When Christian “Answers” Are Too Simplistic


Many Christians are talking about what it means to be radical for Jesus. You’re either caught in the hellbound grip of the comfortable American Dream, or you give it all up to follow the Lord and therefore gain eternal life as a true disciple.

Alex and Bree are a young couple who read David Platt’s book Radical and decided they could no longer live the complacent hipster lifestyle they’d adopted. They sold their townhouse, quit their jobs as a videogame designer and a florist, and moved to Uganda, where they now serve as missionaries, working in an orphanage.

Rob and Tiffani, on the other hand, go to the same church as Alex and Bree once did. Tiffani works as a paralegal but is saving money to attend law school one day. After work, she holds down a second job as a waitress at an upscale restaurant, where Rob is one of the cooks and has a small vested interest in the restaurant as a limited partner. Both spend most of their day working, collapsing into bed at 10 p.m. each night. Neither has much time for church activities, but they are there in the seats every Sunday morning.

Alex and Bree versus Rob and Tiffani. Which couple is truly radical for Jesus?

What if you knew that Rob and Tiffani are the major dollar donors that make it possible for Alex and Bree to stay in Uganda? What if you knew that Tiffani works her second job solely to ensure that money keeps going to Alex and Bree?

Who is radical for Jesus now?

I don’t know about you, but I’m bored with facile arguments from within the Christian community. Most of the situations we set up to illustrate “Bible truths” are so disconnected from most people’s lives as to be utterly useless. No one can argue against them because they are so simplistic and obvious.

But people’s lives are not so easily measured. And what folks do with those lives is more complex than the simplistic bins we want to file them in.

I think that one reason that Christianity is suffering some losses in the United States is that smart people can see through the oversimplifications we sometimes hold out as “truth” on Sunday mornings. We attempt to take Scripture and shoehorn it into our perception of “genuine Christian living” only to find out that result leaves something to be desired—at least it does for those folks who think hard about implications.

Einstein: Duh!The problem is that not enough Christian leaders think about implications. Doesn’t matter what the topic is, they stay on the surface and then try to sell their biblical solution as the only way.

In the case of Rob and Tiffani, I think a lot of Christian leaders who ascribe to the new radicalism would condemn them  as not being radical enough. But what those leaders never consider is how folks like Rob and Tiffani are the ones who make it possible for others to pursue the kind of radical faith that the leaders hold up as necessary. Such is true in a lot of cases. People living a supposedly “self-centered, American Dream life” wind up funding big chunks of ministry because of the fact they ARE living according to the system. Take away the Robs and Tiffanis of the world, and you get a lot fewer Alexes and Brees as a result.

It’s not just that illustration I raise, either. Thousands of other cases exist that don’t fit our facile arguments of what genuine discipleship and commitment look like in real life.

More than ever, we need Christian leaders who go deeper. Not just deeper in Jesus, but deeper into the complex problems that face modern America.

Because I have to say that we are doing a terrible job communicating the essence of real discipleship to real people. Our answers are too simpleminded and not well considered. Living for Jesus doesn’t just mean handing out food to the homeless. Sometimes it means tackling entire systems of thought and redeeming them in Jesus name. Sadly, because we avoid the tougher problems in favor of the easy ones, our efforts are a figurative Band-Aid on a severed limb, and we pat ourselves on the back for what we label “radical ministry.”

Church, we have to do better. And doing better is going to ask more of us. And what is asked of us is going to be more complex than what we’re hearing from the pulpit on Sundays IF Christian leaders start examining what goes on beneath the veneer of real discipleship.

What is the radical Christian life? It’s not always the Alex and Bree response. Sometimes, it’s asking the harder question and then doing something about it.

Faithful in Dissent: How the Insights of Critics Can Bless a Church


I posted a recent reply to the head of Lifeway, Thomas Rainer, and his post “Five Types of Critics in the Church.” And over at The Assembling of the Church, Alan Knox posted more on this issue in his “Dissension, Criticism, and the Church.”

It’s funny how memes spread through the Godblogosphere, because I wanted to write more about dissent in the Church. I hope to write about disunity in the near future, but for now my focus is more on understanding how vital dissent can be in bettering the way we practice the Faith in our assemblies.

