Reconstructing Pastors Podcast

A Deeper Look at Pastoral Life: Alex Lang's Introspective Journey

October 13, 2023 Bridge & Rhino Season 1 Episode 5
Reconstructing Pastors Podcast
A Deeper Look at Pastoral Life: Alex Lang's Introspective Journey
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Have you ever reflected on the resilience narrative for pastors and how it shapes their pastoral life? We had a riveting conversation with Alex Lang who takes us through his experiences with self-reflection and self-critique. Alex offers insights into how his introspective journey has helped him separate personal struggles from his divine calling. His enlightening perspective on pastoral resilience, has stirred reactions ranging from agreement to disagreement, and even discredit, all of which we discuss in this eye-opening episode.

As church leaders grapple with navigating their congregations through the pandemic, new challenges and opportunities arise. Alex shares his experiences with steering an aging congregation towards a more mission-centric approach in these trying times. He also opens up about his understanding of a pastor's calling, the transformative concept of a 'congregation of one', and the unique perspectives borne out of different denominational backgrounds. We take a rigorous look at the tension between loyalty to a church and the need to scrutinize its methodologies, walking a fine line that many pastors encounter.

In an increasingly isolated society, the rise of mental health issues is a concern we cannot overlook. We delve into the concept of hyper-individualism and the impact it has on communal structures and the church. We also examine the effects of market-driven megachurches, prosperity gospel, and the commoditization of the church on Christianity. Through our conversation with Alex, we explore the transformative potential of meaningful relationships in addressing these concerns. Join us for a thought-provoking dialogue that will challenge your understanding of pastoral life and the church.

Article: https://www.restorativefaith.org/post/departure-why-i-left-the-church

Website: restorativefaith.org

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Speaker 1:

You're listening to the Reconstructing Pastors podcast. I'm Ruth Lawrenson.

Speaker 2:

And I'm Kirk Romberg. We're recovering pastors talking about what it looks like to make sense of our calling and community expression on the other side of deconstruction.

Speaker 1:

Our hope is to create a safe space to explore the bigger picture of the church, both the present state of the American evangelical church and what the future may hold for those who are searching for a better way.

Speaker 2:

We're really glad you're here. Let's get started.

Speaker 1:

So we are super excited today to have this amazing conversation. We have Alexander Lang in the house on Reconstructing Pastors. Kirk, I'm so excited for this conversation and, honestly, it's one of those joys of the podcasting landscape where you do an episode and then you meet people as a result of it. Just a little context a couple of episodes ago, me and Kirk we did an episode questioning that resilience narrative for pastors and it was based off Alex's article. We had a lovely episode there. We really felt like it was.

Speaker 1:

Your article gave us this really good food for thought for pastors. And I reached out to you because I just thought I better let you know that we've done this podcast episode on your article. I mean, you were already getting lots of attention from the article at this point and we got in touch and we were like actually, come on, let's have a. We'd love to hear more from you, more about your story, more about what's going on now, some of the responses you've had. So and you're kind enough to say yes and you're here, and so thank you so much, alex. Welcome to this episode.

Speaker 3:

Thank you for having me on. You all did a wonderful breakdown of that article. I have to admit, when you sent it to me I felt some trepidation around listening to it because you know it's hard to know what people are going to say. And at that point in time, when you wrote it to me and sent it to me, the response among certain pastors had kind of gone really, really kind of mean, I guess, is what it was. And so when you sent it to me, I was not, I was kind of in a very defensive place.

Speaker 3:

I don't know if it was the right place to be, but you sent it to me and I listened to it and I was pleasantly surprised, like you all did a fantastic job of really digging down into the details of, I think, a lot of the problems that I was just bringing up, and you did them by taking you know, your own experience and just questioning, I think, a lot of the things that I was questioning, asking does this make sense in the context of being a pastor? So I'm really excited to be here with you all because it's clear to me that you have a lot of experience in kind of what I'm talking about and you can bring a further depth to it that really I couldn't bring. At least when I wrote that and I just appreciated the way that you talked about it I thought it was very, very helpful and I kind of wish maybe I'd heard it before I'd left the church. It could have been helpful for me, you know.

Speaker 2:

That's great, you know. It's interesting that you say that you're in a little bit of a defensive place and I think we've all been in those spaces as we have been interacting a little bit with you since you sent that article out. You've mentioned you've gotten a number of responses from people that are different from one another. I'm wondering if you can just share a little bit the kind of response that you received and what you expected, maybe what you didn't expect and what yeah, just what was the feedback that you got from your article?

Speaker 3:

Well, I think it should be said that the normal readership on my articles is about 70 people, so I wasn't expecting much. To be perfectly honest with you, the maximum number of comments I think I've ever gotten on an article was about six. So when it started to kind of spread, the first day that it started spreading, I did read the comments and, generally speaking, I would say the comments were very kind, understanding. I was particularly impressed with the laity, the parishioners who read it, and, kind of for the first time I think for some of them, they really sat there and said, well, I didn't understand that this is what people who are in the pastor were going through, and I just read some really interesting comments. Like you know, oh gosh, I unload on my pastor all the time, not thinking about how I'm just one of many who are coming to the pastor for advice or just for a time of spiritual renewal, which is not a bad thing, it's just that it's the. What I was trying to get at was it's the kind of layering, the compilation of that. Over time, that can become hard, and so that was really a wonderful aspect to it was to see that.

Speaker 3:

What I noticed, though, was that, as it spread. I'm Presbyterian PCUSA, so as it started to spread beyond my denomination in particular and into kind of other denominations, that's where so I kind of put it as there was agree and the agree was more like we just kind of like what you guys said. You may not have resonated with every single thing I said, but you at least saw the value in talking about it and that may not have been your personal experience, but you but you understood like this is something that's important to discuss. And then there's disagree, which is people who sat there and said no, I don't, I don't agree with that at all. That's not my experience.

