More Than Sunday – The Church in Crisis
Today, I am taking a sharp left turn with this series. Right now the concept and identity of the Church in my community is being tested in ways that I never saw coming. None of us did. Nothing tests the mettle of the Church more than the moral failure and collapse of a leader.
As I shared in an earlier post, I have recently relocated my family to a new community in Huntington, IN. I have been a youth pastor here for less than a month. Yesterday, the local (and some national) news networks lit up with the horrifying and tragic story of a youth worker at a prominent, successful para-church organization that was arrested for soliciting illicit pictures of teens through fake Facebook accounts. The community is devastated. I spent most of my day yesterday answering phone calls and reaching out to students. Hundreds of students are in tremendous pain right now. My heart absolutely is broken for this community.
My reason for writing about this today is partially so that I can simply process the thoughts that are jumbled in my head. Though I did not know this leader very well, I really liked and respected him. It is undeniable that he built tremendous relationships with hundreds of Middle School students over the past decade. Many of the students in my youth ministry came to Christ because of his ministry. What does this news now mean? Does it invalidate all that he has done? That is a question that I have probably fielded the most. Today I want to share the most common responses that I have seen Christians make in similar situations and the way I believe that we should respond.
We react with hatred towards the offender
First, I would like to say that I am neither a judge nor on any jury. It is not the place of our ministry to involve ourselves in the legal proceedings going on right now, something I made very clear in my letter to our parents yesterday. That said, what has allegedly been done is horrifying and countless people are dealing with unimaginable pain. How should we react to the offender?
Pain, anger, sorrow, grief are all normal responses. I am not a trained counselor so I will not attempt to walk through the response the victims should have. What I do want to address is the way Christians more on the “outside” should be reacting. Jesus spared no words on how to treat our most hated of enemies. In Matthew 5:43-44 He says,
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. ’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
If God tells us to love our enemies, what does that say about how we are to respond to a fallen Christian? Again, hear my heart in this: I am not saying this lightly as if this should be an easy response or that we should just let this go. If this leader is indeed guilty of the charges levied against him, he will pay a very steep penalty for his crimes as he should. However, that does not place him outside of the saving love and grace of our Lord and Savior. As a fellow broken and fallen human being I am so thankful that I serve a God with infinite grace. None of us deserve that same love and forgiveness that He gives so freely.
We react with anger and distrust towards the institution and all leaders
In reading some of the comments on the news articles following this story I have come across countless people who are blaming this organization and calling into question the very concept of the youth pastor. I am very familiar with the child safety policies and screening of this organization, and I firmly believe that they took every precaution they could. When humans are involved there is always the potential for moral failure.
Right now we live in a society where mentors are hard to come by for American teenagers. With the overabundance of single-parent homes, not to mention all of the families forced to have both parents working multiple jobs, students are forced to scramble to find mentors. Often they are left with role models that are morally questionable such as petulant athletes and music artists. Youth pastors are the last line of defense against a mentor-less generation for countless students.
As the Church, I believe firmly that we cannot crumble when told that we need to put the appearance of safety before our God-given mission of making disciples of Christ of all nations (which includes all ages). This means we MUST hold ourselves to ever-increasingly stringent standards of accountability and transparency. Our mission MUST include prioritizing the safety of our students infinitely higher than protecting the image of our organizations. But we must continue to stand on the front lines and fight for the eternal salvation of the students of our communities.
We attack the technology
Facebook is not to blame for what happened. I have said and will continue to say that technology is values-neutral. It is how we use it that determines whether or not it evil or good comes out of it. I am not deleting my Facebook account or getting rid of text messaging. It is on me, my church, and my ministry to set up strict accountability and a solid check-and-balance system, but if Facebook is the front lines for students I believe that is where we need to be. Again, accountability is critical.
We respond to the students pain
Did you notice how far down the list this usually falls? Even further down the list is prayer. In the letter I sent out to the parents yesterday I boldly said that the focus of our ministry is 110% on the hurting students, not at all on the leader who has fallen and the story surrounding it. With all the pain and suffering of the victims, this should be at the top of the list, but it often is not. Seriously, how much were the victims actually worried about for most people tuning into the Penn State scandal? It was all about the accused and the institution, not the victims.
In the real world of ministry where people are dying emotionally and spiritually all around us our focus HAS to be on the hurting. Tell me this, after a shooting would an emergency room staff spend their time yelling at the gunman being detained by the police while the bleeding wounded lay dying all around them unattended to? No. They would react like an effective triage unit with the sole mission of saving the wounded. Is our mission as the Church any different?
This was not intended to be a perfect, eloquent response to this dark situation. I am reeling right now. The main thing we must all cling to is that our God is greater and stronger than any darkness that tries to come against Him and those He calls His own. My prayer is that the Church will rise up and be so much more than just a building or an institution. This world desperately needs the people of God to BE the Church in a dark, broken world. We aren’t perfect, but we serve a perfect God. Let’s do our job and introduce Him to the world.