Handling Criticism

It’s been eleven months since we launched weekly worship services, and One Church has grown from three people to 200. Overall, the process has been one blessing after another with changed lives, growth, and exciting local and global missions. God has been more than faithful to us.

It’s also true that one of my biggest emotional adjustments since planting One Church has been adjusting to the level of criticism.

I’m sharing this post for two kinds of people:

  1. Leaders who are considering starting something
  2. Church planters and other leaders who are discouraged

Whenever you hear stories of growth, and everything looks rosy, you should know that those stories usually do not include the continual, daily struggles that occur simultaneously with the growth. Some planters were associate pastors previously, and the associate pastor is the most popular person in the world. Once, you’re in the lead role, look out!

People who know me, know that I’m pretty much a mild mannered Clark Kent kind of guy. I’m a huge nerd. I downplay my family’s financial needs and give myself pay cuts to save money in the church budget. My family has sold items that were dear to us in order to pay our bills. I’m usually too nice, and here is the reality:

  • In the past year, I have been called more names than in junior high and high school combined.
  • I have been accused of heresy several times.
  • 25 people left the church after one sermon they didn’t like.
  • One month after launching, one guy told me I’m leading people to hell.
  • A Young Earth Creationist ended his final email to me like this, “I have issued the warning I was instructed to give you. Now I shake the dust from my garments.”

That was before Thanksgiving.

Now, in the past three months, criticism has become a weekly reality for me. Every single week now there are one or more people who express to me that they are not happy about something in the church, usually something to do with me. It may be criticism of a sermon. It may be that they don’t like something about the music. They not-so-secretly want to control the church. There may have been a miscommunication, and apologizing is not enough. Regardless, the criticism is now a constant.

Of course, constructive criticism helps me and One Church. One Church is better because of people who genuinely care about the church and about me, and they contribute in many positive ways. It is easy to tell the difference between people who love you and people who don’t.

Honestly, however, at least half of the criticism you receive will not be constructive. It comes from people who are acting out of their own issues and spewing on you. They want power they have not earned. They want the church you planted to look like the church they just left. 

The Key to Handling Criticism

In my experience, the key to handling criticism is a prayer I heard from Craig Groeschel:

“God, give me a softer heart and thicker skin.”

In other words, “God, help me to love people even when they criticize me, and help me to know who I am in You, so that the criticism does not discourage me.”

Nope, that’s not easy. It is, however, necessary to succeed in church planting.

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Bill Nye and the Creation Debate

Bill Nye Creation Debate

Bill Nye “The Science Guy” received some criticism from the scientific community for being willing to debate the founder of the Creation Museum yesterday.

His critics suspect that, regardless of the debate outcome, the Creation Museum has already won on the basis of increased publicity that legitimizes unscientific views that are soundly rejected by the consensus of modern science.

I hope they are wrong, but it’s possible that Nye’s critics are correct.

Bill Nye presented his points better than I expected him to last night. The founder of the Creation Museum is highly skilled and well practiced in convincing his audience. Nye calmly and respectfully presented the basic argument that science is based on evidence and pointed out that Creationism is not based on scientific evidence.

Nye may or may not realize that observable facts and human reason are not the foundation of the creationist position. Creationism is based on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible.

I view Genesis 1v1-2v3 as “high prose,” an artistically and mathematically beautiful hymn about God, the beauty of the universe and the dignity of human beings. A second creation account begins in 2v4 with a new name for God and a theologically and chronologically different telling of creation altogether. The author/compiler of Genesis makes no attempt to fool any of us and convince us that Genesis is a unified, scientifically tested theory on the origins of the universe.

Most Christians I know both love the Bible and accept the theory of evolution to varying degrees. Thinking Christians in America understand that the Bible must be interpreted. Roman Catholics all over the world see science and faith as compatible. The vast majority of Christians in the world realize that Genesis is simply not a science book.

Christian fundamentalists, however, believe that every word of the Bible originated with God. They view any scientific theory that contradicts a literal, scientific reading of the Genesis creation poem as an attack on their faith. This is the same thinking behind the Church’s condemnation of Galileo for asserting, against three verses of biblical poetry, that the earth revolves around the sun.

Galileo was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life because the Church interpreted ancient Middle Eastern poetry literally.

I grew up in a fundamentalist environment, and I share the following thoughts from my own experience of interacting with many fundamentalist Christians. Regardless of Bill Nye’s debate performance, when a fundamentalist is challenged in his or her belief, the fundamentalist’s faith actually grows stronger for at least three reasons:

1. Blind Faith

When a fundamentalist is challenged with facts or reason, the fundamentalist simply doubles down, because in fundamentalist religion, blind faith is seen as a virtue. If the fundamentalist continues to believe in spite of all evidence to the contrary, he or she is seen as being faithful to God. Increasing evidence to the contrary only fuels the fundamentalist’s faith (a false sense of certainty in spite of evidence).

