What the Average Guy in the Pew Forgets if He Ever Knew

In Doug Munton’s excellent book, “Seven Steps to Becoming a Healthy Christian Leader,” I was fascinated by an account of Colonel Lucien Greathouse, a Union officer in the Civil War. Munton was speaking in Vandalia, Illinois, and while browsing the old cemeteries there he ran across the tombstone for Col. Greathouse.

That gravestone must have been rather wordy because Munton reports that it says Greathouse “led his command in forty pitched battles,” and quotes two generals with strong endorsements of the officer. General William Sherman, under whom Greathouse served on the march into Atlanta, said, “His example was worth a thousand men,” and General John Logan called him “The Bravest Man in the Army of Tennessee.”

On July 22, 1864, on the outskirts of Atlanta, Greathouse was killed, holding in his hands the American flag. Then, the kicker….

Munton writes, “And when he died in July of 1864, he was two months past his twenty-second birthday.”

This week, I shared that story with a couple of young pastors in my office. I said to them, “There’s a sermon illustration there. I don’t know what it is, but there’s one there.” We spent the next few minutes analyzing this brief account of the young officer’s life and untimely death, and finally figured it out.

What made this man so remarkable, of course, is his youthful age for that high a rank. As uncommon as that seems to us, it appears to be the rule that in wartime, rank advancements can occur at lightning speed. We recall that George Armstrong Custer was made a general in the same Union army at the age of 23. Then, when the war ended, he was dropped back to the permanent rank of captain, a real comedown. When he died at Little Big Horn in 1876, I think he was a lieutenant colonel.

Back to the story of Colonel Greathouse and the point our young pastors came up with: In wartime, the usual rules go out the window and you take drastic steps to accomplish daring purposes.

I asked the pastors if any had heard the news that morning. The FBI Special-Agent-in-Charge of the New Orleans office, Jim Bernazzani, was reporting a new initiative his office is conducting against the drug trade in our city. The night before, in cooperation with the New Orleans Police Department, the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office, and ATF, the FBI had arrested some people who were selling the purest of heroin to students at one of our inner city high schools.

A 15-year-old student had died from the heroin, and the men who had sold the drugs were caught and charged with her murder. The FBI agent told his audience that law enforcement officers were horrified to find our teenagers messing with the hardest of drugs. Then, he told what they’re doing about it.

“My men are going to see the parents of these schoolkids. We’re knocking on their doors and telling them what their teens are up to, and calling on them to get involved in their lives.”

“Isn’t this unusual?” he was asked. “Absolutely. We’ve never done anything like this before. But we are in a war on drugs, a war to save our kids, and we’ll do whatever it takes.”

There it is: in wartime, you take extreme measures to accomplish drastic purposes. Nothing routine applies any more.

One of the young pastors remarked that therein lay the problem for his congregation. “I have two groups of leaders in the church,” he said. “We have the younger ones who have been elected to positions of leadership and they want to take bold action. However, we have some older members, people who have been there forever, and even though they don’t actually hold offices in the church, they are the people of influence, and they don’t want to do anything that rocks the boat. It’s business as usual for them.”

It’s tough on young pastors to learn how to deal with this split in a church’s leadership. The minister is torn between trying to get the groups together, throwing his lot with the elected leaders no matter what the others say, or trying to placate the older members. It’s a tough situation to be in, however most of the pastors who read this blog will admit they have found themselves there more than once in their ministries. This is where you learn whether you’re going to be able to lead a church or not.

The challenge is to convince our people in the pews that they are living in a wartime. This is no time for the routine and mundane, for business as usual. The urgent needs of the hour call on the Lord’s church leaders to be bold and courageous, to not sit back waiting on a unanimous consensus of the congregation, but to stand up and lead out. To follow the Lord Jesus Christ and not try to find the lowest common denominator in the membership.

As 120-year-old Moses was living out his last few days, he turned his attention to Joshua who had been his backup quarterback, if you will, or maybe assistant coach is a better metaphor, for the last 40 years, and who was now about to assume the leadership. Moses knew that Joshua’s nature was to play second fiddle, to be an assistant pastor taking orders from the head man, and that he had served well in that capacity. However, everything was about to change. Joshua was becoming the point man, the one making decisions, without anyone over him to tell him what to do.

I’m struck by how many times at the end of Deuteronomy and the opening chapter of Joshua we find these instructions: “Only be strong and courageous.” I’ll let you look them up for yourself and notice how each repetition varies somewhat. Here they are: Deuteronomy 31:6,7,23, and Joshua 1:6,7,9,18. Seven times, Joshua and the Israelites–but mostly Joshua–are called on to be strong and courageous.

