“Really take your time with these [devotionals],” the leader said. “I know at Willow Creek, we like to microwave things.”
If you’ve read American church news in the past two years, you would know that, in March of 2018, the first allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced in the Chicago Tribune against Bill Hybels, the founding and senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, IL. Willow Creek, as it grew in its first few decades, became a pioneer for American churches in contextualized communication, leadership, and business model-based ministry growth. A few pastors quoted Bill Hybels to me over the years.
After the initial allegations, Bill Hybels denied any wrongdoing, and the church leaders defended him, implying that his accusers were colluding against him. Early April of 2018, Bill Hybels announced his early retirement. About four months later, the worst allegations against him were published in the New York Times. The new teaching pastor, Hybels’s protege, resigned immediately. Soon afterwards, the executive pastor and the entire Elder Board resigned.
This meeting was a few months later, one of several meetings where we, as a staff, tried to process this cataclysm. A leader in discipleship had given us a devotional, and he didn’t want us to rush through it.
I understand why he said that. I’ve served in liturgical, traditional, multicultural and contemporary churches, and it seems that contemporary churches have particularly adopted a ministry model that relies on proverbial microwaving, cutting corners, band-aids and not rocking the speeding boat. It’s a performance-based model that uses extrabiblical metrics, and a lot of ugly stuff, as we’ve seen, can be swept under the rug.
-the prioritization of efficiency over character in ministry leaders
-the avoidance of or mere lip-service to social and political issues to maintain attendance numbers
-submission to consumeristic wants instead of prayerful leadership consensus
-using extrabiblical politics and metrics to quell any relational dilemma instead of having difficult but crucial conversations
-the utilization of a purportedly universal and successful ministry method instead of local cultural exegesis
-the professionalization and compartmentalization of church staff and ministry work
-the over-structure of church government and practice
-the downplay or denial of past or present mistakes in leadership and their effects
This is the Ministry of Least Resistance. Developed by suburban megachurches and admired by many smaller (mostly white) churches across the nation, it’s a fairly simple and formulaic way of quickly growing a large church of (mostly white) attenders. It’s a powerful and popular model that is arguably too big to fail.
Despite the growing scandals that have arose from its lack of leadership accountability and other its other proverbial holes, many (mostly white) churches still aspire to be like the (fallen) giants.
But Church, we shouldn’t be part of the Ministry of Least Resistance anymore.
We need to speak truth. We need to speak about our own sin and failure. We need to hold each other accountable. We need to have deep conversations about what the Bible says about social and political issues (not parties or people). We are not speakers, entertainers, or businessmen. We are shepherds. We cannot be afraid to speak biblical and prayerful truth in love to our congregation or anyone for fear of attendance numbers.
This is not only for conscience’s sake, but because we are now visibly accountable to the world. Thanks to the ubiquity of the internet, advances in cell phone technology, and the strength of the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo movements, any type of hypocrisy can (and, honestly, should) become visible. For example, if a church claims to be charitable in our world of poverty, cynics can discover the staff’s house sizes and car makes. Or if a church speaks for justice in our world of racial tension, cynics will look up the racial makeup of the staff, worship song composers and maybe even the congregation.
Everybody knows about the world’s problems. And the world is watching how doctors, politicians, activists and yes, also church leaders. How can we improve? Adapt? How can we serve?
And the answer is not through the Ministry of Least Resistance. This model can easily be a brand image-conscious, self-serving, biblically-illiterate, apolitical, idle and shallow shell of the brave, selfless, humble, loving, suffering servant Church we are called to be.
Ministry is challenging work. Let’s stop using man-made methods to make it otherwise, as if Jesus said, “in this world, you might have trouble.” The proverbial corners laid out for us in the New Testament were not meant to be cut.
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