November 8, 2011

Church-Planting and Idolatry

by Eric Davis

My daughter has this book about a lizard named Lucas. Lucas has a dilemma. He lives in a zoo with many other animals. Because he is little, and can’t catch air like the dolphins or roar like the lions, poor Lucas is tormented with an inferiority complex. So what does he do? One night while lying in bed, he dreams up a myriad of tricks, like dancing on his hands (do lizards have hands?), balancing a cane on his nose, with a top hat in his hand to conquer his complex. He’s so excited, he can hardly sleep. Sure enough, the next day, his exhibition eclipses his rivals. Lucas lives happily ever-after as he finally slays his complex by securing the spotlight and so, his own self-veneration. I don’t like the book. It’s teaching my daughter a radically egotistical and enslaving worldview that will only fertilize her already depraved heart. And at the same time, it’s piercingly convicting into my own sin I’ve seen in my church-planting ministry.

In a previous post on church-planting and pragmatism, I mentioned that something deeper is going on beneath pragmatic tendencies in our ministries. One of the most painfully convicting moments that God, in his grace, has brought upon me was when I finally saw what fueled my whatever-works-idolatry. I had the same egotistical bent as Lucas; veneration of self; a blinding lust for self-affirmation cloaked in “doing ministry.”

A desire for ministry, and especially church-planting, should never be thought of as a sanitized, neutral desire. On the contrary, there are not many more dangerous means of laboring for self-approval than ministry. It seems so innocent, so noble, to plant a church. And don’t get me wrong, it is a fine work the planter desires. However, precisely because it seems so noble is why it can be so dangerous. And the more you scan the current evangelical landscape, the more you will see that church-planting is hijacked as a cloaked way to secretly feed the craving for approval.

It’s scary how pervasive it plagues ministry. Like the Tower of Babel, church-planting is an enticing way to make a name for oneself. But church-planter, don’t be too enamored by guys out in front of you whose bios say things like, “Has preached and planted churches in Greenland, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Brazil, England, South Korea, Iceland, Scotland, China, Indonesia, and Latvia; and does 23 services each weekend on 12 different flat screens.” It’s ok if your resume says: “____ has never: spoken at a conference, planted more than one church, written anything, or preached anywhere outside of Ulysses, Kansas. He does 2 services per week with 42 people in a dilapidated modular building.”

Take a deep breath and remember that your well-being is in the finished work of Christ and not filled pews and satellite campuses. Recall that Jeremiah was not invited to a conference, but thrown in a mud pit. This is not to glory in hard ministry or little fruit, but to calibrate our motives. Hunker down and give yourself fully to the word and prayer until your promotion to glory where you will be rewarded by the Chief Shepherd. Neither repudiate, nor be enamored by, apparent success. Praise God that Christ is preached; take heed to your own faithfulness, and thank the Master that you get to shepherd his flock among you.

Much of what is happening in contemporary evangelical church-planting is fleshly. Young men, who, perhaps, mean well, yet are looking to leap over the cross and grab that crown. Church-planting culture is morphing into one that craves recognition, praise, and fame. It seems that there are Lucas’ peppering the times, looking to feed their inferiority complexes and secure a spotlight.

As we scan the evangelical landscape, some scary things are happening. One young church-planter, in response to apparent criticism, made a YouTube rebuttal that resembles a hair-metal version of one rapper’s music video rebuke of another rival-rapper I remember seeing in the ‘90’s. Blanket approval is given to men on the basis of swelling attendance. Verbal profession to the “gospel” (whatever that may mean anymore) and filled pews seems to be a church-planter’s ticket to pass go; entrance into a permanent term of unquestioned authentication, such that they are now above healthy theological scrutiny. Robust discussions of other doctrines such as pneumatology, eschatology, and ecclesiology is frowned upon; even mocked. But God took the time to spill much ink and all Scripture is profitable, and necessary, to make us fledgling-planters adequate in service to God (2 Tim 3:16-17). On top of this, more and more young church-planters are responding with appalling arrogance when corrected and confronted by more seasoned men in the faith. It’s incredible. But like Rehoboam, contempt for seasoned criticism will result in our own doom and the destruction of others.

