The Seduction of Conspiracy Theories

The unholy alliance between some Christians and a wholehearted embrace of conspiracy theories is a troubling one.  It would be less troubling if one could argue successfully that it was just a particular quirk of a particular theory which appealed to Christians, but on the contrary it appears that something in the worldview of the conspiracy theorist generally holds a particular appeal to people of Christ. 

Or course, I’m not suggesting that the majority of Christians are conspiracy theorists or vice versa, but that there is any significant overlap and that some Christians have chosen to use the cause of Christ to prop up these has prompted me to ponder what, if any,  is the connection between the two world views.

As it turns out, there does seem to be a connection, but in this case it is the same kind of connection one finds between anything real and its counterfeit.  There are things of the gospel we have learned to love, grown to need in our life and, if we, for any number of reasons, become disillusioned, weary, or even just inattentive to those things in Christ, we may be more apt to seek them wherever we can find them. Because we have tasted the good fruit of the Gospel, we are more apt to seek that fruit, and if we’ve grown even slightly suspicious of Christ’s ability to bring us those, then perhaps it positions us to more fully embrace the counterfeit, particularly if it can be dressed up to appear to be part of that Gospel we once so loved. 

The writers of the New Testament warn us repeatedly to be wary of falling away from our first love, of being lured away from a simple devotion to Jesus, of becoming enamored of fine sounding arguments and theories precisely because the world, the flesh, and the devil are waiting to replace those loves with counterfeit loves.  

(As an important note before we go further it must be clearly stated that when the NT writers speak of falling away from our devotion or first love this says nothing of Christ’s continuing faithfulness and enduring love.  Though we may forget our devotion to Him, He never will forget us and His love remains as poignant and passionate as the day He endured the cross for the joy set before Him of our redemption and relationship with HIm.  We’ll return to this thought at the end of this article, indeed as part of the solution, but upon this point there should be no confusion so I wanted to say it here as well.)

What we are seeing then is that the allure of the conspiracy theory lies in the same seductive and ultimately deceptive appeal that all idolatry has.  Breaking free of idolatry requires recognizing three things.

  1. The seduction of the idol
    • No one seeks an idol because they want to worship something false.  Idolatry always begins as an attempt to find true divinity.  The seduction is in the goodness of those things we seek.  Recognizing what we are trying to gain from the idol is often a healthy first step towards repentance.
  2. The betrayal of the idol
    • It is always and inevitably the nature of idols that the very thing we are seeking in them is the very area in which we are most poignantly betrayed by that idol, and yet even as it betrays us it continues to seduce us with promises of a future fulfillment.  Solomon calls this chasing after the wind; when we catch it we are left holding only empty air.
  3. The freedom from the idol
    • The solution to idolatry is always the same: to acknowledge the good we seek, to recognize the betrayal of that good and to return to a trust in God to provide what we wanted all along.  Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart, as the Psalmist reminds us.

So how does this look specifically when it comes to the seduction of the conspiracy theory?  I think there are four main allures for Christians in conspiracy theories.

The seduction of the conspiracy theory

  1. TruthAs Christians we have learned the power of truth.  We have seen the fruit from a major shift in our worldview, as we recognize our powerlessness, our sinfulness, God’s love and Grace and authority in our life.  The Gospel changed our view of things forever, revealing an underlying spiritual dimension we perhaps had never considered.  Jesus said the truth will set you free and we are firm believers in those words. That kind of life changing enlightenment is powerful and for some, extremely emotional.  Conspiracy theories hold out the same kind of thrill, of knowing something which changes your view of the world forever. After having been enlightened by Christ it is tempting to seek that feeling, that thrill of a world forever changed.
  2. MissionAs Christians we have also felt the fulfillment of a life with a purpose.  To be on mission in a universal battle for good over evil is the stuff of heroism and fantasy and it is the reality of the gospel world view.  Conspiracy theories seem to offer this too.  For the true devotee, the theory is not just an intellectual argument about, for example, whether JFK was assassinated by a lone gunman or not, but is a call to arms to recognize and fight against the forces aligned to control us and our world.  These forces are never benevolent and often of the most hideous evil.  The opportunity to be Neo in the matrix is a strong allure in a world where so many of us feel insignificant and powerless. The drama of a conspiracy theory is oftentimes a more convincing sense of purpose than the often very mundane work that Jesus actually calls us to.
  3. Clear enemies: As Christians we are aware of the reality of evil.  We understand that there are malevolent forces which seek to destroy and kill.  In a world of so much pain and misery it’s useful to have clear enemies to direct our anger and desire for justice.  God calls us to love even our enemies, but the allure of somewhere to vent our anger, our pain and our misery is a strong one.  The promise that such hate is justified because evil is hateful is a promise we want to believe. The larger, more distant, more powerful and more hideous the evil the greater the justification.
  4. ControlOnly people who are supremely unaware or foolish never feel fear.  There is much to be feared in the world and the most fearful thing of all is our powerlessness in the face of scary things.  Conspiracy theories hold out the promise that someone is in control.  Everything that happens is engineered by humans somehow.  And by being assured that humans are in control does this not mean that as someone who is fighting against these other humans, we ourselves are potentially even more powerful?

What many who have embraced conspiracy theories fail to realize is that like all idols, these seductions are illusions and that in reality the further one devotes themselves to these worldviews, the more betrayed one will be, finding that a clear and accurate sense of truth, mission, enemies and control is exactly what is sacrificed in worship of this idol.

