Does Willow Creek Really Want a Senior PASTOR?

Willow Creek has been through a lot. Founding and senior pastor Bill Hybels resigned earlier than expected after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced.

To fill the leadership void, Heather Larson took over as lead pastor and Steve Carter filled the role of teaching pastor. Then more allegations against Hybels arose.

It wasn’t long before Larson and Carter, along with the church’s elder board, resigned.

For a church that had become a mainstay on the evangelical scene and perhaps had more influence on the idea of church in America than any church in the last three decades, this was a nightmare.

It seemed to me like they were entering one of those seasons a sports fan dreads: a rebuilding season when a team is dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up in hopes that it will be stronger on the other side.

That’s why I was surprised that the job description from their senior pastor search looks the way it does; namely, that it looks just like the role Hybels filled.

It seems odd to me that you wouldn’t seek to break the mold that resulted in toxic leadership. To think it was just the man and not the environment is to grossly misunderstand what happened at Willow Creek.

Scot McKnight, a professor at Northern Seminary, notes a similar concern:

Willow Creek’s job description is little more than a repetition of the reshaped pastoral role as defined by and embodied in Bill Hybels. A culture was formed during his years leading Willow — and it is clear to those of us who care about the colossal influence of Willow Creek that the DNA of Willow Creek has not changed since the resignation of Hybels.

McKnight’s concerns center on the job description’s emphasis on Willow Creek as a brand and not on the historical, biblical qualifications of a pastor.

The role of pastor, biblically speaking, is outlined in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:7-9. You should read those yourself, but the gist of the passages is that a pastor should be:

  • Above reproach in his life and conduct
  • Married to one woman
  • Hospitable
  • Able to teach sound doctrine and rebuke false teaching
  • A good and loving husband and father who manages his household well
  • Thought well of by outsiders

And they should not be:

  • Given to drunkenness
  • A lover of money
  • Quarrelsome
  • A recent convert
  • Arrogant
  • Quick-tempered

The only thing I could find in the description that seemed to mirror these qualifications was one bullet point: “Exemplify a life of walking closely with Jesus, including strong spiritual leadership in the home.” That’s headed in the right direction, at least.

McKnight goes on:

The absence of these features as the central terms, ideas and categories for a pastor’s qualifications reveals a culture at Willow that does not perceive these as important and therefore one that does not relate well to such terms. This can only happen because of a dismissal of the foundational importance of biblical teachings about bishop/elder qualifications and their importance in the entire history of the church.

Why is that important?

When we shift our central terms from pastors and priests and elders to leaders and entrepreneurs and managers, we leave the biblical images and reconfigure pastors with models designed for something else entirely.

I think that’s right. Pastors and CEOs are not the same things. The primary imagery used for pastors in the scriptures is a shepherd. CEOs are decidedly not shepherds, and necessarily so. So when you ask for one over the other, or someone functioning as both, you get something altogether different.

McKnight again:

Willow will get what it wants but what it wants is not what the Bible wants. You won’t find Willow’s favorite terms in any word cloud about Jesus’ pastoral life, or Peter’s pastoral life, or Paul’s pastoral life — or, truth be told — about the pastoral role throughout the history of the church.

Willow Creek’s influence cannot be overstated. Therefore, whatever happens there matters, both to the local congregation that needs to be shepherded and to the world beyond.

Like McKnight, I know that “To change a church culture like Willow’s — and those it has influenced — requires a conversion so penetrating that everything is born again.”

I’m praying that happens, and that the church finds a pastor who will feed God’s sheep.

Does Your Bible Look Like Brussels Sprouts or Dessert?

Imagine yourself sitting down to a table with fresh white linens draped over top. Several pristine utensils sit before you. The napkin is neatly folded. It sits just above a clean, white plate. And on that plate is a big, black leather Bible.

As you look down at that Bible, does it look like the dessert you can’t wait to dig into, or does it look more like the brussels sprouts you shove aside so you can get to the good stuff?

The answer to that question means everything.

Too many of us look down and see a strange, foreign book we want to love, but we don’t know quite what to do with it. It’s just never tasted good, so we move it around on the plate and pretend to enjoy it.

That is not what God intends.

The Epidemic of Biblical Illiteracy

Instead, God means for his Word to satisfy our deepest cravings and to whet our appetites for more.

Psalm 19 says that God’s words are to be desired more than the finest gold and that they are sweeter than the drippings of the honeycomb.

Is that how you feel about the Bible? If you’re like most people, probably not.

Bible engagement is, to put it bluntly, abysmal, even within the church. You might even call it an epidemic. After their recent study of Bible reading, LifeWay Research concluded that Americans are fond of the Bible but don’t actually read it. More than half of Americans have read little or none of the Bible, they found.

Only 45% of those who regularly attend church read the Bible more than once a week. 40% percent of the people attending are reading their Bibles occasionally—maybe once or twice a month, if at all. There are some who read their Bible every day (19%), but for every one of them (19%), someone isn’t reading it at all (18%).

