How to Criticize the Church

How to Criticize the Church

Some weeks it’s easier to be a Christian than an Adventist. This was one of those weeks for me. It began with Annual Council delegates forgetting that Halloween is still a week away and deciding to dress like extras from Little House on the Prairie…or Django. To many of us, they were a reminder of a patriarchal, racist chapter in our nation’s history. Can you say tone deaf?

Next the President of the General Conference went after music, worship, and social justice in the same message – just hours after the costume party. It gave rise to criticism that he was attempting to Make Adventism White…I mean, Great Again. I understand his call for moderation, and in context it makes sense. But what are the words I’m looking for? Oh, yeah. Tone deaf.

And then there was the “Unity” document. An attempt to rein in parts of the church that have been deemed, “out of compliance.” (Hint: That’s about 80% of you.) Again, it makes sense in principle. This is a 20-million-member denomination with more off shoot groups than we can name. But the unmistakeable backdrop is women’s ordination. And in my opinion, it’s another attempt to legislate a matter of conscience, context, and Union control.

So, what’s a frustrated Adventist professor to do? Well, I think its time to criticize. What? Yes, criticize. Is that appropriate? I think so. Ever heard of a prophet named Jeremiah? What about Ellen White and her Testimonies to the Churches and letters to leaders? What about Jesus and his letters to the churches in Revelation 2 and 3?

Is church criticism appropriate? I would argue that it’s not only appropriate but essential. It all depends on how it’s done. Let me give some suggestions on how to appropriately criticize the church.

Criticize biblically

There are some church issues that don’t need to be made public. As a matter of principle, we should attempt to resolve issues as quickly, quietly, and as close to the source of the problem as possible. Matthew 18 provides concrete counsel for most church conflicts. But that counsel is best applied to personal conflict. Not a perfect model for criticism of institutions.

Criticize accurately

One of the absolute requirements for going after an institution or an individual, is getting your facts straight. Don’t accept what you hear or what you read at face value. The internet is fast becoming a fact free zone. Ted Wilson is not a Jesuit. The church logo wasn’t designed by a warlock. Get your facts straight before you criticize the church.

Criticize constructively

Paul reminds us in Ephesians 4:15, that speaking the truth in love is a recipe for Christian growth and maturity. It’s also important for those who criticize the church. Check your motivation. Watch your attitude. Be conscious of how your criticism impacts and influences others. You can’t use the Devil’s tools to build the Lord’s house.

Criticize courageously

If you don’t have the courage to speak truth to power, step aside and support those who do. Our church structures are presidential to a fault. It’s great for efficiency, but it comes at the cost of collaboration and diversity. The warning against “kingly power” is more than cliché counsel. We have a real problem. We have literally enabled leaders to hurt themselves and us. For all the talk of free exchange, many of our leaders are surrounded by other leaders who won’t speak up because it’s contrary to their own self interests. I get it. But it’s not working. And it runs counter to the sensibilities of the generation that will be leading us next.

Criticize consistently

Finally, if you’re going to criticize, start with that person in the mirror. Don’t require something of me that you don’t value yourself. No one is perfect but have some integrity. Be consistent. And let me leave you with perhaps the greatest test of your integrity. How do you respond to a friend that’s incorrect or out of order? Not an enemy but a friend. Are you prepared to correct them?

So, there they are. Some simple suggestions from a professor who has been in a few battles. What do you think? Is it ok to criticize the church? Any observations or suggestions?

5 Reasons People Skip Church

5 Reasons People are Skipping Church

Something is going on. I’m not a believer in the secret rapture, but a lot of church members are missing! The problem isn’t confined to a particular region or religion. People just don’t seem to be coming to church like they used to.

An important Gallup Poll in 2016 said that 55% of Americans are members of a church, synagogue, temple or mosque. That’s down from 70% in 1999. And if they took that survey today, it would certainly be worse. Of course, there’s a difference between church membership and church attendance, but that’s a discussion for another day.

