Mark Dricsoll is no stranger to the national spotlight. Over the last few years, he’s become widely known as the innovative pastor of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church, a booming congregation of over 13,000. He’s a best-selling author with books to his credit on everything from ministry to marriage to leadership. His Acts 29 Network is a growing group of churches across the world seeking to duplicate his approach to ministry. His public disputes with other national Christian figures like John MacArthur have over the last few months been further evidence of his notoriety.


But Driscoll’s recent track record hasn’t been so positive. Allegations of plagiarism and manipulating the publishing industry in order to inflate book sales have raised questions about his writing ministry. Former staff members have made troubling accusations about the administrative practices of Mars Hill Church.


Public criticisms reached the point that earlier this week Driscoll released a remarkable letter to his congregation. In it, he acknowledged some of the criticisms raised against him but then went on to say that he planned on re-setting his life and ministry. He said he’s returning to his first love, pastoring God’s people. He’s going to devote himself in the years ahead to rearing his children, growing his church and pouring himself into the development of the next generation of leaders. He’s pulling back from public life and concentrating on things closer to his heart. You can read the full letter here: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/god/church/mark-driscoll-posts-open-letter-apology


I’ve always admired much of Driscoll’s ministry. He’s a brilliant and committed man who’s done a lot of good for the Kingdom. I also see how he’s ruffled feathers and hurt a lot of people by his take-no-prisoners approach. But when I read his congregational letter, my heart really went out to him. He’s come to terms with something that affects almost every pastor.


His experience is the same as that of most pastors. Our gravest danger today isn’t what most people think. Sure, there are all sorts of challenges in serving today’s churches. It’s an anxious age, and people are prone to take the anxiety in the world into their churches. Financial struggles are common. Doctrinal issues have unsettled many. And the overall cultural drift away from the Christian faith makes the challenges of reaching the younger generation even more difficult than it’s been in the past. But there’s something else going on, something that Driscoll’s situation brings out.


The deeper problem is how many pastors don’t know who they are or what they’re really supposed to be doing. Their loss of identity has left them vulnerable to drifting into a host of pursuits and activities that—while maybe valuable in some ways—leave the essential tasks of their calling undone.


It’s a subtle temptation, and Driscoll’s situation is a case study in how it happens. A pastor can get caught up in the role his church expects him to play. Or he can become captive to the role he’s created for himself. Or some combination of both. Before he knows it he’s caught in a pastoral persona that reflects the religious system around him more than the biblical mandate of his calling. Acts 6:4 says we are first to preach and teach God’s Word; second, to pray; and third, to provide spiritual direction for the people. After the years in the spotlight as author, spokesman for causes, leader and church growth guru, Driscoll seems to be returning to his first calling.


I recently had a painful conversation with a dear person, someone I love, who didn’t understand what a pastor is supposed to do. I had made a decision they didn’t agree with and so had come to see me to let me know their feelings. Every pastor has to have those kinds of conversations. We don’t enjoy them but they’re part of the job. As we talked this person told me that they weren’t happy with the situation. I said it wasn’t my job to make people happy. They were taken back. “But I want my pastor to make me happy,” they said. I reminded them that my job was to preach and teach God’s Word; to seek His heart in prayer; and to give spiritual direction to the congregation. They responded by saying that if I felt that way then I should seek another church to serve.


I wasn’t surprised. That’s the kind of religious system modern America has created. And for all of us—Driscoll included—it’s easy to buy into the system and come to believe our pastoral identity is determined by how well we fulfill the artificial expectations we and our churches create for each other.


Driscoll’s letter is, I think, a cry for freedom. I’m not excusing him for whatever faults he fell into along the way—his love of the spotlight has placed him in the unenviable position of having every problem magnified a thousand times. That’s a problem of his own making. But neither am I judging him. Goodness knows every one of us who seek to pastor God’s people is subject to pride, arrogance, mistakes in judgment and the kind of spiritual hubris that leads us to believe that God is bound to bless whatever we want to do.


But I do commend Driscoll for his forthright desire to return to his calling.


