Archive for the ‘Leadership’ Category

Nine Marks and Ownership of the Church

October 15, 2009

dever_9marksPermit me a couple more negative critiques of Nine Marks, after which I will go back to telling you where Dever and I agree.

Dever says:

“In a funny way, when we hear expositional preaching we become less dependent on the preacher.  We’re more concerned about the Word of God.  And so, if your pastor is away, if God calls him somewhere else or if he’s gone and someone else is in the pulpit, that’s okay.”(206)

I get what he is saying, and ideally we want this to be true.  Too many churches (including one I know very well) are built entirely around a single personality.  When that person leaves, the church as it used to be ceases to exist.  Ideally, as Dever would like it, the preaching of the Word, not the preacher himself, would be central to the life of the church.  Dever argues that expositional preaching will safeguard against the cult of personality.

But I say the preacher is still too central either way.  An expositional preacher still dominates the gathering of the saints way too much.  The whole worship service points to the moment when everyone else gets very quiet and very still in order to let the one guy do all the talking.  The very existence of the monologue teaches the rest of the Body of Christ to be passive.  It screams volumes about who really has the ability to “minister.”  I agree that it is a problem when a church becomes overly dependent upon one personality.  But the bigger, deeper, more universal problem is that churches in general depend too much upon the guy who fills the pulpit, regardless of his preaching style.

Topical preaching isn’t the problem.  The pulpit itself is the problem.

Well, that’s oversimplification, of course.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with someone getting up in front of a church to preach and teach.  I’d like to see more people do it.  That might help us see more of the Body as viable vehicles for God’s word.  Ultimately, furniture is not the problem–lopsided functioning in the Body of Christ is.

Elsewhere, Dever says this:

“Joining a church increases our sense of ownership of the work of the church, of its community, of its budget, of its goals.  We move from being pampered consumers to becoming joyous proprietors.”(157)

Again, I’m feelin’ ya, Dever.  Isn’t that what all church leaders want?  Don’t we all want to see the average church member catch a sense of ownership of the mission and purpose of the church?  But how can I feel like a proprietor when I have no say in what is taught, what is sung, or how the church goes about its work?  If I am not on staff, I am out of the loop.  Merely becoming a member changes very little.  If I really want to make a difference, I have to become a pastor myself.

murrowI wrote an article several years ago entitled “Why Men Don’t Go to Church.”  It must have struck a chord with a number of people because it still gets quoted on people’s blogs from time to time, and it even helped one author think through his material for a book he later wrote using almost the same title.  In my article, I argued this same point–that the only way to make much of a difference in the direction of a church is to crossover and become one of the clergy.  As long as that’s the way it is, I’m afraid the consumer mentality will be very difficult for most church members to avoid.


One more thing I gotta take issue with:  Dever’s take on different leadership models was three-quarters right, in my opinion.  But the first of the four leadership styles he proposes is called “the boss,” and he considers it a legitimate mode of leadership in the church.  I do not.  Dever gives good scriptural support for the other three:  the example setter, the support giver, and the servant leader.  His top-down “boss” model just doesn’t mesh well with the other three or with the New Testament.  The scant scriptural references he gives to illustrate it (238) just don’t say what he seems to think they say.

To me, this “commanding” mode of leadership flies in the face of Dever’s earlier chapter on authority in the church, which I liked very much.  In that earlier chapter, he cites Matthew 18:15-17 to illustrate that, in the church, the ultimate court of appeal is the church itself–not a specially-marked individual or group of leaders.  He also recognizes that when Paul sought to correct the saints in Corinth, “he instructs the whole church–not just the leaders–to take action” (223).  Likewise, when the Galatians heard that they were supposed to get circumcised in order to be good Christians, he made his appeal to the whole church, not to a dominating group.  “They had an inescapable duty to judge even those who claimed to be apostles” (224).  Where’s “the boss” in those scenarios?  It’s not there.

Top-down is simply not the style of leadership envisioned by Jesus or the New Testament writers.  Bottom-up is more like it.  Or even the “alongside” kind, as Dever characterizes two of his four styles.  But top-down won’t do.  Maybe things in the world work that way.  But not in the church.