It’s getting out of control. It’s time to for our generation to take heed to ourselves; to give our opinion less and exposit more; to spend less time making YouTube’s and more exegeting; to spend less time yucking it up with our peers, egotistically affirming one-another, and more examining our deceitful hearts; to spend less time disdaining more seasoned men of the faith and more time on our faces repenting and begging God for maturity; to spend less time stiff-arming weathered criticism and more inviting it.

Our generation seems to be following an ante-Matthew 16:24, “If anyone wants to come after Jesus, he must establish himself, take up his ego daily, and follow pop-culture.” It’s much about a crown, and little about a cross. It’s becoming a game to win the world to oneself, rather than forsake the world for Christ. Church-planting is becoming a trendy click as a way to establish oneself, rather than a forsaken path to deny oneself.

Our younger generation is increasingly notorious for hijacking ministry to gain the world. In doing so, many could be unknowingly saying, “Lord, Lord,” while simultaneously forfeiting their souls. I pray many us of wake up and repent before we hear, “I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness.”

The Lord’s sacred, self-denying call to ministry is being treated like an ecumenical youth event. Break out the games, exuberantly exercise our “gospel freedoms,” and let’s make some hip videos, in the name of “gospel ministry.” It’s appalling. As a result, sanctification is becoming a foreign idea in many places. At best, personal holiness is being diluted to “works of public service,” rather than rigorous self-examination in search of sin’s blinding deception for the goal of systematic mortification of the flesh.

Underlying much of it is a secret lust to gain self-approval. But it has to go. The Lord will not allow it for long. I don’t like those times of the Lord’s good discipline more than anyone else. I recoil from pain. I want to keep my ego. But, those responses are fueled by a deadly lust for self-exaltation that festers in us all, especially us young, restless, and idolatrous men in ministry.

The late Dr. S. Lewis Johnson gave some sound advice many years ago: “Be an oak, not a mushroom.” A mushroom springs up quick and dies quicker. Oaks grow steady, for stability in the long haul. We will do so by unglamorous, unhip, daily submission to, and teaching of, the whole counsel of God, coupled with a moment-by-moment rigorous self-denial as servants of the Lord.

Our generation has an incredible opportunity, with all the resources and hype around church-planting right now, to establish a fleet of strong churches, faithful to the Lord, which will stand the storms of the world. As one struggling, sinful church-planter to others, the need of the hour is some serious self-examination, lest our generation be known as the evangelical has-been’s.

One of my church-planting mentors told me before planting: “Grow old quick.” At first I didn’t like that advice. It threatened the pride of my youth. It seems like too many church planters in our generation repudiate such ideas because there’s far too much glamour to be had in pop-Christianity. Instead of carelessly copying the hippest guy on the market, we need to look at seasoned men who have successfully weathered the Lucas-syndrome. We may not be as entertained, but we will be good servants of Christ Jesus. We may not plant the fastest growing church, but we’ll plant one that has the potential to last.

Let our budding generation be known as the one which, like Josiah, smashed our idols and defiled our own high places. May the Chief Shepherd aid us in spiritual-surgery to eradicate pragmatic tendencies, to reprioritize robust sanctification, to give ourselves fully to life-long exposition of Scripture, and see church-planting not as a means to make a name for ourselves, but for the Lord Jesus Christ.

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
  • Hey Eric, thanks for your insights, brother. May you continue to be an oak, not a mushroom in Jackson Hole!

  • Stephen Gorman

    Great article, thankyou.

  • Noah

    Thank you for your work here. Btw, we have a young woman in our church who was in JH, WY for a couple weeks visiting her brother who I believe is on your planting team. She had many encouraging things to say. Thank you for your service and diligence!

  • Guest

    Isn’t this entire blog an exercise in self-veneration? Does Christendom really need another TMS Christian blog? It seems like a bunch of younger men from TMS trying to act like little John MacArthurs. The style and content of the blog is nearly identical to Phil Johnson’s blog. This whole thing seems like an opportunity for you all to validate your own importance by “defending the truth” and writing “convicting” posts. Perhaps there are better uses of your time?

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  • Todd

    Excellent, encouraging words. “Grow old quick.”

  • Steve Meister

    Eric,

    Thank you for this post, brother. Well, said. Your thoughts are very important – and relevant even for us non-planting, “revitalizing” pastors. Our challenge in either case is ensuring the epithumeo in 1 Tim 3:1 does not get corrupted into the kind of epithumia that we are supposed to flee (2 Tim 2:22)!

