Moving from Coronavirus Anxiety to Missional Action

white and blue textile on brown wooden table

Macua Photo Agency; unsplash.com

By Joe LaGuardia

As a pastor, I take note of what other pastors and churches are doing. Its a great way to get good ideas and to spot bad ones. In the wake of the Coronavirus and church closures, I’ve seen some great, creative ideas out there, as well as burdensome solutions that hurt congregations more than help.

In seeing both, I imagine that some of our social media and technological solutions to church closures are fostering a sense of anxiety rather than gospel-centered action. Take one church I know of, for instance: The church is producing a video every day, a pastor’s podcast of sorts.

I understand the need to stay in touch with parishioners during this crazy time. After all, pastors, as local leaders, feel the need to assuage the fears or concerns of their flock. But, under normal circumstances, would that pastor really communicate with the church daily? Probably not.

Live-streaming services is a great idea, but is it necessary for everyone at home to gather around their screens at the same time on Sunday for something to be “church”? Have we inquired whether God wants us to use these resources in this manner, or are we over-communicating with our congregations?

I have felt the need to connect with my parishioners too, so questions about anxiety vs. action are very personal. I know– and its been on my mind constantly!– that we won’t have church this Sunday. I know we won’t have the same connection–which means loss of intimacy in the body and loss of revenues from the offertory.

That kind of anxiety makes me want to keep in touch with my church more. I feel pressure to connect through videos, social media, and emails. I want to get in front of people and on their screens because I want people to remember the church in prayer and in support.

We pastors want people to stay connected because congregational connection is what drives us. So let me say this with confidence and clarity: Pastor, fear not.

You do not need to connect with parishioners every day for them to remember the church in prayer and support. People know this season is temporary, one of social distancing; but people are patient and look forward to getting back into the routine of church as quickly as you do.

Chances are that people are not thinking about the church as often (and daily) as you are anyway, so stay faithful and rest in the Lord. Do what you do, but do not go out of your way to do what you would not ordinarily do. People are more concerned right now about getting toilet paper than getting a call from their pastor. People need your prayers, not a podcast that takes them away from their family.

Psalm 91 says,

You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the plague that stalks in the darkness…”

The psalm affirms that God is our refuge and strength. We have no reason to fear, although the reality of not making ends meet are heavy burdens to bear. But don’t concern yourself with every creative social media connection that grabs your attention. You can just as easily record a worship service on your phone and upload it to YouTube than live-stream. You can put in the time to make phone calls and go old-school by writing letters; they are as good as visits!

And don’t worry about making sure people know how busy you are during the week. People know we’re busy–now more than ever. People know we’re on the forefront of prayer, support, and community engagement.

Make sure your communication strategy is born out of a gospel-centered missional strategy rather than deep-seated anxiety.

I write this not because I have all the answers, but because of all the anxiety I have lived with this past week. I’ve been tempted to make a video every day for the church, to pursue live-streaming, and come up with some fancy, creative way to stay connected. But with every thought, the Spirit has met me with comfort and hope that all will be well.

Do what you can do. Produce good social media content. Produce quality videos and, if you can, live stream. But let your families in church do some of the work too. Encourage them to use this time to find new ways to be the church to one another. Let people have permission to take off on the weekends–to pursue other ways to connect with God: rediscovering spiritual disciplines; re-imagining the rigors and importance of Lent in this time of social scarcity; and taking some time to delve into some spiritual reading.

Hang in there, Pastor. You’re not alone. Everybody’s in the same boat, so don’t fret. Do what you can to bring life to your congregation through meaningful connections. Don’t worry about the rest, let tomorrow worry about itself.

And don’t feel the need to drown your congregation in your anxiety. We are the church — God will take care of us!

Beware of False Teachers?

Image result for false teachersBy Joe LaGuardia

Beware of false teachers, who come to you in sheep’s clothing” (Matt.  7:15).

Lets reflect on false teachers for a moment.   We don’t talk often enough about them, and I have a feeling that we hesitate to call anyone a false teacher because we don’t want to be jerks.  But Jesus commands us to do so in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:15).

