Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Monday, November 28, 2016
A picture of a well-rounded leader . . . This is a guest post by Daniel Montgomery and Jared Kennedy, authors of Leadership Mosaic: 5 Leadership Principles for Ministry and Everyday Life. It was written in collaboration with Justin Karl and Nathan Campbell.
Don't Pick Just One
There is a leadership crisis in the local church. When we look around, we see different visions of leadership competing for our devotion. We set these visions against one another—the convictional theologian against the soulful contemplative, for example. We choose the one we think is best. Living from insecurity, we exaggerate our favorite leadership image, and it crowds out the others. God didn’t intend this. If we step back, we can see that God’s own leadership is a beautiful mosaic. God’s own complexity is the most appropriate model for leadership in a complex world.
Whether we know it or not, we all have an image in our heads that drives our work as leaders. I argue that, more often than not, our image of leadership is adapted from the images of leadership we see around us. My goal isn’t to compare and contrast them. Don’t pick just one. Rather, I believe each of these leadership visions can be rooted and redeemed in our doctrine of God. The best leaders exemplify them all. The best teams are those where each of the strengths is present. There are ﬁve distinctive images of Christian leadership in the American church:
1. All about Truth: The Theologian
He’s a thinking man. His congregation sits eagerly and attentively to hear his nuanced insights about the Bible. He also has convictions of steel. You admire how his tribe knows what is right and stays committed to truth in the midst of a hostile culture. He has something to live for, and he’s willing to die for it. His danger is becoming part of the “frozen chosen.” Exaggerated dogmatism stifles innovation. Frozen in time, he misses out on fresh ideas he’d learn by collaborating with others. If he lacks humility, he demonizes creativity and spontaneity. He loses the power to communicate his convictions with beauty and love. If he doesn’t take risks, he quenches the Spirit. He misses opportunities to win souls to the truth.
Convictional leaders embody their beliefs. Many leaders are blown and tossed around by the latest ministry fads. But when God speaks, he is always true to himself. We need conviction to listen to God’s voice and get in line with what he says.
2. All about Connection: The Innovator
He’s the young cutting-edge guy whose teaching is engaging and relevant. He doesn’t just preach it. He lives a life of creative contextualization, effectively reaching others and doing the work of an evangelist. This leader always has new ideas for reaching his community, and they always seem to work. He breathes new life where there was only dust. He transforms dead declarations into lyrics the whole church can sing. His temptation will be to place too much value on what’s original and “cutting edge.” If his dreams aren’t rooted in reality, his team accomplishes nothing.
Creative leaders imagine the way forward. God has a plan to take your leadership chaos and make it beautiful. He has given us imagination so we can inspire others to follow his redeemed vision for the future.
3. All about Mission: The Activist
She’s the millennial dream packaged up as a professional minister. Her rapidly growing nonproﬁt feeds the homeless, cares for crisis pregnancies, or wins prostitutes to Jesus. When you’re tempted to become a complacent Christian, you hear her cry, “Take the hill!” Her passion is inspiring. She fights to the finish. The trouble is that sometimes the courageous leader isn’t leading the mission so much as running over everyone else. Daring leaders are dangerous when they lack compassion. The brave leader needs to look behind her—not just ahead. She needs a collaborative friend to help bring her followers along.
Courageous leaders take risks. Since God has sent us and the Spirit empowers us, we can leave behind what hinders and step out in faith. We can move forward to meet the challenges within and the challenges ahead.
4. All about Organization: The Good Manager
He’s a business executive who could do anything but has decided to order his church like a well-oiled machine. His motto: “Get it done.” He seems to have a discipleship program for every problem. He is the organizational CEO. The collaborative leader builds consensus and mobilizes an army. When he leads, every party feels respected and heard. Every player—from the janitorial staff to the financial accountability team—owns the mission and knows his role. The collaborative leader’s temptation is a lack of urgency. If a team becomes a bureaucracy, decisions come at a glacial pace. If they focus on one another more than results, the mission stagnates.
Collaborative leaders empower others. They know that working with others is better than leading alone. God has created us for community. We need a team to grow, develop, and strengthen one another for bigger and better things.
