Preaching in a Crisis

One of my former students recently asked me how I thought the COVID-19 crisis was affecting pastoral ministry and preaching in particular. How do you preach in an environment like this? The simple answer is that you do the best you can, given the circumstances. Preaching is challenging enough under ordinary conditions. The nature of the current crisis has completely upended our normal patterns of meeting and communicating. Preachers are speaking to empty seats and recording their messages for broadcast over social media. As one popular meme observes, we are all televangelists now.

The answer to my student’s question involves more than the medium, though much could be said about that as well. The medium of delivery matters, but the content of the message is always primary. Whether we preach live or by means of a video, we are still saying something. What should we say? The Sunday school answer to this question, of course, is that we should preach the gospel. There is a sense in which preachers only have one message to deliver. Our determination, like the apostle Paul’s, is to know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Yet as true as this may be, to put it this way in answer to this particular question seems like and oversimplification. It is not.

Preaching More than the Facts

The gospel offers hope for the present life as well as for the future. It is about living as much as it is about dying. Living the Christian life is more than a matter of willpower and information. The Christian life is Spirit-driven and grace enabled. It is a life that is lived not only in response to the gospel but through the power of the gospel. Paul’s letters are proof that the saints do not need to hear a different gospel after they have believed than the one that was preached to them prior to faith. The apostle was just as eager to preach the gospel to the saints at Rome as he was to proclaim it those who had never heard Christ named (cf. Romans 1:15 with 15:20). While the saints do not need a different gospel, they do need a gospel which is explicated in terms of their experience.

This means that preaching the gospel to the saints during this season of COVID-19 demands that we do more than state the facts of the gospel. What is especially needed is gospel preaching that demonstrates priestly sensitivity. In the Old Testament priests, like prophets, exercised a ministry of God’s word (Leviticus 10:11). The priest, however, differed from the prophet because he shouldered an additional burden, serving as the people’s advocate. Priests were not only “selected from among men” but were “appointed to represent them” (Hebrews 5:1). Preachers, like the priests of the Old Testament, do not stand apart from those who hear them. The default disposition of every sermon is one of sympathy. Priestly sympathy is not pandering but a compassionate ministry that is born of shared experience. Priestly advocacy should not be confused with trite slogans, pat answers, or simplistic explanations. Unfortunately, our culture’s bent toward pragmatism makes us especially vulnerable in this area. We are too eager to come to God’s defense–too quick to fill in the silences God leaves behind and attempt to explain what he himself has not explained.

Similarly, it can be tempting for preachers to use a crisis like this to leverage their favorite rebuke. If the posts I see from pastors on social media are an indication of what we are saying in our sermons, not a few of us have seized the opportunity afforded by the pandemic to teach the church a lesson about our favorite cultural or congregational irritation. We are saying that this crisis has come upon us because of abortion or that it is God’s judgment because of homosexuality. Some suggest that God sent it to show us that we are spoiled or that He allowed the churches to be shut down because we took worship for granted. Some are saying that God has forced us out of the building so that the church could be the church. The intent of these assertions, I think, is to be prophetic. Unfortunately, such varied explanations merely gives the impression that God cannot make up His mind about why He is angry with us. He is just mad. I am not saying that God would never deal out judgment on a national or even global scale. The Scriptures show that He has done so in the past and will do so again. What troubles me is the underlying note of smugness that seems to attend so many of these kinds of statements. Perhaps before we try to call down woes upon the nation like the prophet Jeremiah, we ought to learn how to weep like him first.

Some of this comes from the pressure we feel to exonerate God. Like many others, I have had more than one person ask me what I thought God was up to by allowing such a devastating pandemic to occur. In our effort to provide an answer, we may overreach. We can make the mistake of thinking that since we speak for God, we may also speak as God. Like Moses at the rock, we speak rashly or out of spite (Numbers 20:10). We jump to conclusions about God’s intent. We make statements about God’s motives and reasoning that sound like certainties but are really only speculations. It is not wrong to address the questions that people ask. One of the preacher’s most important responsibilities is that of leading the congregation in the collective practice of theological reflection about the questions and challenges which are peculiar to their context. But they must do this with what I describe as priestly advocacy.

The key to priestly advocacy is identification (Hebrews 2:17). This means that the preacher functions as a kind of mediator, standing between the text and the congregation and listening to the word of God on their behalf. Because we stand in the place of our listeners, we ask the questions they would ask. Some of these questions are obvious. Many are mundane. If we are to be true advocates for them, we must also ask the questions our listeners would like to ask but dare not. We can give voice to the questions that plague our listeners, but we cannot always answer them. Our priestly role demands that we speak the truth, and the truth is: God does not always explain himself. Part of the priestly responsibility of preaching is to give voice to the congregation’s unspoken questions and then listen with them to the awkward silence that sometimes ensues once the words have been spoken. It is not our job to answer all the congregation’s questions. When we try to say what God has not said, we inevitably replace God’s judgment with our own.

