10 Reflections on the Elephant Room

Having taken a few days to reflect, think, and pray, I believe I learned more about leadership during my 24 hours in Chicago for the Elephant Room than any other experience of my life. So, rather than speaking about the participants in public I will instead speak to them in private. But, I will share publicly my personal thoughts and reflections.

Our host, Pastor James MacDonald, is a friend of mine. I love him, his family, and his church. We met through curious circumstances. Someone he knew was critical of me and so he graciously called me to get to know me for himself. I really appreciated his tact and tone. As we got to know one another, he did share some ways he felt I could grow as a Christian leader, and I was thankful he did that privately in the context of a friendship rather than publicly in the context of a conflict. Since then, we’ve grown as friends able to speak honestly into one another’s lives as brothers.

When I did Elephant Room Round 1, I thought is was a brilliant idea—unscripted, honest conversation about important issues. So, when Pastor James invited me to participate in Elephant Room Round 2, I was glad to sign up. As Pastor James started inviting guests, some people became critical of the lineup with at least one participant backing out and others who were invited choosing not to come. I chose to continue forward for four reasons. 

One, James is my friend and after his 30 years of faithful Bible preaching and teaching as a very fruitful and faithful pastor I wanted to be a friend at his side during what could have been a rough event. For the record, those who chose not to join us will find no judgment from me—everyone has to live according to conscience and mine is clear for participating as theirs is clear for not participating. 

Two, I believed it was an important event and rather than talking about Christian leaders, the opportunity to talk with them is important as it models humble but forthright disagreement. In the acrimonious age of the Internet this kind of modeling is important. I know I too have been guilty of talking about people rather than to them, so I do not exclude myself from the need to learn and mature in this area. 

Three, I wanted to learn. With so many leaders coming together the time offstage over dinner and behind the scenes would be for me an opportunity to learn and grow. I don’t claim to be humble, but I want to pursue humility by the grace of God and learn. 

Four, I believed I was supposed to go and the senior leaders in our church agreed, and so I went with their blessing. I honestly had no idea how it would go or where the issues would fall, and so I was just trying to juggle it all in the moment as best I could while thousands looked on—many of them critics who would have gone negative no matter what was said.

Here are some things I learned:

1. I appreciate godly friends who don’t want to defeat me publicly but rather help me privately. 

Some years ago when I was leading our megachurch with no formal theological training and having never been a formal member of any church let alone a pastor in any church, I was in a scrum with the emergent church and was completely full of myself. Dr. Gerry Breshears, former president of the Evangelical Theological Society, put an arm around me, built a degree program for me, loved me, served me, and helped me grow theologically. 

He remains to this day a dear friend loved by my family and me. I also appreciate that when many were taking shots, Dr. John Piper came and stood next to me put an arm around me and said he had hope for me and loved me. 

People like this are a gift. I want to grow in becoming a person like that, and though I’ve got a long way to go, I want to not get more angry, narrow, hardened and tribal as I get older but rather grow in grace. I don’t want to be a lonely old man shooting everyone who does not fit on my island. I have close friendships, most of them private, with Christian leaders across the theological spectrum. We share a love for Jesus and a love for each other. Some consider me their theology buddy whom they can call on issues, and I deeply enjoy those friendships and want to serve in any way I can.

2. I don’t want to just make a point—I want to make a difference by God’s grace. 

At an event hosted by Perry Noble, Andy Stanley gave one of the most helpful and practical leadership talks I’ve ever heard. He said as a leader we have to decide if we mainly want to make a point or to make a difference. 

If we want to make a point, we don’t need to pursue, know, or love someone. We can simply sit back, create a caricature of them, and shoot them. If we want to make a difference, we have to pursue them, get to know them, understand them, love them, and serve them. 

Making a point is easy. Making a point will get you a rabid online fan base who love it when there’s someone else’s blood in the water. Making a difference is hard. Making a difference will get you attacked by a rabid online fan base who love it when your blood is in the water.