It will not be so among you,” Jesus told us (Mk. 10:43).   How quickly we forget.


Nine Marks and the Centrality of the Preacher

October 12, 2009

dever_9marksLet me begin my most critical post about Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by affirming something I really like about this book.  Dever places the speaking of God at the fountainhead of the life of the church.  I completely agree with him there.  Several pages in his first chapter sound just like a section in my book about the centrality of the Word of God in the life of the church.  He argues that God’s people have always been constituted as a people by the speaking of God (44).  He points out how often “the word of the Lord came” to Israel–3,000 times (45)!  He illustrates from Ezekiel how God gives life to dead things by simply speaking to them (46).  He goes on to teach that “His Word not only gives us life; it also gives us direction as it keeps molding and shaping us in the image of the God who is speaking to us” (51).  Absolutely right!  Couldn’t agree more.

But I contend that God speaks through the whole church, not just through one man.  That perpetual “guy up front” concept may have been exactly right for the Old Covenant people of God, but he is up to something else now.  I wish everyone could see this.  God told us that when the fullness of time had come, he would pour out his Spirit on all his people, not just on a select few.  When he said, “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions” (Joel 2:28), he was using what in Hebrew poetry is called a merism (also defined here).  It means every one of God’s people will have his Spirit and every one of them will become his spokesmen.  And in case you missed it, Peter announced that Joel’s prophecy was fulfilled the day the church was born (Acts 2:14ff).  In the New Covenant community, everyone becomes a mouthpiece for God.

Reformed thinkers don’t see it that way, and neither does Dever.  Reformed theology tends to blend together the Old and New Covenants so that each one bleeds into the other, affecting what we see in each.  While Hebrews tells us clearly that we have NOT come to Mt. Sinai (Heb.12:18-24) but to something much better, several professors at the Reformed seminary I went to actually taught that Sinai is our best model for how worship should happen today.  For them, it is an extension of something called the “regulative principle of worship.”  God’s people gather to the feet of an elevated platform to hear him speak his demands and the people respond with “all this we will do.”  In this model, only one person is authorized to speak for God, and that’s the preacher.  That’s the model that Dever apparently adheres to, and it still makes my Baptist stomach turn.

Listen to Dever’s unqualified championing of this regulative principle in preaching:

“Permit me to suggest that the one-sidedness of preaching is not only excusable but is actually important.  If in our preaching we stand in the place of God…then surely it is appropriate that it be one-sided…the univocal character of God’s Word comes as a monologue to us” (33).

Did a Baptist really write that sentence?  I can hardly believe it!  Where does he find support for this in the New Testament?  Surely he is back at Sinai with our Reformed friends, but he assumes this model rather than demonstrating it.  Reading the following statement, I’m certain of it:

“…there is something appropriate about us all gathering together and listening to one who is standing in the place of God, giving His Word to us as we contribute nothing to it other than hearing and heeding it” (54, emphasis mine).

Standing in the place of God?  I heard an Orthodox priest tell me the same thing once.  That’s the Orthodox/Catholic view of the role of a priest.  It shouldn’t even fit within a “Reformed” ecclesiology, but somehow it has anyway.  I’ve never understood how.

Peter said we should all speak as those speaking the very words of God (1 Pet.4:11 ).  That’s why I can’t support this notion that one guy gets to be the lone mouthpiece of God when the church assembles.

I just don’t follow this reasoning:  First he argues that the New Testament teaches a plurality of elders.  At first it is assumed that elders are synonymous with pastors (aka shepherds).  But then some distinctive singular office called “the preacher” emerges and becomes synonymous with THE pastor (suddenly singular) with no warning or explanation.  Dever says: “My main role, and the main role of any pastor, is expositional preaching” (39).  Says who?  What verse did you get that out of?  More crucially, why do you insist that this function falls only to one person in a church?  Why aren’t at least the other elders “preachers” as well?  And what happened to the rest of the members of the Body of Christ to make them suddenly passive receptacles for such a uni-directional ministry?

