My latest column at Christian Week:
“Nothing changes on New Year’s Day,” sings Bono, lead singer of U2. Later in the same song, Bono continues, “I will begin again.” Nothing changes as we start 2007, but I pray it is possible, in some ways, to begin again.
Speaking in Toronto last year, pastor and author Gordon MacDonald defined revival as bringing something back to life. We need two kinds of revival, MacDonald argued. One is big-R Revival, which is needed at crisis points five or six times within one’s life. The other is small-r revival, which we need on a daily basis. I long for both kinds of revival in the coming year.
I grew up in the church. I am used to North American Christianity. Somehow I’ve picked up some modern ways of thinking about church which really aren’t helpful and have lead me to some crisis points. I hope to continue the big-R Revival in how I think about effective ministry.
I need, for instance, to give up my longing for Christendom. Part of me still longs for the days when Christianity was dominant within Canadian culture and the Church had influence. Those days aren’t coming back, but that is okay. God is more than up to the challenge.
I need to give up my reliance on techniques and pragmatism. At no stage in Christian history have we had better programs, techniques, and leadership theories. New programs and techniques come out almost daily. Despite all these techniques, the North American church is struggling at its core. The late Canadian theologian Stanley Grenz wrote that a pragmatic approach to ministry is “self-defeating, simply because it transforms the community of faith into an institution whose chief end is not the glory of God and the fulfillment of a divinely-given mandate, but survival.” Real change does not come from better techniques.
I need a revival in the way that I think about the gospel. Canadian theologian J.I. Packer says, “Without realizing it, we have during the past century bartered that gospel for a substitute product, which, though it looks similar in enough points of detail, is as a whole a decidedly different thing. Hence our troubles; for the substitute product does not answer the ends for which the authentic gospel has in days proved itself so mighty.” Recovering the gospel, and bringing our ministries back into line with it, is perhaps our most pressing need, according to Packer.
I also need to deal with my pastoral ambitions. “I am convinced that personal pastoral ambition, and a pastoral ethic centered around productivity and success is brutal to our souls and destructive to the souls of the people we lead,” writes one pastor, Kent Carlson. “We must become skilled at detecting the odor of personal ambition, then flee from it as if the church’s future depends on it. For I believe it does.”
Mostly, I need to rediscover true Biblical ministry, centered not around meeting human needs with a truncated gospel in an attempt to win people over to a human institution. Rather, it is about becoming an alternate community shaped by the Gospel, sent by God to participate in his mission to the world.
I confided to a friend recently that I don’t know if I have what it takes to lead a congregation to effective ministry in a changing culture. This isn’t false modesty. It is relatively easy to be a transactional leader who maintains a congregation; it is much more difficult to be a transformational leader who sees real change at the deepest levels. Nobody is able to do this on their own.
I hope to be revived on a daily basis this year so I’m reminded I don’t have to lead on my own. “I want to encourage you,” a friend wrote to me recently, “that you don’t have to fix anyone’s problems. You just need to point them to Jesus. He does the work – you are just the vehicle that he works through.” As Jesus said, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” I want to learn this and live this on a daily basis.
These are the revivals, big and small, that I long for this coming year.