Beyond requirement in theological education: a reflection on longing

Though I’ve tried to change this about myself many times, my singular passion is for theological education. I wish I could switch, I’ve tried, but it stays with me.

One of the frustrations with theological education is that for many Christian traditions it is required in order to officially lead in any capacity. Many jobs within Christian institutions are reserved for those with official training of some kind, with official documentation. I’m certainly not against training, merely the result of taking a movement built by the unschooled and ordinary and putting them through a system to make them, at least seemingly, schooled and extraordinary. Many Christian leaders in the making have a passion for a great number of things, all filtered through the singular belief that Jesus Christ and his gospel will bring about his kingdom of peace, joy, love and truth. When that passion is pushed through the sieve of  institutionalized theological education the result is often varied, and too often with unfettered passion diminished under the weight of canned knowledge.

One of my primary theses regarding theological education is that it doesn’t have to be like this. We can acquire the necessary and helpful knowledge without losing passion, and even have them serve one anther. Even as a middle and high school Bible teacher, this is my goal (albeit a bloody challenge, no doubt).

I was reflecting on issues related to this this morning, and contemplating moments in my own formal training that were positively transcendent. For instance, in an otherwise dry Hebrew class when the professor sang “There is a Fountain Filled with Blood” before exegeting  Isaiah 53, pausing to explain what each detail had meant to him personally over the years, and the entire class had done more than learned about Hebrew Grammar, Jewish history, prophetic imagery, Old Testament Christology and Biblical theology, we were worshiping Christ through all of it.

In this brief reflection I just want to share an idea. Theological education happens in and out of formal training, and in all contexts I believe it transcends mere knowledge acquisition with at least one key ingredient, a deep sense of longing. And this, while always a challenge, is most helped by a pastoral teacher whose heart is heavy with gospel saturation so that with everything they do the blood of Christ is dripping everywhere.

More on this later…

Gary Vaynerchuck as postmodern Rabbi in an age of failing Christian leaders – part 3

I may come back to this topic eventually, or something similar, but I want to wrap it up and move on for now.

I think my major takeaway from these reflections is that despite efforts in American Christianity to distinguish its institutions from culture in order to speak to culture, there is a rather rabid syncretism occurring at the most innate levels. To be sure, there are many great, wonderful and humble Christian leaders in the U.S. and around the world. My observations are about the rise of mega Christian brands of some magnitude, and the mass of people who are following their example without a second thought. Religious leaders have the dangerous task serving the broken without playing on the brokenness for personal gain. What stands out to me about Gary Vaynerchuck and his ilk is that in a great number of ways I have seen him serve people in more selfless and constructive ways with more honesty and self awareness then many Christian leadership circles that I have participated in or been close to.

I could have easily written a series of posts about what Christian leaders could or should be learning from the likes of Gary about leadership in any number of ways. But that would only serve to prop up the syncretism that I view as damaging. There are certainly helpful lessons to learn, the same way Moses learned from Jethro about practical leadership issues. However, there is something more fundamental at play in the current of Christian leadership, and that is the massive difference between being a caring, thoughtful, pastoral version of some other vocation, and being a Pastor. I know the lines can blur, but popular Evangelical leadership culture has adopted modern leadership and self-branding tactics wholesale. To say everything there is to say about this confluence of issues would be humanly impossible, and to say all I have to say about it would require book length treatises; maybe one day. I know there are debates over the very definitions of these words in the church context. What exactly is a pastor? What is leadership? Whatever the answer, it cannot be ignored that with the decline of a unified Christendom there has been a colossal rise in tribal empires of large local churches and ministries building followings and competing for followers, dollars and influence of all kinds. Some achieve this with more grace than others, but when their leaders fall, the full weight of the cult of personality is felt, and the weight of Christian celebrity takes it’s toll. There is such an increase of such situations that there are regular articles in major Christian news sources telling new stories of such events. Somehow, all around, there are still attempts to achieve similar reach the fallen once had, just to do it better. There is a significant lack of wisdom regarding the fact that just because the leaders with the largest ministries get more speaking  and writing gigs that doesn’t represent the sanctioning of God on what they are doing, nor a demonstration of their practices being the best.

