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Archive for August, 2012

My daughter Sarah recently made a suggestion to me about this blog, so I thought I’d ask you what you think.

She said that I should ask my readers if they would like to submit questions that I can answer in this space.

The questions can be about:

*church conflict

*pastor-church conflict

*conflict at work or in the home

*questions about churches/pastors in general

*questions about Scripture

Just a few weeks ago, a pastoral colleague asked me for some guidelines on selecting church leaders, and I ended up writing three articles on that one topic.

If I receive just one or two questions, I’ll answer with a lengthier response.  If I receive many questions, my responses will be briefer.

If you’d like to submit questions, and you don’t mind if people know who you are, you can submit your questions via the comments section on this blog.

If you’d rather not have people know your identity, then write me at jim@restoringkingdombuilders.org and I won’t reveal your name.

For personal reasons, I won’t be writing much for the next few days, but I will return very soon!

As always, thanks so much for reading.  Enjoy a fun-filled and memorable Labor Day weekend!

 

 

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I’m in a celebrating mood today because this blog just reached a milestone!

After nearly 20 months and 216 postings, we finally hit 20,000 views last night … an average of just under 100 views per article.

My top 5 articles according to readership are:

*If You Must Terminate a Pastor

*When to Correct a Pastor

*Pastors Who Cause Trouble

*Facing Your Accusers

*When You’re Upset with Your Pastor

The articles I’ve written about my family members (especially my son’s wedding) and about music also have lots of views, but this blog is primarily about pastor-church conflict.

And as you can tell from the above titles, I write primarily for lay people – board members included.  I’m trying to help them deal with their feelings about their pastor when they’re frustrated with the way he’s leading, preaching, or acting.

After talking with pastors and researching this topic for years, I have four observations to make about pastoral termination:

First, few believers know how to terminate a pastor sensitively and wisely.

If a pastor works for the governing board of a church, and the board decides to fire him, the board will probably:

*Ignore biblical principles for correcting a spiritual leader.

*Brush aside the governing documents of their church.

*Skip any kind of due process for the pastor.

*Fail to anticipate how the congregation will react to the pastor’s ouster.

Instead, they’ll just put their head down and remove the pastor using any means at their disposal … even unchristian ones.

I recently talked with a pastor who told me what happened with his church board.

The pastor heard about a conflict training program at a Christian university.  He invited the board to go along.

One board member attended with the pastor.  The other two declined to go.

One week later, those two board members met with the pastor and fired him.

Why didn’t they want to attend the training program?  Because they didn’t want to learn new skills that might prevent them from forcing their pastor to leave.

It’s important that we train boards how to handle conflicts with their pastor before they choose to fire him … because most people … even Christian leaders … cannot control how messy things become when they forcibly terminate their pastor.

Second, boards usually blindside their pastor when they fire him.

I recently spoke with a pastor who had been at his church for nearly two decades.  The church had a large impact in their community and the pastor thought he was doing a great job.

One day, the board called a meeting with the pastor and fired him.

The pastor wasn’t guilty of heresy, or immorality, or any major offense.

And to this day, he has no idea what he did to deserve being terminated.

Here’s the typical scenario:

*Nobody on the board ever sits down with the pastor and talks to him about any concerns they have.

*Nobody confronts or corrects him.

*Nobody allows the pastor to face his accusers and their charges.

*Nobody loves him enough to carry out Matthew 18:15-20 or 1 Timothy 5:19-21.

*Nobody asks God what they should do … but ask God to bless them after they’ve made their decision.

Instead, the board meets in secret, negatively evaluates the pastor’s performance, and fires him without ever giving him the chance to (a) know the complaints against him, and (b) make any necessary adjustments.

Is this legal?  It is if the governing documents of a church say the board can act that way.

Is this moral?  No.

Is it spiritual?  Hardly.

It’s an indication that the board views the church as a business … instead of a spiritual organism … and that they view the pastor as an employee … instead of someone called by God to lead that church.

It’s also an indication that they either lack the time or expertise to correct him … or that they feel the pastor is unredeemable … which seems like a contradiction for people who claim to believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ can transform anyone.

