The Only Two Questions Any Pastor Should Be Asking Right Now

July 17, 2014 — 25 Comments

Pastors spend a lot of time solving problems, and that means asking questions. Unfortunately, most of those questions are unimportant, even trivial. I know this because I’ve wasted plenty of my own time wondering about these same things.

Handsome businessman daydreaming of his business future
In fairness, many of these questions are forced upon pastors by their job description as the leader of an organization and have little to do with their real work as shepherds of God’s flock.

But a pastor has to earn a living somehow, so most spend the majority of their time pondering things like these—

  • How can I get more people to come to church?
  • Where will I raise enough money to pay the mortgage?
  • How can I direct church ministries and still find time to write sermons?
  • How do I keep the women’s ministry director from strangling the youth pastor?

The Operations Question

All these are versions of the Operations Question, which has to do with managing the church as an organization having property, employees, activities, and constituents. The Operations Question solves the problems of management: staffing, funding, scheduling, time management, logistics.

The Vision Question

A few pastors are asking a different question, which goes something like this:

  • How can I lead this church to change?
  • What strategies will most effectively reach people in my community?
  • How do I lead this congregation in accomplishing the mission?

That sounds better for sure, but the Vision Question is just the operations question with more panache. It’s about doing the same thing better or bigger or with a different audience.

Neither of these questions addresses the fundamental problems the church faces now, which have nothing to do with funding, scheduling, or growth strategies.

Two more urgent questions address the primary problems we face today.

The Question of Character

The first has to do with the character of Christians themselves.

How do I get people to imitate Jesus in daily life as opposed to giving intellectual assent to Christian ideas without exhibiting life transformation?

And that’s what most Christians do because that’s what they’ve been taught. Evangelism, we believe, is getting people saved, which means leading them to make a one-time acknowledgement that Jesus is Lord. That’s the goal, and we’re not that bad at it.

Holiness, so we’ve come to believe, is something beyond salvation. It is leading people be transformed, to think and behave as Jesus did. And that’s really hard to do. Impossible, some say.

So most pastors, like most Christians, bypass this question entirely. Leading people to decide that Jesus is Lord—and, hopefully, come to church—is as far as we go. Though we spend a good deal of time and energy trying to rectify the behavior of people outside the church, we give precious little thought to transforming our own lives.

Which brings up a second, related question.

The Question of Witness

The second fundamental question has to do with our witness in the world, how others perceive us and, by implication, how they perceive Jesus.

How do we transform the public perception of Christians as judgmental, anti-intellectual, and mean-spirited to welcoming, hopeful, and helpful, which is how the ordinary folk of Jesus’ day perceived him?

The church as a serious public relations problem. We’re seen as anti-women, anti-gay, anti-intellectual, and reactionary. Our efforts to make converts—even in the rudimentary sense of leading people to affirm that Jesus is Lord–are constantly thwarted by this. People don’t like us, and we can’t seem to figure out why.

How do we change that?

The answer to both questions is the same.

When Christian people begin to live the way Jesus lived, not simply affirming as true the classic tenets of the faith and not merely avoiding the most obvious evils of our time but pursuing intimacy with God every day and making the hundreds of daily choices to be hopeful, faith filled, gentle, compassionate toward the poor, pure minded, detached from the world, and forgiving, just as Jesus was, we will be changed in character, not merely in name, and others will begin to see the church not as a den of bigots, misogynists, and pedophiles, but as a place of refuge, hope, and salvation.

In short, we will have answered both of the fundamental questions now facing the church.

A Modest Proposal

So here is my modest proposal for the transformation of church and society, a simple two-point plan:

One: Begin to think of salvation as the transformation of your entire self from death to life rather than as mere forgiveness for sin with a ticket to heaven.

Two: Stop telling people outside the church how they ought to behave and give full attention to the transformation of your own soul.

That’s it.

When Christian people live lives marked by hope, joy, and a fresh, new way of living, we will be transformed people, and we will transform the world.

