Portrait of A.J. Swoboda

A.J. Swoboda

  • Pastor
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  • Community Architect

Location: Portland, Oregon | USA

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Oct 3, 2013

Holy Uncertainty: Why Worship and Terror are Leadership Bedmates

As a kind of liturgy, I’ll stand before our nearly five-year-old church community on a Sunday in September and ask a question: “Should we continue to exist as a church for another year?” And every time, you could hear pins drop.

I oddly enjoy the awkwardness. The entire community—new comers, old comers, elders, parents—are always, without fail, caught off guard by my unsolicited question. Quickly surveying the faces, I can instantaneously discern their primal, intuitive responses: something tragic has happened. Is he quitting? Is he rejecting the Trinity? Did he sleep with the church secretary? There is a sort of terror in the room. Of course the answers are always no—I’m still the pastor, the Trinity is pretty much the best thing I’ve got going for me, and my wife’s the only one silly enough to take me in. It’s the immediate guttural reaction of uncertainty that I’m after; even if, momentarily, everyone imagines the worst-case scenario. For me, there’s great intentionality and rationale behind simply asking the question about our future. As the pastor, I never want us to assume that we should keep our ministry going because, well, we should just keep going. I desire Jesus to breath freshly into us each year. Now, I’d certainly hope that our folks would affirm our existence and that, yes, we should continue for another year. But there is within me something appealing about asking God if perhaps God wants the same thing.

No ministry is permanent. It strikes me that not a single church St. Paul planted claims to be in existence to this day. Ergo, churches, even the best ones with the best church planters, will eventually close their doors. God is eternal, not the local churches. Pushing further, I don’t think it’s unfair to suggest that there are a great number of churches that needed to shut down like yesterday, and, equally, countless churches that should have never given up in the first place. Because no ministry is permanent, it’s our job to discern if we’re to continue for a year in, year out basis. That’s why I ask the question. Every year. And it always causes a bit of a momentary panic in people’s eyes. That dreadful, confused, deer-in-the-headlights look on the unbelieving eyes of the congregation is, quite honestly, priceless. Instagram priceless.

Leadership is about creating holy uncertainty.

What if a leaders task included not only leading through, but actually creating, moments of holy uncertainty? I agree: a leaders job is to lead. Leading, however, creates quite a problem. Because today’s leader is in the business of leading people in times of uncertainty, they assume that a necessary requirement for good leadership is certainty in all things—that we know the future, we know the right answers, and we know the right path forward. And why not? We live in uncertain times and people are more scared than ever. I unapologetically believe that this accounts for a great number of churches’ exponential growth: they’ve tapped into the emerging market of selling and trading the commodity of certainty in uncertain times to uncertain people. With a desperate market, people will buy certainty even if, sadly, said certainty is based on lies. Driven by this, pastors can easily morph into certainty priests and neglect their divinely given assignment.

I question this economy, particularly, as it relates to pastoral leadership. The modern pastors incessant lust for certainty has ultimately created a context where we, ourselves, have become the incarnation of truth to those we lead. Perhaps this incessant drive arises from souls which need great renovation.[1] Regardless of where it comes from, one thing remains widely true: pastors can become advice machines. In so doing, we implicitely disciple people to need us more than they need Jesus. As advice machines, we unknowingly teach people that truth is mediated through us. We become the Third Adams. We become too necessary, which is, great marketing, horrible leadership, and practical idolatry.

A leader is a Moses. A leader goes up the mountain to be with God so as to create a moment of sheer terror for Israel below. A leaders seeks to be unnecessary. In fact, a leader doesn’t know how to get to the Promised Land. A leader just knows how to get into the desert and knows God will show up somewhere along the way. Leadership is actually about leading people out of an Egypt of certainty and into a desert of holy uncertainty. It is there, and only there, that Israel could worship freely. For a church that craves certainty, uncertainty is becomes our road to worship. That is why we must create uncertainty—moments where sheer fear dances boldly on the faces of God’s people. For there, God’s people can worship.

Good leaders, like Moses, don’t envision uncertainty as an enemy to worship. They see uncertainty as the way to worship.

Moses hoped. He hoped they would make it to the Promised Land, although he didn’t know. Like Moses, we hope. We insist on ending our priesthood of certainty and receive the ministry of hope. We remember the difference between the two—the latter relies on eyesight, the former vision. One requires us to know exactly what will happen for us to be comfortable. The latter crucifies comfort. And does so that hope might will soon be resurrected.

Which brings me back to a church terrorized I’ve empregnated the church secretary or become a modalist. Without directly addressing the church’s clearly raw and freshly uncovered nakedness, I’ll pause for ten to fifteen seconds to just stare at God’s flock. I stare hard. Not to be mean. Not to be dramatic. It is within that fifteen seconds where time stands still. Long. Arduous. Awkward. Unnecessary. These are all words I’ve internally used to describe the moment. Then I see it. Anew, I stand before Israel in the desert—naked, afraid, yet on the precipice of worship. Then, there, in their eyes, right then, for that fleeting fifteen seconds, is seen on their face the name of something that is so important, so integral, and so fundamental to being a Christian in today’s world. Some would call it sheer terror. I call it a moment of potential worship. And in a world that worships uncertainty, uncertainty becomes the very place where we can truly worship God. And I believe it is in such moments of sheer uncertainty that we can truly worship Jesus as Lord of everything. That moment before we land on a communal answer is holy. Before continuing, like a wedding of yesteryear, I ask if anyone objects to another year of community (No one ever does; I’m sure someone will at some point). Then we agree on another year.

For good leaders, worship and terror are bedmates.

[1] In her book, Strengthening the Soul of your Leadership, Ruth Barton brings insight to the life of Moses by writing that one of the keys to being a leader is to re-attend to the life of the soul.



Books I've Written

Tongues and Trees: Toward a Pentecostal Ecological Theology

Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology: Foundations in Scripture, Theology, History, and Praxis

A Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension Between Belief and Experience

Messy: God Likes it That Way

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Top 10 Books Ever

#1 Theology and Hope: On the Ground and Implications of a Christian Eschatology (Jürgen Moltmann)

#2 Church Dogmatics (Karl Barth)

#3 Systematic Theology: Doctrine, Witness, Ethics (William McClendon)

#4 Scandalous Beauty: The Artistry of God and the Way of the Cross (Thomas Schmidt)

#5 On the IncarnationDe Incarnatione Verbi Dei (St. Athanasius)

#6 Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship (Leslie Newbigin)

#7 Narratives of a Vulnerable God: Christ, Theology, and Scripture (William Placher)

#8 Personal KnowledgeTowards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Michael Polanyi)

#9 Desiring the KingdomWorship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (James K.A. Smith)

#10 Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Miroslav Volf)


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