Speaker 3:

And then there was discredit. So that's something I really do want to talk about with you. All is is those three things, because I think that that response, the agreement and I would say agreement to be perfectly honest with you, was probably about 60 to 70% of it, and then you probably had another 20% that really that were kind of into the disagree, and then that kind of spectrum, the spectrum into discredit was, was very interesting to me and I think that that's that's what I really want to focus on, if you know. I want to get down into that because I think there's some really fascinating reflections on why did people feel that need to discredit the article? Because it was just my experience is not like I was trying to say. My experience should be your experience, but there was something in that that caused them to say they're neat, this needs to be discredited.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, thanks for that, alex. I mean it's really fascinating that experience. Like you say, you know, you normally don't, you're not normally not exposed to that level of response, and I loved what you said about the parishioners, and I think that there are a lot of people out there who are congregate members and and who wouldn't be thinking on these levels. So I thought actually it was a lovely piece to kind of like provide a window in to some level of truth for people, and I think that there's so many people who attend churches that care deeply about this stuff, you know, but maybe they're just not aware as much as pastors are.

Speaker 1:

I think one of the things that for us, when we read the article, we just wanted to take the posture of questioning and I think that one of the things that we've found is that there's a resilience narrative that goes, goes around and it comes from a really good space. I think it comes from this like, especially from COVID. Pastors were like really under the pressure there, and so there was an encouraging narrative. Just to stick with it, it's okay, you can do it. And I think we wanted to question that and say hang on a minute. Is it okay to like?

Speaker 1:

God hasn't asked us to be resilient to an institution, you know. He's asked us to obey and listen to his voice, and so I think that that's kind of where we were leaning into the conversation, and it's not to say what was right, what was wrong. We'll all have different opinions about some of this stuff, but it was more a case of, like you said earlier, like this questioning. So I think that when you get discredited like that, that feels hard because instead of that invitation to question, it's a closed door. You know, would you speak to a little bit to that, to that like your desire for people to question this stuff and not just to shut the door and discredit?

Speaker 3:

Yeah. So I think, for for me, the, the well, because we're gonna, I think we need to kind of like drill down into a couple of different things within that, because that's because that's a complex question. So I really think, and let's, let's talk about it in terms of theology for a second, do you mind? Would you? Can we go there for a second? Can we go into theology? Okay, so I think that what's interesting is, I think, for a lot of pastors and I'd be interested to hear your take on this, because this is gonna be a theological, probably a theological divide with maybe some of the people who listen to this but what I noticed is that when we got into the area of discrediting, there was clearly an area of there was fear behind those comments, and so what they did was they attacked. They ended up ultimately kind of attacking different aspects of what I was saying. So, like the language police, that was a big one right, like I didn't use Jesus or God enough in my article, or I didn't talk about the Holy Spirit, there was an idea that, well, he was never called in the first place, because if he left, like if you leave the church, then clearly you don't have. You were never called. I've been working at the church for 20 years, so it's kind of an interesting thing to say, well, now that I'm leaving, yes, I've been at that church for 10, but now that I'm leaving, that's something like they. That's like saying, well, because you didn't do your whole career in it, well, you were never called at all, or you have a lack of faith, and so there was an interesting element to the fear.

Speaker 3:

Part of this, and where I wanna talk about the theology, is that I think that in some ways, by me saying these things and by so many people talking about it, I think what it did was it was pointing to something that there is something fundamentally askew with the modern church. I think that's the fact that so many people were reading it and replying to it and talking about it that there is something fundamentally askew. So I think if you're a pastor who takes Ephesians five very seriously, like the idea that the church is the bride of Christ, right, then you're probably going to struggle to see the flaws because to you, probably the church and I think it's a spectrum of how people see it you're going to see the church as being put forth by God and therefore, as an institution, the institution of the church is in the mirror image of God, that there's a goodness to it, that there's almost a perfection. I would think some people probably believe that that is not true. For me, I separate the teachings and the movement of Jesus from the church itself. So to me, the teachings and the movement, those are the original, pure ideas behind what Jesus was here to do. And then the church is the human structure that carries forth Jesus's movement in the world. And because I see those things as being very separate and distinct, I have no problem criticizing the church as an institution, because I see it as created by humans.

Speaker 3:

And I think history bears me out on this one, because if you just look historically at the harm the churches done over the centuries from wars to persecuting dissenting voices, to sexual abuse, to bigotry and sexism and anti-Semitism and homophobia and racism and slavery I mean the list is very long of what the church has done.

Speaker 3:

So for me, I don't have a problem criticizing the church and saying the church as an institution needs to change, because if you're going to get to the core of what we're here to do, which is to be disciples of Jesus I loved how you all talked about that in when you were talking about my article. That's, our job is to be a disciple of Jesus, and what ends up happening is this institution, I think, is standing in the way of that. And I think that's where the fear was, is that they were saying this guy is talking about this in such a way that it's going to discredit the church, and so they wanted to discredit me. And I think that's where I felt a lot of that, where I felt a lot of fear coming from. I don't know if you would now you didn't read those comments, I don't know if you did, but that's where I kind of started to see the assessment and I'd be interested to know your reflection on that.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I mean, as you're talking, it's, everything is resonating, and you rattled off quite the laundry list that can be tacked on to what we call the church or the institution. But I think it's.

Speaker 2:

I think you're spot on in recognizing the fact that there is a distinction between the movement of Jesus and the world and what we call church, and we talked about that in one of our conversations episodes earlier, where even as early on as Augustine, he differentiated between the trellis and the vine, and the vine is the life-giving movement of Jesus in the world, which is his bride, which is his church, if we want to use that phrase or that word.

Speaker 2:

And then there's the trellis, which is our human constructs that we develop in order to support, and it can get confusing and sometimes we enmesh the two together as being one and the same, when really that the church is the people. You strip everything away, the 501C3, you strip away the building, you strip away the denominational system and the structures and the paperwork and the computers and the responsibilities and the job descriptions, and what you have left is people, and that is the church. I mean, if we think about Jesus coming for his church or restoring all things in the world, he's not coming back for his massive collection of 501C3s, he's coming back for people and that's it. And he doesn't see a distinction between this group and that group and the other group, it's all his.

