Friday, 7 October 2016

The High Calling of Church Leadership

As the Hillsong Movie makes its way to NZ's shores, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on what the movie is telling us about God and godly values. It's abundantly clear that Hillsong did not seek to make a movie about itself, nor to glorify what they do. Even from just the glimpse I have got through the trailers and interviews that have been conducted with the Hillsong United team, their humility shines through all of this.

One of my favourite verse for seeing what God can do through worship is found in 2 Chronicles 20 (quoted here from New King James edition).

21 And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed those who should sing to the Lord, and who should praise the beauty of holiness, as they went out before the army and were saying:
“Praise the Lord, for His mercy endures forever.”
22 Now when they began to sing and to praise, the Lord set ambushes against the people of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah; and they were defeated.
What is the context of that? Jehoshaphat as king of Judah had word that an army was coming to attack the nation. The Moabites, Ammonites and some Meunites were on their way from Edom on the far side of the Dead Sea. Jehoshaphat sought the word of the Lord and then raised up the army of Judah to march out against the invaders. As part of that he appointed worshippers to lead in the front line of the march. But for this blog I am not just focusing on worshippers, I am focusing on all church leadership and the implications of being in that front line. At the front of the army that is where you have the most risk of being shot at, and that's the same for church leadership. In the front line of the church, the leadership are those who so often get all of the criticism and negativity aimed at them. To withstand that criticism and respond to it effectively requires a special measure of grace and humility. These are some of the key attributes of church leadership, and not something everyone can aspire to - which is one of the reasons why not all of us are suited to be in that kind of position. 

Consider what are the most important attributes to be found in church leadership - well, they are not focused on making themselves look good. That is what the world sees in leadership, but it's not what it is about in the church. Servant leadership as is practiced in the church is about receiving a humble calling and a burden of responsibility because leaders have to make some pretty big decisions and they can't be expected to get it right all of the time. At heart they are subject to the same flaws and imperfections as the rest of us face and this means not everything they do will please everybody. It falls on us who are under their leadership in a church to give them as much support as we can and serve them back for as long as they continue to model godly leadership attributes for us to follow. When  you see your church leadership at the front encouraging you and lifting you up to a higher standard of your own personal faith just remember what it's actually cost them to be there on that platform and what they've had to endure as part of their high calling.

I just need to reflect here on some of the journey I've travelled in working with church leadership this year. I spent about 12 years in the same church and watched it change quite a lot in that time, and change direction a few times. In the last three years it's become plain to me that the direction it is now going in is different than where God is calling me to serve and looking back five months after leaving, I feel a lot more confident about having made that decision than I did when it actually happened. Prior to leaving I had spent a lot of time attempting to reconcile my differences with the church leadership and, God bless them, they were patient enough to give me the time to try. In retrospect my time at South City Christian Centre (now South City C3) was the bedrock support to a process of developing spiritual maturity that took many years to accomplish. In its turn the five months at South West Baptist Church was another shorter personal development process leading me to Grace Vineyard Church where I am now. Sometimes it can be hard to see where God is leading you to serve and it's easy to criticise the leadership of your church when it may well be time for you to move on. What I like about this journey in 2016 is that I have been able to maintain the friendships that I have made amongst the leadership of all three churches and continue to serve all of them regardless of which one I am actually attending now. God has also called me to serve another church which I expect to be part of in the future. All of the time serving the three churches I have been a part of this year is material to that future. 

In the title of this post I've written of church leadership as a "high calling". So often in the world, people would think of that as putting someone on a pedestal and exalting them. In the Christian church it has to be different; we have to see our leadership as ordinary people who have a special calling to serve us, and the sacrifices they often make to give their best to this. Let's all think about the best way we can honour them and serve them back.

Pros and cons of different church governance forms

It's interesting that there are some different ways of governing churches. A lot of Pentecostal churches have a similar form of governance which mostly rests on the authority of the senior pastor. Quite often that pastor will appoint all of the staff, and also appoint the elders or leadership oversight. It's something I was aware of from the New Life Churches of New Zealand and appears to be the same in the NZ Vineyard Churches. Of course, the senior pastor is usually called to some extent by the congregation; I've never actually seen what process they use to appoint a new one.

When you get into the community more and look at Baptist churches, they tend to have elected forms of leadership, starting from the calling of a senior pastor and extending through to the appointment of elders. That senior pastor will have considerable authority, subject to the oversight of the elders and the election process for these elders gives them a measure of independence from the pastor.

Somewhat in between is where an oversight group (elders or trustees) appoint their own new members independently of either the congregation or the pastoral leadership. Whilst I'm not aware of any churches that use this system, it is used by some of the proprietorship trusts for Christian schools in NZ.
I am unaware of the systems used in Anglican churches. In Catholic churches I would guess the Bishop is supreme over all the churches in his diocese as they have a very hierarchical leadership structure.

