All Crossed Up
Michael Horton on the Ordinary Ministry That Can’t Corner the Market
Never mind Paul’s exhortation to Timothy to submit to elders and pastors as official ambassadors of Christ. These days, even in more confessional denominations, it seems that instead of being the Lord’s servant, ambassador, and minister of reconciliation, a pastor is supposed to be the community’s quarterback, class president, or the one voted “most likely to succeed.”
It used to be that the pastor had an office and worked in his study, but today the pastor has a job and works in his office. Whereas Peter organized the diaconal office so that the apostles could devote themselves to the Word and to prayer, ideal ministers seem increasingly to be managers, therapists, entertainers, and entrepreneurial businesspeople.
Open up the average issue of Christianity Today to advertisements for pastoral positions and you’ll find descriptions like “team builder,” “warm and personal style,” “outgoing,” “contagious personality,” and “effective communicator.” (Catholic friends tell me that something like this affects Catholicism, too.)
I think they’re looking for a Director of Sales and Marketing, whom they may (or may not) call “Pastor.” I’m not against directors of sales and marketing; I just don’t think that this is what we should be looking for in the way of shepherds.
Habits of the Pastoral Heart
We wouldn’t have had Paul, for example. Who, having advertised for an outgoing team builder with a contagious personality, would have hired a pastor who openly disclosed the fact that he was not a great communicator, suffered everywhere he was sent, was nearly blind, and lacked the natural charisma of the “super-apostles,” who were only too happy to point out these weaknesses themselves?
Perhaps, like the immature and sectarian Corinthians (1 Cor. 3:5–9), we celebrate the extraordinary minister more than the ordinary ministry of the gospel.
The different approaches to church life, worship, and outreach more generally express different ministry values, which might be summarized this way:
Ordinary <-----------------> Extraordinary
I am not suggesting that these contrasting tendencies should be simplistically identified with “good” and “bad” respectively. Although for a couple of decades now I have been a parishioner and minister in confessional Reformed churches that favor the left side of the chart, I was reared in churches that tilted toward the right side.
I am suggesting that many pastors and churches (including, again, mainline Protestants and Catholics) seem to assume that the first side represents dead traditionalism and the right side yields genuine vitality. For example, a “worship experience” is only “real” when it’s “authentic.” This oft-heard tautology means that it provides an opportunity for me to experience and express my unmediated, extraordinary, intuitive, deeply personal, individual, and spontaneous familiarity with God.
Churches and pastors whose values fall more on the left side concentrate on the ordinary means of grace. They emphasize a predictable, ordered, and disciplined approach to corporate and personal growth through formal practices of preaching, sacrament, catechesis, profession of faith, training and ordination of ministers, and caring for the flock from cradle to grave.
These values are likely to generate a concern for careful study, deliberate decisions about worship and church life, and a more “covenantal” approach that sees the local church as a local expression of the catholic church. Since, in theological terms, this approach maintains that God keeps covenant through the generations, it is more likely to foster inter-generational community.
As a minister in a largely Dutch-immigrant denomination, I have been impressed with the countercultural community exhibited by a pew filled with three generations. In an age of niche demographics and target-marketing even in church, this has been refreshing.
Of course, these values, too, can mask a lazy and unreflective piety that contents itself with its familiar practices and parishioners, that is turned inward with little sense of its commission to the world. In both cases, I wonder whether we reflect enough on the extent to which ministry is often captive to cultural sensibilities that are mistaken for biblical piety.
As I read the Scriptures, it seems that the values most often commended favor the left side of the ledger. Yet in my experience at least, Evangelicals tend to question the authenticity of Christian experience (individually or corporately) unless it is expressed in terms of an immediate, deeply personal, individual, inward, spontaneous, and ever-new relationship that can also be discerned in the entrepreneurial, innovative, spontaneous creativity of “worship experiences.”
To what extent are the values on the right side of the ledger simply expressions of an American personality that easily drifts, in the sphere of faith and practice, toward gnosticism?
Although I do not have the space to offer citations, there are many passages that define faithful ministry in terms of preaching, teaching, sacrament, fellowship, and the prayers (as mentioned, for example, in Acts 2:42). There are no passages that tell us to expect, much less to plan, revivals or other extraordinary events to perk up this ordinary ministry.
A Different Orientation
Both traditionalists and anti-traditionalists often reflect a human-centered, merely horizontal orientation. Ministry is focused either on keeping the generations together, closely bound in a fellowship across time, or on outreach.
Both forget that the public ministry of Word and sacrament is first and foremost a vertical, eschatological event of the Spirit’s disrupting grace that generates a horizontal extension of covenant succession in history while also drawing in outsiders by that same ministry. It is first of all God’s work, not ours, whether we’re thinking in traditional or innovative categories.
