The Messy Middle of Actual Ministry

POINT OF THE POST...

Struggling with the realities of church ministry in today's world? Discover how to navigate the "messy middle" where theory meets practice and grace prevails.

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The recent uproar for and against North Point Ministries and Embrace the Journey got me thinking…and commenting a bit on social media.

I refuse to write a hit piece or a fully accepting agreement. I equally refuse to pretend I understand this topic in totality. Anyone who tells you they’ve cornered the market on theology is arrogant and to be avoided.

But theology alone isn’t what got Andy and North Point in hot water. Sure, some on the extreme will say it’s ALL theological, but a deeper look shows something deeper.

Ministry.

Theology, Ministry, and Messes

I worked at North Point for over a decade, so I’m not entering this conversation without bias. I’m also not joining this conversation uninformed. My observations are from actual observations. A decade’s worth.

Additionally, I’ve spent some 17 years in church ministry, not teaching in a seminary or pontificating ministry theory. I say that with some intended sarcasm, as so many critics of pastors are not pastoring.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. –Teddy Roosevelt’s

Let’s begin with a few working definitions.

THEOLOGY: Theology is how we interpret Scripture. It’s important to note that our family or origin, faith experiences, life experiences, education, and personality construct our interpretations. This is to say we all see theology through a lens.

MINISTRY: Ministry is how we hope to practically implement our theology. If the church is in the disciple-making business, our interpretation of Scripture determines how we define our methodology.

MESS: When theology and ministry are put into action.

The Messy Middle

Remaining on the side of theology is stagnating in theory. And it’s easy. Anyone can define and teach their interpretation of Scripture. And if you work at a seminary, rarely is your interpretation challenged. After all, you’re teaching students what is agreed upon and prescribed by the seminary.

The “theological theory” people have it easier.

It’s the pastors in the action who’ve got the most challenging job. These people are trying to take what they’ve interpreted and help grow the faith of individuals.

Hence, the mess. Just as we don’t bring a clean slate to interpretation, individuals don’t bring a clean slate to their discipleship journey. Every person is unique and begins their journey from a unique position.

This is precisely why ministry is so complicated. There isn’t A path for everyone to take. Discipleship journeys are like a “choose your own adventure” book. Pastors have the job of defining the starting line, target, and pathway.

This is messy. Really messy.

The only way to make it less messy would be to require everyone to take the same path in the same way. This isn’t possible.

This is where theory and practical ministry diverge.

Some New Terms May Help

Theology and ministry are such loaded terms. Perhaps we should attempt to use different words?

I’m a strategist. I consult with churches and organizations for a living. When I begin working with a new church or company, our first goal is clearly defining the mission. The mission is our target.

Next, we work to identify where we are today against our target. What’s working and not working within the mission? What’s confusing and missing in our attempt to reach our target?

Finally, with our starting line and target in sight, we define the path to connect these dots.

That’s the strategy.

We can overlay this with our church terms.

Theology defines the target. People in their present stage are where we begin. And our discipleship pathway is our strategy, ministry model, or method.

When we meet a new person, as a pastor, we need to have a view of the target, but we must next discover where they are starting and then define how to help them take steps forward.

The target defines the win, but the target alone is only possible to hit with a clear starting line and pathway.

Back to Andy, North Point, and the Hoopla

Andy and North Point came under fire for “separating ministry and theology.” The Christian legalists and seminarians bashed Andy, not for trying to help parents of LGBTQ children, but for what they perceived as a lack of correct theology.

The Sunday following the now infamous conference, Andy substituted his sermon for a teaching on why they hosted the conference. In his message, he makes some clear theological delineations but also described how North Point attempts to pastor people from where they are to this theological target.

And if you’ve ever tried to do this, you know how messy it can be.

If you don’t appreciate the mess, I suspect you’re not a pastor, or you’re not working to meet people where they are. Which probably makes Jesus sad, as that’s what he did over and over.

It’s messy to begin where people are. Your theology should set your target. Your true north. But a target without a path is never accomplished. This is precisely why telling people what’s “true” without helping them move toward truth is unhelpful. Worse, it’s harmful. You just told someone they are not living in truth and left them to their own devices to change. That’s not ministry. That’s indifference.

Here’s what I believe Andy is attempting to do: Help people move spiritually from where they are to a theological destination. And his destination seems pretty conservative, theologically speaking.

For Example: In this LGBTQ conversation, the North Point Theology seems clear. But how you move people in this direction depends on where they are when you engage with them. A 14-year-old with same-sex attraction coming out of the closet to their parents next week requires a different path than a 40-year-old gay individual with a partner of 20 years and two adopted children.

Each of these people begins at a different starting line and, therefore, will experience a different discipleship pathway.

Other Examples: A heterosexual person living with their fiancé, a divorced and remarried couple, or a single man with a pornography addiction attend your church for the first time. What do you do? How do you disciple each couple? 

It’s messy. And that’s the point. If what Andy is doing looks messy, it’s because it is.

I don’t know if he’s getting it all correct. I don’t know how I would lead North Point if I were in his shoes.

But I know this: Andy isn’t willing to sit on the sidelines, keeping children, students, and adults off a discipleship pathway.

Our Other Option

The other “clean” option is straightforward. We can ignore this topic, grow ever more marginalized by culture, and end up treating this as the church treated divorce and remarriage 40 years ago. To say, we’ll end up allowing it to just “become” something we ignore.

That’s cleaner today but way messier in the end. I don’t want to cast judgment on the church leadership during the divorce/remarriage mess, but I believe, with some certainty, it wasn’t handled well.

We can do better. But we’ve got to stop eating our teammates alive and begin working together in love to get messy.

We won’t get this right along the way. We’ll make some mistakes. It’s messy! But the goal isn’t to be clean but to be loving, clear, and offer hope in Jesus.

I’m not one for theory. I want to make ministry practical for everyone, regardless of their starting line. Nobody can run their race if they never join the race. It’s our duty to engage with everyone, support their faith, and inspire them forward with love and care.

If that sounds too gracious, so be it. If we get to heaven and God is angry with our graciousness, we can ask for forgiveness. I suspect, however, that that won’t be the case. If anyone is in the forgiveness line, it might be those ripping apart their fellow Christians. 

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