2. A Common Enemy

Being challenged strengthens the fundamentalist’s sense of community and certainty, because the rational challenger (Nye, in this case) is demonized and gives the fundamentalists a common enemy. Nothing galvanizes a group like sharing a common enemy. In this case, creationists’ common enemy are “those godless heathen, secular humanists,” in other words, people who respect evidence and the conclusions of human reason.

3. Martyr Fantasy

Finally, being challenged only strengthens a fundamentalists faith because it gives the fundamentalist the ultimate payoff- it fulfills their apocalyptic martyr fantasy. A fundamentalists ultimate goal is be so “faithful to God” that she or she is persecuted or even martyred for his or her faith.

Even being respectfully and gently challenged by Bill Nye last night is enough to feed a fundamentalist’s martyrdom fantasy. In a creationists’ eyes, it’s the godless scientists verses the “pure” people who are “faithful” to God. Even though he lost the debate and looked foolish, in the eyes of creationists, the Creation Museum founder is now a martyr who is faithful to God in spite of “persecution” at the hands of a soft-spoken, bow tie wearing children’s TV host.

I hope Billy Nye was correct in debating a religious fundamentalist in such a publicized format. Hopefully, his rationality will awaken some younger persons who could outgrow the fundamentalism of their parents. Regardless, the Creation Museum and creationism will profit handsomely from the debate, and their fundamentalist faith may only grow stronger.

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New Series- We’re All In This Together: Ephesians

Together EphesiansThis Sunday, One Church is beginning a new sermon series entitled We’re All In This Together: Ephesians.  I have two goals for the series:

  1. To apply practical wisdom from Ephesians to our lives
  2. To learn how to interpret the Bible in the 21st Developed World

Ephesians is a great letter for educating the congregation on how to interpret the Bible. There are questions of authorship and recipients, the cultural context of recipients, our relationship to people who practice other religions, statements about slavery and the role of women, and angels and demons.

In addition, Ephesians is incredibly relevant to our time, and to any time, really. It’s message is about hope and empowerment for people who are tempted to give up hope because they feel powerless to change their circumstances. It speaks to a divided American culture and to stressed out people who are not sure how to balance the demands of life.

Here are the sermon titles:

Feb. 2   | Thankful for You

Feb. 9   | Despite Our Differences

Feb. 16 | How to Stay Together

Feb. 23 | Family Values?

Mar. 2  | Angels and Demons

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The Future of Evangelicals and the LGBT Community

(Also see my four-part post “Why I Welcome Those Who Are Gay”.)

This weekend, I will interview two people in One Church who have important experiences to share regarding Christians and the gay community. One is the mother of a gay daughter. The other is a woman who has been in a committed relationship with her partner for 14 years.

The vast majority of One Church accepts those who are gay and will welcome their personal stories this Sunday with open arms. I wholeheartedly believe that churches like One Church will increase in number and size over the next ten years, as more and more Evangelicals exit congregations that eschew intellectual curiosity and cultural openness.

As the inevitability of legal same sex marriage takes hold from state to state, the political battle is winding down in the U.S., just as it has in the fifteen countries that have already made same sex marriage legal. I wonder, however, if the battle within U.S. Evangelical churches is just beginning.

Mainline Christians have been debating the ordination of gay pastors for 30 years or more, but because of the conservative nature of Evangelicalism, Evangelicals have largely avoided church disagreements. This is now changing.

I encounter Christians on a weekly basis who were raised in Evangelical congregations but now have no problem allowing for same sex relationships. They recognize that the Bible must be interpreted in the light of its culture on any issue (other examples include slavery, world religions, women’s rights, and science). They have already left Evangelical churches that they perceive as culturally backward. They are not necessarily activists, but they do not want to cause pain to others, support injustice or be on the wrong side of history.

I wonder how the Evangelical megachurches that dot America’s suburbs will fare over the next ten years, as more and more Evangelicals distance themselves from opposing the gay rights movement. I would love to believe that calm, rational dialogue will win out. My best guess, however, based on my experience in the Evangelical world, is that there will be internal strife that will eventually lead to church splits and decline, as younger and more progressive members exit.

With a majority of Americans now supporting same sex marriage and more and more states making same sex marriage legal, it will be interesting to see how Evangelical pastors and congregations respond to a rapidly-changing America.

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Give Up Your New Years Resolutions

I gave up on making abstract New Years resolutions.

Instead, I set a few realistic, measurable goals that I can accomplish fairly quickly. One goal completed leads to another, then another, then another, etc. I gave a sermon about it on Dec. 29, 2013 called “Peace in 2014″ where I talk about four categories of goals. You can watch or listen at onechurch.com.

