First allow me to go down memory lane. I recently got out the first issue of MINISTRIES: The Magazine for Christian Leaders. It was our "second" magazine, after Charisma, which was just more than seven years old at that point. Today we publish six magazines, books and curriculum in both English and Spanish. Back then I imagined little of that.
I was motivated to start this publication partly because I knew there was no magazine specifically speaking to the Pentecostal/charismatic leadership audience and partly out of a difficulty in my own life. I had just been on the staff for several years at a large church whose pastor had to step down in disgrace a little more than a year before. It was obviously not a spiritually healthy situation, and I wanted to help churches be healthy by providing a forum for pastors and other leaders to learn about aspects of ministry, and to confront the problems facing charismatic churches. That was an underlying motive not specifically stated in that first issue when I articulated the new magazine's vision.
As I paged through that first issue, I wondered how successful I was in my goal. I must have felt a magazine speaking a prophetic word would make a difference with articles by men such as my longtime mentor Jamie Buckingham, Jack Hayford, Dennis Bennett and others (who wrote articles in the inaugural issue).
Looking over that first issue made me realize how much has changed. Dennis Bennett, who wrote about how pastors should relate to those in authority over them, died a little more than 10 years ago. My own father, A. Edward Strang, wrote about Christian education in that first issue. Later he helped me begin our Sunday school curriculum division, CharismaLife. He died in 1997.
The biggest change for me personally was the death of Jamie Buckingham, who for a quarter century was considered by many to be both the conscience and the funny bone of the charismatic movement. His column, StraighTalk, gave frank answers to honest questions posed by pastors.
In 1983 he was the age I am now. At that point, he had been a big influence in my life for several years, mainly through Charisma. He encouraged me to start a magazine for pastors. In the late 1980s he took over the editorship of Ministries Today, bringing to it a new cutting edge and controversy. My last conversation with him before he died in 1992 of complications of a cancer treatment was about a leader who was irate over something he'd written in the magazine. I think of him often and thank God for the impact of his life and ministry.
Since 1983 much has changed. Back then the discipleship controversy was coming to a climax. Today it's gone. Few had heard of the Trinity Broadcasting Network back then. Today it dominates the Christian TV scene. What we thought of as the charismatic renewal was mostly white back then and largely in denominational churches. Today the growth seems to be mostly among independent charismatics. And there are huge churches pastored by African Americans. The Hispanic church also has become a force.
Well, enough reflection. The focus now is on the future. Good things are happening, but many issues must be dealt with. In my position as publisher for the last two decades and as an observer of the current Christian scene, these are the 20 most crucial issues I believe are facing the church.
1. Racism. Billy Graham has been quoted as saying this is America's No. 1 problem. I believe it's the No. 1 problem in the world--accounting for the conflicts in places such as Northern Ireland, Chechnya, Israel and southern Africa.
Racism is on the agenda of the church much more now than 20 years ago when Ministries Today began. Apostolic voices such as Fred Price and Bill McCartney have called the church to look at its own racism. We have focused on the issue again and again.
I believe charismatics have an opportunity to lead the way in confronting racism in the wider church community because black leadership is more recognized, and more churches are thoroughly integrated in charismatic circles than any other segment of Protestantism.
2. Righteous living. Sin in the church is not new, but it seems among some charismatics there is a new, lax attitude toward high-profile ministers who preach one thing and live another. The secular media hasn't uncovered any such scandals lately, but they exist. And often the telltale sign is a divorce that follows.
Other leaders, not wanting to seem judgmental, look the other way, saying they can't say much about divorce because it is so common. Yet they ignore the sin that led to the divorce. And it's not just sexual sins that are the problem. What about pride, greed and ungodly use of power? Who are the prophetic voices among us that will deal with these issues when they arise in the church?
3. Right doctrine. Meanwhile, loose lifestyles and arrogance among leaders often lead to a new definition of sin. If no one is going to hell, it doesn't matter how you live here. It's not just the "liberal" churches preaching a false doctrine any more. What about the so-called doctrine of inclusion?
It seems some Christians pick and choose the Bible content they feel comfortable with and ignore the rest of God's counsel. How many preachers even preach against sin or talk about hell? How many disciple their people on correct doctrine so they won't be led astray by anyone who preaches a different gospel at some conference or on television?
4. Prophetic leadership. We thank God for the resurgence of the office of the prophet. But why is prophecy in charismatic churches often little more than speaking blessings to people? Some so-called prophets are said to sell prophecies for various-size donations.
We need prophets who will truly speak to the church, which daily is becoming more like the world it should be seeking to save and as a result is increasingly marginalized. Who are the prophetic voices calling on the church and the nation to repent?
5. Sound teaching. The early charismatic movement was known for its teachers, and there are still many among us. But we need teachers who will help those who want to be disciples to understand what it means to follow Christ, and in the process will help us avoid false doctrine.
6. Progressive evangelists. New evangelists are needed to reach a new generation. Now that baby boomers are aging and busters are beginning to enter leadership roles, how will we reach the new generation some are calling "mosaics" (19 and younger), many of whom are from dysfunctional homes and question the theology many churches embrace?
7. Apostolic leaders. Most of our leaders are good preachers, gifted communicators and good expositors of the Word. But we need leaders with vision who can lead the church into the future. I believe this is the apostolic gift--and it's more than merely planting churches. Apostles should effectively motivate people around God's vision. For the church to be strong, we must have strong apostolic leadership.
8. Abusive pastors. We need pastors who will really pastor and not abuse their sheep. The rise of books on spiritual abuse and even conferences held on the subject point to a problem that must be addressed. Too many pastors are looking out for No. 1. "My way or the highway" is part of the reason people church hop. Others get burned-out by pastors who disillusion them and quit going to church.
