Two of my passions are church planting and early church history, so when I’m not dreaming about future approaches to carrying out the mission of the church I’m usually slogging my way through a book about the first 500 or so years of the church.
Recently, while reading through the canons of the Council of Nicaea, I couldn’t help but see several parallels between challenges the early fathers faced and my own church planting experience. Here’s the most recent shared challenge.
Canon I of the Council of Nicaea prevented the ordination of men who had castrated themselves in an attempt to live a more holy life. Apparently that was more of trend back then than it is today. The subtext of this canon is that anyone who would go that far and take the words of Jesus in Matthew 5 that literally was not just committed or disciplined but was overly zealous and probably a bit of a loose cannon and that über-zealous loose cannons are poor choices for church leadership.
To put it bluntly, church plants are like catnip to religious über-zealots. It brings them out of the woodwork. They will show up at the church plant, likely in the early days. They will be excited. They will be passionate about Jesus. They will want to serve. They will start tithing the second week. They will encourage the planter. They will commit. They will give hope. Church planters will like them and think about all the ways they can help. It will be encouraging that they are on on board. If you’re the church planter, you will start thinking about putting them in positions of influence and even leadership.
Get to know them.
Listen to them.
Don’t let blind trust, excitement, fatigue, or desperation cause you to put them in positions within the church that will allow them to expand their negative influence and do damage to the beautiful baby church God is birthing through you.
Here’s why. Über-zealots complain. They have strange ideas. They are rigid. They are weird. They don’t want to help you start the church God called you to start; they want you to start the church they (and only they) want to start. They may turn out to be proud, judgmental, and ultimately self-focused. So how do you figure out if this enthusiastic person is a gift from God or a wolf in sheep’s clothing?
1. Ask hard questions about church experience.
Ask the kind of questions that will be uncomfortable for them to answer if they really are über-zealots.
Ask why they’re looking for a new church. There are many right answers to this question, but beware of answers that bemoan the state of “every other church in town” or “all the pastors around here.” That’s an advance warning that in 9-18 months they’re going to be at some other church moaning to some other pastor about you.
Ask why they would choose to be part of a church plant. Beware of answers about helping you personally as opposed to advancing the mission. That just might be code for “I want you to like me and feel like you owe me so that I can more easily manipulate you later.”
Ask how the program or practice they are so passionate about helps the church fulfill its mission. If they don’t give you a thoroughly selfless answer that is backed up by experience or some sort of evidence, then watch out. Also beware of answers that boil down to “This is THE right way to do church.” That’s code for “I would like to hijack your church, please.”
Ask for church references. Ask for references, including the pastor, from their previous churches and call them for their perspectives. Vet them. Some churches are weird, some pastors have issues, and some reasons for leaving are valid but if you have any sort of pastoral spidey-sense at all, talking to the pastor of the church they left will either confirm their story or your suspicions. This is much easier to do if you have a pre-existing relationship with other pastors in town. Which you should. (More on that in a later blog post.)
2. Make them wait.
Uber-zealots have very little patience. The reason they came to your church is because it was taking too long to form their previous church into their own likeness. Make them wait.
You know what you and the über-zealot have in common? You both hate set-up and tear down. Invite them to serve on your set-up team and let them do that for a month or two. Or six. Set-up team is like kryptonite to über-zealots. It’ll usually send them running in pretty short order. Set-up team separates the sheep form the goats.
3. Invest in them.
This might seem counterintuitive, but invest in them relationally. If they turn out to be über-zealots, you’ll feel like you’ve wasted your time but they won’t have had the opportunity to wreak havoc on the church and your pastoral spidey-sense will be that much sharper.
If they actually turn out to be the spiritually mature, committed, mission-focused people they appear to be – and they very well may – then all the better. You just made some new friends, and you are about to share an incredible ministry adventure together.
4. Welcome them as anyone else.
So let’s say you invite them to set-up team and they decline or accept and then stop showing up after a few weeks. You’ve gotten to know them personally and after speaking with their former pastor, you’re pretty sure they’re über-zealots, then what do you do?
Unless they are proactively spreading division, then treat them like anyone else. You don’t need to kick them out, but neither should you give them any extra attention and for heaven’s sake (really!) don’t give them any sort of influence/platform. It may be that after a season under your preaching and as a part of an emotionally healthy, mission-focused church they will actually change and grow into mature believers. The Gospel has been reaching all kinds of people since even before the Council of Nicaea.
So how about you? How do you sniff out über-zealots, and how do you deal with them? What’s a crazy story about an über-zealot you’ve encountered in ministry?
Image attribution: Ingram Publishing / Thinkstock