“For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” – 1 Corinthians 2:2
“Nothing is so deadening to the divine as an habitual dealing with the outside of holy things.” – George MacDonald
The second church I pastored was more than wonderful. A great foundation had been laid. They were humble, loving, young, and smart. They were hard-working people with a servant spirit. It was 1976. I had just turned 30, and our nation turned 200. We had an exciting Christian school with a Bible-based, Christ-centered curriculum. Our congregation was made up of students, college graduates, seminary graduates, doctors, lawyers, other professional people, and veteran servants of God, common laborers, and many new babes in Christ. We worshiped as one, sang with gusto, studied the Word, and loved each other. Sadly, because of the weak leadership of their new pastor, something would creep in that would scatter this delightful flock – something that I deeply regret to this day. It was my entire fault. To talk to of this now brings me more pain than it did then. Perhaps this discussion will stop another young shepherd from making the same mistake.
Over the course of the first 18 months, we grew numerically. It was healthy growth, mixing town folks students, and new converts. We were a transient congregation; we gained 200 and lost 100 (for good reason). Our Christian school was growing. We had a gifted and handsome young teaching staff – a good mix of men and women. But in varied, inconspicuous ways, we were becoming an issue-oriented church.
We were a young church with energy for debate. We had students who were forming their convictions and loved to weigh all the pros and cons. We had academia who made their living with teaching and learning a new thing. We had legalists who had to defend their loyalty to the party line. We even entered into a class action lawsuit with other churches against the United States government and then Secretary of Labor, Ray Marshall, on the principle that Christ was the Head of the church and should not be taxed by the state. This was a conviction for us, and I was a pastor who wanted to please everybody, know all the answers, and do the most right thing.
Tragically, quietly, and subtly, Jesus went on back burner, and good issues took center stage. I let good-hearted, well-intentioned, intelligent people replace Jesus with subtle substitutions. We became a “Mars Hill” where “the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing,” (Acts 17:21).
If you were to ask me at the time, I would have been convinced that Jesus was the main focus. Philosophically, we were true to Scripture, but practically, the time, the light, and the heat was spent on secondary issues. Like the church at Ephesus (Revelation 2:1-7), we couldn’t bear those who were evil; we tested false teachers; we persevered; we were patient and labored for Jesus with vigor, but we were gradually drifting from our first love. While we were diligently taking a stand, we were losing power, compassion, joy, and outreach. The brush fires gave us no rest – discernment turned to judgment, and I ran out of grace for it all. One brother suggested that I was the problem and that the church could not be what it ought to be with me at the helm. He was a good man who had given much counsel to the church body. His suggestion, coupled with my exhaustion, led to my resignation the next day. I resigned in faith with no place to go. Interestingly, my wife (now with four little ones) was okay with it. I resigned on Wednesday, and the next day was Thanksgiving 1980. That next morning, I was alone reading the Word, and God gave me Psalm 37:23, “The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD: and he delighteth in his way.” The Lord assured me that He delighted in my way, and what would happen next would prove it.
Leaving this wonderful church in disarray because of my weak leadership has written on my heart the following valuable lessons:
1. A church can be doing everything right and still be in trouble with Jesus.
2. Leaving our first love for Jesus is the first place where churches go wrong.
3. Never let anything but the person and work of Jesus take center stage in a ministry. Good and very good can surely be the enemy of the best. I have learned to call these “subtle substitutes” for Jesus.
There is no life in anything if it is detached from the Vine, no matter how noble the cause.
**This is an excerpt from Joe’s book, The Life of the Vine in the Soul of the Church. If you would like to read more, you can purchase his book through the Paradigm One webstore.
Joe Humrichous is the executive director of Paradigm One and Bible Prayer Fellowship. The message of the sufficiency of Christ for both the pastor and the local church was birthed during a time of brokenness in his early ministry. Now after 50 years in ministry, Joe is passionate to share this reality as it applies to corporate prayer and church leadership. He recently served as a pastor at First Baptist Church in Covington, Indiana. He and his wife Teresa have 5 children and 13 grandchildren.