I noticed in that same Gallup Poll that even though church attendance and membership are down, 89% of Americans still say they believe in God. Interesting. People seem to be saying, “I believe in God, I just don’t believe in the church.”

I did my own unscientific survey around Oakwood’s campus and the reasons people give for skipping church vary:

  • The services start too soon.
  • I’m just tired.
  • The services are boring.
  • I can go to church online
  • I don’t want to get dressed up.

No surprises here. But as I review the data and study the surveys- especially the Barna Group national poll in 2014- there are a number of reasons that seem to keep coming up. Let’s look at 5 of the reasons people consistently give for skipping church.

The Church is irrelevant.

Always an issue. It can seem like the church is stuck on 8 track issues in an I Phone age. Social justice, income inequality, global warming, and police misconduct are dominating the airways and we seem to be stuck on cheese and drums.

To be fair, the church offers eternal principles that address all of these issues. The church shouldn’t be a slave to contemporary trends. But if people don’t get the sense that church matters or makes a difference in their everyday lives, they will vote with their feet.

The hypocrisy of members and moral failings of leaders

It’s true that the church is a hospital for sinners, but to the outside world the church just looks sick! Every headline of another pastor or priest who stumbles is more fuel on the fire. Every member who sings on Saturday and stumbles on Sunday is more fuel on the fire. People aren’t looking for perfection as much as they are looking for authenticity.

One of the positive developments in the Adventist church has been a strong emphasis on grace. It has continued now for several years. Great. But for some it has come at the expense of holiness or godly living. The two are not mutually exclusive. God is the source of both. And frankly, outsiders can’t see grace, they see how grace lives.

God is missing in the church

This is an age where people are looking for something real. Something they can experience. Something they can feel. Nothing wrong with that.  Can it go to extremes? It can, and it has. But if the church would consult the Bible instead of opinion on legitimate worship practices and the power of the Holy Spirit, there would be no problem here. People would experience authentic emotion and real change.

I feel lonely in church

This one really leaves a mark. How can an institution that talks so much about the value of fellowship, seem to provide so little of it? And cliché’s like,” To have friends, one must be friendly” may be helpful in the world but they don’t make sense in the church.  

Technology has connected us in ways that we never could have imagined, but we are probably more personally disconnected today than at any time in history. The church must provide fellowship on more than a superficial level. It can’t force relationships, but it can provide the space and opportunities.

The church dismisses legitimate doubt

Many churches and church leaders are totally uncomfortable with doubt. They can’t tell the difference between an honest question and an attack. And frankly, both of them are valuable, because they reveal the heart. I would argue that if Christians don’t struggle with legitimate doubt from time to time, they probably have a superficial faith. We should welcome the conversation.

Those are 5 reasons people are skipping church. What do you think? Do you ever skip church? If so, why?

Young Pastors: The Church’s Scapegoat

Young Pastors: The Church’s Scapegoats??

Let me state my bias up front. I love pastors and I loved pastoring. For close to 30 years I pastored churches large and small. Churches so large that I had multiple pastors and staff. Churches so small I had to wash my own feet at communion! And today I spend a significant amount of my time training pastors, from undergrad to grad school to continuing education.

Complaints about pastors are nothing new. Like death and taxes, they can’t be avoided. But over the last several years, complaints about young pastors -and “young” can be relative- have been growing. If I had a dollar for every time I heard some of these complaints I’d be rich:

  • “All they want to do is preach.”
  • “They don’t do evangelism.”
  • “They don’t visit.”
  • “They don’t preach the doctrines.”
  • “They change EVERYTHING!”

Any truth to the charges? Of course. There is not one of these criticisms that is not true of certain young pastors. And perhaps they are truer of this current generation than past. I don’t know. But frankly, many of those charges are standard fare. I’ve heard them for as long as I can remember. Every generation has its own particular challenges, but there’s nothing new here.

