Thoughts on Typical Churches from Richard Lovelace, Part 1

I’ll try and post a few paragraphs this week from Lovelace’s chapter “Renewal of the Local Congregation” in Dynamics of Spiritual Life. This is a major book for me, and I’ll be drawing from it a lot. I am planning on writing a thesis paper for my undergraduate theology degree on the fundamental principles that he puts forth in this book.

In this section he is outlining the goal of seeing congregations revitalized by God, but first sets out to paint a picture of the typical congregation. This was written around 1979, but it might as well have been written last year.

In most cases what [pastors] confront is a style of living very unlike the spiritually vibrant mission station described at the end of Acts 2. The “ultimate concern” of most church members is not the worship and service of Christ in evangelistic mission and social compassion, but rather survival and success in their secular vocation. The church is a spoke on the wheel of life connected to the secular hub. It is a departmental subconcern, not the organizing center of all other concerns. Church members who have been conditioned all their lives to devote themselves to building their own kingdom and whose flesh naturally gravitates in that direction anyway find it hard to invest much energy in the kingdom of God. They go to church once or twice a week and punch the clock, so to speak, fulfilling their ‘church obligation’ by sitting passively and listening critically or approvingly to the pastor teaching.

Richard Lovelace, in Dynamics of Spiritual Life

1984… and the Gospel

Ever since we moved into our new apartment here in Cambridge, we’ve been reading a lot more. I think it has to do with how comfortable and at-home we feel here compared to the place we were in for the summer. Knowing we were only there 3 months made it really hard to feel settled. And it was dark with small windows and cold floors – not exactly the kind of place that lends itself to quiet, comfy evenings on the couch with a book.

I just finished reading the political classic 1984 by George Orwell. If you’re not familiar with it, check out the wikipedia article, which aptly describes it as a “dystopian novel about the totalitarian regime of a socialist Party.” As far as politics go, I am a self-labeled cotton-headed ninny-muggins, so I don’t have much to say about Canadian politics or “how an offshore corporate cartel is bankrupting the US economy by design,” nor how a “worldwide regime controlled by an unelected corporate elite is implementing a planetary carbon tax system that will dominate all human activity and establish a system of neo-feudal slavery.”

Anyways, one thing that struck me was the part where the main character, Winston Smith, first has a sexual encounter with Julia. Any such relationship is strictly forbidden in that society. He asks her if she has done this sort of thing before, and she says that she has done it many times. Orwell writes, “His heart leapt. Scores of times she had done it: he wished it had been hundreds – thousands. Anything that hinted at corruption always filled him with a wild hope. Who knew, perhaps the Party was rotten under the surface, its cult of strenuousness and self-denial simply a sham concealing iniquity.” Winston then tells Julia, “I hate purity, I hate goodness! I don’t want any virtue to exist anywhere. I want everyone to be corrupt to the bones.”

An early edition of 1984 by Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell

Now why does he hate purity and goodness? Does he have a devil-like hatred of purity and goodness, where his soul is so distorted and evil that he just hates anything which is right and good? I don’t think so.

All through the book he deeply rejoices in all kinds of things which are truly good and right – the beauty of nature, the song of a bird, a good cup of coffee. No I think the reason he hates purity and goodness is because of the hypocritical veneer of purity and goodness that the “Party” had.

I couldn’t help but see the parallels between this and some Christian environments. When Christian ‘righteousness’ is represented, taught and demanded by a hypocritical leadership, those under that leadership grow sour to such ‘righteousness.’ Having been exposed to a diseased version of righteousness, they then become allergic to anything which smells of it.

Can we be surprised by statements like “I hate purity, I hate goodness!” when the only supposed purity and goodness they have seen has been the impure, bad version of it. Likewise, can we be surprised when scores of people are turned off of Christianity when some of the most prominent and well-known leaders of Christianity turn out to be living lives so crazily out of line with the most basic teachings of Christianity?

From the extreme examples like evangelical super-pastors in sex scandals and Catholic priests involved in systemic child sexual abuse to the more mundane hypocrisy of legalistic church-folk, it all contributes to this effect.

