Christ is Risen!

John 3:16; Matthew 28:1-6; Ephesians 2:1-10; Romans 6:4

Jesus Christ is risen from the dead! Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Christ is alive! And, at the appointed time – in the fullness of time — trumpets will sound, choirs will sing their alleluias, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed – the mortal will be clothed with immortality, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye! Death swallowed up in victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

God gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” Romans 6:4 proclaims that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. And paraphrasing Ephesians, chapter 2: those who are dead in their sins are given new life as they come to Jesus in faith.

That is the Gospel. That is the gospel truth of Easter, Resurrection Day.

Edward Markquart, pondering the meaning of Easter, muses over what might have been printed if there were newspapers in the first century like those we have today. If there were, an obituary for Jesus might have appeared in the Saturday edition noting His time and place of birth and His lineage. There we might have read about the publicity He’d received because of unusual occurrences associated with Him such as the blind being given sight, the deaf hearing, and the lame walking. The obituary might have noted the rumors about how He radically changed people’s lives and how one day He entered Jerusalem to the loud acclamations of Passover crowds who hailed Him as king.

The piece would likely have gone on to say that those crowds had turned against Him and called for His death and how, succumbing to those crowds, Governor Pontius Pilate, representing the Roman Empire in Jerusalem, sentenced Him to death. And, in that article, we would have learned how Jesus died on a cross at three o’clock in the afternoon on Golgotha, the hill of the crucifixion, outside the walls of Jerusalem. His burial was in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea.

If that obituary had been printed in the Jerusalem Post or the Nazareth News, everyone would have thought that the Jesus movement had ended. Its leader was dead. His disciples had gone into hiding. This little episode would have become one minor footnote in history. His reputation, His teachings would have faded…if not for the third day. On the third day, the grave was empty. Jesus had risen from the dead.

The news spread, from the angel to Mary to Peter to the disciples to the 500. And they became a new people. They became a new brand of men and women who were filled with a new power, with resurrection power. They were no longer afraid of living because they were no longer afraid of dying. They had a new passion for life because they had resurrection power within them!

On Easter – all these centuries later – the Church, gathered from every race, every culture, every nation…the Church gathered by the hundreds, by the thousands, by the millions – the Church…gathered to hear the Resurrection message – to sing the songs and hear the good news, to celebrate new life — Christ has been raised from the dead by the victorious power of God. Christ is risen! Alleluia!

This day is not only concerned with God’s victory over physical death; this day is also concerned with God’s victory over spiritual death. God raises up both dead bodies and dead spirits. God raises spiritually dead people to life all the time, and I’ve seen it again and again. I have seen and heard and experienced real life stories of people who were spiritually dead and God put new life back into them. That’s what Easter is all about.

I’m quite certain there is someone reading this today who is spiritually dead OR who is so close to being spiritually dead, you would never be able to tell the person was alive. Spiritually comatose. Too busy for God.  Too busy running in circles and God is not part of that circle.

The apostle Paul, writing in his epistle to the Ephesians, tells us that we need to put off our old selves and put on the new. We are made new experientially when we yield to the work of the Holy Spirit within us.

For someone, your spiritual life is as dehydrated as the dry bones described in the book of Ezekiel. Your life is relatively unaffected by spiritual things. On Good Friday, you didn’t stop for even a moment to recall Jesus’ suffering on the cross.  The study of Scripture and the practice of daily prayer are not on your itinerary. Oh, you may pray when you’re in a jam, like just about everybody else. Oh, you may believe in the “Man Upstairs,” but that daily authentic walk with God is just not part of your life.

Tell me, can a person who is deaf hear the thunder? No. Can a person who is blind see the piercing flash of lightning? No. Neither can a person who is spiritually deaf truly hear the Word of God speaking to them every day, nor can the spiritually blind see the piercing light of God shining on their lives. The spiritually deaf can’t really hear the voice of God and the spiritually blind will not be overjoyed at seeing the beauties of God in Christ. Some are living like the dead dead, rattling around with dry bones like the skeletons described in the book of Ezekiel. … No thunder of God do you hear! No light of God do you see! No delicacies of God do you really taste or eat!