And to be fair, young pastors make up a fairly small percentage of our pastoral workforce. A recent review of pastoral demographics reveals that 50% of Adventist pastors are within 10 years of retirement. So, if you’re having a problem with a pastor, it’s probably not a young one. And frankly most of the challenges our churches face, have been in place for years before most of these pastors were born:

  • Our members left the neighborhood, years ago.
  • Our evangelism fell off a cliff, years ago.
  • Our young people started leaving the church, years ago.
  • Many of our members were mean, years ago.

So, this idea that the problem with today’s church can be laid at the feet of young pastors is quite simply, scapegoating. And it’s interesting that often the same leaders and churches who complain about young pastors are generally requesting those same pastors for their camp meetings and open churches. And the same leaders who complain about young pastors, complain that their older pastors are just floating to retirement.

Now some of the complaints are absolutely on point. Many times young pastors are unaware of how much they mirror the characteristics of this crazy generation. So here is some quick counsel to young pastors:

You Don’t Know Everything

You may be the leader the conference sent, but you’re not automatically the leader the people follow. That comes with time and relationships. Every officer in that church has been there longer than you. They have a perspective that you don’t have and sorely need. Resist the urge to make changes before you’ve taken the time to understand the church and the community.

Prioritize Pastoring

A common complaint about this generation of pastors is that their priority is preaching. That’s often true. There are a number of reasons for that, including the instant access to powerful preaching online. But in this impersonal, broken age, people need shepherds more than they need speakers.

Yes, there are some things that only the “foolishness’ of preaching can do. But there are some problems that preaching can’t solve. If you prioritize pastoring, even your preaching sounds better to the members.

Love the People

Paul told Timothy in I Timothy 4:12 not to let the members “despise” or think less of him because of his youth. But his remedy for that was not to be a better preacher or more skilled leader. His answer was to be intentional about his integrity and demonstrate real love for the people.

Now that I’ve addressed the young pastors, let me offer some counsel to the members of young pastors.

Be Prayerful– Always make your pastor and family the object of prayer.

Be Patient – It will take time for your pastor to learn to juggle all the responsibilities of ministry. Some things just take time.

Be Respectful – Your pastor may be significantly younger than you, but both of you are younger than God. And God says if you disrespect the pastor, you disrespect the office he holds and the God he represents.

Be Supportive – You might not like the young pastor’s plan, but practically any plan will work if you work it. Support the pastors plans and ideas as long as they are biblical and ethical. And where there are disagreements, take them behind closed doors.

Be Protective– Think of the pastor as you would your son or daughter. Get in front of issues that might hurt. Protect the pastor’s family. Members will tell the pastor to put his family first but expect the pastor to put their family first. When you protect the pastor and family, you literally protect yourself.

So, there it is. What do you think? Are we supporting our young pastors enough? What can we do? How do you deal with the ones who won’t listen?

The Man Who Saved The Adventist Church From Obscurity

The Man Who Saved the Adventist Church from Obscurity

That’s how Elder Charles Bradford described Dr. Earl Moore at his funeral last week, “the man who saved the Adventist Church from obscurity. He was right.

The Sixties were tumultuous years in America. Presidents and pop stars alike were being murdered in the streets. The assassinations of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin King only made a bad situation worse. Cities from Newark to Detroit to Chicago were regularly in flames because of racial tensions.

But as bad as it was in the industrial north, it was considerably worse in the deep South. But it was in the South that black leaders like Charles Joseph, Randy Stafford, and others fearlessly led their communities and literally forced the Adventist church to confront the civil rights crisis.

Earl Moore led the charge. A graduate of Oakwood College and Loma Linda University, He pastored and later became the Community Services and Health and Welfare Director for the South-Central Conference. Moore was an amazing activist who was always pushing his community and his church to confront racism, injustice and poverty.

He Defied the General Conference

President Lyndon Johnson declared a War on Poverty in 1964, but it was clear by 1968 that his heart wasn’t in it.  Martin King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s response was to organize the Poor People’s Campaign. The campaign demanded economic and human rights for poor people. They set up a 3000-person protest camp on the Washington Mall, and stayed for 6 weeks.

