Friday, January 30, 2009

AN EVANGELICAL'S LAMENT AND JOURNEY: The Pastoral Issue

Marc Chagall
Solitude, 1933


Thus far, I have posted about the central issue that led my wife and I, recently in a position to search for a church family, to leave non-denominational evangelicalism and to join a mainline (Lutheran) church. That core issue is worship. In an early post in this series, I pointed out two other areas of concern: the pastoral issue and the missional issue.

Today, I begin to take up what I believe is the broken model of pastoral work in evangelicalism and our search for ministerial integrity.

The rest of the story...

Actually, there would be an simple way to write this post. I could simply recommend to you all the books on ministry written by Eugene Peterson. However, instead of taking the easy way out, I will try to put my own thoughts together in a series of articles. But I will use Peterson today to introduce this series by giving you some of my favorites quotes from a few of his books.

I could not easily put my hands on all the books I wanted to quote from, but I think you will get the message from what is shared here today.
When I look for help in developing my pastoral craft and nurturing my pastoral vocation, the one century that has the least to commend it is the twentieth. Has any century been so fascinated with gimmickery, so surfeited with fads, so addicted to nostrums, so unaware of God, so out of touch with the underground spiritual streams which water eternal life? In relation to pastoral work the present-day healing and helping disciplines are like the River Platte as described by Mark Twain, a mile wide and an inch deep. They are designed by a people without roots in an age without purpose for a people without God.

Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, p. 12

Until about a century ago, what pastors did between Sundays was a piece with what they did on Sundays. The context changed: instead of an assembled congregation, the pastor was with one other person or with small gatherings of persons, or alone in study and prayer. The manner changed: instead of proclamation, there was conversation. But the work was the same: discovering the meaning of Scripture, developing a life of prayer, guiding growth into maturity.

...The between-Sundays work of American pastors in this century, though, is running a church. I first heard the phrase just a few days before my ordination. After thirty years, I can still remember the unpleasant impression it made.

I was traveling with a pastor I respected very much. I was full of zest and vision, anticipating pastoral life. My inner conviction of call to the pastorate was about to be confirmed by others. What God wanted me to do, what I wanted to do, and what others wanted me to do were about to converge. From fairly extensive reading about pastor and priest predecessors, I was impressed that everyday pastoral life was primarily concerned with developing a life of prayer among the people. Leading worship, preaching the gospel, and teaching Scripture on Sundays would develop in the next six days into representing the life of Christ in the human traffic of the everyday.

With my mind full of these thoughts, my pastor friend and I stopped at a service station for gasoline. My friend, a gregarious person, bantered with the attendant. Something in the exchange provoked a question.

"What do you do?"

"I run a church."

No answer could have surprised me more. I knew, of course, that pastoral life included institutional responsibilities, but it never occurred to me that I would be defined by those responsibilities. But the moment I became ordained, I found I was so defined both by the pastors and executives over me and by the parishioners around me. The first job description given me omitted prayer entirely.

The Contemplative Pastor, p. 66f

There are powerful cultural forces determined to turn Jesus into a kindly, wandering sage, teaching us how to live well, dispensing homespun wisdom, arousing our desire for God, whetting our appetite for higher truths—all of which are good things. These same forces are similarly determined to turn us, the church's pastors and leaders, into kindly religious figures, men and women who provide guidance through difficult times, who dole out inspiration and good cheer on a weekly schedule, who provide smiling reassurance that "God's in his heaven...," and keep our congregations busy at tasks that bolster their self-esteem—also good things.

And if they don't turn us into merely nice people, they turn us into replicas of our cultural leaders, seeking after power and influence and prestige. These insistent voices drum away at us, telling us pastors to go out and compete against the successful executives and entertainers who have made it to the top, so that we can put our churches on the map and make it big in the world.

The Unnecessary Pastor, p. 1

We're not the only church in Bel Air, and I'm not the only pastor. Few places in America are unchurched. Am I going to trust the Holy Spirit to do his work through other churches in my community, or am I going to think that if we don't do it, it's not going to get done?

A great deal of arrogance develops out of the feeling that when we have something good going, we have to triple it so everybody gets in on it. Many different ministries take place in the community and in the world, and it's bad faith on my part to assume the Holy Spirit isn't just as active in them as in my ministry.

Subversive Spirituality, p. 228

There is, of course, nothing wrong with a large-membership congregation. But neither is there anything right about it. Size is not a moral quality. It is a given. It is what is there—part of the environment in which the pastor works. "It is not the pastor's fault if he is born in times of barrenness, when it is difficult to do good" (Bengel). Size is mostly the result of cultural conditions. Congregations are large when there is social approval to be part of a religious establishment, small when there isn't. The pastor cannot choose his or her culture. The size of the congregations we serve is contingent on what decade we happen to be living in and what qualities of leadership happen to be in vogue at the time. While pious ways in the pastor will attract churchgoers in one place, worldly sophistication will attract them in another place. Angry preaching will be rewarded at one time, kindly preaching at another, quite apart from whether either the anger or the kindness communicates the gospel of Jesus Christ. Because these variables are notoriously inconstant, spiritual and biblical integrity is far more important than the skillful use of propaganda in doing pastoral work, the doctrine of providence of more significance than any image-making publicity.

Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, p. 165
Amazing words. Peterson's insights on the pastoral ministry cut like a laser to the heart of the matter almost every time. I regret that I did not read, digest, and figure out how to put his stuff into practice every week of my 30 years of pastoral ministry. Any further thoughts I share will be faint echoes of his strong voice.

5 comments:

Star said...

Hey, Pastor Mike!!! It's Star. I couldn't agree with you more. I have thought for a very long time that there is a problem in the modern, American churches. It has become so much more prominant since I have been studying from the perspective of Messianic Jews. I have become more discontent with the "entertainment" and singing fluffy choruses. I found that I was sinning by being in the church because I was doing more "condemning" than worship. I was critisizing the sermons when scripture is not "rightly divided."
I have a desire to worship with Messianic Jews but the only church in Indy meets on Friday nights and I work. We're in the saem boat so let's ROCK IT!

willohroots said...

I respect your move to Lutheran , but why did you not start a church where you could worship in Spirit and in Truth on your own? I would imagine there are others, like Star who would come with you. I think we need to get to the point where we tell pastors and "worship leaders" in a nice way"that sucks, if you sing a brainless chorus one more time I will tie a rope into a scourge and beat you till you sing something with meaning.

Michael Mercer said...

Willohroots, thanks for reading and commenting. One aspect of our journey has been to move away from the entrepreneurial, start-your-own kind of evangelicalism that I've been part of for a long time. We long for something with deep roots, that respects what the Holy Spirit has taught the church throughout history as well as the fresh gifts he is imparting today.

AZ said...

Remember in the second Screwtape Letter, where the Church is described as "spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners?"

If the church were seen like that, wouldn't there be less contemporary experimentation?

If tradition and continuity were understood and valued aptly, wouldn't the highest goal of each Christian and each pastor be to fit in rather than to break out?

There's nothing noble about following the traditions out of laziness or habit. But there's something very ignoble about rejecting what has edified generations past in favor of something new merely because it is your own creation.

Many contemporary believers say the liturgical or traditional church is stale. Are there enough congregations of people adhering to the traditions for the right reasons to raise that path up and make it attractive to contemporary believers who want more of the truth? Here in rural western Indiana, I'd say not.

Damaris said...

In the Prologue of The Canturbury Tales, Chaucer describes a Parson. He describes a true man of God. If every pastor or priest were like him, all of these blogs would be unnecessary -- so would the Reformation have been.