5. All about Depth: The Soulful Leader
She hasn’t been to a conference in years, but everyone at the Christian retreat center knows her by name. Her prayer life is powerful. Her life is marked by radical transparency, deep vulnerability, and holy desire. Her constant prayer is “Abba Father, I trust you.” You admire her, because she always seems to be at the pinnacle of emotional health. The contemplative leader never loses her first love. Even in the coldest season of life and ministry, her heart is warm. She practices God’s presence, and when she’s healthy, she comforts and leads with care. If she’s not healthy, contemplation warps and bends inward. She may become an experience junkie—filling her calendar with retreats and little else. She may lose herself in navel gazing, asking, “How do I get out of this prayer labyrinth?”
Contemplative leaders are fully awake to God. For leadership to be sustainable over the long haul, we need communion. We must abide in God in order to encourage the hearts of those we lead.
Putting It All Together
These differing visions of leadership are all necessary within the church, but unfortunately they often compete for our devotion. Sinful leaders often divide things God reveals as a whole. We see problems but then overreact by exaggerating one aspect of doctrine or leadership while neglecting or compartmentalizing others. Evangelicals tend to run in tribal packs. Culture-making, creative leaders join the church downtown near the gallery district. Justice-seeking, courageous leaders move into the poorest neighborhoods. Executives build a comfortable church in the suburbs. What emerges is a church made in the image and likeness of its leaders.
It’s tempting to surround ourselves with leaders who are just like us. A convictional leader has a tendency to marginalize a creative one. He loves his own style, so he clamors for more stalwart and dogmatic young leaders to join his team. In the process, he misses the complementary perspectives his followers really need. We must acknowledge our narrow gifts and perspective and allow others to challenge us. We are one body with many parts (Rom. 12:4; 1 Cor. 12:12). We want God to work through our gifts and shine his glory through our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9)—even if that means our strengths fade into the background.
God imagines something better than our tribalism. He envisions holistic leaders who embody each aspect of the leadership mosaic. And he imagines all kinds of leaders working together to create a beautiful mosaic. He wants us to sharpen one another so that every leader grows in conviction, creativity, courage, collaboration, and contemplation—whether it’s our strength and preference or not. No leader and no aspect of leadership should be forfeited.
Jesus revealed a better way. He shows us how our fractured ideas about leadership fit together. When a leader hears God’s voice, he’s moved from a life of coveting and comparing to one of creatively applying deep convictions. When we make room to experience God’s presence, we see that he is big and people are small. There’s no reason to compete or confine, so we collaborate with courage. Through communion with God, we can step out of our compulsions.
Like assorted pieces of rock and stone, leaders come in all shapes and sizes. If you’re searching for a vision of leadership that encompasses the whole, it’s easy to get lost. The “big picture” is beautiful, but part of what makes it amazing is that it’s made up of small bits that are meaningless on their own. There is a difference between broken glass on the sidewalk and a shimmering mosaic hanging on a museum wall. On their own, these images of Christian leadership are just shards of colorful glass on the ground. But, together they form a complex, intricately beautiful work of art.
Leadership is: Knowing where people need to go (conviction & creativity) and taking the initiative to get them there (courage) in God’s way and by God’s power (collaboration & contemplation).
Daniel Montgomery (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the founder and lead pastor of Sojourn Community Church and founder of Sojourn Network.
Friday, November 25, 2016
Helpful advice . . . This post is an excerpt written by Kelly M. Kapic for the ESV Men's Devotional Bible.
Communion with God
Does the idea of communion with God draw you in or push you away? There is much in our lives that distracts and prevents us from experiencing genuine communion with God. Living in a fast-paced society with endless demands and countless opportunities can mean that slowing down to commune with God can seem indulgent if not outright impossible. Amid our busyness, we can even find ourselves feeling guilty when we are not constantly accomplishing things.
But interpersonal relationships are not “things” to be accomplished. They are more about “being” than “doing,” and they need attentiveness, mutual exchange, and care to flourish. Relationships cannot be life-giving sources of strength if we are not present in and to them. Communion with God is a deep need for every human, whether we acknowledge the need or not. Communion with God is how we were made to function, and it is ultimately about a loving and very present relationship with the triune Creator.
As Christians, we are called to cultivate loving concern for other people, but this must always be understood in light of how we are drawn into a life-giving relationship with God himself (e.g., Deut. 6:4–5; 7:7–9; Lev. 19:34; 1 John 4:19). We are commanded to love and obey God, not because God is a tyrannical dictator but because he created human beings to be lovers and he knows what makes for human flourishing. His is the way of “life and good” as opposed to the way of “death and evil” (Deut. 30:15–20).
