In the second half of 2021, some close friends of mine told me that I probably wasn’t suited to be a pastor. Instead, their suggestion to me was that I switch careers and try to be a professor or a writer or something.
Interestingly, only a month before they said that, I had begun writing a document that would become my first published book.
If you are here, chances are you might not know that late last year (2023), I signed a publishing contract with Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, and they currently have my completed manuscript in their hands. I’m over the moon excited, but also worried about it too. I’m about to put myself out there to the world like I’ve never done before, and that’s a little nerve-wracking mostly because the things I say in the book are things that made my friends tell me I shouldn’t be a pastor anymore. On the one hand, it’s encouraging that Eerdmans thinks my work should be published, but on the other hand, it’s work that made people mad at me.
I’m getting ahead of myself.
This post is to talk a little bit about the journey I went through to come to this point. What it took for me to write, re-write, choose to publish, and so forth. I figured you might be interested in the journey.
Becoming a Writer
My first post to this blog was written on February 21, 2001. I had just become the pastor of Northwest Baptist Church in Chicago, Illinois, and I thought it might be good for me to start keeping a journal of my experiences. Because I’m a nerd, I set up my journal as a blog here.
Of course, I never got any traction with the blog, never any popularity with it, and I never tried to make it a popular blog anyway, but every now and then, I’d come back here to post another article about something in my life, something about the Bible, or something interesting in the world. That’s not making a decision to write. That’s just doing some writing on the side as a hobby.
However, in the summer of 2021, I took the idea to write seriously.
For most of the previous year, my wife and I had met with some friends three times weekly to talk about the church ministry and also to talk about how we each were doing. It was a rough few years, and we each needed encouragement. Most of all, I was thoroughly frustrated, confused, and angry over the events of 2020 and how they had changed me and my ministry. Internally, the big dilemma I had boiled down to one simple question:
- What things should I say and what things should I avoid saying?
In my conversations with other people, I brought this question up repeatedly. Over Zoom with my friends three times a week. Face to face with my wife. Over the phone with my dad. Over email with friends. In social media with strangers.
I brought it up over and over because during 2020 and again in 2021, I lost a number of friends because of things I said. I had accused Trump of being a false teacher when he posed for a photo in front of a church awkwardly holding a Bible. I had accused him of being an immoral man because of his past history with women and his current history with deception and aggression. I further had declared that Christians should be concerned about caring for their neighbors during the COVID pandemic, that we should be concerned about climate change, and that racism was alive and well in our country. All those things were at odds with the conservatism so popular among evangelical Christians, and people were offended that I had said those things. Many told me my opinion was valid, but those topics were taboo for a pastor to address.
In the first weeks of 2021, I proposed the question to a pastor friend of mine: “What things should a pastor talk about and what things should he avoid talking about?” He told me the story of how he handled things at his church. His plan throughout the pandemic was to avoid all the possible hot-button issues. For people who wanted to stay home, they had a live stream. For people who wanted to show up, they were open like normal. For people who wanted to wear masks, they had a mask-wearing section in the sanctuary. Essentially, they just attempted to accommodate the wishes of everyone.
However, he also told me two stories. He told me that some people in his church had been caught up in the Flat Earth movement and it had caused quite a problem for the church but he hadn’t addressed it publicly. He also told me that a number of people had left the church because he wasn’t being forceful enough in his endorsement or conservative Republican talking points.
It was in that conversation that I changed the question I was asking myself. My new question became this: Are there non-biblical issues that are so problematic that the pastor must address them? For some reason, he had people in his church who were so caught up in Republican policies, QAnon conspiracies, and Flat Earth ideas that they were willing to disfellowship from Christians as a result. He had made the call to ignore the conspiracy theories, but I was feeling differently. If there were people in his church who valued QAnon more than the unity of the body of Christ, that was idolatry and it should be confronted by a biblical pastor. Still, I know if I had addressed QAnon from the stage during 2020, people in my church would leave accusing me of being divisive myself and not focusing on the Bible.
Being a pastor is a weird job. On the one hand, your job exists for you to speak the truth of God’s Word to people. Every pastor knows that some people might get offended when he “speaks the truth,” but every pastor knows that’s the job anyway. However, your job also exists at the pleasure of a group of people in the church. Sometimes, the congregation voted the pastor in, sometimes it was a leadership board decision, sometimes the pastor was appointed by higher ups, but nonetheless, every pastor can be fired if the people with firing power don’t like what is being taught. More than that, a pastor doesn’t need to be fired. People can just leave the church, and if the people leave, so does the money.
Therefore, even though the purpose of the pastor is to teach the Word of God boldly, the job of pastor involves offending just the right people in the right way so that the other people with power are pleased with what you say.
It’s for this reason, pastors divide themselves into one of the following camps:
- One kind of pastor takes the approach of “never watering down the gospel” and by that, they mean speak aggressively and boldly about the things the majority of their congregation agrees to. These pastors rarely address subjects that are controversial to their own congregation, but they frequently address the divisions between their congregation and the outside world or other churches.
- One kind of pastor takes the approach of speaking “only what is useful for building others up.” This kind of pastor decides to never talk about anything that could rub someone the wrong way and instead focuses on positive, encouraging messages that only challenge presuppositions if it can be done winsomely.
- However, every pastor is eventually faced with a choice. If something or someone is causing division in the congregation, they are forced to choose between boldly addressing it as a biblically important issue or downplaying it as an unbiblical distraction. Most pastors fall into this camp eventually because difficult issues arise in every church, and how the pastor addresses that issue will determine if he keeps his job.
Midway through 2021, I came up with my solution.
If I couldn’t preach it, I would write it. I was convinced we were dealing with a kind of idolatry in the hearts of my Christian brothers and sisters (and likely in myself too), so I decided I would write it all down, all my thoughts and concerns, and use the exercise to sort it all out.
In my next post, I’ll talk about the journey to figure out what I really wanted to say.