And it’s not as if the Bible is hard to come by in America. The English language Bible continues to be the most popular book in our world. Every year, about 25 million Bibles are sold in the United States. Among those homes that have a Bible, they own an average of three, not to mention the Bible apps on smartphones.

Most of us know this isn’t good, especially those of us in the church. We experience some low to medium level of guilt because we haven’t read the Bible much lately. The church often doesn’t help us feel any better. Over and over again, we hear that reading the Bible is crucial for spiritual growth and we should be in it every day. Yet most people aren’t doing it.

Why is that?

Why We Don’t Read the Bible

Maybe you’ve tried to read the Bible but got frustrated and gave up. Maybe you assume it’s the pastor’s job. Or maybe you don’t have the time or you’re not sure if it’s true. Maybe you just think it’s boring.

Overall, you might think the problem is a lack of discipline. That we’re just not getting up early enough or taking the time to sit down and read a few chapters of the Bible each day. And to some degree, that’s true. But the real issue is deeper.

We don’t have a discipline problem as much as we have a delight problem.

We don’t study the Bible because we don’t delight in the Bible. Think about it. You do what you delight in. You do the things you enjoy. Some of us enjoy kicking back and watching some Netflix or football. Maybe you enjoy exercising or woodworking or riding your motorcycle.

Why do we do these things? Because we enjoy them, we delight in them. When you delight in something, it doesn’t really feel like you have to make time for them; you just do them because you love them.

But so many in the church don’t delight in God’s Word. They don’t enjoy their time with him. And for many of them, I believe that’s because they were never shown how to delight in the Word.

If that’s you, then don’t worry — you’re in good company. In fact, I was just like this not that long ago.

How I Learned to Love the Bible

I’ve only been delighting in the Bible for the last 5 years. Before that, it was a chore at best that I rarely got around to. Reading the Bible for me was like that last item on your to-do list that you keep carrying over to the next one because you don’t want to do it.

To make a long story short, I wound up in seminary and one of my first classes was something called Hermeneutics, which I had to look up before registering. Hermeneutics, I found out, is a fancy word for the study of how to interpret the Bible.

The semester was full of grammar lessons and interpretation methods and practicing outlining the text and learning about the different genres featured in the Bible. Some of it was dry. Much of it was boring.

But it changed my life.

By the end of that course, I felt for the first time like I had a toolbox for the Bible and I knew how to use it. The tools I acquired in that class opened the Bible to me like never before, allowing me to see things I’d never seen and understand things I never imagined.

And it made me mad.

The Greatest Gift I Can Give

Why did it make me mad? Because I had to go outside the church to learn how to read the Bible. I had to pay money to do an online course with people I didn’t know to learn how to read the book the church was telling me to read.

I remember thinking, Why did I have to go to seminary to learn this? Why didn’t someone in the church teach me this?

From then on, I’ve been taking every opportunity I can get to teach what I learned to people in the church.

Aside from the gospel itself, there’s no greater gift to give to people than an understanding of how to read the Bible. It’s the difference in catching fish for someone versus teaching them how to fish. Catching fish for them will feed them for a day. But if you teach them how to fish, you’ll feed them for a lifetime.

So let’s learn to fish. Let’s learn to mine the depths of God’s Word and feast on the riches it contains.

To do that, we’ll first need to understand what the Bible is, which will be the topic of my next post.

This is part 1 in the Appreciating the Bible series.  Read part 1: Does Your Bible Look Like Brussels Sprouts or Dessert? | Part 2: What is the Bible? | Part 3: Who Wrote the Bible? | Part 4: Why Study the Bible? | Part 5: Bible Study Doesn’t Have to Be a Chore

Pursuing Biblical Excellence in the Church

Churches rightly talk a lot about carrying out ministry with excellence. God is excellent, after all, so to pursue excellence in ministry is one way to live out his character. 

But what do we mean when say “excellence”? If we’re not careful, we can make excellence all about human effort and mean little more than “technical perfection.”

When excellence is defined only in terms of human input, though, we miss the mark of biblical excellence, along with its blessings. What do I mean by “biblical excellence”?

Excellence in the Bible

The Greek word translated as “excellent” is hyperbole, which is obviously where we get the English word “hyperbole.” Throughout the Bible, the word is used in ways that mean a throwing beyond, or as a metaphor to explain that something is superior, pre-eminent, or beyond measure.

But there is another Greek word, arete, a noun that is translated as “excellence.” Whereas hyperbole is used to describe something, arete denotes something worth striving for. Arete conveys a virtuous course of thought, feeling, and action, such as in Philippians 4:8, where Paul writes,

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence (arete), if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.

Arete — excellence — starts with virtuous thinking but doesn’t stop there. Excellence moves from virtuous thinking to virtuous feeling, and results in virtuous action. Which is why Paul follows with verse 9:

What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

Biblical Excellence Defined

Biblically speaking, excellence is the awe-inspiring, Christ-exalting jubilation that rushes into the heart and mind of the believer overcome by the gospel and results in faith-fueled action for God’s glory and neighbor’s good.

