For One Brief Shining Moment


These are the tales of several real churches I have known, either because of my own experiences as a member or through the experiences of friends. Each church shares the same peculiar reality.

Church A—A long-established congregation in a just-outside-the-city suburb, it flourished with the confluence of several pastoral streams that yielded a sum much greater than the parts. With vibrant leadership, plenty of wealthy families, a “somehow it just works” blend of worship styles, and a healthy mix of ages within the congregation, this church had it all. Conservative, Spirit-filled, evangelistic, and biblically solid, it was the place to be for about 15 years. Then, for no apparent reason, most of the leadership resigned in fits and starts over a two year period. The most influential laypeople left for a different church. Then came the inevitable church split. The neighborhood around the church changed, and both slid into a decline from which they have not recovered—and probably never will.

Church B—After the chaos subsided at Church A, it seemed many of its refugees ended up at this church, which was already being christened as the new place to be. Visionary leadership coupled with a hip vibe and a “this ain’t your grandpa’s church” feel combined to bless many and give the city something unique.  Soon, this church garnered both local and national attention.  But when its senior pastor fell ill, powerplays within the leadership played out in messy ways. The vision that had driven the church through 15 years of growth and influence waned when the church got caught up in Church Growth Movement shenanigans. A purge cleaned house of some of the powerplayers, and the church is making some inroads toward regaining its past vision. Sadly, it fell far enough that it has a long road ahead, though it is working hard to recover.

Church C—Once the area’s one true megachurch, this congregation was known throughout the city. For about 15 years, anything of importance to the Christian Church in the city had some input from this congregation. Besides the local kudos, the pastor and his staff were highly respected in the national denomination. I saw 2nd Chapter of Acts, Dallas Holm, John Michael Talbot, and others there during this church’s 15-year heyday. But a sex scandal in the children’s ministry tore the church apart. Now, I know no one who attends there.

Church D—This church thrived because of the large number of families with kids. All the youthful energy created a dynamic center of creativity and eagerness for Christ. Though a mainstream Protestant congregation, the pastors preached the Gospel and loved the people in the seats. Illness forced the senior pastor to step down. The kids in the church grew up and moved away, never to return. The congregation greyed and the neighborhood around the church grew poorer and more needy. Still, for about 15 years the church was a source of energy and Zoe-life.

Church E—Located in the city, this church was as diverse as they come. White, black, prostitute, lawyer, rich, poor—somehow they all got together to focus on Christ. The leadership team unswervingly upheld the Scriptures and ministered powerfully. For about 15 years, this church commanded the respect of many, with pastors from Churches B and C both claiming it as an inspiration for their own ministries. But the senior pastor grew older and funding for the church grew harder to come by. Folks who lived in the suburbs but drove to the city to attend dwindled. The top-notch music ministry fell on hard times when the pastor of music was let go due to budgetary constraints. I’m not sure what has happened to this church, but I know that people don’t mention it like they once did.

Anyone notice the one uniting factor of all these churches that have suffered decline and eclipse?

I call this Camelot Syndrome. For one brief shining moment these churches had everything going for them. Folks would walk in and feel the Spirit dwelling. They knew this was the place to be because people encountered God powerfully and had their lives changed.

And in each case, that moment of glory lasted for about 15 years.

Almost all of these church had been around for decades, but something happened in a 15-year span that took them from good to great. Equally, something bad eventually happened that tarnished Camelot. In these cases, the bad took on the following forms:

1. A loss of dynamic, visionary, Gospel-true leadership, either through resignations, age, political maneuvering, illness, compromise, or a combination of those elements

2. Demographic changes in the neighborhood surrounding the church

3. A failure of young people to return to the church after leaving to pursue a college education or better work opportunities outside the church’s geographic reach

4. A scandal or infighting that split the church

5. A failure to stem the loss of mature laypeople who comprised the backbone of the church

What troubles me is that I see few exceptions to Camelot Syndrome. Influential churches have about 15 years of glory before they run into a mass of issues that precipitate decline. The all-too-brief rays of the sun shone down...What’s even more distressing to me is that it’s not just influential churches who suffer; smaller congregations tend to face this same syndrome.

My question: Can this be prevented? (Crazier addendum: And should it be?)

Further, I would like to know if it’s possible to restore a church’s glory once tarnish taints Camelot. I see Church B striving to avoid becoming an also-ran, but the list of churches that have successfully fought against entropy and won seems to me to be vanishingly small.

I wonder also what must be done to avoid pinning too much of a church’s success to dynamic leadership. In almost every case, the influential leader(s) in my church examples handed the ministry to less-effective folks or to those who were unable to find their own footing before the lifeblood of their church had bled away to some other congregation.

Is the loss of the cream of the laypeople crop inevitable? How can churches keep their top laypeople during transitions, thus avoiding decline?