Speaker 2:

And so when you talk about the discredit, I think you're very insightful in recognizing the fact that, oh, I have to defend this. Therefore, to do that, I have to discredit you, and that's uncomfortable. But I think it also points out the journey process that maybe a lot of people are on when it comes to separating out what is ours and what actually is God's, and what's God's is to be protected. But you're right on, we can I mean, it's fair game to self critique and to reflect on our own structures.

Speaker 2:

I think it was was this you can probably correct me on this one of you two is that a self, an unexamined life, is a life not worth living, and we talk about that in relationship to ourselves. We don't necessarily talk about that in relationship to what we produce. And if we have God in our camp, so to speak, then certainly we must protect that, because that's the same as protecting God. And so there's this separating out what we have enmeshed, and I think that's a journey that a lot of people are going through. But that leaves me to wonder when that journey began for you, this separating out between what's ours and what's God's, and maybe, more specifically, when you started to have some, some thoughts, just kind of backpedaling a little bit about maybe you're called, but this is not what you signed up for, kind of a thing. Can you speak a little bit into that?

Speaker 3:

Sure, when I became the pastor of the church that I'm currently or that I just, I guess now I'm the ex pastor of or have retired from I don't know how you put it but I became that when I was 33. So I was very young to be ahead of staff at that time and it was a real opportunity. Something that I don't know if you all took the time to actually watch the sermon that I preached from that last Sunday but something that I took a lot of painstaking time to talk about was I wanted them to understand how much I appreciated that they took a chance on me because I brought something to the table that was very different from what you normally get in the Presbyterian church. At that level, You're usually hiring somebody in their late 40s, early 50s, so they really were taking a chance on somebody who was young and somewhat inexperienced, and so I came into it with this with the kind of a grand vision.

Speaker 3:

Matthew 25 is really my go to, so I really believe so strongly in that. I'm gonna say that before the denominations started taking that on kind of in like the late teens, and when I got there I said, look, this is what we're doing, guys. I really believe that we are here to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, care for the sick, visit those who are in prison. Those are the things that we are called to do as outlets of our faith, and we're gonna make that happen. And so I started working very hard to kind of move, move. And so what are your denominational backgrounds? Just so that I get a little sense of it Are you guys mainline or are you outside of that?

Speaker 1:

Well, I've come from more of the free evangelical church scene, a few different versions of that and Kirk.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I have a mixture. I was born and raised in the evangelical Lutheran Church of America and then, when I was a late teenager, I became a part of the non-denominational Christian Church Churches of Christ, eventually became a part of the Christian Emissionary Alliance denomination, which is an evangelical denomination, and then, as of late, have been more associated with non-denominational charismatic. So there's quite a mixture.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, that's a, you guys have a. Okay, so then we represent kind of three different types of Christianity for sure. So if you know anything about like Presbyterianism, have you ever heard frozen chosen? Are you aware of that term? So, frozen chosen?

Speaker 3:

The reason why they say that is because Presbyterianism finds its theological basis in Calvinism generally, which is, you know, his most famous doctrine is predestination. So the idea that you are chosen by God, like you are elected by God, and that that election is essentially there's nothing, if you really break it down, there's nothing you can do to get you into heaven which I loved because to me what that meant was, if God's got that under control, then for me I can focus on this world. I don't have to worry about the next. That's not. My focus is the next. So where the frozen chosen because you're chosen, you're elected by God, but you're frozen because they just sit there and they just stare at you. Wow, you preach like they're known for being very silent, very reverent. You know, in those denominations, the main line denominations are dying right now. In fact. I mean, if you look across all denominations, there is a decline. You can see that from the Pew research, but we are experiencing the steepest decline, and so to me, I felt that one of the most important ways that we would be able to overcome that was by basically living the faith out.

Speaker 3:

We are kind of known in the Presbyterian Church as being very socially conscious, so the idea was I wanted to put that into practice, like let's go do those things in Matthew 25 and let's get out of the frozen part of being the chosen. And they responded very well to it initially, and then what ended up happening was, you know, I had given a talk early on in the church and if you just do the numbers, like just do the demographic numbers in our church we were, the average age in our congregation was like over 65, something like that which is different from your denominations generally. You know, you can skew younger, for us much, much older. So if you just do like the death rates I was just saying like, we would have 600 people on a Sunday, which for our types of churches is a lot of people. The average size of a congregation in the Presbyterian Church is probably about 100. So for us to have 600 people on a Sunday, that's a big church for us.

Speaker 3:

And they were looking around and they were saying this is great. Everything's gonna go on forever like this and I tried to say no. Unless we make some really, some really bold moves and we do some things in the community, that's really going to show people kind of who we are and express kind of God's love to them. I think that what's gonna happen is we are going to shrink over time and it's gonna become harder and harder and harder for us to maintain. So I had, if I'm being honest with you about kind of I had this whole big plan and we needed to and I wanna talk a little bit about kind of how like this idea, because you talk about like CEOs and things like that, like this thing.

Speaker 3:

But I was really looking towards the future. I had this big plan that I was putting in place and I had been working for five years to get it orchestrated. So I've been kind of like working with our elders, our session to get it all in place and it was supposed to launch in 2020. That was the year that it was supposed to take off. So all of these various pieces that I've been working on for five years sacrificing for getting forming relationships, getting ready to kind of do this thing If we get to 2020 and you know what happened? It all tanked. So everything that I had worked towards was basically wiped out, like none of it worked, because everything kind of stopped.

Speaker 3:

And that was a time of self-reflection. I had sacrificed a lot in that time with my family. I was never around. I was constantly at the church, I was constantly working with leadership and I was just there trying to do this. And then, when it kind of fell apart, I had this real come to Jesus moment where I asked myself is this like? What are you gonna do? How are you gonna like? What are you gonna do after this? Are you? Because there's no way. We had to do it from a place of strength. We couldn't have done it otherwise.