What We Can Say

What, then, can we say? We can affirm the congregation’s questions and fears. To admit that we don’t know what God is doing is not the same as saying that God is doing nothing. To acknowledge fear, grief, or uncertainty can itself be a great relief in times like these. Of course, it is crucial that we not stop here. More needs to be said. We do not want to only point at the problem. But if preaching aims to facilitate an encounter with God,  a precondition must be that we face God as we truly are, with all our doubts, fears, and questions in plain sight.

If our aim in preaching really is to help our listeners meet God through His word, then the second thing we can do in the sermon is to speak of God. More particularly, we can speak of God as He has revealed Himself to us through the person and work of His Son Jesus Christ. This may sound too simple, so let me make clear what I do not mean. I am not talking about hawking God as a product by selling the audience an airbrushed version of the Christian life. Such sermons try to resolve every serious problem within a matter of minutes, much like the television dramas and commercials that so often provide contemporary pastors with their themes. This “airbrushed” portrayal of Christianity is not preaching at all but a form of sentimentalism that trivializes the gospel. Trivialized preaching is triumphalistic. Triumphalism is a perspective that grows out of our evangelical heritage of revivalism. The revival tradition of preaching emphasizes the transforming moment, when the listener’s life is forever changed. Certainly this is true of the gospel. We are forgiven in a moment. But the redemptive process takes much longer. Triumphalistic sermons give the impression that every problem can be solved in a matter of moments simply by leaving it at the altar. Undoubtedly there have been remarkable instances where this has been the case. Sinners plagued by long standing habits leave the sermon miraculously freed from bondage. Yet for many others–perhaps even most others–the experience is different. For them transformation is progressive rather than instantaneous. These believers do not skip along the pilgrim path but “toil along the winding way, with painful steps and slow.”

Directing our listeners to hope in Christ is not a platitude. 

Preachers who do not acknowledge this resort instead to clichés and platitudes. Their sermon themes are flaccid and the remedies they offer mere placebos. Such sermons are unable to provide any real help to those who hear. How can they, when truism stands in the place of truth? In order to be true to our audience’s experience, preaching must reflect the reality of living in a post–Eden world in anticipation of a new heavens and earth that have not yet come to pass. Times like these, where not only our congregation but the entire globe must deal with the collateral damage that sin has wreaked upon us, are uniquely suited to such a task. Never has Paul’s statement that creation itself is in bondage to decay as a consequence of Adam’s sin been made more vivid (cf. Romans 8:21).

Directing our listeners to hope in Christ is not a platitude. The root of our fear in this current crisis is the fear of sickness and death. Some would like to promise that Jesus will protect us from all such threats. But this is not the hope that the Bible offers us. The message of the gospel is not only the story that Jesus died and rose again. It is the good news that Jesus suffered death “so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). The gospel does not assure us that we will be able to avoid the experience of physical death. It tells us that Christ will meet us on the other side. This promise is no small hope.

A Distanced Congregation is Still the Church

A third thing that we can say, especially at a time when our normal community life has been so disrupted, is to remind the church that they are still a church. Some Christians seem to feel a kind of glee over the fact that the church cannot meet together during this season of social distancing. “At last,” they seem to say, “the church can finally be the church.” I find this reasoning odd. The language that the Bible uses to speak of the church implies proximity. This aspect of the church’s nature is best expressed by the phrase Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 11:18, “when you come together as a church.” The fact that the church comes together is not a weakness. It is not an indulgence. The church is, by its nature, an assembly.

I find it ironic that while some Christians seem to be celebrating the fact that the church cannot meet, the rest of the world recognizes the need for a sense connection. Nearly every commercial I see on television that mentions the pandemic also says, “We are in this together.” They assure me that “We will get through this.” What surprises me the most is how moved I am by such assurances. Those who record their sermons while preaching to empty seats need to remind the congregation that the bond they share with one another in Jesus Christ has not been diminished by physical separation. They really are in this together. The church will survive, and one day we will come together again as a church. But even though we are now separated, we continue to be “members of one body” (Ephesians 4:25).

The scope of the COVID-19 pandemic may be unusual but the experiences of fear and uncertainty are not. If you doubt this, just take note of how many times God tells His people not to be afraid in the Scriptures. Those who preach often speak to people in crisis. While not as massive as a pandemic, each individual crisis a listener faces under ordinary circumstances can be just as shattering. Pastors and teachers were not an invention of the church. Ephesians 4:11–12 says that they are Christ’s gift to God’s people. The church needs its preachers. What is true during this singular time of crisis will still be true when things return to normal. How should you preach during this season of the coronavirus? You should preach like someone whose hope is cast upon the word of God. Speak the truth with priestly sensitivity. Point your listeners to Jesus Christ. Do the best you can. You can do no more.  