The betrayal of the conspiracy theory

  1. Gnosticism:The Betrayal of truth.  One of the earliest heresies to arise in the Christian church took its name form the greek word for knowledge, “gnosis”.  Gnostics believed that what saved someone was not Christ but knowledge and only a specific elitist kind of knowledge. Enlightenment became both the path to spirituality and the proof of it.  Only the right kind of people were worthy of enlightenment and you knew precisely who those people were because they were enlightened.  For the rest of us our enlightenment can come only by trusting those who have been enlightened. Conspiracy theorists love to berate the uninitiated as sheep, or asleep, challenging them to stop believing what everyone else believes and instead believe what the theorist believes. It is always presented not as an invitation to logic or evidence, but as a “who do you trust” argument, in which trusting anyone other than the enlightened makes you weak, gullible and vulnerable.  Jesus, on the other hand,  offers truth which is inclusive and accessible to everyone.  In fact, what we really forget is that when Jesus said the truth shall set you free, He didn’t mean a set of facts or even a new worldview.  He meant Himself.  Jesus is the truth.  God is the center of the universe and this is the worldview change which matters.. The seduction of truth as our salvation leads us further and further from the truths which led us to true salvation in the first place. The conspiracy theory betrays us by leading us away from the truth of the person of Jesus and into an elitist view of the world where ostensibly we see the human conspirators at the center, but really it’s ourselves and our theories which become the center of the universe.
  2. Busybody: The betrayal of mission.  As we descend deeper and deeper into the mission offered us by Conspiracy theories we find ourselves accomplishing less and even working against the very things we sought to protect and defend.  We find ourselves spending our time and spinning our wheels on theories and plans which truly change no one for the better and do nothing to improve the lot of the oppressed, needy, or even ourselves.  Some theorists will stop basic scriptural missional calls like, loving their neighbor, or providing for their family in favor of actions which are at best meaningless and at worst detrimental.  Paul uses the word busybody to describe people who have embraced slander and gossip and the spreading of such disinformation to stir up trouble as their life’s work and encourages the church to find proper mission for such busybodies.  The conspiracy theory betrays us by leading us away from true mission and into busy work which benefits no one, revels in gossip and slander, and sometimes causes great harm to the very mission we were seeking or at least to the legacy we desired.
  3. Justifying your hate: A betrayal of clear enemies.   Jesus repeatedly makes the point that we are never justified in hating our fellow human beings.  We are told to love our enemies, and in stories like the good Samaritan we are reminded that there is no justification for the hate we carry towards others.  We are not called to decide who to love by choosing who is our neighbor, but we are are to decide who is our neighbor by choosing to love them. Conspiracy theories almost always end up being a way to justify our hate of those we want to hate.  We do not truly hate them because of the crimes the conspiracy tells us they committed.  We believe in the crimes the conspiracy tells us they are guilty of, because we want to hate them.  This is why so many conspiracy theories reveal at their heart some antisemitism, or political preference or racism.  Conspiracy theories which slander people we already love are just less convincing to us.  In justifying our hate we often end up becoming the very things we are decrying in the members of the alleged conspiracy, turning specks into logs in order to justify the logs in our own eyes. The conspiracy theory betrays us by making us more like the enemies we perceive: spreading lies, slandering others, rumor mongering and justifying a level of hate we would never have believed possible in ourselves.
  4. Denial and powerlessness:  A betrayal of control.  The truth is that many conspiracy theories have as their starting point an inability to accept the reality of something which has happened which scares us.  One of Martin Luther King’s friends reportedly said, “”There is no way a ten-cent white boy could develop a plan to kill a million-dollar black man.”  Of course assassinations are not often done by intellectual powerhouses and most assassinations in our history have been simple straightforward acts of mundane evil, but the greater the man in our eyes, the harder it is to believe they could be brought down by something so basic.  It is easier for some to believe in a conspiracy of overreaction, than in a virus which has killed 400, 000 of our fellow Americans.  How many times in recent days have you heard people defend “stop the steal” with a simple, “there is no way Biden could have won.”  In our attempt to gain control by investigating and fighting against a conspiracy, we are often just pushing aside the more obvious truths which frighten us:  that we are not always in control, that sometimes no human being is in control.  The conspiracy theory betrays us by leaving us feeling powerless, frustrated and afraid, unable to accept the reality in front of us, so full of denial we lose touch with reality.

What do we do about this?  I don’t propose a solution for individuals who have embraced the worship of these false idols.  Their repentance and restoration is perhaps best left to prayer and the work of the Holy Spirit.  But I do propose a solution for the church, for future generations.  The truth is that that the American church is reaping the fruit of what we’ve sown, or rather not sown for a while now.  

We have occupied our time with things other than the one thing we’ve been called to do.  We’ve pretended that we were designed or best suited for endeavors, which while, in many cases good things, were not the work for which the church exists.  Many are now recognizing the unhealthy way in which evangelicals invested in politics as our hope for redemption of a culture, but the problem is not limited to either evangelicals or politics.  The problem is not so much what we did invest in, but what we didn’t invest in.  We focused on things we thought were part of our mission and neglected the most fundamental mission of discipleship.  

The counterfeit loses its appeal in the face of the real.  Consider our way back as something like this.  I speak as one who faces his own complicity as a pastor of the last thirty years in these problems and who has not cracked the code at returning to effective discipleship but I believe as we recognize the need God will once again lead us to the fulfillment of our mission.  God’s job is to preserve the church, ours is merely to serve it.

The freedom from the idol of conspiracy theories.