Speaker 3:

And now, post pandemic, everybody was just trying to pick up the pieces the best that they could, and so I started asking myself the question God, where do I fit in? And all this? Because I am not a I cannot be a hospice pastor to a church, meaning I can't be the type of pastor who helps a church kind of die.

Speaker 3:

I guess it's not where I am, and there are a lot of pastors who and I don't say this to be judgmental at all. This is where a lot of Presbyterian pastors are today, because their churches are struggling, and so they are essentially trying to help, like they're not rejuvenating, they're not coming back, so they're trying to figure out how do we kind of die with dignity, which is a horrible thing for us to be looking at as a denomination but I mean, we're closing churches left and right and it's because there's just not enough people to maintain them any longer, and so I think I had to ask myself the question does it make sense to continue to go forward if this is what the church is going to be, or is the reformation that's taking place before our eyes, which is happening literally right now as we speak? Do we need to just if you wanna be kind of a mover in that do we start to need to think completely differently, which I think is a lot of what you guys are starting to talk about. Which is why I liked your podcast so much is because I think that's where you guys are going.

Speaker 3:

You see the reformation happening, and I think the question is where does that lead us? Like, where do we go with that? And so the questions that the big question was. I've only ever wanted to be a pastor my whole life, and so does that mean now that by leaving like, have I abandoned, like, what some of those people were accusing me of? Am I abandoning my call? I would say no, I don't think that I am. I think you can be called to be a pastor in so many different types of environments, and the institutional church is just one.

Speaker 1:

Thank you, alex. I love what you just landed on because I think part of our work is because we're coaches. We coach pastors who are going through this very thing. And I'm glad that you brought up COVID because actually, well, it was seen as something that was, you know, so much pressure, and it could be seen as this massive disaster for the church, which in some ways it was. You know. It brought us to a very weak spot. Many churches and pastors experienced incredible pressure during that time, and yet it also could be seen as a very gift, you know, a gift from God, where it allowed us to stop and question.

Speaker 1:

I'm reminded of, you know, it's in our weakness that he is strong, you know, and so I wonder whether there was a weakness there, a vulnerability there for the church that God was working within. And I think what you just described is something that we hear a lot of like. We're hearing the same stories all around America of pastors who, you know, in that time of COVID, in the pressure there is like hang on a minute, okay, my plans have stopped, but maybe we should just question the plans. Maybe God's saying something here and I think that that juncture put them into that reconstructing framework of what is next. But I wanted just to talk a little bit about calling because I love what you said.

Speaker 1:

I felt when you said earlier about how people were questioning whether you were even called to that. That felt really hard to me. I was like ow, that I could feel like if I had heard that that would have hurt me, because calling is something so cool and it's something that is most of us as pastors have poured our lives into. And, like you, talk about the cost as well of some of those decisions and you know we've mentioned this before in prior episodes. But we believe we're with you.

Speaker 1:

We believe that we're first called to following Jesus and ministering in that space and we're not actually necessarily called to an institution as our primary calling. Now we can feel that that's very much part of our calling to align ourselves with an institution, but it's not dependent on who God's called us to be as ministers to a broken world, as ministers of good news. So I just wanted you to speak a little bit more into that. How does that feel now? Like now you're, you called yourself, you know a retiree pastor or ex pastor, you don't really know what language to put and then you've also received some quite harsh comments from people trying to even discredit that, calling how do you land on that now for you internally, what keeps you going Like, what makes you know that, actually know, I am called.

Speaker 3:

Well, I mean, I guess deep down inside and this will kind of give you a little bit of a sense of who I am as a person so my family actually is. It's very interesting and I actually talked about this on another podcast that I was on, but I'm gonna say it here because I think it actually speaks into it which is that my family, on both my wife and on my side, our fathers, are Jewish and we have like, but we're both Hungarian Jewish, which is kind of weird, because it's not like I met her and knew any of that. It's just kind of like, you know, we met and we fell in love and then I was like, oh, that's so strange, you know. So we found out about ourselves. So we have this Jewish side to us and in Judaism, I think it's a critical element of Judaism.

Speaker 3:

Judaism is different from Christianity. Christianity tends to be about certainties, the certainty of belief, the certainty of things that you know. If you believe this, then this will happen. In Judaism, it's about the tension between it's literally the Jacob wrestling with God. That's what you're living in the tension of the questions, and there tends to not be a lot of answers to that. I am very comfortable in that space, which I think is why my congregation was not super comfortable with me a lot of the times, because I was not the type of person who gave a lot of solid answers. My perspective was always I'm gonna give you guys information, I'm gonna give you different ways to think about this. You have to go out and you have to use this and integrate this into your faith life. I am not going to give you, though, the way to do that. It is up to you to make that happen. So I fundamental to my nature and my being, is this wrestling component, and so I continue to do that I love even now I'm working on another book that I'm about to put out. I love thinking about these ideas. I love talking to people at the gym. I work out all the time. I'm constantly talking to people at the gym about this. I see it as you are a pastor, irrespective of whether or not you have a church congregation to preach, to Like, you're there to talk to people all the time, and so I think that will come through in everything that I do and the calling. I make a joke. There's a guy who I'm working out with right now. He's a big guy and I work, you know I've been training him. He's lost like 60 pounds and I joke, now he's my congregation of one that I get to speak to every week, cause we have these long conversations in between our sets where we talk about it.

Speaker 3:

I think that, as a pastor, I think I would go this way Once called, always called. I think that once you feel that calling, even if you leave the church, that calling is still there. It is the manifestation of that calling that matters of how is God asking you to manifest that calling in the world right now? And I really believe you know, with this new business that I'm going to start, which we can talk about at a certain point, this is the next step in my calling. In fact, I think it will probably be much more effective than I ever was in the institutional church if I can get it up and running properly. So we will see where that leads. But I really believe, once called, always called, and I don't think you can ever really abandon that. I just think you change the environment in which you're serving.

