Letter to My Future Pastor, Part 1

Don’t have a heart attack. I have no plans to leave my church. But life throws its curve balls now and then and I have learned to be flexible. So if, for some unforeseen reason, I happened to be in the market for a new church or even just a new pastor, here are a couple of things I would look for in the person chosen to lead the flock. In my next post I will talk about two more.

A Pastor Who Teaches All of Scripture

I grew up in a sleepy little suburb of Riverside, California, about halfway between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Church was one of those dull obligations many people felt compelled to fulfill. At Rubidoux United Methodist we sang painfully slow, doing our best not to leave the volunteer piano player in the dust. Every Sunday a small crowd met in a cavernous hall, relic of someone’s overly ambitious dream, snoozing their way through the interminable sermon.

And then, out of nowhere, the Jesus movement hit Riverside running.

Word spread that there was a new game in town. Sunday night church like no church you had ever seen before, taking place every week at All Saints Episcopal, a short drive away across the dry Santa Ana riverbed.

So my brother Jim and I joined Bruce and a couple of others, crossed to the better side of the tracks, and checked out Calvary Chapel Riverside.

The year was 1973.

Hundreds of young people, high school kids like us and hippie holdovers a few years older, jammed tightly into that stone and mortar space, standing and clapping and singing wildly and acapella, “When I get to heaven gonna walk with Jesus, when I get to heaven gonna see his face….”

They sang and sang.

Then came the band. In the early days it was Children of the Day and Debbie Kerner. Later on it was Keith Green and Chuck Girard and Sweet Comfort, the Riverside house band.

Finally Greg Laurie started to preach. Verse by verse, chapter by chapter, right through a whole book of the Bible. Who knew all that interesting, practical, funny stuff was in that dusty old volume? It certainly didn’t seem like the same Bible we got at the Methodist church.

Two hours later it was over. Eyes and ears and hearts wide open, we knew we would never think of church like we used to. Church could be good.

Even the sermon.

Looking back, what made the teaching so great week after week was Calvary Chapel’s fearless determination to teach through the whole Bible. Instead of endless reruns of everyone’s favorite Bible stories and people, David and Daniel and Peter and Paul and the Sermon on the Mount, we were introduced to a wealth of Scripture in a very relevant way. And working through it chapter by chapter gave important context and insight into the passage at hand.

As a Bible teacher I know how scary it is to contemplate preaching through Leviticus or Revelation or 2 Chronicles or Ezekiel. I know it’s hard; it takes training and discipline and study to teach the more challenging parts of Scripture. But the meat, the sustenance, of the Bible is found in its entirety. When we pick and choose only what we think is applicable today, we feed our listeners a limited diet. However nourishing vegetables may be for us, we also need other types of sustenance.

In the same way, we need to be taught from the wealth of God’s word, which is so rich and full and overflowing with insights into the heart of God. Churches regularly encourage people to read the whole Bible, but do we truly help them understand what they read?

So if I were in the market for a new pastor, I would look for someone who will ensure that all of Scripture is taught, who is willing, enthusiastic, and competent to do so himself, or will put together a team who will.

A Pastor Who Sees the Women, Minorities and Singles in the Room

Jim and I lived in Europe for a while early in our marriage. Church shopping was tricky in a different culture with a different language, where you knew no one and all you had to go on was the phone book. No internet help in sizing up your worship experience prospects. Cold turkey in the door based on a line in the yellow pages was about it.

Not interested in the official state churches, we decided to try the independents.

So off we went.

Inside the door of the first church we encountered an underwhelming crowd of seven, all seemingly nearing the end of their lives here on planet earth. Way beyond middle age, the group before us appeared to consist of the truly old. We sang a bit – I mean they sang a bit – and then it was sermon time.

Since my German was mediocre at best and Jim’s was virtually nonexistent, we didn’t follow every word. But I did manage to catch the drift of the message which, surprisingly, was all about lust.

Not that I’m in favor of lust. It’s just that the heavy emphasis, the repeated hammering of the evils of lust, seemed out of place considering the audience. Could lust really be that big a problem with this crowd?

I can’t say for certain, of course. Maybe lust is as big a challenge at 85 as it is at 25. But I doubt it. Jim and I came away feeling like the pastor never saw his audience, that he had his agenda yet never truly saw the people in front of him enough to connect with who they were.

We never went back.

In my world most pastors are white men. Almost all of the preaching I’ve heard has come from white men, most of the pastoring I’ve received has come through white men, most of the church decisions that have affected me have been made by white men, and my future pastor will likely be a white man.

