Friday, September 28, 2007

What your congregation really needs

While reading The Pastor's Guide to Effective Preaching (Beacon Hill Press), a collection of essays by a number of notable preachers (including Billy Graham, Eugene Peterson, Elizabeth Achtemeier), I came across the chapter on "The Personal Holiness of the Messenger," by Maxie Dunnam. I'm not a pastor in the vocational sense, but I am married to one. Also, much of what I do with my Sunday School class qualifies as shepherding. (We can get into the differences between spiritual gifts and offices later.) Nonetheless, this chapter contains some thoughts worthy of your consideration (whether you are a pastor or not).

What is the greatest need of your congregation?

More visitation for the sick, the troubled, and the widowed? Relevant, contemporary preaching? Systematic theology for all? Flashier ad campaigns and renewed emphasis upon giving? Higher attendance and increased voluntarism? A vibrant children's ministry? An edgy singles ministry? An increased outreach to the neighborhood through charity and evangelism? Deeper, more intense Bible study? Nope. None of the above.

Your congregation's greatest need is your personal holiness. Why don't you say that again to yourself? "My congregation's greatest need is my personal holiness." And, the truth of the matter is, you are as holy as you want to be. Do you want to be holy? No really. Think about it. Do you really want to be holy?

As people who spend almost all of their time in public, receiving either flattering admiration or withering criticism (or both at once), pastors learn quickly how to conceal themselves from their people. Every single person has an "outer life" and an "inner life," but if they are not careful, pastors can become those who constantly live in their "outer life." A glass house can make actors and actresses out of those who live within it.

I understand the fears of being "real," believe me. Pastors and their spouses know very well that if the church members could look deep within their hearts, most of them would spit in their faces. For this reason, "Hypocrisy is the greatest temptation of religious professionals." When you're a professional holy person, "faking it" often seems like the right thing to do so as to protect yourself from attack. We must resist this temptation and embrace the consequences of being real as we pursue holiness.

Dunnam offers the following five questions as tools by which we may constantly evaluate the attention we are giving to our personal holiness. I encourage you, whether you are a pastor or a lay minister, to give some thought to the answers:

1. Am I resisting image-building by living as transparently as possible?
2. Am I dealing with the self-deceit that comes from the applause of others?
3. Am I keeping my calling clear, resisting both the temptation for security and a competitive spirit?
4. Am I defensive when asked questions about the use of my time and the consistency of my spiritual disciplines?
5. Am I blaming others for things that are my own fault and the result of my own choices?

Dunnam goes on to say, "All the permanent fruit and progress that results from our leadership is based on strong character." And, its not enough just to recognize this truth. We must live the kinds of lives, practice the kind of disciplines, that build character and form us into the ministers God calls us to be.

So, I ask you: Are you growing in your walk with Christ? Do you want to change? How deep is your desire for holiness? "I know of no Christian in all the ages that we turn to for teaching and inspiration who did not give himself or herself consistently to discipline and devotion. Disciplines for the spiritual life are at the heart of living out the gospel. The purpose of discipline is to enhance our relationship with Christ, to cultivate a vivid companionship with Him. Through spiritual discipline, we learn to be like Him and live as He lived."


marie said...

I'm not a pastor, but I agree with your words here.

My own pastor is constantly sharing with us his own journey in Christ. He has shared excerpts from his prayer journal on his blog and generally is very open about what is going on with him in his walk.

This has hugely impacted our congregation as we see his example displayed before us each Sunday and whenever we are blessed to see him outside of church.

Holiness is his goal. And watching him strive for it inspires us all to make it our goal as well because the result is the beautiful Light of Jesus Christ shining brightly within!

UnderMidnight said...

I guess a slight correlation is what a friend of mine told me he read, something about the best place to be is when you have nothing to lose, nothing to prove, and nothing to hide.

I don't get defensive about my spiritual discipline. I don't have a problem saying that I suck when it comes to that.

As far as competitiveness, image, and stature...I don't want to be known or sought after or adulated. I want to be forgotten and hope that when I die my name will be striken from history.
All that matters is did I shine Jesus on the people I loved? Did the fire of Christ that burned inside me light up the people who were in need? May that light live on in my stead.

Money. Power. Tickled egos. Approval. None of it matters. We're all rotting corpses who just haven't been buried yet.
Any seeking of status is masturbation.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Thank you for your good thoughts, Marie. Your testimony about your pastor is a great encouragement.

Grace and peace,


Emily Hunter McGowin said...


As always, you have an interesting way of saying things! Thanks for your candidness.

Have a good weekend,


UnderMidnight said...

I keep wanting to respond again with a proper response but never am satisfied with what to say.

Hopefully you can see both the point I make and the humor of my unconventional statements.

In a Christian culture that is enslaved to pornography and all manner of other vices, a pastor who sets an example for the congregation is priceless. It all rolls downhill. We think we can hide our darknesses but in fact we infect out congregation with whatever we are carrying, be it good or bad. It can be our emotional issues, spiritual issues, relational issues. We cannot lead a congregation beyond where we ourselves have tread. Expressing a unified life, undivided by various vain motivations and addictions or behaviors, as an example or model to those we lead and shepherd is more powerful than the words we can speak.
But how can this be done? Chrysostom got sacked because he had integrity. If Jesus himself were to show up and lead a congregation he'd get sacked too. Kind of along the lines of William Shakespeare showing up and taking a Shakespeare class and failing.

My integrity is priceless to me, but at the same time I don't care what people think or say about me. I honestly couldn't care less. There is one person to whom we must answer. That gives me enough to occupy my time on earth without needing to worry about the opinions of dead people who haven't stopped breathing air yet.

I think of holiness in the imagery used to describe what we are. My most favorite is that we are lights shining in the darkness. We are also a royal priesthood and a holy nation, set aside in service to God as a light to the nations. Holiness is to be these things. We are these things and our lives must bear evidence of this fact.
As this example we lead the flock into this reality.

Sometimes we think we are the light that radiates from us. In this case we then radiate only ourselves, which is futile and dangerous. We are radiant. The spirit of God shines out of us. Pondering this seemingly simple imagery never ceases to be fruitful.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Josh, try the bottom of p. 123 to p. 125.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I hear you loud and clear and I think you are right on.

I like this part a lot: "We think we can hide our darknesses but in fact we infect out congregation with whatever we are carrying, be it good or bad. It can be our emotional issues, spiritual issues, relational issues. We cannot lead a congregation beyond where we ourselves have tread."

For someone often disillusioned with the institutional church, you seem to understand ministering within one quite well. Great thoughts.

Have a good Sunday,


Carn-Dog said...

thanks so much for the help.

BP said...

"A glass house can make actors and actresses out of those who live within it." - I agree; thank you for this convicting post.