Metrics I

On the mornings I stop for coffee and a bagel at my favorite coffee shop, I pass by a nearly invisible church.  You’d never know it was there, really.  The signage for the personal training business is better situated.  But in the past few weeks a new sign for the church has gone up.  A large photo  of the husband and wife pastor team.  Sharply dressed in a homey atmosphere, brilliant white smiles.  Photogenic.  And if that wasn’t enough, the biggest lettering on the sign focuses on how many YouTube subscribers they have and how many millions of times their online  content has been viewed.

What’s your metric?

Everybody has metrics for what they consider success to look like.  Dollars, zip codes, assets.  A corner office, an invitation to join the Board of Directors.  Perhaps finally publishing that book or being invited to the first of several speaking gigs.

Pastors are no exception.  Maybe it’s moving up the hierarchy to  serve in capacities beyond a simple local parish.  Maybe it’s impressive growth figures for your congregation.  An impressive building project.  A large staff to oversee, a diverse budget supporting all sorts of projects and ministries.  The unspoken but obvious awe and respect of your peers who struggle in their small parishes and envy the comfort and success you’ve achieved.

Of course, none of that holds a candle to the apostles, if anyone really even thinks in terms of envying them anymore.  Their career path was hardly enviable and their retirement packages were, well, substandard by our enlightened standards.  No apparent families, no kids to pass the family legacy down to and through.  If anyone could have benefited from a career coach it would have been these guys.  Then again, I guess they did have a career coach.  But his advice to take up their crosses and follow him is disturbing at best.

But we’re safely distanced from the apostles so it’s not as though we really need to compare ourselves to them.  We read their words 2000 years later and are largely insulated from many of the implications they carry with them.  Easy to listen and nod along in agreement and never realize we’re acting in the complete opposite direction.  Heck, pastors can even preach on those very words one moment and seem to have completely forgotten them by the time the weekly meetings roll around.  We love our apostles safely in heaven and distanced from us for the time being.

Imagine those in the early Church though.  Those privileged to know and listen to and speak with the apostles!  We often talk in awe-filled tones about how amazing that would have been, and certainly it would have.  But it would have really screwed up the metrics of those converts to the faith, those who first heard and received the Good News of Jesus as the Son of God risen from the dead.  How do you advance career-wise when you’re competing directly with the apostles?

Among many other sins, the Church is guilty of the personal pride and ambition of her members all too often, both lay and ordained.  And in recent decades that ambition and pride has overturned centuries and centuries of Biblical exegesis and practice.  Oh, the terms for it are noble enough – equality sounds pretty darn Biblical, doesn’t it?  Until you actually read the Bible  and realize our privileged  egalitarian ideas of equality are rarely found in those pages.  God is rather doggedly determined to do things his way, oftentimes through an individual or a small group of people rather than a representative democracy or a congregational meeting or even a church Board of Directors.

But for all those who struggle with metrics in the Church, Stephen is a fascinating story in Acts 6 and 7.  We read this week about Stephen’s execution at the hands of a frenzied mob of self-righteous people with decidedly different metrics than Stephen.  We applaud his boldness.  We applaud his willingness to speak truth to power, demonstrating all those coveted leadership principles the Church (and our larger culture) fawns over these days.

But Stephen’s story starts earlier.  And it starts with Stephen being selected to be a waiter.

Yeah, that’s right.  Go back and read the opening section of Acts 6.  Same guy.  Stephen is selected with six other nameless people (sure, their names are written down right there, but how many of those names do you know?).  The apostles had work they were uniquely qualified for.  They knew Jesus.  Better than anyone than perhaps his own family.  They were needed to teach and preach the growing Church what Jesus said and did.  To bear witness.  It was important work.

But so was feeding the widows.  So important that all the disciples convened all the rest of the core of the Church to address the issue.  To select Stephen and the others to handle this important task so the apostles could dedicate themselves to their important tasks.  Different tasks.  Both important.  Both needing to get done.  Requiring different people to do them.

We aren’t told Stephen’s response to this arrangement, but it appears he did his job well and faithfully.  I don’t know what his metrics were.  Maybe he was just one of those two-dimensional Bible figures without any real issues or personality or dreams or hopes.  Maybe he’d always wanted to be a waiter.  Maybe he had hoped for more.  He certainly seemed capable of more, filled with wisdom and faith and the Holy Spirit as he was (vs. 3-6).  Installed in his capacity as waiter by none other than the disciples of Jesus and the leaders of the Church.  And certainly as he waited tables and ensured the widows were cared for (because nobody else wanted to do it), the Holy Spirit was working through him mightily.  Very similarly, in fact, to how the Holy Spirit  was working through the apostles themselves (compare Acts 6:8 with Acts 2:43).

Yet Stephen never seemed to push for a promotion.  Maybe he never got the chance.  Maybe Stephen’s story would have read a bit differently if it had played out over a longer period of time.  Maybe his martyrdom was a gift, keeping him from succumbing  to societal pressures and definitions of success and ultimately risking his faith and the unity of the Church in a quest for advancement.  With demands to be recognized as greater than just a waiter.  Maybe this is a Biblical example of a great quote from arguably the best of the Batman movies – The Dark KnightEither you die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.  

A dark thought, but a cautionary one.  We all have metrics.  Whether those metrics align with the Word and promises of the God who created us  and redeemed us and sanctifies us is another matter.  Satan offered Adam and Eve a different metric.  Rather than simply being obedient to God as his creations, they could be like God.  They could maximize their potential.  They could activate their leadership qualities for the good of creation.  They could be all that they could be.  The could just do it.

Metrics are not neutral and we need to question their sources.  Ambition is not necessarily a bad thing.  But we need to ensure we don’t sacrifice the Word of God on the altar of ambition or metrics or even equality.  Even those things that seem inherently good and better – a big church rather than a small one, a large financial endowment rather than scrambling to pay the bills each month, a powerful presence in the community rather than the obscurity of sharing space with a personal trainer – even these things can ultimately prove not just complicated but divisive and even destructive.

And for a culture insistent that equality is defined on our terms, Stephen is a challenging anecdotal call for a pause and a more cautious scrutiny of both our terms and our motives.  Stephen the waiter.  Stephen called by God the Holy Spirit into this role.  Stephen used powerfully even as just a waiter.  Stephen who is one of the best known New Testament figures despite never being promoted  to the upper echelons of church ministry.  Stephen who lived and died serving God as God led him to, and you and I still reading about him 2000 years later.  Even as Iacocca and Welch, as well as Graham, Swindoll, Driscoll, fade or begin to fade into obscurity.

It isn’t the YouTube hits or the subscribers.  It isn’t the District or Synodical positions whether paid or unpaid.  It isn’t ordination or not ordination.  It’s something being and doing what God the Holy Spirit leads you to be and do.  To identify your personal metrics and compare them to Biblical ones.  To pray to be all God has equipped and called you to be without reaching beyond what’s either safe for you or best for the people of God.

Good advice as I take my bagel and coffee back to my office and struggle to post second-rate videos to YouTube to try and help my people through a confusing and isolating  time.  Good advice to all God’s people in all their varied capacities.

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