So I spent the last four days in Tempe, Arizona, hanging out with the good folks from the Arizona Foundation for Contemporary Theology, Tempe First United Methodist Church, and Christians for Biblical Equality. I even got to try an In-And-Out burger while I was there! (It was good and all, but I confess I did not have the religious experience for which so many In-And-Out fans had prepared me.)
What surprised me on this trip was that at every single event, one or two people would pull me aside and ask how I kept from getting discouraged by those big numbers that Mark Driscoll, and pastors like him, are always bragging about—the 10 million downloads, the enormous church planting network, the packed-out services, the hundreds of thousands of blog visitors.
“Do you feel sometimes like we are losing,” they asked, “like the voices that belittle women, glorify hierarchy, and demand that ‘real men’ look and act like Mark Driscoll are louder than those advocating for equality, servant leadership, and humility?”
One young woman asked me this question with tears streaming down her face, for she had been made to feel small and worthless by churches like these, and she lived in fear that thousands upon thousands of women were experiencing the same thing and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
In brainstorming with the members of the Arizona chapter of Christians for Biblical Equality, I saw frustration in their faces as they talked about the seemingly insurmountable popularity of organizations like the Gospel Coalition and Acts 29.
And at one event, during the question and answer time, one man pointed out that if I had been Mark Driscoll, there would not have been enough room in the church building to accommodate the throngs of people eager to hear his message about how real men can beat up their enemies, real men make fun of effeminate guys, real men would never attend a church in which women are allowed to speak, real men always lead, and real women always follow.
“And yet you seem so positive,” he said. “Doesn’t this discourage you?”
I told him that I do get discouraged from time to time, that there are moments when I compare my blog stats to those of Mark Driscoll and Tim Challies and John Piper and Justin Taylor and I just want to slam my head against the table in despair. But, usually, after an assuring talk with Dan and a few moments of centering prayer, I remind myself of these two things:
1. Those of us who advocate servant leadership instead of hierarchal leadership are less likely to produce “evangelical celebrities.” It may seem like Christians who advocate power, hierarchy, and narrowly defined gender roles are winning the day, but just because these voices are often the loudest doesn’t mean that they are the most effective, or even the most popular. When you build your church and your culture around hierarchy and power, you are naturally going to be 1) highly-organized, and 2) personality focused. But when you build your church and your culture around humility and service, you are naturally going to be 1) organic, growing at the grassroots level, and 2) less dependent on one or two flashy personalities and more dependent on the daily faithfulness of regular people.
Don’t forget that egalitarians have many, many pastors who support the equality and dignity of women. (Some—like John Ortberg and Greg Boyd, for example—are well-known, but they conduct themselves with a measure of maturity that keeps the focus off of them and on Jesus Christ.) The Mark Driscolls of this world pull in (and publicize) the big numbers because that is how they measure success. But while these few powerful leaders draw in the big crowds, there are countless servant leaders out there drawing in smaller, (perhaps less cool) crowds that are being transformed by Jesus Christ, who served, who sacrificed, and who—at least by the world’s standards—failed. The Kingdom was never meant to grow through power or might, but by the Spirit. And in my travels, I see it growing everywhere, in the lives of people whose names may never grace the cover of a book or the marquee of a church sign. And it is growing in the developing world, far from the celebrity-obsessed American culture, through the faithful work of both men and women who are committed to yielding to this Spirit of grace.
2. We know the end of the story.
Most of the time, when I am discouraged about the state of Christianity, it’s because I have forgotten the end of the story.
We are part of a living, growing Kingdom in which the last will be first and the first will be last, in which the peacemakers and the merciful and the meek will be blessed, in which the tiny seeds we plant today will grow into great trees where the birds of the air will nest, in which a crucified savior is King, and in which all things will be reconciled to God in love. Control is not the end of the story. Power is not the end of the story. Violence is not the end of the story. Inequality is not the end of the story. Jesus is. Those who preach the gospel of power will come and go; they will flourish and then fade.
Living as those who know the end of the story means living with a degree of righteous anger, yes, but also living with unexplainable hope, optimism, and love. So when I get discouraged, I read the Beatitudes—and instead of fretting about the lack of these qualities in others, I focus on the lack of these qualities within me. I am responsible only for following Jesus in my life, whether that brings popularity or obscurity. And I can do this with joy and with peace because I know how the story ends.
These words may be of little comfort for the young woman who still struggles to believe that her feminine qualities are valuable to God, or to the young man who has been made to feel shame because he’d rather visit an art museum than watch a cage fight. But perhaps, if we continually offer to one another words of hope and encouragement rather than despair, we will start to believe them again.