Why I Criticize Christian Leaders: Part 3


In The Pilgrim’s Regress CS Lewis talks about growing up and being handed a card that was covered front and back with rules.  He found that there was no possibility of following all of the rules, and this set him on his journey to find what truth really was.  

As I was wondering around in the forest of the Emergent Church (see part 2), I decided to follow what I believed to be God’s call on my life to serve as a pastor.  I honestly thought that I had something figured out, and was ready to lead a group of people in the same direction.  

My fervent determination to make a difference in the church instilled a passion for learning, and in the process was opened to a number of books and resources on church leadership and church models, which is how I was exposed to the work of Thom Rainer.

Roots Which Reach

Rainer, CEO of Lifeway Christian Stores, also works as an author and specifically writes after having conducted research into the life of congregations in the United States.  In contrast of George Barna who studies the effectiveness of a church based on the number of people and thus what they are responding to, Rainer specifically identified criteria to define a church as “effective.”  

Recognizing that 86% of churches are in decline, much church growth can be explained as migration.  In other words where megachurches are you are sure to find a number of small churches that have shut their doors.  These huge church buildings open their doors and quickly reach to numbers soaring in the thousands, but on closer inspection much of that “new” population are people who are escaping small churches in decline.  So while these large churches are growing, they do not tend to add to the numbers of Christians in the country more than their smaller predecessors.

Rainer defines “effective” as a congregation which is growing based on the incorporation of new believers.  Rather than look at the shear numbers of people attending or starting to attend a church, his research focused on churches growing in numbers of new converts that had begun to attend.  The results showed that the churches with the most conservative theologies are the ones who are most effective at reaching unbelievers.

I remember reading that and my jaw dropping.  Having spent so much those years of my life looking for something to fix the brokenness that I felt in church all my life, all to find out that the most conservative theology was the most meaningful to people. 

My U-Turn

If repentance can be defined as a complete turn around and the start of the journey back out of the woods, my journey turned to one of repentance on that day.  I began to reevaluate those who I had admired including Brian McLaren and Rob Bell and saw how what they taught was not in line with the teaching of the Bible.  My ideas about en vogue issues like homosexuality finally found footing again, and I found that I could actually believe in God’s sovereignty and the power of Satan in the world.

The journey went from hiking back out of the woods to an Indy car race when my path crossed that of a man named David Gill.  An odd story, but our relationship began on Twitter at the time I was watching the film Religulous by Bill Maher and preparing to write a post about it.  I tweeted several interesting quotes from the film, and they so infuriated Dave that he responded very passionately and directly.  If you knew both of us you would understand how this really solidified our friendship and hardly a day has passed since without a call, email, text, tweet, or visit. 

Most of our conversations were and continue to be about theology, which has easily and has always been our favorite subject.  Being a Calvinist, Dave was gracious to me in sharing his belief in what the Bible taught about issues such as total depravity, election, and freewill.  As I encouraged him to share more and more, he became more and more anxious that we would end up arguing.  But the more I heard the more I knew that what he was telling me was my answer for what I have been so discouraged by my entire life. 

You see, I grew up in an Arminian church, and was taught to be cautious about those “dirty rotten Calvinists” and their predestination.  I remember Dave and I sitting together, I was reading Living for God’s Glory by Joel Beeke.  I looked up at him and asked him some simple questions about the doctrines of grace, and began to weep.  “So I’m not insane?” is all I could say.  Like the unfolding of a springtime bloom, I began to connect events, thoughts, fears, frustrations, and disappointments I have had with the church to this difference in theology.  I could recall from an early age how I did not understand how what I heard from my teachers could be so different from what I understood from Scripture.

Graciousness and Forgiveness

Thanks be to God for His graciousness!  I have been shown much mercy and grace as I have found my way out of the woods and back into the security of age-old theology that is solidly based on Scripture.  Theology of the Reformers has given me language for what I have believed that the Bible teaches, and the hunger that I have felt for years.  It is oddly rewarding to embrace the wretch that I am and I know with full assurance that Christ has paid the debt and essentially made my sin a non-issue.  It is exciting to know that the light I saw along the way was not an oncoming train, but that it was really a glimpse of truth that was guiding me on my journey.

I beg forgiveness from those who I encouraged to follow me on this journey into the depth of the forest.  I pray that each of you will be guided by the Spirit of God back into the light of His atoning sacrifice.  I thank God for sending me a dear friend who has challenged me and who has helped to not only give me language to express my faith, but who also challenges my assumptions and continues to help guide me back to the Word of God and the message of the Gospel. 

When we journey alone, we are bound to end up in the forest.  By God’s grace, He gives us His Spirit without whom we could do nothing of any value.


About Aaron Gardner

Aaron is a counselor and student of the Bible, passionate about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. He lives in central Indiana with his wife, one-year-old son and their two dogs. View all posts by Aaron Gardner

4 responses to “Why I Criticize Christian Leaders: Part 3

  • Thelma

    I thought you grew up in the Church of God (reformation movement).

    By the way the I think that Florida Station qualifies as “effective” according to your statement.

  • Aaron

    “Reformation theology” refers to the original protestant reformation in the 1500s. The Church of God Reformation Movement was a part of the Wesleyan tradition and followed Arminian theology which split from the reformers several hundred years earlier.

  • Thelma

    I agree with you somewhat, however, Actually the Church of God reformation movement began in the late 1800’s and was not a part of the Wesleyan tradition. Moreover, there was a connection with the Winebrennerian movement. In 1881 Warner withdrew from that sect believing that: “1. The division of the Church into sects is one of Satan’s most effectual, if not the very greatest means of destroying human souls; 2. Its enormous sin must be answered for by individuals adherents to, and supporters of sects; 3. The only remedy for this dreadful plague is through sanctification, and this is only wrought by a personal, individual contact with the blood of Christ through faith; 4. The union require by the Word of God is both a spiritual and visible union; 5. The divisions of the Church are caused by elements that are foreign to it, . . . by deposits of the enemy, which exists in the hearts and practices of individual members, involving their responsibility and requiring their personal purgation” (D.S. Warner as quoted in Contours of a Cause, by B.L. Callen pg 36.).

  • Aaron

    Correction accepted… I should probably remember that from reading that “History of the […] Movement” book.

    Even if it does not historically follow, it does theologically follow the Wesleyan tradition.

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