I've noticed a pattern lately and I'm not the only one who has seen it. Christianity Today featured a story in the spring of 2010 about pastors leaving their churches to pursue writing and speaking opportunities. Francis Chan, Jim Belcher, N. T. Wright and, now Rob Bell, have left local church pastorates, some of which were churches they themselves had planted. This led CT to ask:
What's going on? Is the local church becoming the "farm team" for full-time conference and book ministry?
Rob Bell's announcement included the plan to pursue "broader interests" and that prompted this post.
(I am very aware that there are other issues regarding Rob Bell, but this is not a post about him. You can read my review of his book, Love Wins, in 3-parts: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. His departure from Mars Hill, however, sparked these further thoughts I now address.)
I try not to wag my finger at others, and every person involved needs to hear from the Lord and be obedient to his call, but I must say this move away from the local church confuses (and concerns) me a bit. Perhaps that is because I'm heading in the other direction.
Allow me to explain.
There are many broader issues I am passionate about pursuing. My day includes research, writing, consulting, and leading at LifeWay Research. I have responsibilities to oversee staff and lead other teams here. Like others who have been given a visible platform, I am regularly asked to speak at conferences and meetings. Yet, with all of this, I can't get enough of the church.
So, yesterday, I turned to Rick Warren (perhaps you've heard of him) and asked why he has stayed at a local church. Rick's "broader interests" are pretty big-- poverty, adoption, politics, nation-building, writing and speaking. (Once he had to "run" from our phone call because Tony Blair was dropping by for a visit. Yes, that Tony Blair.) Yet, he is still connected to a local church. A while back when he invited me to hang out with him at Saddleback, I was fascinated by just how much that local church connection mattered to Rick.
Rick tweeted this which reinforces the point:
I asked him specifically to comment for this article, and he explained, "The local church has been, and always will be, the PRIMARY tool for God's will in the world. Other ministries are important but secondary."
I realize that the aforementioned men have not left THE church. On the contrary most of them would argue that their new efforts would ultimately encourage and strengthen many churches. But they have left pastoral ministry to pursue other interests whether writing, speaking or yet-to-be-determined avenues of ministry. Ultimately, Christian leaders-- as all Christians should-- must follow God's call. I am entirely convinced, for example, that Francis Chan prayed and sought the Lord on this decision. Yet, I know many pastors who yearn for the conference circuit and to get out of the local church-- so read my thoughts here more as concern than me "calling out" anyone.
For me, I am heading a different direction and planting a church in my free time.
Why, then, am I planting a church? It sure isn't to grow a megachurch as I really don't see that happening in the way we are planting. It isn't to make more money since I'm unpaid by the church (and I'm not speaking at other churches that, well, did pay me).
Here are three reasons I've chosen to remain close to my local church and to serve the church as a pastor.
1. I love the church. I want to be in one, leading it, loving it--not leaving it. In a past time I wore myself out talking about how important the church was while not being closely connected to one. I plan to not let that happen again. Paul wrote that Jesus loved the church and gave Himself for her, and I need to love what Jesus loved. And not from a distance.
2. I need the church. Actually, my family and I both need the church. We need co-laborers on mission. I need a place to live out what I write and talk about. I need encourage and be encouraged. In short, I need to be in a community of people who are also on mission with God experiencing victories and defeats, trials and tribulations together. Christianity is, and always has been, a team sport. It isn't tennis; it's football (or soccer, take your pick).
3. I'm committed to serve. What is your calling? Are you called to be a pastor? Deacon? Evangelist? If that's your calling, you should be using that gift. It really goes without saying that it would be easier to travel around, preach at a church or auditorium and then go home. But that is not reality.
Reality means accountability to some kind of leadership structure in the church and to body as a whole. Rick Warren alluded to this problem in a tweet that followed the Rob Bell announcement: "Speaking tours feed the ego = All applause & no responsibility. It's an unreal world. A church gives accountability & validity" The last thing anyone needs is more to feed out selfish egos, but that is precisely part of the challenge associated with the speaking circuit.
Remaining a pastor in my local church is a lot more work, but it's part of what God has called me to do...and saved me to be.