If you want to learn more about preaching, check out John’s books Folly, Grace, & Power: The Mysterious Act of Preaching and The Moody Handbook of Preaching. To see several short videos about preaching, click on the Tips for Preaching tab on John’s website.

Ill at Ease in Zion: Why You Don’t Fit in at Church

The first major challenge I faced after I became a serious follower of Jesus in the 1970s was that of telling my friends and family that I had “decided to become a Jesus freak.” The second was the decision to start attending church. I navigated the first fairly quickly because I knew that if I didn’t, I would never follow through on my commitment. With the sea at my back, I burned all the boats, along with a few relationships that I later came to regret. I was brash in my new found faith and a touch obnoxious. To be fair, the obnoxiousness was not a necessary component of my new Christian identity. It was a feature of my personality that was already there. I merely baptized it and put it to use for the sake fo the kingdom.

The decision to attend church took longer. My lifestyle was not especially conducive to the practice. I normally worked midnights and tended to stay up to the early hours of the morning on those days when I didn’t work. The thought of getting up early on Sunday morning to attend church seemed impossible. Besides, going to church had never been an especially important feature in my life. My family didn’t go to church when I was growing up. My neighborhood friends who did attend, forced to do so by their parents, did not seem to enjoy it. Besides, this was the anti-establishment era. Institutions, in general, were under fire and the church along with them. Jesus had bad things to say about “the traditions of men,” which seemed to me to be a pretty good description of church life. And hadn’t Jesus’ enemies mostly come from the religious establishment? I had the Bible. I was spending time with my new Christian friends. Why should I ruin it all by adding the church?

When I feel out of place in the church, I’ve noticed that it is usually the result of one of three factors: treatment, style, or identity.

Two things changed my mind. One was the patient and loving invitation of Mike, one of my new Christian friends. The other was a growing desire to preach. A preacher needs an audience, and the best place to find one was the church. Of course, I didn’t attend church one Sunday and then preach on the next. My first task was to try to fit in.

In a way, fitting in was easier than I might have expected. The people in that little church were glad that I came. They didn’t seem put off by my long hair or blue jeans. If anyone was stand-offish, it was me. I tried to fit in. I learned to say “Praise the Lord” and to call people “brother” or “sister.” But the music was strange, and at times the people seemed even stranger. I could tell that this was all familiar territory for them. They seemed comfortable. But it was an alien landscape to me. Even though I wanted to fit in, I often felt like I didn’t belong.

The Challenge of Fitting In

That was almost fifty years ago. major challenge I faced after I became a serious follower of Jesus in the 1970s was that of telling my friends and family that I had “decided to become a Jesus freak.” The second was the decision to start attending church. . I have learned the words to the songs, figured out the dress code, and discovered the secret handshake. I’ve also listened as the music styles have changed several times over, seen the dress code grow so casual that I’m wearing pretty much the same kind of clothes I was in 1972 (though with considerably less hair and no bell-bottoms), and learned the new secret handshake. I know that I belong. I am still going to church, but there are times when I am still ill at ease. I don’t always feel like I fit in. When I feel out of place in the church, I’ve noticed that it is usually the result of one of three factors: treatment, style, or identity.

Sometimes we feel like we don’t fit in because of the way others treat us. The church is not always good at making people feel welcome. During my years as a pastor, I served in a small farming community. There was a plaque in the town hall which celebrated the beauty of small-town life. High on the list was the way people cared about one another. But in our first week there, my wife Jane and I took a walk down the main street to get a feel for the place. A little girl who was playing in her front yard stared at us. As we drew near, she turned and ran to her mother. “Mommy, I don’t know them!” she said. When we walked into the local diner, we were greeted by the same kind of stares and sidelong glances.

Every church is a small town. A congregation is a cultural eco-systems as well as a spiritual institution. They have their own customs, lingo, and tribal structures. Sometimes we feel like outsiders in the church because culturally speaking, we are outsiders. It takes time before things feel familiar to us. We may need to figure out how things work. Who makes decisions, and how are they made? What is the path to involvement?

Cliques and Culture

People sometimes complain that the church is full of cliques. This isn’t a new problem. The first major conflict the New Testament church faced was the cultural clash between two sub-cultures (Acts 6:1). A clique is really just another word for a tightly knit but closed community system. Some churches are better at creating on-ramps for those who are new to the community, but every church has cliques. The same dynamics that make a church’s culture “sticky” for insiders will erect walls for those who come in from the outside. This is the catch-22 for any tightly knit church. The closer the church, the harder it is for newcomers to find their place within it.

Membership classes, Bible study groups, affinity groups can all help. But they probably won’t work without a Barnabas to help people make a personal connection.

