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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

The Almost Perfect Church: Chapter 7c- Finding His Way

During this period (1997 – age 42) I took up running.  Though my primary goal was to gain and maintain a level of personal health and fitness that would enable me to handle the challenges of pastoring as I got older (my dad had his first of many heart attacks in his early 50s), after a few years I began to make more and more friends in the running community which opened up brand new opportunities for witnessing and ministry and even more so as I moved up to running ultramarathons (races longer than 26 miles) and discovered a passionate and tightly knit community of mostly unchurched individuals.  This frequent contact with the unchurched and their obvious need for Jesus and the healing and blessing he brings, renewed my commitment to personal evangelism and to the true mission of the church.

My own passion grew to a new level when, on a solo backpacking trip I had the most powerful encounter with God that I have ever had.  I was on the Tahoe Rim Trail and suddenly the Lord showed up.  I became very emotional and began crying uncontrollably.  Over the next couple of days on the trail the Lord revealed to me, to the degree I could physically bear it, how very very deep was His love for each and every person in the world.  I could not stop bawling but I also longed to get to the end of the trail in Tahoe City and see PEOPLE again.  With brand new eyes.  The people He placed in these visions were not the people at TA, nor any of my other Christian friends, but people of the world wandering around without Jesus and without hope yet loved by God more than any human parent ever loved his or her own children.  I kept crying uncontrollably at random intervals for the next two weeks and shared my experience with the church in my next sermon.  I've never been the same since.

In March of 2002 I was laying in bed, about to fall asleep, when suddenly I received a vision from the Lord for a series of TV commercials that would not talk about how great our church was or why people should attend TA (which is what most church advertising is about) but would instead present brief evangelistic and apologetic sermonettes directed at the lost and unchurched.  In the vision, each spot would begin with a place of beautiful or intriguing scenery, I would run into the scene and introduce myself (“Hi, I’m Mark Swanson from Trinity Alliance Church”) and then give a 45 second message designed to plant seeds in the minds and hearts of viewers.  Each spot would end with me saying, “Gotta run, hope to see you Sunday!”).  All of this came to me, ex nihilo, in a moment.

During the next 7 years over 100 episodes of “Gotta Run... Hope 2CU Sunday!” aired thousands of times on the local ABC and cable affiliates, bringing gospel messages to nearly everyone in Shasta and surrounding counties including thousands who would never visit a church, read Christian literature, listen to Christian radio or watch Christian TV.  Just today (May 21, 2014), over four years since they ran, a guy named Scott that I started a conversation with in Starbucks said, "Aren't you the pastor who used to be on TV all the time?"

Beginning around 2001 I annually encouraged the board to set aside the first 10% of our general fund for outreach (as opposed to devoting 100% for ministry to ourselves).  Every year it was a battle: I would argue that, as with personal tithing, God would honor and bless us for making His priority our priority; board members would counter that we couldn’t afford (which is to say, they didn’t believe that God would honor such a commitment but that our church's own internal needs would suffer from lack of funds if we made this commitment).  I usually prevailed, but only by agreeing (under protest) that this would be one of the first things cut if giving fell short.  One year I was asked to choose between getting a pay raise or continuing the evangelism funding. 

I would preach regularly on our need to share our faith, to develop intentional friendships (as I was doing) with non-believers.  I encouraged the congregation to develop a passion for Jesus' primary mission (seeking and saving the lost) and encouraged them to find their own ways of making connections to this end.  I developed and shared tools like "Q-TIP":

Q: Ask Questions (that's what Jesus did)
T: Share your Testimony
I: Invite them to church or small group or some other Christian event
P: Pray for them.

While I often experienced gratifying responses to my messages (I always tried to provide a practical "take-away" application), I discovered that my sermons about sharing our faith were generally ignored by most (except those who were already doing it).  I thought and prayed about why this might be and received a surprising (at the time) but obvious (in retrospect) answer.

Imagine that I appointed men to the board who were known to be engaged in adultery.  Then imagine that I preached sermons on a regular basis warning Christians not to engage in pre-marital or extra-marital sexual activity.  Would we be surprised if the congregation didn't take me seriously?