But the Easter message is that the awesome power of God, who raised Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, can miraculously take your dead life and mine and make it alive. God can take a person who are spiritually dead and fill that person with resurrection power, vibrant power so that life is lived with a passion for the ways of God. And it’s time. It’s time to wake up, come out from the spiritual coma, be raised up from spiritual lethargy by the power of God.

If you’re reading this today, I believe it is because God wants you to read this so that you might hear afresh or for the first time the Easter promise that God raises up both dead bodies and dead spirits. Victory over death was won by Jesus Christ.

Let’s recount what God did in Christ so that we might live.

Jesus had a Last Supper with his disciples and spent an excruciating time waiting in Gethsemane when those disciples couldn’t manage to remain awake with Him as He agonized over His approach to the cross. In a garden, He was betrayed with the Judas kiss and then He was brought before His accusers in a sham of a trial. He suffered the emotional pain of acknowledging the betrayal of yet another beloved disciple.

Then He suffered the physical pain of the scourging – Jesus was struck over and over and over again with a whip constructed of long leather straps studded with sharp pieces of bone, rocks, lead and glass. With each lash, the whip wrapped around His body, stripping off pieces of flesh. Roman beatings could be so severe that bones and organs were left exposed. By the time they got through beating Him, Jesus’ body was barely recognizable.

Then a crown of thorns was jammed on His head and He was beaten on the head repeatedly with a staff. They led Him away to be crucified. Jesus – battered and exhausted from a sleepless night — carried His own cross as they headed out of Jerusalem. But, with His condition weakened by the torture, the soldiers took a man from the crowd and had him carry the cross for the remaining steps to the place of crucifixion.

On the skull-shaped hill, Golgotha, Jesus, naked and already in unimaginable pain, was nailed to a cross through His wrists and feet. And He remained on that cross for six hours until He said the words: “It is finished” and “Father, into You hands, I commit my spirit.” Then He took His last breath.

The following events at the site of the crucifixion help verify that Jesus was dead:

  • The Roman soldiers did not break Jesus’ legs, because they “saw that He was already dead” (John 19:33).
  • The soldiers plunged a spear into Jesus’ side, and from it came both water and blood (John 19:34). Medical experts say that if He were not already dead, this in itself would have killed Him. Others have concluded that the pouring out of water and blood from His side was proof that Jesus was no longer alive.
  • When Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body of Christ so he and Nicodemus could bury Him, Pontius Pilate ordered a centurion to verify that Jesus was dead (Mark 15:43-45). The Roman governor would not release the body to Joseph until the centurion was certain that all signs of life were gone. You can be sure that an officer in the Roman army would not make a mistake about an important matter like this in his report to such a high official as Pilate.
  • Joseph and Nicodemus prepared the body for burial according to Jewish custom. This included wrapping it “in a clean linen cloth” (Matthew 27:59), anointing the body with “a mixture of myrrh and aloes” (John 19:39), and placing it “in a tomb which had been hewn out of the rock” (Mark 15:46). Any sign of life would have been detected by these bereaved friends. Surely they would not have buried a breathing Jesus.
  • The Pharisees and chief priests met with Pilate to discuss what had occurred and the scriptures make clear they were certain He was dead (Matthew 27:63). Soldiers were ordered to secure the grave with a seal. In addition, guards were placed on duty to prevent the disciples from coming to “steal Him away” (v.64). The Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities knew beyond doubt that Jesus was dead.

After His body was wrapped, it was placed in a rock cave before which a huge stone was rolled. Geologists from Georgia Tech went to Jerusalem some years ago to study just how large this stone had to have been to cover the four and a half to five foot doorway that would have been standard at the time.

