I’ve been doing some repenting lately. Like many of you I have listened to the podcast, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” with a mixture of dread, relief, revulsion, and reluctant self-perception.
One of the themes the podcast deals with is that of “deconstruction.” It is one of those words that can mean almost anything but which always weighs something. At its worst, “deconstruction” is cynical and destructive; the theological equivalent of setting the building on fire as you walk out the door.
But at its best, “deconstruction” is really just a matter of repentance, of re-thinking our convictions, practices, and assumptions. This repentance is an effort to scrape off all the layers of paint, to consult the blueprints, to find the place where tradition stopped serving us and started doing us a disservice and to camp out there in that painful place.
Listening to “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” has forced me to grapple with some things that I didn’t want to. Furnace Brook has been a fairly healthy church and I have never been a narcissist. Things could have been so much worse, but that doesn’t change the fact that I allowed myself and our church to be pulled in some unwholesome directions, directions that would have led to bad destinations had God, in his grace, not graciously thwarted us. And every step I've taken down that dismal path is a matter of sin. And if it’s sin, what can I do but confess, repent, and seek grace?
I have more processing to do, but here are three things that I earnestly repent of, after having listened to “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill” and carefully reflecting on its lessons.
I repent of doing ministry in a way that required the hardening of my heart.
Don’t get me wrong - there is no way that you can do ministry without your heart getting wounded and if you want to go on doing ministry for any length of time you must cultivate a resilient heart. And a resilient heart, one that finds a way to keep going cheerfully when a close friend has abandoned you at a critical moment, may look much like a hard heart. But here’s the difference: a resilient heart says “the importance of the mission means that this pain is worth feeling.” but a hard heart says “the importance of the mission means that this person is not worth the pain he causes me to feel.”
And I was being pulled into a way of doing church that said that the ends justify the means, that growing the church and reaching more unbelievers was so important that if doing so meant hurting or abandoning sheep in your flock that was just a sad sort of collateral damage. I was told, essentially, that to be a good, visionary leader I would have to harden my heart.
I repent of that.
I repent of all of the energy and concern I put into my platform and of thinking that all that platform building was somehow “ministry.”
It pains me to admit this, but there have been times when I wondered if I was wasting my ministry here in a place where I would have little opportunity to grow my platform and attract the attention of influential people. Please forgive me. At my best I was trying to grow my platform so that I could give Jesus the advantage of that platform. But at my worst I thought Jesus needed the advantage of my platform.
I repent of that.
I repent of my fundamental dissatisfaction with “mere” church.
Here’s what I mean by “mere” church: a group of believers who do worship, community, and mission together. That’s it. And it’s enough for Jesus, but it wasn’t enough for me. I wanted events that drew lots of people to attend and left them talking about how great it was. I wanted each subsequent event to be better attended than the previous one. I wanted innovative programs and glossy brochures and a carefully crafted narrative and lots and lots of branding. I wanted a sense of momentum and for other pastors to be envious of what was happening at my church. And, yes, I know how pathetic this all sounds.
I repent of that.
And I suspect that I have more repenting to do, but this is where I am tonight, on the cusp of a new year. I’m embarrassed and rueful, but I’m also full of hope and resolve. God has shown me extraordinary grace in bringing me to repentance when he could have brought me down. I take heart from this and choose to go into the new year aspiring to a greater holiness than I’ve ever known before, walking in the light cast by the bonfire of all my discarded ambitions.
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