When Hot Church Came to Town
When Hot Church came to town, it did something to me on the inside.
By: Keith Mannes
Let’s call it HotChurch. HotChurch shot like a rocket into my world of pick-up trucks on dirt roads. It brought energetic and high tech worship to our staid county. If it was a race, we were losing and choking on its dust. It was rough, not only for me and our church, but also for all the other pastors in our area who were preaching with dust in our teeth.
I’m not the only one who needs to figure out how to do ministry while eating dust.
A friend who lives in downstate Michigan, for instance, attends a church that is doing ministry in a thin film of frantic sweat. In my friend’s city, a multi-millionaire Christian has decided to start a church, insto-presto, like a pop-up tent, and it’s the latest, hottest thing. Need music? He writes a check for a band. Need staff? He writes check for that too. Youth ministry? Check. Concerts? Check.
So my friend’s church (along with every church in a 30-mile radius) has, in short order, lost its children and young families, and some older members too. And how can you argue? It’s all for Jesus … right?
Ministry While Eating Dust
In the dark of my sleepless nights, feeling the grit in my teeth, that’s what I kept trying to sort out. If HotChurch was for God, then I should be happy, I told myself. In Philippians, Paul said, “What does it matter? The important thing is that, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached … and because of this I will rejoice.”
But I wasn’t rejoicing. I was grinding away, feeling insecure and outclassed. I wanted to curse church and die.
I wasn’t rejoicing. I was grinding away, feeling insecure and outclassed. I wanted to curse church and die.
Well, I wanted to curse HotChurch, maybe, but never ours. We are a country church, founded exactly one hundred years ago amid rolling hills and forests. Visitors say that they are driving along through woods and farmland and then … Bam! There’s this large, lovely church on the side of a gravel road.
That’s right: 100 years. We are of the Reformed family of churches, and our confessions were written 500 years ago. We are a traditional, conservative church. We have a praise team but still sing hymns. We have the Lord’s Supper six times per year, on a schedule. We visit the sick. We recite the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Thus has it been with all the churches around here.
Over the years, every once in a while, people would change churches, but this was rare. Our churches are like honeycombs, built with seemingly ancient family worship clans. Great-grandparents worship with their grandchildren. Extended families of 20 people or more go home after church for dinner, every Sunday. We are like fruit embedded in generational Jello.
Ten years ago, then, when HotChurch started to sizzle in the larger, regional town nearby, our people had never seen anything like it. Not that we’re bumpkins. Our farmers plant their fields by GPS, and we have smart phones too, but in terms of church, most people around here had never had regular access to a full-on rock band, Saturday night services, advertising on secular-rock radio, massive youth ministry, and even heavier-rockier bands for those youth. People got saved! There were adult baptisms and testimonies of life-change.
The church I serve, at the time, had around 300 people. In our community, that was considered large. HotChurch ballooned to over 3,000. At least that’s what it said on the front page of the regional newspaper. That’s right. HotChurch was such a rush, it made page one of the newspaper.
Even grocery stores were emptier on Saturday nights when HotChurch had services. My wife and I would go shopping, and it was like you could see sagebrush blowing through the dairy aisle.
Leftovers and Lightning Bolts
I should have rejoiced at this work of God. We all should have. But our Sunday morning services became exercises in pasted-on smiles and face-saving gestures. Some of our young couples were gone. Our young people, too, didn’t come to church or to youth group anymore. The Jello was melting.
It was like New Year’s Eve, when you have people at your house, awkwardly standing around a punch bowl, waiting for the ball to drop on TV. They can’t help looking out the window at the neighbor’s house-party. They can feel the bass pounding from over there, and hear people laughing. On Sunday mornings, we were the uncool leftovers, and we knew it.
HotChurch raised a ton of money with stunning speed and built a totally cool building in a perfect location. In the process of construction, lightning hit a tree, and HotChurch’s pastor proclaimed that this was symbolic of Satan’s attacks. They put a picture of the tree in the paper. They left it standing on the road in front of the church, as a statement. I was so messed up, I was actually jealous of that. “Lord, really? They get lightning?”
It didn’t help that the people from HotChurch, some of whom had recently left us, were very excited. Very. It was their first time in a ministry like that, and they were overflowing with zeal. At the big family get-togethers after church, they blew in from HotChurch to describe all the great things they’d seen and heard. HotChurch people were intense, to the point of insensitive.
For instance, on Halloween, I was out with my children, and ran into a former member of our church. She came up to me and said, “I’m experiencing something at HotChurch that I never experienced in all my years in your church: growth.” Then she turned and walked away.
It felt like we were getting our noses rubbed in something. This was particularly hard because we had been a warm Christian family to them. In times of illness, we had given prayer and brought in meals. As a pastor, I had been with them in the ER, and visited before and after surgery. Where did that need to jab us come from?
I took it hard. We all did.
One of the hardest moments involved a husband and wife who were going through a rough patch. I remember kneeling with the husband in my office, praying for him and promising that we would walk through flames together as we sought God’s healing and direction. For months many of us were in regular prayer for them and visited them to give encouragement.
Suddenly, they were gone. Just as suddenly, their names appeared in the newspaper (yes, the paper again) under a quote, super-imposed on the full-page picture of HotChurch’s pastor. The quote from the couple: “HotChurch saved our marriage.”
Yes, we should have been happy for them, and to some extent, we were. Still, it felt like sand kicked in our faces.
