Introduction

Before getting into the main content of my book, I want to take some time to share an introduction of sorts, a brief description of the journey I have taken over the past 16 years or so.


Introduction

In 2006, when Jennifer and I moved to Lafayette to start a church, we had a number of different motivations. God had made it clear that our time in our previous ministry had come to a close and that not only was church planting our next calling, but Lafayette, Indiana was his new direction for us. No matter what this new effort turned out to be, we were motivated because we knew God was leading us into it. He had affirmed it through our own times of prayer, through affirmation from trusted leaders, and through the financial and prayerful support of many in our lives who made sacrifices toward this effort.

We were passionate to do something fresh without the encumbrances of traditional church ministry. We were convinced that God was leading us to do a different kind of church that was not beholden to any sort of that’s-how-we-always-do-it thinking. The fresh start was highly motivating.

We were prepared to fall in love with the city and the people of Lafayette and the greater county. Both of us had an affinity for this area, and Jen was a graduate of Purdue, so we believed Lafayette would be as much of a blessing to us as we believed we could be for the people of Lafayette.

We wanted to leverage modern technologies and marketing techniques to connect with people that other churches weren’t reaching and to inspire people with hope that maybe this church could be their spiritual home.

Also, our hearts were burdened by the statistic that only 20% of people in this county could really be claimed by any church. For an area as Christian as the middle of Indiana, Lafayette had a terribly low level of commitment to church participation. We believed the time was right for a new expression of the church in this city, a new style of teaching, a new style of worship, a new kind of authenticity, and a new openness to cultural and economic diversity within a church body.

Nevertheless, we never saw ourselves in competition with the other churches. We were excited about leading a new kind of ministry that was cooperative and collaborative with the other Christian ministries in the area. The formation of strong Christian unity through the entire Body of Christ was another major motivation for us in those early days of ministry.

Put in the simplest terms:

  • We wanted to help people know how much Jesus loved them.
  • We wanted to help people take their next step on their spiritual journey.
  • We wanted to build a community of people known by their service and not just by Sunday services.
  • And we wanted to cooperate with other churches for the sake of the gospel.

All these things motivated us then, and all these things still motivate us now, but a lot of things are different now too.

Over the past 15 years, we have seen a lot, experienced a lot, and walked through both successes and failures, but throughout the journey, speaking mostly for myself now, I have been consistently unsettled by the fact that our church never hit the stride promised by church-planting anecdotes.

  • We have seen hundreds of people come through our doors for a visit, but except for a few brief stints, our retention rate has always been low, and our growth has been slowly incremental at best. In the modern world where stories of church plants experiencing fast growth abound, and in the shadow of other church plants in Lafayette whose growth far outpaced ours, our church growth has been disappointingly slow.
  • We have baptized a lot of people, but very few of them ever matured into spiritual leaders in our church, and nearly all of them have since gone on to other churches or dropped out of church attendance altogether.
  • We had reached average attendance levels near 300 for a few months after entering our current building and we had single Sundays near 400, but even at our peak, our volunteerism and giving were so low that we struggled to maintain core ministries and pay staff. As a result, our capacity for ministry beyond our walls was also low.
  • We’ve deployed many leaders who by failing to flourish or even endure in their positions ended up causing great pain to the church.
  • And in general, we have had incredible opportunities, but were never able to fully take advantage of them or sustain the ministry arising from them.

As a result, during the summer of 2019, I invited the elders of the church to join me on a journey of redevelopment, rediscovery, and reimagining for the church. We started working through a book to help us understand church dynamics better. We made plans to divide up leadership more efficiently in the church. We brainstormed new formulations of our very mission statement.

However, even then, there was a growing tension among our Elders. The book we were reading addressed the Life Cycle of a church as a hill with a rising side, a summit, and a downhill side. By pure metrics, our church was over the hill on the downward side of the graph even though our peak had been low and brief. Still, some optimistic elders believed we were actually in a state of arrested development on the upward slope and could eventually reach peak effectiveness if we just clarified some things. Other elders thought we were so far down the back slope that we needed to blow things up to start over and get moving again. At least one voice in those conversations suggested it was time to declare the experiment over, close the church, and go our separate ways.

