My Accidental Life Skill

The other day, it hit me that I accidentally developed a life skill, one that I’ve been using since I was 28 years old. I didn’t build the habit consciously. It just never occurred to me to live any other way.

Twenty years ago this month, I became pastor an elder-led church that had no elders. At 28, I was the only officer constitutionally in charge of setting policy and direction.

I see now what I should’ve done—if I had been smart. I should’ve gone to seminars on how to maximize my own performance, extend my influence, and incentivize others to buy into my vision. I should’ve become a driven executive imposing my will on the organization. And I probably could have done it. Within two years, I was not only the sole elder of this church, but the founding chairman of two non-profit enterprises.

But I wasn’t smart. I wasted this opportunity to expand my power. I brought on more elders, recruited boards for the two non-profits, stepped aside as the chairman, and handed them off to paid leadership.

I was not smart enough to be threatened by the expertise of people who understood childhood education, real estate, and business strategy better than I did. I was so dumb that I thought my job was to support, spiritually feed, and advise those people.

And they took all the power. Elders, managers, board members, counselors, school teachers, fellow pastors took the power and used it without me. They discipled others without my looking over their shoulder. They had meetings without me. They even spent money without my vote. They built buildings, created jobs, taught classes, and helped people through intense personal crises—as if I didn’t even matter.

In spite of how dumb I was, all of these institutions still exist, show resilience, and have the ability to reach people. My failure to actualize myself somehow made space for other leaders to serve Christ and his people.

What hit me the other day was this: giving away power is a life skill. Christians who give their power away to others and support them in their work are the pistons driving the growth of Christ’s Kingdom. Christians who hang onto their authority, positions, and opportunities, who assert their own value against others, and who guard their status against every threat are the brakes. They stop the flow of energy from one person to another, clamp down the drive of churches, and sometimes bring entire institutions to a halt.

It amazes me how people resist giving away power. There is no shortage of people who have low opinions of others. Their argument is always the same. If you give power to this person, he/she will do damage.

Indeed. We all do damage just by showing up. Some of the people I’ve supported misused their power. They sometimes became haughty. Some froze and became indecisive. Others refused to develop their own character, so that they lost credibility with those they needed to lead. A few did all of these things.

Most of the time, the community of leaders helped those who stumbled. The faltering leaders took their lumps, grew, and became more effective. The Lord redeems damage. He is also capable of stopping leaders in their tracks when they are willfully destructive. I’ve seen him do that too.

But the damage that comes from turning ministry into a battle of wills, or a turf war, or a popularity contest is far worse. This damage lasts for decades because many people become trained in slander and malice. It has also impossible to calculate: who can tally the lost love from attitudes that James 3.13-18 calls demonic? There is in my memory a sad gallery of people who spent so much energy neutralizing threats to their personal worth that they now accomplish little for Christ’s kingdom.

Some might imagine that the faces in that gallery are all old. Not so. Many old people learned the skill of giving away power early in their lives, and still thrive in ministry as a result. In fact, if people do not learn this skill early, they rarely learn it later. I am frightened at the number of young and middle-aged people I see whose energy is devoted to controlling their kids, controlling their homes, controlling their business, controlling their free time, and controlling their image.

Every Christian says he or she loves Jesus, wants to serve him, and wants his kingdom to thrive. Every single one. Every church corporately says these things. But a church’s spiritual success may hang on the answer to a single question.

Do you spend your energy creating and guarding a ministry role for yourself, or creating and guarding roles for others?

The Churched and the Dechurched

The Barna Group reports that the Chico-Redding area is the 11th most “dechurched” region in the nation. Dechurched people used to attend church but have not in the last six months. In crucial ways, dechurched people are right.

In our region, about 41% of people have dropped out of church. 2 out of 5. Our churches not only fail to gain the “unchurched.” (We’re the seventh most unchurched region nationally.) We alienate our own attenders.

I spend a lot of time with people who stopped attending church, but decide to try again. Here’s what they say to me:

  1. Churches should go deep. Quit with the banners, cliches, and Christianish activities. There’s more to God than sentimentality and cheerleading. Talk to me about things that matter.
  2. Churches should be above politics. Christians can’t keep disrespecting each other when they have different views. If the church doesn’t believe in a power above politics, there’s no point in going. (I hear this from Iraq veterans shunned by progressives and Bernie Sanders supporters shunned by conservatives.)
  3. Churches should be safe. In the shallow, self-absorbed social worlds of churches, backbiting is incessant. Favoritism toward the rich and good-looking is rampant. If you are not secure in a clique, you are ignored. Why should I have to conform to someone’s Instagram fantasy in order to be accepted?

People may have poor reasons for dropping out of church. But these are the three convictions that I hear most from the dechurched who are trying again. And they are right.

Solving these problems will require a change of heart from everyone.

If church-goers continue to see themselves as consumers of programs, then even more people will conclude that churches lack integrity. If, by contrast, the followers of Christ see themselves as citizens of a new Kingdom, they will see different results. They will yearn for more depth in their knowledge of God. Because of that depth, their eyes will lift to the power beyond politics. In the fear of God, they will begin to love one another more than themselves.

This change is not only possible. I see it happening quietly. The alienation of church-goers can stop. But we urgently need to recognize that this problem cannot be solved by marketing, only by integrity.

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Art and Devastation: A Tour of German Post-War Expressionism #7

Lyonel Feininger, The Gate and Church in the Woods 2, 1920. Woodcut. MoMA.

While Paul Klee tried to open the inner reality of things, Feininger focused on the structure of the external world. His images, like these woodcuts, are well-ordered and feature light.

The Gate is filled with ambiguity even as it shows the play of light. A road cuts through the center of the print toward a gate, lit from within. But a black sun splashes light over the left side of the image. Facing the same direction are dark facades with lit windows and lit facades with dark windows. What is the light source? The world seems to be lighting itself.

Feininger is more direct in Church in the Woods 2. In the midst of a dark forest is a white church. Light sprays heavenward from the snow, just as the spire points up. It is an unusual image: an expressionist woodcut with an explicitly religious symbol rendered without cynicism or irony. (I can’t help but think the style of the church betrays Feininger’s American roots.)