My Biggest Regret as a Pastor

Erik Cooper —  September 3, 2014 — 13 Comments

It’s been two years since I stepped away from full-time church ministry and into my new leadership role with a missions-based non-profit here in Indianapolis. Time almost always yields perspective, and as the months have quietly ticked by, I’ve been able to look back on my dozen-year pastoral journey with a clear sense of joy, pride (the good kind), and appreciation. Those were incredibly fruitful years I wouldn’t trade for anything.

But there’s one giant regret that I just can’t seem to shake. Something I think young pastors and leaders might want to take time to ponder. Let me explain.


Like most young leaders, my sincere zeal to launch the church into the 21st century focused my energies squarely on all the things that were wrong, broken, or ridiculous about the way we did ministry. (And let’s be honest, there are some large targets to aim at).

Empty tradition was my main enemy. And so began the long, arduous task of unraveling all the “religious” irrelevancy that was most certainly reducing christianity’s impact in today’s progressive culture. Everything “Church” was parsed, questioned, and unwound until most conversations took on the forlorn overtones of the opening lines of Ecclesiastes:

“Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!”
–Ecclesiastes 1:2

(In my opinion, this is a classic sign of over-analysis).

So I cast off, threw out, and abandoned the “absurd ways” of my predecessors. After all, we’d progressed. I knew better. I could see it all so much clearer. Yet after all the unwinding was complete, it started to feel like there wasn’t much of anything left.

Many of you are probably quietly arguing that this kind of critique is a vital part of a healthy rebirthing process. And you (might) be right. I don’t regret challenging the status quo. But if I had it to do all over again…

…I would be less consumed with tearing down rote tradition, and more obsessed with restoring rich meaning.

Focusing on the restoration of meaning will ultimately neutralize many rote traditions, but fixating on the destruction of tradition won’t get you meaning. (It may get you some things you didn’t want). There’s a not-so-subtle difference between meticulously restoring the beauty of an historic house, and zealously disassembling it and tearing it to the ground.

The generation behind me craves meaning. They want substance. Something bigger than themselves. Something rich with foundation and significance. The Church has been around for two-thousand years. Some of the best answers to “institutional irrelevancy” might actually be found by looking backward. (And I’m not talking about back to the 1950s).

Maybe I’m just getting old and losing my edge. Or maybe there’s something worthwhile here to ponder. I’ll let you decide.

The Sin of Being Good

Erik Cooper —  August 20, 2014 — 8 Comments

I’m a church kid. I admit it. Let all Petra listening, Michael W. Smith dressing, Amy Grant secular crossover questioning 40-somethings stand up and be counted! I’m not ashamed.

OK, maybe I’m a little ashamed (mostly of the Petra Praise phenomenon, but alas).

I was a good kid. I had a sensitive heart. I didn’t like to disappoint my parents, my teachers, my youth pastors, and most of all…God. And so I embraced the quintessential good kid persona. I went to church, abstained from sex, didn’t swear, never drank alcohol, avoided rated R movies, parties on the weekends, and hanging Metallica posters on my wall.

And I don’t regret any of it. In fact, if I had it to do over again I would attempt to play all my cards exactly the same way. Being good solves a whole lot of problems, rest assured.

But it doesn’t make you righteous.

And that’s where I fear many of us (myself included) often stumble. We’ve defined sin and righteousness as behaviors, actions, and outward tangibles we can measure and see.

  • Going to a rated R movie = Sin
  • Going to a church youth group = Righteousness
  • Partying on the weekend = Sin
  • Avoiding cuss words = Righteousness

(The list could go endlessly on).

And that’s no small mistake. Why? You may have some difficulty believing this, but our desire to be rebellious pleasure seekers and our discipline to be squeaky-clean rule-followers actually originate in the same place…

…our insatiable desire to be our own savior.

Yeah, I know. It was a hard one for me to swallow, too. But sin isn’t rooted in our actions, it’s rooted in where we find our identity. In whom we place our trust.

