Put Down the Remote Control, Church Leaders


A controller dictates the actions of things on video games. We use remote controls to make tiny cars turn or watch what we want on television. Control towers dictate the movement of thousands of planes every day, all around the world.

So I guess in these instances, control is fun or challenging or makes our lives easier or travel safer. We try to maintain control in order to get a desired outcome.

No wonder I try to control people.

I control my kids with consequences or a raised voice. I control friends with affirmation or judgment. I try to control strangers with charity or fear.

Why the obsession? Why this need for control?

* * * * *

This whole idea of control weighs heavily on my mind – we completed our fourth week in our book discussion of Rob Bell’s “Love Wins.” The experience has been transformational for me, not theologically or exegetically, but relationally.

What changed me was the experience of entering into a discussion on a controversial topic and not once feeling my blood pressure rise. What changed me is this process of having questions and then looking through the Gospels to find possible solutions, instead of falling back on rote answers and clichés.

What changed me is this deliberate intention of not trying to control people’s opinions or beliefs.

Going into this book discussion, I could have set up camp in one particular school of thought and then spent the entire six weeks trying to convince everyone to join me there. I could have lobbed adversarial verses (taken out of context) at anyone who disagreed with me. I could have used the sword of the Lord to slice and dice my way to the position of “leader of the group.” And I could have sounded very smart doing it.

But you know what changed me? A revolutionary concept:

Listening. It’s difficult to control people when you are listening.

So I started wondering, What if the church got better at listening?

In the last few weeks I’ve heard from many other folks at many other churches.

“Our pastor would never let us read that.”

“My friends at church could never have a civil conversation about that topic.”

I even received a comment on my Facebook page that went something along the lines of:

“It angers me that this book is even open to discussion! That implies there is truth in it. This author is deceived and so are Christians who do not speak out against it.”

Comments like that sadden me to the core, not because I see self-righteousness or judgmentalism, but because I see fear transforming, as it so often does, into a desire to control.

Even if “Love Wins” is completely “wrong,” what good does it do to pretend it doesn’t exist, to pretend that people aren’t reading it?

More importantly, what good does it do the church to pretend that people aren’t asking these questions?

The church as an organization, if it wants to regain any sort of relevance, must start helping people explore these questions and not shut down the dialogue, before it even begins, with a terse word and a glaring look.

The church, just like any individual, has nothing to gain in the long-term by controlling people.

Put down the remote, church leaders, and start listening.

*This is of course not true of all churches. The leadership at my church, and a few others in the area, supported me throughout this book discussion and checked in often to see how things were going.They kept me in line and challenged some of my assertions. And, more importantly, they asked questions, and they listened.

10 Replies to “Put Down the Remote Control, Church Leaders”

  1. Yes, yes, yes to all of this. But especially this: “. . . I see fear transforming, as it so often does, into a desire to control.” I think fear is at the heart of more of our actions than we realize. Great post.

  2. Great post Shawn! I have seen this happen over and over. The leaders or fathers see a legitimate danger, and they get scared. So they quickly pick up the remote control and begin pushing buttons, trying to control the church members (or in the case of a father, his children). And the result is, as my dad puts it, “You either get robots or rebels.” Robots obey the remote control. Rebels, well, they… rebel.

  3. Great post Shawn! This is really encouraging to read. I think those ground rules you set down (ironically, a form of control) actually helped free people to listen and engage with each other.

    I admit, I am a little curious about what you talked about and your thoughts on the book but I think what you just wrote is way more helpful for my soul.

    1. Agree…Freedom isn’t the absence of controls; it’s the presence of the right ones.

  4. Love it! Thanks for a great post! As a control freak in other areas, this post has challenged me to put down the remote and start listening. I’ll let you know what my husband thinks of this….. lol! Good, good stuff.

  5. When I was growing up, my parents set many controls. I wasn’t allowed to cross the street. I wasn’t allowed to talk to strangers. There were certain television shows I was not allowed to watch. Of course, fear played into those parental controls; they didn’t want me to be hit by a car, get carried off in a shady van, or turn into Bart Simpson. The flip-side is, they loved me. They knew, without their controls, I would have brought terrible harm into my life.

    Today, I frequently cross streets and talk to strangers, and I’m “allowed” to watch whatever I please–though there are still television shows I wisely choose not to watch. My parents didn’t just control me when I was younger, they taught me how to discern things for myself.

    Churches are families with newborn believers and seasoned saints. No church leader is going to have a new Christian read Sailhamer’s “The Meaning of the Pentateuch.” They’re not ready for a 600+ page tome concerning textual strategies within the Tanak. There are better resources to help people understand the Old Testament at first.

    In a similar way, I don’t think Bell’s “Love Wins” is the best book to guide believers to an understanding of heaven and hell. I’ve steered people away from it and recommended a few other resources. That’s controlling, in fear and in love. But there are some who I’ve encouraged to read it so we can discuss it.

    I don’t think the issue is fundamentally about control. My question is, why does the church have 30-somethings who aren’t allowed to cross the street? Does the church have a control problem, or is it a problem discipling believers in how to discern what the bible has to say and faithfully apply it to their lives?

    1. That’s a great point Brandon.

      “Does the church have a control problem, or is it a problem discipling believers in how to discern what the bible has to say and faithfully apply it to their lives?”

      Your comment makes me wonder if the church is hesitant in letting its kids grow up, in the same way that many parents, out of a loving heart, don’t want to release their own children into young adulthood.

  6. Shawn, wonderful post! I was raised in the Christian tradition my entire life and my parents were at the extreme end of the control spectrum. So much so, that in the early 1970s when Bruce Lee movies began getting popular I wanted to take karate in the first grade – my folks FLIPPED out.

    They claimed karate was all about meditation, Eastern mysticism and of the devil…etc. Needless to say they had the same reaction when I brought home a book from a friend’s house called “The Zen of Pooh” when I was an early teen. I was curious about these other ideas, but my folks wanted to ignore the existence of those different perspectives.

    Their insular approach left me completely unprepared for the secular onslaught and pluralistic pummelling I endured at college – I barely made it out with my faith in tact.

    What would have been more helpful from my folks – and church leaders today – would have been an active engagement on different perspectives and a willingness to thoughtfully point out the deficencies of those other belief systems.

    I truly believe the quote by former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “That in the marketplace of ideas, the truth will win.”

    BTW, my daughters and I attend a karate class twice a week….and I can still say “Jesus is Lord.”

  7. Your testimony about the Love Wins discussion is wonderful. Love it. I love being reminded to listen, too.

    Ever growing in humility, emptying ourselves…

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