Third, the congregation never hears the truth about why the pastor left.

Under the guise of “confidentiality,” the board makes a pact to refuse to tell anyone the reasons why the pastor has departed.

This may be because the pastor did something immoral and the board is protecting the pastor’s career.

This may be because the pastor did something illegal and the board is protecting the church.

This may be because the board handled things unwisely and they’re covering up their mistakes.

If the pastor was allowed to state publicly why he was forced to leave, he might persuade people that he was treated poorly, which might provoke sympathy for him, turn people against the governing board, and cause people to leave the church.

If the board was allowed to state publicly why they forced the pastor to leave, they would undoubtedly blame everything on him, take no responsibility for their own failures, and have to explain themselves to the congregation.

Because boards just want the pastor gone, they often grant “severance for silence.”  They give the pastor a small compensation package if he’ll leave quickly and quietly … and not tell anyone how badly they handled things.

In fact, because this is such a common problem, I toyed for a while with calling my new book Bungled.

Finally, the perpetrators almost never admit they’ve done anything wrong.

When an individual sins, he or she may or may not admit it.

When a pastor sins, he may or may not admit it.

When a board sins, they almost never admit it.

It is the nature of groups to make a decision and, even if they’re wrong, protect and defend each other afterwards.

How often have you heard the White House … a news organization … a corporate board … a sports team … a school board … a homeowners association … or a state government agency … admit together that they did something wrong?

It rarely if ever happens.

In fact, if even one member of an organization admits that their group has done something wrong, the other members will invariably disown that person or try to remove them altogether.

This is why once a board decides to terminate a pastor, they act like they’re 100% faultless and he’s 100% blameworthy.

And this is why that board and the pastor never reconcile.

I recently spoke with a top Christian leader who told me about a church that called a new pastor.

The pastor wanted to see God renew the church, and he did everything he could to make sure that happened.

But there was just one thing remaining … he wanted the church to reconcile with some of its former pastors who had been mistreated.

The new pastor wasn’t around during the years these pastors served, and the church had many newcomers who had no idea what had happened in the past.

But this pastor called all these men back, and one Sunday, he stood up and confessed that the church had wronged these men of God and asked for their forgiveness on behalf of the church.

I wish this sort of thing would happen more often.  There are too many wounded pastors and churches in our country.

But this kind of thing is rare because of pride.  We convince ourselves that if we did or said something, it was right … but if the pastor did or said something … it was wrong.

Is life really that black and white?

If you’ve been reading for a long time, thank you.  Some subscribers have told me they’ve read every article I’ve written.

If this is your first time here, check out some of the categories on the right side of my blog.  You might find an article or two that will help you deal with the way you feel about your pastor.

And even if you’re an occasional reader, thanks for visiting this site.  We’re honored when you come around.

I love it when people ask questions and leave comments, even if you disagree with something I’ve said.  Since this is the way we all learn, feel free to give me feedback.

I’m still learning a lot about pastoral termination, church conflict, and conflict in general.

And I invite you to keep reading as we learn together.

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It’s frustrating to wait for something you really want, isn’t it?

If you’re stuck on the freeway, it’s hard to wait for traffic to clear up.

If you’re in school, it’s hard to wait for graduation.

If you’re unattached, it’s hard to wait for the Right One.

If you’re employed, it’s hard to wait for vacation.

If you’re a believer, it’s hard to wait for Jesus to return.

I decided to see how many of my songs on iTunes contained the word “wait,” and found 98 such songs … including titles like “Wait for the Healing,” “I’m Waiting for the Day,” “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long,” “Wait a Million Years,” “Waiting for Lightning,” and a song simply titled, “The Waiting” … which contains the classic line, “The waiting is the hardest part.”

In a culture where we’re used to fast food, instant messages, and downloads of e-books in less than one minute, there doesn’t seem to be any benefit to waiting.

In fact, waiting is viewed as a curse, something to be obliterated by newer technology.

