Interview by Jennifer Johnson
Last time we talked, you’d just finished a sabbatical. How has it changed you and the church?
We decided on my six-months sabbatical partly to give me prep time for the next five to eight years, because all leaders need some extended time to study and refill the well. But the other reason is no congregation accidentally gets younger. There are four of us on staff who had been here 25 years or longer, and that wasn’t setting us up for the future. Clearly, we’re not a “throw-out-the-old” type of church. But you only get younger intentionally. So we used my time away to have younger leaders preach and lead worship and encourage a visible reframing of us as a congregation.
That’s a really good insight. We think we grow younger if we’re singing the hottest new song or wearing the skinny jeans, but it’s deeper than that.
The hardest group to speak to is young males. A guy in his 20s or 30s has trouble picturing what Christianity looks like on him. He knows what it looks like on old women and kids, but what about a guy who’s aggressive and masculine? And he wonders if being a really devoted Christ follower would emasculate him.
During the six months I was gone, the young men and their families came a bit more often, leaned forward a bit more. We just spoke into their lives a bit better.
Of course, the young guys need me, and I need the young guys. The plurality of the body is not in question, but we needed to balance it better.
What insights do you have for those who can’t take a few months away?
Really it’s about the bigger issue of figuring out how to be relevant in the Lord’s ears. We talk about being relevant to the audience, but I want to be relevant as the Lord hears the sermon. There’s a lot of us preaching the Word we meant to study or the Word someone else studied, not the Word we studied well ourselves. And there’s something odd about Scripture. It’s in the living nature of the Word that if there hasn’t been joy or tears out of my own study, then my preaching of truth still harms the audience. I can’t stand there neutrally. I’m not a “waiter” of the Scriptures, presenting truth I haven’t tasted.
So part of my battle and everyone else’s is making myself spend time alone with God and wrestle with the text. If you don’t find great delight in the text—not just something truthful or something right—but if you don’t delight in it, then talent’s a cheap substitute.
That’s the hard thing in the modern church culture, to have a preacher in a complex situation with multiple staff and high budgets and very complex schedules, and yet this guy must fight to go away and meet God privately. I think that’s one of the three things that go into preaching that’s effective.
Don’t keep me hanging! What are the other two?
Well, every group of people who speak for a living begins to develop an unhealthiness its members don’t recognize. Listen to car salesmen, infomercials, auctioneers, comedians—today’s preachers tend to copy the delivery of comedians a bit. There’s a way of speaking that just becomes part of the brand. So if I’m not having normal conversations with others about the text or its ideas, it will sound like a stylized sermon when I stand up.
And the third one?
No matter how much I want to, if I am not a whole person living well in all of my life, I can’t study Scripture and see it through good eyes. When I’m not whole—which includes interaction with family and friends, getting enough rest, solitude, having a work ethic that God affirms—I don’t see Scripture well at all. I need to be in a persistent pursuit of wholeness, because ultimately we never deliver the sermon outlines—we deliver ourselves.
All the other demands on the pastor can be so intense that preaching well becomes extremely difficult.
It’s tough in all sizes of churches. Some small church guys are expected to be in people’s lives at a level that is so intense. Or you have the opposite, where it’s like a closed community and he’s kind of a hireling who doesn’t even have a set of peers to drink coffee with. In his case it’s no problem to be alone in the Scriptures with God, but he doesn’t have people he can talk about it with. And it’s hard to be whole when you don’t have these great, deep friendships.
In terms of the large church, the calendar is relentless. I have to decide whether I’m going to live at a pace that allows wholeness. I go for a long walk most days. I don’t have time for it, but if I don’t do it, I’m leaving part of me behind. That’s where I pray out loud a bit, where I wrestle with God about whether there is any fraud in my life before I stand up and preach on Sunday. Nobody else fights to put that in your calendar except you and the Lord and your wife, and maybe a few friends.
When I asked what you wanted to talk about in this interview, you said two things: preaching well and doing missions well. Tell me what you’re thinking about missions.