You get the impression that they needed prodding, that both the new leader and the people themselves were afflicted by a terminal case of timidity and hyper-conservatism. God and Moses knew what lay ahead, that Joshua would be leading that throng of a million-plus across the Jordan River in a miracle almost as impressive as when Moses led their parents through the Red Sea. After that, they would live in a state of constant warfare against the inhabitants of Canaan until the land was subdued.

It was wartime, and no time for the routine. This was not the time for polling the congregation to see what the followers wanted to do, or for the leader to shirk his responsibility. The day called for boldness and courage.

And that, I submit, is what the average guy in the pew is missing. He tends to think because he’s doing fine that everyone else is, too. His kids are behaving, so the world is at peace. He knows that Iraq and Iran are trouble spots in the world, that other people’s kids are doing drugs, and that homelessness and crime are problems in the downtown or inner-city areas. But these issues have not hit home with him yet, and probably won’t until it’s his son who is shipped out to the Middle East, or his daughter who overdoses on crack.

Nothing brings the problems of the world home quicker than it being your own child who is suffering.

But there is another way, a safer way and in some ways, a better way, for the fellow in the pew–and his wife and family–to learn of the war going on outside the front doors and the urgent needs of the hour. The pastor can tell them. In the pulpit, through his sermons, and by his personal example, the minister must constantly lay the situation outside the doors of the church on the hearts of the church members. They must be awakened and aroused to action.

Business as usual may be all right in peacetime, but this is not peacetime, not in any way.

I think of Roy Robertson, who was on the U.S. battleship West Virginia on the evening of December 6, 1941. They’d been out on maneuvers in the Pacific that week, and on Saturday night, as they pulled into Pearl Harbor everyone was given shore leave. Most of the sailors went into Honolulu for the usual activities, but Robertson considered himself a Christian with higher standards, so he accompanied a small group to a church near the base where a Bible study was being conducted.

Inside the church basement, the group of perhaps a dozen sat in a circle. The leader said, “Tell us your favorite Bible verse. Let’s start here and we’ll go around the circle.” Robertson panicked. He could not think of a single verse.

Finally, he remembered John 3:16 and began to piece it together in his mind. About the time he got it assembled, the fellow to his left recited it as his verse. Roy was humiliated. Later he said, “I sat there thinking, ‘Robertson, some Christian you are. You don’t even know one Bible verse.'”

The next morning early, battle stations were sounded and everyone fell out of his bunk. As Roy ran to his assigned position–a machine gun on deck–he saw the skies filled with planes from the Japanese Imperial Fleet, bombing and strafing the harbor. Roy jerked the cover off his gun and pointed it at the sky and began firing. That’s when he remembered he had no live ammunition. They had been firing blanks that week on maneuvers.

Roy called for someone to bring him some ammunition. He said, “For the first 15 minutes of the Battle of Pearl Harbor, I fired blanks at the enemy trying to frighten him. All the time, I kept saying to myself, ‘Robertson, this is the way your life has been–firing blanks. Doing no harm to the enemy and no good to your side.'”

Roy made the Lord and himself a promise that morning, that if he survived this war, his life would make a difference. Almost five years later, Roy heard that Dawson Trotman had founded an organization called the Navigators and joined with him. He lived a long life, directing the work of this Christian ministry all over Asia.

I fear so many of our churches are firing blanks, doing no harm to the enemy and no good to the Kingdom. That might have been all right when they were in training and in peacetime, but this is a time of war and nothing but our finest effort will do.

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Ephesians 6:12)

3 thoughts on “What the Average Guy in the Pew Forgets if He Ever Knew

  1. Joe, Thanks for the continual words of encouragement – both through your website and your handwritten notes. You are a blessing to many..

    I love your youthful approach to life….

    Mike Flores

  2. Joe,

    Any blog that begins with “Doug Munton’s excellent book” is bound to be a great one as far as I’m concerned! The Lucien Greathouse story is one of my favorites. Thanks for the Roy Robertson story. Doug Munton

  3. Another great article for my archives–my McKeever folder is starting to get quite thick!

    Two comments:

    1) The practice of temporarily bumping officers up in rank during wartime is called “brevetting” It was common up through WWII, but occurs rarely today. In the military organizational chart, certain jobs or commands are reserved for officers of a specific rank. For example, divisions typically are commanded by generals, battalions and regiments by colonels, companies by captains, etc. That’s why in wartime, when causalties tend to thin out the talent pool, lower grade officers were bumped up temporarily to fill empty slots. Interetesting twist–the brevet officers still got paid at the rate of their original rank even when serving at the higher rank.

    2) Playing second fiddle can be a really comfortable place to be. As the leader’s “strong right hand” you exercise most of the authority enjoyed by the leader, but receive a fraction of the scrutiny. Stepping out of the leader’s shadow brings a corresponding increase in stress and vulnerability. No wonder Moses had to buck up Joshua’s courage.

Comments are closed.