This is the point where Dever and I part ways, and it’s a crucial point.  Dever himself argues that the preaching of this singular individual, since it is the only way for the church to hear from God, “is far and away the most important [mark] of them all…if you get this one right, all of the others should follow.  This is the crucial mark” (39).

Well, there you have it.  It all hangs on the preacher, and he’s all alone in his role.  All the hopes and dreams for life in the church rise and fall on the capabilities of one individual.  Forgive me, I simply cannot find the priesthood of all believers in that notion.  I certainly cannot find a living, functioning Body of Christ supplying its own needs through what every joint supplies (Eph 4:15-16).  We’ve got two very different models here for how a church functions, and I don’t see any way they can mesh.  If Dever’s model is your model for how God communicates with his people, then I don’t think we’re thinking about the same thing at all.

One man cannot feed God’s people week after week, year after year without them  becoming passive receptacles.  A room full of ears sitting underneath one giant mouth.  That’s just not the Body of Christ.

Last Sunday I went to church at a local Baptist church.  For the first hour, in Sunday School, I sat quietly, listening to a lesson on the second coming.  It was taught by an intelligent woman who did a good job teaching it.  There still were a number of points I would have disagreed with if it had been really appropriate to do so, but under the circumstances, that would have been just rude and annoying.  So I sat quietly and listened.  When that hour was done, I filed into the sanctuary for another hour to hear the choir sing and the preacher preach.  When that was done, my family and I went home and put on our comfortable clothes and ate lunch.

Since actions speak louder than words, it seems to me that this setup is teaching me that I am a spectator–a passive recipient of ministry–and not a minister myself.  You can say every member is a minister until you are blue in the face.  You can preach all you want about mobilizing the “people in the pew” for mission.   But this arrangement undermines that message in the most fundamental way.  I’m sticking by my original contention that this has to change before average believers will ever come to see themselves as active participants in the mission of God in the world.

Think about it.  Isn’t it obvious?

Nine Marks and the Definition of a Church

October 2, 2009

dever_9marksSo I’m making my way through Mark Dever’s Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, which a new friend gave me to read. It’s a popular book among pastors, and I never turn away a free book 🙂 I’ll take a few posts to interact with the book, giving my reactions as I go along.

Dever summons a consensus from several (Reformed) sources and concludes that three things must be present in order to proclaim a gathering of people a legitimate church: the preaching of the Word of God, observance of the sacraments, and exercise of church discipline.

Of course, there’s lots of room for interpretation there. How many sacraments do you count? And what if you don’t actually call them or label them as “sacraments” in the old Catholic sense of the term? At what point does really bad preaching disqualify a church from being taken seriously?

This is all beside the point that I want to make in response. What I really want to do in response to this is answer a question a brother asked me in Dayton, Ohio, a couple of months ago. His question was this:

What’s the difference between a house church and a cell group/small group?

This comes up as traditional churches debate how to integrate smaller community groups into their church structure. Someone on staff becomes convinced that “small groups are where it’s at” for whatever reason (better accountability, more authentic community, more effective missions, etc). Then they get busy figuring out how to make it happen. Do they phase out Sunday School or do both at the same time? And what will be the purposes and goals of these groups?

And what do you call them?

Life groups? Cell groups? Home groups? House churches?

Most of the time, I don’t get too hung up on what you name things. For example, I’d rather see good eldership and oversight exercised among a group of people than hear the “right” biblical term used for each function. Same goes for any other kind of spiritual gifting. It’s more important to have a gift functioning than it is to know the right thing to call it. I think some people are way too obsessed with terminology some times.

HOWEVER, I think it would help to call these small groups house churches and them treat them as such. If you work in a traditional church setup and you want to integrate the house church model into what your church does, don’t treat them like they’re anything less than bonafide house churches in and of themselves.

Teach them to provide their own ministry. Teach them to celebrate communion and baptisms together, in their groups. Teach them to recognize leaders among them and guide them through the process of learning to exercise their own church discipline.