The stone, they estimated, would have weighed 1½ to 2 tons. This stone would have been sealed with clay and stamped with the Roman signet. To tamper with a Roman seal was punishable by death, by crucifixion. The tomb was heavily guarded by soldiers of the Roman Empire, the most well-trained fighting machine that has ever walked the earth. Because of the stature of Jesus, the controversy surrounding Him, we can surmise there would have been a pretty substantial detail assigned to Him. Again, well-armed, well-trained. And they themselves would have been beaten, set afire, or executed if they failed in their duty.

Could the disciples have eluded the guards – the well-trained fighting machine who would have faced death for this? Could the guards have slept through or allowed the disciples to remove the two-ton stone, unwrap and fold neatly the hundred pounds of grave clothes, lift the body and carry it away? Really!

And then there is the witness of the disciples. They had dedicated the better part of three years to following Jesus. In the hours after Jesus’ death, they were probably asking themselves if they all hadn’t made just a huge mistake. Even though Jesus had told them He would die, they’d just never gotten it. They hadn’t understood; they hadn’t bargained on the cross. And so they were in hiding, fearing for their lives.

But then something happened to change them overnight into bold, fearless proclaimers of the name Jesus. So bold, so fearless, so determined to spread the word, that we’re here today to talk about what they did, what they saw 2,000 years ago. So bold, so fearless, so changed – that they were willing to give their own lives so that we might know their Jesus.

They had been so afraid they had been cowering behind doors but then – on the third day after the crucifixion – the scriptures tell us the women who had followed Jesus made their way to the tomb. Mary Magdalene had left behind her life of sin for a new life as a disciple of Jesus. She believed Him. She loved Him. And then He died on the cross.

Mary witnessed His death and she was there when His lifeless body was taken down and placed in the tomb. And so she returned to the tomb early in the morning on the third day and found — to her amazement and fear — that the stone had been rolled away and an angel said: “Do not be afraid, for I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here. He has risen. Just as He said.” He is risen!! Alleluia!

So this day calls us to the tomb to confront the reality of death and to make a decision about what kind of relationship we want to have with death. We are asked to decide whether we will allow spiritual death, eternal death to have a grip on us or whether we will, instead, embrace the new life that is offered to us only by the resurrected Jesus Christ. Jesus loves us. He gave His life for us. When we believe this and follow Him, we follow Him to resurrection. We live.

We who have welcomed Jesus as Savior can leave the tomb, knowing that death will not hold us in its grip. We are free to claim the abundant life that Jesus has won for us. Jesus Christ is alive and new life is available to everyone who calls on His name. Why live like the dead when you can live as the living?

If you are reading this and you have never welcomed Jesus into your life and if you feel a prodding in this moment to do so, I invite you to pray the prayer that follows. If you already know Jesus and want to rededicate yourself to Him, you can use this prayer to do that as well.

Dear Jesus, I admit that I am a sinner. I am sorry for any sin I have knowingly or unknowingly committed against you. I want to turn my life around and live for you. I believe that you died on the cross for me. I – with all sincerity and with all gratitude – accept your sacrifice in my place and invite you to come into my heart and my life to be my Lord and Savior. I place my hope in you and thank you for the gift of you, the gift precious beyond all gifts. Amen

If you genuinely – from the depths of your heart and mind and spirit – prayed to welcome Jesus as Savior today, know that the Word of God promises that you will have eternal life and you are a new person in Christ from this day forward. This is good news to share and I hope you will share that good news with me and with any other Christians you may know. You can take your first steps as a Christian reading the gospel of John which you can access via the Bible Gateway link on this website. A next step would be connecting with a Bible-believing, Christ-honoring congregation in your community. You will never be alone again as Jesus will walk with you and His Word (the Bible) will transform you as you read.

Folks who have known Jesus for awhile: I would love to hear how you were introduced to Him and what that relationship has meant in your life.

I wish you well on your journey of faith and pray it may be as transformative and exciting as has been my own!

Photos by Donna Hailson.

Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians

Saeed Abedini with his sonPhoto by ACLJ (used with permission).
Saeed Abedini with his son
Photo by ACLJ (used with permission)

Pastor Saeed Abedini, a U.S. citizen and ethnic Iranian who returned to Iran, has been imprisoned and tortured there for six months because of his Christian ministry. The prosecutor, in outlining the charges against him, said Abedini had undermined the Iranian government by creating a network of Christian house churches.

“This is a real travesty, a mockery of justice,” said Jay Sekulow, Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice, which has been lobbying for the pastor’s release. “From the very beginning Iranian authorities have lied about all aspects of this case, even releasing rumors of his expected release. Iran has not only abused its own laws, it has trampled on the fundamentals of human rights.”

Sekulow said it is deeply troubling that “we have a U.S. citizen who has been beaten and tortured since his imprisonment last fall, now facing eight years in Evin Prison, one of the most brutal prisons in Iran.” He added that the pastor, whose wife Naghmeh and their two small children remain in the United States, will most likely continue to face “life-threatening torture and abuse at the hands of the Iranian regime — simply because of his Christian faith.”

According to The New American, the Muslim-born, naturalized American citizen Abedini became a Christian after training to be a suicide bomber in his native Iran. “His wife, the American-born Naghmeh, whom he married in 2005, related that Abedini had become very depressed as a result of the training, and that “Christianity saved his life.” Following his Christian conversion, Abedini ultimately became a leader in Iran’s underground church, and before leaving the country, oversaw about 100 churches and 2,000 members in 30 Iranian cities. He had returned to Iran to help establish a non-sectarian orphanage.”

Fox News notes that: “On the day he was confirmed as Secretary of State, John Kerry went farther than his predecessor had in condemning Iran for imprisoning an American citizen . . . Kerry, the longtime Democratic senator from Massachusetts, made the statement in response to a written query from fellow Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who asked if Kerry, as Secretary of State, would join the National Security Council’s call for Saeed Abedini’s release.

“’We remain deeply concerned about the fairness and transparency of Mr. Abedini’s trial,’ Kerry told Rubio. ‘I, along with the U.S. government, condemn Iran’s continued violation of the universal right of freedom of religion and call on the Iranian authorities to respect Mr. Abedini’s human rights and release him.’”

U.S. citizens who are persecuted for their faith overseas are not a typical priority for the U.S. Government or the media, human rights lawyer Nina Shea has observed. And it was not until March 22, in a statement issued very late on a Friday, that Secretary of State John Kerry made a proactive call for Abedini’s release. “I am deeply concerned about the fate of U.S citizen Saeed Abedini, who has been detained for almost six months and was sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran on charges related to his religious beliefs,” Kerry wrote. “I am disturbed by reports that Mr. Abedini has suffered physical and psychological abuse in prison, and that his condition has become increasingly dire.”

Pastor Saeed is far from alone in suffering persecution for his Christian faith. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary estimates that an average of 159,960 Christians worldwide are martyred for their faith each year. Deseret News boils the numbers down to a Christian martyred every five minutes – killed because they name Jesus as their Savior.

Open Doors, a non-profit organization working in the world’s most oppressive countries, providing Bibles and literature, media, leadership training, socio-economic development and ensuring prayer, presence and advocacy for persecuted Christians, recently released its 2013 ranking of the 50 countries where persecution of Christians is most severe. Topping the list are: North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Maldives, Mali, Iran, Yemen, Eritrea, Syria, Sudan and Nigeria.

North Korea is described on the Open Doors website as “the most difficult place on earth to be a Christian. One of the remaining Communist states, it is vehemently opposed to religion of any kind. Christians are classified as hostile and face arrest, detention, torture, even public execution. There is a system of labour camps including the renowned prison No. 15, which reportedly houses 6,000 Christians alone. But despite severe oppression, there is a growing underground church movement of an estimated 400,000 Christians.”

