Is Christ preached? Are people being saved? Then rejoice, though through gritted teeth. You cannot stop free enterprise in religion, and you will only ruin your own reputation if you are a cynical despiser and a gossip. Pay attention to your own vineyard, let God sort things out as to motives, he can do that much better than us. You don’t have to compromise truth, you don’t have to align with what is truly evil, but stop wishing for fire to fall down from heaven on brethren, though they be those who don’t recognize your achievements and status. Keep your hand to the plow.
I wanted to take a few moments to speak to an issue that I see bedevil pastors and church planters. I think it is a very old issue, but one that feels new every time it happens. The old issue is one to which the Apostle Paul spoke when he said to the Philippians,
“It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The later do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (Philippians 1:15-18).
How does it feel when you are doing your best to find a decent place to start holding worship services and everything seems too expensive? How does it feel when you are striving to recruit a music team to play decently and lead the people in worship, but you find it beyond your budget and talent doesn’t seem attracted to your new church? How does it feel when you have made great strides in meeting the people of the community, have relationships with neighborhood leaders, have a good rapport with those pastors who have been serving in this same place for years, yet the rate of visitors and growth is agonizingly slow?
And then, just a few blocks away, a mega-church from out in the suburbs buys an old warehouse and plants a new site with an instant congregation. It seems that within a few weeks or barely a month they have remodeled the place, have a great band and light show, smoke machines, a café, ATMs in the foyer, and a staff to handle the information desk, greeters, ushers, parking lot attendants, nursery, child care, and youth workers from the very first week they hold services.
This new church is great at social networking, they have ads on radio and TV, and people are giving testimonies in all kinds of media about the great preaching, small groups, and body life just after the first couple of months. Yet, they have never once come by to say “hi,” they have purposely not networked with community leaders and area pastors, and they consistently and indefatigably create new ministries to compete and outclass what anyone else might be doing. They don’t consult, they don’t ask, and they don’t fellowship. What is more galling is that some of the people you have gathered to be part of your nucleus, or long standing members of your congregation, mysteriously disappear only to be reported now attending this new church.
People who once took vows with you, people who seemed to hold to a confessional faith and seemed serious about their theology now seem to have no real theological or missional commitments at all. People who once confessed that accountability mattered now seem to thrive in a place where there seems to be none.
So, is this the way the Gospel works? Is it for young men who are trying to “make their bones,” attempting to establish themselves as preachers and pastors of renown; is it righteous for them to parachute into communities with an invading colonizing force, with no cultural or neighborhood commitments (let alone sensitivity) and seem to act as if all else before them were failures? Is this the drive and passion of the gospel, or is it American marketing technique, corporate franchising, and basic hucksterism? Isn’t it hard to argue with success, packed parking lots, and a packed out auditorium? The next thing you know their pastor writes a book, gets on the speaking circuit, and puts the speed of their growth on their respective bios and speaker notes.
Or, is this really the migration of disgruntled and tired souls, or those disconnected young adults looking for a spouse, or for those seeking church as entertainment that requires no commitments except one’s own pursuit of fulfillment? Or, maybe, God might be in it, even just a little bit? In America, and actually many places in the developing world as well, religion is a means to power, status, notoriety, and wealth. There is no shortage of selfish ambition in the clergy, whether they be seminary trained with doctorates or laymen who feel suddenly “called.” There have always been some who mixed their ambition with immorality and corruption, but by no means have all of the ambitious been anything but ambitious, as annoying as they tend to be.
Certainly these developments are discouraging to those who have come before, who struggle without deep pockets of outside cash, who don’t arrive in comfort to grow even more comfortable. And the devil can just take this kind of situation and use it to convince church planters, and pastors, and faithful church members that they are now vestiges of the past, inept, untalented, and unappealing. So, we examine as far as we are able the theology of this new work, the integrity of these new leaders and the ethics of how they do business in the possible hope that if we can discredit them, at least in our own minds, it won’t make us feel so bad.
We might be angry, angry at God, angry at folks we once thought loyal who have now left our church, angry at the insensitivity of this new group, angry at the innocent sheep who seem so easily taken in. Okay, let us admit it is a kick in the gut, and even if everyone “over there” is celebrating about how great it is, it makes us feel like failures. So, this feels like a bad thing, at least to our own self-esteem and emotions. Can God use bad things for good? You know the answer to that. Can God use something that feels bad to us but might be good to and for others to accomplish his purpose? You know the answer to that as well. If Romans 8:28 works for a cancer diagnosis it ought to work with a competitive church plant.
Is Christ preached? Are people being saved? Then rejoice, though through gritted teeth. You cannot stop free enterprise in religion, and you will only ruin your own reputation if you are a cynical despiser and a gossip. Pay attention to your own vineyard, let God sort things out as to motives, he can do that much better than us. You don’t have to compromise truth, you don’t have to align with what is truly evil, but stop wishing for fire to fall down from heaven on brethren, though they be those who don’t recognize your achievements and status. Keep your hand to the plow, and stop asking Jesus, as Peter did, “what about him?” “What is that to you?” Jesus said, “You must follow me!” (John 21:21-22).
Randy Nabors is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, is Pastor Emeritus of New City Fellowship in Chattanooga Tenn., and the Urban & Mercy Ministries Coordinator- The New City Network at Mission to North America (MNA). This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.