  1. Truth: As pastors and teachers, we too often elevated our opinions over scripture, shared our convictions over teaching people to develop their own, and replaced teaching people to read and understand scripture with telling people what we had learned from scripture.  We taught them we were the experts and they needed to build their faith upon the backs of our own sometimes inaccessible understandings.  We need instead to return to the communal discipleship of the New Testament where people are taught that devotion to Christ supersedes devotion to a particular leader or church and unity of faith is more important than unanimity of thought and behavior.
  2. Mission: We have somehow become so confusing, boring, and condemning all at once in our presentation of the Great Commission that the very purpose given to us by God to make disciples of all peoples has lost its allure to those who were once driven and excited by it.  There is a true battle of good and evil, an incredible cosmic story of universal proportion and unbelievably high drama but it is fought in discipleship and not in politics or media or anything else.  The church has become irrelevant and powerless in the eyes of even its members and has been replaced by missions seen as more sexy, dramatic and stirring.  Part of the problem is that discipleship is seen as the task of the pastors, and not the members.  Church members instinctively feel that our job is to disciple them, to feed them, so that they can then go do the really important work outside of the church.  For Paul discipleship was a mission that every member of every church, every part of the body of Christ, was indispensably and excitingly part of. The building of the church does have consequences outside the church in politics, media and everywhere else, but it is the building of the church which has this impact and we too often send out saltless and lightless people to engage in a war they do not truly understand because the building of the church has been bypassed or misunderstood.  For Paul things like loving your neighbor, caring for the poor, taking care of your family and minding your own business (his words)  were inextricably linked to this incredible cosmic plan of redemption of the universe.  We must return to the true mission and recapture the joy, enthusiasm and drama of this great mission such that no one should ever need to find excitement elsewhere.  
  3. LoveJesus could hardly be more clear.  The law and the prophets are summed up in loving our neighbors as ourselves and in loving the Lord our God.  Somehow in our push for holiness and obedience, have we forgotten how to teach people to love?  Have we forgotten the importance of caring for those who need care, loving our enemies, and being inclusive in our vision of the gospel?  I was not so long ago at a pastor’s conference where someone suggested we should be “unapologetically scriptural and also loving.”  When did these two become in opposition?  Isn’t being unapologetically scriptural inevitably being loving?  It is an accurate thing to say that love in scripture is not the same as love described by Hollywood or culture, but that is not enough to say. Instead of talking about what love is not, we should be talking a lot more about what love is; and it should look a lot more like Jesus who repeatedly said that we should stop justifying our hate behind vengeance, and self righteousness. 
  4. Submission and trustFear of not being in control is not something to be feared.  It is a very rational and real fear.  Instead of denying our lack of control we should embrace it, but such courage and motivation to do so can only be found in trusting the One who is in control.  We, of all people on the planet, should be able to recognize the reality of the fall, the truth of pain and suffering, because we of all people know the master of the universe who is not only in control but also the epitome of love and wisdom and power.  Some people are unable to come to the gospel because they are unwilling to face the first tragic realization of their own sin and wickedness.  Those of us who have faced that and then experienced the solution to it through Christ should be able to face anything else going forward.  As  Paul says, if Christ is for us who can be against us?  We must again return to teaching people submission and trust to a perfect and perfectly loving God, not making false promises of pleasant circumstances, but teaching the deep truths of real contentment and sublime joy in all circumstances.

In all this there is one more encouragement I would suggest for those of us who lead churches. 

There is also in conspiracy theories, a community.  A shared acceptance and belonging, almost a love, among those who fight the battle together against the forces they perceive to be allied against them.  But that love is contingent upon agreement, upon a unanimity of thought which allows very little disagreement.  Disagreement with a theorist brings rapid suspicion and judgement.  

If this description could be used of your church, then it’s worth considering that Paul tells Titus that it is the Grace of God which teaches us to say no to ungodliness and yes to God.  It is not law or guilt or fear or peer pressure, but Grace.  In all efforts to disciple, this must be a truth we grapple with and not dismiss.  If it is Grace which disciples, how do we make sure that grace is at the heart of our DNA as churches. What do we do which hinders that discipleship?  What do we do which unlocks the power of Grace as well as the love?  

Pastors and leaders, there is freedom in embracing the sole purpose of the church as discipleship.

Congregants and members, there is great empowerment in accepting the role of discipleship as one you participate in equally.

Church of God, Christ is the head of the church and He is leading us onward to greater truth, mission, love and trust.

2020: The year of discipleship?

I was greeted this morning by the sad news of another friend of mine who is renouncing his Christian faith. I took the opportunity to post the following on my own facebook feed.

As we begin 2020 I have just read one more account from a friend of mine who grew up committed to Christ and the church who has now renounced his faith as narrow and insular. Although this is likely not the experience world-wide it seems to be a not-completely-uncommon recurring experience among American evangelicals. As one who has much in common with them, including a disenchantment with some of the more human and childish stances over the years, I just wanted to share my different experience. If their Christianity proved too narrow to embrace love and diversity, if it proved too shallow to accept the hardships of life and moments where God seems silent, if it proved too legalistic to marvel at the underserved Grace of God, if it proved too full of arrogant certainty to allow for serious questions and change, if it proved too restrictive to allow creativity, joy and kindness, then it is good they have moved on, but it should not be mistaken that this faith is the faith of those who were originally called Christians in the early church. The apostles experienced extreme hardship and difficulty to the point of death and somehow continued to believe, not in a creed but in the person of Jesus whom they had seen come to life. The apostles embraced an integrated church where the miracle of Jews and Gentiles coming together is underestimated only at the cost of our own misunderstanding. The early church defied cultural norms of sexism and classism by taking a different approach within their own community. The early church relied, not on interesting ideas and wishful thinking but upon the evidence of their senses and the teachings of a man they witnessed come to life from certain death. I have no scorn for those who struggle in doubt or discouragement as this is part of every mature Christians growth; and I even applaud those who recognize the cultural confusion which as occasionally corrupted the pure message of the gospel, but I want it understood that I personally do not equate flaws in the church with flaws in Christ. As so many others of late have given their testimony of having moved on from what they perceive as the childish faith of Christianity, I want to affirm without rancor, that after 40 years for pursuing Christ, I have become less childish about my faith, but the Gospel of Christ has proved more substantive and deep than I understood originally, I can say like Billy Graham, that there is much I no longer am certain about, but only one thing, and that Christ and him crucified and risen in order to bring all who will come into the eternal loving kindness and Grace of God.

I wanted to add this addendum here on the blog for my fellow pastors. Pastors, we must recognize that we can’t simply shake our heads and grieve only in the weakness of those who left the faith, nor in the culture which encourages doubt and despair.  We must recognize that we are seeing that what we have thought was discipleship for these men and women who have left, was not in fact discipling them to Christ.  We built allegiance in them to ideas and behaviors, but not to Christ Himself.  When these ideas were challenged, or even proved incorrect they were unable to distinguish between these bad ideas, or childish stances, or cultural confusions and the true Gospel to which they could have clung. 

 In 2020, pastor, let’s recommit to discipleship.  Let’s recommit to building communities who cling to Jesus and His grace above all other things, for this is the only unshakeable certainty of our lives, the only purpose of our ministry. 

Join me pastors.  To quote a song of the season just passed, God is not dead nor doth He sleep.  He calls you to renew your dependence upon him and your commitment to the core mission.  Let’s join together in coffee shops, on blogs, on street corners if need be, to continue the conversation about discipleship and then let’s return to our churches committed to preach nothing but Christ Crucified and to pursue not agenda in our church’s but discipleship of each other. let’s make 2020 the year of Discipleship.

Pastors, Say Yes to No

What do you want to leave behind when you’re done?

