Let Freedom Ring

On the 4th of July, I’m always reminded of times I’ve traveled in countries where freedom is severely curtailed. Or where the people have been freshly freed from the chains of injustice, and the joy of their release was palpable.

I was in Johannesburg on the 10th anniversary of the end of apartheid.

I was in Korea when the border between North and South was electric with tension.

My most powerful memory came from Moscow, where I was teaching shortly after the fall of communism. 

One night a group of us went to the famed Bolshoi Ballet. It was a long, wonderful evening, and after we took the subway back to where we were staying, the students said, “Come and let us celebrate.” The other two professors with me were as tired as I was, but the students were so intent on our joining them, that we went. 

And then we found out what celebration meant to them. 

They wanted to gather in the dining room and sing hymns and worship God. And we did, late into the night, with more passion and sincerity than I have ever experienced. It didn’t matter that we didn’t know how to sing in Russian—we worshiped God together.

But I went to bed puzzled. I had never seen such passion for spontaneous and heart-filled worship. I was curious as to why they were so ready and eager to offer God love and honor. I received my answer the following Sunday when I was invited to speak at a church in North Moscow. A former underground church that met in secret (as so many churches had been), they were now meeting openly in a schoolhouse. I had been asked to bring a message that Sunday morning. 

I didn’t know that I was in for a bit of a wait.

The service lasted for nearly three hours. There were three sermons from three different speakers, with long periods of worship between each message. 

I was to go last. 

When it was over, I talked a bit with the pastor of the church. I was surprised at not only the length of the service, but the spirit and energy of the people. Throughout the entire three hours, they never let up. In spite of the length of time, they never seemed to tire. Even at the end, they didn’t seem to want to go home.

“In the States,” I said, “you’re doing well to go a single hour before every watch in the place starts beeping.” (This was before smart phones.) He didn’t get my weak attempt at humor, but he did say something that I will never forget.

“It was only a few years ago that we would have been put in prison for doing what we did today. We were never allowed to gather together as a community of faith and offer worship to God. And we are just so happy, and almost in a state of unbelief, that we can do this now – publicly, together – that we don’t want it to end. And not knowing what the future might hold for us here, we know that every week might just be our last. So we never want to stop. So we keep worshiping together, as long as we can.”

As I left, his words never left my mind. I thought to myself, “I will never think about worship the same again. I’ve been too casual about it, too laid back, taken it too much for granted. These people know what it’s about – really about – and because of that, they have been willing, and would be willing again, to suffer for it. To be imprisoned for it. To die for it. Because they’ve discovered that it holds that high of a yield for their life. It has that much meaning and payoff and significance. It matters that much.”

And it should matter that much to all of us.

Happy 4th of July.

James Emery White

Editor’s Note 

This blog was originally published in 2013, and the Church & Culture Team thought you would enjoy reading it again.

The Shepherd-Rancher Divide

Every church longs to grow. That’s the way it should be. “The Great Commission” was not “The Small Suggestion.”

But many churches are stuck in neutral. They can’t seem to break through their current plateau to the next level.

So what is keeping many of these churches from reaching their full potential? 

In many cases, I think it’s something as simple – but decisive – as the Shepherd-Rancher divide. This is based on the premise that these are the two basic kinds of church leaders—Shepherds and Ranchers.

Shepherds are oriented toward providing primary care to their sheep. They are the ones in the trenches with coffees and funerals, discipling and weddings, one-on-ones and late-night calls. They are not usually leaders so much as they are chaplains.

I cannot begin to tell you how much I honor them and revere them.

Ranchers are oriented toward ensuring that their sheep are properly cared for. They are leaders and visionaries, mobilizers and catalyzers, inspirers and motivators, change-agents and provocateurs.

There has been much back and forth as to which “model” is best. It’s trendy to opt for the Shepherd role, and thus argue for smaller church communities. As a result, the “Pastor as CEO” has become almost cliché for dismissal and condemnation.

But what if we have a false dichotomy? 

What if it’s not Shepherds vs. Ranchers, but Shepherds and Ranchers? And what if a lack of ranching is what’s keeping many churches at their current level?

Let’s make a case for the Rancher for a moment. 

In the Old Testament, God clearly put Moses into a Rancher role.  When he tried to fulfill this role instead as a Shepherd, arbitrating each and every situation, he failed miserably. 

And the people suffered. 

It took the wisdom of his father-in-law, Jethro, employing the skills of a Rancher, to organize things and unleash others to care for the people.

In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit birthed the church by dropping 3,000 fresh converts on 11 very overwhelmed men. It was a megachurch mess if there ever was one. 

It wasn’t long before the apostles realized they needed to pursue Rancher roles while setting apart deacons for the shepherding tasks.

