Saturday, August 19, 2006


A friend from college recently told me about a new direction he's going in his life. He's joining the staff of an evangelistic ministry that works with college students, and he has to raise his own salary to do it, so he's asking everyone he knows for support. Long story short, relations between myself and this particular organization are not friendly. I was active in it in college because it was pretty much the only Christian fellowship there was at the school. I always had some problems with the theology but I dealt with it for the most part.

Then at the end of my junior year I was kicked out. I was told that I wasn't teachable, that I asked too many questions, had too many ideas that weren't acceptable, and that all of my questioning was dangerous for others who were "young in their faith" because it could cause them to stumble. Needless to say, that experience was pretty bad. I was really wrestling with my sense of calling to be a pastor, and getting rejected from a Christian group did not help matters.

When my friend told me he was going on staff with this ministry, I had to sit with my decision for a while because I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. On the one hand I have such tremendous theological and methodological disagreements with this ministry that I think they often do as much or more harm than good. Should I give money to an organization that I don't support? On the other hand, he feels a very strong calling to do this ministry, and he has a very tough task raising the support he needs. He is a person of tremendous faith and compassion, and I know he will do great ministry and positively impact people's lives, even though I have some serious disagreements with the theology he'll be teaching to students.

I've decided to go with the latter thoughts and support him financially. My contribution goes directly to him and not to the organization generally. It's not a large contribution, but then again, I don't have a lot of money to give. But I hope that my financial and prayerful support of him and his ministry will help heal some of the divisions and bitterness I've experienced in my own life with this organization.

Friday, August 11, 2006


My fellow Nashvillians are by now familiar with the woes of our friends at Bellvue Community Church. For those unfamiliar, BCC is a local mega-church whose pastor was fired very suddenly several weeks ago (click here for the Tennessean story). I've tried very hard to avoid being judgmental of the church and the pastor, because no matter who is at fault, everybody loses by having their conflicts displayed very prominently in the media. But one thing about this incident has been really bugging me, so I need to speak up.

As part of the pastor's severance package with the church, he had to agree to a non-compete clause. Basically, he had to sign a legally binding document saying that he wouldn't go start another church for at least a year. Businesses use these kinds of things all the time and it makes sense for them. Businesses operate in a competitive marketplace where everyone assumes a limited amount of resources and a fixed client pool. I would argue, however, that this makes no sense for a church to operate this way.

Now, I'm not naive enough to just say "churches shouldn't compete with each other, we're all on the same team" and leave it there. I know that some people hop from church to church, attracted by the latest program or the Starbucks in the church lobby. It's an unfortunate fact of life that churches compete with one another, and the best I can do is not to obsess over defining who is "winning" the competition simply by numbers. After all, when it came to first-century messianic movements, Jesus' group was pretty small.

What bothers me about the non-compete clause is not the idea that churches compete with each other for members (that fact bothers me regardless), but that the church board felt that the pastor going off and starting a new church would be a threat to them. It makes me wonder what it was that drew people to this church in the first place. Each member has to answer that question for him or herself, of course, but if someone is more loyal to a particularly charismatic leader than they are to a church community, they have a real problem.

There are too many churches and other ministries that are more focused on following a particular leader than they are on worshiping God. I once met a woman who works for a Christian media-watchdog group who freely admitted that she was more committed to the leader of the ministry than she was to Jesus. I can't help but wonder how many mega-churches would fold the second their founding pastor left.

If the glue holding a church or a ministry together is the public persona of a particular leader, then you're putting all your eggs in one basket. If this person is found to be having an affair, is mismanaging their money, gets fired, or dies, the whole thing more or less falls apart. If, however, the glue that holds a church or ministry together is a bond between all the people in the community based on trust, affection, and a common devotion to Jesus Christ, then the comings and goings of individual leaders won't make or break the success of the community.

To his credit, the ousted pastor of BCC is encouraging his former parishioners to remain loyal to God and to the church, and not to him. I don't doubt his sincerity at all. But I wonder what will happen if he does end up starting a new church in the Nashville area. Then we'll see where people's loyalties lie.

Sidenote: The situation at BCC was part of a sermon on Christian unity I preached on August 6. You can find the audio of that message here, if you're so inclined.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Faith and Politics

I just read a New York Times article where a mega-church pastor got in trouble for speaking out against evangelicals who are a little too friendly with the Republican Party. Apparently he had a mass defection from his mega-church, which is probably a good thing. The whole idea of faith being political is taboo to some, and an absolute necessity for others. A few months ago I preached a sermon referencing Hurricane Katrina, and a church member with whom I often disagree politically complimented me for "not getting too political" with my sermon.

I think perhaps we're not all saying the same thing when we talk about faith being political. Religious convictions can and should lead us to hold political opinions, but that doesn't mean that we have to become a card-carrying member of one political party or another. That's faith being partisan, not just political. I don't believe that our faith should lead us to be blindly partisan, even though my religious convictions end up leading me to vote with one particular party more often than the other.

While I don't believe that being partisan is a good idea, I don't think you can be a Christian and not be political. In the first century it was impossible to be a Christian and a fully loyal citizen of the Roman Empire at the same time. Christians proclaimed "Jesus is Lord", not so subtly implying "Caesar is not". One of the earliest Christian confessions was an unashamedly political statement!

More basic than this historical tidbit, though, is the simple fact that things like politics and economics deal with the messy realities of everyday life. Politics and economics are the means by which we figure out how we obtain the resources we need to survive day to day, how we're doing to use our resources as a community, and how we're going to get along with each other. These things deal with the basic realities of everyday life, so our faith has to be concerned with these things. God wants to be a part of every aspect of our lives, not just relegated to the region of our brains that deal with abstract ideas. To do this would be to keep God trapped in the private parts of our lives. God is personal, but not private.

While our faith should not lead us to blind partisan loyalty, it should get us passionately involved with political issues. One resource I'd recommend to help you think about the interaction of faith and politics is Sojourners. Ask tough questions, think very hard about these issues, and please let your faith motivate you politically.