Andy Stanley has spoken helpfully about the distinction in church life between tensions to be managed and problems to be solved.
In other words, there are certain dilemmas that pastors and church leaders will simply need to learn to live with because they will never just “go away.”
Stanley’s observation has remained part of my thinking and I am amazed at how often its reality pops up in my pastoral life. Here are five tensions in particular that I continue to learn how to navigate — because they’ll never disappear.
- Spirit vs. Strategy. This one dominates my thinking. It’s no secret that I long for revival to happen in our church, for it to radiate out to southwest Charlotte and into York County, and from there all over our region. So: how best til the local soil for revival to take root? Pray, pray, pray? Or make sure that your master plan and comprehensive strategy for your church best matches not only your God-given design but also the people God is bringing into your community? Answer: YES.
- Affrirmation vs. Transformation. When people present themselves to your church (or when you present yourself to them!), is it more about affirming their human dignity or transforming their human brokenness? Do you dwell more on Jesus’ first words in the Gospel of Mark — ‘repent!’ — or John’s enduring word about him — for God so LOVED the world? If, like most church leaders, you want to communicate both, when do you slow down the affirmation so you can gently challenge and prod in such a way that you speed the transformation? I remember that time MANY years ago when a man began attending Midway UMinC near Monroe, North Carolina. I knew he had lived a sad life and needed a saving relationship with Jesus, so on his third visit or so I told him in the parking lot: “It’s great you’ve been coming to church but I’d like to see you get serious about Jesus.” I never saw him again. Too much, too fast, too serious.
- Yesterday vs. Tomorrow. I encounter this one on a daily basis. In dealing with people — particularly those in a crisis — is the conversation more about yesterday or tomorrow? Is the pastor most helpful by helping congregants dig into their past or to explore their potential? I am much more attuned to the former than to the latter. Others on our staff at Good Shepherd are more connected with the latter. All that is why I am stronger in pastoral counseling than I am in ministry equipping. Interestingly, a subtitle for this tension could be: do you read novels or professional development books? Novels, especially good ones, delve into family histories and all the ways childhood sets forces in motion that shape adulthood. John Maxwell books on leadership? Not so much. I am a unrepentant novel reader.
- Tradition vs. Innovation. Oh, Lord. Now I’ve stopped preaching and I’ve gone to meddling. What takes priority? Dancing with the one who brung you or learning the latest version of the two-step? As a lot of you know, one of our primary values at Good Shepherd is to “speak the old through the new” — meaning, of course, harness new technology to communicate an ancient message. For the most part, I feel like we do this well. We falter when we embrace what is new simply because it’s new — and I had a season about a decade ago where I valued “cool” over clear. The problem? I’m not cool. But I can be bold.
- Reaching vs. Keeping. Where’s your emphasis — on reaching new people or on keeping the ones who are already part of your church family? There are times when those goals are at odds with each other, particularly when it comes to worship style or even allocation of resources. I believe pastors and leaders best manage this particular tension when we bring the same spirit, joy, and love to our pastoral care as we do to our invitational ministry. After all, at Good Shepherd we’ll know we’re being effective when the invited become the inviters.