South City C3 is one of a few Pentecostal churches to have the elders (trustees) elected by the membership, and their leadership team is also elected, although this does not amount to electing the church staff to their positions; all staff positions are independent of this process, and the election amounts to appointing a group of people to run the day to day activities of the church. The main check on open elections is that election candidates must be approved by the existing leadership team. The reason they have this system has come about as a result of their transition from the Evangelistic Church of Christ in the early 1990s, when it must have been clear that too much power was vested in the hands of the former senior pastorate of the preceding 40 years or so; the church was slowly turned into a form of cult, and it took much effort to bring about change. This situation illustrates one of the challenges of the more common form of Pentecostal governance mentioned about, and the example of Mark Driscoll's former Mars Hill church is another case that comes to mind. Still, situations like this are relatively rare, not the least because members can usually walk away from the church, as happened at ECC and at countless other places where a leadership was found wanting.

Most Pentecostal churches do have a process for resolving disputes that allows a higher authority such as their church denominational association to step in where needed as a check on the limitations of their typical form of leadership.

Thursday, 6 October 2016

The Day and Hour Unknown

 In Matthew 24 Jesus foretold the signs of his second coming and the end of the age. End-times theologians have focused on this and many other passages of Scripture, particularly in the book of Revelation, in attempts to predict the date of Jesus' return. This appears to be a contradiction of a specific verse Matthew 24:36 which states quite clearly that no-one except the Father knows when that day or hour is. End-timers draw very largely upon a theology called "dispensationalism" which was first promulgated about 1840 ago by one of the founders of Brethrenism, John Nelson Darby, and which is widespread in some sections of the church. This theology is not widely accepted amongst the theological community worldwide, but does enjoy a level of recognition amongst Brethren, Pentecostal and generally "fundamentalist" churches to this day. When you see evangelists talking about tribulations, raptures and the like this is where they are coming from and the generic term for this type of theology is "eschatology". 

One of the most major proponents of these beliefs in recent NZ history was Barry R Smith and his evangelistic association, International Support Ministries, which has published a series of book which are still being sold today (Smith himself passed away 14 years ago). A lot of churches in NZ hosted Smith for regular meetings preaching about eschatalogical subjects and I read his books around the time I had my personal conversion experience so I am well familarised with his material. Since the end of his public ministry it is safe to say there has been very little public appetite in most churches in New Zealand for a continuation of this type of theology as most people have realised that the events prophesised in the books did not happen in the timeframes envisaged and it only takes a little theological study to understand that every generation since Darby has tried to fit the events of their day to the Bible yet Jesus still hasn't returned 175 years later.

The big downsides of focusing on dispensationalist theology are this preoccupation with dates and times and interpreting current world events, in other words an excessive focus on the supposed imminence of Jesus' return; and how it flows on into the overall theological focus of individual churches. For a long time Pentecostal churches in particular tended to focus more in what went on inside their four walls than in the world outside and had little interest in the world's problems beyond local evangelism and church planting. Possibly as a result of theological study and knowledge becoming more widely accepted within Pentecostal churches, there has been a shift to more community focused ministries within these churches over recent times, alongside a global change in thinking towards Israel(see link below). There are in fact a number of different theologies (other than dispensationalism) that are used to define the relationship between the Christian church and the ancient or present-day Jewish state, and as with numerous other theological differences, there is no clarity about how to determine which of these is right. World Vision is one of many organisations with a specific focus on Palestinian refugees and has partnerships with leading evangelical communities worldwide. This is just one part of how a lot of Pentecostal churches are now reaching out into the communities around them.

I've been in Pentecostal churches for most of my Christian life (since my salvation experience 25 years ago) and have seen this shift in focus over that time, along with (to some extent) eschewing an explicitly Pentecostal label to some degree. This year I have been a part of two different Pentecostal churches and have closely examined their belief statements, as well as those of a third church that I expect to be part of some way into the future. All are refreshingly clear of references to "end times" and "tribulations" although the C3 doctrinal statement (of the church I left in May this year) does mention the "imminent" return of Christ which may be overtly dispensationalist and one of their local pastors said he had not formed a view on the theology itself. But these views are still widespread throughout New Zealand as I am aware of in conversations with other churchgoers. Tauranga House of Prayer is coming to Christchurch this weekend and their belief statement specifically does mention tribulations and raptures. I'll be listening to their message more for aspects of prayer and not eschatology. In a lot of smaller church contexts (perhaps more like the Brethren assemblies) and cults you will still find a lot of references to dispensationalist thinking and it behoves all of us to be aware of this and take a good look at what is being taught in our churches. An example being the article published in Christianity Today about a predicted asteroid strike on the Earth in the future and a comparison drawn with the Revelational account. Do you get all wrapped up and focused on the alleged date mentioned or ignore it and focus on ministry? i believe the latter is the correct position to take.