It’s easy to see the sin in pleasure-seeking and self-obsession. It’s harder to convince yourself it’s just as present in your line-towing and self-righteousness. But be honest, our motivation in “being good” originates in our insatiable longing to secure our identity in our works. We want to be in control. We want to prove we’re “better than them.” We want to save ourselves.

  • If I obey, God will approve of me.
  • If I follow the rules, God will do what I want Him to do.
  • If I do good, God will do good things to me.

I am the source, my actions are the trigger, and God responds to me. I find my identity in my work for Him instead of His work for me. I begin to trust in my “goodness” and not His.

And that, my friends, is sin. The sin of “being good.”

So what am I suggesting? Should we throw out our attempts to be good right along with those old CCM CD’s? Of course not (some of those albums will be collector’s items soon). Being good is good. It’s wise. I highly recommend it.

But it’s not righteousness. That can only come from one place, and it’s not you. The Gospel is for “good people,” too.

A few weeks ago, I had the honor of preaching for my friend Nate Pyle at Christ’s Community Church in Fishers, Indiana. He trusted me to share whatever was on my heart at the time, so I took the opportunity to tell the story of my medical scare earlier this year and what God has been teaching me through the fear and unknowns.

If you’ve experienced past difficulties in your life, are going through them right now, or will wrestle with suffering in the future (if you’re reading this, that’s you), I hope you can find some perspective and encouragement from my story. The audio link is below.

Two things:

1. If this message speaks to you in any way, I’d appreciate hearing about it in the comment section of this post. Perhaps your story can encourage someone else as well.

2. In this message, I make some (attempts at) humorous quips about my wife, her understandable panic when she found me unconscious, and her growing frustrations with having to drive me around for 11 weeks. I think they unintentionally painted the wrong picture about her. I want to go on record here by clearly declaring the rock she was throughout my recovery, selflessly serving and walking with me through one of the scariest season of our 19 year journey together.

Thanks for listening. God bless,


I love social media. Sure, it has it’s obvious downside – the distractions, the comparisons – but like anything, the medium isn’t really the issue. It just gives us another forum to express both our beauty and our brokenness.

That said, I realize how a quick thought, a short quote, or a beautiful picture can make moments in time seem like the entirety of our existence.

“Wow, Joe and Beth must be having a blast in Paris.”

“I wish we could afford to eat out as much as the Crawfords do.”

“Mary is always doing some kind of craft with her kids. I’ve got to get better at this motherhood thing.”

“Mike sure plays a lot of golf. Must be nice to have that kind of job flexibility.”

For the most part, we post things that people will “like” to see. That’s kind of the point. But no one’s social media timeline tells their whole story. So I thought it would be fun to take 24 hours of posts from my Facebook page and fill in the blanks between the “shareable” moments. I hope it makes you smile. More than anything, I hope it helps you feel a little more normal and points you toward the only place your joy, contentment, and perfection will ever truly be found.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Social media has given me an outlet to make bad jokes that my family won’t laugh at. We were enjoying a back porch fire pit on an unseasonably cool July evening, and the mosquitos were having a feast on my ankles:

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 9.18.08 AM

And then…

  • I yelled at my 9 year old son for throwing things in the fire.
  • I tried to tell a couple of old stories to conjure up some family-night nostalgia. No one seemed interested.
  • My daughter got bored and went inside to watch the Disney Channel (again).
  • My other daughter yelled at her brother for continuing to throw things in the fire.
  • I yelled at them both for yelling at each other.
  • I went to bed grumpy, smelling of smoke, and wondering if I was leaving a good legacy as a dad.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

I love being up early, before the rest of the house even thinks about stirring. But today I overslept a bit. We had a lot to do before heading out on a last-weekend-before-school-starts overnight getaway to Columbus, Ohio, so I scrambled to wake up the family. I pushed aside the guilt I was feeling for lazily laying in bed and scrolling through my Facebook feed, and reposted my weekly blog to all my social feeds:

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 9.20.26 AM

I genuinely believed everything I said in this post, but my humanity crept in right after I hit share:

  • I wonder how many people will read this today? How ironic is it to find value in the number of “likes” you get on a post about not finding your value in other people’s approval.
  • I quickly got frustrated with the lack of urgency my family was showing for getting up and out the door. I didn’t yell, I just stewed.
  • I obsessively checked the activity on my blog post again. (After all, I had time).