Lastly, how does a church keep its young people and retain its relevance in light of changing demographics within its surrounding neighborhood?

Your thoughts are welcome. Please leave a comment.

From the Mental Vine


I’ve got several topics in me that I may never get out in full, so I’m going to post some abbreviated versions today rather than let them rot on the mental vine.

Christian Ghettos

In the wake of the International Christian Retail Show (which, by the name alone, sounds like something Jesus would’ve driven out of the Temple with a whip of His own making), several bloggers have given their impressions of the event.

What amazes me in the aftermath is the ghetto mentality on display in those recaps. The charismatics ooh and aah over the charismatic books and authors, the Reformed over their camp’s books and authors, the Baptists over theirs—and on and on.

When I was at Wheaton College, I tried with all my might to convince some of those young whippersnappers to bust out of their denominational ghettos and see how the rest of Christianity lives. It won’t kill the Episcopalian to attend an Assemblies of God service. The Free Will Baptist won’t spontaneously combust by checking out what the high-church Presbyterians are doing. The Covenant Church fellow might see how his counterpart in the Ukranian Orthodox Church worships and come away renewed.

But no, such a request bordered on heresy. Or crossed it, depending on how much starch one had in one’s undies. And back in the early ’90s when I attended, Wheaton could’ve passed for a starch factory.

To see that same paranoia from adults at the ICRS just drives me nuts. Folks, break out of the ghetto! Pick up a book favored by some other denomination and—before you start with the criticism—see if God speaks at all from within the pages. Because I believe that people who dwell in a ghetto never experience the beauty of all God has laid out for us. You can still love your particular denomination, but bring in something precious from elsewhere and watch how God will breathe life back into your ghetto. It’ll change your life and the lives of those around you, I promise.

Power Pop

Being a musician, I deeply appreciate a well-turned song. I’m an extreme sucker for power pop done well. Think huge hooks, anthemic themes, and suitability for cruising the carefree highway with the top down and the volume cranked up.

I don’t follow any contemporary Christian music groups anymore. Most of my faves are relics from the ’80s and early ’90s. I’ve bought one freshly-released Christian music CD in the last five years.

But I’ve got to say this: Newsboys possess this remarkable ability to totally nail power pop. Repeatedly. In a variety of styles. Like clockwork. That’s a rare skill.

The other day while running errands, I turned on the radio and heard this techno instrumental break that reminded me immediately of New Order (not the kind of music one hears on Christian radio) and I said right there, “Newsboys. Must be a new single.” And it was: “Something Beautiful.”

The synth part on the chorus? Simple to the point of stupidity, but absolutely pure genius. (Reminds me a bit of the lead guitar line in The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.”) I also love the abbreviated-bridge lyric construction in the verses. That’s the kind of chance too few artists take in Christian music today. As a drummer, I’m repeatedly bored to tears by the same beat used in song after song on Christian radio, but to hear a disco drum machine beat—ah, refreshing in a way some may never understand.

I dare you not to get up and dance to “Something Beautiful.” I just love a song filled with life, don’t you? What are your favorites?

And Now For Something Completely Different—And Heartbreakingly Sad

I don’t know why, but I have a total fascination with vanishings. Individuals, planes, boats, villages, and troops that go missing capture my attention. I read about a classic vanishing like the crew of the Mary Celeste and I’m riveted. I’ve always been a “What If?” kind of person, and vanishings afford tons of what ifs. When I see missing person posters, I can’t help myself, I have to read them. These are people’s husbands, wives, daughters and sons. They’re neighbors, friends. And they’re gone. Just gone.

Most end in tragedy. You read enough outcomes and you understand why women out alone cast that furtive, over-the-shoulder glance, eyes wide and frightened. I see too many of those stories anymore. And the number of blogs dedicated to someone gone missing keeps growing.

Mary Byrne Smith, pastor’s wife, kindergarten teacher, and mother of two, vanished from a Beth Moore conference back in March. A few days ago, they found her.

But hers isn’t the story of a shallow grave in a remote forest. No, her story is far more tragic. Though I’m not a sensationalist, I heartily encourage you to read it.

I’m not here to judge Mary Smith. What I’m here to judge is the system we Americans uphold that creates people like her. I see her smiling face in that FoxNews update and I wonder how it all went wrong.

Six weeks ago, I posted some sobering stats concerning ministers and their wives. Our inability to accept them as fellow laborers for Christ creates pressures few of us outside the ministry understand.

I remember last year when I first heard of the Winkler case in Tennessee. Minister’s wife shoots him dead and flees with her daughters. It’s terrible, but I thought what many thought: molestation. Turns out the reason was check kiting and money scams. And not by the minister.