In Saudi Arabia, according to Open Doors, there is no provision for religious freedom in the Islamic kingdom’s constitution. “All citizens must adhere to Islam and conversion to another religion is punishable by death. Public Christian worship is forbidden; worshippers risk imprisonment, lashing, deportation and torture. Evangelising Muslims and distributing non-Muslim materials is illegal. Muslims who convert to Christianity risk honour killings, and foreign Christian workers have been exposed to abuse from employers. Despite this, converts are responding to Christian TV programmes and to dreams and visions from God.” Despite persecution, despite martyrdom, Christianity is growing rapidly, perhaps undergoing its largest expansion in history.

Their Blood Cries Out: The Worldwide Tragedy of Modern Christians who are Dying for Their Faith, by religious liberty scholar Paul Marshall with journalist Lela Gilbert, is one of the most moving books I’ve read on the persecution of Christians. In this, the authors reveal the reality of this present-day horror and offer suggestions on what individuals and churches can do to help those who are suffering.

51IRH56y5RLMarshall, Gilbert, and Shea have also now released a new book on the international torment of Christians called Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians (Thomas Nelson). Their launch was March 27 at the Hudson Institute, where all three are affiliated, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer biographer Eric Metaxas moderating.

***

Mark Tooley, on the blog site Juicy Ecumenism, shared the following comments from the authors today:

“Churches themselves don’t take notice sometimes,” Nina Shea sadly observed about persecution of Christians. “Not too many people are paying attention.” And “political correctness has grown even in churches.” She contrasted today’s indifference to the wide coalition of the 1990s that rallied for global religious liberty, which led to the International Religious Freedom Act, mandating that U.S. foreign policy prioritize the issue. That coalition had been led and cheered on by, among others, evangelical leader Chuck Colson and New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal, both now deceased.

The indifference and ignorance even within American churches is compounded by little knowledge that significant Christian communities even exist in majority Muslim countries, Paul Marshall noted, much less that they are increasingly under siege.

***

While the church is growing exponentially in Asia, Central America, South America, and Africa – in settings that are often, as noted, extraordinarily oppressive –  it is dead or dying in Europe and in the United States. Up until 1955, most everyone in Britain, for example, was active in a church. Today, fewer than four percent of Britons participate in ecclesial life. The situation is even worse in countries like Germany and Sweden where the numbers of professing Christians are now so low as to be almost uncountable.

While people in the United States are hungry for information about God and, while the country still permits open expressions of the Christian faith, Christian pollster George Barna estimates that perhaps four percent of Americans actually live in ways that could be considered biblical. Mark Mittelberg, in his book Building a Contagious Church: Revolutionizing the Way We View and Do Evangelism, says that if the question – “What are we trying to do?” – was asked in many churches, the response would be either a blank stare or an entire laundry list.

Here, where we have the freedom to live out the faith, many Christians are biblically illiterate and rarely share their belief in Christ with those who have never been introduced to Him. Spiritual interest is at a high level but so is bewilderment about what to believe and whom to trust. Christianity has been syncretized with everything from (what we used to call) the New Age to Buddhism to secularism.

Mittelberg states it plainly: “In most ministries [in the United States] very few lost people are being reached for Christ. Yet the words of Jesus in the Great Commission are seared in our minds: ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age’ (Matthew 28:19-20). This mandate was given for all churches of all times, so it includes every one of us who is part of those congregations.”

We sit on the mission field. What will you do about all that you’ve just read? Brothers and sisters around the world are dying for the faith. The Lord may never place you in real harm’s way for the sake of the gospel but we each need to consider what risks we would be willing to take for the Lord Jesus Christ if He did. What risk will you take for the Lord this Holy Week? Will you take the risk to invite someone to consider Christ? Who will you bring to worship this Sunday? Who will you lift to the Lord in prayer?

To learn more about the persecuted church, you can visit:  http://www.opendoors.comhttp://www.worldwatchlist.us/world-watch-list-countries/; and  http://www.aclj.org. Tooley’s full story on the release of Persecuted: The Global Assault on Christians is found at http://juicyecumenism.com/2013/03/28/global-assault-on-christians/.

Featured photograph: Photo of Saeed Abedini with his wife, Naghmeh, and their two children (a six-year-old daughter and four-year-old son) by ACLJ (used with permission).

