-coming pastor without formal training. As I’ve argued, there are dangers in skipping the preparation to be a pastor. I certainly didn’t learn everything in seminary, but I learned enough to recognize unethical, deceptive and narcissistic behavior. Thus ends the digression…

Following Turner’s work, Rachel Held Evans jumped into the fray on the subject, followed by a challenging article from Jonathan Merritt  and a thought provoking Twitter back-and-forth on the subject of forgiveness. Round and round we go.

It all finally came to a head this week, with Acts 29 Ministries removing Driscoll and his church, Mars Hill, from their organization.

Much of the discussion around Driscoll centers on his immaturity, misogyny, homophobia and “bullying”. I completely disagree with much of Pastor Driscoll’s approach to ministry, as well as the reasoning and theology behind it. But questions about his attitude and theology are the wrong questions.

Instead, we need to be asking:  What enables a person like Mark Driscoll, or any other pastor, to color outside the lines of Christian ethics?

The deeper problem behind Mark Driscoll is not his attitude towards women, “Biblical” manhood, homosexuality or Christian theology. The deeper problem is a lack of accountability. Driscoll can say and do whatever he wants, whenever he wants, and he really doesn’t have to answer to anyone–even the members of his church.

And that’s scary.

All the hand-wringing over Driscoll’s misogyny/homophobia/bullying often misses the deeper issue at work here. It is the attitude of complacency that allows him to have the kind of power that he does.

As long as a ministry is large, popular, and numerically successful, people are willing to be a part of it. Believers are choosing a path of complacency, where they don’t have to deal with the dirty work that sometimes is the reality of church. They choose to speak only to vehemently defend the church against anyone who brings a criticism, no matter how valid that criticism might be. As long as everything looks good and gets lots of attention (even negative attention), then it must be “God’s church” and we simply need to go along with it.

It’s much the same attitude and approach championed by fans of the televangelists in the 80s, until they had no choice but to wake up and see the monsters that a lack of accountability can create.

And that’s even scarier.

Perhaps Driscoll and other mega-church pastors push the lines of ethics, but the Christian members are enabling them to do it. The defense of Look how many people they have or look how much good they do will falter unless the membership decides to acknowledge the full scope of the reality of these ministries.

No one is saying that mega-churches and mega-pastors don’t do Godly work. But the end does not justify the means. And it doesn’t alleviate the membership from asking questions or knowing the truth behind what is happening in their church.

No one within these churches seems willing to ask why a church requires a “gag order” for staff members that leave.

Or why pastors ask for more offerings while purchasing a 16,000 square foot home.

Or why a board of non-church members set the salaries without the church’s knowledge.

Or why those offerings are used to buy the pastor’s way onto the New York Times Best-seller list (and that has happened in multiple locations).

Before I begin getting comments and private messages about how much good mega-churches do, or how judgmental I am, or how I just don’t understand large churches, let me offer another perspective.

Pastors and members of smaller churches (and that includes me) may be tempted to point self-righteously at these ministries and say, “I told you so!” But that attitude is disingenuous, because the same attitude of complacency and just “going along” exists in the small church just as it does in the mega-church.

The two sides might look very different, but they’re both on the same coin. One side may prefer easy listening to the rock concert atmosphere of the mega-church, but it still entices them to choose a Christianity of convenience.

Comfort and complacency may cause people to join a church where they can enjoy the show without having to ask any questions. Many people in smaller churches shun the show in favor of the status quo. It prevents them from making changes or moving forward beyond their traditions.

And our churches are dying because of it.

The members have decided that they are more interested in preserving what they have than they are in actually taking a chance to live for Christ. We have selected a Christianity on life support, because we don’t want to make anyone mad and we don’t want to hurt feelings. And we certainly don’t want Mr. or Mrs. So-and-So to get so mad that they stop giving their money.

I will be the first to admit that I can’t stand it when people are mad at me. However, I am painfully aware that we are living in an age when making people happy or playing on their emotions/desires is not going to cut it.

We cannot survive on entertaining music and attention-getting sermon titles. Nor can we live in the ease of our comfortable, little church family that makes us feel “at home”.  Usually when I feel at home, I want to put my feet up and crash in front of the television…and that’s a far cry from the discipleship to which Jesus calls us.

At some point, we have to dig for a Christian faith beyond the inch-deep version that is making us far too comfortable where we are. We cannot be satisfied with entertainment. We cannot be content with the status quo.

Jesus is calling us to a discipleship that is heart-piercing and accountable to Him, as well as the believers around us. If we don’t answer that call and find the will to ask the hard questions (of our leaders and ourselves), we will continue to watch our churches dwindle and die. And we’ll continue to see “pastors” such as Mark Driscoll run roughshod over the Body of Christ.