Speaker 1:

I love that congregation of one and I feel like that's a vision actually, and I think on the on the other side of the coin of this, you know, not only have we got some misunderstandings around the calling of a pastor, but potentially for the congregants, we have misunderstandings of the calling. You know, the priesthood of all believers and I think when you said that, alex, I was just thinking can you imagine if everyone just felt like walked around and felt like, okay, where's my congregation of one? Because for me, that's an exciting body of Christ, that that that makes me feel like I would want to associate myself with that group of people who are going back their days going. I'm going to have a congregation of one. How, who can I love? And so, yeah, thanks for sharing that.

Speaker 2:

I love that. Yeah, I was going to say I love that because you know what. What you're saying is you take ownership for not only your relationship with Christ that is living in active, but how that is expressed in the world around you, which is which is ultimately what we would hope for everyone and those who share maybe what we might call traditionally a call to the pastorate. We're simply trying to help others do the same thing, but we're going to do it one way or the other, and leadership is leadership, whether that's from a pulpit or by example, and I love the fact that, whether you are in the traditional lane or you are following Jesus into a new lane, there's what you're saying is ownership, and that ownership is spearheaded by your personal pursuit of God in your life which, by the way, is not static, it's dynamic. He's the same yesterday, today and forever, but our relationship with him changes as we pursue him and as we grow and as our understanding of him expands, and our issues in the world and what it looks like to express his love into the world is hopefully changing and growing as we're changing and growing on the inside, which, by the way, is a gift.

Speaker 2:

I want to circle back slightly. So just acknowledge my appreciation for what you've said. You brought to the pulpit is the information, different ways to look at it and here's some questions you can ask. But you do the thinking and come to the conclusions. I love that so much and I think the other way is here's what it says and here's the answers. And you know just a product of you know I could be wrong by this, but it seems like a product of rationalistic society which, you know, post enlightenment is all about the cognitive journey as opposed to a holistic journey into the heart of God and people in the world. And I'm hearing something holistic from you that is to me a beautiful expression of a pursuit of God in your life. So thank you for sharing that gift with us and for continue to live that out faithfully.

Speaker 1:

Yeah, I wanted to bring this up because I think it's important. You mentioned, you know, you talked about how you at COVID right, you started to kind of question. I think that what I've heard from you so far, alex, is this tension of you know, at that point, that loyalty to something, to the institution, to the call, and then when you start to question, it feels like there's so much tension in that space because I and as you, as you, shared, I remember my own journey. And one thing also, I mean we've had a guest that we absolutely adore, terry Welling. He's got a book coming out soon called unlikely nomads, and one thing that Terry he's coached passes for decades now. But one thing that he says is that the people who are on the on the front end of this reformation are not the people who don't care for the body of Christ church, they're the people who thrown their lives into this, you know. They're the people who have, you know, have been thinking and dreaming and passionate about seeing God's family come alive for such a time as this, and they're the ones who are leaving. And so I remember when I read you know he asked us to read his book in preparation, but I remember reading that and just feeling so emotional because it's just the validation of that.

Speaker 1:

Because of that tension, I think that a lot of pastors can feel like judged or misunderstood. Or am I actually being disloyal here by even questioning some of this stuff? I mean, am I just being super critical? You know, I think those are the thought, those are the things that go around our minds and I think that people in this space of reconstructing pastors that would be that a lot of listeners be their experience to. So I'm just curious, alex, if you've got any advice for people who find themselves in that space of they are questioning. If they're being honest with themselves, there's something in them that doesn't settle when they look at some of this stuff, but then they don't want to be the the critical one, they don't want to be the disloyal one. They they want to actually be part of the solution, not just talk about the problem, right? So what would you say to people in that who find themselves in that space?

Speaker 3:

I think that you're bringing up probably one of the most important things, which is that I think, as a pastor, there is an expectation that you are not supposed to be critical of the institution. Like you're the, you're the ultimate cheerleader for the institution. Why wouldn't you, why would you, wouldn't become a pastor otherwise? Right, you must believe in it wholeheartedly and I think as pastors we're not supposed to. You know, we're not supposed to leave the church or called by God, we're the ones who are willing to sacrifice, suffer, die for our beliefs. And if somebody is leaving, then I think what that does is, again, I think it there's a, there's a sense of, oh my God, like if I leave then, then then what's going to happen? You know, what does that say about me and what does it say about the church? And I think I want to go back to Kirk's thing. I think that it doesn't say necessarily anything about like you're, you're placing so much value on the institution itself and you're not seeing kind of God can do so many more things. A new thing is happening, right, the Isaiah text Like God does that, irrespective of what we do in our in, in kind of our workings of things. And so I would say the advice I would give that is this you have to do a cost benefit analysis. So and I think the end and I and I hate to put it that way like hope, it doesn't sound like business, see too much, but, but we're going to get into the business, consumeristic side of things. But I think that there's a question of when you go to church and when you, as the pastor of the church, are people benefiting from the relationship that's being formed there? Are they better for stepping through the doors and are they? Are they emerging out of it deeper disciples of Jesus? If the answer to that is yes, and you feel that you, as a facilitator of that, are making good progress and you are doing that work in good conscience, keep going, don't stop like that's great. But if, in that cost benefit analysis, if you feel that people are not leaving better than when they enter, if they're, if they're not engaging with the gospel in a way that creates positive change, that they're becoming more like Jesus, then I think that in that cost benefit analysis you have to step back and say, okay, what is it about the situation? Is it me, is it the? Is it the the community? Is it just that we've kind of hit a point, or do they need new leadership?

Speaker 3:

I came to a point with my church where I realized a I needed. Not only did I need to move on and do something different, but this my community needed a new pastor with new ideas and a new approach that they heard from me for 10 years. I felt that I was not making the same advances within their faith journeys that I needed to be helping them with, and part of that is because we all have our limitations and our perspectives can only push a person so far and sometimes you just come to this stasis and a community and so for some pastors I think it might be do I need to move on to a different community? I think for some pastors right now in particular because you all are actually looking at this on a deeper level I think that a lot of them, I think that most pastors today going to seminary I would not train them to go into the institutional church.