If you’re waiting for something right now … a job interview … medical test results … the birth of a child … improved physical and emotional health … even for the election season to be over … let me encourage you with these verses from God’s Word:

Wait for the Lord; be strong and take heart and wait for the Lord.  Psalm 27:14

We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield.  Psalm 33:20

Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.  Psalm 37:7

I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.  Psalm 40:1

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.  Psalm 130:5

Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion.  For the Lord is a God of justice.  Blessed are all who wait for him!  Isaiah 30:18

Those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.  Isaiah 40:31

A few days after celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary, my wife went into the hospital for major abdominal surgery.  Because she was experiencing tremendous pain, she had to undergo some tests … and one of her doctors thought he detected a mass.

My wife’s father came to give us support, and after my wife was wheeled into the operating room, we had to figure out what to do with ourselves until we received word of her condition.

We could have gone to the waiting room and remained silent … or buried our heads in books … or watched inane programs on television.

In our day, we’d play with our smart phones, or do Sudoku puzzles, or read an e-book.

But what we were really doing was just passing time until the surgeon appeared to give us news.  (And when he finally emerged, she didn’t have a mass, but another problem that was resolved in the OR.)

My wife has had many procedures and operations since that first one, and I’ve had to learn how to pass the time in many waiting rooms.

It’s especially hard when the surgeon tells you a procedure will take two hours, and three hours later, you haven’t heard a thing.

But sitting in that waiting room, there is nothing you can do to hurry the process along.  You have to sit there and wait.

And trust that while you’re waiting, the physician is working.

This is what our Bible tells us: that while we wait impatiently for Mr. Right, or better health, or news on the job front, our God is working on our behalf … for His glory … and our good.

While we’re waiting, He’s working.

Twila Paris has always been one of my favorite Christian musical artists.  If you’re struggling with waiting right now, I encourage you to listen to the lyrics of her song, “I Will Listen” … especially these:

This is the faith, patience to wait

When there is nothing clear

Nothing to see, still we believe

Jesus is very near

I cannot imagine what will come

But I’ve already made my choice

And this is where I stand until He moves me on

And I will listen to His voice

If you’d like to listen to the song with lyrics attached, just click here:

http://video.search.yahoo.com/video/play?p=twila+paris+i+will+listen&tnr=21&vid=5013906848219187&l=41&turl=http%3A%2F%2Fts4.mm.bing.net%2Fvideos%2Fthumbnail.aspx%3Fq%3D5013906848219187%26id%3D59f9add2237ceea0766ad6909f974728%26bid%3DFuByolyP2ndOkg%26bn%3DThumb%26url%3Dhttp%253a%252f%252fwww.youtube.com%252fwatch%253fv%253dDLKQ41QjdMA&rurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DDLKQ41QjdMA&sigr=11aub1uc4&newfp=1&tit=I+Will+Listen+-+Twila+Paris

If you’re struggling with waiting … something I know about all too well … take time to listen for His voice.

And when He speaks … act with confidence … knowing that while you’ve been waiting, He’s been working.

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I have a spiritual gift I wish I didn’t have.

The gift of prophecy.

I wish the Lord had given me the gift of exhortation, or giving, or healing instead.  But I wasn’t consulted in the matter, because the Lord distributes the gifts as He wills (1 Cor. 12:11, 18).

I’ve taken many spiritual gift tests … and asked others to take those same tests with me in mind.  In fact, I took a class called “Discerning Your Ministry Identity” for my doctoral program, and the results always come out the same.

Teaching is my top gift.  Prophecy is second.

I can’t foretell the future, so please don’t ask me who’s going to win the World Series or the election in November!

But I do sense the freedom to speak openly and candidly about cultural and personal issues from a biblical standpoint.

Here’s how this gift – featured in 1 Corinthians 14 – manifests itself in the life of a modern-day prophet:

First, prophets are drawn to controversy.  I first discovered this at age 19.  When I taught publicly, I wanted to talk about issues that others wouldn’t talk about.

Stephen Brown, author, pastor, and radio preacher, lived by this motto whenever he preached:

WHEN IN DOUBT, SAY IT.

