The worst thing that can happen to a church is for it to become a flagship for a denomination or a movement. I know of at least four churches that are pastor-less right now who are, in my opinion, in the clutches of movement-speak because they have a mistaken identity as important in a movement. There are countless more that have a captain at the wheel, but they are in the current of movement rhetoric and, for the most part, exactly where their leadership wants them to be. The tragedy is that a local church becomes confused about its identity and, especially in the crisis of pastoral search, cannot think outside the framework of being in its own self-conceptualization a part of a movement.
I briefly pastored a small church that had been steeped in an illusory self-conceptualization that it was an important building block, if not the cornerstone, of the fundamentalist movement at least in its immediate region, if not in the state or nation. It became immediately clear to me that one of the unwritten job requirements for me as the new pastor was to maintain its status (illusory or not) as a player in the movement. However, few churches are as significant as they think they are. Few realize that their power in the movement is ten percent real and ninety percent illusion. This illusion is reinforced in the minds of the regular attenders who watch their pastor ascend to various boards of national ministries and score the occasional big-time speaking engagement. But what does “national” mean? It could mean that the director of said “national” ministry has spoken in three different states in the last year.
The tragedy is, of course, that the membership of these churches loses the joy of being a collection of redeemed sinners and assume the responsibility of maintaining the good name of the organization. Thus, it is not unusual for churches of these kind to be encouraged by their pastors to behave in a way that is a “good testimony,” code for “don’t embarrass Such-and-Such Baptist Church.” The pressure is particularly intense when members or youth groups from these churches are making appearances at other churches, camps, or institutions that are reputedly significant places in the movement. Sadly, this is all part of a fantasy. Ironically, the healthiest churches are often the most unheralded.
Now, immediately some may think that I am trying to boost small churches, trying to argue that small churches are just as significant as big churches. But this is not a big/small issue. In fact, while my argument does not preclude small churches, I will insist that there are a number of larger churches with several thousands of members who fly under the radar and accomplish amazing amounts of life-changing ministry without getting much recognition from larger movements. These churches are generally places where either by conscientious leadership or by Providential circumstances there has been little to no identification with movements.
It is the unfortunate reality of a young leader entering the pulpit of a fundamentalist church, particularly, that he is, nine times out of ten, about to take the helm of a church that is in the grip of movement-speak. I think that it is harmful to the sheep to feel the burden of maintaining a movement that even its leaders have difficulty defining. I have four suggestions for the leader of a church that has been ensnared by the idea that it is a player in the movement.
Love people, not a movement.
A pastor who loves people will be carefree about the consequences of his congregation-love on his personal stake in the movement. Congregations are just like children who learn more from what their parents love than what they say. In the same way, congregations begin to sense what is really important to their leadership and if the leader is very concerned about his place in the movement they will begin to adopt supporting roles, almost instinctively assuming that it is the church’s responsibility to become a platform for their pastor. The objective of promoting the pastor to outsiders becomes so dominate that success and failure begin to be measured by the church’s status and not by biblically important benchmarks. The church that becomes successful at being a platform for its pastor will also become a platform for underlings who may want to ride its coattails into more prominent positions within the movement. Thus, it is not at all uncommon for a church to hire pastors and youth pastors who, not motivated by a profound love for the sheep, are instead motivated by the fact that their job is in the limelight and offers the real potential of recognition for an even better job somewhere else. A pastor needs to convey to his people that he loves them and will die with them if necessary. They need to know that the friendship he enjoys with them is more valuable to his soul than the friendships and acquaintances he has with big names in other places.
Be an equal-opportunity offender.
If the church has been a building block in the movement, the pastor needs to be willing to tell the ugly sister she’s ugly. No movement, political or religious, is very good at self-criticism and no church can tolerate criticism of the movement for which it aspires to be its flagship. The teaching pastor must therefore begin an offensive that is loving and clear. However, he must be an equal-opportunity offender. If all he does is criticize, say, the weaknesses of Independent Baptist Fundamentalism (assuming he’s taken the leadership of a church in that movement), he will begin to worry people who, though they want to learn, do not know how to perceive of themselves except in that light. Their identity is more in the movement than it is in the theologically objective facts of the Body of Christ and therefore they will be troubled to the point of being unable to process what the pastor is trying to teach. Therefore, it become necessary that the critique be generously spread. But it must be equal. All their lives they heard about the bad “them.” The need to hear about the bad “us” too.
Be a strategic complimenter.
It is very difficult for a young pastor with a goal of directing his congregation pastorally to see positive elements of their history. A strategic complimenter knows that carefully timed compliment of the “opponent” (a key figure or idea or movement) is very effective in reassuring the church that he is not a crazed over-reactor prepared to throw the baby out with the bath water. The anti-intellectual, foaming-at-the-mouth KJV-Onlyist may be commended for his zeal. The culotte-wearing activist may have a heart motive for godly living that is to be commended. And so forth.
Reject the rhetoric of fear (movement-speak) and replace it with the language of theologically-faithful assimilation.
I agree in part with some sociologists that claim, albeit simplistically, that most movements are formed and fueled by fear. There must be a “bad them” to differentiate the us from them. Thus, movement-speak becomes very we/them oriented and begins to overpower the real differentiations among people that matter most, the biblical distinctions. Some fundamentalist pastors are terribly afraid to quote John Piper without giving a disclaimer.
Love the Head supremely.
There is only one Body. There is only one Head. If we would love Jesus more than men and more than movements, we would find our assemblies becoming increasingly diverse, eclectic, and uniquely local, unburdened with the obligation of being significant in any movement and unshackled from the hobbling rhetoric of movement-speak. They might know the concept of biblical separation, but it won’t be a mantra. They might know about Reformed soteriology, but they won’t feel like they have to regurgitate talking points. Their concern will be to serve God as a team with the people that He has providentially appointed to their church.
It is tragic, I think, that there are many fundamentalist churches who understand movement-speak more than biblical theology and who are more concerned about their affiliation with the movement than their identity as members under Christ. It explains why mainstream denominations and fundamentalism often end up caught in the same kind of current away from truth and into heresy. They are both committed to their movement.
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