Speaker 3:

I would actually be training them to do something far different, because I don't see that. I don't see the institutional church as the future. I don't I'm not trying to say that it's not worth investing in. For some people. That is still very important, but I see that the future of the church is going to be something wildly different than what we've known, particularly for the last 500 years, which is what came out of the Reformation.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I think that's really well said because I think it challenges. You know, where is our faith? Is it? Is it in the institution or is it in God, who never changes he's? He's, he's our source of security, which means if God is my security, then I can question the institution, knowing that questioning the institution is not the same as questioning my faith, which, by the way, is OK to question our faith, and let me just throw that out there and to question different aspects of our faith, because that's indication that something is alive on the inside. My opinion.

Speaker 2:

But questioning the institution is simply a matter of questioning the methodology.

Speaker 2:

I mean, you mentioned a number of methodological issues in your article which I think are things that tend to be in the back of pastors heads In any case, I know they were in mind things like the consumeristic behavior of parishioners or the pastor, a CEO, or dispelling the, the pillar of virtue idea, that that we, you know this, this role model of perfection, and, and these are things that kind of were in the background, and I wonder if COVID didn't just push a lot of those things and the other things that you mentioned in your article right to the foreground and caused a number of people or are even at this moment causing a number of those who are serving in the traditional capacity to take a look and say wait, this is, this is a moving train that I'm not sure is healthy or healthy for me to be on anymore.

Speaker 2:

What does it look like? Do I change it? Do I get off it and it and those questions are not only healthy, but it's not the same as questioning our faith and I'm wondering if you can kind of speak to a little bit of that part of your journey, just this, this questioning of methodology and some of the things that I mean. You mentioned a few moments ago the consumeristic tendencies pastor, a CEO and I'm wondering if you can speak a little bit into that part of your journey.

Speaker 3:

Actually. So those the seven, the seven competencies that I came up with, that I mentioned in my article. I had written those down about a little bit before COVID, I remember I wrote them down because I was thinking about them. I was like, oh, maybe I'll write a little thin book about these at some point in time, just because I was feeling kind of overwhelmed at that point and I was thinking about all the things that I had to do to kind of keep the church going, and it just felt overwhelming, and so I just started like I was like kind of writing them down. And it was actually in the midst of also me reflecting on, there was a group of people who were trying to oust me from my congregation, and so at that point in time I was thinking about kind of some of this consumeristic behavior. And actually so I'm a student of history, would you mind. I was wondering if I could kind of tell a little story to you all, because I think it's a fascinating story of kind of how we got to where we are today. And so you all are probably aware, you probably know Willow Creek, you've heard of it before. Okay, so Willow Creek, do you know the story of how it began, because it's actually right in my area.

Speaker 3:

So, yeah, Bill Hybles, who was the pastor of that church. What he did was so this is in the 70s, he actually went to college for business and what he did was when he came back, he started, he decided he was going to apply business principles to beginning his church and what he did was he went from door to door polling people who didn't go to church and he asked like what are you looking for? Like literally just trying to do like a market survey, what are you guys looking for? Why aren't you there? And what he heard informed the type of experience he ultimately created, and what most people said was they found church to be boring, and so he was one of the first pastors to really attempt to make church entertaining. Like he stripped out all the liturgy which in the frozen, chosen big part of our church. He stripped all that out and, rather than just preaching every week, he would utilize, you know, actors from his congregation and they would do skits and plays. People in our area they would talk about. If you want to experience Easter and Christmas, you got to go to Willow Creek because they would put on these massive, unique, high level productions and the music was akin to like these, like they were really high level, professional musicians Like you would find that. You know it was what you would find, you know, at some of the best concerts around the country. And I've been to the actual church and it's I mean it's like you're in this huge, massive space, it's like a studio. I mean literally you're inside of a studio with lights and all kinds of different things like that.

Speaker 3:

But something that's even more interesting than just the fact that he was able to kind of come up with this experience is that he used business principles to build the congregation. So what he did was he actually decided that Sundays were for seekers. Anybody who wanted to come to the church and check it out, you came on a Sunday. But if you were a member, you would come on Wednesdays, wednesday nights. That was your service, because you know you would kind of sacrifice that. And there was an expectation that you would give a full tithe because I mean their budget was like 40, 50 million a year. It was a huge amount of money. And there was also the expectation that you would recruit new families into the congregation. It's the business equivalent of saying like hey, have you tried this new version of Diet Coke? And your job was to give them new Diet Coke. Enough that they started making the decision to come on their own to become members, and then the same expectation was placed on them.

Speaker 3:

And so when he started this in the 70s because he applied this principle to it it grew to 30,000 people and among religious sociologists it's like one of the first major megachurches, and he was treating Christianity like a product that was marketed and sold. And so what ended up happening was people, evangelicals in particular. He created this leadership summit where he would bring pastors in from all over the country to teach them how to replicate his program. Now, what's so fascinating about this is that, of course, he would say, and others who kind of used his method would say well, all of that entertainment is window dressing for getting people to the door so they could expose them to the gospel message. And, to be fair to Bill Highbulls and the people at Willow Creek, they were fervent believers, those people, they really did believe it.

Speaker 3:

But what this did was is it set a precedent? The church was a product and if marketed in the right way, you could get more people to consume it. But fundamentally this changed the way that people started thinking about the church. So, whereas in the past you were attached to a denomination like Presbyterianism and you attended because your family had been part of that for generations my family and my hometown of Virginia have been part of our church since the 1800s. They were part of the founding members of that church. So now people start looking at it and saying, well, what is this doing for me? What am I getting for my money? Do I like the sermons? Do I like the music? Because if I don't, I will try to find a product that better suits my desires. And I think that's really at the core of when we get into the personality-driven ministries, because it's not just the.

Speaker 3:

You all brought this up and I love what you said in the last time you said this. This was a great, great thing that you said. You said isn't it supposed to be? Aren't people supposed to love the message and not the preacher? I don't remember which one of you said that, but one of you said that and I thought I was like, yes, that's so fascinating, right, but isn't it interesting how you can have two people who say the exact same message, but the one with the magnetic personality will receive more responses.

