Imagine you were on the search committee for a new pastor for your church. The last pastor had been, well, let’s just say he’d been less than what you’d expected. His CV had all the right credentials. He was a reputed gatherer of people. He was the sort of bloke that got things done. He’d gone to a great theological college. Word on the street was that he had turned around the last church he’d been working at. You signed him up immediately, even though you were surprised that he was even interested in your little operation, er, your little church.
And it was a disaster. Not from the start. These things never are. It started well enough. All the oohs and aahs at his first sermon. All the self-congratulatory “We’ve got this thing right!”. All the excitement that this could be the dream team, the missing piece in the puzzle.
But, gradually, over time you started to notice things. Things like his lack of character in dealing with people. Things like his continued failure to keep his word. Things like his bullying nature. Things like his cutting corners when it came to protocols. Things like keeping information from people. Things like inappropriate comments to women in the congregation.
Of course, eventually, it all went south, and the search committee – who were primarily the leaders of the church – ended up being the people who orchestrated his swift departure. Bitterness. Acrimony. Etc, etc.
And the church found itself back at square one. Time for the search committee, the same search committee to begin the process again. In the real world if the search committee had foisted such a disastrous leader upon a company they would be stood down from that role. Not in church. There’s WAAAAAY to much forgiveness for that to happen.
So off you go for a second bite. And what do you look for in their next guy after such a disaster? Why the same thing of course. A CV with all the right credentials. A gatherer of people with an impressive record at his last church (at least that’s what his referee said); the kind of bloke who gets things done.
Now at this point you’d be forgiven for thinking that perhaps we should scrap the blueprint and start again. Perhaps we should reassess what we really value in this church and ask the Lord how to proceed. Perhaps we’re not looking at people the way the Lord looks at people. But you probably wouldn’t.
Why not? Because even the prophet Samuel didn’t. Even the prophet Samuel who had anointed Saul as king over Israel didn’t. Saul, who we are told, in 1Samuel 9 was:
as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else.
And later when Saul is anointed, we read this in chapter 10:
and as he stood among the people he was a head taller than any of the others. 24 Samuel said to all the people, “Do you see the man the Lord has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people.”
Do you get the impression that he ticked all the boxes for Israel in their desperate search for a king that would make them like the nations?
Now it is true that the Lord did choose him, but in his judgement he gave his people what they craved. And what did they crave? A king just like every other nation had. So of course they used everyone else’s criteria. Everyone else being the idolatrous nations surrounding them. Taller, stronger, fitter, braver. The kind of man who can lead an army into battle. Who gets things done.
That’s what that culture preferenced. Saul ticked all the boxes of the surrounding culture, and since Israel was more swayed by the surrounding culture than she was by God, it was all one way traffic when it came to choosing a king.
So what happens after the sad sorry mess that is King Saul needs to be untangled? What happens after the glitter and the gloss disappears and Saul proves to be less than impressive? God sends Samuel, again, to anoint someone; this time one of the sons of Jesse as the new king over Israel. And how does Samuel make his assessment this time? Has he learned anything from the less than successful Saul experiment?:
When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
Samuel falls for it again. Samuel – God’s prophet! Samuel, whose own birth had been steeped in humility. Samuel, whose mother Hannah had prayed the great reversal-in-fortunes prayer in 1Samuel 2:
The Lord sends poverty and wealth;
he humbles and he exalts.
8 He raises the poor from the dust
and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes
and has them inherit a throne of honor.
This Samuel falls for the old appearances trick again yet again. In that way he is just like the rest of Israel, even though he had all the evidence and pedigree to suggest that appearances are deceptive. And if God’s prophet Samuel fell for it, how much more we, even today on this side of the cross.
When it states in Romans 12, “Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly”, it says that as a command not a suggestion. Why? Because our tendency still, even as regenerate people of God, is to associate with the impressive. As if somehow the outward impressiveness of a person reveals an inner impressiveness, when it can in fact be a mask for what is less than impressive. As if somehow the stardust will rub off on us.
We’re suckers for the impressive and the outward appearance. That showiness and grandeur seduces us. A great CV or a great figure or a great set of financial figures still makes us go weak at the knees.
But not the Lord’s knees.
Jesus himself says to those who were impressed by impressiveness in his day: You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.
See that? What Jesus says goes even deeper. We are not simply impressed by the impressiveness of others. We are impressed by our own impressiveness! We set a bar of impressiveness, then we jump it and are impressed by our ability to do so! How deceived we are! So deceived that we would even crucify the King of Glory.
This should make us pause. Make us cautious. This should make us be very careful about what we think is going to change things for a struggling church, or a struggling church culture. This should make us careful in what we believe will arrest our declining influence in the culture.
Christian movements and church planting networks should, paradoxically, value what the world hates and despises. We should view those despised things as the tools through which God will transform his world. Rather than simply aping the procedures, processes and programs of a world in thrall to the impressive, we should embrace what the world rejects.
Will we? Maybe. But maybe too we will make the same mistake as Samuel. Maybe it will take a few times, a few year, a few decades, of wandering up blind allies, for us to finally admit what David – the man after God’s own heart – announced in his battle with Goliath in 1Samuel 17:
“You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”
Maybe, just maybe, God is going to get glory by doing a mighty work through the unimpressives, those who slip through the cracks of our assessment tools, our search committees and our misdirected desires for a king, a pastor, a cultural shaper, to lead us in victory, His victory, not ours.