The question is, how do we differentiate between true and false teachers when, in the very same chapter, Jesus instructs us to “judge not, lest ye be judged” (Matt 7:1)?  Google an image  of “false teachers,” and you will get montages of famous pastors and preachers that have the loudest voices among us.  That’s not very nice.

The first step in any biblical exegesis worth its salt is to put yourself in the shoes of those who heard this command in the first place.  Jesus was talking to his disciples upon a mountain around the Sea of Galilee.  He was far from the Temple, and he had yet to interact with the official priests of Jerusalem.

In warning his followers of false teachers, however, Jesus was setting himself apart.  He came not to abolish to law, but to fulfil it.  He began his teachings with repentance  and the Kingdom of God, (which implied revolution and revolt from the first-century worldview), but then reversed expectations by blessing the poor, the meek, and the weak.

His signature teachings did not perpetuate violence against oppressors, but included the unavoidable fate of persecution and the forgiving of enemies.  What kind of teaching was this?

Later in the Sermon, around Matthew 7, Jesus accentuates the authority of his teaching.  Only God can judge, but you are to discern true and false prophets by their fruit.  Those who hear Jesus’ words and fail to obey him are like people who build homes on sinking sand.  Ask, seek, and knock and God will take care of you.

This Teacher has authority, and the fruit of his teaching are attested by the works he accomplishes (see Matt. 4:23-25).  When crowds amass, however, beware of distractions, false teachers, and the self-righteous.

Nowadays, we want to apply the label “false teachers” to anyone who touts a  theology we either deem heretical or exploitive.  We poke fun at television evangelists, and the downfall of not a few major celebrity preachers have only reinforced our habit to judge those who are famous.  I’ve been called a false teacher several times by people who are so far to the right even Jesus stands to the left of them.

We can’t call just anyone we don’t like false teachers, and we can’t be jerks or judgmental!

***

So there must be a second step in figuring out what Jesus means in his warning, and that is to see what people he confronted the most: namely, the Pharisees, scribes and experts on the law.  He called them white-washed tombs.  He warned his disciples to “be not like the hypocrites” who stand in the marketplace with elaborate prayers.   He didn’t want his followers to make their righteousness rather than God’s grace the center of their testimony.

But if this is true, then this brings us to a definition of “false teachers” by a very uncomfortable standard: Jesus warned his disciples against those who were the most religious among them.

Pharisees were normal folks like you and me; their concern was obeying God because they believed that Roman occupation was a result of Israel’s sin.  What is wrong with a group of people policing others for the sake of holiness and obedience?  Seems legit to me!

But that is the very problem.  Jesus says that false teachers are “ravenous” (RSV), and their appetite for others are in their concern not for the log in their own eye, but for the speck in others.  People who fail to accentuate God’s love and grace, mercy, kindness, and redemption are too focused on the letter of the law rather than the Spirit of the law.  They push for an agenda of personal, feel-good spirituality at the expense of an active faith that works and persists in doing justice.

Their teaching is divisive, and results in distrust, discord, and (often) unnecessary disharmony as a result of this kind of religious zeal.  How many churches split because one group of people believe they are running the church more effectively (which translates into “more holy”) than another group in the church?

The fruit of false teachers are false because the fruit turns sour.  It sucks the life and air out of rooms that can otherwise be safe sanctuaries in which people are filled with the Holy Spirit.  False teachers don’t start off as such; rather they become false because their season of fruit turns bitter.

That means that you, if you are a leader, can become a false teacher if you are not heeding Jesus’ warning.  No one is exempt from this temptation!

As a religious leader I am cognizant of the power that we pastors wield in the lives of others.  I often ask: Do I offer a life giving word of God, bearing fruit that feeds others and leads them into the relentless grace of God; or do I embody bad news that focuses too much (without a sense of perspective) on the downfall and failure of others?  Its a good question to ask and consider.

 

Is Honesty the Best Preaching Policy?

man writing in front of booksBy Joe LaGuardia

They say that, in writing, honesty is the best policy.  Stephen King advises in On Writing that writing is best when it tells the truth.  In Right to Write, Julia Cameron has an entire chapter on honesty and its merits in writing.  Creative writing coaches will tell you, if it ain’t the truth, it ain’t worth putting on the page.  Honesty has sold millions of books and millions of dollars in movie sales.