Paul had trouble finding a place in the church at Jerusalem because of his personal history as a persecutor. Things changed after Barnabas took Paul under his wing as a kind of sponsor and introduced him to the community of believers (Acts 9:26-27). Most newcomers to a church need someone who is already established in the community to help them find a place. These community gatekeepers explain the culture, teach them the secret handshake, and help them make connections with other people with whom they can bond. Intentional structures are often needed to help outsiders become insiders. Membership classes, Bible study groups, affinity groups can all help. But they probably won’t work without a Barnabas to help people make a personal connection.

Tightly knit subgroups are not necessarily wrong. Indeed, they are the glue that is necessary for creating a cohesive church culture. But they can also be sinful. Sometimes the church is responsible for making people feel like they don’t really belong. James 2:2-4 warns of the danger of practicing discrimination by showing favoritism: “Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” Class, race, gender, age are all areas where the church is vulnerable to this sin.

Is there anything we can do if we sense that the church’s culture has relegated us to outsider status? Acts 6 may provide us with a helpful model. First, talk to the church’s leaders about it. Many churches are not self-aware. They may think they are opening doors when in reality they are building walls. Second, take initiative to connect. This may mean trying to form your own affinity group within the church. Or it might mean making an effort to join those that already exist. Join a small group. Invite someone out to lunch. If the walls are impermeable and deliberate, you may find that you need to look for another church.

Differences in Style

Style is another reason that people sometimes feel out of place in the church. This is really a subset of culture. Churches do not all have the same style of worship. Some are expressive, while others are more reserved. Some use set forms and liturgies while others are informal or spontaneous. There are churches that prefer a classical style of worship, others like contemporary, and some try to blend the two. The same is true when it comes to preaching. Sermon styles differ as do the personalities of those who preach them.

Not every style resonates with everyone. What is more, our tastes and our needs often change. When I first started attending church, it was in a context where the worship style was casual and expressive. We clapped, lifted our hands, and shouted, “Amen!” Although it was meaningful to me at first, after a while, I began to feel like I was performing, not just for God but for the people around me. Eventually it no longer seemed genuine to me. I felt out of place.

The church member who struggles with the feeling that the church “just isn’t like it used to be,” has a decision to make. How much discomfort are they willing to tolerate?

It can be traumatic to church members when a church suddenly changes its style. Churches usually do this because they think it will attract newcomers. If it works, long-standing members often feel disenfranchised. All too often, church leaders respond to this understandable discomfort with impatience. The church member who struggles with the feeling that the church “just isn’t like it used to be,” has a decision to make. How much discomfort are they willing to tolerate? We may grow to like the new style with time. But in most cases, a decision to stay is also a commitment to endure. Such a commitment is easier to make if it is values-driven. We might stay for missional reasons because we hope the things we don’t like will help the church grow. Or we may decide that the friendships we already enjoy or the ministry we have in the church are more important than those aspects of style that we dislike.

Doctrine as Style

Doctrine is another element that can make us feel out of place in the church. When I include doctrine in the elements that make up a church’s style, I am thinking here of those secondary doctrines that shape a church’s theological identity. Some doctrinal differences are more important than others. Foundational doctrines are those non-negotiables that are essential to the faith. Doctrines like the deity of Christ and justification by grace through faith are so foundational that without them, you no longer have Christianity. But there are also doctrinal differences that aren’t as consequential. They are not exactly unimportant, but they are differences we are willing to agree to disagree about.

There are some doctrines that aren’t exactly fundaments but we deem them to be important enough to warrant differences in practice and sometimes even fellowship. We would still consider those who differ with us on these matters to be Christians but they are imporant enough to the church’s theological identity that we might make agreement about them a pre-condition for membership or ministry.

If a church champions a doctrine that does not agree with the theological views you hold, sooner or later you’re going feel like you don’t fit in. You might enjoy the worship and love the people. You may agree with 90% of what they teach, but if the difference is significant enough, sooner or later, it’s going to create a rift. The church is unlikely to change its views. If you try to make it your mission to change the church’s theological identity, you’re only going to create division. If it is that important to you, then you  probably need to find a new church.

Feelings of Inferiority

When I first started attending church, I had a lot of rough edges. I didn’t know it at the time. But I began to sense differences in values and behavior almost immediately. I felt a little intimidated by those who had attended the church their entire lives. They knew where to find the books of the Bible. They knew the songs. They seemed more comfortable with the whole experience. In Paul’s case, the church in Jerusalem felt nervous about his history as a persecutor. But it often works the other way around. We can be embarrassed by our moral past, or we may be frustrated with our status as a newbie in the faith. In such cases, it is not the church that makes us feel like second class citizens in the Kingdom of God. We do it to ourselves. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. Paul thought of himself as the worst of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). He readily admitted that he did not deserve to be called an apostle because of his past (1 Cor. 15:9).

