You ever think back to something you did and wonder to yourself, What was I thinking?! Perhaps it was your first ministry gig or one of the first times you were trusted with significant responsibility and you did something of such epic stupidity that it still makes your face hot to think about it?
When I was in my early twenties, I was hired as the part time worship pastor for a church plant in Lincoln, NE. I had previously sworn to never work for a church. As a wounded pastor's kid, I had spent most of my young adult life avoiding church people. So when I took the job, I did so with more than a little hesitation and with a big church-person-sized chip on my shoulder.
So you can about imagine how well I handled it when anonymous comment cards started coming in attacking myself and the worship team for (of all things) wearing hats on stage. All of the bad pk memories came flooding back as I remembered the people who had caused me to tuck tale and run from religion so many years ago. Adding to the fire was the fact that these comment cards represented a direct contradiction to the vision of our church (the reason I was there in the first place). I was primed and ready to flip.
Then one week I received a particularly scathing comment card. Its author took cheap shots at various members of the worship team for their unacceptable attire on Sunday mornings – particularly their wearing of hats – and what they believed that reflected about their character. And in true coward form, it was once again anonymous. I was livid. But ya know, it probably wouldn't have been that big of a deal if I hadn't been on deck to preach one of my first sermons that coming Sunday.
So that Sunday I set out to deliver a message they'd never forget. I decided to wear a hat while I preached the message. And not just any hat, mind you, but my Guinness beer hat. I put that thing on with pride that morning. I even turned it around backwards – centering the icy cool glass of Irish brew stitched on the back directly between my eyes – in order to emphasize the extent of my distaste for that comment card and its author. I might as well have drawn a big middle finger on my face with a sharpy.
Not only that, but I took upon myself to read that comment card aloud to the entire congregation and then proceed to rebuke the person who had submitted it anonymously from the stage. I told them that this wasn't representative of the message of Jesus, the call of his followers or the vision of our church. And despite the fact that I had no real authority and was only responsible for the college and worship ministries, I then asked all of those who agreed with the comment card to please go to another church and never come back. "Amen. Thanks for coming."
It was a shining moment, let me tell you. The young people loved me for it. I might as well been the self-appointed god of disillusioned church kids everywhere. And the older (wiser, more mature) people rightfully thought I was out of line.
I remember my dad (in his wisdom) saying, "You know, I think someday you're going to look back on this and regret how you handled yourself." I passionately refuted that. Didn't he understand that these people needed to go?! Several years later, however, I now understand what he meant. You were right, Dad. What was I thinking?!
But here is the crazy part about this rather epic mistake: in many ways that day was a crossroads for our church. A handful of families got really angry and eventually left. And it changed the culture of our church. Those families needed to leave. They had been undermining the vision from the belly of our church for a long time, trying to get it to bend to their own agenda. Seeing them leave was one of the best things that ever happened to us.
The mistake, however, was the way in which we sent them off. Rather than graciously helping them see that what they wanted was in direct opposition to what God had called us to do and lovingly encouraging them to find a faith community that better fit them, I had essentially sent them off with long, arrogant 'flip of the bird,' so to speak. I was young. I was immature. I was out of line. But God used me to do something (even if it was in the wrong way) that was ultimately the right thing for our church.
So, here's what I learned from the experience:
1. Some people in your church just have to go. It's not that these people don't understand the vision, it's that they directly oppose it. When they oppose you to your face? Not a problem. When they oppose you behind your back? Big problem. Given enough time, they'll gather a posse that rally around various discontentments and begin undermining what God has called you to do. Remember, a house divided against itself cannot stand. Which leads me to number two…
2. The church is the body of Christ and like the human body, it needs a functioning rectum to stay healthy. If you try to make everyone happy, you'll have to compromise what you stand for, what you call people to, and most importantly, what God has called you to. The Church (capital "C") is for anyone and everyone. But your church (small "c") probably is not. If God has called you to reach non-Christians with the gospel, then your church isn't for those who believe the church primarily exists to serve Christians. Your ego will want to slam the back door shut, but if you want to stay healthy and on mission, leave that thing wide open and enjoy the breeze.
3. For the good of the present and future Church, let your young developing leaders lead. I find it ironic when prominent Christian leaders who write books and speak at large conferences set the bar of leadership so high that had they been held to that standard when they were young, they probably wouldn't have been qualified to lead and we probably wouldn't know who they are today. The reality is that there simply is no better teacher than experience – and perhaps even better than just experience, failure. Allow your young leaders to lead and when they fail (and they will fail), use those teachable moments to help them see where they went wrong and how they can do it better next time. But whatever you do, don't squelch their passion by trying to corral them too soon, and when their heart is in the right place and they've got potential for kingdom impact, don't hold them back. They may be just what your church needs.