One of my criticisms of the Rainer post was his call to label critics by types. My experience as a Christian of 35+ years is that labels are most often used to crush ideas and the people who form them. This is to our shame as the Body of Christ. Iron sharpens ironWhile labels are not inherently bad, how we use them is less than stellar. In this post, I use some labels to categorize people. My intention is not to crush those people or demean their input but to make leaders aware of which dissenters can be most valuable to a church. While I think that all labels have weaknesses, my hope is that those who read this will be more aware of the types of people found in a church and what each of those types brings to the overall expression of Christ in our midst.

My hope in writing this is to identify not only types of dissenters but how they can bless a church with their insights. Good leaders recognize dissent as a gift, especially if it corrects actions that proceed from blind spots. We are differently gifted by the Lord for a reason. It is why we are not to create hierarchies of authority within churches. Failure to see fellow Christians as equal brethren before the Lord, with each person’s gifts and insights needed for the proper functioning of the Church, is one of the greatest lacks in Evangelicalism today. For this reason, dissenters must be considered a blessing rather than a burden.

From my own experiences, here are the types of dissenters and why they are vital for a healthy church:

1. The Denominational Outsiders

People who grew up in a different society or culture are often our most insightful critics. Within a church, those with a different denominational background see ways in which their new denomination entrenches itself in habits that may impede progress. While these outsiders have their own cultural blind spots, what they see in us is often what goes most ignored because we have taken that trait for granted or have missed how we underestimate its effects on our behavior.

People who come into a denomination from another denomination often get downgraded because they are not a “lifer.” This is especially true in relation to the level of leader downgrading them. The upper echelons of some denominations resemble fraternity houses more than anything, with the Baptists as Sigma Nu, the Assemblies of God as Alpha Tau Omega, and the Catholics as Animal House (as the Protestants see them).

Wise leaders see beyond divided loyalties, though. Because each denomination has its strengths and weaknesses, denominational outsider—the Lutheran in the Nazarene church, the Reformed in the charismatic church, etc.—has a unique previous experience that may go far in exposing denominational weaknesses and helping to turn them into strengths.

Sadly, what often happens in churches is that those people who come into a church as denominational outsiders are sometimes treated as tainted by their theological differentness. They supposedly have not had a “pure” experience, so their voices are given second-class citizen status within a church beholden to its denominational roots. To the denominational outsider, this “party crasher” label hurts, especially when it is used to prevent them from having a say in the progress of the church, both locally and at the denominational level.

We still read de Toqueville today because the Frenchman visited a young America, correctly took its pulse, and offered the world astute insights into the growing nation that we natives may have overlooked. Let that be our same standard with those who come into our denominational churches from a different background and show us for who we truly are, both good and bad.

2. The Visionaries

Every church has a subset of people who are “out there.” No group of people bothers entrenched church leaders more than these folks. Why? Because visionaries have a tendency to reveal the smallness of the vision of those leaders. When visionaries are not on leadership, this makes for considerable dissension in a church because the visionaries often are way ahead of the leaders. Visionaries are natural idea sharers, too, and in that sharing may cause others to see nonvisionary leaders as lacking. Obviously, this comes off as threatening. More often than not, deficient leaders combat this by labeling visionaries with every demeaning label possible so as to hurt their reputation among the people with whom those visionaries share their ideas.

In contrast, wise leaders recognize the need to keep visionaries close rather than pushing them away. The old aphorism is that the Church is just one generation away from extinction, and this makes the visionary a valuable asset. Seeing what lies ahead is a useful gift. Leaders who keep visionaries close and respect their vision can lead a church around future pitfalls, compensate for trends in culture, and anticipate needs that will keep the church always proactive rather than reactive.

But this requires great humility in leaders who are not themselves gifted in this way. A leader with an administrative gift must be satisfied with his gift and not fall into jealousy because someone else is more gifted in leading into the future, especially if that visionary is just an average Joe in the pew. In America, we tend to love our visionaries just a wee bit too much and overemphasize their usefulness, which demeans other types of giftings. Visionaries and nonvisionary leaders must recognize this and temper the tendency everyone has to make more of vision than should be allowed. That said, stifling visionaries remains one of our greatest lacks in the American Church.

