The Beauty of a Mangled ‘Witness’
The other day I met with Casey Franklin, a Denver youth pastor who’s had a typically epic 15-year run in youth ministry—he has stories of incredible impact and stories of incredible heartbreak dancing the Tango together. Both of us, we discovered, have sometimes wondered how to communicate the “down-and-dirty” realities of serving at a church to people on “the outside.” After our conversation, Casey went home and tried to capture the essence of what we talked about, along with his deeper take on its ramifications. I thought what he had to say is important for every youth worker to chew on, so here’s Casey’s little piece…
◊ ◊ ◊
Just met with Rick Lawrence for coffee—as we talked, I had an idea. We were comparing notes about how messed-up people are in general, but especially in the church. We agreed that people outside the church expect people who are inside the church to have it together. So when we talk to our neighbors or friends we’re a little insecure about letting people know what it’s really like on “the inside.” We would never want to “blow our witness” by letting other broken people know how broken we really are...
Western Culture, and especially our Western Christian Culture, covertly pushes us into image-maintenance mode. It’s especially hard for people to discover that leaders and pastors have struggles or issues or difficulties, because there’s an implied expectation of relative perfection. And when we struggle with doubt or weakness, we worry that it’d be devastating for others if it ever got out because, as Peter Rollins says: “We outsource our beliefs to our pastors—my pastor believes on my behalf, so I don't have to.”
In our performance-based culture and perfection-obsessed society, we all put our best foot forward in relationships—this system is based on covering up our faults, weaknesses, and insecurities. After all, if people knew what I was really like, I'd never get hired or find a group of people who really love me. If you knew everything there was to know about me, you would never meet me for coffee. And if I knew everything about you, I certainly would never want to have anything to do with you. So instead, we all play the game—knowing we don’t have it all together but trying to make sure that everyone else thinks we do.
Would we ever consider a job description for pastoral leaders that includes qualifications that make us wince, but are ultimately more useful? For example:
• Must have at least five years of hardship and difficulty at a church—an added bonus if you were forced to leave the church for awhile because you weren’t sure if there really was a God anymore.
• Must have a good track-record of dysfunctional family relationships and evidence of significant wounding as a result.
• Must have been fired from last church.
• Must be able to show clear evidence that you do not have it all together.
• Must show evidence that you do not read your Bible every day, and a schedule includes missed “quiet times.”
• Must have heard your kids tell you, at least once: “Dad, you’ve really let me down.” And must have heard your spouse tell you, at least once: “I'm leaving you—I can’t take this anymore.”
The sad truth is that in our twisted culture it’s not safe to be this honest—if we were hiring someone like us, we wouldn’t really want to know “the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” But what if we had the courage to embrace a kind of raw authenticity that was embedded within a redemptive reality? What if we valued knowing the scars, wounds, and struggles of others, because we had a sacred respect for how those things have shaped them into a force to be reckoned with? What if, as Peter Rollins suggests, our requirement for church membership was, simply, this: “If someone takes your coat, do you give him your shirt?” What if we all had an increasing freedom to be who we really are, tell it like it really is, and “out” our shortcomings and failures for what they really are?
That would be a strange, messed-up, and liberated world... ◊
Rick has been editor of GROUP for 24 years.