For the first time as a church, we had a leadership team that was divided over whether we should even be a church, and that was before the pandemic and political troubles of 2020! The tension among the elders was tangible, but I was convinced that God had called me to this work, and I didn’t have any reason to give up on it yet. I was doing my best to maintain my enthusiasm, and I wanted to build these other men into a team of leaders who would enthusiastically support the mission of the church, but as 2020 would prove, all of us were more burned out than enthusiastic.

Nonetheless, I believed that if we could clarify the problems we were actually facing, and if we could address them with a return to fundamentals, we’d be able to move forward into a new day and perhaps finally reach the peak effectiveness I always believed we were capable of. The solutions were elusive, but the problems were clear and easily identifiable:

  • We needed to motivate people toward spiritual authenticity, relational maturity, and the personal engagement that those things produce.
  • We needed to motivate and train people in financial stewardship.
  • We needed to reach and disciple new people.
  • We needed to re-unify the leadership.

In my optimism, I believed that a return to the basic core values of our church, a slow process of vision refocusing among the leaders, and a commitment to shared ministry responsibility among those leaders would help us finally hit our stride as a church. By strengthening a sense of family among our members and by looking for opportunities to serve people outside our church, we would, I thought, regain our original momentum.

We launched into 2020 with that in mind. We changed our mission statement to focus on empowering people to live the life God made them for, we dropped back to only one worship gathering so Sundays could feel more energetic and people could feel more connected, and we committed to significant changes in our leadership structure.

But 2020 in so many ways undermined everything I was hoping for.

When the COVID lockdowns happened in March of 2020, I wasn’t initially worried. One of our church fundamental strategies had always been to leverage technology and creativity for our Sunday experience, so when other churches were scrambling to figure out how to do live-streaming, we were already comfortable with it. With one of the best live-stream productions in town, we decided to lean into it. While people were in home lockdown, we turned Sunday morning into a creative “TV show” experience complete with comedic moments, guest interviews, and professional quality music videos. It was fun and funny and truly inspirational. One commenter said it was the best Easter church experience they ever had; however, not everyone was pleased. Some families actually left the church after the second week, claiming it didn’t feel like church anymore.

I was a bit disheartened that those families couldn’t see the outreach potential of those few weeks or that they would be so willing to leave knowing we had only made a temporary change for the specifically strange circumstances we were all in, but I pressed on nonetheless.

When we no longer had personal face-to-face interactions, I wasn’t initially very worried. One of our church fundamental strategies had always been to have strong online community engagement throughout the week, but as we increasingly turned to interaction by Facebook, we found ourselves in a world of mic-drop style political fervor, misinformation, and ridicule. Our congregants and leaders fell prey to it as well, and resentment toward each other began to build. Some families disengaged over that.

That’s when my discouragement began to grow. I was disappointed that our church family wasn’t immune to vitriol as I saw it show up in more and more of our online interactions. I saw people develop resentment toward each other, and I began to feel especially bothered by the visible and aggressive loyalties people had adopted toward political figures, conspiracy theories, and racist behaviors. Still, I thought it was a phase we could work through if I continued to engage our church people with open conversation and prodding toward Christlike speech. I leaned into online conversation in an attempt to coach and disciple church people toward Christlikeness in our online interactions.

When it became clear that the COVID pandemic was fully present in the United States, I wasn’t initially very worried. It was clear to me that the pandemic was a challenge that could be addressed with solid science and mutual cooperation. I thought the church was the perfect place to find a clear-headed response to the pandemic because we value truth, cooperation, and making sacrifices for other people. Additionally, one of my perspectives in ministry has always been to respect the work of the scientific community, and so, following recommendations from the smartest people in epidemiology, I made the call to stay primarily virtual, close our in-person children’s programs, and encourage mask-wearing for all who wanted to come to worship gatherings in person. However, many families quickly left to find churches without similar restrictions, and as time wore on, more and more families did the same. Plus, in our town, plenty of those churches could be found.