3. The New Folks

One of the pathetic truths of American Christianity is that we shuffle around our people rather than making new disciples. Churches tend to grow by feeding off the remains of dead or dying churches, and while some leaders trumpet their methods in bestselling church growth books, vultures were considered unclean in the Old Testament for a reason.

Despite this problem, church leaders can use the experiences of people new to their church as an object lesson in how to keep their own church out of the dead pile.

Because the new folks are often basking in the glory of their newfound church home while breathing a collective sigh of relief over the the toxic church mess they left behind, they are not often ones to immediately create dissent in their new home. Wise leaders understand that these folks left because of dissent and that these folks’ reason for leaving can serve as a cautionary tale on what NOT to do. Wise leaders tap this knowledge early and store it away for future reference.

The other reality about new folks is that whatever caused them to leave their old church likely still simmers inside them. This makes them highly alert to similar problems in their new church, especially after they have been there for some time. If gossipy people caused them to leave their old church, seeing in time that the their new one suffers from the same problem can be useful to a wise leader. In this way, new folks can serve as a canary in the coal mine because they are already sensitive to the problem that caused them to leave their previous church. Time can heal some wounds, but it also makes some more obvious, especially once the honeymoon is over for new folks. Wise leaders can use this previous dissent as a way to stem future dissent and the possibility that the new folks instead will become ex-folks because the old wound opened once more.

Like the Denominational Outsider, new folks may bring fresh eyes to a church and see what longtimers miss. What works against the new folks is their newness. Should they dissent early on, some leaders may view them as perpetual grumblers. Wise leaders should always give the benefit of the doubt here. However, more than one set of new folks has come to a church, gotten acclimated, and then heard it announced by leaders that the church is going to pursue the same “new idea” that the new folks saw kill their old church. For this reason, it pays to listen to the new folks. A wise leader may even proactively seek them out for feedback on proposed changes, especially if the leaders connected well with the new folks and recall that proposed changes are similar to what caused the new folks to leave their old church.

4. The Grizzled Veterans

Its funny how familiarity can breed contempt. In some churches, should a longtimer dissent, that complaint may be brushed off. Yet longtimers have the benefit of history. They know the people in the church. Because many churches hire their church leaders from outside the congregation (a mistake, as I see it), those outside leaders often don’t understand the entrenched dynamics within a church. Grizzled veterans do.

Oddly, these veterans can be a lot like New Folks. Both are often the first to sense that something  has gone wrong. The new program is stumbling, and the longtimer sees the failure ahead, even if the leaders don’t. Again, this is canary in a coal mine wisdom.

Grizzled veterans, especially if they are among the 20 percent who do 80 percent of the church’s work, are often the first to understand a potential pitfall. When a grizzled veteran dissents, wise leaders don’t immediately chalk up that dissent to being stuck in one’s ways. More than one church has been destroyed when leaders ignored the complaint of longtimers and keep going down a destructive path.

Grizzled veterans don’t have to be elderly either. The 30-something who grew up in the church may be as experienced as the 70-year-old who first arrived when he was 40. Age alone does not a grizzled veteran make. That said, the elderly may be more discerning, especially if they are also Denominational Outsiders.

Because they have cachet by virtue of their faithfulness to a church, grizzled veterans MUST be treated tactfully and graciously by church leaders. Mishandling a longtimer’s dissent can create an avalanche, especially if that longtimer feels slighted and leaves the church. The death knell for some churches begins when a handful of longtimers go off in search of greener pastures.

5. The Young Adults

You can’t be a church leader today and not know about the exodus of the 18-35 age group. One of the reasons for the exodus is that many church leaders looked at their own youth, considered their own callowness at that age, and wrote off young adults as naive.

But what was then is not the same as what is now. The young people of today are far less naive than we were. They deal with issues we didn’t. They have experience we didn’t get until we were out of that 18-35 demographic. For that reason, they cannot be written off so easily when they dissent.

That is what has happened in many cases, though, and the young adults most sensitive to the inauthentic B.S. some older church leaders consider “The Next New Thing” have fled the Church because no one gave credence to their dissent.

Church leaders can’t be blamed entirely, however. Many young adults dropped out of church because they got sick of participating in their parents’ hypocritical, consumeristic lifestyles. Wise leaders understand this and direct their church into pathways that confront that hypocrisy and adverse societal conformity. If done correctly and with tact, leaders can see the upraised middle finger of youth as a warning and address it, keeping that 18-35 group within the fold.