Dr. Moore, Dr. Charles Joseph and the South-Central Conference had created a mobile medical unit that was offering free medical and dental care in the deep South. They brought relief to thousands. They decided to take the van and offer those same services to the crowds gathered for the Poor Peoples Campaign in D.C. But when the General Conference was alerted of their plans, they sent clear instructions for them not to go.

When Moore and his associates got word from the squeamish General Conference that they should not participate in the Poor Peoples Campaign, they sent back a response that I’ll always remember.  Moore and his friends simply responded, “We’re going to Washington because our people are there.”  And with that simple but straightforward response, they did what they had to do.

He Put The Church On The Map

Despite his defiance, or better, because of his defiance, the Adventist Church benefitted. Pictures of that mobile unit that defied the General Conference are currently on display in the African American History Museum in Washington, D.C.  The van is also mentioned in the television documentary, “M.L. King: The Assassination Tapes.”

Earl Moore went on to become a recognized and respected civil and human rights leader. He worked alongside leaders like Nelson Mandela, Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young and others. For 20 years he was the vice-chairman for the Concerned Black Clergy of Atlanta. He brought much needed attention to the church for his local and national efforts.

He Supported Historically Black Colleges and Universities

Throughout his life, Moore was a strong supporter of Christian education in general and black educational institutions in particular. His son Wayne was one of my roommates at Oakwood and he is currently an emergency medical specialist in Gallatin, Tennessee. As a matter of fact, because of the influence and encouragement of Moore and others, 10 Moores graduated as physicians from Meharry Medical School in Nashville, Tennessee.

We Don’t Know Our History

There are few things that irritate me more than leaders who speak as though community activism began with them. It’s inaccurate and fundamentally disrespectful. And worse, it misses an opportunity to learn from those who worked under worse conditions than we can imagine.  The years that I spent listening to and observing Dr. Moore, Dr. Joseph and others, were as valuable as any university education.

We owe an incredible debt to Dr. Earl Moore and other Adventist civil rights giants. We can make a dent in that debt with recognition and respect. But more than that, we can continue their amazing legacy by making a difference, right where we are.

What do you think? What can we do to impact our communities?

What Members Wish Pastors Knew

What Members Wish Pastors Knew

I live in a strange world. I’ve spent most of my professional life pastoring churches. Churches large and small. Churches large enough for multiple staff and multiple worship services. Churches so small that I had to wash my own feet at communion. (Think about it.)

These days I’m not pastoring. I’m training pastors and members. I live in that grey area between pastor and member and I hear the comments and concerns of both groups. Of course, people are different.  What turns one member on, turns another off. What makes one member happy makes another miserable.

But I want to share with you some comments about pastors that seem to be fairly consistent no matter where I go. These are some things that members may not tell pastors directly, but they wish pastors knew. Incidentally members, before you get too excited, your turn in the spotlight is next.

“We Need A Pastor, not a Preacher!”

Now they really don’t mean that. What they actually want is both. But something has shifted. If I had a dollar for every time I heard this comment I’d be a rich man. “All these pastors today want to do is preach. But they can’t pastor!” Since my default is to protect pastors, I try to listen without being defensive. But it’s impossible to ignore the comments.

Fairly or unfairly, many members think that priorities have shifted and we are producing better preachers than pastors. Some of this is nostalgia, a selective memory of the “good old days.” But some of this is probably true. Preaching resources and workshops are everywhere. Gifted preachers are on line and on television. It’s probably a lot easier to be a great preacher these days and the rewards seem greater.

But we live in a broken culture that’s begging for healers, for listeners, for pastors. Ministers function in many roles, but the role of shepherd is desperately needed today. The shepherd certainly feeds the flock through effective preaching and teaching, but the shepherd also: loves the flock, leads the flock, tends the flock, and protects the flock.