Speaker 3:

The better packaging always wins, and I think that if you and do you mind me just going on just a little further with this, because I think this is so fascinating what's happened as a result of this is that we've created a very watered-down Christianity. We don't want to challenge people too much, like I've heard people say about Willow Creek. You can go to Willow Creek and not even realize you're listening to a sermon. That's how, the way that they structure it, in such a way that it's kind of like you don't even realize you're in church, so much so we give them the message in little drips that are easily consumable and then what happens is how the gospel has to really fundamentally change who we are as people. That's left out and, if I think about it, arguably the most popular pastor in the country today is Joel Osteen.

Speaker 3:

Arguably he's the most popular pastor. He preaches prosperity gospel, which, in a nutshell, states that God and Jesus want you to be successful and have lots of money. Now, I don't think Jesus ever says that in the gospels. In fact, he says the exact opposite. What's Matthew 6, 24? No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve God in wealth.

Speaker 3:

Luke, chapter 14, 33. So, therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. That's like one of the most damaging verses out there, like literally. He's like you've got to give away everything if you want to be with me. And yet the prosperity gospel is not just the most popular Christian message in the United States, it's the most popular Christian message around the world, and at the helm of those messages are these pastors who have built these massive megachurches. That is very geared towards a consumeristic way of thinking about Christianity. So I think that that history just speaks to the problem Like it started in the 70s, and we're seeing the manifestation of that today in a huge way, which I think a lot of people just see the fact that it's not, that's not life changing.

Speaker 1:

Wherever you find yourselves in that idea of business model, ceo and consumers and if we say it like that, it sounds crass when you apply that to church. But I think the point for me, regardless of where you find yourself, is impact, the impact that it's having on believers, and I think you just mentioned it. You said that we seem to have a watered down version, and my leaning and my intuition, alex, is that there is like an ache that is coming out of the body of Christ now, not just from pastors, but including pastors, but from congregants, from people who have been following Jesus, and I think the ache is to say, actually, whilst we can collude with this, we can go along and you can give me what I feel like I need, and there's this kind of Sunday centricity thing. Actually, deep down there isn't like an explosion of life, which I think we all deep down know can happen, you know, and so I wonder whether that's what we're. You know, we don't like it in some ways. We don't need to give a critique on business model and CEO. I think there's an intuition in all of us that feels like you know what? There's something more to the body of Christ than that, because what it produces is people who pay a subscription and like come along once a week and then go away again, and that's a very simple version, simple way of describing it. But and I think that what I'm hearing from around the world is that and I do think this is the move of the spirit and I do think this is what Jesus is doing in this church is that there is an ache that people are feeling to be like free from that, like free from those, free from that consumption, even free to.

Speaker 1:

I loved what you said earlier about when you were doing, when you were like leaving your church, you would kind of put a few things but you'd say to them get out there, you figure out you.

Speaker 1:

You go out and figure out how you're gonna be, and I think we're it, we're. It reminds me I mean this thought just came up to my mind, but it reminds me of the film Wally. You know, Wally, yeah, where they're all just kind of like in their chairs, like everyone doesn't like that. It might be comfortable and it might feel like safe and but actually, deep down, we know that we need to walk and we need to eat healthy and we need to get out there and feel like we've got life inside us again and I think, see, I'm preaching now, so you've got to stop me. But you know, like that, that for me is is is what would happen into. It's not about just like sitting here from a high tower criticising the business model of church. It's about tapping into what Jesus is doing in the body and he's reawakening an ache for people, all people, to be ministers of the gospel. I think so. What do you think about that?

Speaker 3:

yeah, no, I would say that that's true. I think that there is a desire, for I think that, within the moment that you start advertising the church as a, or you commoditize it, the moment you start commoditizing the church as a product, it's the moment that you're trying to you take the edge out of it. I mean to me, and I think this, and I've said this many times and I think it's really important, and I heard it when I was in seminary a professor of mine said that if you're preaching the gospel correctly, your church will get smaller, it will not get larger. And the reason why he said that is because Jesus's message, fundamentally, is a hard message. It is a challenging message. It's a message that I mean, just just look at what happened to him. Right, he's got all these people in Galilee and they're all kind of like, oh, he's so great, he's wonderful, right. But as the message gets harder and he talks more about sacrifice, what happens? He gets closer to Jerusalem, all those people start to fall away and by the time he gets to the end, he's completely alone.

Speaker 3:

And so the message, when you start to preach it, I think, according to the way that he talks about it, it is a life-giving message, but it's a hard message. Like it you have to you, you have to reassess, like what you have to reassess everything about how you live your life. You know the whole idea of dying to self. Well, you're, you're dying, you're, you're literally crucifying this part of yourself that is selfish and you're replacing it with somebody who is selfless. You're placing it with who Jesus is and you're like, literally, you're inserting Jesus into your heart and you're letting that drive you forward. That way of thinking is not going to be accessible to people who want to commoditize the church and make it consumeristic. That is not a message people want to consume. It's just not.

Speaker 3:

And so this is why you see, all the time there's this constant tension. Like you go back further in history, right, you have the people, the desert fathers and mothers. Why do they become desert fathers and mothers? They did so because they felt that the church becoming part of the Roman Empire was watering down what the gospel was about, and so they left to go live it out on their own. Because they felt you know what people aren't getting, how transformative this is supposed to be, because now it has become a state entity and people just go and they don't think twice about it.

Speaker 3:

And so, I guess, to the end of the question that you're talking about, which is is it, do people yearn for a transform transformation? I think there are some people who really do want that transformation. I think that, though, in our society today, I think it is, I think I probably will get in trouble for saying this, but I do believe that there are a lot of people who, because they, because of the way our society has primed them, we want things easy. I just use the word prime, and what is that? That's related to Amazon. We click a button, things are delivered to us without us even thinking twice about it.