As for the pastor, cool and confident, leaning against the wall in that full-page newspaper ad … well, he was smart and doing all the right things to build a church. He was evangelistic. He knew how to connect with people and motivate them. He was a great preacher. You just had to admit those things.
Still, most of us pastors who’d had interactions with him didn’t have a good feeling about him. He had an edge. A strange vibe. At one point he openly said that the lightning hitting the tree was symbolic of the attacks from other pastors.
True, some pastors did attack. They were upset because he would negatively mention other churches, by name, in his sermons. He also dissed the Christian schools supported by the area churches, and he refused involvement in the ministerial associations and prayer groups. It all left a bad taste.
But I tried to face the hard truths: the pastor was doing what successful pastors need to do, and maybe we should all spend less time having our little coffee times and get out there and do evangelism like he did. Our bad vibes about him were probably because we were jealous. And maybe, in some ways, our churches were out-dated. The waves of change that went through the city churches years ago had finally touched our shores. The ugly truth was that we were left in the dust, and it was our own fault.
Implosion And …
The crash was sudden. The HotChurch pastor’s autocratic leadership style became more public and pronounced. A few of our people (a very few) came back a little weirded out. And then the pastor’s affair became public. He left. HotChurch imploded.
I wish I could tell you that I didn’t feel some glee in that, but I did. I felt vindicated. I thought, See? Finally, everyone can see what a creeper he was. Which was sick of me, because a lot of new Christians and newly-excited Christians got burned and disillusioned. I was a creeper to respond that way.
These days, HotChurch is a vastly more healthy place. The core of the church stayed and worked things out. The new pastor there is gracious, godly, and humble. HotChurch is growing again.
As for me? Our church is vibrant, and we are having a great time in ministry.
But I still wonder about my soul, and how it responded back there in the dust. What was that? The whole crazy thing has left me with two spiritual lessons and several practical suggestions.
First, sure enough, I have sin in me. Deep and ugly stuff. So I had to kneel at the cross and spill my soul, and get as honest with God as I could. Daily I told him about how stupid I was to be jealous of the lightning, about my hatred and jealousy in general. Confession of ongoing attitudes became essential. I etched “Wash me” on my soul.
If it was a race, we were losing and choking on the dust that HotChurch was kicking up.
Second, I learned sifting. In Luke 22, Jesus tells Simon Peter that Satan wants to sift him like wheat. Which is bad, of course, but Norval Geldenhuys, in his commentary, says it is also good. Because when you sift wheat, you get it down to its true core. When HotChurch smashed into my life, it split me open and forced to me to examine what I’m doing and why. People? Glory? Career? Health insurance? What? This is all for Jesus … um, right?
In the movie “Machine Gun Preacher,” Gerard Butler plays the role of Sam Childers, a pastor who heads off to the Sudan to save children from the horrors of Joseph Kony. In his passion against his enemy, Sam becomes driven by dark rage. An aid worker tells him, “They say you’re doing good, that you have special powers … that you are protected by angels; they said the same thing about Kony in the beginning too.”
This was true of me. In my jealousy and self-righteous anger toward HotChurch’s pastor, I now see that I was becoming like him. I was driven, obsessed not with God, but against HotChurch. It was a hard truth to face. Sifting can reveal what’s inside.
- Don’t vent from the pulpit.I did that once. I mentioned HotChurch in a sermon, just one little time. It felt so good. I thought it would be good to name the elephant in the room, but it only made me look like an ass. Don’t succumb to that temptation. It cheapens you.
After that sermon, by the way, I actually got a sarcastic little note from HotChurch’s pastor. Sermons are recorded, and word gets around. So there we were, like baby gorillas, thumping our chests. Don’t go there. I wish now I hadn’t.
- Get help.Talk to another pastor. Get a counselor. Don’t do this alone. Somewhere, somehow, you have to talk privately and confidentially about this. If it’s with pastors, it will feel like gossip, but you’ve got to get this out and find some stability and encouragement. I found a solid counselor, who talked me through the minefield of my insecurities and fears.
- Keep to the high road.Sometimes our people would come to complain and vent about HotChurch. Inwardly, sinfully, I liked that they were mad at it too. But, truly, try to gently shrug and say, “Yeah, but they are doing a work of God here,” and “Well, we could probably learn a few things from them.” Having done your ugly confession, venting, and fearful sweating in private, do your best to be humble and gracious in public. Be a Christian leader.
- Use this as motivation to change.Right there, choking at the back end of that dust-maker ahead of you, is perhaps a good time to take a hard look at the vision of your church. It’s not a time for obsessive competitiveness, but it is a good time to make worthy and godly proposals for change in your church, because now everyone can vividly see that the status quo is unacceptable.
- Stay true to the call.Go visit an 88-year-old widow. Visit your people in nursing homes. Talk to your neighbor who doesn’t know Christ and is so completely secular he doesn’t even know what HotChurch is. Teach your people to do the same. Show them the quiet devotion of Christ. Be a faithful under-shepherd, which matters more than all the dust we kick up on the surface of things.
- Trust God.Over time, the dust settles, and everything re-calibrates. Listen to Gamaliel in Acts 5.
Yes, know God. And keep on, friend, even with dust in your teeth.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal. June 6, 2016
Keith Mannes is pastor of Highland Christian Reformed Church in Marion, Michigan.