Given the size of our churches, it’s not possible for one person to shepherd the congregation one by one. It seems that even Jesus could only reasonably attend to 12. But according to Ephesians 4:12, the primary work of a pastor is to make sure that the work is being done.  Shepherding is a shared responsibility, but it must start at the top.

“We Want You To Succeed”

The vast majority of members want their pastors to succeed. Now, I’m not talking about the weekend warriors. The frustrated few whose purpose in life seems to make everyone miserable, especially the pastor. Frankly, those are largely people who are badly broken and deeply hurt. And it’s true that hurt people hurt people. But in the main, members want their pastors to succeed.

Most members want the pastor to be productive and happy. Most members want the pastor’s family to feel loved and supported. Most members dislike long and unproductive board meetings.  Most members hate out of control business meetings. Most members want the church to grow. Most members want visitors to feel comfortable. The problem is that the handful of complainers can seem like the crowd. But they aren’t. The vast majority of church members sincerely want the pastor to succeed. When he or she succeeds, so do they.

You Don’t Know Everything”

It’s the curse of leadership. Omni competence. The idea that because I can do one thing well, I can do all things well. It is a pressing problem of leaders from the local church to the General Conference. It is particularly problematic for local pastors. Why? Because pastors are immediately confronted with people who know more about the church, the city, the context than them. There are certain things that the members absolutely know better than the pastor!

There is a distinct difference between the school house and the church house. Some things that fly in a classroom fail in the church. When a pastor arrives at a church, any church, some things will be working and some things won’t. Even if it’s working for the wrong reason, there’s a reason that it’s working and the pastor needs to discover the reason. Pastors who are convinced that their way is the only way or always the best way will eventually find themselves proving it. Alone.

“We Don’t Know Everything Either!”

Here’s a little secret that many pastors don’t know. Most of the members know that they need help.

  • They know that some of their friends are nuts!
  • They know that the church isn’t growing as it should.
  • They know that only a handful are showing up for business meeting.
  • They know that the bathrooms are dirty or in disrepair.
  • They know that prayer meeting is boring.

You get my drift. Pastors can get the feeling that they are living on an island with no visible or vocal support. But the reality is, most members are busy Christians trying to navigate their own crazy world. Many of them are experiencing some of the same issues as the pastor where they work. They want to do better, but they need help to do better. And they want the pastor to help them do better.

“We’ll Be Here When You Leave”

Most members have seen pastors come and they’ve seen pastors go.  Some churches have been the “science experiment” of many a starry-eyed pastor. Other churches have been the “training wheels” for many a young pastor. They have heard it all and they have seen it all. Since most of them will be there when the pastor leaves, the pastor should keep at least two things in mind.

  • Make changes that will last – Don’t move things around solely because of your taste or comfort level. Make changes that are consistent with the culture of the church and community. If not, the church will “put all of the furniture back” when you leave. And it will create a mess for the next pastor.
  • Don’t start fights you can’t finish- Even necessary change is challenging. Every pastor will have battles. The problem is that people take sides. These people will be living and working and worshiping together long after the pastor leaves. Pastors should work to resolve conflict, especially conflict that grows out of changes they started.

So, there you are. What do you think? Anything else you think members wish pastors knew?

Christ to Critics: Stop Attacking My Wife!

Christ to Critics- “Stop Attacking My Wife!”

Here’s the thing.  Some people are going to read the title of this blog and totally miss the message of this blog. What do I mean? This is what I mean. It is absolutely appropriate to criticize the church. Frankly, we probably don’t criticize the church enough. We are counseled in Ephesians 4:17 to speak the truth in love and that passage is in the context of the church.

But we must not only speak the truth in love, we must speak truth to power. Walter Brueggemann, one of the most prolific theologians in the modern era, reminds us in his book, Truth Speaks to Power, that Jesus was a persistent thorn in the flesh of unethical power brokers inside and outside the church. Church criticism is critical for church development.