    Thanks, again. And press on!

    • Eric Davis

      Steve-

      Great to hear from you, brother. Amen to that encouragement.

  • Ekim

    I’m reminded of the Dark Ages.We are not supposed to touch success and its proof, numbers, they say. The world is watching and they are seeing what man can do and they scoff. They may not scoff if they see what God can do. A worsening of the economy and some persecution might help. Then the psuedo-Christianity-lite “ministries”may crumble. That may sound harsh, but the scriptures depict God’s wrath rather graphically. If He shares his glory with no man, I’m gettin as far away as I can from some of the rock star pastors and their campuses as I can.
    I appreciated your article, Eric. Very well said.
    Blessings,
    Ekim

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Eric, great post.

    Thinking on you “Grow Old Quick” comment, I was wondering if you are familiar with any church plant models where the older, seasoned pastor with all the experience is the one out doing the hard work of church planting, while the “Timothy” young buck stays home to hold down the fort of the more established existing church. That way the more mature church is maturing the less mature pastor, and they more mature pastor is maturing the less mature church.

    On the one hand, I agree with the grow like oaks comment, and love seeing pastor’s like mine who are in one place for 30+ years gettin it done. I really do, that’s a huge reason we’re at our church. But on the other hand, our church just did a plant in a nearby community, which is really exciting, but none of the elders or older salty dogs went the the plant, even though many of them live in that community, which is part of the reason my family didn’t end up going with the plant (which is actually closer to my home too).

    Seems like Paul’s model it was him going out doing the church planting, and raising up young bucks to leave behind (vs send out) to take care of the established churches. Any thoughts?

    God bless you Eric and I pray for you regularly. (Saw in the NYTimes Snow King might be strugglin, hope the town hill survives!)

    • Eric Davis

      John,

      You bring up an interesting point. Off the top of my head, I am not familiar w/ any church-plant training that specifically sends out a team lead by a seasoned pastor. I agree, that Paul seems to have kept younger guys in place (Timothy, Titus) while he was out and about. However, he was also an Apostle. At the same time, though the Ephesian church (where he sent Timothy) does not seem to be a mature church when 1 Timothy is in place.

      In either case, I think you bring up a wise point: it is advantageous to put a trained, skilled, gifted, and called guy on a team when planting. That may be the senior pastor of the planting church or not. But it certainly should be someone that the mother church affirms.

      A larger point you bring up is one I totally agree with: the planting team must have some rigorous training and oversight from the mother church b/c the demands on that team are high. The shock of leaving a strong church, where there are many ministries offering much training and care, to landing in the planting location, where there is nothing, can be strenuous on the planting team. This is an aspect of church-planting that I think is largely overlooked today.

  • Eric – thanks for your insight. Have you reviewed Grace Comm. Churche’s new program called Grace Advance? graceadvance.org. I’d be interested in your thoughts on it.

    • Eric Davis

      Dave-

      I am aware of Grace Advance, but not familiar w/ the specific curriculum. Pastor MacArthur mentioned that it is a 3-month training program, where guys get very hands-on ministry training from seasoned pastors. I am definitely excited about it, as I think it will serve a great need. As I mentioned in this series, I think many churches are being planted in the wrong direction b/c of insufficient training and oversight. I think a huge need in church-planting is, not only theological and pastoral training of the lead-planter, but also more specific, hands-on preparation as it relates to establishing a new church. It seems that is what GA desires to do. Very exciting stuff.

  • Marty Schoenleber, Jr.

    Eric,
    Fantastic post Eric. Keep fighting the good fight. I left my church 3 years ago to invest my remaining years in raising up the next generation of church planters who will take the gospel to the next generation. I have been fighting these trends that you write about every step of the way. you’re not alone. Dwell in the land and be faithful. The One who rewards is the one we should be seeking to please. Let’s keep living for Jesus and let him take care of the results.

    • Eric Davis

      Marty,

      Thanks for the encouragement and stopping by the blog. I would be interested to hear how specifically you are equipping the next generation of church-planters (what church, network, or seminary, etc). Feel free to contact me via twitter (above). Thanks,

      Eric

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