Pastoring is the most joyous thing in the world. The opportunity to connect with people in their spiritual struggles and be a part of the work of grace in their lives is something no pastor takes lightly. The act of preaching is something every pastor cherishes above all else. We know better than anyone else that serving the Lord’s church is a privilege. But we pastors as well as the churches we serve must continually keep the true nature of the pastoral task front and center.


When Your Son Goes to War

February 27, 2014


Our son Will decided to go into the military his first year in high school. It came as a surprise to my wife and me because neither of us had much military service in our families. But we lived in a military town at the time so our first thought was that Will had been influenced by his surroundings. His true motivation turned out to be much deeper.


When he told us of his plans we came right back at him with the typical parental response: “Son, are you sure? That’s a dangerous profession. Don’t you want to do something less risky and more predictable with your life?”


He stopped our protests cold. “You’ve raised me to follow God’s direction,” he said. “This is what God is leading me to do and I have to do it.” When you raise your child to follow Jesus no matter what, and he tells you that his obedience requires him to go in a direction you’d never picked for him if it had been your decision, all you can do is pray and trust him to the Lord.


So we went through four years of high school with him as he prepared for West Point. Then four years of comings and goings as he went through the rigors of his education there. Two years of further training followed his graduation. All pointed to the single goal of defending the nation—a worthy goal embraced by so many other brave men and women.


Along the way we were blessed to see the man he became; the friends he made; and the experiences he had. Best of all, last fall he married a beautiful, charming and godly young woman. I’ve learned through my daughter-in-law as well as my daughter (who’s also married to an active duty military man) that it takes a special person to be married to someone in a time of war. Not everyone can live with the frequent and lengthy deployments that America’s military families have endured for the last couple of decades.


This week Will’s journey arrived at another milestone, one we’ve talked about ever since he first told us of his vocation. He deployed to Afghanistan. He and the other young men in his platoon got on planes along with the rest of his battalion and began the long flight taking them into the desperate and controversial war America has fought for more years than any other. Now that the end of the war is in sight—or at least the ending of our involvement in it—the stakes are even more urgent. Will and those he serves with, though, are ready to go. They’re well trained, well led, well equipped. This is what they signed up for.


Pam and I get that. Still, when we had our last conversation with Will before he left, it was hard. We talked through what he’d be doing. Where he’d be living. We joked and laughed. We asked what we could for his wife during his absence (not much, it turned out—as usual, the two of them had taken care of everything themselves). We stayed positive, for his sake. He stayed positive for ours. It was a conversation that every family member of someone serving in the military knows far too well. While we talked about lots of everyday things, the bottom line was that he was going to war.


I think it’s going to be a long year for us. But we’ll get through it. We’re confident in our son and the choices he’s made. His life—indeed, our whole family’s life—has been blessed every step of the way, and we’ll trust the Lord’s provision for us in this chapter. In the words of an old Irish blessing, we’ve lived in the shelter of each other. Now that our family has been extended with a new son-in-law and daughter-in-law we feel even more blessed.


Here are a few things Pam and are learning along the way, as Will goes off to war:


  • You can’t control your children’s destinies. They have to work them out on their own.


  • Military families go through unique pressures and they deserve all our respect.


  • Prayer isn’t an option when your child (or spouse, sibling or parent) goes to war. It’s your lifeline.


  • You don’t get over your fear while your child is at war but you have to learn not to let it control your life.


  • Your extended family and friends love you more than you realize and their encouragement and support is invaluable.


  • Faith is the environment in which you make decisions, negotiate life and deal with the good times and bad. I can’t imagine going through this without believing that God is in control of Will’s life.

“I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” (Exodus 20:2-5)

The First and Second Commandments define worship in terms of priority and purity. The highest value we have as humans is to offer our praise and worship to the One who made us–God must be our priority. But to worship in the pure, biblical sense we must first ruthlessly eliminate every competitor to God. The Bible calls those competitors “idols”–and our hearts are full of them. I know too well how easy it is to allow my affections and attention to wander from my God and embrace instead a “likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.” The price to be paid for the joys of true worship is letting go of whatever idols I’ve allowed to dominate my heart.




True Worship

me and pam in snow

You don’t expect a blizzard to strike Columbia, SC, but that’s pretty much what happened Tuesday night. The temperatures plunged below freezing. Sleet followed by snow started falling at levels we only see every decade or so. Within a few hours the Midlands came to a complete standstill. Traffic couldn’t move. People stayed inside. Everything was battened down as though a hurricane was blowing through.