We were made to enjoy our Creator, to bask in his faithful presence. He knows how life-giving communion with him works, and he grieves over how sin threatens to distort our fellowship with him. Love, even with the Creator, is meant to be mutual, not simply unidirectional: we are to listen and speak, to receive and give. Being in communion with God and with others is the key to human flourishing (Eph. 4:32–5:1).
So why is communion with God so challenging? Our sin and the sin in the world destroy communion and drive us to flee from God. But we were designed to delight in our Creator, to find his presence and power as our great comfort and strength. As believers we not only have been rescued from the damning consequences of sin but also have been invited into restored fellowship with God.
The world is still broken, and so are we. This brokenness affects every part of us, including and especially our relationship with God. Once we discover forgiveness and the promise of communion with the God of the universe, we are ushered into a holy sanctuary. In his divine presence we inevitably see our sin, but we also discover the depth of his grace and the incredible truth that he desires to be with us. He desires communion with us so much that he died in order to make it possible (Rom. 5:6–8).
Once we have been embraced by Christ, our vision should focus much less on our sin and much more on the riches of God’s mercy and love. But how do we get to this place of restored vision and hope? It is in and through our renewed communion with the triune Creator that we experience genuine security, the intimacy of being a child of God, and the transforming power that comes through fellowship with him. This side of glory, we have only tastes of such unhindered communion, but these tastes point forward to what is to come and give us strength for ourselves and strength for those around us.
How to Cultivate Communion with God
We don’t need to go on a three-day retreat or read extensive theological treatises in order to enjoy communion with God. What we do need is to learn to savor the love, grace, and fellowship of our triune God (2 Cor. 13:14). As we meditate on the mercy of God in Christ, we are slowly soaked in the life-giving love of the Father and the transforming grace of the Son. All of this occurs in and through the presence and power of the Spirit, who secures us in our fellowship with God.
Here are a few practical suggestions. First, cultivate a hunger for the Scriptures. Meditate on them, for here we can be confident that we discover the truth about our God and what it means to be in relationship with him (Josh. 1:8; Ps. 1:2). Second, partake of the Lord’s Supper on a regular basis, for this is a normal means of God’s grace to us (1 Cor. 11:23–26). Third, seek opportunities to care for the needy and vulnerable. Biblically, there is a strong connection between loving widows, orphans, prisoners, and the poor, and loving Jesus (Matt. 25:35–40; James 1:27). As God’s love moves through us to others, we ourselves often grow in our love for him (1 John 4:16–21). Fourth, seek refuge in God through times of prayer. Adopted by God, we confidently approach the Father because he has “sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:6; see also Eph. 1:3–6).
Think of a healthy relationship that you have been in or one that you have observed between others. The things that mark that strong relationship likely include care and attentiveness, time together, communication, mutual understanding, and shared joy. Human beings were created for such life-giving relationships, and they are the fuel of our souls. As a Christian, you are secure in your union with Christ, and this union makes communion with God a joyful possibility. Be assured of your union with Christ and go flourish and gain strength in communion with him.
Kelly M. Kapic (PhD, King's College, University of London) is professor of theological studies at Covenant College, where he has taught for over fifteen years. Kapic has written and edited over ten books, focusing on the areas of systematic, historical, and practical theology. Kapic has also published articles in various journals and books. Kapic and his wife, Tabitha, live on Lookout Mountain with their two children
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
More sage advice from Daniel Montgomery on leadership . . . This is a guest post by Daniel Montgomery and Jared Kennedy, author of Leadership Mosaic: 5 Leadership Principles for Ministry and Everyday Life, in collaboration with Justin Karl and Nathan Campbell. This post is part of our 10 Things You Should Know blog series.
1. Leaders Listen
Seek to hear God’s voice in order to clarify your convictions. Listen to your conscience—its longings and desires (Rom. 14:23), feel the weight of God in a starry sky (Ps. 19:1) or taste His richness in a glass of wine (Ps. 104:15). When we hear something that rings true about the Father’s world in the voice of an economist or community leader, our ears should perk up. The Pulitzer is God’s. Quantum mechanics is God’s. There is not a square inch of knowledge that doesn’t belong to God. Listen to the Holy Spirit as He speaks through the church (Eph. 5:19), listen as the Holy Spirit convicts of sins (John 16:8), and most importantly, listen as the Spirit illumines our understanding of His Word (Eph. 1:17-18).
2. Leaders Live It Out
Practice what you preach, because people do what people see. You can’t lead while stationary. Leaders who live out their convictions gain credibility. Until you are living out your core convictions, it’s unlikely many will be inspired to follow you or sacrifice to make your leadership vision a reality (1 Thess. 1:6). We can have the right answers, but if those answers remain ﬂuffy abstractions and not concrete practices, they have no power (James 2:17).