Brown believed that whenever a pastor said something unplanned, those words would be more memorable and impactful to a congregation.

Maybe so … maybe not.

Some of the best things I’ve ever said … and some of the stupidest … occurred when I practiced that motto.

But like the prophets of old, sometimes I have to say things … because God’s word is like a fire in my bones.

Second, prophets feel free to talk about any subject.

Over the years, while having conversations with pastor friends, I’ve discovered that many of them are uncomfortable talking about certain issues from the pulpit.

Examples?

Giving to God’s work.  Sex … even inside marriage.  Homosexuality.  Couples who live together outside marriage.  Hell.  The wrath of God.  Intelligent design and creationism.

And you don’t know how many times I wanted to wade into politics … but didn’t.

But a pastor with the gift of prophecy says to himself, “If I don’t speak about these issues from Scripture, how will people know God’s mind on these topics?”

This is why I’m drawn to people who do talk about these issues.

It’s why I thought the late Chuck Colson was the best Christian speaker I’ve ever heard.  When the Jim Bakker scandal broke in the late 1980s, I heard Colson publicly critique the prosperity gospel in a biblical, succinct, and devastating way.  He was a modern-day prophet.

It’s why I’ve appreciated Bill Hybels’ ministry over the years.  I used to become quite upset when Christians would criticize Hybels for watering down the gospel because I never found it to be true.  He gave the best messages I’ve ever heard on substitutionary atonement … and hell … and abortion … and homosexuality … and he never pulled punches in the process.

I’m currently writing and talking about the devastating effects that the forced termination of pastors has on Christians,  churches, and pastors and their families.  This is not a topic most believers want to hear about, but this problem is becoming an epidemic in our country … and people are leaving their churches … and even their faith … because of the way these situations are being handled in local churches.

Someone has to speak up … and pray that God’s people will pay attention.

As a wise man once told me, some practices inside Christian churches can only be changed by people who are angry enough to speak out.

Third, the prophetic gift can go against one’s personality.

My two favorite Bible characters are Jeremiah and Timothy.

They both shrank from their calls to ministry.

They both felt unsuccessful.

They both felt like quitting at times.

And they were both sensitive men.

God took a sensitive man like Jeremiah … called him to be a prophet … told him in advance that his ministry would fail … and then insured that he was always alone!

That’s how it feels at time to have this gift.

If God gives someone the gift of prophecy, shouldn’t He give it to a person with an iron will and nerves of steel?

But sometimes He gives this gift to a person with a tender, bleeding heart.

You feel like a spiritual schizophrenic.

Prophets may feel fear before they speak … but they go out and speak anyway … with the authority of God Almighty behind them.  As Paul said to the church at Corinth: “I came to you in weakness and fear, and much trembling” (1 Cor. 2:3).

But he still preached Christ to them … in the power of God’s Spirit.

Finally, prophets always pay a price when they use their gift.

Some prophets are abrasive and obnoxious when they exercise their gift.  Keith Green … whose music I love … believed God had given him the prophetic gift, but he had a habit of slamming people when he used it.  Before he died, he apologized for the way he used his gift.

Prophets are free to speak the mind of God to the people of God … they just have to do it in love.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13:2, “If I have the gift of prophecy … but have not love, I am nothing.”

Four years ago, the state of California was getting ready to vote on the definition of marriage … that marriage was between one man and one woman.

I have pastor friends who chose not to speak on that topic, stating that they weren’t going to change anybody’s mind about it.

But I believed … and still do … that we preachers had the opportunity to clearly delineate what God’s Word says on this issue.  But as Paul says about prophecy, we needed to do it for people’s “strengthening, encouragement and comfort” (1 Cor. 14:3).

So I talked on “Defending Biblical Marriage.”  Gay marriage proponents loudly proclaim their position … and if we Christians are silent, don’t they win the argument by default?

When I gave the message, I knew some people would applaud me … some would attack me … and some would abandon me.

But I had to do it … and would do it again in a heartbeat … even though I believe that message angered the enemy … and that he gradually began to cause damage from that moment on.