6. The Iconoclastic Contrarians

Someone HAS to be different. Someone MUST follow the oddball idea and harebrained scheme.

In the history of the Christian Church, if one pays close attention, one will find that it has been the iconoclastic contrarians who went down in history as the saints of old. In their era, they were the weirdos. Now they hold a place of honor in the pantheon of great Christians.

Wise leaders know they may never understand the iconoclastic contrarians—and that’s OK. No one may, but that does not mean that their dissent has no value. In fact, it may have the most value of all. And this is a critical challenge to wise leaders because they won’t get it—at least not in the moment.

One of the major lacks in church leaders today is an open willingness to consider right away if a dissenter has a valid point. We don’t like dissent, and yet the history of God’s people is filled with one dissenter after another. The majority of scouts gave the leaders of the Hebrews a fear-filled report of how the promised land appeared to them. Joshua and Caleb dissented in the great, great minority. Theirs was the iconclastic contrarian report. They even agreed with the description of the promised land, but they saw what it meant through the eyes of the Lord and not through that of men. We know which report God honored.

Dealing with iconoclastic contrarians is a rough job for a church leader. Even wise ones will fail when dealing with such folks. Humility above all is called for, as is a good memory. The best a wise leader might do in this case is remember what the contrarian said and continue to take it before the Lord.

7. The Gross Sinners

Every church has a few “gross sinners,” those people with a “history.” As much as we talk about grace and redemption, we have long memories. While we may say we value the gross sinner’s dissent, what they did so long ago was so awful, our trust remains iffy.

Some churches do a better job than others with the amount of grace they offer the gross sinner. Some forget the gross sinners’ past sins more readily. But when gross sinners dissent, all the grace and forgetfulness wind up themselves forgotten. How good is the gross sinners’ dissent anyway? We all know what they did so long ago, right? What if this dissent is nothing more than the wicked fruit of that error from so long ago?

We don’t ask these question, do we? Of course we do. Wise leaders recognize their own human failings when it comes to fully forgiving those whom the Lord has forgiven entirely.

If anything, the gross sinners’ dissent often reflects their own recognition of their past. People who made grave mistakes remember how they made them. For this reason, a wise leader should heed the cautions of those of us who are most deeply scarred by failure. Though it may be true that gross sinners overcompensate in dissent because of sensitivity to their past, their concern should never be written off in full. Experience matters, even if painful, and perhaps especially so. God does not waste anyone’s pain, and knowledge of past mistakes can serve as a powerful lesson of what NOT to do.

Sadly, our churches today have too many leaders who privately question their leadership skills and subsequently operate out of a defensive position whenever dissent arises. More than at any time in the history of the Church, great humility is needed from all of us, leaders or not. Dissent can be valuable and can even save a church from death if the voices of dissenters are allowed to teach us. We are too often blind to our own failings, and this is why God makes each of us of invaluable worth to the Body of Christ. No matter the kind of dissenter one might be, leaders who are humble and who rest in God for their self-esteem can make valuable use of the wisdom of those who disagree with them or who provide through dissent wisdom they themselves lack.

In short, if we Christians were more willing to listen to dissent without taking it as a personal assault on us or our churches, perhaps we could better fulfill the mission of the Church before it is too late.

A Response to “Five Types of Critics in the Church”


Light in a dark churchOver at Challies.com, Tim posted a link in his A La Carte section of Oct. 1 to a post by the head of Lifeway, Thom Rainer, “Five Types of Critics in the Church.” As they say on the Interwebs, read the whole thing (hey, it’s short too!).

Rainer posits his five types of people who criticize church leaders:

  • The constructive critic
  • The negligent critic
  • The hurt critic
  • The sinful critic
  • The self-serving critic

He then adds:

“…make every attempt to discern the type of critic with whom you are dealing. In many cases, the criticisms will benefit your life and ministry. In other cases, you may have the opportunity to deal with the critic in a pastoral and redemptive way.”

The more I pondered the article, especially the list of five critics and what Rainer says about them, the more critical of the article I became. Ironic, eh? It seemed to me the article brought into focus a big issue in the contemporary American Church.