My father’s funeral was a very eye-opening experience for me. Up to this point the only legacy I knew of my father was in the context of our family, and this legacy was not a positive one. I knew nothing of his legacy as a servant to the sick, as a generous and caring doctor, as a philanthropist.

“At this time we’d like to open it up to anyone who wants to say something in honor of Don.”

I expected a few friends and family would speak a few kinds words and it was a completely unexpected shock when for the next hour a steady stream of patients came forward to praise my father, to speak emotionally of how much he’d meant to them, of how much they needed him.

“What will we do now?”

This was the phrase uttered over and over, as people expressed with genuine despair and fear the concern that no one would ever be there for them as he had been.

My father was a nephrologist, a kidney specialist, who spent his time traveling to where dialysis units didn’t exist, to bring dialysis to the patient. This meant lots of Native American reservations with sub par medical services, or out of the way communities where dialysis meant an hour or more commute for an hour or more of dialysis and then back. To accomplish this my father flew his own small plane several times a week though the southwest to places with names like Shiprock, and Tuba City and Silver City. It was on one of these flights that my father’s airplane exploded due to no fault of his own. My father died doing what he loved best, not just flying, but in service. He literally gave his life in service to others.

This experience changed my relationship with my father, admittedly tragically too late to act on it, but it did allow me to see a fuller man and to heal from the wounds of his fallibility. It is fair to say that beginning to understand his life of service has contributed much to my own decisions to serve.

My father’s legacy is a great one, and to this day, decades later, I still occasionally meet people who were touched in profound ways by his service to them or their loved ones. But as a pastor I’ve also been recently thinking about the difference between his legacy as it was expressed at his funeral and what I suspect he wanted his legacy to be.

There is nothing wrong with my father’s legacy; it is a great one. But at the same time I’m really confident that my father didn’t intend to leave scores of people in despair and fear, wondering what to do after his departure. He never intended to build dependence upon himself. He built dialysis units and attempted to work with hospitals to improve their care and educate his patients on their own care, precisely so that they could be better and receive better care without him. I strongly suspect he would have felt less than completely satisfied at the number of people who expressed such genuine fear and despair for their own lives at his leaving them. He would have preferred to see people stronger, better, for his having touched their lives. No doubt he did leave people like that, myself included, and perhaps the words at his memorial service do not capture the actual legacy, but this still raises an important question

Pastor, what do you want to leave behind when you’re gone? Of course you want to have meant something to people and of course you want them to miss you. I do too. But do you want them expressing concern that no one can motivate or feed or care for them as you do? Or do you want them to express how much your care for them taught them to trust in Christ’s love; how you lead them to be compelled by the love of Christ; and how you prepared them to be involved in their own discipleship?

There are a million seemingly good reasons to never say no as a pastor. Jesus literally gave his life in service, so how can we do less? Except Jesus does want people to be entirely dependent upon him for all things. Our job is to increase dependence on Christ and decrease dependence on us. Our legacy as pastors should be communities full of people who are so good at discipling each other that they will be grateful for our presence, but not despairing at our absence. Would your church survive if you were gone tomorrow? Even if the church didn’t, would the people continue to pursue Christ with the equipping you’ve provided?

This blog is only the prologue to a series to come over the next few weeks. A series about why it’s important for pastors to learn to say no. It’s not about self help or about boundaries. It’s about fulfilling the mission we have. It is crucial we learn to say no. But I want to start by asking you to think about your legacy. Are you building dependence on you, or are you building disciples of Christ? Which do you want? What do you need to change to get there?

Why discipleship feels impossible

In a recent study, the Schaffer institute found that 50% of all pastors polled reported that they felt inadequate to the job.  On the one hand I’m sort of surprised that number isn’t higher.  After all, the commission we’ve been given is to reach all nations and all peoples and all tongues, not only with the Gospel but to see all these people discipled as well.  That sounds kind of impossible.

On the other hand, though, I’m not sure this is what most of these self reporting unqualified pastors are really referring too.  I suspect that they are looking at the job as it’s been handed to them, with its admittedly impossible expectations of time (on call 24/7/365), energy (sabbath is for everyone except the pastor), objectivity (Sure I hate your sermons, kids, spouse, and philosophy of ministry, but don’t take it personally), and isolation in the midst of mini-celebrity (everyone knows you and yet nobody does.)

Either way, how can we expect anyone to persist day after day, year after year in a job they feel desperately unqualified to do, particularly when they care so passionately about it being done?  

Well, really we can’t, and they don’t.  According to this same study 90 percent of pastors leave the pastorate in pursuit of another career.

It’s not a lack of instruction. New books on “how to” disciple or grow a church come out several times a year, but I suspect that our seeming inability to disciple is based not so much on a lack of know how as it is on other problems which convince us we’ve failed even before we can effectively figure out “how.” Here’s three quick thoughts.

Discipleship feels impossible because we don’t know how passionate God is about it.

We’ve forgotten that the reason we’re doing this job is not because Jesus arbitrarily gave us busy work to keep us occupied till He returns, but because it’s a job about which He is extremely passionate!  Sometimes we mush think God is either very stupid or really uninterested in the results.  The truth, of course, is that He is neither of these things and therefore it must be not only possible, but preferable to have us involved in discipleship.  As pastors we need to reconnect with God’s passion for discipleship. It’s not merely a task, but a mission.  It’s not merely about members, but about people.  It’s not merely about obedience, but about people coming to life and living life as God intended it and they crave it.  At it’s largest, discipleship is about the unfathomably large plan to bring all things under headship of Christ in redemption, joy and glory.  At it’s smallest it’s about individual lives being changed forever.  These are passions we can share if we seek to remember.  No “how’ to discipleship will ever grab our hearts if the why doesn’t first.

Discipleship feels impossible because we don’t recognize that it’s already happening around us.  I guarantee it.  More importantly God guarantees it.  

Matthew 18:20 (For where two or three gather in my name I am with them) is not specifically about prayer or even fellowship. The context seems to indicate this is about authority, specifically authority of the church as regards discipleship. First he talks about how Jesus seeks everyone out in the parable of  the wandering sheep.  Then he talks about winning over a brother or sister who sins, and how to do this in community of a church, indicating how this is part of how God seeks out his wandering sheep. Then he talks about the authority he gives the apostles to bind or loose, also seemingly connected to the previous exhortations about winning over your brother or sister or setting them loose if they refuse to follow Jesus.  Then he says that wherever two or three are gathered He is among them.  I believe He’s expressing his own authority in the midst of their community. He’s explaining that in community Jesus will exercise His authority and power to disciple.