Saturday, July 26, 2014

My own internal battle got me thinking about the worth and security message I’ve been preaching to so many others, and so I wrote:

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 9.23.12 AM

And so we loaded up the car and hit the road. A quick stop at some friends’ house for their daughter’s birthday party was the only pit-stop scheduled on our trek out of town. And while we were there:

  • My buddy showed me their construction plans for a housing expansion. Instead of just celebrating with him, a bit of envy pricked my heart. “I wish we had that kind of extra cash right now.”

We caught up on life, told some stories, laughed (a lot), ate some cake, and then climbed back aboard the family truckster:

  • I gave an inspired fatherly lecture about getting along in the car, a warning that was heeded for the approximate amount of time it took me to say it.
  • I yelled at my son for poking his sister.
  • I yelled at his sister for punching him in retaliation for his poke.
  • I quickly checked my blog traffic (at a stop light of course).
  • I gave my “this is the last time I’m going to say this” speech for the fourth time.
  • We settled into our three hour journey with multiple iPads, headphones, and Spotify. I wished we talked more, but I was happy for a small window of peace and quiet.

We arrived at the hotel.

  • My son skateboarded to the car on the luggage cart (after we repeatedly told him to leave it in the lobby).
  • I pushed down the swelling guilt about my apparently anemic parenting skills, certain no one else’s kid would repeatedly disobey like that.
  • We checked in and headed out for the evening. I silently wondered if this was the wisest thing to be spending a few hundred dollars on right now.
  • I snuck (another) peak at my blog traffic. It fed my ego.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

After a great dinner, our excitement about the unfolding weekend led us to ask a random stranger to take this “perfect” photo:

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 9.26.22 AM

This is what happens in the “in-between.” We live. We laugh. We struggle. We get angry. We succeed. We worry. We wrestle with identity, worth, and value.

All of us.

No one is as put together as you think, and you aren’t as hopeless as you feel. You’re not perfect, but there is One who is. Those “in-betweens” you want to hide from the world and the “postable” moments you want to shout (and share) from the mountaintop…

…Jesus came to redeem them all.

My daughter loves sports. In particular, watching NFL football, learning the game of golf, and playing basketball. She was a little late to the party on the hardwood and never played super seriously until she joined her high school team last fall. But she’s made some huge strides this year, and as Hoosiers that makes us smile.

This past weekend, she erupted in a developmental summer league game like a superhero just discovering her powers – hauling down rebounds, finding the open man, and driving hard to the basket for double digit scoring. We’ve never seen her play that way before. One ball-fake drive between two defenders to the basket even drew audible accolades from strangers in the stand.

Nice move 20!

She still has a lot to learn, but that Sunday afternoon went a long way to developing her confidence, exerting her will, and possibly even convincing her that she might be a halfway decent ball player.

Those are incredible life moments. I remember the first time I sat at the piano as a viable member of a band realizing, “I’m pretty good at this,” the first time I wrote a blog that really connected with people, the first time it hit me that I could genuinely lead a group of people.

It’s inspiring.

It’s empowering.

And if we’re not careful, it’s defining.

When we define our value by what we can (or can’t) do, we may find some short-term satisfaction, but we will eventually have an identity crisis. It’s inevitable. We will fail. We will lose. We will age. We will disappoint. And then we will get very confused.

To ensure “Gospel-sanity,” our abilities must always flow from our identity, not create our identity.

So after a great afternoon of developing her hoops prowess, I tried to end the day with a clarifying locker room speech (that was as much for me as it was for her).

“There is nothing more intoxicating than learning what you’re good at and feeling it begin to click. It’s awesome! Keep going! But never forget that your value doesn’t come from what you do, it rests in what Jesus did. I’m proud of your athletic development, but I love you because you’re my girl. You may do a lot of great things, but first and foremost you are my daughter. Whether you succeed or fail, that identity is settled.”

Isn’t that the message we all long to hear? Settled. Finished. Son. Daughter. Do from a position of done.

In Jesus, that’s your story, too.