Trying to Grab a Victory on the Cheap

King James Version of Bible, first edition, title page - 1611
King James Version of the Bible, first edition title page

Over the last couple of days, self-identifying Atheist Facebookers (not necessarily “card-carrying members,” just folks) have been reposting a slam against Christians and the Bible from The Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science. Referring to the King James version of the New Testament, the piece asserts that “21st century Christians believe the ‘Word of God’ is a book edited in the 17th century from 16th century translations of 8,000 contradictory copies of 4th century scrolls that claim to be lost letters written in the 1st century. That’s not faith. That’s insanity.”

Coincidental with this posting was a recent debate at the University of Cambridge between Prof. Dawkins, an ethologist and evolutionary biologist, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams. The debate proposition that “religion has no place in the 21st Century” lost by 324 votes to 136.

The London Telegraph reported that, in stressing his central concern as simply whether religion is true, Dawkins summed up his argument by describing religion as a “cop-out,” “a betrayal of the intellect,” “a pernicious charlatan” and a peddler of “false expectations.” Interestingly enough however, early in his address, Dawkins described himself as a ”cultural Anglican.” One is left to wonder if the author of The God Delusion was so roundly beaten because he hadn’t done his homework, had betrayed what he claims to be his own guiding principles, and is struggling with his own self-identity.

The self-stated mission of Dawkins’ foundation is: “to support scientific education, critical thinking and evidence-based understanding of the natural world in the quest to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and human suffering.” From the aforementioned FB posting and the summary of the comments made by Dawkins at the Jan. 31 debate, one might easily come to the conclusion that Dawkins is desirous of replacing what he perceives as religious fundamentalism with a secular fundamentalism that eschews scholarly inquiry, shuts down respectful debate, and preaches intolerance of other perspectives on the subject of religion. As the Urban Dictionary notes, such anti-religious ideology often “militantly ridicules, mocks, scorns and satirizes the idea of the existence of a deity or deities and or religion . . . [and employs] propaganda, bullying and insults as tactics to push adherents to abandon their professed beliefs and or convert them into like-minded individuals.”

But, you know, I’m beginning to think there may be a chink in Dawkins’ anti-religion armor. We may be watching an ethologist kicking against the goads.

In a public dialogue with Williams on the nature of human beings and the question of their ultimate origin at Oxford in February of 2012,  there was surprise when Dawkins acknowledged that he was less than 100 per cent certain of his conviction that there is no creator. The London Telegraph reported that “the philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny, who chaired the discussion, interjected: ‘Why don’t you call yourself an agnostic?’ Prof Dawkins answered that he did. An incredulous Sir Anthony replied: ‘You are described as the world’s most famous atheist.’ Prof Dawkins said that he was ‘6.9 out of seven’ sure of his beliefs.”

As Dawkins has begun to accept the possibility that God exists, he might – from this point – begin to question whether that God could have conveyed truths about the God-self through human instruments who put that revelation in words that Christians have received as “The Word.” Who knows where Dawkins might end up if he gave the study of theology the same level of attention he has given to science?

Oxford theologian Alister McGrath offers this succinct assessment of Dawkins: His “engagement with theology is superficial and inaccurate . . . His tendency to misrepresent the views of his opponents is the least attractive aspect of his writings.” Many have listened to Dawkins over the years because he’s achieved so much in science but theology, while a companion discipline to science, is just as rich and detailed and just as demanding of rigorous attention and inquiry.

Literary scholar and cultural theorist Terry Eagleton passes similar comment in the London Review of Books: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins…are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster . . . critics of the richest, most enduring form of popular culture in human history have a moral obligation to confront that case at its most persuasive, rather than grabbing themselves a victory on the cheap by savaging it as so much garbage and gobbledygook.”

