We are not them! But who are we?
By Ron Gladden | 13 March 2020 |
I moved to Ohio to lead the second-largest church in the conference when I was just 26, but my two associate pastors and I hit it oﬀ like the Three Amigos. We huddled with the lay leaders and collectively decided to try for big goals for the mission of Christ. With God’s amazing blessings, we ended up with over 100 baptisms in a calendar year. Our union paper shared the story as their cover article while our head deacon actually complained that we unnecessarily busted the church’s water budget by having too many baptisms. It was an exciting time.
The next year, I was sitting in Peter Wagner’s Church Planting 101 class at Fuller Seminary. “It’s easier to have babies than to raise the dead,” he asserted with a smile. Wagner spent the rest of the class proving the point, comparing the challenge of reviving plateaued churches with starting new ones. I was convinced and inspired. I flew back to Ohio, drove to the conference oﬃce, and persuaded the conference president to let me resign from the church I was assigned to and start a new one. It was an exciting time.
Wagner was right. It is easier to have babies than to raise the dead; at least it was for me. I found my niche. I loved being the pastor of a congregation, but I loved, loved, loved starting a new church. Why adopt someone else’s teenager when you can create your own child with the DNA that you always dreamed a church should have? I told my conference president that I would never again pastor an existing church; I would only start new ones. He not-so-gently reminded me that the conference committee would decide my next assignment. I gently replied that I would resign if need be. I was convinced God had personally handed me stone tablets stating that I was called exclusively to plant new churches. It was an exciting time.
I was not prepared for what happened next. An emergency situation and an employment vacancy developed in a nearby church. The same God whose finger carved out my mandate to never again pastor an existing church inexplicably allowed the conference to assign the troubled church to me. Obviously, they had decided without seeking God’s will. I instinctively embraced Paul’s “pray without ceasing” counsel and asked for a new challenge that allowed me to start a new church.
The phone rang and a conference president I had never met, but became one of my heroes and best friends, invited me to a different conference to serve half time as ministerial director and half time starting a new church. The moving truck deposited our family in a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin, where I was privileged to lead a new church. It was an exciting time.
Making friends with pastors and praying with them, their families and lay leaders was easy. Planting the church was not as easy. The conference president had described the extraordinary enthusiasm of those who wanted to start the church, but some history was left unmentioned. About 35 people had broken oﬀ from a traditional church that excluded women from the stage on Sabbath between 11 am and noon and fought about trivial things. Relationships were sour. Board meetings were contentious. The church’s slogan seemed to be, “As long as we’re right, we don’t have to be loving.” Their leaders were as open-minded as the Sadducees who witnessed Lazarus’ resurrection.
The new group were righteously indignant at what they, and probably at least two-thirds of the angels, perceived to be legalism. They did not ask for permission to start a church, and they didn’t wait for a pastor to arrive. They started meeting and unintentionally created a mission statement that read like this: “We are not them!”
The upside, the conference president noted, they were enthusiastic. Their passion and energy were oﬀ the charts. They had deep convictions and were not shy about sharing them. And they were united with an “of-course-we-can” spirit.
The downside? They forgot the mission. The primary purpose of the church. The reason Jesus came to this world. They were very clear about what they were against, but they weren’t sure what they were for. In every conversation, I heard yet another cringe-inducing horror story followed by, “We are not them!”
I could not help myself; I absolutely fell in love with this group. They were great people. I admired their passion, loved their convictions, and was inspired by their camaraderie. They were right to resist the dysfunction they had escaped. They were right to be repelled by a distortion of the Christian faith that judged those who needed love and excluded those who craved acceptance. All they needed was a reminder of the mission, an appeal to think about others, a plea to be unselfish like Jesus was. Gradually, these hair-on-fire people that made up the newly-formed church channeled their righteous anger toward creating a weekly event that made worshiping Jesus attractive.
They became a healthy community. They embarked on a joyful, positive journey on which they loved one another as well as people they had never met; people who did not know Jesus. Once they turned “We are not them” into “With God’s help, here is what we will be,” all of us collectively experienced the euphoria of Wagner’s mantra: It is easier to have babies than to raise the dead … and a lot more fun.” It was an exciting time.
Allow me to leave my story and describe what I see among Adventists in North America (and possibly elsewhere) today. Please cut me some slack; my intention is to be observant, not critical. I feel a tinge of sadness at what appears to be a drifting away from the mission of Jesus. I see individuals and congregations (not all, but many) who are clear about what they are against. I hear it in conversations and feel it from pulpits. I see it in posts on Facebook pages. The silent theme song, “We are not them!”
Some of that is a good thing. Jesus fashioned a whip and started swinging while overturning tables because He was against something. When He said, “My Father’s house shall be a house of prayer, but you’ve made it into a den of thieves,” He made a statement. He was announcing that “We are not them!”
But Jesus never forgot the mission. He came to redeem a broken world. He stepped outside His cultural snow globe and made friends with sinners. He lived unselfishly. He stepped down, down, down the human ladder to the lowest possible rung in order to bring God’s blessings to those who had fallen the farthest. Paul’s mind was boggled when he wrote to the Christians in Philippi, “Jesus humbled Himself, even to death on a cross.”
For most of us (let’s admit it), the mission has slipped. We aren’t as unselfish as we need to be. We are not as focused on the sheep that has wandered away as we are on who is and isn’t in the fold and who is on which side of the current debate. So here is a suggestion: Grab some friends, some pens, and some paper. It doesn’t have to be at a formal meeting, but it might be. Turn oﬀ your phones, tune out distractions, and brainstorm these questions. But pray first. Not superficially, but pray from your heart. Make sure you are listening to God. Then honestly answer these questions:
What are we against? What tables need to be overturned? Are we bold enough to do something about it? More than rant on Facebook? What will we do? When and where do we start?
What are we for? Does what we are for align with the mission that Jesus gave His church? Specifically, how can we live unselfishly? How can we truly love each other while our hearts burn for those who don’t have hope? When and where do we start?
We are not them, but who are we?
Ron Gladden is founder and director of Mission Catalyst, which is “helping entrepreneurs create what Jesus had in mind.” There is more information at their website: missioncatalyst.org. There is a two-minute video that explains what it is all about: