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Leadership Journal

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More than a Message

More than a Message

Our churches need to see us live out the gospel, not just talk about it.

Early one morning, my firstborn, Abby, came stumbling out of her room in a predawn stupor. She caught me at the kitchen table enjoying some coffee and solitude.

"What are you doing, Daddy?"

"Spending time with Jesus," I said.

I pulled her onto my lap, showed her my Bible and the journal where I record my thoughts and prayers. In a minute she was on her way back to bed, and I didn't think much more about the encounter.

Several weeks later I saw light coming from under her door. I knocked gently and asked, "What are you doing, Sweetie?" Abby was lying on the floor with her children's Bible open, holding a pen over some note paper. She looked up and replied in a matter-of-fact tone, "Spending time with Jesus."

Pastoring, I'm learning, is a lot like parenting. To a large extent, you get what you are.

While I believe what we say is crucial, I am convinced that nothing impacts people more deeply than an embodied gospel message. This is especially true as we enter a more secular, even post-Christian era. It is the weight of our actions rather than our words which will define us as leaders. If our churches are not transformational places structured around embodying the gospel, it will be nearly impossible to gain a hearing for our faith.

Living examples

As I read the Pastoral Epistles I am struck by how frequently Paul connects Timothy's spiritual transformation to the health and growth of those Timothy leads. This passage is typical:

"Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity …. so that everyone may see your progress. Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers" (1 Tim 4:12-16, emphasis mine).

"Set an example," Paul says, in, well, everything. How we speak, behave, our love for others, our love for God, the relative purity of our hearts—in all these things we are to set an example for those we lead.

"… so that everyone may see your progress." Could it be that my church needs to see my progress? Maybe they not only need a pastor who can teach them about spiritual formation, but one who will model it as well.

For better or worse, people are following my example as I, by the grace of God, try to follow the example of Christ.

"Watch your life and your doctrine." Being orthodox, holding sound theology, getting the gospel right, all necessary, but according to Paul, this is not enough. It has to be both life and doctrine. Sound doctrine will get us only so far if it isn't also lived out.

This seems to be the basis by which Paul can make audacious statements like these: "Follow my example as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Cor. 11:1), "Join together in following my example … you have us as a model" (Phil. 3:17), and "Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me, put it into practice" (Phil. 4:9). To Timothy he can write, "You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose," because Timothy does, in fact, know these things (2 Tim. 3:10-11). Paul has intentionally lived and led in a way that allowed Timothy and others to see.

In these statements I see two truths that shaped Paul's leadership, and need to shape ours, too.

First, in the midst of proclaiming his imperfections, Paul is pursuing a life of apprenticeship to Jesus. He is walking the same path of spiritual transformation that he longs to witness in those he leads.

Second, Paul is not shy about letting those he leads see and benefit from his own efforts in spiritual formation.

I see how this principle applies in my own ministry. It is no coincidence that my church's strengths and weaknesses mirror my own. Modeling happens constantly. For better or worse, people are following my example as I, by the grace of God, try to follow the example of Christ.

So here are some questions I am asking myself these days.

Am I pursuing transformation through the spiritual disciplines?

Henri Nouwen sagely observed, "It is not enough for the church leaders of the future to be moral people, well trained, eager to help their fellow humans, and able to respond creatively to the burning issues of their time …. The central question is, are the leaders of the future truly men and women of God?"

More important than the skillset we bring to our role is the life that we live with Jesus. As pastors we need to ask ourselves, "Am I pursuing a vibrant devotional life? Do I engage the Scriptures devotionally and not just for sermon prep? Do I practice Sabbath? Solitude? Do I have a spiritual director or mentor?

Our churches need to hear which disciplines we consider essential to our own growth. It's also crucial they hear about our challenges, that we too have seasons of dryness, to know that our minds wander during prayer.

Most important, we need to ask ourselves whether or not we are being transformed. Am I becoming more Christlike, or merely legalistic? We want our congregants to spend time with God consistently, but more than that we want them to learn how to utilize the disciplines as vehicles for entering into the transforming presence of Jesus. We want to encourage people to fall in love with God and others, not fall into traps of legalism.

It's important that, like Paul, we let people see our journeys. Without pretense or pride, we must give them opportunities to see us pursuing spiritual maturity.

Practicing the spiritual disciplines comes relatively easy for me, but I confess I am still learning how to talk about it with my church. When I share about my own practices, people always seem to receive it with interest and gratitude. Yet often I worry that I come across as self-congratulatory or prideful when I share details about my spiritual life. Slowly, I'm learning how to talk about my positive and negative experiences with the spiritual disciplines in ways that are natural for me and helpful for others. At times it is uncomfortable, but I know my church needs this if they are to put these things into practice themselves.

