By John Pierce
Experienced ministers know how the scenario goes. A relatively new member who has jumped into congregational life wants to share some “concerns” he has about the church.
At the appointed time, the pastor discovers this is really a test — with an agenda. Questions that did not originate with the questioner start to flow.
Questions like: “Do you believe in a literal hell, yes or no?” “Is that a Brian McLaren book on your shelf?”
“Why did you quote Nouwen and Merton last Sunday without telling the church they are dangerous?” “Have you attended a conference at which Leonard Sweet or Richard Foster spoke?”
“The word ‘missional’ was in the church newsletter this week; don’t you check for things like that?” “Are you aware that in the young adults class last Sunday, the teacher talked about social justice instead of the Gospel?”
“Why don’t you preach against evolution?” “Are you aware of Rick Warren’s universalist leanings?”
Recently, a long-term, effective pastor told me that his North Carolina congregation experienced two years of turmoil resulting from this kind of encounter. And the whole disruptive action was carried out by a foot soldier (and other recruits) of Eric Barger of “Take a Stand! Ministries” who is on a mission to straighten out all churches he deems errant.
Barger, based in Rowlett, Texas, proudly claims that his “ministry” exists to “see the church changed.”
He instructs his followers to look for the signs of “emergent” influence or liberalism in churches and to “conduct spiritual warfare” — by asking these kinds of questions, confronting leadership, warning other members of the dangers, and if all else fails, by fleeing! The problem, of course, is that those who import such trouble don’t flee soon enough.
Barger fits the typical profile of such aggressive, religious know-it-alls. He lived a hellish life of drugs and self-absorption for which he has found divine forgiveness — but loves to post photos and give full descriptions of such glorified experiences including his drug use and sexual exploits.
While faithful Christians were building congregations and carrying out their daily mission, and committed ministers where toiling in theological education and doing real-life ministry, Barger was abusing his mind and body. But following his dramatic conversion, presto!, he became an expert on all things Christian.
To borrow a great line from Fred Craddock, he acts like he’s walked around God and taken pictures. Now he is eager to use whatever wild accusations he can find to push his bizarre ideas of biblical truth on everyone else. So be warned.
My pastor friend said once the troublemaker and his recruits finally left, the church found some benefits from the experience that distracted them from a full focus on ministry. Primarily, the congregation now has a clearer identity, he said, one forged in response to the accusations and threats they encountered.
When I serve interim pastorates, urging the church to clarify and communicate its identity is my foremost task after preaching and consulting with leadership. Congregations sometimes are hesitant to clarify values, identity and mission due to the naïve idea that they can be the church for all people.
Such lack of a clearly stated identity and mission invites cocksure persons with little or no stock in the church to launch a personal agenda to be carried out at the congregation’s expense. And it is ALWAYS done with an abundance of self-righteousness and in the name of correcting the errant ways of the church.
Congregations need to find loving but clear ways of saying: “This is who we are. You are welcome here to worship and to share in this community of faith. You don’t even have to agree with us. We don’t all see everything in the same way either. But if you are uncomfortable with our church’s identity and mission, don’t come in here and try to change us to be like you. We can recommend churches in the area that suit you much better.”
Sadly, many congregations have had such disruptive experiences that can be traced to an outside preacher, teacher, author, agitator. Often the damage remains long after the “blessed subtraction” (a term I learned from the late Brantley Seymour of Roswell, Ga., in 1978) has fled.
So any preemptive measures — such as clarifying the church’s identity and enlisting leadership that appreciates the common good over personal agendas — should be taken.
Barger is just the latest clown in this show. Not the first; not the last.
His call to “spiritual warfare” is much more warfare than spiritual. It has all of the marks of strident fundamentalism that takes pride in leaving carnage in its path.
It has nothing to do with Jesus except a gross misuse of his name. Being gullible to those who poorly mask their hostilities and political agendas in religious language can make suckers out of the church.
“Fundamentalism can rise up at anytime,” my friend said. And he thanked me that his congregational leaders have a better understanding of who they are and how to identify and counter such assaults through reading Baptists Today.