October 15, 2013
Why worship and terror are leadership bedmates
As a kind of liturgy, I stand before our five-year-old church every September and ask a question: “Should we continue to exist as a church for another year?” You can hear pins drop every time.
The entire community—new comers, old comers, elders, parents—are always caught off guard by my question. Surveying the faces, I can see their intuitive responses. I enjoy the awkwardness. They think that something tragic has happened. Is he quitting? Is he rejecting the Trinity? Is there some glaring moral failure we’re about to hear?
Of course the answers are always no. But it’s that immediate, guttural reaction of uncertainty that I’m after; even if for a moment everyone imagines worst-case scenarios. For me, there’s intention and rationale behind simply asking the “should we?” question about our future.
As the pastor, I never want to assume that we should keep our ministry going just to keep it going. I desire Jesus to breathe freshly into us each year. Now, I certainly hope that our folks affirm our existence. I hope that they say yes, we should continue for another year. But it appeals to me to ask if God wants the same thing.
No ministry is permanent. It strikes me that not a single church St. Paul planted claims to be in existence to this day. Even the best churches with the best church planters will eventually close their doors. God is eternal, not his local churches.
Pushing further, I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that there are a great number of churches now open that ought to shut down. Likewise, there are many churches that are closed that should not have given up.
Because no ministry is permanent, it’s our job to discern if we’re to continue for a year in, year out basis. That’s why I ask the question. Every year. That deer-in-the-headlights look in the unbelieving eyes of the congregation is, quite honestly, priceless. Instagram priceless.
Being honest, I relish the momentary panic. But not just because of the wide eyes.
I relish it because I believe that leadership is about creating holy uncertainty. Often leaders’ relationships with uncertainty come only at times when life forces them to abandon the sure. But in my view, holy uncertainty is too important to leave only to come out in unplanned circumstances.
I know that some pastors will protest here, and in some sense I agree with them. Yes, a leader’s job is to lead. “Just leading,” creates a problem though. Today’s leaders are in the business of leading people in uncertain times. People are more scared than at any time in recent memory. As a result, many of us assume that a necessary requirement for good leadership is certainty in all things. We try to reassure people—and ourselves—that we know the future, we know the right answers, and we know the right path forward. And why not?
This accounts for many churches’ exponential growth: they’ve tapped into an emerging market. They sell and trade the commodity of certainty in uncertain times to uncertain people. With a desperate market, people will buy certainty from just about anyone who sounds convincing. Driven by this, pastors can easily morph into certainty-priests and neglect their divinely given assignment, which is something else entirely. But the lust for certainty has ultimately created a context where we, ourselves, have become the incarnation of truth to our churches.
Certainty-priests = Christ-replacers
I think that this incessant drive arises because our own souls need renovation. In her book, Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership, Ruth Barton writes that one of the keys to being a leader is to re-attend to the life of the soul, and this is no exception. Perhaps unconsciously covering up our own doubts, we pastors can become advice machines. But in doing this, we disciple people to need us more than they need Jesus. As advice machines, we train people to expect us to mediate the truth. We become the Third Adams. Christ-replacers. We become too necessary to the lives of our congregations. This is simultaneously great marketing, horrible leadership, and practical idolatry.
I think that a leader should be a Moses and a Paul. A leader occasionally goes up Mount Sinai to be with God alone, thus, creating moments of sheer terror for God’s people below. A leader embraces becoming temporally unnecessary that God might once again become the ultimate object of attention before His people. Paul, I would suggest, modeled this principle. I once heard a New Testament scholar explain that Paul would start a church in one city and immediately leave to go to another city for this precise reason. His absence created their need to search for Jesus. And had Paul stayed, their trust might have been placed in Paul, not God. In fact, a leader doesn’t always know how to get to the Promised Land. A leader just knows how to get into the desert, hoping that God will show up somewhere along the way. Leadership is actually about leading people out of an Egypt of certainty and into a desert of holy uncertainty. It is there, and only there, that we can worship freely.
For a church that craves certainty, uncertainty becomes our road to worship. That is why we must create uncertainty—moments where sheer fear dances boldly on the faces of God’s people. For there, God’s people can worship. Why? Because a prerequisite for faith, trust, and hope is that it stands in the face of something fearful, uncertain, chaotic. Hope looks at death in the face and laughs. Worship does the same to uncertainty.
Good leaders, like Moses, don’t envision uncertainty as an enemy to worship. They see uncertainty as the way to worship.
Moses hoped. He hoped they would make it to the Promised Land, although he didn’t know. Like Abraham before him, Moses was going off of a few words God had spoken to him in the desert about where He was about to take Israel. God’s revelation was ominously veiled in a total lack of specificity—God was simply taking them to a “good and spacious land” (Ex. 3:8). Moses had no map—he held on to a few cryptic words from a bush that burned in the desert. Hope drove Moses. Like Moses, we hope. We insist on ending our priesthood of certainty and receive the ministry of hope. We remember the difference between the two—the latter relies on eyesight, the former vision. One requires us to know exactly what will happen for us to be comfortable. The latter crucifies comfort. And does so that hope might will soon be resurrected.
Which brings me back to our yearly question. Without directly addressing the church’s clearly raw and freshly uncovered nakedness, I’ll pause for ten to fifteen awkward seconds to stare at God’s flock. I stare hard. Not to be mean. Not to be dramatic. In those seconds time stands still.
Then I see it. Anew, I stand before Israel in the desert—naked, afraid, yet on the precipice of worship. Then, there, in their eyes, right then, for that fleeting fifteen seconds, is seen on their face the name of something that is so important, so integral, and so fundamental to being a Christian in today’s world. Some would call it sheer terror. I call it a moment of potential worship. And in a world that worships certainty, uncertainty becomes the very place where we can truly worship God. And I believe it is in such moments of sheer uncertainty that we can truly worship Jesus as Lord of everything. That moment before we land on a communal answer is holy. Before continuing, like a wedding of yesteryear, I ask if anyone objects to another year of community (No one ever does; I’m sure someone will at some point).
Then we agree on another year.
A.J. Swoboda is a pastor, author, and professor in Portland, Oregon.