Lawrence W. Wilson

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I write about life and faith and what it means to be fully human and a fully devoted follower of Jesus. I've written a few books including A Different Kind of Crazy and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering. When I have ideas that might help you transform your life and community, I post them here.
  • Just Saying.

    I agree for the most part but the fact is if we are truly trying to live like Jesus then there are going to be people who don’t like us no matter what and we need to understand and accept this fact. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be kind. I believe the fruit of the Spirit should be evident but 2 Timothy 3:12 In fact,everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…

  • Paul Sohn

    Hey Lawrence. Great post! I just stumbled on your blog via Michael Hyatt’s blog. It’s great to connect with another brother and blogger! Looking forward to reading more of your content!

    • Lawrence W. Wilson

      Thanks, Paul. Glad to meet you.

      • David Nesamony

        It is a good view point. The main focus is what is transformation. If we love Jesus and our selves we transform ourselves to be like Jesus but we love others we transform them to towards Jesus. the vision purpose and the operational purpose are real. We mainly focus on organization I stead of visioning the future.

  • Eric

    Lawrence, some really good stuff here. I also just stumbled upon your blog, and really appreciate these questions. I like how you link “what we do” to vision. I think a clear vision should strongly direct what we do in the church. Programs, staff, worship, etc. I like to think of vision as the razor with which we say yes or no. Does it align with who we are and what we’re called to do? That’s a great place to start.

    I do think we need a balance of church vision and personal transformation. I am ALL about focusing on our transformation rather than the behavior of others. I also think that unless we’re communicating the vision of our community of faith, it’s hard for people to either jump on board, or look for somewhere that fits them better. How do you balance both?

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Lawrence W. Wilson

      Eric, I think that balance is so important. I guess what I’m thinking is that we may have overemphasized these institutional issues (which do matter, of course) at the expense of spiritual growth and a passion for holiness. That may be just my experience, but that’s what it feels like from here. What do you think?

  • Martina McGowan

    Good, interesting and informative post. At least a part of the issue, I think, is that people don’t like church, and we DO know why. But we do not want to do the hard work involved in opening up that dialoge. We are resistant to authentic self-examination, weighing what we do vs what may be truly Christ-like and missional. And here is the hard part- we are most resistant to changing ourselves into the models we profess to be.

    • Lawrence W. Wilson

      Martina, yes, it’s really hard work, isn’t it?

  • Pastor Steve Braudt

    Amen – Lawrence! The church/body of Christ needs to be relational, just as Jesus modeled! The vision and transformation of the larger church will happen as members find those areas in common that God has called them to transform! The combined energy (with the Holy Spirit) of these disciples will generate the necessary movement to transform the church and to continue the path towards the Kindom of God!
    Truly Love God and Love Neighbor and direction we take after that will be one of inspired and Divine discernment!

    • Lawrence W. Wilson

      That’s my hope, Steve.

      • Browsing

        Quite interesting conversation. Things that make you go hmmmmmmm!

  • TruthWins

    There are a couple of things that concern me about this post but the most glaring is the lack of zeal for souls. Okay, I’m sure it’s not totally lacking, but it seems to at least be potentially diminishing due to the pressures of the world. I am my brother’s keeper and I *should* desire his salvation. It is a true and good act of charity to offer fraternal correction to others. I believe you have succumbed to allowing the world to define you as a Christian. It appears to have succeeded in beating you into submission, which is its singular goal. I understand where you are going with this and I also understand from whence it came. I don’t believe it came from the Holy Spirit, by the way. The evil one loves having Christians become defensive about what we believe to the point of focusing on the persecution (which we were told we will suffer and that it is a mark of actually doing what we ought) so much so that we cease trying to help others live a less sinful life.

  • lacroix

    I’m so weary of scrutinizing every little thing folks say, exploring every little unstated assumption and considering with a fine tooth comb every implication. Here’s the deal IMHO…..most everything boils down to love, is it loving, does it reflect the heart of Jesus. To me, this post bleeds empathy and love and for that reason I love it big dog…..I would gladly place myself under your pastoral care… get it, most church going folks, in my opinion, don’t. Bravo sir!

