Gordon MacDonald: "There's Something Wrong with the System"

Gordon MacDonald’s new book, Going Deep: Becoming a Person of Influence, is a fictional account of how one pastor changed a church from a program-centered culture to a disciple-making culture. I had a chance to chat with Gordon by phone about what real-life lessons we can expect from Going Deep.

CL: There’s a pastor in your new book, Going Deep, named “GMAC.” How much of him is you?

GM: He really is me. The two real characters in the book are my wife, Gail, and me. While the book is very much a fictional piece it’s built out of the actual experience of doing this the last few years.

CL: What’s the greatest lesson you learned during your years as a pastor?

GM: Probably the recognition that I think we need to totally re-define what pastors do in leading our contemporary 21st century church.  We tend to in our Protestant traditions to evaluate a pastor first and foremost by how well he or she preaches. If they’re a good preacher that covers a lot of sins. Unfortunately, I’m not sure in most churches that preaching is the thing that changes people or builds the church over the long haul as much as it is when you have a leader makes as his or her first passion or priority the development of people–in the sense that I call “deep people.” . . .  I would like to contend that the most important thing a pastor can do in the next years is to build leadership in the church, and allow leaders to be the influencers that secure the long-range ministry of the church. I don’t think most of us were ever trained to develop people like that nor were we that this would be as important as I’m trying to suggest that it is.

We’re living at a new kind of world now where we can’t depend on families to turn out sound, centered people, where the church just polishes. We’re going to have to more and more discover people–like the Lord went out and identified would-be disciples and then began to train them. I think over the last years of my ministry that became the most important thing. I was the pastor of a megachurch and I loved the preaching and the leadership but I began to recognize that if I didn’t get busy training new leaders, the church’s future was not going to be secure.

CL: Where does that leave you? Are you optimistic? Can the church make that transition?

I think the present church institutional structure is going to make it difficult. It’s pretty obvious that the present structure of the church built around the sanctuary with pews all facing forward–so they can listen to one person talk to them–that picture alone tells you what the church thinks is most important! But if you go back to the rabbinic tradition of Jesus (and he was a rabbi) you’ll discover that’s not the way he structured his life. He structured it literally around relationships, and at the core of those relationships were the twelve disciples, and probably a few others that are not mentioned. If you look at the time allotment of the Lord you discover that probably 70-80% of his time was invested in a relatively small group of people. What he’s doing there is really dreaming of what the result will be a hundred years out. He’s thinking three or four moves down the chessboard–three or four generations. If he and his followers are faithful to this style of building leadership you’re going to have a massive movement on your hands in a hundred years. I think we’re almost back to that in many parts of the United States today, where we’re going to have to re-create this movement all over again because we’re slipping and sliding away from some of the core values Jesus intended for it to have. It’s going to have to be a new generation of leadership builders who get this thing back on the mark.

CL: But if you’re pushed on the question, do you think that it’s either achievable or likely?

I think it’s achievable and I guess I’ll argue that it’s likely because it’s going to be necessary. If we keep moving the church along in the way it’s structured today, I’m not real optimistic about it’s future and its ability to really engage society. We have a younger generation now that really doesn’t know much about its Bible at all. I think most people would agree that in most churches we have failed to teach the new generations what the Bible really says. We have young people now who don’t know the Bible stories–who really don’t know the core Biblical applications. When it’s their turn to step into leadership in churches I worry about their ability to give the centered kind of leadership that’s necessary because they simply haven’t been trained for it.

CL: That’s what Dallas Willard calls the Great Omission–the failure to make disciples.

GM: Yeah. He’s been addressing that for many years, and he’s in a position to see what’s going on. He’s been a college professor all his life. He knows what the students are thinking.

CL: And a good portion of that flows from that structural deficiency–the church as a lecture hall and the definition of a pastor’s role as speaker?

As I look back over the years (I’m 72) I’m in a position to see the church go through its post-war transition. Before 1960 there were very few churches (except maybe city churches) had congregations of more than 250 or 300 people. Up until that date the pastor was really a “seeker of people.” Those pastors didn’t spend much time in their office, other than to put a sermon together. In the 60’s churches became more and more “program churches” and pastors became forced to become managers of programs. We started having multiple staffs, there was a heavy emphasis on expanding property, so  by the time you entered the 80’s and 90’s most pastors aspired to be CEO’s more than anything. Their touch with people was limited to basically and simply meeting with the leadership of the church.

I remember in my own life–to see me, you had to make an appointment, and it could be two weeks in advance. I saw very few people people because this system more and more scooped me up and turned me into a leader of committee meetings and task forces and fund-raising . . . in my last years as a senior pastor I was responsible for 165 different programs! I spent my day evaluating programs and very little time in touch with people. That’s when I decided there was something wrong with the system.

So I went to my elders and said, “I want your support: if I spend 20% of my time each year with just a handful of people–if you let me do this–in five years I’ll give you 75 church leaders.”

Going Deep: Becoming a person of Influence is the story of that transition, told as fiction. It’s published by Thomas Nelson and is now available in bookstores and online.

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Ray Hollenbach
Ray Hollenbach, a Chicagoan, writes about faith and culture. He currently lives in central Kentucky, which is filled with faith and culture. He is the author of "The Impossible Mentor: Finding Courage to Follow Jesus."

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