Christ is serving us, building his kingdom, drawing people by his Spirit from the dominion of sin and death, leading them in ever-richer understanding of the gospel, extending that message and acts of love outward to the neighbor. The Triune God is the one creating a new world in the midst of this fading evil age, not simply keeping the old one going or dressing it up in perpetual innovation.
A host of passages exhort believers to patient and mutual submission, progressive maturity and unity in the Word, and a community that is disciplined in its worship, life, and doctrine. There are clear instructions on the examination and ordination of a formal ministry that is entrusted with authority subordinate to Christ, with commands to “guard what has been entrusted to you,” going on from the milk of the Word to solid food, and so forth. There are no equivalent injunctions or instructions for small groups, para-church ministries, crusades, marches, revivals, or other movements that celebrate the extraordinary, spontaneous, restless, expressive immediacy that Americans relish, whether in church or on daytime talk shows.
Just as traditionalism is a parody of a living tradition, a ministry defined by the entrepreneurial, creative, and innovative capacities of today’s “super-apostles” should not be mistaken for genuine growth and outreach. Marking the remarkable missionary advances of the apostles, we meet repeatedly in the Book of Acts the phrase, “the word of God spread.”
Mission was about Christ as he is delivered to sinners through the gospel, not about us and our frantic efforts to make a sale. In fact, that is the last clause in Peter’s invitation: “The promise is for you and your children, and for those who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to himself .” The church is not called to mimic the world, but to feed the world the Bread of Life and incorporate strangers and aliens into the story of his redeeming work.
God’s Living Word
In his critique of revivalism, the nineteenth-century Reformed minister and professor John Williamson Nevin observed that when he succumbed in his younger years to the pressures of a revival in his town, he was expected to undergo a radical conversion.
In effect, he had to renounce the whole system of covenantal nurture that he had received from baptism, catechism, and confirmation. All of this “formal” religion stood in sharp contrast to the “authentic,” spontaneous, informal, and immediate experience of the individual soul with God.
Nevin, targeting Charles Finney’s “new measures,” contrasted the “system of the catechism”—i.e., the faith and practice summarized in the Westminster catechisms—with the “system of the anxious bench.”
Eventually, Proteus grows weary of the burden of his perpetual, restless, spontaneous, and individualistic makeovers—a works-righteousness that refuses to define the believer or the church as a recipient of God’s grace. As Whitney Cross and other historians have documented, the region most deeply affected by Finney’s repeated revivals became known as the “burned-over district.” Is this not the effect of a religion that identifies genuine faith and piety with the right side of the chart above?
When churches abandon the ordinary ministry for extraordinary “excitements sufficient to induce conversion” (Finney’s phrase), eventually the innovations become traditions and the insatiable craving for ever-new experiences of spontaneous expressivism, like a drug addiction, leads eventually to the spiritual equivalent of a heart attack. Tragically, the landscape of American religion is littered with successive waves of “revival” (often patterned on American trends in salesmanship) followed inevitably by periods of spiritual fatigue and skepticism.
There are no easy answers to finding the right balance between caring for the flock already gathered and seeking those who are far off. However, the New Testament does, I believe, lead us to a crucial conclusion: namely, that the same ministry that leads us and our children to Christ, in an ever-deepening communion with him and his body, also reaches strangers, which most of us (as Gentiles) were ourselves. The church in its ever-widening and ever-expanding circumference is always a creation of the Word.
In response to Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, hearers were “cut to the quick,” and asked how they could be saved. Calling them to personal faith in Christ, the apostle nevertheless directed them not to their own individualistic piety but to baptism and communion with the church.
In the same context where the church’s ordinary life is described in terms of preaching, sacrament, fellowship, prayer, and the sharing of resources, “praising God and having favor with all the people,” we read, “And the Lord added daily to the church those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). Instead of focusing ecclesial faith and practice on marketing Jesus to the “unchurched,” the apostolic pattern was to draw aimless drifters into the covenantal drama already in progress.
To become a Christian was already to begin one’s lifelong journey in the company of pilgrims under the care of the church. Discipleship was defined by churchmanship. Personal faith in Christ was never set over against active membership in the visible body of Christ.
Begin with Paul
When pastors feel the burden of saving people, selling the gospel, or cornering the market through their own cleverness, methods, creativity, or charisma, they eventually burn out. So, too, do the sheep who are submitted to perpetual exhortations to imitate their restless “authenticity.”
According to a recent study of Evangelical ministers, 1,500 pastors leave the ministry each month and 80 percent of seminary graduates leave within five years. This comports with another study that found that 80 percent of the youth who grow up in Evangelical churches drop out by their sophomore year of college.
Charles Finney’s “burned-over district” is growing like a cancer. The challenge before us is to regain our confidence in the ordinary means of grace: “to grow like a tree rather than a forest fire,” as Wendell Berry described our relation to our local environment.
Should we not begin with Paul’s list of qualifications for our pastors rather than the average job description in circulation today, and abide by the habits of disciplined growth that we find in the New Testament rather than the consumer habits of the marketplace?
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