I believe that the parallel is obvious.  I endorsed men for the Board who did not manifest a passion for personal evangelism, either verbally or visibly and then I tried to convince the congregation that such a passion was mandatory for all believers and that the failure to do so was a grave sin of omission.  I guess I shouldn't have been surprised if most people didn't believe me.

I came to realize that most people didn't develop their ideas of what it meant to be a follower of Jesus by listening to sermons.  They developed their conception of what it meant to follow Jesus by the culture of the fellowship they were in.  That's what had happened to me in my early days as a believer when sharing our faith was immediately perceived as something all true believers do, as in fact one of the main differences between genuinely born-again believers and the kind of lukewarm church-goers I had observed as a child.  If the leadership of the church (pastors, elders and other leaders) doesn't manifest this on a regular basis, it will not be taken seriously.  This is especially true in any church that is small enough for everyone to know each other and observe one another on a regular basis.

Sure, they must have thought, Pastor Mark would share his faith and encourage others to do so.  That's what he was paid to do.  But, thought most, I didn't really expect them to take me seriously.  It's just one of those things pastors are expected to say.   In reality it is left up to a few who have a special gift or calling for it and is optional for everyone else.  At this point in our church history who could blame them for drawing this conclusion?

So my next step (beginning ca 2007) had to be to "convert" my elders so that they would become models to the rest of the congregation.  I continued sharing my own stories before the congregation on Sunday morning and at almost every board meeting.  I encouraged the elders every month to do the same.  I'd bring up our need to find ways to be more focused on Jesus' mission at board meetings.  None of the lay elders ever did: they did not bring up the topic at board meetings (though all had the opportunity to add any item to the agenda that they felt was important to the church), they did not share any testimonies of their own witnessing either on Sunday mornings or at board meetings or in the monthly appointments I had with elders individually.   (I do remember one exception by elder A who also participated in an outreach led by Derek to a local public school).

My own testimonies, generally of conversations with other runners, were met by silence.  Frequently elders would object to the amount of time I spent running and hanging out with other runners.  When things blew up later I mentioned to elder P that I had kept meticulous records and that my running over the years averaged out to 7 hours a week and that I didn't watch TV and no one would object if I did watch TV 7 hours a week he replied, "That would be OK because you wouldn't be passionate about it."  Elder P is a wonderful and gifted man, but if he ever shared his faith with anyone in the 15 or so years that I knew him, he never told me about it.  Instead the elders wanted me to spend less time with my unchurched runner friends and more time visiting and meeting with church members.  

Though I didn't admit it to myself at the time, I suppose I realized deep down that my tenure at TA was doomed when, in the October 2009 board meeting, elder D, speaking for the group, said that all I needed to do was increase my hours devoted to the church to 60 per week and add 5 hours per week to going around visiting members in their homes.  When I objected that none of the other CMA pastors in Redding were expected to put in that many hours, nor did any of them do that kind of visitation, and that 10 hours a day, 6 days a week would leave one day a week to do all the normal chores that life brings and no time to spend with unbelievers... I was met with total silence.  When I said that the pastor's job wasn't to meet the needs of every body in the church but to make sure those needs were being met by members ministering to one another, one elder responded, "It doesn't count if it isn't the senior pastor."  When I then said that if I left they would not make these kinds of demands from a new pastor  and that further no one would want to take the position under their terms (they had also stripped me of all authority to make any decisions without the approval of every board member), they again "answered me not a word".

One of my local runner friends that I had witnessed to called me one Sunday morning around 5AM to tell me he had just had a dream about Jesus and wanted to give Him his life.  He came to church that morning and came forward to do so (afterwards he and his wife attended a different church with some close friends).  Later I met a young woman at a race who had been heavily involved in alcohol, drugs and a lot more.  She initially wasn't interested in Jesus but the Lord gave me favor in her eyes and after several months of conversations she gave her life to the Lord and got involved in a church near where she lived (Sacramento).  Soon her two boys also gave their lives to the Lord and eventually even her parents did!  Three times in 2009 she came up to Redding with her boys to visit us, each time happened to coincide with a Sunday when we had a barbecue after church.  I had told the elders her story but each time she came they ignored her.  Not one reached out, not one tried to make her feel welcome even though,  with her background, she wondered if she would be accepted by other believers.

