(Three in a series.)
The fruit of Christian men and women in the forties and fifties in North America turning their gifts and leadership from the church toward founding and running Christian nonprofit parachurch organizations has been cataclysmic. Nor has the fruit of this sea-change been limited to this continent. Riding the U.S. dollar around the globe, believers and pastors everywhere have felt the impact.
Jump forward fifty years from Billy Graham’s years at Wheaton College and cross continents to Africa.
A team of us went to an African city to build some classrooms for the East African chapter of the American parachurch organization, Youth for Christ. What is Youth for Christ (YFC)?
For many years, this parachurch ministry has been an almost perfect example of the sort of non-church religious organizations that sprung up in the forties and fifties helped greatly by Wheaton grads. YFC’s early focus was evangelism among military men and young people. Then, in 1944, they hired their first evangelist. His name was Billy Graham.
Just a year earlier, Billy had married a Wheaton coed named Ruth Bell, daughter of southern Presbyterian missionary Nelson Bell1 and sister of Highland Park’s senior minister, Clayton Bell.
YFC was a parachurch ministry and our team of Clearnote Church was there in East Africa to serve them.
Concurrent to our time there, about 500 young men and women had gathered for a conference being held in a large meeting room about thirty yards from where our team was constructing ten steel-frame modular classrooms.
The director of YFC in East Africa at the time was a perfect specimen of Christian manhood. All the energy of the conference emanated from him. He led all-day meetings while we edified his campus. At night all 550 of us ate together. It was a happy time.
As we worked, we could hear their meetings and it was delightful. The director was larger-than-life and the flow of energy was hot as the sun. Muscular, intelligent, his wife and children deferential and on the premises visible to all, this brother was as good looking as he could be and in total command so that all of us felt privileged to be serving him as he gave marching orders to those selected to win the souls of the youth across the nations of East Africa in the coming years and decades. It was as close as Christian Africa at the time could come to a Christian rock star concert here in the States.
Most of the group doing the construction work were from our congregation, so being the spiritual leader of the men giving and building their buildings, I was something of a respected personage on the premises. Those of you who have been on a short-term missions trip know the routine. With U.S. money comes honor.
Sometime during the week, the director’s assistant asked me to sit down for an hour or two and “teach” the handful of pastors there for the conference.
They were a bedazzled, bedraggled group. Bedazzled in that they stood out from everyone else because of their fine clothing. YFC’s director was nonchalant in his clothing. His accoutrements were his smile and physique. The pastors, though, were all dudded up in fancy suits, fancy shirts, fancy ties, fancy leather belts, and extremely fancy leather shoes. But as we gathered, it was an incongruous scene.
The pastors had been informed they could meet with the American pastor, so there they were gathered seated on folding chairs on the hardpan under the blazing sun halfway between the five-hundred young men and women listening to their director and the twenty or so Americans putting up the classrooms. Given only an hour’s notice of the teaching I was to do, my clothing didn’t match the pastors’ suits. I was in shorts, a short-sleeved shirt, and joined them tired, sweaty, thirsty, and covered in paint.
We presented a mismatched and rather pathetic spectacle and the pastors knew it. They had hang-dog expressions on their faces—and why wouldn’t they? The entire week had been one long lesson in their impotence.
Here were a bunch of new buildings being put up and painted by Americans there to serve YFC’s dynamic director who himself was leading five-hundred of the best and brightest Christian men and women from nations across East Africa in their singing and clapping and laughing and eating and singing and dancing and laughing as they learned how to evangelize the youth of Africa.
No one except the pastors had suits or ties or fancy leather shoes. Maybe you’re late to the game, but today the leader who shows up in a fancy suit and tie and leather shoes when the other leader shows up in a polo shirt, blue jeans, and Keds—the guy is a loser. It’s one of the vagaries of effeminate fashionistas and ironic hipsters that Keds trump crocodile shoes.
What was I to do? Having had no notice about the meeting, as I joined them and sat down I noted my fellow pastors were a bedraggled group. But it wasn’t just the clothes. They knew they weren’t needed by anyone. The tournament was in full swing and they’d not made the cut. They were just pastors of churches and nobody there gave a rip about pastors or churches.