For those willing to admit that there just might be a God, for those interested in the truth about the origins of the Bible, perhaps you might consider doing some research before rejecting, out of hand, that which Christians call “The Word of God.” You might start here: http://www.leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/bib-docu.html

A Tragic Reality: A Wave of Pastors Being Washed Out of Their Positions in the Church

Pulpit (photo released to public domain)“It’s on account of people like you that I send prophets and wise guides and scholars generation after generation – and generation after generation you treat them like dirt, greeting them with lynch mobs, hounding them with abuse” (Matt. 23:34, The Message).

The Barna Institute estimates that a pastor in the United States is forced out of his or her ministry every six minutes; another study estimates that 1,600 ministers leave the ministry every month. An article on the American Association of Christian Counselors website estimates that, on the day you read this, 43 pastors and their families will leave the ministry here in America. Whichever of these statistical estimates hits closest to the reality, we are seeing, as Ron and Rodetta Cook note, “a wave of pastors being washed out of their God-called positions in the church.”

Christianity Today has reported that nearly one-third of all churches in America have experienced a conflict within the last two years that resulted in the pastor leaving, by choice or by force. Nearly half of these men and women will never return to pastoral ministry. This is a tragic and heartbreaking reality that should alarm all of us who identify ourselves as Christians.

In an online article, Charles H. Chandler notes that, after facilitating a session of participants’ stories at a Healthy Transitions Wellness Retreat where the same pattern emerged again and again, he was asked, “Is there a rulebook on forced termination?”

His conclusion? “I have worked with hundreds of ministers who have experienced forced termination. At this point, I have decided a rulebook is floating around out there somewhere and it does suggest that a few disgruntled church members can follow the above listed rules and ‘kick the preacher out”; I’ve never seen it in writing, but its effectiveness can be seen in case after case.”

The pattern he observed being repeated in church after church looked like this:

“First, each minister had been ‘blind-sided.’ A group of two or three persons, usually self-appointed, approached the minister without warning and said he/she should resign because of loss of effectiveness. They convinced the minister that the whole church shared their feeling. The ‘group’ presented themselves as merely ‘messengers’ and insisted there was nothing personal about the request. The messengers told the minister they loved him/her and really hated to deliver the resignation request.

“Second, while the minister was in a state of shock after being ‘blindsided,’ the ‘group’ dumped guilt on the minister. They said the pastor should resign and the related conversation must be kept very quiet. If word got out, it could split the church. And, the minister would not want to be known as one who caused a split church! Any negative effect from the minister’s leaving was dumped directly on him/her as though a minister could just slip away and never be missed.

“Third, while the minister was still in no condition to make a decision of any kind, the group pressed for a decision. In most cases, a few weeks or a few months of severance was offered – provided the resignation was given immediately and the entire conversation kept quiet. The ‘messengers’ added, ‘We have to know what you plan to do, because if you refuse to resign or if you talk to other church members, we will take away the severance and call a church business meeting to fire you. Then you will get nothing.’”

Though the messengers may tell the pastor they represent the vast majority of the membership, quite often they are a self-appointed faction who acts behind closed doors. And, according to a survey conducted by Leadership magazine, 80 percent of forced out ministers report that the real reason for their leaving was not made known to their congregations.

Ken Sande, who has developed “The Peacemaker” church resource set, has summarized the cost of conflict between pastors and churches:

“Pastors are not being adequately trained in conflict resolution; conflict brings down thousands of them every year; churches engage in spiritual battle without proper leadership, and then churches wonder why they have so little fruit and suffer so much. No secular business would accept such high leadership losses. Executive turnover in businesses typically cost employers from 12-18 months of the executive’s annual salary. If this figure were applied to the pastoral turnovers, we would see that they are costing the church over $684 million a year! If you measured the cost in terms of seminary or Bible experiences that go down the drain whenever a pastor leaves the ministry, you would come up with a similar appalling number. But the cost to the kingdom cannot be measured in terms of money. How precious is the gift of preaching the gospel, and what is the cost when a pastor loses his pulpit and his gift is silenced? Whatever the measure, the cost of losing thousands of pastors each year is astronomical. The church cannot afford to let these losses continue.”