The world of 1984 is a world run by the legalistic elder-brother (of Jesus’ parable in Luke 15) where younger-brother tendencies are illegal and punished by death. The problem is that the younger brothers can see through the fake facade of the elder brothers.

Without the gospel, all the state-enforced morality in the world can never produce an ounce of true goodness.

Without the gospel, the elder brother is lost in his morality, religion, and self-righteousness; and the younger brother is lost in his immorality and rebellion.

The sad part is when the younger brothers reject Christianity because they only know the Christianity of the elder brothers – and who the heck wants that?

Once again, the gospel breaks through every human system and offers the only true hope for humanity.

The Need for Mentors and Wanna-Bes

As I look back on my Christian life so far, I see a recurring pattern. Actually I see quite a few patterns, but here is one of them. It goes like this: I will come across a person, either in real life or through books or sermons or stories, who has something about them that I really like and admire. And then I go about trying to acquire it somehow. Sometimes it’s by osmosis – just hanging around them and watching them. Other times it’s by studying and reading whatever it was that they studied that made them that way. For me, it is usually – but not always – preachers and authors.

So for example, my good friend Steve Watts has a love for Jesus and people that is overflowing and contagious. I want that. John Piper has a passion for God’s glory that is pretty intense. I want that too. John Owen had a deep understanding of the flesh and the deceitfulness of sin. I want that too. There are many more, both alive and dead, and recently I’ve added another one to the list that I recommend to you as well: C. John Miller, who also went by Jack Miller.

I’ve been reading The Heart of a Servant Leader: Letters from Jack Miller, and it is stellar. It is simply a collection of many letters that he wrote to all kinds of people through the course of his ministry. There are some central and recurring themes, and the letters are organized and grouped according to those themes.

It is nothing less than a window into the heart of this man for those around him. It is deeply humbling and convicting for me to read the powerful, wise, humble, loving letters that this man wrote to friends, colleagues, and ‘enemies’. He was not always this way, and I think it is the story of his experience in ministry that really fascinates me about him. He served twenty years in ministry in various roles, as a church planter, pastor, and seminary professor, until he hit a wall in 1970 and ended up depressed and burned out.

“He had gradually become frustrated in both jobs. It seemed to him that neither the church members nor the seminary students were changing in the ways that they should, and he did not know how to help them. In desperation he resigned from both positions and then spent the next few weeks too depressed to do anything except cry.”

Pause: Wow. That is heavy.

It goes on:

“Gradually during those weeks it became clear to him that the reason for his anger and disappointment was his own wrong motivation for ministry. He realized that instead of being motivated only by God’s glory, he was hoping for personal glory and the approval of those he was serving. He said that when he repented of his pride, fear of people, and love of their approval, his joy in ministry returned, and he took back his resignations from the church and seminary.”

As a young dude who is pretty ambitious about ministry, this is scary stuff. The question that haunts me is: how do I avoid that? I know that I have a mingling of pure and impure motivations for ministry, I know that I desire personal glory, and I know that I want the approval of those around me. But even as I recognize those things and repent of them, I just sense that my repentance is not deep enough – it isn’t fundamentally a transformative repentance. I don’t know how to repent more deeply, how to really – really change. All I know is that what Jack Miller had after this terrible experience, I want. I wonder if God will grant me to learn it slowly or if it’ll take a crisis event like Jack Miller’s.

“He often returned to the theme of God’s glory” when mentoring leaders, because “he knew that if they did not start in ministry with the right motivation they would eventually end up as he did – full of anger and bitterness.” 

This next sentence blows me away:

“Jack spent the first half of his Christian life attempting to do Christ’s work Jack’s way, and he spent the last half of his Christian life repenting of this tendency and asking the Spirit daily for the faith and humility to do Christ’s work Christ’s way”

C. John (Jack) Miller

I want to learn something of this. I’ve read a few modern leadership books and while they have their place, they don’t teach you this kind of stuff – at least not in a tangible, real way. This guy’s letters are so real and authentic, and his appreciation for the gospel is more real than frankly anything I’ve read. One line that has been working me over is the following, written to a young missionary to Uganda:

You don’t have anything to prove to us or the world. The work is finished at Calvary, and that work alone has unlimited meaning and value. Keep your focus there.

C. John Miller