The Pastor-Driven Church

Courtesy: David Hayward @nakedpastor Used with Permission

Last month I wrote a blog called, Why is There a Pulpit? In it, I shared this tweet that appeared in my Twitter feed:

“Wherever the pulpit is going, that’s where the church is going.”

In addition to asking why there is a pulpit, we need to explore the pastor centricity so prevalent in most institutional church settings. The pulpit isn’t neutral for several reasons, one being because it presents one more level of separation between the assembly and the “professional” up front. In almost every institutional church setting, everything inside the room and everything outside the room point to the pulpit. The pulpit is the focal point.

Outside the room, everything from our signage to our advertising points to the pulpit. In the neighborhoods where we live, the sandwich board signs go up on sidewalk corners every Friday, pointing to a meeting room and ultimately, a pulpit. Church websites echo the same themes. Come be with us on Sunday and hear a message from behind the pulpit that is sure to inspire and bring you back for more.

Inside the room, everything points to the pulpit. The pulpit is the nucleus of the Sunday event. All the seating points to the pulpit. Instructions emanate from the pulpit as we’re told when to stand, when to sit, when to sing, when to pray, when to say hi to people we don’t know, and when to give. It’s like a well-oiled machine, reaching its climax when the pastor takes his or her position behind the pulpit to lecture us for 30-60 minutes. This is the pinnacle of the institution’s week and it’s what all the previous week’s preparation and hype was all about. Once the lecture is complete and the Sunday event comes to a close, preparation for next Sunday’s event begins with no one asking why. Is it any wonder so many are leaving that setting and seeking to find a more authentic reality outside those four walls?

The institutional church is a pastor-driven system. As the person behind the pulpit, the pastor(s) gets to (and is expected to) set the agenda, goals, and direction of the church. As central as the pulpit is, the pastor is even more so because he or she is the living, breathing, speaking embodiment of the pulpit and the one supplying the pulpit with its personality and life. Is it any wonder that someone would tweet,

“Wherever the pulpit is going, that’s where the church is going.”

I think not. At least they’re being honest and they see things as they really are. We’ve taken a word (pastor) that appears one time in the New Testament (Ephesians 4) and institutionalized it. We’ve turned that person into a religious celebrity and handed them power and control inside an environment where power and control over others should not exist. Jesus wasn’t joking when he said, “It shall not be so among you.”

“Wherever the pulpit is going, that’s where the church is going”  isn’t a banner to proudly wave or an expression of some great accomplishment. It’s a symptom of something gone terribly wrong in the assembly that needs to be talked about honestly and openly. For those with their finger on the pulse of the ekklesia, it’s one more obstacle to living out the one another’s of the New Testament and it has a choke hold on every believer functioning as a priest because it brings with it, an unbiblical us and them, clergy/laity separation that creates and sustains an illusion and facade of top-down authority where no top-down authority really exists. The pastor-driven model is not neutral and is a poor substitute for genuine community.

At the time of this writing, my Ekklesia website is still in its infancy, but there is already plenty of material here to interact with. You may be interested in reading my Rethinking Church series. At the time of this writing, parts 1-3 are finished and parts 4-5 are pending.

-Mike

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Rethinking Church: The Clergy/Laity Fallacy

 

This is Part Three of a series I’m calling Rethinking Church. If you haven’t read parts one and two, I encourage you to read them before reading this one because they build on one another. Here’s a glimpse of all five parts so far:

Ignatius (ca. 110 AD) said this:

Follow your bishop as Jesus Christ followed the Father… Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop… Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes.

I’ve previously noted that this directive by Ignatius was firmly in place in most local assemblies by the middle of the 3rd century (250 AD). It was assumed to be a biblical directive, but it is not.