In other words, it feels impossible to disciple because it is. And yet, the idea that with God all things are possible is not just theory in this case but practical reality. Of course we are not up to the job if it’s merely a task God set for us before he left; but it is more than metaphor to say that Jesus is the head of the church.  Paul and Peter, James and John all express in one way or another in their epistles that it is Jesus who does the actual discipleship in the church body.  

This means it’s happening somewhere in your church right now, with or without your blessing.  Likely it’s happening in meals and informal gatherings of friends who are not even aware that the strength, prayers, support, love, challenge and encouragement they give each other are precisely what discipleship looks like.  They are possibly unaware because no one official has ever made that clear.  In fact, the official routes for discipleship may look very different.  How often, I wonder, do we pull people away from discipleship by insisting they attend our programs leaving them less and less time for the connection and relationships that truly disciple?

 Just like we need to reconnect with why God is passionate about discipleship, we need to reconnect with what discipleship actually is.  How can we figure out how, until we are clear on what?  Look around pastor.  Where are lives changing? Where is the grace of God flowing from person to person?  Can you emphasize these moments and structure such that more of these happen?

Discipleship seems impossible because we’ve accepted the wrong expectations.  

A pastor friend of mine recently told me that he’s had to tell the local funeral parlor that he can only do two funerals a week that are not for people in his church. He said this with regret and a slight degree of defensiveness.  This same pastor told me that he can no longer drive a two hour round trip several times a week to visit congregants in hospitals.  This he said with outright guilt.  This church is a loving and amazing church and yet due to the emphasis (and no doubt love and other admirable qualities) of the previous pastor, they developed the idea that their pastor is supposed to spend hours on funerals and hospital visits, prepare sermonS for four different services, administrate every ministry, disciple every leader, keep an eye on the budget, the building, and on and on and on.  

Years and years of loving pastors willing to try meeting every need and congregations who have become increasingly accepting of their role as consumer or patient or client have lead to a not only unbalanced approach to discipleship but a completely untenable and unsustainable one.  Pastors who are desperate to get back to the work of equipping saints to serve each other are faced with tough decisions as they discover that saying yes to discipleship means saying no to so many other expectations and pressures.

Pastor, not only do we need to reconnect with why discipleship matters to God, and what discipleship actually looks like, but we’ve also got to reexamine our understanding of our role and our congregation’s role in this whole process.  As I understand it scripture says that pastors (among others) equip their congregations to serve each other in love, congregations serve through the Grace of God and as a result it is actually Grace which does the discipling. This distribution of the Grace of Christ, through the Holy Spirit, by the appointment of God the father can indeed be 24/7/365 in a way that no individual can be.  

The truth is that discipleship is impossible if it is a task we seek to manufacture apart from the grace of God.  The good news is that the Grace of God is freely available, Jesus is ready and eager to lead His church and the Holy Spirit is ceaseless in His work in our churches.  

As in everything else Christ did not give us a truly impossible task, but He did give us one that requires constant surrender and dependence upon Him.

If you’d like to hear more, or are open to help and encouragement visit discipleshipmatters.online where you can sign up for my online course or contact me for more information on a multitude of other resources to support you in your important work.

 Together we can build a fresh crop of discipleship communities of Grace all across this country and beyond.

Three tips for small group leaders and their leaders

I just recently returned from a trip to Illinois where I was training the coaches of small group leaders at Harvest Time Bible Church. I was asked to do this training because I had been at the same church a few weeks before training the small group leaders. It’s encouraging that this church is willing to invest such significant effort in not just ramping small groups up, but in living up to the promise. Here are some pictures:

It’s a problematic thing in the American church that despite virtually every church promising that small groups are the heart of our ministry, few churches actually provide the kind of support for their small group leaders which confirms this priority. Typically pastors intend to offer such support, but the truth is that saying yes to small group leaders means saying no to so many other things that also demand attention and resources. Saying no is an extremely tough thing for pastors to get away with but that’s another blog for another day.

For today I just wanted to provide a little support to small group leaders and their leaders (pastors or small group pastors for example) in the form of three quick but powerful tips to consider. So without further ado, here goes.

  1. Facilitate discipleship through Grace, rather than merely discussion. This is a fairly complex concept, but it’s one that can significantly change the effectiveness of your group if you even begin to explore the possibility. Essentially it goes like this: Your group is full of people who have all received a gift or multiple gifts of the Spirit. We think of these spiritual gifts sometimes as mere talents or personality traits that can possibly benefit others, but Paul and Peter describe them as, much more significantly, portions of God’s grace given to believers for the purpose of building up the body. Peter specifically says

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God. If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen.”

1 Peter 4:10-11 NIV

Take a moment on that very big idea. Peter says we are stewards of God’s grace. Grace is a slippery term for many of us but essentially scripture speaks of it as the power and desire of God to do good to us. He not only wants to do good to us, but He is fully capable of doing so. This Grace is not something we control or create. It is inherently part of God as much as His ominscience. You are granted a stewardship of God’s own love and power to bless others. If this doesn’t blow your mind, you’re not listening. This is greater than any other stewardship we spend time discussing: more than our time, so much more than our money. And this is what Paul and Peter are speaking of when they speak of spiritual gifts. Now, group leader, consider this:

“For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ,”
‬‬

Titus 2:11-13

It is not you or me or even the spirit filled members of our church that truly disciple. It is not the law or accountability or policy or careful process that teaches us self control. It is the Grace of God! The same Grace which saves us. No doubt there is a lot to this, but at least one thing it seems to mean in conjunction with the spiritual gift emphasis in scripture is that as we share our gift of grace with each other, it is God’s own power and love which disciples the body.

Small groups are not just a place for a good discussion, but a great place (and in some churches the only official place) for people to share the Grace of God with each other and you as leader get to encourage, equip and nourish this flow of Grace. Your job is to facilitate discipleship.