Speaker 2:

Right, everything in our society is about convenience, and Christianity has fallen into that, and I think that that's that is a tension that, unfortunately, with the gospel, doesn't really work, in my opinion yeah, well, what I'm hearing is the just the contrast between building an organization and maybe the assumption that if there's a lot of people, that means life, and and many are beginning to discover that's not life, it's a.

Speaker 2:

It's a larger organization or a business that might have the appearance of life, but there's an emptiness at the other end of it and that's not life. And people are beginning to, and leaders are beginning to wake up to that, have their eyes open to that and begin to move in a different direction. That may not be a literal desert and I love your analogy, by the way, of going back to the desert, mothers and fathers but that desert might look a little bit different. There's a move of God out, and your expression of that right now is you're moving into a new direction might be a nod to that ancient movement. So I'm wondering is we, as we start thinking about wrapping up this conversation, if you can tell us a little bit about what that move looks like for you as you head into a new direction yourself?

Speaker 3:

in terms of kind of what I'm trying to do. You know, I I had a fundamental realization when I was working at the church, and I don't know if you're familiar with Robert Putnam. Do you know who he is? He's a Harvard sociologist and he talks about. He wrote a. He wrote a book called Bowling Alone. I don't know if you've ever heard of that. It was a book he wrote in there in 2000 and it was about how Americans he noticed that there was this uptick. Bowling is a tends to be a very communal sport and he noticed that in the early 2000s, there were a lot of Americans were going and bowling by themselves, like they were getting a lane and just being there alone, and he felt that was a harbinger of things to come, that it was a cult, that we were looking at a collapse of community. And he wrote a book in 2020 called the upswing, which was talking about how it's true of all societies, but in American society we are oscillating back and forth. We oscillate between being highly communalistic and highly individualistic, and we are hitting a peak of hyper individualism right now in in our world and that is accompanying the collapse of many of these communal structures that have been common in our world, the church being one of them.

Speaker 3:

Where, if you think about it, what was the church? For so long, it was the nervous center of the community. It's where people came. You, you went there all the time to, to not only worship, but I mean, that was your, that was your social, your social outlet, your volunteer outlet and, yeah, was your networking. People went there for that as well.

Speaker 3:

And so, with the collapse of these, of the of our institutional gathering places, young people are having a horrible, horrible time. You can look at in the incidences of mental illness, anxiety, depression, addiction. These are all skyrocketing right now and a lot of it is because they do not have the social outlets that once existed and were once provided by these institutional organizations, and they're walking away for many different reasons and they're not coming for many different reasons. And so for me, I think the question becomes you know, I said in my last sermon to my congregation I feel God's unconditional love the most through my relationships. Those, those relationships are where I feel God's love conveyed most in my life, and so to me, I want to create a business that allows younger people in particular because that's who I'm focused on to have those relationships and be able to form those relationships in ways that the institutional organizations, frankly, are not allowing for any longer, and so, ultimately, I'm creating a tech business that will create that possibility for them, and I'm in the process of fundraising.

Speaker 3:

Right now, I need about two point two million dollars. They're about to get it off the ground, but I've been in the process of doing this for quite some time, so so you know, I'm moving forward with it and I'm excited about it, and if I'm let's just put it this way what I'm trying to do, somebody's gonna do it. Like it's so obvious, somebody will do it. The question is, is it gonna be me or is it gonna be somebody else? I, I would love it to be me. I don't care if it is me, though, because it needs to happen. There needs to be a better way for us, as a society, to find the relationships that matter to us, because I can tell you from my perch and where I sit, it's becoming harder and harder for most people to have those relationships, and, unfortunately, the demise of the church is contributing to that well, alex, we want to say thank you so much for your time.

Speaker 2:

I love those words and there's there seems to be wholeness, it is coming from those words and a lot of health that comes from those words, and I think there's gonna be pushback because it confronts me to do the same thing, but I think that's where we begin to live out the reality of who we are on the inside, together with our faith, in a way that is integral, which is which is freeing and honest and hopefully can shine light on the path of other people to live in a in an equally freeing and honest way, which I think is what this whole conversation has been about, is being willing to self-examine, being willing to look at what I can continue to do, what I can no longer do and what, ultimately, it looks like for me to move forward in my calling, faithfully to who I am, to who God is, to my best understanding to date, and in a way that addresses the great need of the world, even if that begins moving me on a trajectory outside of the traditional position, but more faithful to what it is that God's called me to do.

Speaker 2:

When I sit here and listen to you talk, alex, I think about the definition of a calling is when, when your great desire or burden meets the world's great need.

Speaker 2:

And as we begin to, as we wrap up this conversation, I guess that would be my hope that others would be inspired by your story to begin to connect with what's really going on in the inside in terms of your burden, because that's what the the word call is. If I understand correctly, is the word burden in the original text of scripture a burden on one's shoulders, and so when we dial into what that burden is and that might be a journey and differentiating what it isn't as much as what it is and begin to allow that calling to express itself outwardly, obedience would be willing to move through the barriers that would keep one from doing that, even if those barriers are represented by our institutions. So, alex, thank you so much for your story, for your time, your grace, for the heart and mind that you bring into the space. We really really appreciate you and look forward to seeing what's ahead, for what's on your heart as it meets the world's great need thank you for having me on.

Speaker 3:

I appreciate you guys giving me the time thanks for listening to the reconstructing pastors podcast.

Speaker 1:

If you enjoyed this episode and you'd like to help support the podcast, please share it with others, post about it on social media or leave a rating and review and if you're interested in leaning into this conversation further, we'd love for you to be a part of a special online community coaching space called reconstructing pastors cohort.

Speaker 2:

For details, visit our website at bridge and rhino comm. See you at the next episode.

Reconstructing Pastors
Discrediting and Separating From God
Reevaluating Calling Amid Church Decline
Calling, Faith, and Nature Exploration
Questioning Loyalty and Methodology in Pastoral
The Impact of Market-Driven Megachurches
Impact of Prosperity Gospel on Christianity
Build Relationships in Changing Society

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