The church of Jesus needs prophets who proclaim the whole counsel of God.

And when they do, we need to pray for them, encourage them, and stand behind them … even when they say something that others don’t like … or even we don’t like.

The alternative is for the church of Jesus Christ to be biblically illiterate, culturally irrelevant, and spiritually impotent.

I am not the body.  You are not the body.

I need your gifts … and you need mine.

Even the gift of prophecy.

Follow the way of love, and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy.  1 Corinthians 14:1

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I recently attended a church service where the pastor engaged in questionable ethics while preaching.  While the congregation seemed to love what he was saying, I felt that he was manipulating them so they would give him the response that he desired.

Having heard … and given … hundreds of sermons in my lifetime, let me share with you four principles for evaluating the ethics of a sermon:

First, the pastor needs to be honest with the biblical text.

When a pastor practices exegesis, he’s taking out truth that God placed in Scripture.  But when a pastor practices eisegesis, he’s putting into the text his own thoughts and ideas … acting like his ideas are better than God’s.

I heard a message a few years ago that I thought was fabulous.  The preacher spoke from James 3:1-12 on taming the tongue.  He dealt with every key phrase in the passage in a way we could all understand.

The message was so good I wondered if I should ever preach again.

But some pastors leapfrog the tough phrases … step around sentences with difficult syntax … and avoid all the tough stuff.  When they read Scripture out loud, it’s unedited … but when they preach it, it’s edited.

Why?

Maybe they don’t understand the text they’re studying … or they can’t translate biblical ideas into contemporary language … or they don’t think certain ideas will resonate with their hearers.

When I was a youth pastor and still learning to preach, I chose a text for a sermon.  When I started studying the passage, I discovered it wasn’t saying what I thought it said … and I had little time left to shift gears.  As I recall, the sermon bombed … but I could not in all good conscience twist Scripture to fit my preconceived ideas.

Ask yourself: is my pastor teaching what God’s Word really says … or what he wants it to say?

Second, the pastor needs to preach the entirety of Scripture.

When I was ordained, I was charged with preaching “the whole counsel of God.”  The phrase comes from Paul’s words to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:27.

Paul told his friends, “While I was with you, I never held back the Word of God” (NIV).  The phrase is usually taken to mean, “Preach everything that’s in the Bible … whether popular or unpopular.”

If a pastor is truly called by God to preach the whole counsel of God, that pastor will eventually have to preach on controversial issues like homosexual conduct … racism … loving money … capital punishment … gay marriage … substance abuse … hell … child abuse … the role of women in the church … and even political issues.

Here’s why: the Bible speaks to most of these issues, either through direct commands or general principles.  If a pastor teaches what Scripture says about these issues, then his people can penetrate the culture with biblical arguments.  But if the pastor fails to teach what Scripture says, then his people may adopt the mindset of the culture by default.

If a pastor routinely sidesteps controversial issues to avoid conflict inside his church, he’ll cultivate a congregation that’s biblically ignorant and cannot intellligently converse with those outside the church.

Ask yourself: is my pastor dealing with tough issues biblically, or is he sidestepping controversy to be popular?

Third, the pastor must give credit for materials he’s borrowed from others.

I once heard a pastor do a long series on an issue he knew little about … and the more I heard him preach, the more convinced I was that he was “borrowing” his information from another source.

In fact, I was pretty sure I knew who that source was.

My dilemma: if I did the research, and found out my hunch was right, what was I supposed to do with that information?  Confront the pastor?  Take it to the board?

In my case, I decided not to do the research … but plagiarism is a serious matter, especially in Christian circles.

It is unethical for a pastor to take someone else’s quotation … or story … or sermon … and pass it off as his own without acknowledging his source.

In fact, it’s not just borrowing … it’s stealing.

I once used an outline on unanswered prayer that I kept from Dr. Curtis Mitchell from Biola … but when I preached a sermon on that topic, I told the congregation that I was using his outline but that the sermon content was my own.

