Responding to Critics: the Contrast of Brian Mclaren and Perry Noble

Two men with so much in common. Both pastors who have a heart for people to know God and experience the new life that Jesus brings. In doing the work of ministry their own unique way, both have had to listen to incredible criticism and even endure name-calling from a variety of directions. The obvious difference between the two is how they have chosen to respond to the pressure of criticism.

As I was re-reading Brian Mclaren’s illuminating chapter on the subject of fasting inFinding Our Way Again, he was explaining the impact that the spiritual practice of fasting had made in his life. Mainly, he found that as he intentionally said “no” to some of his desires and impulses for a time, it has had a cumulative effect that has enabled him to say “no” to the larger temptations in life. One of those temptations he found himself facing was in desiring to respond harshly to critics of his writings and theology.

Here’s what he wrote:

“I think back to last week, when someone sent me a link to a website where a critic of my work indulged in some high-flying religious character assassination. My reaction to being misrepresented, insulted, and mocked was quite literally visceral. I felt something tighten in my gut, strangely similar in some ways to the craving for a chocolate-covered glazed doughnut. I started thinking about ways I could get back at this fellow, things I could write that would prove to him and to all virtual reality who the better man is. It was a kind of hunger…for revenge, I’m ashamed to say, and for self-justification, and to win and to hurt rather than lose and be hurt. And sitting here not, I wonder if my ability to let that feeling go last week didn’t have something to do with letting five hundred calories drop behind the Thank You sign on a trash can door one day. A little practice at impulse control, a little practice at facing my weakness, a little practice at laughing at my pretensions to maturity and spirituality, and a new possibility was actualized…thanks to a tradition carried by a community, embodied in some mentors who shared “elbow knowledge” with me. They say that practice makes perfect, but I wouldn’t know about that. What I do know is that practice makes possible some things that would otherwise have been impossible.”

Reading through the wisdom that Brian has gained through fasting gives me hope that over the next 20 or 30 years in ministry, I will be able to make the same wise decision to respond graciously and not satisfy my carnal urges for revenge. As I thought through this I realized that thanks to Out of Ur and a whole host of other bloggers, Perry Noble has come to serve as a contrast to the kind of graciousness of which Mclaren wrote.

I write this not to indict Perry Noble, for I do not know him, nor do I fully understand the stress that he is under as a leader in a large church. It’s hard enough to sleep at night as a pastor of a smaller community. But it seems from the videos that he has not been able to say no to the temptation to respond to critics in a way that could be described as “less than generous”. As I read Brian’s description about what he initially desired to do but refrained from; namely, “getting back” at his critic, “proving to him who the better man is”, “seeking revenge”, “self-justification”, “having a desire to win”, I couldn’t stop thinking of those words describing adequately what Perry Noble has been seeking by videotaping his responses to critics and then posting them on You Tube the following week.

And sadly, while there are plenty of other venues available when you fall into the trap of feeling the need to justify yourself, he has chosen to use the stage from which God has given him the responsibility of preaching His Word on Sundays. Once you start using the “pulpit” to respond to public critics and bloggers, the church ceases to be about a gathered community of Christ-followers worshiping together, and more about a pastor dealing with the hurt that comes from critics taking shots. Sunday morning is far from the ideal platform to respond to critics and unfortunately it is on those mornings where his videos have gone from ironic and embarrassing (talking bad about pastors who talk bad about pastors from the stage), to straight up self-justification (scoreboard).

As pastors, there is no doubt that we all need to process the hurt and anxiety that comes from critics as well as ask questions like, “why does this bother me so much?” After all, some criticisms are more justified than others and should in fact be taken into account, even if the critic is not a close friend. But the place for that to happen doesn’t come on Sunday mornings in a sermon. It comes in the context of trusted mentors and spiritual friends who help us process why the critics’ voice feels so destructive to our soul.

In processing the contrast of Mclaren and Noble this week, my prayer is that I will have the ability to say no to those urges that rise up within me as a pastor to seek recognition, attention, justification, and self-worth from the ministry that Jesus has commissioned me with. But instead look to the person of Jesus himself who tells me that my worth and value come from what he has done through his death and resurrection and are ultimately found in God alone.

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