We’ve already shown that the top-down authority structure that is present in most modern institutional churches is a product of tradition that started as early as Ignatius. The one pastor authority model that we unquestionably accept as a biblical one, is actually something that has been  handed to us by church history and tradition and we accept it without question. Not only do we accept it without question, but we’ve also complicated it by adding layer after layer of hierarchical organizational strata where pastors are over pastors, and those pastors are over other pastors, and the higher the structure rises, the more sophisticated the honorific the titles become. Our church authority structures more closely resemble corporate America than anything in the New Testament. We’ve taught tradition as the commands of God for so long, it doesn’t dawn on us to look past the traditions, open our New Testaments, and ask hard questions, questions that threaten 2,000+ years of those same entrenched traditions. But with so many leaving the institutional church, not because they’ve left Jesus, but because they feel the church has, it’s time to ask why. Will Ignatius’ words, “Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes” stand in the light of scripture, or should we jettison it as tradition that has proven harmful to the practice of the one anothers within the assembly and to the priesthood of all believers.

In part two of this series, we talked briefly about the clergy/laity separation that exists within most institutional churches. I presented the idea that church tradition, not the Bible, has given us this distinction. Our continued practice of referring to pastors with honorific titles that mark them out as a special segment within the church called “clergy” while assigning everyone else to the lower class of “laity” has caused a deep rift in the body of Christ and in many instances, has led to the Continue reading

Why Is There a Pulpit?

“Wherever the pulpit is going, that’s where the church is going.”

That’s a tweet that recently appeared in my twitter feed. I cringed when I saw it. But then I thought, it’s true. Sad, but oh so true. Needless to say, it got my mind going about pulpits and power, honorific titles and top-down authority, ad infinitum, ad nauseum. It doesn’t take much to get me going, does it. I hear endless debates about whether women should be allowed behind the pulpit but in each conversation I hear, the most obvious question is missing: Why is anyone scrambling to get behind the pulpit and why is there a pulpit in the first place?

Nothing kills the original intent of the gathered assembly quicker than a pulpit. Nothing separates the assembly into us and them quicker or more effectively than a pulpit. Nothing says “keep your distance, I’m the trained professional Christian and you need to hear what I have to say” more effectively than the pulpit. Add to that, the raised platform and the priesthood of all believers vanishes and is replaced by the priesthood of one or a select few. Add the pulpit into the mix and active participation of the entire assembly turns into a lecture given to passive spectators by one who is assumed to be in control. This model has come to us via church history by those in supposed positions of power or control who perpetuate power and control by perpetuating power and control. It’s foreign to the New Testament and harmful to the ekklesia. The pulpit is not passive.

“Wherever the pulpit is going, that’s where the church is going” is an unfortunate reality in modern institutional church settings. In a community where Jesus said that kind of power and control wasn’t to exist, we encourage and perpetuate it. Whatever happened to the Holy Spirit leading the assembly? Whatever happened to Jesus being Lord of his ekklesia? Whatever happened to the priesthood of all believers instead of a select few? Tell me again, why is there a pulpit?

“But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.” 1 John 2:27

-Mike

Photo Credit: Alex Gorham

Why Ekklesia?

I called this blog the ekklesia blog and my podcast the ekklesia podcast. But why “ekklesia”? That seems like a weird name. My intent was (and is) to take a close and honest look at how we “do church” in our modern evangelical settings and ask the questions I think need to be asked.

Ekklesia (pronounced ek-lay-SEE-a) is a transliteration of the New Testament Greek word meaning “assembly.”  It is the word used in the New Testament that is translated “church” in most modern English versions of the Bible. But does church convey the meaning and intent of ekklesia?

Church comes to us from an old English word meaning “a lord’s house” and carries with it the concept of a location where an important person lived. It still conveys that concept at its center. When we think of church, we think of a building or location where God is present and where he requires us to be regularly in order to encounter him. The fact that we think this way is revealed by how we talk about church. We say things like “see you at church,” “it’s time to go to church,” “look at that beautiful church,” “where do you go to church?” or “ we attend pastor John’s church” without giving it a second thought. Over two thousand years of religious tradition has handed this to us – many of us from an early age – and it’s so engrained in our thinking and such a part of what’s been instilled in us and assumed to be right, that we don’t stop to question its validity.