3. Leaders Dream
Make creative connections between where you are and what God wants. Creative connections begin with diverse experiences (Ps. 42:1; Matt. 6:26). In order to be creative, I need the museum and I need the mountains. Creativity is imagination applied (Ps. 33:6; Heb. 11:3). When we combine our conviction of what must be with a dream of what could be, we get vision.
4. Leaders Persuade
Be winsome. Be a poet. Help your people dream. People think not merely in syllogisms but also in stories. Don’t tell them about it, take them there! Paint with vivid colors and speak with poetic vibrancy. Step into poetic inspiration with confidence, because, after all, you are made in the Creator’s image. You are creative. You won’t be stepping out alone. The same Spirit who hovered over the waters hovers over your heart and your church (Gen. 1:2). He created you in his image, and he goes with you (Josh. 1:9; Matt. 28:20).
5. Leaders Seek
Look for where God is working. Opportunities are invitations. The truth is that God was on mission before it was an activity for Christians or a line item in the church budget (Gen. 17:4). As a church grows, however, programming and administration can sideline mission. Don’t let the bureaucracy of leadership immobilize you. Explore and seek! Be faithful in what God has called you to do—no matter how seemingly insignificant it may appear—don’t be in a hurry to move on. Exploration doesn’t mean that you even have to leave where you are. These opportunities are not invitations to bolster your résumé out of a deceitful heart of comparison and competition but to be comfortably courageous to lead, die and be forgotten.
6. Leaders Join
Speak up, step out, and act. God is inviting you to join him in his work. What’s amazing and insane about the Trinitarian economy is that God is constantly stepping out and giving everything away. The Father calls and commands us to join his mission (Matt. 28:18–20; John 20:19–23; Acts 1:8). Courageous leaders expose themselves emotionally to uncertainty and risk. Leaders will not stay hidden behind the bushes, covering and shifting blame (Gen. 3:7-12). Leaders step out of their fear, shame and guilt—courageously vulnerable—knowing that they are chosen, loved, called, and empowered by God (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).
7. Leaders Serve
Be humble. Value others as more important than yourself. There is no such thing as a “self-made man.” You are who you are by God’s grace alone. God could have accomplished his entire redemptive plan by himself, but he decided to partner with people. The Son of Man came, not just to partner but to serve (Matt. 20:28). Let this humble you.
8. Leaders Support
Give your team what they need to grow through ministry challenges. Give your team self-directing freedom for things to be messy—or even to fail—and provide an opportunity for relentless and passionate adaptability when it does. Eyes can’t hear and ears can’t smell: we need one another (1 Cor. 12:12-27). A prideful person will take on too much responsibility. A coward takes on too little.
9. Leaders Receive
Open your heart to God. Hear his voice. Our lives of noise are shouting: “We don’t trust God! We don’t know how to stop working! We don’t know how to enjoy life!” Destroy the cycle of compulsion with rest. Sabbath is God’s way of saying, “Stop. Notice your limits. Don’t burn out.”
Contemplative leaders maintain a life of communion by remembering God’s presence, by trusting his promises to forgive and restore, and by seeking the Spirit’s work (John 7:37–39; Luke 11:12–13; Gal. 3:2, 14). To have communion with others, we first must commune with God.
10. Leaders Rejoice
Rejoice in his gifts. Celebrate God’s work in others. A weekend at a friend’s lake house with fishing and jet skis doesn’t have to include a guilt-ridden drive home for having “too much fun.” Paul picks up on this truth: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4). Rejoice in his gifts but remember: to know the heights of joy, you must know the depths of sorrow. Make room to feel hurt and anguish (Rom. 12:15).
Celebrate God’s work in others. Our relationship with Christ should be a penetratingly rich personal connection that fuels us to be present with others. Draw near, slow down, and be among the people you lead. Allow others to serve you with their God-given gifts. Then intentionally thank them for doing so.
Daniel Montgomery (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the founder and lead pastor of Sojourn Community Church and founder of Sojourn Network.
Monday, November 21, 2016
I am reading a plethora of books on leadership right now as I am writing my DMin project. Here are some characteristics of the Christain leader I found helpful from Daniel Montgomery on the Crossway blog.This is post is adapted from Leadership Mosaic: 5 Leadership Principles for Ministry and Everyday Life by Daniel Montgomery.