But there is a difference between criticism and attack. Frankly, they feel about the same. For most of us the difference between constructive and destructive criticism is pretty clear.  Constructive criticism is the criticism you give. Destructive criticism is the criticism you get!

But attacks are more personal and generally counterproductive. They rarely offer a solution and they are often too cowardly for face to face confrontation. Attacks are rarely looking for real answers. In fact, when you offer answers they find more questions. Attacks come from the left and right, from conservatives and liberals.

I don’t have any steps or keys or laws or secrets for addressing church attacks but let me offer some observations for those who are prone to attack.

Observation #1: Examine Your Own Motives

Church attacks often say as much about the attacker as they do the church. Why do you return to this spot over and over? Why is the topic so sensitive to you? Make sure that the church has not become a convenient platform for you to project your own issues. Mad people are often hurt people, and hurt people hurt people. I’m not dismissing valid criticism but attacks are often coming from a damaged place.

Observation #2: The Good Old Days Weren’t All That Good

People who are constantly calling for that “old time religion”, have selective amnesia. The church has always had problems- big problems. And I’m not just referring to your local church or the contemporary church. Just look at the “glory days” of the precious New Testament church.

  • The Church at Corinth had so many divisive issues that Paul addressed them in 2 long letters. Members were sleeping around. The worship service was out of control and members were regularly suing each other.
  • The Church at Galatia battled over the nature of the law, the role of the law, and freedom of conscience.
  • The Church at Ephesus struggled with the nature of the church, the function of church leaders, had problems with domestic relations, and the nature of spiritual warfare.
  • The Churches at Colossae and Thessalonica struggled with the nature of Christ-which incidentally was an early issue in the Adventist church. There was confusion about the second Advent and some of the members had retreated to a mountain to wait for Jesus to come!
  • The Church at Phillipi had fights at “business meetings” that were so intense that Paul called out the trouble makers by name.

So if you’re looking for a return to the good old days-don’t.

Observation #3: Make Sure You Have The Whole Story

I can’t tell you the number of times my perspective has changed after I’ve heard the whole story. I look at the number of posts online of Christians complaining about how they’ve been mistreated by the church.  I’m sure that a large number of them, if not most of them, are true.  But I remember the members I’ve pastored over the years who practically lived off of the special assistance of the church but complained to outsiders that the church “never helps members in need.” Really? Get the whole story.

Observation #4: Church Attacks Damage You and Yours

Now this one is fairly obvious. The church is not brick and mortar, the church is you and me.  When you unfairly attack the church, you attack yourself.  You could be undermining the very hospital you’ll need for your own recovery. And it gets worse. The next generation is watching and listening.

As I said earlier, the church needs more thoughtful criticism. We are paying a steep price for being painfully political or downright unchristian.  Some of our conference constituency meetings and decisions by our conference committees have had university classrooms buzzing. But the way we address these church problems can either raise a generation of constructive critics or hopeless cynics.

Observation #5: If You Can Identify A Problem, You Can Probably Identify A Solution

Here is where you see the value of criticism versus the damage of attack. Every great church reformation has begun with criticism. The prophets leveled blistering criticism at Israel. Jesus was not a bit bashful about bashing the religious right. But it was all done with an eye toward reformation. It was done with a clear solution in mind.

And here’s another critical distinction between attack and criticism. Attack generally functions from outside in. Criticism generally functions from inside out. In other words, you are generally in the best position to make lasting change if you’re operating from the inside. If you are a part of the group. Not always, but more often than not.

I hear it all the time in one form or another. “I’m spiritual but I’m not religious.” “ People love Jesus, but they don’t like the church.” Think about it. That’s like you saying to me, “ I love you man, but I frankly can’t stand your wife!”  My wife and I have been married for more than 33 years. That statement is not going to go over very well with me.

The Bible makes it clear that Christ loves the church. That Christ is married to the church. For better or worse. For richer or poorer. In sickness and in health. Even through death. Be careful how you treat His wife.

So what do you think?