By yesterday morning, though, people came out to play. We get this kind of weather so seldom that there’s a holiday feel to it, and most of us couldn’t wait to get out of the house.


Snow days aren’t just a reprieve for school children. Adults love them, too. They’re a gift—all the more treasured because they’re so unexpected. Meetings, deadlines and conferences are put on hold while you put on warm clothes and go play outside. Dads load their children into laundry baskets and push them downhill. Grown men pull each other on skis with their cars. Moms build snowmen.


Yesterday even my dog got into the act. He laid the side of his head on the ground with his hind quarters up in the air then ran full tilt through every drift he could find, throwing snow to the side like a furry snow plow. Why not?


Pam pulled out the sleigh she’s carried around for all thirty years of our marriage as some sort of tribute to her childhood. She waxed the bottom with a candle then handed it to me to see if it still worked. It did—sort of. I took it to the street in front of our house and figured the slope there was enough to make the thing work. I laid down on it and got ready for a rapid descent into my neighbor’s yard at the bottom of the hill. Pam, of course, was filming the whole thing on her phone. Anyway, it didn’t go too well. I had to push myself along in order to get any momentum at all and finally gave up when I sank both into the slush on the side of the road and into Pam’s gales of laughter.


We got cold—as most people did—and went back inside to warm up. The weather grew worse so we decided to stay in; and as the day wore on, boredom set in. At one point yesterday I found myself watching reruns of “Miami Vice” while reading a Jack Reacher novel while also planning dinner while also thinking of how soon I could take the dog for another walk. Judging from facebook traffic, we weren’t the only ones with cabin fever.


At any rate, our power stayed on and we were able to spend a good evening cooking and hanging out.


So here’s what I learned from the Blizzard of ’14:


  • Whatever salaries SCE&G and other utility employees make, it’s not enough. They were out in brutal weather yesterday making sure the rest of us had power and heat. The same should be said for all the law enforcement people, health professionals and those committed people who run homeless shelters, making sure people without resources are warm and fed. I’m grateful for all of them.


  • Days when you can just hang out with people you love–without the press of agendas, decisions, problems and meetings—are gifts that we should cherish. Unplanned and unexpected vacation days are the best vacation days of all.


  • A wild playfulness lurks just beneath the surface of everyone, even among the most serious and professional among us. On a snow day even the CEO of a large business will throw a snowball at his wife. And should.


  • The simple pleasures of cooking and eating together are under-valued in modern families. It’s amazing how creative and energetic you can get when restaurants are closed and you’re hungry. You can create dishes you never thought possible on a snow day. And when you sit down with your family around a table to eat together—something that fewer and fewer families do in today’s frantic pace of living—you realize all over again how important that is.


  • We’re ill-equipped to deal with boredom. A few hours of enforced idleness in a house really doesn’t constitute cabin fever, despite our feelings otherwise. Our problem is that we have to be doing something, all the time. Or planning on doing something. Or believing that we can do something if we want. But sitting in a house, with little else to do except watch TV or cook or—heaven forbid—read a book? That drives us and our children crazy. And if the power goes out and we don’t have access to the internet, we’re really in a fix. One of my friends yesterday had it right. His power went out, so he built a big fire in his fireplace, put on a head lamp his family had given him for Christmas, pulled out a book, took a seat in his favorite chair and read a book through the afternoon. A snow day every now and then reminds us of how addicted we are to distractions and how healthy it is to return to simpler pleasures.

Though Abraham Lincoln was neither baptized nor joined a church of any kind, he was the most spiritually minded president in American history. His faith was wrought on the anvil of anguish, both personal and national, and because of this he has much to teach us in our own age of anxiety. (Timothy George, “Lincoln’s Faith and America’s Future”)

Timothy George is Dean of the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University and one of the real leaders in Southern Baptist life. He taught me Church History at Southern Seminary in the early 80′s and I’ve been an admirer of his spiritual insight and historical understanding every since. Here’s the link to his recent article showing not only the high level of spiritual maturity of President Lincoln but also, by contrast, the low level of spirituality by most of the presidents since.