In conclusion, my hope for myself and others, is that we can exercise some very sobering discernment about exactly what our goals are, and what they should be. If we are entrepreneurs who want to help people while building our business, let us never tire, and may that help spread far and wide. May we be the most pastoral entrepreneurs the world has ever seen, and may many be blessed and come to know Christ. But let’s never deny the fact that we are directly benefiting from it too, with a tactic that can only be considered philanthropic marketing. If we be Pastors though, the stakes are too high, and the dangers too great, to ever peddle the Gospel or the ministry for gain. Testimonies are not organic marketing, baptisms are not fertile ground for social media virality, church growth milestones are not metrics to share with investors for the next round of funding, and sermons are not strategic content production for podcasting. I know we are surrounded by cheap access to tools built to spread information, and we want our very special message to spread. But we should be careful that the gospel of Christ is not obstructed with our particular brand. We have a teacher, granting access to any that will follow him. We are disciples of this rabbi, followers who simply help others follow him like us. If we are not careful we will just be another Christian leader who has fallen victim to the blindness of pride as it takes on one of its many sinister manifestations.

But even if we are careful, and we secure a great personal following by mixing the Gospel of Christ with our particular brand of insight and wisdom, we should ask ourselves if we are disciples or just another drop in a growing sea of postmodern rabbis.

Gary Vaynerchuck as postmodern Rabbi in an age of failing Christian leaders – part 2

My hesitation with writing in general is to want to say something perfectly. That was the glorious thing about being a student, that wonderful deadline. My temptation when writing about something I care a lot about is wanting to say something perfectly that doesn’t offend anyone, and wins everyone over to my side. I say all that to say, I don’t assume I’ll achieve this, and that’s the hurdle I’m crossing to say anything at all, for good or ill, but I’m really hoping for all good.

If you feel my title for this series of posts is strong, I agree. I don’t see that as hoping to say something strongly, but speak plainly about hard realities. Part of the strong punch of this title is the assumptions that can be made about “an age of failing Christian leaders.” Allow me to soften that just a bit. My dad is a senior pastor of a Christian church, and has been my entire life. He is not a failure. I have attended, and am attending now, churches with Christian leaders who have not failed, not in the way I will be speaking of now. I’m a chaplain and Bible teacher at a Christian school in Korea. I want to be clear, I’m not throwing the baby out with the bath water. Simply put, my title isn’t meant to state any sort of despair over some insurmountable dearth of true, solid, or quality Christian leadership, for I don’t see that as the total reality.

However, you may rightly assume from my title that I see trends  in Christian leadership that deeply concern me, that I very much view as failures on several levels. Trying to talk specifically about something as broad as this topic is no small task, so let me now narrow the scope a bit. Christianity is the world’s largest religion, but I’m referring most specifically to mainstream American Christianity, primarily Evangelicalism. I am also thinking of what I have experienced in other parts of the West as well, and of my growing experience in Korea, which I will refer to later. But the bulk of what I’m talking about could most easily be classified as the leadership culture of mainstream American Evangelical Christianity, though there will be clear connections beyond that scope, some that I will highlight, many that I will not.