At the time I thought that the elders neglect of evangelism was like my own "neglect" of prayer.  I knew how important prayer was for believers and I knew I fell short but that didn't make it any easier.  I thought they knew how essential outreach was, both in their own individual lives and for the church, but just fell short.  In retrospect I think that I was mistaken.  I think they really did have a major blindspot here and that none of them really felt like they or the church were falling short.  They simply didn't get it.  I kept trying to get better, deeper, more consistent in prayer, reading every book on prayer I could (several each year) and constantly seeking to grow in prayer.  I don't think any of them took that same approach toward personal evangelism.  They were very focused on defense- making sure they and their children didn't fall into temptation, avoiding situations and people that might put them in danger and focusing their ministries on sin-management and encouraging one another to lead good moral lives.  

About 6 months before it all began to fall apart, I went home from a board meeting disheartened.  For two years I had wanted to lead the church back to our roots.  I knew that if I told the elders what that would entail they would object so at most board meetings I would give a watered-down version of what I really thought we should do and try to get that through.  And each time I would go home thinking, "If they shot that down, what would happen if I ever came to a board meeting and told them what I REALLY thought we needed to do!"  After this particular meeting, when it again was apparent that they wanted me to just care for the flock, to be more of a shepherd (regardless of whether the sheep wanted to follow Jesus in His mission of reaching the world or not) and less of an army general or missional discipler, I thought to myself, "It would be the easiest gig in the world just to do what they want.  I love preaching and I love the people of our church and would be happy just to hang with them and tell them nice words and bask in their gratitude.  The pay is good, the life is good... but God has called me to follow Jesus and to lead others to do the same and if I give in He will remove His Spirit from my ministry.  Somewhere down the line this is going to come to a head and it's going to be messy and painful but I have no choice and He will be with me."  I thought the conflict to come might lead to several elders leaving, I never suspected that it would result in my being out, removed from the church and my friends and from employment!

A couple years later, at the church I now attend, Pastor Nate said in a sermon (paraphrase): "Lots of people think that if you follow Jesus life will get easier.  But there will be one or more times in your life when choosing to follow Jesus may cost you everything you hold dear."  That morning I heard the Lord speak to me through those words and reassure me that my suffering was pleasing to Him and would not be in vain.

A year after that I was at that same church one Sunday morning.  We went to that church because there were a lot of teachable and reachable young people there.  There was also one old man, the pastor's grandfather, Paul Edwardson, himself an evangelist and former pastor who had been mightily blessed of God in his ministry.  Whenever he saw me at church he would come over to talk to me.  I had tended to sort of brush him off.  I was there to meet young people!  One day I became deeply convicted that he deserved better and felt a heavy burden to make sure I sought him out the next Sunday and gave him my full attention.  Maybe the Lord would give me something to say to him that would bless him.  He certainly deserved no less.  

I went to church and looked around and spotted him sitting across the room.  I kept looking over there, both to make sure he didn't leave early and because I sensed the Lord had something special planned.  On the way over to him at the end of the service a dear old friend I hadn't seen in 20 years came up to me.  I quickly disengaged from him and headed straight toward the old yet mighty man of God.  I said hi and he, as he so often did, launched into a story.  He told me how he had been called to a church in Vancouver, BC that had dismissed its pastor for being too outreach-oriented.  It was messy and he wondered why they wanted him when he was known to be an evangelist but he prayed and accepted the call.  It wasn't a good match!  After three frustrating years he left and he told them in parting, "I'm an evangelist, not a babysitter!"   Immediately I realized that the Lord had so strongly impressed me to talk to him, not so I could bless him, but because the Lord wanted to bless and affirm me through him.  It was another major moment in my healing.  The Lord's hand was all the more evident when four days later Paul was in an auto accident that took his life.  No wonder the Lord was so insistent that I talk to him that Sunday!

Chapter 8: The Blow Up

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