9. New leaders. Where is the new generation of leaders? We cannot allow what George Barna calls the "same old, same old." Who will help us shake off old forms and embrace exciting new ways to reach and disciple people?
Remember the "Joshua Generation" of a few years ago? It was a group of young 30-somethings who announced it was time for the older generation to step aside and let a new generation of Joshuas lead the church. Now that members of this self-appointed group are 40-something, none are in prominent leadership roles and several have fallen morally.
Yet new leaders are constantly needed. We can't allow for the graying of leadership. How are we mentoring young leaders and helping those who are beginning to enjoy new roles to avoid the pride and self-importance that sometimes comes with promotion? And how can we have accountability so that younger leaders don't fall into sin?
10. Self-policing. The need for accountability is ever present. With public abuses of authority or public scandals, there is pressure for reform from the outside if it doesn't come from within. Witness how the government polices abuses on Wall Street. The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability was formed two decades ago to keep the government from needing to police ministries regarding their finances.
What can be done, however, about ministers who fall into false doctrine or sin? It seems some offenders merely leave their fellowship to join another group, often made up of those who have been "disfellowshiped" and band together to embrace the fallen. And what about abuses such as "selling prophecies?" Who will speak out against such abuses?
11. Cultural influence. It seems the media and academic communities have marginalized the church so as to consider it irrelevant. Meanwhile, the government has the church "on a short leash" so it doesn't get out of line and influence the political system. How, you ask? Due to the church's beloved nonprofit status.
Most ministers I know are more concerned about not losing their nonprofit status than speaking out on the burning issues of the day lest they be considered political. But there are freedoms we must fight for--including freedom of speech. It's been reported that Canada now has laws that make it illegal to speak out against homosexuality even in the pulpit. How do we stop the radical gay rights agenda from keeping pastors from preaching against things the Bible calls sin?
12. Social justice. To many conservative Christians, the very expression "social justice" suggests some sort of liberal theology. Yet the Bible says much about helping the poor. Ministries such as World Relief are "churches helping churches." In addition, many Christians are suffering persecution in many parts of the world. They need our help. And there is a need for social justice for many who are denied opportunities in this land of plenty. The Bible bids us to respond to their plight.
13. Female leaders. What role must women play in the church? J. Lee Grady's groundbreaking book 10 Lies the Church Tells Women discusses the need for women to step into leadership positions.
Some, such as Cindy Jacobs, are speaking with a prophetic voice. Others, such as Shirley Arnold, are pastoring successful churches. We need more male leaders to recognize and mentor emerging leaders. And we need more "Mothers in Israel" such as Fuchsia Pickett to provide role models for younger women to follow.
14. Discipling men. Many of the ills in our society can be traced to the fact too many men have abandoned their roles as leaders and providers in the home, leaving a generation of fatherless children. Thankfully, men such as Patrick Morley and the late Ed Cole have come to the forefront in the last two decades. Ministries such as Promise Keepers have stirred men, yet a great need exists to disciple men that most local churches have yet to embrace.
15. World missions. Historically, Pentecostals and charismatics have sent missionaries around the world and mobilized people at home to pray. Yet we receive word that while the number of those born again was rising faster than the birth rate, that has changed--partly, some believe, because the prayer movement leading up to the year 2000 ended. Now a new threat by Islam to spread around the world gives more impetus to send missionaries.
16. Multiethnicity. How do we make the church more multiethnic? This is tied in some ways to the racism discussed earlier. Yet it goes beyond that. What about the many new immigrant groups now flooding to America? What about the growing population of Spanish-speaking people who want to retain their culture as their children and grandchildren want to avoid it to fit into the mainstream?
How can these new groups invigorate the larger church without starting to look and sound like the larger church? And, of course, how do we evangelize nonwhite groups in our own country?
17. Praise and worship. Thank God for the rise in praise and worship music that has sprung up in the last two decades. But how do we avoid making "worship" an idol, like some evangelicals seem to exalt "the Word" above all else? Some people would like to experience worship alone at services and demean the need for sound teaching. Or, some seem to feel that God accepting their praise on Sunday means He accepts their sinful lifestyles all week. What a perversion of true worship, which is in spirit and truth.
18. Pride. How do we deal with pride in the church and among leaders? More than any other sin, God hates pride. Yet the sin most common in the church is pride. The Bible says God resists the proud. Yet with titles and "things" we continue to let people know how important we think we are.
19. Supernatural power. George Barna reports that shockingly few Americans understand the power and significance of the supernatural world--the real supernatural dimension. Most people deny the existence of the power of the Holy Spirit and are blissfully ignorant of the spiritual battle that rages around and within them. We charismatics talk about the supernatural. Some of us claim to believe in the supernatural. Yet we are often weak spiritually, too often battered by spiritual darkness, and we see few true miracles.
20. Bridge-building with evangelicals. The "theological" differences between charismatics and non-charismatic evangelicals may not be as wide as they once were. Not many non-charismatics would call us heretics as quickly as they once did. But the gulf is as wide as ever most of the time. It's as if we live in two worlds with different priorities, values, leaders, ministries we support and magazines we read.
Many evangelicals react to the "craziness" they see among us. Many of us react to the "arrogance" with which we are treated by non-charismatic evangelicals who prefer to do things the traditional way.
But Jesus prayed that we would all be one, and if we're to finish the task before us, we must build bridges of understanding and cooperation with all segments of the Christian community--especially our brothers with whom we have so much in common yet from whom we are mostly estragned.