In a recent post, “Perry Noble, NewSpring Church and Our Obsession with Numbers” Karl Vaters urges us to think carefully and deeply about the sorrowful loss of our ministry colleague Perry Noble.
I’m a fan of Karl’s thinking, his writing, and the comfort and clarity he brings to pastors who feel like failures simply because their church isn’t bursting at the seams. I share his revulsion – although he probably wouldn’t characterize it that way – at the “rock star pastor” mindset that’s been pushed on us by various media channels (including, in some degree, the one which hosts his blog).
Pastors, like everyone else, have fragile egos. Unless our self-worth is fully grounded in our identity with Christ, we will tend to value (or devalue) ourselves based on how well we compare with others. The unobtainable rock star status which seems to be Christian media’s obsession is extremely harmful to pastors.
I share Karl’s convictions.
But in this case I think Karl has missed the mark. I’ve made the same mistake I believe he’s made in this article. It is the “small boy with a hammer” syndrome. Everything looks like a nail! Specifically, it seems to me that Karl has read his passion (an antipathy toward “obsession with numbers”) into Perry’s self-interpretation.
Karl jumps on the number (100,000) in Perry’s self-analysis and concludes “His obsession to reach ‘100,000 and beyond’ does not excuse his self-confessed sins. By his own admission, it caused them.”
Not to put too fine a point on things, but the problem which led to Perry’s downfall wasn’t the fact that he set a BHAG of 100,000. Granted, the pressure this goal created was no doubt enormous – but then, who doesn’t face enormous, indeed, insurmountable problems in ministry? Even the apostle Paul had to conclude by means of the rhetorical question, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (answer: no one!)
No, Perry’s downfall was not due to setting on a huge goal, nor was it due to his “obsession with numbers.” The core problem was how he coped with the pressure. Perry clearly states that the real problem was how he coped with the pressure: “This was a spiritual and moral mistake on my part, as I began to depend on alcohol for my refuge instead of Jesus and others. I have no excuse. This was wrong and sinful, and I’m truly sorry.”
Pastors don’t get into serious trouble just because they set large numerical goals. But they inevitably get into trouble – no matter what the goal may be or how large – when they stop depending on who Christ says they are, and on what he continues to do in them moment-by-moment as they walk in the Spirit.
Karl, please accept this in the spirit with which it is offered – a fellow traveler who agrees that there’s a lot that’s disagreeable with the current state of “church growth” (a term that has been hijacked, evacuated of its original meaning, and that no longer bears any resemblance to the pioneering work in this field). But, as I caution myself when I’m in my better mind, not everything’s a nail.
Wield the hammer with a bit more discretion.