1. The Convictional Leader
We live in the information age, a world awash with data. Our culture believes that if we mine this data for the right solutions, we’ll solve all the world’s problems. But we don’t necessarily need more information. We need God’s revelation. Wisdom for leadership begins with the conviction that God speaks. He makes himself known through his world, Word, and works. Because the Father is sovereign over his world and the Son’s salvation is revealed in his Word, we have a grid for understanding reality—in all its complexity and particularity. Because the Holy Spirit still works today, the first step for leaders is listening for God’s voice. When a leader has heard from God, he can move beyond mere values to deep convictions felt in his heart and embodied in his life.
2. The Creative Leader
You can be a person of deep conviction but still have no direction. In order to move forward, leaders need imagination to see the connections between their unchanging convictions and life in an ever-changing world. Creative leaders imagine the way forward. That’s why we need God. God is the Creator. He has the best imagination. He created everything out of nothing at all. He sees the way forward through chaos and disorder like no one else. With God on our side, we see a brighter future for the communities where we lead, and we inspire others to join us as we pursue that God-given vision.
3. The Courageous Leader
Courageous leaders expose themselves to uncertainty and risk. Courage is for the broken, vulnerable, and weak. It comes from the invulnerable God who made himself vulnerable for us. God’s mission teaches us courage. The Father loved the world and sent the Son. The Father and Son send the Spirit. The Spirit forms the church and calls her to participate in his mission to the world. Courageous Christians join God’s mission with a threefold motivation: God commands us; the gospel compels us; and the Spirit moves us. God fills us with his Spirit, and he empowers us to move forward with courageous love. God wants us to join his mission to the hard places. He calls us to leave behind what hinders and follow our Lord where he leads.
4. The Collaborative Leader
God’s story of redemption is rooted in community. It begins with the Trinity—the perfect covenant community. Within the Godhead, collaboration is conducted in perfect unity, diversity, and harmony. But human collaboration is marked by flesh and sin. To lead together, people must grow in unity and ever-increasing maturity. Collaborative leadership requires organizational clarity—authority, responsibility, and accountability. To thrive, it also requires a personal vision—adaptability, autonomy, and ambiguity.
5. The Contemplative Leader
The American church settles for a subhuman life, because it refuses to rest. Compulsive leaders all eventually crash, but God is different. God lives in eternal rest and perpetual joy, and we’re invited to share in it. Our union with Christ gives us access into the intra-Trinitarian life. We experience the Father’s love through the work of the Son and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Because they’ve experienced communion, contemplative leaders are able to give their transformed presence to others. To have communion with others, we first must commune with God. We must abide in God in order to encourage those we lead.
Daniel Montgomery (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the founder and lead pastor of Sojourn Community Church and founder of Sojourn Network.
Friday, November 18, 2016
Show My Child Grace, or Lay Down the Law? from Crossway on Vimeo.
Law and Grace Are Not Opposing Forces
I have parents who talk to me all the time about their struggle with the question, "When should I enforce law and when should I give grace?" The problem with the question is that it treats God’s law and God’s grace as two opposing forces.
Think of biblical history, when the law was given: God had redeemed his children out of captivity, but they didn’t know how to be the children of God. They didn’t know how to walk with God and they didn’t know how to live this new life of freedom that they were given, so God gave them his law.
Think about this: his law was grace. It was an act of beautiful, gorgeous, loving grace that God would give his law to his children. So grace is a way of bringing the guidance and regulating authority of God’s wisdom to my children. Grace is not suspending the law. Grace is not rejecting authority. Grace is not walking away from the need of my children to have boundaries in their life—grace is about the way that I do that.
So, as I know my children need the awareness of God’s law, they also need the self-awareness that law gives them. They need the guidance of God’s law. I also know that I need to bring that in a spirit of tender, patient, kind, loving, and forgiving grace.
Parenting needs to include a law/grace balance because they are not opposing forces.
Paul David Tripp (DMin, Westminster Theological Seminary) is a pastor, author, and international conference speaker. He is also the president of Paul Tripp Ministries and the executive director of the Center for Pastoral Life and Care in Fort Worth, Texas. He has written a number of popular books on Christian living, including What Did You Expect?, Dangerous Calling, Sex and Money, and New Morning Mercies. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Luella, and they have four grown children. For more information and resources, visit paultrippministries.org.
