I read a lot of pastoral leadership resources, also known as pastor self-help books. I fly through at least 20 a year and they cover the bases on how to be a better counselor, preacher, administrator, leader, follower, mentor, mentee, disciple maker, disciple becomer and spiritual guide.
Many of them come from the same stock. A pastor somewhere in America discovered some principle or practice that really changed his or her church for the better. They started sharing it with others and eventually a publisher asked them to write a book about it. So they went to write a book and felt obligated as a preacher to make it sound like the idea came straight from Jesus. Though, when you dig deeper than their shallow arguments, you find the idea actually came from a conversation or through a prayer meeting or from another book. After having the idea, the pastor went to the gospels to find out if Jesus practiced this principle and found a case where Jesus may have done it. Then they concluded, “Jesus ALWAYS Does this.”
The first chapters of these books describe these things that Jesus always did and ask the question, “Don’t you want to always be like Jesus?”
One book about pastoral counseling concluded that Jesus always asked questions. . .except for the fact that there are plenty of conversations recorded in the gospels when Jesus asks zero questions.
One book about “self care” said Jesus always fought off temptation by quoting Scripture. Except we only have three examples of ways in which Jesus was tested. That is hardly a trend.
One book about spiritual disciplines argued Jesus always made people feel warm and cozy around him and never insulted anybody. . .except in Luke 6:24-26 and the other passages like it.
One book about board meetings said Jesus was super patient with everybody and never lost his temper. . .except that one time in all 4 gospels when he beat people out of the temple with a whip.
One book about social justice concludes Jesus was always eating with poor people. . .except that one time he crashed Zaccheus the rich tax collector’s house.
The Children’s Ministry books say Jesus was always hanging out with little kids, except the “let the children come to me” incident only happened once.
The Youth Ministry books say Jesus was always hanging out with teenagers. . .except for the fact that to be a tax collector, which a few of the disciples were, you had to be a bit older than a teenager.
The anti-church growth books say Jesus always had 12 disciples so we shouldn’t have mega-churches. Except the disciples are numbered at different times as 12, 72 and 120 and never once did Jesus command his 12 to only have 12.
And speaking about those megachurches, people were always leaving Jesus so if you preach the Jesus-truth people should always be running away from you. . .except for the fact large crowds were always following Jesus too. It was kind of a wash as far as the numbers went.
They all say that Jesus always led by example. . .except that one time he told his disciples to bring a sword and then yelled at Peter for using said sword.
If you read all four gospels, you will find the only thing Jesus always did was breath. . .except there were 3 days that he wasn’t even doing that.
Instead what the gospels give us are incomplete accounts of the things Jesus sometimes did and sometimes taught. And those things changed from context to context.
The problem seems to be that in a church still desperately struggling to rid itself of the CEO Ministry Model, we still think Jesus can be boiled down to a formula of leadership self helps for the 21st century.
But when I read the Gospels I find a Jesus who is so much greater than a formula, even if that formula “always works every time.” When the Sadducees come at him, he answers their questions with questions but when Nicodemus the Pharisee comes at night, Jesus issues proclamations about new birth before Nicodemus even asks the question.
To some crowds, Jesus spoke in parables. Other times he adopts the formula, “You have heard. . .but I say” and when it is just his 12 disciples listening in, he utters mysteries about the Spirit.
Sometimes He says, “come follow me.” Other times He flees to the desert before anybody can, though they did try.
One time He said, “let the children come.” Another time He waited before going to a child so that he could heal an elderly woman.
All of this would make it seem that in the full person of Jesus we do not have the confines of 21st century leadership practices. Instead we have a full and free personality whose life and teachings could not be adequately summarized even in 4 books (see John 20:30-31).
This should give us great freedom to adapt to our changing culture without having to proof text every principle and practice through the gospels.
Instead of saying, “Jesus always asked questions,” we should note that psychiatrists conclude in our time and place successful therapists ask good questions.
Instead of saying, “Jesus only had 12” we should note that currently several pastors report that having more than 15 people make discipleship groups unmanageable.
Instead of saying, “Jesus always hung out with one age group” we should note that in the right context children and youth can provide wonderful gifts and insights.
And instead of boiling down Jesus to 21st century leadership principles and practices, we should recognize that we worship and follow an eternal Savior who invites people from all contexts and all times into a loving relationship with the Triune God.
Sometimes that means listening to children. Sometimes it means befriending those poorer than you. Other times it means hanging out with tax collectors. Sometimes we tell stories and sometimes we utter mysteries and sometimes we ask questions. But at all times we pick up our crosses and follow.