Looking at their faces, we smiled politely at each other, but for them it was hard. They were whupped. There were lots of buildings where we could have met, but there we were seated in a small circle staring at each other as we dripped in sweat.
You may be tempted to think the indignity of their situation was only my reading into them my own feelings of insecurity or jealousy, but you’d be wrong. Yes, I was also a pastor; and no, I was not asked to speak that week to anyone other than the pastors. I noticed, sure, but I hadn’t come there to speak. I’d come to work and was delighted to do so. I got enough speaking and leading and sense of self-importance back in the States. To me, since entering the ministry it’s always been a relief to do physical labor. I’m happy to have a good reason to stop listening to, probing, and thinking intensely about what is bedevilling the souls of my sheep. Then pleading and crying and praying with them.
What struck me there was not my own feelings of inferiority, but theirs. They had seen the future of Christianity in Eastern Africa and it had no place for them or their churches. The future belonged to the Eastern Africa director of the North American parachurch ministry named Youth for Christ.
Sensing the pain of their humiliation, after mutual greetings I opened our time up by asking them: “What do you have that “John Doe” doesn’t have?” (John Doe being the fictional name of the YFC Director.)
They gave me puzzled looks and asked me to repeat the question.
So again I asked, “Listen, John Doe is in there with five-hundred young men and women—all leaders in your communities—and he’s teaching them how to make disciples of the young people across your countries. He’s doing a great job of it and everyone’s having a wonderful time learning everything he has to teach them. Is there anything you have that he doesn’t have?”
Yes, I know comparisons are odious, but this one was necessary. They were shocked I put this question to them. They were surprised I was bringing out into the open the shameful thoughts and feelings they’d been trying to suppress all week.
If you’d been there, you would have seen how defeated they were for yourself. I knew the first thing I had to deal with was the overwhelming power of Evangelical parachurchism.
After all, I had grown up in Wheaton and I knew precisely what was going on. I’d watched it for forty years and had observed it up close and personal in the first church I served in Bloomington, Indiana. All the campus parachurch organizations’ staff workers attended worship there. Navigators, Inter-Varsity, Campus Crusade, and Athletes in Action. Historically, my church’s commitment to organizations like Bible Study Fellowship, Operation Mobilization, Wycliffe Bible Translators had been unwavering. People loved going to Ligonier’s conferences each year. But church membership? It was meaningless. People who had never been baptized or joined any church were encouraged to take the Lord’s Supper. Getting baptized a second or third time was the way to show recommitment to Jesus Christ. The secretary pulled names off the church list after the person stopped attending for a while. Without any pastor or elder knowing she did so, or caring.
Missionaries on home assignment were royalty.
Which is to say the church was nothing and pastors were less than nothing. Pastors were men you paid to be pious to prove it doesn’t pay to be pious. Pastors were chaplains hired to look proper and officiate at formal life-moments such as Sunday morning worship and baptisms and funerals and weddings. No one looked to the pastor for leadership.
In fact, leadership and authority were the pastor’s most serious no-nos. Especially in the pulpit.
[This is three in a series of posts on the difficulties church officers, particularly pastors, face today in our work guarding the flock our Lord purchased with His Own precious blood. Our Lord said He was the “Good Shepherd” Who gave up His life for the sheep. We want to be good shepherds like our Chief Shepherd, but it is hard. It may help us toward faithfulness to discuss some of the challenges we face. That is my hope in this series—that as I tell of some challenges I’ve faced in my work, I may be an encouragement to others facing similar challenges. It’s a small goal. Please pray for us. And if you’d like to help us in this work, please consider supporting us financially through Patreon. We work hard in our teaching.]
|↑1||For twenty-five years, Nelson and his wife, VIrginia, had been serving as medical missionaries in China. Having returned home, two years before Billy and Ruth were married Nelson started a magazine for his Southern Presbyterian denomination called The Presbyterian Journal. It was the forerunner to the publishing enterprise now centered around World magazine.|