Whenever I used a story I got from someone else, I would say, “Rick Warren tells the story …” or “That story from R. C. Sproul illustrates the point that …”

When a pastor stands before a congregation, they have the right to expect that their pastor interacted with God and His Word the previous week … and that he didn’t “buy” a sermon from a website for $15 and act like it was his.

Ask yourself: does my pastor give credit to others for ideas, or does he act like they’re all his own?

Finally, the pastor should never manipulate people into doing what he wants.

I know someone who attended a church where the pastor tried to persuade people to attend church services … and would use anger to get his way.

He would say, “If you don’t come to the Sunday night service, I hope your TV blows up.”  (And he would say it often.)

Maybe he was just kidding … or maybe he really meant it.

I learned early in my preaching ministry that “going to the whip” only works once.  A pastor can “guilt” people … or shame them … or threaten them … but most people see through it … especially when a pastor tries to manipulate people into attending services more often or donating more money.

If your pastor does this, here’s how to put a stop to it:

Ask him kindly to show you the verse in the Bible where Jesus or Paul or the apostles use guilt and threaten people if they don’t come to church or give more money.

Of course … the verse isn’t there.

Many pastors use these tactics because they unconsciously seek to control people’s behavior … but it shows an appalling lack of confidence in the Holy Spirit.

I once served under a pastor whose ministry was not going well.  One Sunday, he told the congregation, “The Lord told me that someone is going to respond to the invitation today.”

We sang 12 verses of “Just As I Am,” and no one came forward.

I can’t see hearts, but I suspect that the congregation was being manipulated that Sunday.

Ask yourself: does my pastor tend to manipulate or motivate people with his words?

Let me make one final statement:

If a pastor has been called to teach Scripture … and he trusts the Holy Spirit to use him … and he’s walking with God … and he has prayerfully studied God’s Word before preaching … THERE IS NO REASON TO USE FLESHLY METHODS TO ILLICIT A RESPONSE FROM GOD’S PEOPLE.

In fact, the desire for a visible response may be more about satisfying a pastor’s ego than anything else.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the ethics of preaching.

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I got lectured yesterday by a man three times younger than me.

My wife and I took a leisurely drive toward the ocean.  We followed the signs to the harbor, when suddenly, I didn’t know whether to turn left or right.  I turned right … and was headed straight toward a military installation.

Oh, man … I didn’t want to endure the guard at the gate giving me the third degree.  Since no cars were around, I tried to make a U-turn, figuring the guard wasn’t going to send Uncle Sam’s finest after me.

But my wife said, “He’s waving you on.”  So I stopped my turn and drove toward the gate instead.

But when I got there, a young man in uniform asked me if I had a driver’s license and knew what the double yellow lines in the road signified.

He told me that I could have gotten in a serious accident and that people could have been killed. (Going 10 mph?)

He verbally dressed me down.

I just looked at him and smiled the whole time.  What else could I have done?

With cars stacking up behind me, he let me go.  I finally drove ahead, turned around, and peeled rubber leaving the installation.

Just kidding!

But that soldier … just doing his duty, mind you … reminded me of some Christians I have known.

These believers are, in the words of a Christian leader I once knew, rightists.

A rightist is a person who believes there is only one right way to do things … and they always do everything right.

And it’s their duty to tell you when you’re doing things wrong.

How can you spot a rightist?

First, the rightist lacks a breadth of experience in church life.

One rightist I knew was always telling me how ministry was carried out in his previous church.  He would preface his remarks by saying, “At _____ Church, we always did things this way.”

He said this dozens of times.  At first, I told him, “Feel free to share your ministry experiences with me.”  But after a while, I asked him to stop sharing because he never seemed to like the way our church did anything.

(As Rick Warren once told someone, “If you like that church so much, why don’t you go back to it?”)

But this leader kept it up.  He couldn’t help himself.

And when I didn’t want to hear it anymore, he went underground and continued to tell others the right way to do church.

Know how many different churches this leader had attended before ours?

That’s right: one.

The more churches you’ve attended … the more churches you’ve visited … the more churches you’ve read about … the less likely that you’ll become a rightist.