All those departures weighed heavily on me, but again, I continued to press on with optimism. During the first few months of the pandemic, I still had the verbal support of the other elders in our church, and we all hoped that things would turn around soon.

However, all those disappointments began to coalesce into a new burden weighing heavily on me. I was becoming increasingly disturbed by the way Christians and Christian churches were responding to the events in the world around them. In many ways, I found Christians and Christian churches to be aligning themselves along the same divisions that could be found in our political culture. Three categories of events highlighted this for me.

First, at the beginning of 2020, then president Donald Trump was undergoing an impeachment trial. Having experienced the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton during my formative years and having experienced the groundswell of Christian outrage at his behavior and Evangelical support for removing him from office, I was dumbfounded to see the Evangelical Christians in my community adopt exactly opposite values and rally behind President Trump. Like Clinton, Trump too was being impeached for abusing his power and attempting to cover it up. The two men had been impeached for essentially the same things, but Christians were taking an opposite approach this time. How had my Christian brothers and sisters flipped on their value system so easily? When it came to Bill Clinton, they claimed they wanted him gone because “moral character matters” but in the case of Donald Trump, that particular value was forgotten.

Secondly, at the beginning of the pandemic, even though scientific consensus was growing that the COVID was highly transmissible through the air, that it was deadly at much higher rates than the flu, that it had the potential to flood our hospitals and medical staff with patients, and that the entire pandemic could be easily avoided by making a few lifestyle changes like limiting exposure to large indoor gatherings and wearing masks, I was utterly confused when my Christian brothers and sisters decided to ignore the available data, reject public health guidelines, and instead dive into misinformation, conspiracy theories, and outright lies. Not only were they listening to these false claims, they were embracing and perpetuating them as if doing so were the proper Christian response! I couldn’t tell if my Christian community had suddenly become irrationally gullible or if they had always been so and I had never let myself see it.

Though I was raised to believe that Christianity was a faith built on Absolute Truth, and though I had learned that the Christian search for truth was the historical foundation for science itself, I now found myself in a Christian culture that had no interest in science unless that science agreed with their own biases or desires. If you want to worship in large groups without masks, find the post on Facebook claiming COVID is a fraud or that masks are dangerous and run with it! Now, I know that the CDC is not Absolute Truth, and I grant that this is a harsh characterization of those who question mainstream science or who just want to wait a little longer for more information, but the outright rejection of scientific data in favor of anecdotes and conspiracies baffles me even to this day. (Just this morning, I had a conversation with a local pastor who firmly believes the whole COVID pandemic is a crisis manufactured by liberals.)

But thirdly, and most importantly for my journey, the events surrounding the murder of George Floyd hit me hard. In the years leading up to 2020, I had built some strong relationships with Black pastors and other members of the African American Christian community in Lafayette, and those friendships allowed me to start seeing racial disparities through their eyes. As the pandemic lingered, my heart broke to learn that COVID-19 was disproportionately worse among people of color whether in terms of economic impact, hospitalizations, or deaths. Speaking with many African American friends, I heard report after report of them going to one more funeral for one more family member or of them needing to spend another few nights in the hospital themselves. By the summer of 2020, none of my white friends had to bury a relative from COVID, but all of my Black friends had at least one family death. The disparity of COVID outcomes for different groups of people produced a strong sense of empathy in me for them, and then, when George Floyd was killed (following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery), and when the protests came and the police and politicians responded as they did, my empathy for my Black brothers and sisters reached a new level. My concern for them became vividly motivating.

