A few years ago I returned to speak at the church that was my first pastorate. The church was celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary, and it had been more than a decade since I had stood in their pulpit. They welcomed me back with incredible grace and affection, and I was truly glad for the reunion.
When I first went there as pastor, I was a green, naïve, ignorant child, still in my early twenties, full of piss and vinegar, ready to extinguish hell with a water gun. Equipped with a fresh diploma, a certificate of ordination with the ink still wet, and a new red Bible, I worked hard to justify my position and demonstrate to all that I knew everything there was to know about leading a congregation. Heck, I wanted people to see that I knew everything about everything.
When it was whispered in the gossip parlors of the church Sunday school rooms and in the beauty salons of the greater community that in fact I did not know everything about everything, and that I was far too young for the responsibility now thrust upon me, I worked all the harder to prove my critics wrong and my youthful abilities underestimated.
This hard work paid off, because in the process of proving myself, the membership rolls did indeed grow. The coffers of the church swelled like never before, acres of land were purchased, buildings were built, mission trips were taken, baptisteries were filled, other congregations were planted, the church became a rising sensation, and the critics quieted their murmuring assaults. Yes, by the end of my tenure there, I had gained a great deal of success. But I also lost a few things along the way. I lost my youthful idealism; my religion; my marriage; my way, and almost my mind. Most of all, I lost touch with the very reason I had entered the vocation in the first place: The love of Christ.
See, I became more concerned with growing a bigger church than with the well-being of individual people who needed to know grace. I worked tirelessly to keep the “right” people happy and tithing, and neglected those on the “wrong” side of the tracks, those that Christ sought more than any other. I wanted a prosperous religious career by building the next religious edifice, by impressing the suits at the denomination’s headquarters, and by meticulously managing my public image. Only years later did I realize that Jesus was not very much involved in any of this.
It was a hard lesson to learn, but I take some comfort in the fact that I am not alone in learning it. Another hard-striving, pompous, know-it-all once wrote, “Christ has shown me that what I thought I knew is worthless…Nothing else matters but this: To know Christ and to know that I belong to him” (Philippians 3).
So that’s what I told my first congregation when they invited me back to speak. I told them that I had indeed been too young to be a pastor, that I had done them a disservice by spending too much energy on the trivial and on my own attempted accomplishments, and not enough energy pointing them to the grace and love found in Christ. And I told them that I now know a whole lot less than I once thought I did; I’m even more ignorant than I once was.
Not all of my old friends like this admission. They think I’ve lost my “fire,” or that I’ve gone “theologically soft.” Some think I’ve fallen completely away. This singular emphasis upon Christ and his grace, ironically, makes some Christians uncomfortable. They want “more.” But there is no more if our first and consuming passion is not to reflect the grace and love of Christ.
After all, “if I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, but I do not have love, it profits me nothing.” I don’t know much, but that much I know.