As a kind of liturgy, I stand before our five-year-old church every September and ask a question: "Should we continue to exist as a church for another year?" You can hear pins drop every time.
The entire community—new comers, old comers, elders, parents—are always caught off guard by my question. Surveying the faces, I can see their intuitive responses. I enjoy the awkwardness. They think that something tragic has happened. Is he quitting? Is he rejecting the Trinity? Is there some glaring moral failure we're about to hear?
Of course the answers are always no. But it's that immediate, guttural reaction of uncertainty that I'm after; even if for a moment everyone imagines worst-case scenarios. For me, there's intention and rationale behind simply asking the "should we?" question about our future.
As the pastor, I never want to assume that we should keep our ministry going just to keep it going. I desire Jesus to breathe freshly into us each year. Now, I certainly hope that our folks affirm our existence. I hope that they say yes, we should continue for another year. But it appeals to me to ask if God wants the same thing.
No ministry is permanent. It strikes me that not a single church St. Paul planted claims to be in existence to this day. Even the best churches with the best church planters will eventually close their doors. God is eternal, not his local churches.
Pushing further, I don't think it's unfair to suggest that there are a great number of churches now open that ought to shut down. Likewise, there are many churches that are closed that should not have given up.
Because no ministry is permanent, it's our job to discern if we're to continue for a year in, year out basis. That's why I ask the question. Every year. That deer-in-the-headlights look in the unbelieving eyes of the congregation is, quite honestly, priceless. Instagram priceless.
Being honest, I relish the momentary panic. But not just because of the wide eyes.
I relish it because I believe that leadership is about creating holy uncertainty. Often leaders' relationships with uncertainty come only at times when life forces them to abandon the sure. But in my view, holy uncertainty is too important to leave only to come out in unplanned circumstances.
I know that some pastors will protest here, and in some sense I agree with them. Yes, a leader's job is to lead. "Just leading," creates a problem though. Today's leaders are in the business of leading people in uncertain times. People are more scared than at any time in recent memory. As a result, many of us assume that a necessary requirement for good leadership is certainty in all things. We try to reassure people—and ourselves—that we know the future, we know the right answers, and we know the right path forward. And why not?
This accounts for many churches' exponential growth: they've tapped into an emerging market. They sell and trade the commodity of certainty in uncertain times to uncertain people. With a desperate market, people will buy certainty from just about anyone who sounds convincing. Driven by this, pastors can easily morph into certainty-priests and neglect their divinely given assignment, which is something else entirely. But the lust for certainty has ultimately created a context where we, ourselves, have become the incarnation of truth to our churches.
Certainty-priests = Christ-replacers
I think that this incessant drive arises because our own souls need renovation. In her book, Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership, Ruth Barton writes that one of the keys to being a leader is to re-attend to the life of the soul, and this is no exception. Perhaps unconsciously covering up our own doubts, we pastors can become advice machines. But in doing this, we disciple people to need us more than they need Jesus. As advice machines, we train people to expect us to mediate the truth. We become the Third Adams. Christ-replacers. We become too necessary to the lives of our congregations. This is simultaneously great marketing, horrible leadership, and practical idolatry.