But is what we’ve been told about church an accurate reflection of the ekklesia? Is the ekklesia a weekly destination we attend where we stand on queue, sit on queue, sing on queue, give on queue, pray on queue, say hi to strangers on queue, listen to a lecture on queue, all the while staring at the back of someone’s head, calling it community, or feeling we’ve done our religious duty for the week and God likes us more because of our attendance and participation in the event? I don’t think so.

Join me on this journey from church to ekklesia and let’s ask the honest questions that need asked, challenge empty traditions and false assumptions, and see if we can’t gain a better understanding of what Jesus meant when he said, “I will build my ekklesia.”

Welcome to The Ekklesia Blog. Welcome to The Ekklesia Podcast.

-Mike

Rethinking Church: Pastors, Titles, Authority, Calling

ben-white-292680This is Part Two of my Rethinking Church Series. To see all the posts so far, click the Rethinking Church category in the sidebar.

We talked last time about how in his zeal to detour divisions in the church, Ignatius set in place a false structure of authoritative leadership designed to dole out punishments for non-compliance and rewards for compliance. This hierarchy of authority that Ignatius implemented, centered around pastors and in particular, the one pastor model, was firmly in place by the mid-third century and is still with us in most institutional churches today, where there is a top-down authority structure in place and one person at the top, guiding the ship. There are certain actions in the assembly that Ignatius decided can only be performed by the church’s sole lead pastor which is why he could say,

Let no one do anything in the church apart from the bishop. Holy communion is valid when celebrated by the bishop or someone the bishop authorizes. Where the bishop is present, there let the congregation gather, just as where Jesus Christ is, there is the church.

But this idea is foreign to the New Testament and comes to us via tradition alone. There is no biblical reason for such thinking. Note Jesus’ words that we alluded to at the end of Part One in this series:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:25-28, emphasis mine)

Jesus’ words, “It shall not be so among you” are a clear and concise warning against establishing any kind of authoritative hierarchy within the assembly that divides sheep from other sheep and sets up one sinner in charge of another. We either don’t believe Jesus’ words, choose to ignore them, or have spiritualized their intended meaning to the point that our top-down authority structures somehow fit into it without compromise.

We’ve been told through the years that because a pastor has a special calling unlike the rest of us, he or she has been given blanket authority over us. We’ve been told that so many times and for so long that we accept it without question. We believe it without blinking. But here’s the rub: tradition has given us this, not the New Testament, and we’ve been teaching this tradition as the commands of God for so long, that we’ve blurred the lines between the two and we can’t tell the difference. Let’s look closer.

What Does Scripture Say About a Pastor’s Calling and Authority?

One of the things I participated in on occasion as a pastor in institutional church settings, was ordination councils. Ordination councils vary from Continue reading

Preach the Word?

Paul instructed Timothy to “Preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2). In the institutional church model, this is usually assumed to mean expository, verse-by-verse teaching through the Bible, or some variant of expository preaching. But is that what Paul meant? Let’s back up the cart for a minute and take a second look.

Was Timothy a Pastor?

This is an important question to ask as we begin to broach this subject for a couple of reasons. 1) Pastors have become central in most modern church settings. They are the “preachers” in the institutional church and as such, they carry the burden of “preaching the word.” It continues to amaze me how we’ve taken a word (pastor) that appears once in the New Testament (apart from obvious references to Jesus) and institutionalized it. We’ve made Pastors the central figure of our institutional churches without questioning why. We’re told the pastor preaches and our job is to hear and obey. It’s almost like we don’t need Jesus because the pastor is center now. 2) Because it’s assumed Timothy was one of those Pastors, we call the letters bearing his name, along with the letter to Titus “pastoral epistles.” We view them as pastoring handbooks and manuals for doing church.

But there is nothing in the New Testament that would lead us to conclude Timothy was a pastor. Nothing. Tradition has given us that idea, not scripture. Top-heavy church tradition steeped in man-made top-down authority perpetuates that idea. It’s not in scripture. Think about it. If those with supposed authority want to keep that authority (and most do), what better way than to put poor Timothy in the same category as they view themselves and then insist verse-by-verse preaching of the Bible from the pastor is “biblical” because Paul told Timothy “preach the word,” meaning preach the Bible from a podium and tell the lowly laity what they need to be doing and believing, especially as it relates to the perpetuity of the institution and the preachers tight grip on their top-down authority. That’s what I did and what I thought was right, because I was trained to think it was right. I acknowledge there are exceptions but I’m being candid to make my point.