How should we respond when we begin to feel like we don’t deserve to be numbered among the saints because of what we’ve done in the past? We can begin by admitting that this is indeed the case. It is true of everyone who is in the church no matter what their background is. Like all struggles that have to do with identity, we need to let the Bible shape the way we think about ourselves. Belonging in the body of Christ is not a function of feeling. It is a result of Christ’s work. By His death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has secured our place in the church. We may feel out of place, but that feeling cannot undo the work that Christ has done on our behalf.

What is more, 1 Corinthians 12:24-25 says that “. . . God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.” Belonging isn’t just for those who look good, feel good about themselves, and have all their rough edges smoothed out. It is as wrong for me to think that the church doesn’t need my presence as it is for others to make that judgment about me (1 Cor. 12:15 & 21).

The only way to deal with feelings of spiritual inferiority is to take God at His word.

The only way to deal with feelings of spiritual inferiority is to take God at His word. Not only do I belong, but I am necessary. The language Paul uses when dealing with this erroneous thinking is strong. He says that “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable” (1 Cor. 12:22). The apostle’s example has to do with spiritual gifts but it applies equally to those who feel they don’t belong based on their moral past, spiritual background, or social class.

The discipline that has probably helped me the most in grasping this truth has been the regular observance of the Lord’s Supper. Every time we participate in the church’s meal, we not only remember the Lord as Jesus commands, but we are reminded of who we are. This is what Paul meant when he warned the Corinthians about the importance of “discerning the body of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:29). In the context, the sin of the Corinthian church as they observed the Supper, wasn’t the way they treated the elements but the way they treated one another (vv. 20-23).

We are not the best judges of the value we add to the church. Ultimately, it is our union with Christ that gives us the right to belong. When we trust in Christ, we are united with Him in His death and resurrection (Eph. 2:5-6). Union with Christ also joins us to every other member of the church. This is true whether we like them or not. It is just as true whether we like ourselves or not.

John’s latest book Practicing the Present: The Neglected Art of Living in the Now (Moody Publishers) is now available. Order your copy today.

Added Value

The leaders of a church I know were discussing the membership roll. It is the sort of thing that congregations have to do every once in a while. People move away or they decide to attend somewhere else. If the constitution calls for a certain number to be in attendance in order to hold a business meeting, a bloated and inaccurate roll makes it difficult to achieve a quorum. I get it. I really do. From time to time a church needs to purge its list of members.

But more than once during the meeting, as various candidates for removal were discussed, the same observation was made: “Well, they don’t contribute anything anyway.” The comment didn’t have anything to do with money. They weren’t even talking about attendance. Not really. They were talking about involvement.

I have found this to be a common way of thinking in churches these days. It is a perspective which believes that the value of those who claim to be a part of the church is shaped by what they produce for the church. It is not enough to simply show up on Sunday or even to worship. You must somehow add value to be of value. Serve coffee or sit in the nursery. Teach Sunday school or go on the church’s latest ministry trip. Serve on a church committee. Do whatever you like but don’t just sit there. I thought the same way when I was a pastor.

I was wrong. Our value is derived not produced. We are of value to the church simply because we belong to Christ. Even those members who seem to contribute nothing are essential. As 1 Corinthians 12:21 says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” “But that’s just the point!” some of us will want to reply. “Everybody knows that eyes and hands are important. They make a contribution to the overall well-being of the body. The problem with these deadbeat members is that they are atrophied limbs. They just sit there. They don’t do anything. They are just dead weight!” Yet Paul warns that we cannot even say this. Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. The parts that seem to be deserving of less honor are to be treated with “special honor” (1 Cor. 12:22).

We, of course, tend to do just the opposite. We value the strong and award special treatment to those that we think contribute the most. But God’s assessment is radically different. He has “…put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Cor. 12:24). His standard of measure is not what people contribute but their need for someone to be concerned about them. We are not the best judges when it comes to determining whose presence adds the most value to the church, especially when we are in leadership. Our motives are too mixed. Our assessment is shaped too much by our own goals. Those who are worthy of the most attention are likely to be the ones we notice the least. Those who add the most value are liable to be those in whom we see little or no value at all.

The Last Whole Earth Catalog

Sometime in the early 1970’s, I stumbled across the Whole Earth Catalog. It was expensive. It cost five dollars, a lot of money for someone in my income bracket in those days. The edition I purchased said that it was the Last Whole Earth Catalog, which made me wonder what had happened to the others and why I had never seen it before. But I had to have it. It was the cover that first caught my eye, a huge color photograph of the earth as seen from space. I was even more captivated by the content that covered its pages. In a way, this giant volume functioned as a kind of Sears catalog for the counter-culture of the late 60’s and early 70’s. But it was really much more than that. The Whole Earth Catalog was a kind of manifesto. To someone like me, in my late-teens and creeping reluctantly toward adulthood, it seemed like a revelation. To use the vernacular of the day, it blew my mind.