The point is that both Shepherds and Ranchers are needed.    

A hard working Shepherd can care for approximately 70 people. If that person doesn’t bring in other Shepherds, or become a Rancher, they will become a bottleneck for growth. 

Intriguingly, the average size of the typical church is around 70 people. Hmmmm…..

I know that at Meck, we had 112 people at our first service on our first weekend. That means the church outgrew me day one. I had two choices: I could continue to be a Shepherd and stay around 70 or so as a church in terms of impact and influence, or I could become a Rancher and ensure that the people were shepherded and position the church for unlimited growth.

I became a Rancher.

We went from 112 in attendance to now more than 10,000 in terms of active attenders.

It wasn’t easy. Most who enter the ministry are, by nature, Shepherds. 

And being a Shepherd is appealing. 

You get to be at the center of almost every “Yea, God!” story. You are the one in the hospital, at the wedding, drying the tears, holding the hand, leading them to Christ. You are building every ministry and taking every hill.

And those strokes are intoxicating.

Not so much for the Rancher. You have to be willing to let others get the credit, see others take the hill, let others be praised. You are not at the center of every life-event of those you love. Instead, you hear stories of people praising a counselor or small group leader. 

So why give up Shepherding? It’s simple. Based on Romans 12:8, if you have the gift of leadership, you are called to lead. And that is what a Rancher does. 

So what can be done?

It’s simple. Either become a Rancher or bring some into the mix.

I’ve seen a lot of staff people at churches be absolutely perfect for growing a church to 200 or so attenders. But then, those very same skillsets and practices kept them from growing the church to 500.

They needed to move from Shepherd to Rancher... and didn’t. 

Or couldn’t. 

It’s not that churches should fire those people at critical growth stages. But it is important to realize that either someone must grow into a Rancher role, or you need to bring in Ranchers to continue the effective and necessary work of the Shepherds.

So let’s drop the bashing of “Pastors as CEOs” and realize a deeper truth. In Scripture, both shepherding and ranching were called for. 

So let’s call for them now.

James Emery White



Adapted from James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary. Order this resource HERE on Amazon.

Editor’s Note

This blog was originally published in 2013, and the Church & Culture Team thought you would enjoy reading it again.

The Problem with the Room

I can’t remember when I first heard the phrase, “The problem is never in the room.”

Here’s the context: You are talking with someone about a problem – a ministry that isn’t growing, a child who isn’t behaving, a wife who isn’t feeling cherished, a pattern where they keep getting fired –

… and the problem is never in the room.

Meaning, they are never the one to blame. They are never the cause, never the source, never the solution. It’s always something else or someone else. It’s never “them.”

When applied to ministry, few things can be more deadly, particularly when coupled (as is often the case) with its kissing cousin—that the solution is never outside the room. Meaning any idea, any suggestion, any new way of thinking, is immediately shot down.

Put these two together.

If you are completely opposed to doing things differently than you are now, but would never even consider that the way you are doing things now is the reason you are doing poorly, then you will forever be exactly where you are now.

If plateaued, you will stay plateaued (and we all know that ongoing plateau eventually leads to decline). If declining, you will continue to decline. If by some lucky chance you are currently growing, it probably won’t last long, because strategy always needs to be updated.

I’ve interacted with people like this. It’s maddening, to be honest. Whenever you suggest new ideas or different approaches, they’re shot down with a thousand ready-made reasons why they won’t/can’t work. Then, when you probe further to learn why things aren’t going well, they point to a thousand things – all circumstantial – that excuse the current state away.

So they are closed to anything outside of the room, and closed to any causes of decline that might be inside the room.

But here are two truths I’ve learned over the years:

The place to start looking for causes is inside the room, and the place to start looking for answers is outside the room.

And if someone on your team can’t get to that point, maybe you need to realize the real issue is…

… a rooming situation.

James Emery White


Editor’s Note

This blog was originally published in 2014, and the Church & Culture Team thought you would enjoy reading it again.

Knowing When to Care

One of the more important personal disciplines as a leader is to have the ability to know what you don’t care about. Or more to the point, what you shouldn’t care about.

For example, I don’t care about:

… transfer growth from other churches;

(we’re after the unchurched)

… whether another church in town is bigger or faster-growing;

(we’re not in competition with other churches)

… people who leave the church because they disagree with our belief in the Bible as the Word of God, our policy of conducting criminal background checks on all children’s ministry volunteers, our belief that lost people matter to God, etc.;

(some things are simply non-negotiable)

… refusing money from someone who wants to use it to impose their will;

(no amount of money is worth that)

… denominational politics;

(haven’t for many years)

… petty disagreements on historically disputable matters;

(in essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity)

… dress codes.