Reflecting on what Rainer wrote about the five critics (you did read the article, right?), what came through more than anything is the chasm that separates paid, professional ministers from “the laity.” The descriptions of the critics seemed to have a built-in class distinction, as if the people in the seats or those “in support” don’t have much right to criticize what happens in a church or parachurch ministry. By listing five types of critics and then telling leaders it’s essential to discern which they are dealing with, Rainer betrays a general lack of connection with what is really going on in the lives of “the laity” and enforces a classification system that further insulates leadership from criticism. Nothing puts uppity, troublesome people in their place like a label.  And though Rainer tries to temper this by saying that criticism can be good for one’s ministry, it seems tacked on and “Christianized.”

Here is my experience…

I have noted many times on this blog that what many people interpret as sin, stupidity, and opposition is nothing more than people just trying to get by in life. My experience is that the vast majority of people are desperate for some kind of stability, a foundation that will keep them going through the motions one more day. Most of what we don’t like in other people’s lives is their coping mechanism in operation.

We live in turbulent times. People feel powerless and angry. Many are losing control of their lives and fear acceleration of that loss. Mental illness is an epidemic, with the number of people on psychoactive drugs at the pandemic stage.

In the middle of this stands the Church. That Church says, “Jesus is the Rock,” and claims to be a port in the storm of life. People believe that too.

Criticism doesn’t erupt in a vacuum. Most people become critical when change happens (or when it should happen but doesn’t).

When I see criticism building in a church, it is often because leaders tinkered with aspects of church life that were a comfort to distressed people. Those people saw their respite toyed with and it created further stress in their lives.

More than anything, church leaders today do not take into adequate account how change affects the flock. Those leaders get into their heads that they want to adopt the latest hotness even when people are perfectly fine with the way things are. Leaders think of “Behold, I am doing a new thing” as a verse that gives imprimatur to every whim of change.

Fact is, this is highly disruptive to folks who see the Church as their last refuge of peace and tradition in a world changing far too quickly, and often for the worse. Church leaders who force change—and often do so rapidly so as to keep up with whatever is new and trendy in church programming and growth theories—are often breeding their own critics.

What bothers me about the Rainer article is that leaders create this disruption and then don’t want to be bothered by the fallout. Worse, when people feel threatened by changes, they end up having to face a leader who has been told that threatened people must be labeled by the leader with one of five types of critic tags. I find this advice startling in its superiority, perpetuating the “touch not the Lord’s anointed” mentality Christians often face in their leaders.

Of the five types of critics Rainer sketches, I honestly believe that most people are constructive critics with some level of self-serving. When church leaders disrupt the safety people feel in the normalcy of their church life, those people lose a valuable sense of personal stability, so of course there is a self-serving aspect to their frustrations. How could it be otherwise? Most people won’t come forward unless they feel some personal attachment to the criticism they risk sharing.

And it is a risk. What gets “laity” disenfranchised faster than saying, “Um, Pastor, should we really be doing this?”

Five types of critics make it sound as if the majority of criticism is wrong, what with “constructive” seeming as if it comprises only 20 percent of all criticism. I disagree. Most people are constructive because they love their church and really don’t want to see it run onto the rocks that have destroyed so many other cherished institutions in life, the wreckage of which is all around people and ever obvious, fostering much of the ill-ease they feel about life in the 2010s. That many churches ARE hurtling toward the rocks because of leaders who DON’T listen to the criticisms of “laity” is one of the epidemics of our age.

As a counter to Rainer, I offer that leaders need to lose the labels. We don’t need to see a label on a type of criticism; we need leaders who recognize that we may be feeling disrupted by something that has happened in or to the church.

Also, leaders, discern the times. People are looking for safety. Messing with what people find safe is a recipe for generating frustration, which leads to criticism. Realize, too, that critics are not stupid, nor are they attempting to halt everything that can be good about change. Most are asking is for greater temperance in moving forward and a recognition that change for change sake has wrecked more than one solid church. Many are frustrated with having yet more lack of input in yet one more aspect of life.

To the leaders I ask that you be more wary of the new than you are of your critics. Today’s new and hot is tomorrow’s old and busted, and not every “vision” proves to be of the Lord. And sometimes, the “laity” understands this better than you do.