For churches today, missions is pretty complex, because anything can be missions—the local church camp, a college, anything you want. We decided about 15 years ago we’re going to redefine missions as planting the church where it’s not. Everything else is the church doing what it ought to be doing anyway in its own community or its own nation. So things like supporting other organizations or benevolence aren’t missions for us, they’re extended ministry.
And once you define missions this way, you can’t avoid the closed countries. That meant we had to take five years or so to get people ready to go to the field, because you’re going to tough situations. So we have a 9:38 group, from Matthew 9:38, and we pour into 25 to 30 people who are being mentored and prepared. For a good portion of it, they even have to pull out of College Heights to form a house church and not attend any of our church activities or worship, because you have to learn to live your Christian life and share the gospel without all the amenities we have here. It’s intended to “unhook” people from some of the conveniences of Christianity in this country.
Or the romantic ideals they may have about this work.
Absolutely. You get really tired of doing church with those same 12 people all the time!
Also, we’re in a lot of places around the world we can’t even share with the congregation—we call it the A team or the B team or we’ll say North Africa or Southeast Asia. And you have to prepare the congregation that you’re going to lose people. We have not lost anyone we’ve sent out from our congregation, but we have lost nationals, people we love and care for and who have become like family to us. That isn’t everyone’s story, but you have to be prepared for that.
How do you do that?
Part of it is keeping it in front of people. We do a very intentional commissioning service and we talk about it, and it’s much like Paul on the beach, crying with the Ephesian elders. Obviously if we thought it was imminent we wouldn’t send them, but you have to talk about possibilities.
And I imagine it really brings the New Testament alive to your congregation.
“Come die with me” is certainly a whole lot different than “come find your spot in the conventions and be a Christian leader.” I’m not cynical about it, and I’m not against those things, but staying focused on the mission is a constant battle, and we don’t always win.
Are there ways for churches that aren’t as big or resourced to explore missions in closed countries?
It always involves partnerships, no matter what size church. We work with mission organizations; these issues are too complex to do otherwise. So any small church can decide how they want to define missions, and can choose to make their practices more in line with their definitions, and partner with others to do church planting in difficult or less-
Partnerships aren’t only necessary, they’re welcomed by everybody. I can’t imagine a mission agency saying, “No, we don’t want to work with you because you have only 200 members.”
No, in fact, I was on an extended Skype call recently involving a group in Africa. It was delightful to work together: “We can’t cover this.” “We can, no problem.” “We’d like to do this.” “How would this work?” Representatives from two churches, the missionaries, and the sending agency spent about an hour talking, and it just felt right.
That’s how you’re doing ministry around the world. What’s the latest in your approach to Joplin?
Say America is represented by 20 people. In the 1950s eight of those people were deeply involved in church at least two times a month; two were antichurch, and 10 believed the church in general is probably not bad—they’re neutral to positive. For years our growth tended to be reaching into that pool of 10 and into the eight who were at churches not doing so well.
Today, according to Barna and Gallup numbers, there are still eight in the church, believe it or not. However, now they come 0.5 times a month—maybe six times a year. Instead of two that are antichurch, it’s seven, and the five left are now neutral to negative. We have to figure out how to do church differently, because the culture has changed. So we’re not ready to announce a new direction as a church, but we are probably going to neighborhood-based ministry that is centered much less on our building.
We’re just one of many churches trying to figure out how to do this, so it’s not cutting edge.
Well, it is and it isn’t. Yes, other churches are going this direction, but again it does require that humility of asking how many people we can share Jesus with instead of how many people we can pack into our building, which is not always the same question. The conversation may not be cutting-edge, but the willingness to have it still is.
I don’t know what I want to do in this fourth quarter of my ministry. But I know games are won or lost in the fourth quarter, and ultimately, it’s the most important one. For the last eight years I’ve been so restless, because this is not the way to do church in America. There are good things in it, but I would love to take the last 5 to 10 years of my work life and figure out how we do church for the culture that exists, not the culture that used to be. That’s where I want to spend the rest of my life.
Jennifer Johnson, herself one of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors, is a writer living in Levittown, Pennsylvania.