(come as you are; it’s how you leave that matters)

I’m continually surprised at how many leaders spend enormous amounts of energy – and emotion – on things that simply don’t matter. I could add to this list, almost effortlessly, scores of other examples, and could give testimony to witnessing how each one consumed a person or church.

But then, equally stunning, is how lax these same leaders are on things that DO matter.

For example, not caring about:

… people knowing and embracing the vision, values, mission and doctrine of the church;

(these are kind of the big four)

… the continued presence and practice of contentious, divisive behavior in the church;

(if you haven’t learned to confront this at once, you haven’t learned much)

… whether you’re reaching the unchurched;

(it’s called the Great Commission—translation: it’s why you exist)

… the poorest of the poor and those suffering injustice in the world;

(it’s what separates the sheep from the goats)

There’s an old line about “majoring on the majors,” because the temptation is to major on the minors. For most leaders, this means how they spend their time, or choosing what to take a stand for. But somehow, the wind seems to have gone out of our sails on this one.

So let’s take it up a notch. The real issue behind what to major on is what you should care about, and what you should care about is simple:

What hills are you willing to die on?

James Emery White



For a listing of “hills to die on,” see James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary. Order HERE from Amazon.

Editor’s Note

This blog was originally published in 2014, and the Church & Culture Team thought you would enjoy reading it again.

The Foolishness of God

Strolling through the Vincent van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, I stumbled on a disarmingly simple oil on canvas that has since hung prominently in the gallery of my mind. A Bible opened to Isaiah 53 lies next to a well-worn copy of Emile Zola’s La Joie de Vivre on a wooden table. An extinguished candlestick – a typical symbol of death in the 17th-century Dutch vanitas tradition – is in the background, suggesting the fleeting nature of human existence. 

The Bible is uniformly recognized by art historians to belong to van Gogh’s father, Theodorus, a minister whose love for the great prophet Isaiah was widely known. Zola’s La Joie de Vivre was an example of French naturalist literature. Together they speak to van Gogh’s lifelong attempt to reconcile his traditional Christian past to modern sensibilities.

It was a reconciliation he was never to achieve. 

The problem van Gogh wrestled with is shared by many and, as it was with the great Dutch painter, runs deeper than reconciling the ancient to the contemporary. What is the place for the spiritual in a world that is overwhelmingly materialistic?

We live in the context of what Richard John Neuhaus has termed a “naked public square,” meaning a culture where discourse and conduct have been stripped of religious insight and influence. In America, law and politics have so trivialized religious devotion that individuals are forced to act – at least in public – as if their faith doesn’t matter. As Page Smith once blithely noted, “God is not a proper topic for discussion, but ‘lesbian politics’ is.” 

This void of religious contribution has made faith seem less “real” than other ideas and enterprises, particularly as we have tended to gauge truth by what can be empirically verified. Faith is not tangible and therefore, in this world, not relevant. As such, faith is not simply “foolishness to the Gentiles” (I Corinthians 1:23) but often foolishness to believers. 

And the Bible doesn’t help, at least at first glance.

A man who seems to enjoy his fair share of wine is told to build a boat. A really big one. In the desert. And then two of every animal is said to be stowed away in order to survive a cataclysmic flood. 

A pre-Viagra 75-year-old man is called to get his wife pregnant and start a nation. And, we are told, he does. 

A young girl offers to water a stranger’s camels and is offered instantly by her family to a wandering nomad in order to perpetuate the people of God. Her reaction? “Okay.”

So far we have not progressed beyond the first of the 66 books in the Bible. And it doesn’t get any better. Such examples led Søren Kierkegaard to see Christianity as a “leap in the dark,” a letting go of experience and rationality in order to embrace what is beyond experience and reason. 

This was the dilemma facing Boromir in the first part of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings. The great Council of Elrond meets to determine what to do with the Ring of the Dark Lord, which fate had brought into their midst. It is decided that their one hope, against all rational thought, is to bring the ring to the Fire of Mt. Doom, the very point of the ring’s origin. Boromir, the valiant warrior from the city of Gondor who represents the race of men, speaks:

I do not understand all this... Why do you speak ever of hiding and destroying? Why should we not think that the Great Ring has come in to our hands to serve us in the very hour of need?... Let the Ring be your weapon, if it has such power as you say. Take it and go forth to victory!

The older and wiser Elrond reminds Boromir that the ring is altogether evil; using it against the Dark Lord would cause its bearer to become as the Dark Lord himself. Boromir submits to the Council, but not in his mind. As the company begins its journey, he confronts Frodo the ring-bearer, and once again raises the subject of using the ring.

“Were you not at the Council?” answered Frodo... “We cannot use it, and what is done with it turns to evil.”