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  • Nanashi

    A triple “Banzai!!!” ( = ‘live long and prosper’ ) to you, Dr. Wilson! Everything, and I mean Everything that speaks to me lately points to the essence of your “Modest Proposal”, above. In essence, Everything from terrific Anime (and there are some amazing series out there, such as Hyouge Mono and The Sword of the Stranger), to the Bhagavad Gita, to Gandhi, to the Hagakure (Stacey Day’s translation alone renders it aright), to Vipassana Meditation, to Oswald Spengler, to Josef Pieper, to C.S. Lewis, to Rico Lebrun, to Odilon Redon, and on and on. What you are proposing is a tall order, but having fled from this suggestion for decades, I am forced to conclude that, ultimately, there is no other option. All else is premature death. A path as narrow as the sharp side of a blade, yet as wide as infinity. Thank you for publishing many inspiring, well-written articles online.

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  • Jauquin Jamile Holmes

    There is one more point that kinda needs to be brought to light by the two points you prose here…

    Continue to strive for a life that reflects your standard as “transformed” (I kinda like to say “renewed”) in Christ…

    You cover the “moment” questions but when those “moments” make a series that’s when the “show” (showing/living) truly begins… Very good questions, points and perspective, that could draw a “institute” back to a relationship…

  • Keep Talking Community

    Transformed people as in transformed community. Individualism in our culture is an idolatry. Maybe it is not about me, but about us. And when the “us” is working as Christ’s community (including the Judases, the Timothys and the Peters), then we will lose our individual pecadillos to the working of God’s kingdom. That burden is truly light and as Jesus says the coming of God’s kingdom is like the mustard seed (a weed that takes over if not assiduously controlled).I would suggest that the worries come when community is NOT working as God’s community.

  • University guy

    Your objectives are laudable. Good luck. But here are two comments on both form and substance in your argument. One, be careful when you use the title of Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” to highlight something serious. His essay was purely ironic and satirical. (Few will know this, but you should.) Second, your questions about how to perceive Jesus adequately and accurately appear to ignore almost completely the best of NT historical critical scholarship. “Following” the historical Jesus would be either impossible or unfathomable, since we actually know so little, or perhaps because his revolutionary persona may not have quite so metaphorical as most prefer to believe. What you actually want to talk about is the early church’s (or churches’) deeply plural visions of the identity and intentions of this man. Being directly honest about this historical complexity benefits both you and the inherent diversity of those inside, and outside, your congregation. A series of sermons on “following the Church’s Jesus” that honestly reflects these many identities would be an excellent place to advance both of your objectives. But as your critique suggests, it’s almost impossible to be actually prophetic–in the authentic sense–in the vast majority of churches. I’ve tried it a number of times and have been consistently rejected. I believe that only a temporary minister can do this consistently, as Jesus himself probably learned…”not welcome in his own land.”