2. Look for God’s curriculum; what appear to be distractions are often the heart of discipleship. In Matthew 20 we encounter one of the greatest lessons Jesus gives to his apostles. He explains here that true leadership is about service, and that even the Son of Man came, not to be served but to serve. It’s clear that this lesson did not come about because of some arbitrary point in some planned curriculum which the apostles had reached on that day. Let me remind you of the context. James and John’s mother approach Jesus and ask that He consider putting James and John in places of honor when Jesus has accomplished his messianic mission. We’re told that the rest of the apostles are indignant at their gall (and probably mostly because they feel like they should be at least as deserving of this honor as the two brothers!). Imagine for a moment that you are a group leader and this scenario is playing out in your group. Whatever you had planned for the day has just become seriously derailed by the immaturity of your group. People vying for position, the group’s unity being disrupted by ego, pride and entitlement. How easy it would be for us to focus our energies at this moment on squelching the disruption so we can get back to the important work of discipleship.

But that’s not how Jesus saw it. To Him, this was not distraction. This was discipleship. Humility was the agenda precisely because pride was the issue. Even a cursory reading of Jesus‘ interaction with the apostles throughout the gospels reveals that this is how Jesus most always determines the lesson of the day. So it ought to be in our groups. Of course we will have agendas and at Focus Church the groups will not infrequently use an established curriculum, but the most significant agenda and curriculum must come from attention to what’s happening right in front of you in your group,. Are kids a distraction? Then they must be part of God’s curriculum. Is someone’s struggle making it impossible to focus on your agenda? Then in someway their struggle, or your groups struggle with their struggle is your curriculum. Logistics, ego, illness, trials, disrupting events…all these can be viewed as distractions or discipleship. Choose the latter and let God set the curriculum and follow hIm where it leads. After all, it is God’s grace which disciples.

3. Say No to other events, meetings and programs until there is space for regular consistent support and interaction between your small group leaders and someone to coach and encourage them. Ok, so this is really for Pastors. If you believe in small groups and you really want them to live up to the promises you’ve explictly and implicitly made about them, you’ve got to find a way to provide regular support, coaching and training for your small group leaders. This is not just a neat idea; it’s absolutely crucial. When I have this discussion with churches considering a new emphasis on small groups, inevitably the realization comes up that truly prioritizing small groups will mean more meetings for the leaders for training and encouragement. The next realization is that another meeting just won’t work in our overcommitted churches among our overcommitted leaders. I wholeheartedly agree with this. The trick is that if you are serious about this, you will need to decide that supporting your leaders is more important than some other important meeting and find a way to replace a meeting with a meeting. You will never find space to train your small group leaders, you will have to make it. Say no for your leaders to things which are not small groups.

I am available for discussion, coaching, training, conferences, and any other way that I can help your community live up to the promise of small groups. Let’s build communities of discipleship by Grace!

Contact me at discipleshipmatters.online if I can help in anyway.

Are there gaps in God’s grace?

It was a McDonald’s about a month ago, where I ran into an old friend of mine, someone I hadn’t seen for a decade or so. He was friendly (he always is) and we exchanged pleasantries while we waited for our orders. In the course of our very brief conversation he asked if I had read a certain book. I said I hadn’t and he followed up with “I always think of you when I read books like that. You should read it, it might fill in the gaps for you.”

Fill in the gaps.

This man is a former congregant of mine and I knew exactly what he meant by fill in the gaps. One of the few consistent things about my preaching of the last 27 years of a 30 year preaching ministry is my strong emphasis on the Grace of God. Paul declares and defends a Gospel of Grace where God is the author and perfector of our salvation; where God’s love for us is based not on anything we’ve done but solely on the fact that He is a God who loves; where righteousness is something we’re given not something we earn or create; where Christ on the cross declares “it is finished” and not that he merely started something that we’re expected to complete.

Fill in the gaps.

One thing I’ve learned from thirty years of preaching and defending the Grace of God through the death of Christ as the sole means of salvation is that surprisingly the temptation to always want more than this message is strong. It has been so since the early church. During Paul’s time there were the so called Super Apostles who claimed that special acts of righteousness were needed to fill in the gaps of the gospel. During John’s ministry there were the Gnostics who claimed enlightenment was necessary to fill in the gaps of the gospel. Whoever wrote the book of Hebrews had to defend the idea that it was not the gospel which had gaps but the law. The well meaning judiazers had it backwards: it was the law which had gaps; gaps which could only be filled and completed by Christ, as he brought fullness to the two dimensional shadow of the law.

Fill in the gaps.

Don’t get me wrong. I suspect this friend of mine has a sincere and genuine faith, faith in the Cross of Christ which saved Him. I suspect it is not gaps in his own life he is looking to fill. Like so many others who themselves have seen the Grace of God lift them from a life of wretchedness and seen that same Grace propel them forward in a life of increasing holiness, he is now more concerned about the gaps he sees in the lives of others. Ironically as we become more comfortable living in the Grace of God we may be inclined to forget our early complete dependence upon Christ and how little we actually did to get where we are. Perhaps we’ve forgotten how much worldliness existed in our own early years and for how long we resisted some areas of change, and perhaps even still do. Instead we look at a church which to our mind is increasingly full of immaturity and worldliness and see a gap between God’s promised holiness by Grace and the seeming paucity of holiness in others.

Fill in the gaps

I’ve since become familiar with the book he asked me about as well as another trending book, both of which share a similar idea that the reformers, having less information than our current scholars lead the church into entirely wrong directions regarding essential ideas like Grace and faith. Like the early church with the Gnostics there is an appeal to being in the know, finding there is special information hidden from all the church until this moment and we are of the few enlightened, but like the early church with the Gnostics, we should be very cautious about such claims.

Fill in the gaps

It will be a shame indeed if the evangelical world moves away from Grace in an attempt to fill in gaps. It would be a shame because it obscures the Gospel which is literally good news. The Gospel is all about what Christ did for us and not about what we do to merit, earn or cling to what Christ has done for us. Too often we share the gospel as if it’s a great challenge, a war cry, instead of a victory shout.

Oftentimes it’s about motivation. Grace doesn’t motivate, we think. So, pastors try to close the gap with guilt, or fear, or anger, but while it sometimes appears to work short term, it is destructive in the long term, teaching people to react not to Christ’s leadership but to emotional appeals.

Fill in the gaps.