3. My theology is a home and not a prison. 

I wrote Doctrine: What Christians Should Believe with Dr. Breshears. It’s a readable systematic theology with maybe a thousand footnotes. I have gone on record with my beliefs. They are unchanging. I have spent every day since my conversion 22 years ago studying the Bible and theology, and I have spent the last 15 years preaching and teaching the Bible and recently finished a two-year preaching series in the Gospel of Luke

My theological convictions are deep. But I also want my convictions to love people, serve people, and desire the best for people to grow to be as deeply passionate as what I believe. So, I like to visit other churches, denominations, and tribes. I like to see how things work at their house and what we could do better at our house.

4. I have a lot to learn. 

I did not grow up in an evangelical church. I was saved at 19 and planted a church at 25, which was too early, as I was not ready. The church I pastor is the only church of which I’ve ever been a member. Mars Hill has grown by 5,000 in a recent two-week time period, and we are now 15,000 people a week! 

I say that not to brag, but to show how wonderfully complex it is to try and steward so much of God’s grace and so many people. Nothing changes until the leader changes, and I have a lot to learn. While I can and do learn a lot theologically from my tribe, the truth is there are not many evangelistically fruitful churches in my tribe and there are not any churches larger than ours I can learn from. So, I have to go outside of my theological tribe to learn certain things.

5. I want to be helpful.

I don’t want to be controlled, and I don’t want to control people. I prefer to be influential by giving things away for people to wrestle with on their own. I especially like to help leaders with research, Bible software, etc. I think one of my spiritual gifts is to give, and I really enjoy serving other leaders, which in part explains why we give so much away, why we created Resurgence and Acts 29 for church planting, why I do free Leadership Coaching videos, and more.

6. Fear of man is deadly. 

Proverbs 29:25 says that fear of man is a trap or a snare, depending upon your translation. Fear of man causes us to live for the approval of our tribe and to fear criticism or ostracism from our tribe. Fear of man is a form of idolatry—living to please someone other than Jesus Christ. One day I will die and give an account and it won't be to a mirror or a blogger. 

We will all die and give an account, but it won’t be to a blogger or a mirror. Right now I’m working on my next book based on Ephesians, with the big idea of what it means to have our identity rooted “in Christ.” In God’s providence, this season of criticism has been met with a rich and rewarding extended time in God’s Word helping me to do what wise counsel and I believe is right in light of the gospel, regardless of the outcome. I’m more a prophet than a politician. 

7. Winning people is better than winning arguments. 

Winning arguments is fun. Winning people to Jesus is more fun. And winning Christians who are off on theological essentials to an orthodox position is also more fun than winning arguments. My main aim is not to win arguments with my critics, but win people to my Christ.

I’m an evangelist at heart—a Bible-teaching evangelist, but an evangelist nonetheless. In preaching Luke, we also baptized over 2,000 people by God’s grace! I think in the grace of God you can teach the Bible and reach the lost. 

I also work a lot with young leaders and church planters who are, like me, works in progress. I want to see where God is taking people and help them get there rather than time-stamping them based upon their past or condemning them as if there was no future hope for them. 

At the Elephant Room event, I know everyone has a list of issues they wished I would have hammered away on. The format was set, I was a guest, and I wanted to be respectful and clear at the same time. So, I went after the big issues I felt were most important in the limited time. If I get a chance in the days to come to continue dialoguing with some people in the context of a respectful relationship, I will ask more questions and seek more clarity if that’s what God allows.

8. I love people I don’t agree with. 

Some of them I even like. Some people who agree with me aren’t much fun to hang with, if I’m honest. So, sometimes I will spend time with people I love, like, and enjoy—even if we don’t agree. I’m no Jesus, but he lived that way, and religious types lost their mind seeing him hang out with the wrong people. The truth is, we’re all the wrong people, and I’m sure glad Jesus is willing to hang out with me, as I’m sure I drive him nuts much of the time. 

9. The Holy Spirit is not done with me. 

And the Holy Spirit is not done with you. The Holy Spirit is not done with others.

10. I love my family and church family. 

I’m so glad I have Grace and the Fab Five and that what is seen publicly is only a fraction of my life, as the good stuff is really happening as we ride bikes, play whiffle ball, and laugh a lot. I’m so glad to be a pastor at Mars Hill with a wonderful team on a wonderful mission. More than ever, I’m convinced family and local church are what matters most and that the rest of what I get to do is interesting but not nearly as important.