I was intrigued by the design and the scope of the project, which somehow managed to seem both carefully crafted and haphazard at the same time. But it was the utopian ethos of the catalog that really gripped me. This was an Edenic vision of a future marked by community, sustainability, and peaceful coexistence. I read about Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome and saw pictures of resources that were meant to enable people to live off the land. I lived in a working-class community in the heart of the rust belt. My father and most of my relatives worked for the automobile industry. I did not want to work in a factory. Indeed, I did not really want to work at all. I wanted to live on a commune, where we grew our own food and with people who spent their time having deep conversations. I did not know anybody who lived this way. It did not occur to me that living this way, if such a thing was even possible, would probably involve more work than any factory job I might get.

I also did not realize that I had come of age during the closing days of 60’s counterculture, which was starting to look more like a failed social experiment than a cultural revolution. I doubt that I could have articulated this at the time but I could sense it. From a distance, the freedom which the counter-culture reveled in was starting to look more like squalor. Love was hard to differentiate from debauchery. Too many of the kids who left their families looking for utopia found homelessness, addiction, and a lifestyle of grifting instead. By the time I was fantasizing about joining them, the smell of decay was already in the air.

Was it the protection of Providence or simply a lack of courage that kept me from following? Perhaps it was a little of both. I fantasized about moving to the West Coast but couldn’t bring myself to take the risk. Besides, by the mid-1970’s I had decided to become a Jesus freak. They seemed to possess a similar utopian vision, although it was one tinged with apocalyptic flames. There was no commune but there was a kind of community. They addressed each other as “brother” and “sister.” They talked about the peace of Christ. It all seemed so familiar. So much like the Whole Earth Catalog but without the Eastern mysticism, drugs, and sex. Maybe it felt safer to me.

I won’t say that this Christian vision of community was borrowed from the counter-culture of the 60’s and 70’s. But it certainly was influenced by it. It was no accident that many of the Jesus freaks I knew had initially been part of the counter-culture and had grown disillusioned with it. I met more than one who told me that their first encounter with Jesus had come during an acid trip. Also, like the utopian vision of ordinary freaks, the idealized community of the Jesus freaks never really realized its full potential. This was not because of drugs, debauchery, and grifting but as a result of something far more mundane. We got older. We got married and went to work. We had children. We ran for the school board. We left the coffee house and joined the church.

Looking at it from the distance of age, it seems to me that there was something infantile in the utopian vision that first attracted me to both these movements. Was I looking for some version of Neverland, a place where I would never have to grow up? Perhaps I was searching for an alternate family, one that felt less broken than my own. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer warns that utopian idealism is the enemy of community. “Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream” he notes. “Only the fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy, and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it.”

I confess to feeling a certain nostalgia for the golden vision of those early days. But if the gates of Eden are closed to us this side of eternity, the reality of community is not. The Christian community is an earthly community in every sense of the word, one that is as earthy in its limitations and its failures as it is in its location. It falls short of the vision I had for it more often than it fulfills. There are times when I consider walking away from it. On those occasions I remind myself of Bonhoeffer’s warning: “A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of the Christian community.”

They lose it, not as a punishment, but as a natural consequence. What they call community cannot survive because it is a vision that is not grounded in reality. “Sooner or later it will collapse” Bonhoeffer warns. Either the vision will collapse under its own weight, as a result of the imperfections of those who espouse it, or it will dissolve into the mist like the mirage that it is. The church, however, will survive. When the old earth is remade the church will be remade with it. I realize that this is still a kind of utopian vision. What has changed is the point of origin. It is no longer a community that we create for ourselves but one that comes down from above. It is still earthy in terms of its location. But its foundations lie elsewhere. It is the city whose builder and maker is God.

Standing By Truth

I ate dinner in a church basement the other night with a group of friends and colleagues. When it was over our host dismissed us with a blessing and his assessment of our experience. It was, he assured us, the essence of Christian fellowship. This is the sort of thing one often hears at church.  At potlucks, missions conferences and the church’s services in general, we are told that we are enjoying a foretaste of heaven.

I hope not. Surely there is more to heaven than boiled beef and small conversation about last night’s game. The problem here is not really the menu or even the company-though both could stand improvement on occasion. The problem is the language we use to describe our experience. I am not condemning the art of small talk, which has a legitimate  place in the life of the church. I am criticizing the church’s slovenly approach to language and its penchant for meaningless hyperbole.

In an essay entitled “Standing by Words,” Wendell Berry speaks of the importance of fidelity to language. According to Berry “there is a necessary and indispensable connection between language and truth.” Berry states, “My impression is that we have seen, for perhaps a hundred and fifty years, a gradual increase in language that is either meaningless or destructive of meaning.” As a Church which is constituted by the Word and which worships and serves the one who is called the Word, we ought to be concerned about this decline. Language matters deeply to God. Instead, we ape the culture. We resort to cheap hyperbole to describe our Christian experience. We overstate, understate, and euphemize. We are civil tongued but inveterate liars.