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
Monday, November 14, 2016
Friday, November 11, 2016
This summer marked 30 years for me as pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida. It has been a wonderful experience mixed with great blessings and severe trials. John Newton’s hymn, “A Minister’s Burden,” resonates with me more now than ever. The first verse says,
As I have reflected over my tenure at Grace, several lessons come to mind. I want to highlight five of them below.
1. Cases that seem hopeless over weeks or months are often shown to be otherwise over years.
Any pastor who understands the gospel and is thinking rightly realizes there is never a legitimate reason to give up on anyone. Yet, the temptation is sometimes strong to do just that. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to see God intervene in people’s lives over decades in ways that were not observable over years. It’s a reminder that God is always doing more than we can fully measure at any given moment, that his Word never returns to him empty.
Recently, I’ve heard even more testimonies of work that God was doing in individuals’ lives years ago when it appeared nothing was going on and that all efforts to evangelize them were completely fruitless. Since our God raises people from the dead, we should never write anyone off as beyond help. As long as there is breath, there is hope.
2. The Bible is deeper and richer than I could ever have anticipated at the beginning.
I remember as a young man, freshly called to preach, that I feared running out of material after a few years. It didn’t take long before I was disabused of that silly notion. But it did take longer for me to begin appreciating the depth of the riches found in God’s Word.
Now, as I approach the last laps of my race, I feel like there are dimensions of God’s revelation in Scripture that I’ve barely touched in my preaching. The wonders of a crucified, risen, and reigning Savior have become more amazing to me through the years. I have a much greater appreciation for Paul’s doxological outburst at the end of Romans 11:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.
3. My greatest challenge has not changed but has become more obvious to me over time—my heart.
Early on, I learned that problems rarely sink a church. Rather, it’s the poor handling of problems that do it. Slowly, eventually, I came to learn that my poor handling of problems is due to the perniciousness of the sin that remains within me.
I’m now more convinced than ever that consistently applying the grace of God in the gospel to my own heart is the most important and most difficult responsibility that I have as a pastor. When I fail at this, it doesn’t matter what other “success” I might have. As Robert Murray M’Cheyne reportedly said, “My people’s greatest need is my own personal holiness.”
4. Godly elders are a tremendous gift to a church and pastor.
It’s hard to calculate the joy and strength that come through serving with godly men who are bent on shepherding a local church with you. The work of “eldering” provides opportunities for both strengths and weaknesses to be exposed, and it’s been a great gift from God to have men in my life who have encouraged the former and help shore up the latter. They’ve seen matters more clearly than I have at points, and as a result, have served both me and the church very well. The fellowship of elders has been a great means of grace in both my life and the life of my family.
5. A godly wife is more valuable than I can possibly conceive.
Pastoral ministry is tough on pastors’ wives. They’re often forced to see the worst in a church and yet are in a position where they can’t engage church issues the way other members might. In addition, a pastor’s wife is compelled to listen to the preaching of a man whose flaws she knows intimately—week by week, year by year, decade after decade. To be able to do so joyfully and profitably while growing in devotion to Christ is a massive display of God’s grace. I’ve been greatly blessed to have my wife, Donna, by my side for the past thirty years in the same church.
Wednesday, November 9, 2016
When I first saw J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis atop The New York Times bestseller list this summer, I was certain my eyes were deceiving me. Surely this was one of those books, I reasoned, that furthers the stereotype that citizens of Appalachia are—to borrow the author’s language—toothless, inbred morons.
Like a typical hillbilly, I’m wary of outsiders who dismiss my home region as ignorant, racist, and hopelessly trapped in an antebellum time warp. I grew up in the hills and hollows (“hollers”) of northeast Georgia, in a small town where God and country—for better or worse—is synonymous with socio-political conservatism.
My kinfolk are plainspoken people who work on construction sites and farms. They butcher meat in grocery stores, repair electrical lines after major storms, teach in local schools, and care for the lawns of “outsiders” with expensive homes. They listen to George Jones and shop at Walmart.
After NAFTA passed in 1993, many lost their jobs, and my family’s business was hit hard by the Great Recession in 2008. My people, like Vance’s, are redneck, blue-collar, white middle class—a significant religious and voting block in America.
It took less than two pages to dispel my concerns about sterotypes. Vance’s elegy (a poem of lament) examines our deeply divided country through the lens of his experience as an Appalachian man. “America has a problem,” he writes. “My primary aim is to tell a true story about what that problem feels like when you were born with it hanging around your neck.” I was rapt as Vance spun his hardscrabble personal narrative—from life in the mountains of southeast Kentucky to the Rust Belt of Middletown, Ohio, where his family moved to work in an industry that eventually left town, leaving joblessness and misery in its wake.