Am I pursuing genuine friendship with those who are far from God?

One of my seminary professors was at a pastors' conference where he overheard a group of church planters complaining that their congregants never brought friends to church. My professor listened for a few minutes and then asked, "How many friends have each of you brought to church in the last six months?" No one said a word. Then, quoting Jesus, he said, "Everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher."

For too many pastors, being an evangelist means giving an invitation while every head is bowed and every eye is closed, rather than prayerfully engaging in genuine friendship with the unchurched people God has placed in their lives.

We need to ask ourselves, "Do we have unchurched friends? When God brings these friends into our lives, do we pray faithfully for them? Do we look for ways to live out the gospel with them? Do we share the love and grace of Christ, not just when we preach, but face-to-face, the way we want our congregants to?"

I find this intimidating. Like many pastors, I don't have the gift of evangelism. Yet I, like Timothy, am still called to "do the work of an evangelist." Ironically, I'm learning that my lack of giftedness in this area can actually help me lead, as most of those in my church don't have the gift of evangelism either.

For too many pastors, being an evangelist means an invitation while every head is bowed and every eye is closed, rather than friendship with unchurched people.

We need to be transparent about our evangelism missteps. This allows our people to learn from our mistakes and deal with their own fear in this area. Given that I am a virtual black belt when it comes to evangelism failure, I am well-equipped to lead my church to live evangelistically. That is, of course, if I myself am faithful enough to live evangelistically and courageous enough to talk freely about my failures.

On the other hand, when my modest evangelism efforts are successful, I'm amazed by the impact it has on my church. When a church member meets a new person at worship or an event and learns that the guest was invited by me, something happens. If we baptize a person and I'm part of their testimony, it does not go unnoticed. I see it on their faces—the church feels encouraged, empowered, and all at once knows that this aspect of the gospel is not just a practice to which we pay lip service. It truly matters.

It is a hard truth, but I'm learning that when it comes to evangelism, our churches will not grow beyond what we are willing to practice ourselves.

Do I model team ministry or act out of personal ambition?

In Renovation of the Church, Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken deal head-on with what they call "perhaps the most prevalent but least talked about pastoral sin"—personal ambition. "For some reason Christian leaders are more candid about sexual lust than ambition," they write. "Yet it doesn't take a supernatural gift of discernment to know that ambition is there in embarrassing abundance."

People have a strong tendency to put pastors on a pedestal. And as pastors we face the strong temptation to let them do it. The popular image of the pastor as a sort of lone, heroic figure is deeply embedded in the Christian imagination, and many of us would have to confess deriving too much satisfaction from the admiration people have for the role.

One way to resist this temptation is to spread the work around. In our church we encourage people to serve in teams whenever possible. It is the very rare role that can be filled by only one person, we tell them, and we need to raise those with similar gifts so we can serve together. This has been a healthy approach to empowering people for service, but it occurred to me that there was one person for whom this was particularly difficult: me.

When I realized I was having difficulty sharing ministry tasks, I had to ask myself some tough questions. Is my church learning from me that ministry is something done in community, or that it is essentially a series of one-man shows? Am I by my actions undermining the message that everyone should have an opportunity to use their gifts? That personal ambition trumps shared ministry accomplishment?

One of the ways I am learning to model team ministry over personal ambition is by doing more team preaching. While we believe there is a benefit to having a primary voice, we find that the church benefits greatly from hearing a fresh voice on a regular basis and receiving the multiple perspectives that come with a team approach (to say nothing of the fact that the extra margin makes me a better preacher, pastor, husband, and healthier human being in general). But beyond that I love how this practice demonstrates "team" and reminds us that the church needs to experience everyone's gifts.

Many of us are used to a model of ministry where the only time the pastor doesn't speak is when he is out of town. But I'm convinced that one of the best things I can do for my church is to sit and take notes while another staff member or lay person preaches. The church needs to see me as a worshiper, not just as a pastor.

I struggle here as well. Every time I have brought a new staff member onto this team I secretly wonder, Will the church like them more than me? Will their preaching or leadership gifts outshine mine? I've come to the conclusion that surfacing these insecurities is important, too, since the same insecurities are experienced by other who share their ministry.

How do we model this commitment? This brings us back to where we started—our relationship with Jesus. Again, Nouwen explains, "The question is not: how many people take you seriously? How much are you going to accomplish? Can you show some results? But: Are you in love with Jesus?" Amen.

Timothy Morey is pastor of Life Covenant Church in Torrance, California, and author of Embodying Our Faith: Becoming a Living, Sharing, Practicing Church (IVP).