Many of us sense that the church is in between one thing and another. We are in a period of transition in value systems. Ego-based ministry is collapsing. Our culture had its stars — Madonna, Michael Jackson, and O.J. Simpson. We had our own stars too. In fact, the church became literally star struck in the 80’s. We had our own big men and big personalities. Their personalities filled up a room, or conference center, when they entered or spoke. And we rewarded them with power, wealth and honor. They became the church’s totems, representing our highest values.
But, while they were great men, they were not always good men. We assumed that an inner character supported all this external success. We figured that God would not permit such success, so many converts, such growth, such size, such influence, unless these great men were also good. Now we know better.
For these and other reasons the church is in the process of adopting some new beliefs. We never called a conference. We never published a findings report. We did not publish a declaration. But there is a new creed emerging nonetheless. We are learning from our experience of the 80s. Through all the pain, the church is increasingly believing these three propositions: (a) External success and internal character are either unrelated or only loosely related. (b) It is possible to have great external success without inner character. (c) It is also possible to have a good inner character without great external success.
We now know that numerical and financial success is not a reward for being godly. External success and inner character are not tied tightly together. You can have either, you can have both, or you can have neither. These are our new beliefs. And, new beliefs create a new culture. Ego-based ministry is quietly being de-throned in the church. Sure, there are still many who worship this king, but they are like those who touted the Holy Roman Empire long after it crumbled. But it is going fast.
So where to next? What will be our new criterion of success? I think Pennsylvania DS Harry Wood has the answer on this one. He says we are in a transition from skill-based ministry to Character-based ministry. He argues that character-based ministry is the future. That the laity have been burned too. They increasingly want a pastor who is first of all a godly man, not just one who can do the job. Character-based ministry is about inner integrity, not just external success. It focuses on being more than doing. The heart before the hand, Godliness before goals, spiritual vitality before vision. It is about being a person of integrity, whatever the cost. Our heroes of the future will be people who are close to God, stand for truth, do what was right, and pay the price.
If Harry Wood is on track (and I think he is), we are in for a major shift in our criterion of success. There are massive implications for us in how we select people, praise them, reward them, collect their statistics, and anoint them as leaders. It is too early in the transition to consider all of the implications here, but Harry cites two for us to consider right off the bat: (1) Longer pastoral terms. The laity can be star-struck with a fellow’s skills or ego in a month or week, but developing a character-based credibility will take years. (2) Suffering. After all, isn’t that the best way for people to see your true character? His two implications are just a start. There are more, aren’t there?
Final thought: Jesus Christ was a man of character. How do we know that?
© Keith Drury, 1995. You are free to transmit, duplicate or distribute this article for non-profit use without permission.
Keith Drury served The Wesleyan Church headquarters in Christian Education and Youth leadership for 24 years before becoming a professor of religion at Indiana Wesleyan University. He is the author of more than a dozen books of practical spirituality, including Holiness for Ordinary People, Common Ground and Ageless Faith. Keith Drury wrote the Tuesday Column for 17 years (1995-2012), and many articles can be found on his blog “Drury Writing.”
Keith Drury retired from full time teaching in 2012. Keith is married to Sharon and has two adult sons and several grandchildren. He is retired in Florida with Sharon and enjoys cycling.