In other words, treat them like real churches. Think of them and speak of them in that way. Don’t tie long strings to each group and micro-manage them like marionettes under your control. That’s the difference between a cell group and a house church in my opinion. House churches carry out all the functions of a church: teaching, prayer, fellowship, evangelism, discipline, marrying, burying, baptizing, communion, etc. They do it all.

Maybe they still gather together with the rest of the larger church on a regular basis. Maybe once a month, maybe twice, or maybe once every week. Whatever. The staff still trains, supports, and troubleshoots the microchurches that result from the larger church’s ministry. But everything they do serves to EQUIP those groups to find the guidance of the Spirit for themselves.

Is anyone doing such a thing?

Sure. I visited at least four churches like that this past summer. They ranged in membership from 80 people to about 4000. And I heard of several more. Such things do exist.

Not in my part of town, mind you. But some day.

For today’s post, I’ll let Dever’s definition of a church inform the formation of house churches, too.

There are at least a dozen other comments I’d like to make in response to Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. I’ll get to them soon enough…

Leadership, Part Two

May 3, 2009

In the last post, I asserted that leadership in the body of Christ is organically grown, and that the authority it wields is spiritual rather than official. Perhaps the simplest way to restate my point is to say that local leadership roles in a church should be home-grown, and should mirror the ongoing spiritual vitality of the people in question. Leadership is not a static thing, and it changes according to the needs of a group. For example, a person who leads in one group may not find he or she has the same role in the next. It’s a fluid thing.

But today I’m thinking about how leadership is still totally necessary for a group of people, however they come upon it. I find this needs to be stated out loud because those of us who are into “organic leadership” tend to entertain the notion that a church can get by without leaders at all. Or perhaps some of us like to believe that leadership happens so fluidly that it never rests on any one or two or three individuals in a church for more than a few seconds at a time.

Poppycock. I’ve been in an organic, simple, home church now for nine years and I can tell you that churches need leaders. They need brothers (and sisters!) to whom they can look when things get really nasty. They need stable folks who can redirect things onto a healthy path when things get sidetracked. A church needs men and women who don’t freak out about everything, who don’t twist the truth to fit their own preferences, and who genuinely look out for the needs of other people rather than merely their own. In other words, there really are characteristics of a followable leader, and we should know what they are.

If each person in the church carries the same weight in every discussion, then the group will too easily be swayed by those who don’t know what they’re talking about. Yet somehow we entertain this romantic notion that everyone leads equally. Perhaps we do this because we love democracy so much in this country. We don’t like anyone telling us what we should do, and we don’t like the idea that someone might know better than we do. Hurts our pride. But there really are people who should be listened to more than others. These are called leaders. And we need them in a fellowship of fallen people.

What happens if a group of people never recognizes leadership? Then people who should not be followed will determine the direction of the group. Somehow, in the end, people without those qualities which describe a leader will have their way, and the group will suffer. Churches which are suspicious of authority and leadership eventually must learn what it looks like for God’s kind of leadership to show up.

Side note: Did you know it’s hard to write a well-thought-through blog post while your 18 month old is fussing at you? Turns out it is. I hope this is all still making sense.

So what counts most in leadership? What kind of person should a church be looking for amongst themselves?

My answer is: A person of character.

Yes, you say, but what is character? What does that mean? First of all, it does NOT mean simply that they can speak well, or convincingly. Being articulate is nice, and it’s useful for a group to have people that can talk, but how central is that, really? I suppose your leaders should be able to unify a group of people, and being able to think clearly, objectively, and being able to articulate what you’re thinking is useful for that end. But the character of that person is crucial. Useful things like intelligence and charisma must never eclipse character.

Most people like to be led by people who are smart. They like to follow someone who can write a good book, or deliver stirring speeches in front of crowds of people (e.g. megachurch pastors). But these are not the real reasons to follow a person. Successful preachers, writers, and entertainers (think of actors, musicians, artists) often have really crummy character under the hood. And in the end they will make decisions that are not good for a group. They wow us with their elocution, or their charm, but that’s not what we really need. So what DOES character mean, then?