Second, the rightist canonizes methodology.

The rightist believes that he has thought through most church practices and that his way is always the best way.

In fact, he acts like his methods are divinely approved while yours do not count.

Take music, for instance.

When Bob Dylan came to Christ in the late 1970s, it was huge news.  The greatest popular songwriter of our day – who was Jewish to boot – had embraced Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.  (As enigmatic as Dylan’s lyrics can be, he still incorporates an amazing amount of biblical imagery in his songs.)

I remember discussing Dylan’s conversion with a leader in my church at that time over dinner.  The leader remained unimpressed.  I quoted the chorus of Dylan’s song “Gotta Serve Somebody” to him: “It may be the devil, or it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.”  (Chuck Smith from Calvary Chapel loved the song.)

The leader told me, “I’ve heard the song, but it still has that beat.”  (I wanted to say, “That’s the point!”)  But this leader embraced the teachings of Christian guru Bill Gothard, who had biblical proof that any beat in a song was wrong.

(By the way, Dylan had the guts to sing “Gotta Serve Somebody” both on Saturday Night Live and on the Grammy Awards … and won his first Grammy for the song.)

I had a conversation recently with a professional musician who is also a pastor.  (No, it wasn’t Jimmy Swaggart.)  He told me there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.

I happen to agree with him.  Some secular music is excellent … and some Christian music just doesn’t cut it.  (Carmen, anyone?)

Can’t Christians have broader categories for music than secular and spiritual?

(By the way, Christian journalist Cal Thomas became great friends with the late composer Marvin Hamlisch and wrote this tribute to his friend in World magazine.  It’s worth reading: http://online.worldmag.com/2012/08/08/one-singular-sensation/

Finally, the rightist judges others not by biblical absolutes but by his/her own preferences.

When I was in my teens, the youth wanted to have their Sunday night youth group meeting in a home one year.  They were expected to stay on the church campus for four other meetings every week and wanted to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of someone’s living room.

Our church called a public meeting to discuss this issue … and the church secretary – who insisted the youth meet on the church campus – became so irate that she walked down the aisle toward the back of the church, slammed the door … and was never heard from again.

It was fine for her to express her opinion.  But when she couldn’t have her way, she stomped out of the meeting and left the church for good.

She acted like a rightist.

Jesus had to contend with the rightists of His day: the Pharisees.

They emphasized external compliance rather than inward obedience.

They emphasized the minutae of the Law rather than its broader aims (love God … love others).

They demanded that people conform to their behavioral codes (which were plentiful and super-strict) rather than God’s.

Jesus once said the following about the Pharisees to the crowds/His disciples in Matthew 23:4:

“They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulder’s, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”

The Pharisees were bureaucrats … bean counters … self-appointed critics … and fun stoppers.

Jesus once said, “Do not be like them.”

I served for many years with a Christian leader named Wendell.  Several weeks ago, the Lord called him home.

Wendell used to say to me, “Don’t play the Holy Spirit in someone’s life.”

Resist the rightists among you … and resist becoming a rightist yourself.

Because rightists are dead wrong.

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When do you open your Christmas presents … on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day?

I once asked a congregation this question.  The overwhelming response was that people opened their presents on Christmas morning.

My wife and kids opened our presents on Christmas Eve.

I don’t know why we did it that way.  Maybe it was our reward for attending two services on Christmas Eve … or our kids clamored for opening “just one more present” and we parents gave in … or we just felt like breaking tradition.

Most likely, the truth is that my wife likes to stay up late and sleep in the following morning … and how many kids are able to wait until past noon on Christmas to open their gifts?

You may think my family is weird, or unconventional, or even a wee bit impatient … but is it wrong for a family to open its gifts on Christmas Eve?

It’s not wrong … it’s just our preference.

The reason I bring this up is because way too many Christians still believe there is only one way to do church, and if church isn’t done their way, they complain and protest and scream … and eventually launch major conflict.

For them, everything is either black or white … or right or wrong.

Let me share an example.

