Too Far Down the Mountain
Biblical Integrity and Church Leadership
A Bright Sunny Day by the Sea of Galilee
We can only imagine that it was a beautiful day when Jesus chose a mountain by the Sea of Galilee to deliver His most famous address. Jesus chose the elevated position near the water for acoustic purposes and I am also convinced that He made a metaphorical choice: These truths represented the highest point of His teaching, the pinnacle of the message He had come from Heaven to deliver. Standing at the center of the highest elevation Jesus began speaking:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The disciples were seated close at his feet with other followers behind them. The crowd stretched down the mountainside to the lowlands between the mountain and the sea. The farther down the mountain each listener sat, the less he or she heard. Perhaps the wind stole a word or phrase away, or a nearby child laughed or cried just enough to obscure some important part of the sermon. The noise of the crowd itself may have caused the more distant listeners to miss something important—and every word was important.
Do We Still Hear Jesus?
This article is not an attack on pastors–I love and respect the office of the lead pastor and all the various pastoral staff positions. I deeply respect the call of God on the life of a person who chooses this form of ministry. I also find, in the words of Jesus, lessons with tremendous bearing on the way we lead the people of God.
After several decades of pastoral staff ministry, mentoring worship leaders, and consulting with pastors, I am convinced that some church leaders are hearing voices other than that of Jesus. They use methods that have little to do with His teachings. It is as if they have positioned themselves too far down the mountain to really hear the words He spoke. In this Sermon Jesus addressed more than 20 subjects, each of them a challenge to our human nature and a call to a spirituality that goes beyond our ability to achieve without the help of the Holy Spirit.
Four Truths We Still Need to Hear
In reference to public worship, here are four teachings of Christ that all of us need to hear again.
Truth No. 1 Truth-telling Is Essential.
Jesus told us to tell the truth!
Matthew 5:37 NIV
“Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’;
anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”
When worldly leadership methods are used in the church truth is often the first casualty. Isaiah predicted such a time to come as culture-driven worship supplants worship in Spirit and Truth.
Isaiah 59:14-15 NIV
“So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance;
truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter.
Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.”
What are the signs of the lack of truth-telling?
- The truth is “handled,” not simply told. Plausible deniability becomes a regularly used method. Half-truths and false impressions are presented to the people in order to cover up the real story.
- Those who question the leaders are seen as enemies and treated as such. The New Testament concept that, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28 NIV) is completely lost. The Apostolic principle of building a consensus with the people of God based on the Word of God has been discarded. The expectation of unquestioning obedience has taken its place.
- Loyalty to the leader(s) becomes the greatest concern.
- The people of the church have a general feeling that, “What is going on is not really what is going on.”
Truth No. 2 People Are Valuable.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus went to great lengths to define the worth of each individual:
- We are the salt of the earth.
- Together we are a shining city on a hill.
- We all belong to a brotherhood of mankind.
- Personal conflicts must be settled quickly so worship is not hindered.
- Our behavior toward each other must be pure; no anger, murder, or lust.
- Even our enemies are worthy of our love and prayers.
- Each of us is in the Father’s care; do not worry about things.
- Do not judge others; judge your own heart by the Word.
When church leaders are too far down the mountain, they lose these guiding truths and begin to use people rather than love them.
What are the signs devalued people?
- Staff pastors are viewed as hired help rather than anointed ministers of the Gospel and are regularly discarded. Of course, in such instances, the truth of their plight must be “handled.” Staff ministries are sometimes evaluated by how much money they bring in.
- The people of the church do not receive equal treatment. People of means are treated one way; people with little but their hearts to offer go unnoticed. Troublesome people are routinely eliminated. The persistent tenderness of the Apostles toward those who were troubled or were troublesome is lost to heavy handed authoritarian techniques totally foreign to the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles.