I haven’t been convinced they always see the rest of us.

This is mostly for them.

Or for you, if the shoe fits.

I know you can look out and see the minorities and women and singles in the audience, and you’re probably glad we’re there. I’m aware of that. But I’m not sure you truly “see” us.

Sometimes this shows up in simple ways, like when pastors don’t think to employ illustrations that include various perspectives. Assumptions and illustrations about how life works from a white male married position do not necessarily translate into the experiences of our Latino or Native American or female or Asian or African American or single or Arab American listeners.

Or like when it never occurs to the preacher to talk about a great woman athlete when he needs a sports illustration. It’s usually Tom Brady and LeBron James and Lionel Messi, not Serena Williams or Abby Wambach or Misty May-Treanor.

But a bigger reason I’m not sure you see us is that I don’t hear you talk about the questions we struggle with when we read the Bible.

Like why the heck slavery is treated like it’s normal, why we seem to find ethnic prejudice and war all over the place, why women are overlooked in so many passages and abused in so many others, why marriage is the assumed norm when Paul said being single was preferable.

When you coast past the glaring issues in the text to focus on some spiritual application to our individual lives, you lose us. Not that we don’t need to apply the passage to our spiritual lives. Of course we do. But we need to know that the words are worth listening to before we are ready to embrace them. We can only do this when we are shown the justice and mercy of God that lies behind the injustice and evil found within the text.

The biggest reason I doubt you see us, however, is that you don’t hire us. Well, maybe you do for all those admin roles, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about leadership positions. Until you put us into those on a regular basis, we will doubt your sincerity in wanting us to be an integral part of your church.

A few years ago I was part of a church plant that explicitly stated its desire to be a church for all people, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, single and married, young and old, black and white and brown and educated and uneducated and everything else. It was mostly a dream, however, until we began embracing all those types of people in leadership positions – on the worship team, the staff, the preaching team, the board, the executive team.

Before then it felt as though we were saying:

“We want you to come, but we won’t let you lead.”

You’re welcome. Or unwelcome, as the case may be.

People will believe they can be an integral part of a church when they see people like themselves who already are. Until they do we can say what we want but it will only go so far. The proof is in the doing.

So if I were looking for a new pastor, I would look for someone who is intentional about using varied illustrations like Jesus, the guy who coupled the woman with the lost coin with the father with the lost son (Luke 15), the ten female bridesmaids with the three male servants (Matt. 25), the one praying woman with the two praying men (Luke 18). When it comes to sermon applications and illustrations, I want a pastor who asks himself, “What would Jesus do?”

But most of all I would look for someone who is aware of his or her gender and ethnicity and background based shortcomings and is willing to do something about them. Who goes out of his way to read unmarried and minority and women Bible scholars and writers when he preps a sermon, so that he can address the questions that otherwise might never occur to him. Who gets people on the team who bring a different perspective and then takes the time to listen to them, like Paul, the single Jewish guy who worked alongside the Asian and women and Middle Eastern and married and European and African believers of his day.[1]

That about does it for today. Except that I want to say I believe in you. I mean I believe you’re out there and if, by some unexpected turn of events, I am pastor-less one day, I will find you. Until then I leave you to ponder what kind of pastor you will choose to be.

 

[1] These categories do not necessarily correspond to ours today, since Paul probably would not have encountered people from Northern Europe, East Asia, non-Mediterranean parts of Africa, or the Americas. But Paul recruited male and female coworkers wherever he went, including modern-day Asia Minor (Turkey) and Southern Europe. His Jewish cohorts, of course, were from the Middle East. Apollos, an influential contemporary of Paul, was from Alexandria, on the north coast of Africa. For Paul’s female coworkers, see especially Romans 16 and note the way he commends their work to a greater extent than he does that of his male coworkers there. We need to remember that to the extent possible at the time, Paul embraced leaders of both genders, all ethnicities, and various walks of life.

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Martin Luther King and the Back of the Church

martin-luther-king-1914585_1280I recall my elementary school playground as a sea of white faces and bodies, of which mine was the whitest, flying in the towering swings and slamming the tetherball until its cord wound tightly around the pole. By middle and high school things were different, integrated. We called ourselves blacks, whites and Mexicans in those days (for some reason other groups like Asians and Native Americans didn’t have their own category) and I thought we all got along pretty well.

The Civil Rights Act was history, after all. Continue reading