When I was a kid, most worship services on Sundays started at 11 am … and many people expected that the pastor would quit preaching by noon.  If the pastor was still preaching at 12:01, some people became angry … and if he went until 12:10, they hit the roof.

We only become angry when we feel we’ve been violated.  In other words, every person who became angry when the pastor preached past noon believed he was wrong for doing so.

But where did that idea come from?  The Bible is silent on the beginning and ending times for worship.  (In fact, you can’t find even one instance in the New Testament of a Sunday morning worship service.)  Unless a church’s governing documents specify that services will dismiss by noon … and I’ve never heard of such a thing … it’s not wrong for a pastor to preach past noon.

It may go against local culture, or that gnawing feeling in one’s belly, but it’s not wrong.

(Some pastors solved this problem by moving their service time to 10:30 or 10:45 so they always got out by noon.)

Here’s another example:

Many of us grew up in churches that used only two instruments: a piano and an organ.

From infancy through my late twenties, every church I attended had those two instruments.

Modern rock instruments like guitars, bass, and drums were not permitted … only a piano and an organ.

The worship wars that were fought in churches in the seventies and eighties revolved around not only music style (hymns vs. praise music), but also musical instruments (piano/organ vs. guitars/drums).

Is it wrong for a church to have a piano and organ?  Of course not.

Is it wrong for a church to have guitars and drums?  Of course not.  (Did you know that the very first and very last musical instruments mentioned in the Bible – in Genesis 4 and Revelation 15 – can both be translated “guitar?”)

Then why did so many people act like the presence of those instruments in church was wrong?

It simply wasn’t their preference.

Here’s my point: many … if not most … church conflicts are really about preferences rather than absolutes.

The conflicts are about “what I like and don’t like” rather than “what God commands or doesn’t command.”

Here are some more examples:

*Should a church list its order of service in the bulletin/program or not?

*How many praise and worship songs should a church do in a service?  2?  4?  7?

*How long should a pastor preach?  20 minutes?  30?  45?

*How loud should the drums be?

*Should the worship center temperature be on the cold side or the warm side?

*How involved should women be in a worship service?

*How should a pastor dress when he preaches?  In a suit and tie?  In a coat without a tie?  In dress pants or jeans?

*How many times should a public prayer be offered in a Sunday service?  2 times?  3?  5?  10?

*During communion, must the congregation be silent?  Can music play in the background?  Can people sing?

*Should a pastor greet people at the door after a service, or stay up front to pray with people?

*Should a church use name tags … and if so, should everyone be asked to wear one?

*Should the pastor project Scripture references onto a screen or expect that people will bring their Bibles?

*Should adults have Sunday School as opposed to small groups?

*Should adults have Sunday School in addition to small groups?

*When the youth go to camp, should they go on a bus or in cars?

*Should church leaders promote and attend every meeting/event in their district and denomination?

Believe it or not, I have experienced minor or major conflict concerning every issue I’ve listed above.

I have been criticized, condemned, and vilified because my preference in one of these areas clashed with the preference of someone else.

People became angry with me … and complained to their friends … and wrote me critical notes … and threatened to leave the church … not because I had violated Scripture, but because they didn’t like what I was doing.

I visited a church a while back where a musician on stage wore a nose ring and was covered with tattoos.

It was hard for me to look at him.  I can take an earring … and long hair … and even bare feet … but a nose ring makes me feel ill.  I can’t help it … I have a visceral reaction to it.

Was it wrong for the pastor to allow that musician on the stage?

Not at all.  And if I chose to attend that church, I would never tell the pastor, “Get rid of the guy with the nose ring or I’ll leave.”  For all I know, it’s a new convert … or the pastor’s son … or the boyfriend of the pastor’s daughter!

There is only one way to God, and that’s through Jesus Christ … but there are many ways to bring people to Jesus.

So the next time you’re upset about something at your church, ask yourself:

Is this a violation of Scripture?  (In which case it’s an absolute.)

Or … is this just something I don’t like?  (In which case it’s a preference.)

I’ll write more on this topic next time.

Your thoughts?

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