I had been raised to think of Jesus as the one who came for the hurting and the broken, the one who would touch a leper, and the one who taught us to love one another in sacrificial ways. So too, in my soul, I began to feel the burdens of my brothers and sisters of color whether that burden was racial inequities in the criminal justice system, the economic system, or the medical system. Then my burden became twice as heavy when I noticed that very few of my white brothers and sisters were even willing to acknowledge the disparities let alone address them. I began to see even mask-wearing through the eyes of social justice. If I wore a mask (or later, got a vaccine), I could be one more brick in the protective wall surrounding my Black brothers and sisters, but as I looked around, I saw more and more of my white brothers and sisters behaving carelessly in that regard. On issue after issue, the teaching of Jesus to sacrifice ourselves to love others, so dear to my heart, was disregarded by evangelical Christian culture, and I no longer found any alignment between the Jesus I followed and the practices of the Christians in my culture.

You could accurately say that I was becoming disillusioned with the Christian culture I had loved my whole life.

I changed in 2020. Not everything changed. My heart for God, my motivation to serve others, my fervor to see the people of my church thrive in their walk with Christ and in their testimony before the world, and my passion to accurately teach the Bible didn’t change. But my perspective regarding how to apply the teaching of Jesus in our current world changed a lot. My strengthening relationships with African American pastors in town led me to see George Floyd’s death, the political rhetoric of the President, and the economic and medical inequities brought on by COVID-19 in a completely new light—a light that demanded my engagement.

However, my transformation pushed me further away from loved ones who weren’t experiencing the same awakening I was. Many others in my white religious circles were relying more and more on media outlets that disregarded my new perspective. Whereas previously, I would intentionally avoid political talk, in 2020 I found myself in a world where accurate talk, moral talk, and even nuanced talk were all perceived as political or even liberal! Nevertheless, I began to feel an increasing burden or even calling to speak truth, to oppose evil, and to call Christians to rekindle their commitment to the imitation of Christ against all other political loyalties.

But when I spoke up, I became one of the voices that many in my own church had decided to reject. When they rejected me, that fully sealed my disillusionment.

I cannot accurately describe how deeply disconnected I felt from the rest of my Christian subculture, and over the past year, I have wrestled and struggled to figure out what is really going on.

  • Why were the Christians in my subculture so rigidly loyal to Donald Trump regardless of his character or the way his policies were leading to the abuse of already marginalized people?
  • Why were the Christians in my subculture so opposed to the science of COVID-19 and the related public health measures? And why were they so drawn toward conspiracy theories and false information? (Remember that this was before the “Big Lie,” before the January 6 insurrection, and before the rejection of COVID vaccines!)
  • Why were the Christians in my subculture so apparently insensitive to the conditions caused by systemic racism and implicit bias that they would reject their very existence?
  • And why were the Christians in my subculture so in favor of personal freedom as opposed to the sacrificial values of Christ that they would refuse to even wear a face covering out in public?

I was disillusioned, discouraged, and confused. I felt isolated, ostracized and abandoned by people I had considered family. Furthermore, my desire to address the moral issues of our day from the perspective of the teaching of the Bible was met with such opposition from even people I loved that all the other emotions coalesced into anger. I embraced it. More than that, I thought that expressing my anger might do some good. I thought sharing my emotions honestly would reveal my vulnerability to people who loved me and that their sympathy for me personally might help them understand the seriousness of the issues I was confronting.

That strategy backfired, accomplishing exactly the opposite of my intent. Instead of inviting people who loved me to take me seriously and enter into conversation with me, my expressions of “negative” emotions like anger and disgust gave people the sense that I had become impulsive, arrogant, or at least improperly aggressive and therefore, untrustworthy. Some concluded that I was even unworthy to be a pastor at all, and they told me so. I was tempted to agree with them and thought often about quitting this job.

Still, I cannot shake the assurance of God’s calling on my life and this new clarity that he brought to me through the events of 2020. I have become acutely distressed by the infiltration of political ideologies and earthly allegiances into the Body of Christ, I’m convinced that something needs to be done about it. So far, though, I haven’t figured out what. And what I have done hasn’t been effective in the ways I had hoped. By making the specifics of my displeasure known in the various ways I did, I offended many in my church. Leaders left, attendance dropped off even more, finances dwindled, and now, at the start of 2022, the church I lead sits at the most critical moment in its entire life.

