Santa Claus, the Gospel, and the Church
- Friday, December 20, 2013
by Tom Ascol
It happened again last week. On Thanksgiving morning I received an email from a friend of a friend. The first line read, “It appears I am being forced out of my pastorate.” The story that unfolded in the rest of that email and upon further inquiry is filled with themes that are tragically too common.
When Founders Ministries began thirty years ago, our efforts were motivated by the strong desire to see a recovery of the biblical gospel and the reformation of local churches. Through the years, that two-fold agenda has been refined and recalibrated into a variety of strategies that span the range from conferences to publications to social networking and personal consultation. But our focus has remained consistent.
Over the last three decades we have seen incredible blessings from the Lord in a widespread return to healthier understandings of the message of salvation and church life. This is especially true among the rising generation of pastors. In many respects we must confess that far more has occurred in the way of biblical reformation than many of us ever expected to see in our lifetimes. For this we praise God.
But the need for that to which Founders is committed has hardly disappeared. In fact, based on the emails, phone calls and other contacts that I receive, in some ways one might argue that the need for gospel recovery and church renewal is greater today than ever before. It certainly seems that way because of the high number of clashes that continue to exist between pastors and churches.
I am the first to admit that sometimes the problems that arise between a pastor and congregation is primarily or perhaps even exclusively the pastor’s fault. Even the most faithful pastor makes mistakes, and too often men who have no business being in gospel ministry find themselves there and are inflicted on churches to the painful detriment God’s people.
But from my observation, most of the conflicts between a pastor and church arise because a pastor who has been seriously gripped by the gospel and biblical understandings of healthy church life is called to serve a congregation who has remained entrenched in deficient understandings of what the gospel is and what a healthy church is. When those competing visions collide, often serious sparks fly.
Frequently, the result is an effort to fire the pastor in ungodly ways (I have written on a right way to fire your pastor here). From what I have learned about the situation mentioned above, that is the case in the situation facing the pastor whose email I received. This man is an experienced pastor who has served this Southern Baptist church for over two years. After the first year, he encouraged the deacons to agree not to have Santa Claus as the center of attention at the next year’s Christmas celebration service. They reluctantly went along with him but after a drop in attendance at that service by 80% from the previous year, the deacon chairman recently announced, that “Santa is coming back to church. This isn’t a discussion. We’re doing it.”
At the next month’s business meeting, attendance was up by 400% with twice the number of deacons present compared to what is usually the case. The motion was made and passed that, indeed, Santa is coming back to that church at this year’s Christmas service.
When I asked this pastor about his call to the church, specifically how careful he had been to discuss his theology and philosophy of ministry, I discovered that he and the church’s search committee held five lengthy interviews, including a seven-hour(!) theological interview covering nearly forty pages of questions (including questions on election). The church is self-consciously conservative and affirms the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. A final step of the candidating process involved the pastor writing a letter that outlines his doctrinal views. A copy was given to each member and was also read publicly to the congregation before they voted to call him to come serve as their pastor. The only point of contention that was raised during the whole interview process centered on race. In response to a question the pastor said he would not be “referring” non-Anglos to other churches. This was not the answer they were hoping for, but they did not regard it as a deal-breaker.
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