Yet, in preaching every week, I wonder whether honesty has a place in the pulpit.  I am not saying that we preachers lie or manipulate our congregations, but honesty implies that you, rather than the God about whom we testify and the scripture that we seek to exegete, takes center stage in the preaching event.

Some say that personal stories have no place in sermons.  They distract from the doctrines we need to teach.  Others say that the only godly way to preach is by expository preaching, which leaves neither room nor time for personal exploration.  So where does honesty have a place  in the pulpit?

I come from a school of theology (as many Baptists do) that makes room for what is called narrative preaching.  Narrative preaching, popularized by the likes of Fred Craddock and John Claypool, not only focuses on scripture for  the sermon, but does so in narrative and story-form.  Since we live the story of the Gospel in real time and in real situations, than real life–in all its beauty and ugliness–have a place in the sermon.

Some narrative preachers tell stories and preach so well, in fact, that the congregation forgets they’re preaching in the first place.  The sermons are like good movies–the moment you forget you’re watching a movie, the director and actors of the movie has moved you into the best that cinema has to offer.

Narrative preaching (and, in Claypool’s methodology, “confessional preaching”) places the preacher squarely in the center of the story.  It is disingenuous (as the notion goes) to say that the preacher can “stay out” of the sermon–we bring all of who we are — our personality, life, experiences, and struggles — to bear on the text, so to think that we can somehow not make it personal is the least honest thing we can do.

In reading Julia Cameron’s chapter on “honesty” recently, I got to thinking about the place of honesty and storytelling in the preaching event.  I find my home squarely in the narrative preaching tradition.  I cannot do expository preaching (I’ve tried, with great failure).  I cannot do outline preaching (precept upon precept)–I bore myself to death.  I do not consider myself a teacher of scripture–that’s for Sunday School.

I am a preacher who stands in the tradition of a Lord who told stories in order to help people experience the Kingdom of God.  Jesus never preached in expository style–he didn’t teach about God; he helped people meet God.

But that doesn’t mean I am required to be honest, at least not in the way that creative writers mean it.  Let me explain.

In writing, honesty implies that you reveal your deepest conflict or assumptions about life.  It is a type of writing that values memoir over embellishment.  We write from the inside out because people do not deserve deceit or fanciful exaggeration.  We write what we see, and life does not need help in communicating something true and valuable.

In preaching, however, storytelling still does not create an ecosystem in which the “I” takes precedence over the “Thou.”  We are still not at the center of the story,  and telling the truth can be misconstrued as pushing an agenda more than bearing witness to what we–as the congregation–can learn together about being God’s beloved community.

We go to church and experience all of worship (not just the sermon, only a fraction of what worship is supposed to be about–those long sermon times are for another column!) because we come to together to experience God and bear witness to how God has redeemed us and is ever redeeming us.

We preachers need to be honest in our shortcomings.  We mustn’t pretend to have all the answers or go out of our way to convince the congregation that they need to think like we do.  We need to be honest about those areas of scripture with which we wrestle–and explain why they are difficult–not provide cliches that gloss over a Word that is beyond us and still contains deep mysteries that we will never really know about, completely at least.

We must be honest by acknowledging that we are not all that great of people, and that we’re like everyone else aside from our vocation as professional expositors of the text.  Instead, we must be humble by keeping our sermons concise and focused rather than allowing pride to prove to others how verbose we are.  Our vocation as preachers is one of function, not of elevated spiritual divinity over others who work in and on behalf of Christ’s church.

Every week, I wrestle with this idea.  I take great pains not to let myself (or my family or my situations past or present) get in the way of the Gospel message.  I use personal anecdotes at times to illustrate or accentuate a point, but it is not the destination of the sermon.  These stories, like other methods of storytelling, are merely resources to help others experience God.  Being honest is valuable, but its not the point.  No one comes to church to hear about me.  Honesty is a policy, but its not always the best way to communicate God’s Word.