“So you go on... all these folk have taught you to say so... Yet often I doubt if they are wise... It is mad not to use it... How I would drive the hosts of Mordor, and all men would flock to my banner! ... The only plan that is proposed to us is that a halfling should walk blindly into Mordor and offer the Enemy every chance of recapturing it for himself. Folly!”

But it wasn’t folly. It was supreme wisdom—a wisdom running counter to that which intellect alone could muster. 

The apostle Paul reminds the church at Corinth “how foolish the message of the cross sounds” on its surface. But God has already determined “I will destroy human wisdom” because it proves “to be useless nonsense” according to His standards. God’s “‘foolish’ plan... is far wiser than the wisest of human plans” (I Corinthians 1:18-20, 25 NLT).

Loving God with all of our mind, however, takes more than simple faith in God. Foundational Christian beliefs have lately come under siege through the shared intellectual endeavors of the world around us.

James Emery White



Taken from James Emery White, Wrestling with God. Now available as an eBook at ChurchAndCulture.org—click HERE to order.

Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square.

Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief.

Page Smith, Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, 2nd ed.

Mind the Gap

If you have ever been to London, you are familiar with the “Tube,” London’s expansive underground transport system. Once there, a constant refrain – over loudspeakers and on signs – is “Mind the Gap.” 

The line is so ubiquitous, and so closely tied to London’s ethos, that the phrase has become one of the more popular for tourists to buy on t-shirts.

The “gap” to be “minded,” of course, is that which exists between the train and the platform edge so that you don’t get your foot caught between the two. If you don’t mind the gap, your foot will fall through the crack.

So “mind” it. 

There are, of course, many “gaps” to be mindful of. 

For example, many are keenly aware of the gaps that exist in their life between income and expense, or calories ingested and calories burned. The worst would have to be the gap between knowing and doing. For no small reason has it been said that the longest journey anyone will ever take is the 18 inches between our head and our heart. 

But often overlooked are the gaps plaguing the church.

Here are six to consider: 

1.   The gap between evangelism and discipleship. The biblical dynamic between evangelism and discipleship is, of course, anything but a dichotomy. We are to engage in both. But in practice, many churches put their energies in one or the other. Even more troubling is how they pit one against the other, as if God made it an either-or situation. (He didn’t.)

2.   The gap between growth and assimilation. Some call this the gap between growing larger and smaller at the same time. If not minded, the “back door,” as they say, is left wide open. But it’s more than the “back door.” If it’s all growth, there is little community. But if there is an emphasis on community alone, then the church turns inward and growth becomes stagnant. 

3.   The gap between cultural relevance and orthodoxy. Let’s put this more simply as the gap between being “in” the world and “of” it. In truth, most seem to err on the side of being more hip than holy, contemporary than faithful, trendy than Trinitarian. In other words, “relevance” tends to win. It is as if the point is to win the world’s favor, as opposed to winning the world’s soul. But on the other side are those who wield their claim to historic truth like a baseball bat, failing to see that while the message is timeless, the method of presenting it is not. The balance is clear: connect with the mission field of our day while remaining steadfastly tied to the apostolic truths.

4.   The gap between our community as Christ followers and our community with those outside of the faith. This gap is relational, and speaks to the cloistered life of many faith communities from the world they claim they want to reach. We live in Christian cliques, holy huddles, gospel ghettoes, and wonder why we aren’t reaching more people for Jesus. Even more, our community as Christ followers is often divorced from the community of those we are most wanting to reach. The point of being “salt” is that we are applied directly to those areas most in need of a preservative to stop the spread of decay. This is more than cultural—it is primarily relational. No Christian should be separate from a non-Christian in need of the gospel.

5.   The gap between the vision of community in the Scriptures and the reality of our day. We’ve all heard the line that Sunday morning at 11 a.m. is the most segregated hour in our nation. But I am increasingly convinced that the issue is less racial than it is socio-economic. Regardless, whether a mix of black and white, rich or poor, young or old, the gap is that there isn’t often much of a mix. Here is the dream of Jesus: when you walk into a church on Sunday morning, you will see young and old, black and white, male and female, lost and found… all hoping for a glimpse of the truth, a taste of the eternal, a sense of grace.

6.   The gap between vision and leadership. Most leaders are visionaries, but not all visionaries are leaders. I’ve never met a pastoral team yet that couldn’t tell me something of their vision. The breakdown was between vision and practice, vision and reality, vision and execution. Let me put the “gap” this way: if someone were to offer you a million dollars, but to receive it you had to be able to explain exactly where it would go, and why it would matter… would you get the money?


… are you minding the gaps?

James Emery White

Editor’s Note

This blog was originally published in 2013, and the Church & Culture Team thought you would enjoy reading it again.