I’m going to start with a personal tone. Growing up the “church” as I experienced it was largely a haven of goodness in an otherwise evil world. This stayed true even as “grown up issues” swirled all around my family all the time. I don’t know how my parents shielded my three sisters and me as well as they did. But it wasn’t until I was in high school that I woke up to the full reality that all life was just a massive war, with evil from within and without, and that religious communities were no different. Not only were they no different in regards to the war, they often stir up and expose the realities of these battles of life in extreme and dirty ways. By the time I graduated high school, I had been a student under 5 youth pastors, and every single one of them had been affected deeply by some kind of sexual misconduct that they either did or that was done to them. Four would go on to eventually be permanently or temporarily relived of working as ministers because of something they did. The most this affected me was while I was in Bible college. One of these situations had reached fever pitch at my home church and then one of my ministry professors was arrested for raping girls in his youth group. I was so angry I couldn’t see straight. I went a little crazy, and began to consider living as a monk, possibly making it official by becoming one. Some encounter such traumas by rejecting everything. I responded by wanting to dive further in, to find the real amidst all the deception. Both responses have their trials. Then as now, I fully accept the Bible as God’s word, I believe Christ is alive, that he is Lord, God, King, Savior and yet still Friend, Servant, and Healer. That never changed. But as I considered the church as I knew it, I didn’t trust it anymore. Soon after I realized I did trust what I read about the “church” in scripture, it’s a beautiful thing actually. What I didn’t trust was what was passing for “church” in the religious communities I was apart of, and the leadership cultures that propped them up and sustained them. I’m skipping a lot of details in my personal narrative and theological development, but it was at this point I was on the hunt for alternative approaches. I believe God was with me as I experienced very sweet times with people of all faiths and the faithless, but especially other Christians seeking to follow Jesus Christ and see his love permeate all their lives and the whole world. Yet, there was more darkness ahead.

While I spent years on the fringes of mainstream American Christianity after college, I slowly found myself near the very forefront of it. I found a church I trusted a lot. I found my wife there. I went to their in-house school. I was mentored by some of their most senior staff, and helped them grow in any way I could for years. They were huge, with plans for more. The leader was larger than life, with plans that were truly galactic. He had a way of talking about the difference between his work on the church, and his work in the church, and a way of talking about his work for our local church and his larger ministry to the universal church beyond us, that was all really compelling and easy to believe. While attending his in-house school he talked about how he was a “content machine,” and even quantified how much he was worth in the business world in actual dollar amounts on more than one occasion. It was all mixed in with a very well thought-out approach to church and leadership, and I listened in awe and wonder. Here was a church with real spiritual results, that dealt with issues handily yet with a lot of care, and with a leader who would never put up with the kind of abuse I watched my dad endure at small country churches time and again. I was at this church when I discovered Gary Vaynerchuk, and I couldn’t help but notice that my pastor was a little like Gary…plus Jesus.

I began to see more churches around the United States fight for relevance in the digital age in similar ways. I was at a trendsetting church in this regard. It has become harder and harder to distinguish differences between talk of hustle in entrepreneurship and faithfulness in church planting, the leadership cultures of corporations and mega churches, the structure of franchising a business and a church creating multi-site congregations, self branding to make sales and content based ministries to make donors, organic marketing to build brand loyalty and orchestrating social media virality into baptism Sundays. My church ended in scandal. I wish I could say it was just my experience, even just the experience of the other 15,000 people who once called that church home, but many other churches are still following the example. I wish I could say it was just a Western reality, but I’m in Korea now where the largest church in the world had it’s leader imprisoned for embezzlement, and a similar situation recently occurred in Singapore as well. My senior students just did their final projects on the doctrine of the church, and I heard horror stories of how business oriented many of their churches are. In this hierarchical Confucian society pastors get away with telling their people they will go to Hell if they don’t give enough money, or at least insinuating it very strongly. Many of my students maintain a Christian worldview, but most plan to abandon their churches as soon as possible. For years American church leaders have highlighted similar phenomena, and denominations and seminaries alike are highlighting declining year after declining year.

Everywhere I look there are calls to return to the basics. The essentials of community, ethics, being good, normal humans beings, doing life together on the same mission because life is too short to mess around. All in all, it really sounds a lot like what Gary Vee says…plus Jesus.

It’s all leading me to consider the way spiritual needs are being expressed and met in the our digital day, and what the real differences are between a highly ethical, aggressive and generous entrepreneur and much of what passes for Christian leadership. I can’t help but notice my generation, the world over, getting very excited about the spirituality of business, and very suspicious of the business of spirituality.

To be continued…