The good news is that there is a remedy for this. According to Ephesians 4:15 we are to “speak the truth in love.” Unfortunately, most of us are proficient in only one of these languages. Either we speak the truth but without love. Or we speak out of love but cannot bring ourselves to tell the truth. We opt for the tired path of truism and cliché. But if  we are to speak as if language matters, such half-measures will never do.

Church Going by Philip Larkin

Once I am sure there’s nothing going on
I step inside, letting the door thud shut.
Another church: matting, seats, and stone,
And little books; sprawlings of flowers, cut
For Sunday, brownish now; some brass and stuff
Up at the holy end; the small neat organ;
And a tense, musty, unignorable silence,
Brewed God knows how long. Hatless, I take off
My cycle-clips in awkward reverence,

Move forward, run my hand around the font.
From where I stand, the roof looks almost new-
Cleaned or restored? Someone would know: I don’t.
Mounting the lectern, I peruse a few
Hectoring large-scale verses, and pronounce
‘Here endeth’ much more loudly than I’d meant.
The echoes snigger briefly. Back at the door
I sign the book, donate an Irish sixpence,
Reflect the place was not worth stopping for.

Yet stop I did: in fact I often do,
And always end much at a loss like this,
Wondering what to look for; wondering, too,
When churches fall completely out of use
What we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
A few cathedrals chronically on show,
Their parchment, plate, and pyx in locked cases,
And let the rest rent-free to rain and sheep.
Shall we avoid them as unlucky places?

Or, after dark, will dubious women come
To make their children touch a particular stone;
Pick simples for a cancer; or on some
Advised night see walking a dead one?
Power of some sort or other will go on
In games, in riddles, seemingly at random;
But superstition, like belief, must die,
And what remains when disbelief has gone?
Grass, weedy pavement, brambles, buttress, sky,

A shape less recognizable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation – marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these – for whom was built
This special shell? For, though I’ve no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much never can be obsolete,
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round.

You can listen to Philip Larkin read this poem here. You can read my article “I’ve Been Hurt by the Church, So Why Should I Go?” on the Christianity Today website.

Worship’s Dull Surprise

In a new book about creating sermons based on hymns, music and poetry, Thomas Troeger observes that today’s church suffers from an imagination deficit. Troeger notes that “the starved imagination of the church and the resultant drought in the soul have driven many people from the community of faith.” He cites Fred Craddock’s observation that many parishioners “are not so much evil as they are bored, and their entire Christian experience has never provided them a chair in which to sit for an hour in the heavenly places with Christ.”

Troeger’s assessment agrees with my experience. In my thirty-seven years of serious attendance at worship, I have come to the sad conclusion that church is the location least suited to the contemplation of the heavenly places. The predominant temper of my experience in church has been one of boredom. Worship is for the most part dull. There have been exceptions, of course, rare moments when some hymn or song transports me into the heavenly realms. Or when the word of God causes the scales to fall from my eyes and I see God’s truth or myself in a way I have never seen before. But those moments seem  few and far between.

It does not help that all the church has to offer worshipers these days is a boilerplate experience. Overly familiar songs and chatty sermons are served up with the monotonous homogeny of a fast-food franchise. The music of worship is Christian “top-forty.” The observations from scripture are trite and garnished with cute stories from the margins of Reader’s Digest. It is a corporate experience that at best promises to be mildly interesting but it hardly ever offers a taste of the transcendent.

Looking back on my experience, I suppose this boredom was one of the primary factors that propelled me into ministry. I am rarely bored when I am the one doing the preaching. Unfortunately, the same cannot be so said of my listeners. Time and again as I have been held fast by the grip of my own words, I have looked out over the congregation with an unsettling awareness that I do not have their undivided attention. They look bored. As bored as I must look when I am seated among them.

As long I am the one doing the preaching, I am tempted to blame the congregation for their boredom and for good reason. Listening, like reading, requires focused attention, and not everyone is willing to pay the price. But on those Sundays when I return to the other side of the pulpit as a listener and participant, the old ennui comves over me and I do not know who to blame. Indeed, blame is the farthest thing from my mind. On those Sundays when I am not the one doing the preaching, I take my place in the pew beside my fellow worshippers. I turn my gaze toward the front and wait. I am waiting for the music of worship to give me a glimpse of the heavenly realms. I am waiting for the word of God to arouse me from my slumber like a lover’s kiss. I am waiting for God to show up.