Like many from broken hill families, Vance was largely raised by his Mamaw and Papaw. He spent precious little time with his birth father, and as a child toggled back and forth between his grandparents and his mother and her various live-in boyfriends/short-term husbands.
Mamaw emerges as the central character. Like so many grandparents of her generation, Mamaw was the glue that held the family together. I know Mamaw well, as I have one or two rawhide women in my family. I also know Mamaw’s clan well—the battling Blantons whom Vance cherishes. There are some Robinsons down in Georgia who would happily hunt, fish, and maybe even brawl with them, especially if you violate the unwritten code of the hills.
As hillbillies, Vance and I have much in common. Our families are working class—my father was a building contractor, my mother a homemaker—and our grandparents were part of a mass migration from Appalachia to southern Ohio for industrial labor during the Great Depression—his to Middletown, mine to Dayton and Akron.
Ultimately, both of us left our roots as adults, taking advanced degrees—his from Yale, mine from Southern Seminary—because God put someone into our paths who encouraged hard work, critical thinking, and reading good books. But though you can take the boy out of the country, you can never completely take the country out of the boy.
Hillbilly Elegy is far more than oral history; it’s a crucial examination of two beleaguered demographics: Appalachia and the Rust Belt. The book demands to be read deliberately and reflected on carefully.
As a fellow hillbilly, Vance has left me with much to chew on as I reflect on both our national circumstances and my own background. Here are three initial takeaways.
1. The two gods of Mamaw’s religion have spawned Donald Trump’s rise among evangelicals.
Others have written ably on working class angst as a central factor in America’s unconscionable political milieu, which Hillbilly Elegy jarringly illustrates, but I’m more concerned with the church. For many younger evangelicals, the popularity of Donald Trump among older Christians defies both logic and Scripture. His scandalous words, multiple marriages, lewd objectifying of women, fixation on money, and bullying demeanor raise serious questions concerning his fitness for the nation’s highest office. Yet numerous evangelical leaders continue to support him—no matter how many egregious sins bubble up into the news cyle. The piety of 21st-century evangelicalism feels a lot like medieval Roman Catholicism, an era in which the church desperately needed reformation. I am not speaking so much about whom one will vote for in the upcoming election—there are good Christians on different sides of this issue, and I encourage fellow believers to avoid judging each other—as I am church leaders who uncritically support certain candidates.
I believe Vance’s experience sheds some light on this problem. Mamaw spoke often about Christian heritage, Christian duty, God’s plan, God-given talent—like many evangelicals—while in the next breath dropping f-bombs with the fury of a Gatling gun. This is the nominal evangelicalism many of us in the Deep South experienced as teens—that of True Love Waits and the search for backward messages on Def Leppard albums.
Vance says Mamaw’s religion included two gods—Jesus and country. But it’s the Jesus of privatism more than the Jesus of Scripture. It’s the Jesus of Stephen Nichols’s Jesus Made In America—a sentimentalized personal savior, not the head of the church (an institution largely irrelevant in much of Appalachia). It’s the Jesus of country music, the savior of Gene Veith’s Honky-Tonk Gospel—a moralistic therapeutic messiah waiting tearfully at the anxious bench and haunting the sawdust trail. It’s a Jesus long on latitudinarian grace, short on heart transformation. It’s a Jesus whose message preaches on the campaign trail.
2. It’s impossible to overestimate the stabilizing power of an intact family.
This is perhaps where my Appalachian trail deviates most sharply from Vance’s. By God’s grace I was raised by loving parents whose marriage was built on their commitment to Christ and the local church. Much of my mostly stable adult life stems from growing up in a drama-free family with parents committed to each other, their three sons, and their church.
Many who grow up in Appalachia eventually fall prey to a paralyzing despair, paying a stiff price for the sins of their fathers, who, in the words of a million country-western songs, loved and left. Vance did not, thanks in large part to his grandparents.
To say Vance overcame staggering odds to graduate from Yale is an understatement. He wrote Hillbilly Elegy because he’s the exception. Poverty, violence (“being a hillbilly meant sometimes not knowing the difference between love and war”), and upheaval were all around him, a part of being born with America’s problem hanging around your neck.
Vance tells how the dysfunctional homes around him bred despair, which in turn led many friends into a vicious cycle of substance abuse and volcanic relationships:
For many kids, the first impulse is escape, but people who lurch toward the exit rarely choose the right door. . . . Chaos begets chaos. Instability begets instability. Welcome to family life for the American hillbilly.