To be fair, what he meant, of course, was not that the gap was in the Grace of God but in my understanding, and on this we do agree on one thing. There is a gap in the understanding of grace, but it’s not that we have to somehow earn it or that God is waiting for us to pay him back for some sort of righteousness “loan”. It’s not that too much grace leads to a lack of motivation or licentiousness. It’s not that we misunderstand faith and what is really needed is a pledge of loyalty. None of these are the gaps, although I’ve heard each of these in the last two weeks alone. No, the gap is simply this.

For people who fear that teaching Grace alone will lead to licentiousness; for people who fear that there are gaps in such a presentation of the gospel I would suggest that the gap in their understanding is simply this. Grace is not merely the unmerited favor of God. It is also the incredible power of God. Power to raise Christ from the dead. Power to transform sinners into saints. Power, as Paul reminds Titus, to teach us to say no to ungodliness and yes to self control. Power to sanctify us. In other words the gap in our understanding of grace is not that more is somehow required of us, but that we see grace as weak where scripture teaches clearly it is very strong.

Too often we believe it is our job to transform people through rules and accountability. Too often we believe it is our job to motivate people through fear, guilt or anger. Too often we believe that apart from us Christ can do nothing. Too often we feel we need to fill in the gaps of God’s Grace.

But, if the Grace of God is not enough to remove our sin as far as the east is from the west, if it is not enough to bring life to the dead men and women we were, if it is not enough to exchange our wickedness for Christ’s righteousness; if it is not enough for any of these things then nothing is. Certainly nothing we could do could accomplish such miracles or have such power.

Grace is not just God’s desire to do good to us, it is His mighty power and ability to do so as well.

Stop trying to fill in the gaps. God’s got this.

Did you know that Scripture teaches even discipleship is a work of God’s grace and not of our own efforts? What we need is not less reliance on grace but more. My new online discipleship course designed specifically for pastors of small churches but open to all who care about discipleship is now up and running. Let’s build communities of Grace Discipleship and watch the Lord be glorified! If you’ve already watched the intro video, click the link below to get you or the pastor you love signed up for the course.

DiscipleshipMatters.online

The Discipleship of Grace

I almost quit in my third year as a pastor. Turns out this is not too unusual. A recent study suggests that’s half of all pastors quit within five years of their ordination and only ten percent make it all the way to retirement as a pastor.

Truth is there are lots of reasons to quit. Poverty level wages, impossible expectations, fishbowl stress for your family, an almost constant sense of being misunderstood by those close to you, frequent feelings of betrayal, isolation, depression, and inadequacy are just a few of the day to day details for many pastors. I experienced all this in the first three years. There are lots of reasons to quit.

But twenty seven years ago, God gave me only one reason not to. It wasn’t a sense of obligation, or responsibility, or a new found sense of ability. It definitely wasn’t guilt or coercion.

At the moment of my greatest despair, when I could see no way forward except out, God kept me in the ministry by doing something very strange. He gave me complete freedom to leave.

In a series of events I describe in my book The Hidden Life (https://davidmegill.com/product-category/books/), I came to realize that despite preaching the Gospel of Grace for three years I personally had no real idea of what that meant for me. My relationships were so much more performance based than I had ever realized and this included with God. I was on an airplane crying out to God, apologizing over and over for the failure I’d become, desperately seeking some assurance from God that He would not abandon me as I abandoned what He’d called me to.

I received exactly such assurance. In fact, I’m pretty sure I heard God chuckle as He reminded me that I wasn’t His Pastor and that He would get along quite well without me in that role. He reminded me that as serious as the pastorship was (and is) I was taking it too seriously while not taking my my adoption as son seriously enough; that somehow I thought God was monitoring my job as some sort of litmus test to validate the faith He’d put in me. God showed me that he loved me and not because of what I could do for Him.

The idea that we have something God needs is of course absurd, but it’s a deception easy to swallow. The idea that we are something God wants is a truth hard to grasp.

The truly dark side of my incomplete acceptance of Grace was that I had somehow accepted the seed of the idea that I had some special claims too God’s favor and that being a pastor proved that. The truth, of course is I had never earned the pastorate in the first place and had zero claim on deserving the Grace I’d been given. God revealed this all to me and as a result gave me complete freedom to leave.

The Grace of God had opened the door to my cage, the impossible expectations, and desperate desire to prove myself worthy of other people’s respect and love, and once the cage was open and the job no longer felt like a trap, I suddenly remembered why I had become a pastor in the first place. I wanted others to know this same grace which I was only now beginning to grasp.

11 For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 2:11-14

Paul tells Titus that the same undeserved grace which saved us is the same Grace which trains us to live Godly lives. We often forget that the Grace of God is not only his benevolence, but it is also the very power of God to express this benevolence. This is the definition of grace which God has impressed on me over the last three decades.

Grace is God’s power and desire to do good to us and is integral to who He is, meaning you can do nothing to increase or decrease either aspect. You can not make Him more powerful, nor can you make Him more or less desirous to do good to you. It is who He is, not just what He does.

Many pastors have begun to wisely realize that they are not responsible for all the discipleship in a church. But what if it goes further? What if it’s not even the congregation that’s responsible for discipleship but God Himself? To take seriously the idea that Grace Disciples us will necessitate for most pastors some changes in their understanding of their role and the role of every person in the church. Titus 2:11-14 can’t be ignored in our search for effective discipleship.

If you are a pastor and wrestling with this idea from Titus 2, know that I am more than happy to wrestle it through with you. Comment on this blog, or consider the online discipleship course with customized coaching. Check out the video below and the link below that for more information on this course.

DiscipleshipMatters.online

Pastor, when it comes to discipleship, size really doesn’t matter

(Having a busy day?  Feel free to skip to the video at the bottom of this blog for four quick tips building a discipleship community.  It’s only 8 minutes and you can always always come back to this written portion when you have more time. )

When any of my Focus Group Leaders at Focus church is considering canceling on a night most members in the group are unable to attend, I remind them that when it comes to discipleship, size doesn’t matter. If you and one other person are getting together, they are worth your time and discipleship is worth the effort.

I remind my small group leaders that when it comes to discipleship, size doesn’t matter. If you and one other person are getting together, they are worth your time and discipleship is worth the effort.

It’s a weird cultural phenomenon that when it comes to churches in America we have decided that a normal, healthy church is represented by only about 10 percent (the mega churches).  By definition this is not normal. You might argue that’s the ideal (I personally wouldn’t), but you definitely can’t argue it’s normal.