Character is comprised of un-sexy things like commitment, stability, perseverance, and humility. People of character take genuine interest in the needs of other people, not merely their own needs. They take responsibilities seriously, and they follow through with what they say they will do. They have integrity–they do not say one thing but do another. In fact, as it turns out, what they say matters far less than WHAT THEY DO. At long last, I think this is what I’m getting at. We tend to watch people’s mouths. But we should be looking somewhere else.

When I played football, my coaches taught us that you should never watch the ball carrier’s shoulder pads. If you want to know which way they’re going next, you watch their hips. The hips don’t lie. A good ball carrier will juke and jive and fake you out. But a good tackler watches the hips. They tell you what’s up.

Same thing here. Watch one another’s actions. Pay attention to how each other lives. Notice those people who make wise decisions, who cultivate healthy relationships, and who do what they say. Follow those people. That’s what leadership is about, and we need it dearly.

Leadership, Part One

April 30, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about leadership. What does good leadership look like in a simple/organic/home church? The best thinking that I have heard on that subject always stresses the need for organically developed leadership. What does that mean, and what keeps it from happening more often?

First of all, the vast majority of churches have a “program” mentality. I recently read a really good article about developing house churches, and it does a good job of showing what organic growth of house churches could look like, in this case if approached from a traditional church starting point. Towards the end, the article illustrates how growth in the Kingdom of God happens relationally, not programmatically. You don’t start with a plan, then execute it in the same way that you would execute a business plan or a teacher’s lesson plan. Growth in the church has to happen along lines you can’t predict ahead of time. Your plans have to flex constantly, adapting to the changing relationships as they develop.

Individuals develop organically, too, which is why leadership must be as Watchman Nee called spiritual and not official. According to Nee, spiritual authority in the church waxes and wanes according to the activity of the Holy Spirit in the lives of individuals in the church. Official authority sits on a person for life, or at least for a predetermined length of time, regardless of the Lord’s activity in the heart of that individual. Ideally of course, you would like the two kinds of authority to coincide. But it doesn’t always.

Men (or women) with official authority must be followed simply because they have that office, that title, that role. You follow them because they are over you, like in a chain of command. Jesus said leadership would not be like that in his kingdom. That’s how “the Gentiles” do it. They lord it over people. But it’s not to be so among us.

A person exhibiting spiritual authority is followed to the extent that he or she is expressing the will of God at any given moment. To the extent that he/she is speaking by the Spirit, his or her word has weight. But spiritual authority can fade, because people are not that consistent. We stumble sometimes, and the Lord provides other voices to take up the slack. A community that is learning to hear and recognize the voice of the Lord knows this to be true, and they know how to listen out for that voice.

Granted, I believe that mature individuals in the church learn to listen for that voice and respond to it quickly, so that this kind of leadership/influence comes to characterize their lives. That is how it should be. Churches should learn to recognize those individuals and listen to what they have to say (more on that in the next post). But they aren’t always right, and no one should be afforded so much power that they must be always followed, no matter what.

Ironically, Watchman Nee himself went back on this notion from time to time. In direct contradiction to his own words, he had a habit of encouraging believers to submit to older believers as unto the Lord, even if they are wrong. In the Normal Christian Life he told a story in which an older brother was clearly in the wrong, but Nee’s mentor (Sister Barber) told him to submit to the older brother anyway. Under the circumstances, Nee says, submitting to erroneous leadership is justified. The older brother can be wrong, but you are right in submitting to him, so it’s all good.

Dennis McCallum over at Xenos Fellowship suggests that Nee may have picked up this quirk from his own Chinese cultural background:

Confucius taught that parents were never wrong, and that even when they were, one should obey them.

I think he’s right. I would add that the Plymouth Brethren influence on him probably reinforced a “top heavy” view of authority, in direct contradiction to his notion of spiritual vs. official authority. I think maybe his gut told him one thing but his environment told him the opposite. I don’t know.

But this only illustrates my point. Is Watchman Nee an authority on simple/organic/house church leadership? Yes, to whatever extent he is articulating dependence upon the Spirit for that leadership. If his upbringing nudged him away from that notion from time to time, we can overlook it. The idea still rings true, IMHO.

More on this soon…