  • northern girl

    points to ponder .. thank you

  • Floyd Knight

    But what about PROACTIVE and INTENTIONAL sharing of “the Love” we have and of the gift we have in the transforming power of Christ? I get the emphasis on “being” the church rather than simply mouthing the truths of Scriptures. I get living out 1 Cor. 13 and Galatians 5. However, like Jesus, Paul, Preston Taylor, and Dr. King, we are to be radicals of and for Love. That means being proactive, intentional, and responsive, not passive. That means taking the initiative and making the first steps to interact in love and kindness with others in a loving, Christ-like way. Being loving and kind as a Christian include sharing with others the gift of Love, Hope, and Peace that we have in Christ.
    When I fell in love with the woman who would eventually be my wife and before I asked her to be my wife, I couldn’t wait to share/introduce “my love” with believing and unbelieving family and friends. Why? Because I wanted to share my joy and love I found with them.
    For a similar, but more profound reason, if you or I had the cure and/or preventive medicine for AIDS, Ebola, and other horrible diseases, wouldn’t we–shouldn’t w–share those cures with friends, loved ones and strangers? Wouldn’t we proactively and militantly initiate the contact and spread the word? We wouldn’t just sit around and live our lives waiting for others to notice that we don’t have AIDS or Ebola, would we? We wouldn’t passively live our lives and wait for the patients with AIDS or Ebola to recognize our “health”–that we are “disease free”–and then, once they have noticed, have them initiate the contact, interaction, and conversation about the cure while millions die and suffer needlessly, would we? Yes, we should “be” the church and live “under the agency of Love” before we speak, but we should speak and we should go out and initiate “healthy” and “loving” relationships with others also. It is not comfortable; it is not safe; it is not easy; but it is the loving thing to do.
    If we believe (1) that the “Love” that we have in and with Christ is as real and as objective as all of our other earthly “loves” and allegiances-and above all other “loves”–and (2) that the healing and transforming gift of salvation, reconciliation, and the indwelling and lordship of the Holy Spirit are as necessary for the survival of human life temporally and eternally as the cure for Ebola and AIDS are in our finite existence, then how can we not share and be radical and militant in the Love we have in Jesus Christ? If our relationship with Christ is just one expression among many, then the author is correct. If we don’t have “THE” cure for sin and the alienation it causes with God and with others, but only one of the many cures for the same–no better and no worse, no more accessible and no more efficient, then a passive approach would be justified and I understand Mr. Wilson’s passive approach. The Gospel is merely a matter of marketing: curb appeal, location, traffic, and good old, “customer service.” I, however, disagree. We need more people with the “Strength to Love” in radical, proactive, and militant ways incarnationally. This isn’t about passivity and being and acting good and loving and hoping and waiting for people to respond. God is good and loving and perfect all of the time; however, Christ didn’t wait for us to initiate our healing and reconciliation. “While we were yet . . . .” Shalom!

  • Ruth Embery

    Thanks for this article. You have put into words something I have been feeling and thinking for a number of years. If we all focussed more on being “Christ-bearers” than church builders, I think a number of things would be very different!

  • Ted Yoder

    Just wonderful. Nothing more to say. You’ll get a lot of people that will pick this apart and say “sounds great but…” I grew up in church and have come to almost regret it due to the reactionary subdivided culture it’s become. I live Jesus and believe he is transforming me. Therefore I can love others without any strings attached and hope my actions reflect hope of the change Christ can bring. Thank you.

  • Daniel Beaudoin

    Thanks for the article. Though I don’t agree completely, I think it was well thought out and written. We as the body of Christ certainly need more focus on personal life transformation and not simply fire insurance, or even theological accuracy (although that is important). But I think we do need to be talking to people outside the church about how they are living, in light of who God is and what Christ has done. The gospel is a message, and the it’s power is in the speaking of that message. I’m a street preacher (no, not the mean, nasty, judgmental kind), so believe me, I’ve seen that done wrong, and have been guilty of doing it wrong myself on a number of occasions. However, I’ve also had many very good conversations with people of all ethnic backgrounds, religious world-views, and lifestyle choices. When we live out that life transformed, as you stated, and speak God’s truth, even the hard truth, from that foundation, people can tell the difference. They can tell when you truly care for them, and then they will listen, even if you tell them they are wrong. So we should speak to others, and well as looking at ourselves, but must be sure that we do so in a way that honors God, and respects those created in His image.
    Dan B.

  • Harry Toye

    “It has not yet dawned on the church……”
    Jesus picked the twelve disciples and commissioned them to go and tell the greatest story ever told, how Jesus Christ died a cruel death on Calvary for the sins of the world. What might appear remarkable to some is that there was no ‘big budget’ plan, no private jets, no T.V. stations to promote the events, no traditional or digital media, no T.V. Specials. In the natural world we would say about all of this, that it’s a recipe for disaster. It couldn’t possibly work……. read more……