The reality is that half of all churches in America have fewer than 80 people in attendance. While it’s possible to argue that this means over half our pastors are failing, I don’t think this is the correct conclusion; and yet this is the message those pastors routinely receive. They are encouraged to see their church as failing unless they can break the 100 barrier, then the 200, then the 300 and so on.

 Instead of being given permission to focus on discipleship in the community they’ve got, they are encouraged to change the community first, to add people to their community so they can reach some magic number.  What if instead they were given room  and support to gear down and focus on the things which drove them to become pastors in the first place?

Discipleship materials and trainings are almost always geared towards churches who have or anticipate more and more resources. The pastors of these “smaller” (actually normal sized) churches are implicitly being told they are a failure and that discipleship can’t even happen until they become a larger, more “normal” church.

I think most of that is just plain wrong and that’s why I’ve created a discipleship course geared specifically for these other pastors. Discipleship is just not size-dependent and there is no reason pastors can’t build thriving discipleship communities and enjoy the benefits of such a supportive loving growing community themselves at the same time.

Pastors are busy and with an online course they can complete it at their own pace. If you are a pastor, or love a pastor, I encourage you to check out the video below.  It’s only eight minutes long and includes four quick tips which will help every pastor interested in discipleship. 

Check it out, pass it on, and if you’re interested in the course, click the link below the video.

 

DiscipleshipMatters.online

Pastor, so it didn’t work out the way you expected, now what?

I was having a conversation yesterday with an old mentor, the man who ordained me into my first pastoral job almost 30 years ago. He left the pastorate a few years ago and, in trying to understand how things ended up so far from his expectations and dreams, he’s extended that analysis to the evangelical world as a whole. He’s embarked on an attempt to awaken pastors and churches to what he sees as significant flaws in the evangelical structure itself.

Many of the points he made are ones I’ve made on this blog before and are reasons we are doing church entirely differently at Focus. I indicated at one point that we might have some very similar views and he initially expressed skepticism on that point. Having not watched the videos yet, he may be right, but one thing he said specifically struck me.

“I don’t get into solutions at all. I come at it from a very macro level.”

I think at any point of major transition, like the one I suspect the American Church is undergoing, it’s probably healthy that we have people willing to raise questions with no answers and I suspect that is part of his role in this. I am not criticizing him for taking this thankless role in the slightest. But he’s right, it’ s not exactly where I am.

Because what struck me is that pastors in the thick of the battle don’t usually disagree with the macro points he was making.

There’s a great deal of talk about how evangelicalism is failing and I don’t meet many pastors who fundamentally disagree with that. Pastors, in general, are quick to believe they are failing at their job anyway. Other pastors may feel better about their role and work but still scratch their heads in perplexity as program after program fails to bring the fruit they are expecting. For them the macro message that things are wrong is not something they will argue with but begs the question, what now?

After five years watching, coaching and critiquing from the outside I decided to jump back into the fray, to return to pastoring, because I believe there is a “what now.” There is a next step. And I’m personally excited to be part of it’s unfolding.

Pastor, your ship may be taking water, but if you can cut some of the dead weight it doesn’t have to sink. (And I know your tendency is to think you are the dead weight and you need to just get out, but that’ s not it either.)

I acknowledge that the way we’ve been doing church no longer works and that pastors are feeling either desperate or hopeless but I want to do more than simply stand next to you and grieve with you over the losses. I want to do that too, but I want to do more. I want to help you right the ship or build a new one or whatever metaphor is most appropriate. But I want to tell you there is a next. There is a what now. There is a way forward as a pastor.

Let me leave you with four short nuggets and encourage you to chew on it. If I can help unpack these for you please don’t hesitate to contact me. I’d love to come alongside and help you remember why you became a pastor in the first place.

What now?

  1. Sharpen your focus on discipleship, the mission of the church. Make it your mission to understand that mission. Give yourself (and your staff) permission to ignore the rest. Don’t be in such a hurry to move the ship forward that you end up traveling further away from your destination.  Pull into port if you need.  Take a breath and if you need a place to start I would say read and reread Ephesians until the mission takes on some clarity.
  2. Answer the right questions in the right order. Before asking “how” to disciple, do you understand why discipleship is God’s passion, or what discipleship is, or who is responsible for what? Answering these will leave you fewer options for how, which makes it easier to implement and communicate. Pastors are often surprised and delighted to learn that the  right answers to these questions will likely relieve you of a lot of burden rather than add to it.
  3. Cut the dead weight of good things. All the good things which are not discipleship are pulling you down, causing you to forget why you became a pastor in the first place. The job of creating a discipling community is enough to keep you plenty busy without all the other stuff. It’s true that most of it happened in the name of discipleship anyway, I get that. But go back to point 2 and see what’s really necessary.
  4. Get help from someone outside your “box”. The pressures inside your “box”, from congregants, co pastors, directors and so on make it very difficult to see what has come from agendas other than the Great Commission. Find a friend, a pastor of a different church, a coach, someone wise and honest and gracious who can help you navigate righting the ship.

Pastor, you are not alone, and God is not failing you. Your job requires dependence and faith, but it is not impossible, nor should it be the source of depression and misery. If the words above seem intriguing please contact me and let me help you. There are answers to what now. Feel free to call me at (505) 393-LIFE.  Let’s chat about next.

Going forward this blog will focus on the encouragement and training of pastors and those who love them. We will spend time exploring the “what now?” Although I believeit will be encouraging to all pastors we will specifically be aiming at pastors of what we tend to call small or medium sized churches, but are in fact the size the majority of pastors have in their flock. Truth is half of the churches in America are fewer than 80 people large. I suspect this isn’t a sign that we’re failing as much as it’s a sign that we need to reevaluate what makes a successful church.

Currently I am finishing up an online video course to allow any pastor to complete at their own pace which will walk through Ephesians to find the answers to the questions alluded to in the box above. And off course I am still available for personal coaching or training retreats for your leadership or small group leaders as well as whole church conferences to help reinforce your efforts to build a community of Grace and Discipleship. If you are interested in staying informed on these developments please email me at hiddenlife@icloud.com and ask to be put on the mailing list.

Smiling at the future,

David “pastormac” Megill