Excellence is not technical perfection, though it is perfectly technical. It is the renewing course of thought, feeling, and action made possible by the Holy Spirit that exalts the Son and brings glory to the Father.

And the benefits of pursuing biblical excellence?

“The God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9).

Ministry is biblically excellent when its result is peace in the presence of God. This is man’s greatest longing, is it not? To be present with God? Since Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden, we have been longing to be in God’s midst, in his presence. 

What does that look like? Well, this is one of those things you know when you see it. You also know the absence of it when you don’t see it. 

But what about doing ministry to the best of our ability? What about technical perfection? Biblical excellence and technical perfection are not mutually exclusive. A church can pursue biblical excellence while still doing its best with the resources it has. (More on this below.)

How then do we pursue biblical excellence in our churches?

Pursuing Biblical Excellence in the Church

The first step in pursuing biblical excellence is to develop a definition of “excellence,” as seen above. Defining excellence is something best done by a church’s pastors and elders, with appropriate input from other church members along the way.

Once a church agrees on a definition, it can begin to flesh out that meaning across its ministries. Wisdom and discernment are needed here. If excellence is the awe-inspiring, Christ-exalting jubilation that rushes into the heart and mind of the believer overcome by the gospel and results in faith-fueled action for God’s glory and neighbor’s good, then each ministry of the church should be focused on cultivating environments and relationships where this is possible. 

This means ministry leaders should be primarily concerned with clearly presenting and displaying the gospel. Practice and work hard, by all means. But don’t do so with little regard for what’s being communicated. The gospel — not our level of perfection — is the power of salvation.

Practical Questions for Ministry Leaders

Practical questions for ministry leaders to ask themselves are:

  • What is my ministry goal?
  • How does the gospel speak into or shape this ministry need?
  • Are we experiencing Christ-exalting jubilation when we see this truth? Why or why not?
  • What can we do to clearly communicate or demonstrate this facet of the gospel?
  • Do the peripheral aspects of how we are carrying out this act of ministry help or hinder that message?
  • Have we shown people what an application of this gospel truth into their lives might look like?

The third question above is important because it’s almost impossible for people to experience biblical excellence if their ministry leaders are not experiencing it themselves. It’s difficult and dishonest to ask people to be inspired to action by something you’re not excited about. If what you’re communicating doesn’t inspire you, it’s not going to inspire your audience.

Our churches will never experience biblical excellence and its blessings if they’re pursuing the wrong kind of excellence. Excellence in ministry is about ushering people into the presence of God so that he can commission them into action for his glory and our neighbor’s good.

How Pastors Can be Built to Last

Pastors are not quitters. Or at least, they don’t plan to be. Yet about 250 pastors leave their pulpits a month.

Most pastors don’t plan on quitting, but they also don’t plan not to. Unless pastors are built to last, they might find themselves burned out and beleaguered long before they planned on stepping down.

An aging and soon-to-be executed Apostle Paul once wrote to Timothy, his young protégé, to paint a picture of a pastor that’s built to last:

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. — 2 Tim. 2:3-6

Paul challenges the young pastor to endure for the sake of the gospel. Paul knew that Timothy was going to face great resistance to much of what he had been commissioned to do. He knew Timothy would suffer for proclaiming his faith and telling people that Jesus was the only way to heaven.

So Paul gives Timothy three illustrations to help flesh out the kind of endurance he’s talking about. Paul paints pastors using the analogies of the dedicated soldier, the disciplined athlete, and the hardworking farmer. Each of these illustrations tells us something about what it takes to be the kind of pastor that’s built to last.

Read the rest of my article at Gospel-Centered Discipleship

3 Principles for Passing on the Gospel

Their stricken faces said it all. The men and women of the U.S. Olympic 400-meter relay teams were disqualified and in disbelief.

The U.S. had owned the 400 relay in years past. Now, in 2008, the teams hadn’t even qualified.

In just a thirty-minute span, both teams’ hopes were dashed at the fumbling of the third and final baton handoff. When you’re running a relay, the handoff is critical. Runners take extra care to ensure a smooth handoff because when they drop the baton, they don’t finish the race.

Christians have an even more important handoff to make: passing the gospel on to the next generation. Paul, arguably the most skilled believer aside from Christ to ever hand off the gospel, once instructed his young protégé Timothy in how to pass it on well, saying, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).

Paul is challenging Timothy to pass on what he has heard to faithful men and women who also are able to pass it on. What has Timothy heard from Paul? The gospel. The truth of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

By this time in their relationship, Timothy would have seen Paul testify to this gospel hundreds of times. He also would have seen Paul pass it on hundreds of times. Paul understood the gospel does the next generation no good if it never receives it. The gospel is like a relay race; we’re either fumbling the handoff or ensuring it’s passed on with care.

In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul summarizes his most critical advice for passing on the gospel in three principles.

Read the rest of my article at Gospel-Centered Discipleship