My goal for my inner life is to reread Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen. Here is a quote:

“By presence I mean attentiveness to the blessings that come to you day after day, year after year. The problem with modern living is that we are too busy– looking for affirmation in the wrong places– to notice that we are being blessed.”

- Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, 79

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When Pastors Fall

A friend informed me that another pastor in our area was forced to resign after the church discovered that he was engaging in extramarital affairs. That is the second lead pastor within driving distance of One Church to be caught in affairs in the past two years. We should pray for them, their families and congregations.

As a pastor, I feel the weight of knowing that some people expect me to represent Jesus Christ (a horrifying and impossible task). Of course, any socially well adjusted pastor knows that he or she does not deserve to be placed on a pedestal, but congregations tend to do it anyway. Even worse, some pastors enjoy it.

If you have been disappointed by a spiritual leader:

1. Remember that Jesus is the Leader of the Church (Matthew 16v18).

Don’t “Drink the Kool-Aid” for any pastor. Jesus has earned your trust more than any pastor ever could. You can allow a pastor to lead and teach you, but keep Jesus the main thing.

2. Resist the temptation to become cynical.

Some pastors will betray your trust. Most won’t.

3. Forgive as you have been forgiven.

We have all been disappointed, and unfortunately, we have all disappointed others. It helps to know that forgiveness does not equal trust. Forgiveness can take place in an instant, but rebuilding trust takes time.

Whenever someone disappoints us, we can remember how it feels and choose to not cause that same disappointment in others.

A Sobering Warning

Adultery is a sin to which any person is susceptible, and none of us should assume that we are immune. As the well-known Proverb warns:

“18 Pride goes before destruction,
a haughty spirit before a fall.
19 Better to be lowly in spirit along with the oppressed
than to share plunder with the proud.” [Proverbs 16v18-19]

We also need to know that adultery causes more damage in the form of broken homes, disappointed friends and scarred children than anyone could calculate.

I am aware that people who have already had an affair will read this post, and my intention is not to add further pain to their lives. Anyone considering an affair, however, needs to know that cheating on your spouse will hurt your children deeply and for a long time.

Preventing An Affair

Prevention is option number one. At One Church, one of our values is, “No perfect people allowed.” What we mean by that is that we do not expect our congregation to be super Christians and pretend to have no problems.

Churches who pressure people to pretend are hypocrisy factories. While the Religious Right seems to be focused on preventing same sex marriages, hidden adultery continues to threaten all marriages. For example, I know more than one family in which a spouse acknowledged that he or she was gay after years feeling of pressured to hide it.

We are all dealing with brokenness, so there is no sense in pretending. It is surprisingly freeing to call each others’ bluffs and just admit it.

You have stuff to deal with, and so do I.

Once we admit the obvious, then we can confront our needs, anxiety and addictions. Counseling is readily available. If we don’t face them, they won’t magically go away. We will find ourselves habitually engaging in behaviors that temporarily relieve anxiety but are incredibly destructive to those we love. It’s cliche but true that “If you don’t deal with your baggage, it will deal with you.”

After the Fact

If you have engaged in an extramarital affair, there is good news and bad news.

First the bad news:

Asking God for forgiveness does not remove the pain and consequences for you or your family and friends. God specializes in creating order out of chaos, good from pain, but it will be a far longer and more painful ordering process than you imagined.

Refuse to play the victim game when the process of re-earning their trust takes far longer than you thought.

Now for the good news:

“6 Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
7 Let the wicked forsake their ways
and the unrighteous their thoughts.
Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.” [Isaiah 55v6-7]

God offers mercy and forgiveness to the truly repentant, and He can grow you into the type of person who deals with your baggage and chooses to be faithful. There is always hope.

We pray that, in time, your family and friends will be able to forgive you and heal. They need to, but that is in God’s hands, and you cannot speed up that process.

Your continued faithfulness over the long haul will rebuild their trust.

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When Christians are unChristian

When Christians Are unChristian January

I’m excited to begin a new sermon series at One Church this Sunday entitled, “When Christians are unChristian.” It’s based on the book unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity and Why It Matters by Dave Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons.

The sermon tittles are:

  • Jan 5   | When Overly Partisan in Politics
  • Jan 12 | When Anti-Science and Irrational
  • Jan 19 | When Hypocritical
  • Jan 26 | When Alienating Those Who Are Gay

On January 26, I’ll interview two women in our congregation. One is the mother of an adult daughter who is gay and recently married her partner. The other is a woman in our congregation who is gay and in a 14 year relationship with her partner. They are raising three adopted children together. I will interview them about their experience of being gay in the church world.

My hope is that the series will be a transformative event for the people of One Church and a second chance at faith for people the Southeast Valley of Phoenix who have rejected Religious Right Christianity.

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