- Sometimes pastoral staff leadership develops an “us and them” mentality toward the people. This is often coded in carefully chosen language that demeans the people as an unworthy, monolithic crowd fit only to be managed by their betters.
Truth No. 3 Doing Flows out of Being
The Sermon on the Mount is packed with challenging statements. One is this:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,” will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus said the test of who you really are is what you do. He elaborated on this topic at the Last Supper when He described the leadership of the world as one of “lording it over people.” He told the disciples this was not an option for them, “Not so among you!” He said. (Mark 10:41-45 NIV)
What are the signs of ungodly leadership?
- The pastor operates from a place of isolation. The more prominent the position of the church and the bolder the stance of the pastor on potentially disrupting issues, the more staff security may be a legitimate need. But this should be security against people who are deranged or dangerous, not people who need their pastor.
- The pastor rules the church, rather than leading it. He/she leads more like a CEO than a shepherd. Staff members have a clear understanding that part of their job is making the pastor look good.
- Committees, governing boards, and pastoral staff act as shields to avoid taking responsibility for decisions. When faced with difficult decisions that have great potential for conflict in the church, leaders sometimes hide behind governing groups that serve to mask personal choices as group decisions.
- Leaders choose manipulation techniques to control church members and employees. Purely personal decisions are presented in super spiritual terms as if God is speaking, not the leader.
While the leadership style of the lead or senior pastor creates the context in which all other leadership takes place, they are not the only ones who can succumb to the temptations of power politics and ungodly methods. Staff pastors who gossip or work against their leaders behind the scenes, can do as much damage to the church as misguided senior pastors. All church leaders must constantly hear the words of Jesus and obey them.
Truth No. 4 Prayer Is Not Performance
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus made this very clear: Prayer should never be used for any other purpose than spending time with God! It is not for show! Worship is not something to be used toward some other end. The same is true for acts of devotion or kindness or the giving of money. Jesus said that true worship must be done in “spirit and truth.” When public worship is used as a church growth tool, it is no longer done “in truth.” We are prostituting a holy thing.
What are the signs of prayer as performance?
- Worship services are divisive events with little thought given to Jesus’ prayer in John 17. “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.” (John 17:20-21NIV) In the final hours of His earthly ministry Jesus was concerned for the unity of the church. Public worship is intended to unite worshipers, not divide them.
- A church divided along cultural and generational lines cannot hear the complete voice of the Spirit. Jesus said “He who has ears, let him hear.” In the book of Revelation, he elaborates, “Let him hear what the Spirit says to the church.” The Spirit speaks through the liturgy—the words the people speak in prayer and worship. The Book of Psalms calls for an intergenerational discourse on the glory of the Lord, (Ps 79:13 NIV) Older worshipers need to hear the voice of the Spirit in the songs of the youth. Younger worshipers need to hear the voice of the Spirit in the songs of their elders.
- Public worship takes on the look and feel of a concert and the congregation is demoted to the status of “audience.” The wealth of the church is spent on image at the expense of substance. The church should be a holy counter-culture, not a “Christianized” version of the world. The expenditure of funds always reflects the priorities of the church. True worship is costly; pride and energy for the worshiper, and precious resources for the congregation.
Ascending the Mountain Again
Many of us have been casualties of un-Christ-like leadership. If you find yourself in a place like this, your life is not over! Jesus has not failed you—people have. There is much the Lord wants to teach you through this so keep listening to His voice. I recommend the Psalms as a prayer book. As worship leaders we tend to focus on the “hallelujah” psalms and skip those complaining ones. But when we have been wounded in the church, we find in them an example to follow—pour out your complaint to God. He can handle it!
Can we return to the summit of the mountain and hear Jesus’ words again? Of course we can. When we are there at his feet, the winds of culture never steal his words from us. Others voices are muted so we can hear our Savior clearly. Our children will be laughing, here on the summit, frolicking at last in the peace found only at the heights of God’s truth.
© 2016 Stephen R. Phifer All Rights Reserved