Thomas Troeger’s book is entitled Wonder Reborn: Creating Sermons on Hymns, Music and Poetry (Oxford). http://books.google.com/books?id=ZXHp2AL_qIAC&printsec=frontcover&dq=wonder+reborn+troeger&source=bl&ots=qCAa2TIL8C&sig=QKUfKEYo-D7xvm86J4yrYRlQdPM&hl=en&ei=5HXyTNHyAYKhnAf5kJijCg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CBoQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q&f=false

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #7: Social and Intellectual Isolation

Gordon Jump as the Maytag repairman
Image via Wikipedia

 

An old commercial portrayed the Maytag repair man as the loneliest person in town. But the loneliest person in the church may be the pastor. Pastoral ministry is inherently relational. How, then, do we explain the feeling of isolation that sometimes afflicts pastors? To what can we attribute it? 

Pastoral isolation often manifests itself in two areas: intellectual and social. Fifty years ago the pastor’s intellectual isolation was a result of education. The pastor was one of the most educated persons in the community. This is rarely the case today. 

While it is true that the pastor’s theological and professional interests will not be shared by everyone in the congregation, there are many who would be interested in what he is reading and thinking. They simply need a context for entering the discussion. It is a good practice to share with others on your leadership team the articles, books and links which have stimulated your thinking. The Internet not only provides many new opportunities beyond the local ministerial meeting for pastors to interact with others who share similar intellectual interests, but creates a kind of “virtual watering hole” for community wide dissemination of ideas and discussion within the church. 

Social isolation occurs when the pastor has difficulty relating to others outside his professional role. At times this may be because the congregation cannot see beyond the title of “pastor.” But the congregation is not the only one at fault here. It is tempting to hide behind the title. An earlier generation of pastors was even taught to cultivate a kind of professional aloofness with church members out of fear that congregational friendships would make members jealous of each another. Though well meant, this was bad advice. Loneliness is not the only consequence of pastoral isolation. A socially isolated pastor is a vulnerable pastor. The pastoral pedestal can remove us from the healthy and loving scrutiny of those who ought to be hold us accountable. Strange as it may seem, social isolation can actually weaken the boundaries that protect both the pastor and the congregation in counseling relationships. 

Others may call us “pastor” or “preacher” but we are more (and sometimes less) than our title. Life behind a mask, even a noble mask, is suffocating. 

Worship With a Difficult Child

My colleague Heather Moffitt, managing editor of the Moody Bible Institute publication Today in the Word, has written a moving article about what it is like to attend church with a difficult child. The daughter of a pastor, Heather says that although she didn’t expect her children to be angelic, she did expect them to learn how to comport themselves. “Reality doesn’t always conform to expectation,” Heather observes. When her son was 14 months old he began to exhibit “debilitating behavioral challenges,” just weeks after she joined a new church.

 Heather writes:

During the Easter Sunday service one year, he was part of the children’s program. He had one line: “J is for Jesus!” When it was his turn, he did not say his line. Instead, he screamed, “NO!” and hit me in the face. I was bleeding in front of the entire church. As soon as we left the platform, I dragged him to the car to go home. I screamed, “This is the worst thing you have ever done to me!” In truth, it wasn’t. We had weathered far more intense outbursts and tantrums. But this happened at church. My expectation of compliments for my well-behaved children was a fantasy; my illusion of parental control over his behavior was as broken as my upper lip.

 In the article she goes on to describe the mixed advice she received on how to deal with these challenges. But more importantly, she tells how her imperfect church proved to be a manifestation of God’s grace in this challenging situation. The church is not perfect. Not yet. But even in its current rumpled state, it has the potential to be a powerful agent of God’s grace.

 Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms. If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. (1 Pet. 4:10-11).

 I encourage you to read the entire post on Duke Divinity school’s Faith & Leadership blog: http://faithandleadership.com/content/broken-behavior-going-church-challenging-child

Ministry Monday: The Future of Ministry

In a recent blog post, William Willimon proposed ten theses about the future of ministry (http://willimon.blogspot.com/2010/04/ten-theses-about-future-of-ministry.html). A Methodist bishop, Willimon looks at this issue through the lens of the mainline church. He expects mainline Protestantism to continue to experience numerical decline and to continue being pushed to the margins of culture.

The solution he proposes is theological. “The pastoral ministry in mainline Protestantism will need to find a theological way through the intellectual death of theological liberalism (“Progressive Christianity”) and the cultural compromises of traditional evangelicalism (the IRD and evangelical Protestantism’s alliance with the political right)” Willimon observes.  The best way forward is mission related not methodological. Willimon explains, “The mission of the church will take precedence over internal maintenance, real estate, fellowship, therapy, pastoral care and other factors that have driven the church in recent decades and have contributed to our decline.”

Willimon’s ten theses make me wonder how conservative evangelicals would answer the question, “What is the future of ministry?” How would you reply this question? What does this mean for training institutions like mine that seek to prepare students for future ministry?