And neither will take us one step closer to the Kingdom of God, or the Christian maturity that is so desperately needed in our postmodern world.

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Should Small Churches Just Surrender?

An article from the Associated Baptist Press on August 9 describes the issue of larger churches “merging” with smaller ones. The article offered some reasons why it’s a good idea for small churches to merge with larger ones. It was written from the perspective of a consultant (of course) rather than a pastor, and made some very valid points.

In that same article, I sensed an unintended arrogance and drastic assumptions about small churches. Let me paraphrase the words of Jim Tomberlin, a merger consultant (yes, we have those now) from MultiSite Solutions:

If small churches would just give up their old-school traditional attitudes, and if they were TRULY missional, it would be a lot easier for them to be taken over by larger churches with more people and more money. You can check out some comments at the bottom of the article that echo this sentiment, including one from church consultant George Bullard.

To be honest, I’m pretty sick of getting that attitude from people, from consultants, from marketing strategists, from Christians, and occasionally from pastors.

(Side note: I’m pretty glad Jesus didn’t have a strategist or a marketing consultant, or that whole Cross thing might have ended before it got started).

When I tell people where I pastor, I usually get one or more of several questions: “Is it a big church?” Or “I’ve seen your building. That MUST be a big church!” Or one of my favorites: “Y’all got a contemporary service going yet?”

As if my ultimate goal should be to get drums and electric guitars in worship. Because that solves everything, right?

Then they ask me for the numbers. You know those numbers that define you in Baptist life. How big is your service? How many baptisms? How many new members last year?

Once in a while, I talk with someone who is familiar with our little slice of paradise in downtown Greenville, SC. Those folks usually give me the “Oh…(awkward pause)…um…that’s nice!” Or “Wow…really?” One of these days, I expect someone to pat me on the head and say “Bless your heart!” in response to the fact that I am pastor at Augusta Heights.

Let me be clear: I am GLAD to pastor where I do. I was called to do it. Serving in a small church wasn’t “settling” for me, and I’m not walking around looking for the next big thing.

Let me also be clear:  The multisite movement in church is not wrong! It is not some violation of an immutable spiritual law or guideline for church existence. In fact, there are plenty of arguments for why big, multisite churches are GOOD. NewSpring and Elevation and Marathon can do some things that Augusta Heights may never be able to do. I confess to harboring my own bias against the multisite and mega-church movements, and that’s something I need to lay aside.

I just wish people—including consultants, denominational leaders, and pastors of big, multisite churches—would recognize that small churches may be good, too.

Yes, maybe they’ve hung on to traditions too long and maybe they’re stubborn about change. Maybe the name on the sign is way too important to them. As Mr. Tomberlin says, “There is a huge win-win if people can put aside their egos and their logos”.

But I haven’t heard of many multisite churches that didn’t put THEIR name on the sign when they took over a smaller congregation. Are you honestly going to tell me that there is no ego involved in the multisite church movement, and the insistence that a singular message be broadcast to thousands of people in different locations?

Tomberlin’s discussion hints more at smaller churches simply “submitting” to the will of a larger church, with an assumption that the bigger MUST be better. And there is no hint that perhaps a large church could invest some resources to help a small one get back on its feet.

I believe that I both chose and was chosen to minister to small, often struggling churches I don’t apologize for that, nor do I need anyone’s pity for it, because I still believe that these types of congregations have value. They can still do a lot of good work to do and they can impact the community around them, even if they don’t have strobe lights in their worship service.

I am simply suggesting that perhaps we should be just as excited about the one that a smaller church baptizes as we are about the 1000 that a mega or multisite church baptizes. Seems I remember some story about that in the Bible (Luke 15 if you missed the hint).

Perhaps one day we’ll all just stand outside and wave the white flag, waiting on some larger congregation to consume us. If that day comes, it is my prayer that we will follow what the Spirit is leading us to do.

Until that day, let us respect the work of large and multisite churches. But also let those in smaller churches not grow tired of doing good, and let us do all that we can to reach and minister and impact the community that is entrusted to our care. Let us do all that we can, not only to survive, but also to thrive in doing the work of Christ.

You see, I really LIKE our church and I LOVE what we are being called to do, as hard as it might be and in spite of the odds that are stacked against us. And I would ask that the consultants, denominational leaders, and marketers show as much respect for that calling as they do for the calling of multisite churches.

AUTHOR’S NOTE:  Since publishing this, I have received a clarification from ABP assistant editor Jeff Brumley. The churches that are candidates for merger with large congregations are usually on the verge of folding due to any number of factors. The article was not intended to target active, vital small churches.