But it isn’t just my church. Although my direct confrontation of these issues and the manner in which I did so shook up my church and put us on the brink of closing, these same issues persist beneath the surface of so many churches, and I’m now convinced they are pervasive in the broader Christian culture of which I have been a part. Specifically, these issues are, I believe, endemic to the White Evangelical Christianity of my upbringing, and as I now see it, they must be addressed directly, for the sake of the Gospel.

For the pastors who ignore these issues, their churches might remain viable and perhaps even effective organizations, but the people in those churches will be unknowingly conformed to the image of modern conservative politics and not to the image of Christ. For the pastors who address these issues, and who do it better than I have, they just might be able to rekindle an allegiance to Christ and his Kingdom that overshadows all competing allegiances and results in the transformation of many lives and the transformation of our very culture. That’s the kind of pastor I want to be.

I’m beginning to see that a core piece of my calling is now to identify our current situation for what it is: Idolatry. As I see it, American White Evangelical Christianity has adopted allegiances to a number of evil idolatries that if not addressed will undermine our entire witness for the gospel of Christ in our modern world.

If this is true, those of us who feel the need to point it out are in for a difficult journey. As a pastor friend of mine warned me recently, “The problem with idols is that people will fight to defend them.”

So I find myself at a critical crossroads as an individual and as a pastor of a church.

The critical question facing me and my church is this: Will we (1) be people who actually follow Jesus and the teaching of the Bible even when that teaching hits us where it hurts and calls us to an unfamiliar activism; will we (2) be people who bypass the socially difficult bits to remain focused on the so-called “spiritual” and more general implications of the gospel; or will we (3) simply decide to dissolve this experiment for good and go our separate ways?

For my part, I have spent nearly two years now in intensive soul-searching over these issues and I am still very much undecided, not over the direction I want the church to go or the direction implied by the gospel, but undecided over what I can or should be doing about it. I have finally come to accept that I am seeing things more clearly now than I did before, and that I am receiving a new calling for my life, but I am still facing the dilemma regarding what I should be doing about it.

Much of my own personal dilemma exists because of the challenging words sent my way by people I love. People I respect deeply have told me I have become too political, too divisive, too much like an activist, or too much like a prophet and not enough like a pastor. People have told me that I was going beyond the teaching of Scripture. With all that negative input, I still wrestle with these questions not only for my church but for me personally:

  • Is my current passion to speak truth about the false idols in the church and the un-Christian evils I see in our society an actual extension of my calling to be a pastor and teacher of God’s Word, or is it a distraction from that calling and my ministry to my church?
  • Is speaking truth in this manner compatible with being the pastor of any church or is it more of a prophetic calling that should operate primarily in some other context?
  • Is this a journey I should lead my church to join me in as we strive to follow Jesus more fully in grace and truth, or is activism something I should do on my own time?

Nevertheless, I must do something. I have a burden, I have an awareness, and I have a calling to plead for people to return to an authentic Christ-likeness. Therefore, I am assembling these thoughts for you who choose to read.

Perhaps you are a pastor facing my same dilemma, and you need to know that you aren’t alone. You need courage and boldness to speak up for truth.

Perhaps you are a disillusioned Christian wondering how the church of Jesus got off the rails of Christlikeness, and you need a rekindled hope that it isn’t without hope.

Perhaps you are an evangelical mired in the idolatry of this current moment and ready to do battle with me over these ideas. Whoever you are, I welcome you.

These reflections are my own. They are at times critical and at times constructive. But I offer them to you humbly. If I speak incorrectly, may God lead you to forget my words. If I speak the truth, may the Spirit confirm it to your heart. But no matter what, I pray for you now that God will lead you, perhaps through these words, to rekindle your love for him and to embrace anew the purity of the gospel of a God who loves and sacrifices exactly for people who don’t deserve it.

I humbly offer the following reflections in the hopes that God will use them to further refine and beautify the Bride of Christ.