Ditches to Avoid – Part 2 of a Conversation with Bob Russell
*Editor’s Note: Brett Seybold recently sat down with Bob Russell to talk about the state of the American church in light of current events and trends. This is part 2 of that conversation.
Q: In an election year, how can pastors keep Jesus the central figure for their congregations to think about and the source of their highest hopes, instead of focusing on polarizing politicians like Donald Trump and Joe Biden?
This is where I think it is an advantage if ministers just preach through the Bible. Well-fed, contended sheep are less likely to bicker. If the congregation has been through the Scriptures with the preacher, they know where he stands, not just during election years.
Unfortunately, there are one-issue Christians: they want you to wave the flag of their issue. We need to remain balanced and refuse to get caught up into their single issues. Even still, we can encourage people to vote, and we can educate the congregation about the Bible’s take on the issues.
The elders should also shepherd and protect the preacher from being the lightning rod on every issue. The preacher needs to take advantage of the biblical structure and allow the elders to shepherd him and guide him through the difficult issues.
Q: Do you think that Satan might have some footholds in the American church today?
Satan has always had a foothold in the church. Go back to Acts, and you’ll see Satan’s hand in the stories of Ananias and Sapphira and Simon the Sorcerer. You’ve got Paul’s friend Demas who decided to leave the mission field and leave Paul because he loved the things of the world too strongly. When Jesus talks about the wolf in sheep’s clothing attacking the flock (John 10), I think it’s clear that Jesus is saying Satan will find ways to attack the church.
Leaders must pray for wisdom daily. John Wilson, former preacher at First Christian Church in Springfield, OH, once said, “When a church has problems, leaders have to determine: is this measles or a malignancy?” I have found three areas of malignancy which must not be ignored: false teaching, immorality, and divisiveness.
Q: Renew.org talks about making disciples as the core mission of the church. If disciple making is the “road” which the church needs to travel, there are a couple of ditches on either side of the road which churches can swerve into. On the one side, you’ve got an ineffective traditionalism which doesn’t give much thought to cultural effectiveness. On the other side, there’s a ditch which we might call an unfaithful progressivism. Progressivism doesn’t give much thought to biblical faithfulness. What are some ways you have seen churches swerve into the ditch of ineffective traditionalism, and what’s your advice for those churches?
“Methods are many, principles are few; methods always change, principles never do.” We get into trouble when we want to make a method a principle. For example, some Christians assume that a particular hymn, organ, or piano should be put on the level of Bible truth, but when the saxophone, guitar, or drums come in, somehow they can see these as some kind of compromise.
Early in Kyle Idleman’s tenure at Southeast, he approached me regarding the suit and tie requirement for preaching. He explained that he didn’t feel comfortable in a suit and tie; he even felt somewhat hypocritical and unable to identify with his generation. I said, “We’re worshiping an almighty God here. Don’t you think that if you were visiting the President of the United States, you would wear a suit and tie?”
Kyle responded, “Not if the President were my Father.” In the same way as Kyle showed, we need to be aware of the difference between changing methods and eternal principles. We need to be perceptive about the potential extremes in our methods and provide some alternatives.
Q: The other ditch is an unfaithful progressivism. What are some signs that a church is swerving into an unfaithful progressivism, where they no longer care about biblical faithfulness? What’s your advice for those churches?
We need to get clarity on core issues. We are often too eager to embrace the latest fad in order to seem relevant to the culture. We become more concerned with the world’s perception than with God’s evaluation of the church. We are often too concerned that we will be perceived as attacking the world if we keep teaching biblical truth. We need to be reminded to speak God’s truth as lovingly as we can and trust the Holy Spirit to do the convicting.
Silence is a problem. When it comes to critical issues, silence can communicate that we’ve somehow changed our position. It’s not necessarily that we’ve changed our position, but rather that we simply don’t bring up the issues. The end result is that we lose our kids to unchristian beliefs because we are not training or discipling our kids.
Another problem is that it’s not uncommon for Christian leaders to ridicule our roots.
We often attack the church of the past, putting up an exaggerated caricature of our churches in the past. Yes, we could have done better, but we shouldn’t be quick to attack our roots. For example, the Christian church I grew up in pursued racial reconciliation; we also had a black elder. Southeast currently has three black elders.
Were our churches perfect? No! Did they sometimes become legalistic? Yes. But there were so many good things we should be grateful for.