I hate this trend. And I do think it’s a trend. I fully understand that people sin, and pastor’s wives are people, too. But something’s wrong and we in the Church need to wake up and find a way to fix what appears to be an increasingly dire situation in the homes of many families in the ministry.

Please pray for your pastor and his family. They need our covering.

Have a blessed weekend.

The Pastor: Not One of Us


Blood on the collar?Does the title of this post bother you? It bothers me.

I’ve known pastors in my life who crashed and burned. They flamed-out, transgressed, or a combination of both. In each case, he faded into the ether like some double-agent, either by choice or by his ex-congregation expunging his name like he’d never been in the pulpit.

No vulture-like obsession with the carrion once known as Ted Haggard washed over me, but reports that he’s hightailed it out of Colorado Springs still caught my eye. Made me shake my head, too, but not for the reasons one might think. Everywhere one looks in Evangelicalism, the story’s the same: pastor falls, congegation responds by acting like he never existed, and he’s out of town on the next red-eye to Obscurity.

Time and again the unintended message we Evangelicals send to the world shows that we don’t truly bury our wounded, as goes the common in-joke. Instead, we act is if they were never part of us to begin with. “Our wounded? No, someone else’s wounded.”

You encounter a lot of handwringing in some sectors of the American Church from those upset at a lack of church discipline. Why is it then that this group typically consists of those who fire their fallen pastor, kick him while he’s down, and run him out of town on a rail? They decry the fact the Church can’t seem to discipline, but is it “discipline” for them to toss their pastor’s carcass on the burn pile and wipe their hands clean of the whole mess? What kind of church discipline is that?

The way we operate in American Evangelicalism forces our pastors into a no-man’s land of fellowship. We may crow about our renowned community, our loving fellowship, and on and on, but if we were honest with ourselves we’d have to admit that holds true for everyone BUT the pastor. He’s different. He’s not truly one of us.

Part of the problem comes from our shocking inability to raise up pastors within our own congregations. I would venture to guess that at least 90 percent of churches are pastored by the product of some other church’s educational system. He didn’t grow up in the church he pastors. Has no real familial ties to the church, either. He’s already an outsider from the second he takes the call. This disconnection of history and relationship only further aggravates the tendency to affix him to the pyre the second a problem arises.

In some churches, we’ve also developed this wacky idea that the pastor is Wholly Other, like some enlightened paraclete who transcended to a lofty plane inhabited by the rarefied likes of Paul, Moses, Peter, and Elijah. His decision to leave Abraham’s Bosom to visit us poor mortals is almost shocking in its humble bravura. So when he finally stumbles like a normal human being, we—like some cannibal tribe no longer impressed by our white-fleshed gods who descended to us out of the belly of a metal bird—cook the poor sucker and eat him.

But any quick perusal of the New Testament makes it pretty clear that the Lord Jesus wanted his Church to be brothers, not lords over each other. The pastor is not first among equals; we’ve made the mistake of equating him with Christ Himself. No, the pastor’s a fallen human just like you and just like me.

In that case, why is our discipline for pastors so radically different from what we mete out to others in our congregations?

Perhaps we need an adjustment of how we view pastors. Not that we hold them to some slack standard, but that our dedication to restoration match our swiftness to discipline.

Restore a fallen pastor? What a novel idea! I’d love to see it happen. In truth, I’ve never seen it happen. I’ve seen pastors blackballed from their denominations, but I’ve never truly witnessed one restored to his own congregation.

It shouldn’t be that rare. In fact, it should be the norm—at least the way I read the Scriptures.

As long as we’ve got this pedestal we put Church leaders on, we’ll continue to see assaults on the pedestal and the persons atop it. What happens when the whole thing comes crashing down should be something we address in a healing community. Instead, we heat up the tar and feathers. No wonder these guys vanish like smoke.

Sure, once in a while a real con artist dons a clerical collar, but I suspect that most guys who get into the ministry do so because they genuinely love the Lord and love other people. If all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, then there’s not a guy preaching today who’s not guilty of something. If we blackballed them all, we wouldn’t have a Church. Still, people line up to cast the first stone…

In the end, the messages we send to those in the pews when we run guys off like this should cause us some real soul-searching. I could post on those messages for the next week, but I’ll leave you to think about the between-the-lines preaching we do to the impressionable in cases like these.

Oh, well, why not just one: Don’t you ever mess up or we’ll treat you like toxic waste, too. Doesn’t sound very Christ-like, does it?

I’d love to see a Church that treats pastors as fellow laborers and saints, not grand exalted poobahs. A Church that deals wisely with a pastor’s sin, rather than marking him like Cain before he’s driven off into the wilderness. But to get there, we need a total paradigm shift in how we view THE MINISTRY or else we’ll perpetually fall into the mode of shooting first and asking questions later.