I’m not entirely sure if this blog entry will turn out to be instructive or cathartic. Perhaps a little of both. I’ll tell you what I did first, what happened as a result, and then we can discuss together what it means.
Reading this book by Viola and Barna last week brought back memories of 1997. I spent a lot of that year working on a book I wanted to market on a similar theme as Pagan Christianity. I had been thinking for a long time about Christianity’s American expression and not happy at all with what I saw. In particular, I took exception with how much American pastors were still playing the dominant role in church ministry and how individual members felt like second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. This problem is nothing new: It has existed since the first century. On this point, Viola is accurate and astute. The concept of the Priesthood of all Believers has not worked out well in practice.
The book I decided to write was going to be called “Releasing God’s People”. At the time, I was still marketing my first book and doing radio interviews with stations across the country.
A Denver radio station asked to do a 15 minute interview with me which was to be followed up with listener questions. In the minutes before we started, the interviewer told me that they usually had one or two callers at that time in the morning and I shouldn’t expect to be on the phone for more than 20 minutes total. During the first ten minutes of on-air time, we talked about my book on parenting techniques and he pretty much followed the “questions list” my publicist had sent him. At one point, he stopped and asked if I was working on any new projects at that moment. I blurted out that I was writing a book on “Releasing God’s People” which would center on taking much of ministry out of the hands of the pastor and giving it back to the average disciple of Jesus. It was like I had woken the interviewer up with a slap on the face. He went from disinterested radio jock to curious enquirer. I should point out that this was not a religious radio station.
After ten minutes of questions, he opened it up to the listeners. From what he later told me, they had never had that kind of response. The phone lines were jammed with people wanting to ask questions of this “pastor guy”. After almost an hour of the question/answer banter, the radio guy cut it off and finished his slot for the day. When we got off the air, he asked me if I would send him a copy of the book when it was done. I assured him I would send it upon its publication.
He never got a copy of the book. It was never published. The manuscript still sits in the bottom of a file drawer awaiting its day. I am going to explain the two reasons for that in a moment.
I was approximately 80% finished with the book when I did that interview. The portion I was working on not only was the most difficult, but also the section I felt the least amount of peace over. It was the part where I explained what I thought should be done. In preparation for one of the chapters, an idea occured to me. It seemed so brilliant at the time that I really didn’t ask anyone if they thought it was a GOOD idea. That might have saved me a lot of anxiety.
Here was my idea. If anything was going to change, it probably needed to come from the people at the center of the problem: pastors. And if I was going to write a book about what I thought should change, I should be willing to lead the way. I still believe that. I just realize now that my idea was faulty. It didn’t seem that way at the time, but it was.
Here is what happened. I was teaching a series on Ephesians 4 in preparation for presenting some of my new ideas on the role of the pastor. During the week before the message, I had taken a sign off my door. The sign had given my name and my title and was situated at the front right hand corner of the sanctuary. I took off the words “Senior Pastor” and just left my name there. Then, at the beginning of my message, I announced I was resigning as “The Pastor” of the church. After allowing the gasps and emotions to subside a bit, I then explained myself. I looked at the Scriptures concerning the role of leadership in the church and found that it is rare for one person to be called by God to lead alone. It did happen a few times in the Bible, but the more common pattern was for God to raise up many leaders and give them various degrees of spiritual authority. What I was “resigning” from was the idea that I was the only leader in the church, the only minister, the only real servant of the Lord, the only one who could be called “God’s Anointed”.
After that service concluded, several people came up to me with concerned and worried looking faces and told me “I love you Mike, but I don’t think this is going to turn out well for all of us”. Several of the people I saw as the most mature members of the Body shared this same opinion with me. I hate to say that my wife was one of them. In fact, the people who loved what I had to say the most were the scariest ones: The rebellious, goofy and immature. Immediately I had to ask “what have I done?”
The next year was a horror story for me and the church as a whole. As I sought to bring changes to the leadership structure of the church and to have those changes filter to every level of the church’s experience, more and more incidents of sin, rebellion, and people trying to exert improper control over each other happened. In one year, 8 members of the church had to be disciplined for sinful behavior. We had only disciplined a half dozen in the 9 previous years. There was a huge split in the leadership team. A year later, half the board split off and formed their own church. The church voted to leave the fellowship of churches they had been a part of since their founding 16 years earlier. We had been the fastest growing church in town at that point and now we were shrinking like an iceberg in the Sahara.
And all I did was remove my title from the door. What harm could that have done? I mean, it was only a title, right?
Some of the wisest leaders in God’s church that I know have pondered this situation with me. I have written several people whose books sell millions and who are acquaintances…and they have shared their wisdom. I have sought the Lord and He showed me some things. Ministry leaders, prayer warriors, worship leaders, deacons, elders, small group leaders, Bible College presidents and evangelists have weighed in on this situation. Their wisdom amounts to three principles that I didn’t see the full value of at the time.
1. Human beings want God’s authority vested in other human beings. This goes right back to Israel’s first King. God didn’t fight it…he realized we have trouble with being lead by the unseen God. The Bible is clear that God raises up leaders (even secular leaders) to bring his hand of order and discipline.
2. The spirit realm is all about authority. When someone relinquishes authority, there is a vacuum into which the enemy can work more freely. King David is the classic example of this when he committed adultery with Bathsheba after refusing to be the leader of the Army going into battle. Never were there more ominous words in the Bible than these: “It was the time that Kings went out to war, but David stayed home.”
3. Rebellion is always waiting to show itself as soon as there is anarchy. You cannot have a group of people without a leader. For if you do not designate a leader by some means, the strongest and most power-centered person will take charge.
By not recognizing these three principles, I had caused God’s church irreparable harm. I have publicly confessed that sin to that congregation almost before it was too late. God did repair some of the damage, but most of it remains to this day. I refused to finish that book and publish it as a result. I think I know what the answer can be. I am waiting for someone else to write it, since I believe I have lost my right to be the one to say it. May God raise that person up.