Yes, for the American hillbilly and for every other group where fathers are absent and mothers are left to raise the kids alone. I witnessed this reality daily in rural Georgia, and it has adversely affected my extended family.
Where a father and mother remain together in a committed marriage, other healthy relationships tend to germinate. Vance’s immediate family was explosive, but the love of his grandparents turned out to be a motivating force that helped him rise above his circumstances.
The dissolution of the American family, as Hillbilly Elegy reveals, has reaped a whirlwind of despair. This is evident in a generation of young men for whom personal responsibility and working for a living are foreign notions. Vance tells of one acquaintance who quit his job because he no longer wanted to get up early, then went on Facebook and blamed his plight on Obama’s economy. As Vance puts it, this is the fruit of rotten choices, choices modeled by other family members.
3. Where the gospel is absent and the church weak, transformation is impossible.
Vance admits government can’t fix the problems of the working class. He’s correct—the real problem reaches far deeper than money or social inferiority. On one of the book’s final pages, Vance—like the scribe of whom Jesus said “you are not far from the kingdom from God” (Mark 12:34)—strikes painfully close to the solution with a penetrating question: “Are we tough enough to build a church that forces kids like me to engage the world rather than withdraw from it?”
Only the gospel possesses this power.
Whether you come from hillbilly stock like Vance and me or your family tree is decorated with scholarly leaves, our fundamental problem remains rooted in Genesis 3, and the only real cure is found in Romans 3. Vance sees the true carnage around him:
The fallen world described by the Christian religion matched the world I saw around me: one where a happy car ride could quickly turn to misery, one where individual misconduct rippled across a family’s and a community’s life. When I asked Mamaw if God loved us, I asked her to reassure me that this religion of ours could still make sense of the world we lived in. I needed the reassurance of some deeper justice, some cadence or rhythm that lurked beneath the heartache and chaos.
Hillbilly Elegy exposes the desperate need for strong local churches. Vance’s biological father became involved in a Bible-preaching church, which created stability not found in other parts of the family:
Regular church attendees commit fewer crimes, live longer, make more money, drop out of high school less frequently, and finish college more frequently than those who don’t attend church.
Vance correctly characterized the Christianity of Appalachia as “deeply religious, but without any attachment to a real church community.” This is no small problem.
Toward the conclusion, he ponders “whether people like us can ever truly change.” Human governments, no matter how limited and compassionate, will fail as a means of salvation—as myriad nations lining the trash bin of history bear witness. Vance says he’s been led to reconsider the Christian faith he followed in his youth but discarded as an adult; I pray he continues to plow that furrow. Ultimately, the old rugged cross is the only place where genuine change can occur and lasting joy can be found.
How Should Churches Respond?
As church leaders, there are at least four ways we can respond to the disaster Vance describes.
- Preach the Jesus of Scripture. Only this Jesus has the power to transform hearts, rebuild families, and renew cultures. A God-and-country Jesus cannot do helpless sinners good.
- Foster strong, Christ-centered families. Encourage fathers and mothers as the primary spiritual caregivers of their children. Encourage single mothers and fathers, too, in this vital calling.
- Encourage robust ecclesiology. Vance rightly detects the odd dichotomy of a people who hold affinity for Jesus, but none for his church. Personal transformation is a community project, so we need each other. We need churches that are serious about being the church.
- Resist the unbiblical fallacy of a homogenous church. Every congregation has hillbillies. Every family is dysfunctional at some level. There are countless single moms and broken families in our midst. They may not hail from Appalachia, but their backgrounds are complex, their brokenness and sense of disenfranchisement real. We have a gospel that is mighty to transform. Let’s proclaim it faithfully.
To put it mildly, Hillbilly Elegy is raw, bare-knuckled, and (reader be warned) brims with R-rated language, but it could hardly be otherwise. History is raw, bare-knuckled, and filled with R-rated things, perhaps never more so than in our personal histories. Vance has written a refreshing and brutally honest memoir, one that explains much about a divided and despairing American culture, and exposes in a fresh way our deepest need—internal transformation by the power of the gospel.
Hillbilly Elegy is a riveting, beautifully written parable of truth and grace—truth in exposing the seldom-seen, alarmingly desperate lives of millions in our country; grace in showing that God isn’t limited by our circumstances, and he draws straight lines with crooked sticks.
J. D. Vance. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis. New York: HarperCollins, 2016. 272 pp. $27.99.