Church: My 40 Frustrating/Rewarding Years

It is graduation week at The John Leland Center for Theological Studies, an occasion that almost always puts me in a reflective mood. Forty-three years ago, I was one of those newly-minted seminary graduates heading to begin a lifetime of ministry in and through the local church. It was 1970 and the world was changing. Rapidly. But since the church in general and Baptists in particular tend to lag at least several decades behind the rest of the culture, it was no later than the 1950’s in my world. In retrospect, I realize I received an excellent theological education but was also trained to manage a church. I wasn’t very far in ministry before it began to dawn on me that the church I had been trained to manage no longer existed — if indeed it ever did exist in reality. The benefit today’s graduates have is that they KNOW the church is in a state of transition, and no one knows the shape of church life and ministry toward which that transition is moving. They will be among those who help to define the shape of the church tomorrow. In my current reflective mood, I’ve been thinking about the fact that the “church” is not just one thing. It has many expressions, and each of these expressions has strengths and weaknesses. In my forty-three years of living and ministering with churches I’ve experienced the various frustrations and rewards of these different expressions of the church.

Without question, the most frustrating and aggravating and disturbing expression of the church is the church as an institution. Having “come of age” during the ’60’s, a decade in which every institution of society was challenged and found wanting, I admit to an anti-institutional bias. At the same time, I cannot imagine the church existing without some institutional qualities. But institutions are heartless. Soul-less. One of the formative books of my seminary years was Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society, one theme of which is that inside an organization (an institution) even moral individuals act in immoral ways. Even good people become infected with the first law of any institution — be it church, corporation, educational, or any other. That rule is the survival of the institution itself, whatever the cost. Including the moral cost. I believe that this is the expression of church against which so many are reacting today. The “Nones” and the “spiritual but not religious” are turned off by this expression of the church. But so are many of us who live and minister within that church. It is my greatest frustration in ministry to see decisions being made out of this first law of institutions.

Another expression of the church is the community itself. The people who are the church. Within this community are as wide a variety of persons as there are in any similar segment of the broader culture. They are also at different places in their spiritual formation as Christ-followers. There is great reward in watching them grow, in hoping that maybe you had a little bit to do with that growth. Of course, when they act in ways that don’t reflect the spirit of Christ, there can also be a real sense of failure. The church as community can do some wonderful things for others that reflect Christ’s presence in them, but as people they can also grow very comfortable with one another so that they become like a social club. They like one another and enjoy being with one another. The church and its on-going life becomes a very comfortable place for them to be. The danger is the development of a tendency to preserve the status quo, because this community has come to mean so much to them and they feel so comfortable as a part of the community. They may even do some real good, but there are many social clubs that also do many wonderful altruistic things. There is nothing wrong with that, unless this group of people is supposed to be even more.

The church is also supposed to be an expression of the Kingdom of God. Not the only one, but a meaningful one. If a minister is lucky over a lifetime of ministry, he or she will have the joy of observing from close range the transformation of a few individuals in such a radical way that wherever they are it is clear that the Kingdom of God is present there. In my experience, this doesn’t happen very often. Jesus did say that the gate was narrow and the way difficult that lead to this kind of radical transformation. He also said that there are only a few who find it. But when privileged to share the journey with one in whose life this transformation takes place, it is the most rewarding thing in ministry. This is the church as the Kingdom of God — persons radically transformed who then transform culture.

Over these 40+ years in ministry I’ve been asked more times than I care to count about how many my church has baptized, how many buildings we have built, how big the church budget is. Institutional questions. I have never been asked, Do your people behave more like Jesus since you have been ministering among them? That’s the Kingdom question. I wish I could always answer that question in the affirmative, but I cannot. I have become much more focused on the Kingdom. I’m not against a church flourishing as an institution. I’m not against a church made up of a group of people who genuinely like and enjoy one another’s fellowship and want to enjoy what they have as a community. But both of those things can be present and the Kingdom of God be nowhere to be found. So, if I were delivering the graduation address this year, I would tell our graduates to keep their focus on Kingdom-building. You’ll have to give attention to the institution that calls you and supports you. You’ll have to minister to and care for the people who make up that community of faith. But never lose sight of the fact God has called you be a transforming presence in that institution and for that community. God has called you to Kingdom-building, and nothing that does not focus on that will make for successful ministry.