Preach The Word?

What did Paul mean when he told Timothy, one of his co-workers in the gospel, to preach the word? It couldn’t have meant Continue reading

Rethinking Church: What is a Pastor?

To say people are becoming disillusioned with institutional church is an understatement. People are becoming disillusioned and are leaving it in droves. From all the statistics I’ve read the reasons vary, but a large number who’ve left are leaving, not because they’ve left Jesus, but because they feel the institutional church has. As a result, many are walking away and finding more authentic community outside of its walls, myself included. They are done. Josh Packard is correct in saying,

The Dones are people who are disillusioned with church. Though they were committed to the church for years—often as lay leaders—they no longer attend. Whether because they’re dissatisfied with the structure, social message, or politics of the institutional church, they’ve decided they are better off without organized religion. Source: Meet the Dones

One thing almost every institutional church has in common with other institutional churches is a person in charge called a pastor. The pastor is typically the power person in charge, directing things. In this first post of what I’m calling Rethinking Church, we’re simply going to sort out what a pastor is. This will be the foundation for the other posts that follow in this series. I’ll be writing this series from the point of view of a former pastor with 20+ years experience pastoring various institutional churches. We’ll start by looking more closely at what scripture says about pastors because I feel one way the modern institutional church has complicated things is by making the pastor an authoritative focal point in the church, not unlike the CEO of a corporation. This top-down authority approach to doing church has been handed to us by hundreds of years of church tradition, not by any biblical mandate.

From my own experience and my conversations with others, I see at least five areas where I believe the institutional church has gotten off message to varying degrees, opening the door to a structure within the church that is crippling it and causing disillusionment in those that have left. I’m writing this series in the following order:

I strongly urge you to read these in the order written, as each one builds on the previous.

Not surprisingly, the New Testament talks about pastors. In Ephesians 4:11, Paul reminds us of the gifts God has given to his church for the specific purpose of building itself up in love. He says,

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, (Ephesians 4:11)

What’s startling is this is the only occurrence in the New Testament, outside of clear references to Jesus himself, of the word translated here by the ESV as “shepherds.” But don’t take my word for it. Do the research. Your version may read “Pastors” (NIV, NASB, KJV). I’m good with either translation. Both convey what I think is the meaning of the word. There are shepherds (pastors) within the ekklesia for the express purpose of equipping and building up the assembly in love. But this is the only time in the entire New Testament that this noun translated pastor or shepherd appears, outside of clear references to Jesus, and there’s nothing here describing anything specific regarding how that building up and equipping is to be done.

But we haven’t let that stop us. We’ve turned this one verse into a thing. We’ve institutionalized the pastor and made them into something bigger than real life – something bigger than any of us can handle, including the pastors themselves. Remember, I’m speaking from experience as one of those ex-pastors. The pastor has become the central figure in most of our western church structures. It’s been that way for a long time. We’ve provided them with special chairs to sit in, separate from the rest of us, or placed them on elevated platforms apart from the rest of us, or both. Sometimes, we even require them to live on the church property (enter, the parsonage) separated from the rest of us in the community. But thankfully, that is less common than it used to be. Communication on Sunday is one-way for the most part, from them to us. We address them using honorific titles that mark them out from the rest of us and puts even greater distance between us and them. Worship, communion, baptisms, etc. all flow through the pastor or the clerical staff under the direction of the pastor. The pastor’s under an incredible amount of pressure from both without and within. It’s unfair to both the pastor and to the rest of the assembly and in my opinion, it’s killing genuine community and it’s one reason people are leaving the institutional setting in droves. I’m speaking from both personal experience and observation.

But we didn’t get here by accident. It may surprise you to know that our journey here was intentional and it began a long time ago with Continue reading