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Vote for Jesus?

It’s election season.  Actually, it has been since the day after the last election, but we are now only three weeks away from a national election.  But I don’t have to tell you that, unless you are holed up in a cave somewhere, and in that case you would never be reading these words anyway.  I live in one of those “battleground states,” in which the electoral vote that determines who will be elected President is likely to be decided.  That means we are under the gun for television ads, radio ads, browser ads, print media ads, brochures in the mail.  In short we are under a barrage through every conceivable means a candidate has at his or her disposal in order to communicate with us.  I was in a conversation earlier this week in which we all agreed that technology is such that we should not have to listen to the political ads for candidates for whom we cannot vote – for example the United States Senate race in Maryland.  I don’t live in Maryland.  It is clearly torturous enough to have to listen to the endless ads – or should I say the endless charges and countercharges – for the candidates on whom I will vote.  I’ve further concluded that, since I will be out-of-state on November 6 and have already voted absentee, I should be able to get some kind of an exemption from all of those attempts to influence my already-cast vote.  I am so fed up with candidates who try to get my vote by attacking his or her opponent.  I would much rather listen to candidates telling me who they are, what their values are, what their goals would be if elected to office.  If I know who they are and what they value I am much better able to determine if I can support them with my vote.  Instead, they all – or almost all – try to get my vote by telling me what a dangerous rascal the other candidate is – trying to define the opponent and his or her values and goals in a way that will demonize that opponent.  We all complain about this, but the fact is that such negative attacks on opponents win elections.  That is, we (the electorate, present readers excluded of course) allow our votes to be influenced by such attacks.  I’ve heard people say, “We deserve better” candidates and elected officials.  I believe that in the end we get what we deserve, and if we really want different results we had better start looking at ourselves for answers rather than at the behavior of the candidates. We must change.

Suppose Jesus ran for office – let’s say for Senator from Virginia, since that is a highly visible race this year.  I’m somewhat reluctant to even bring this up, because each of us seems to have a way of understanding Jesus and his teachings so that our own beliefs and biases are essentially affirmed.  To state the obvious, therefore, the following are my own opinions about how this might play out.  How would He handle the inevitable attacks from His opponent?  Based on his public ministry as recorded in the gospels, he could reveal publicly the dark inner thoughts of His opponent, lay out for the whole electorate every last sin and stumble – as He did for the Samaritan woman He encountered at Jacob’s well.  His advisors (can you imagine that job!) would urge Him to do exactly that.  Instead, He would more likely say something like, “Forgive him, for he doesn’t know what he does.”  Or, when accused of being soft on terrorism, He might reply that we need to pray for our enemies.  When He would be pushed for His own platform, He would probably say something like it could be summed up in loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving your neighbor as yourself.  Instead of attacking His opponent, He would call each of us to live out the best that is within us – as He did long ago with those He called to follow Him then.  He would not say things just because we wanted to hear them, or make promises that would be neither pursued if He were elected nor be desirable if they were.  When I come across a candidate who employs those campaign tactics, I will be very likely to vote for him or her, who – like Jesus if He ran – will probably lose.  But if he somehow won, that’s when the changes would begin.  It would be interesting.

It’s easy to write those words, and even to mean them.  Putting them into practice, however, can be another matter.  What happens when I get inside that voting booth and no one knows how I’m voting except myself?  What if a particular proposition or a particular candidate’s positions and platform would benefit me personally, but do so at the expense of the “least of these” that obviously meant so much to Jesus?  What if a proposition or candidate is good for the country but not for the Kingdom, that is a world ordered according to God’s values?  I don’t want to live in a theocracy, even one in which I’m in the ruling majority.  I think I’m more afraid of that situation than I am of a situation in which God’s order is completely ignored.  But I cannot separate myself from my values and world view when I step into a voting booth.  Actually, that’s not true.  I have learned to do exactly that on occasion.  I’ve developed considerable expertise at creating wiggle room where Kingdom values are in conflict with my own.  That is the only place that I can actually change the political landscape.  I can prayerfully listen to the whisper of the Spirit and cast my votes based on my best understanding of that message.  I doubt that I would often wind up in the majority, but I’d probbly feel better about myself.  Maybe the first thing transformational leaders need to transform is themselves.  Ourselves.  Myself.  What do you think?

Dr. Gerald L. Young

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