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Saturday, August 18, 2012

Pastoral Theology: Practical Advice I Disregarded

Well it has been a year since I received the official call to the church I currently serve. More than a year. Hard to believe how fast time flies. The older I get, the more inclined I am to agree with C.S. Lewis' conclusions in The Weight of Glory about our relationship with time, our nostalgia for the past and our future glory.

Over at the blog Practical Shepharding, a first time pastor asked "What should my first year look like and how much change should come?"

His question was answered thusly: "Preach the Word. Love the people. Don't change anything."

Very similar to the advice I received repeatedly in seminary.

Class after class of seminary the professors provided this advice, "change nothing your first year." I heard it from outside sources as well, such as from colleagues in ministry. One professor said, "If you want to move the piano to the other side of the sanctuary move it one inch a month." "When change comes, make sure it is slow"was another common adage.

I pretty much threw all of that out the window in my first year. Not because I am bold but rather forgetful. I simply forgot that piece of advice. There is a reason when I was little my mother would lovingly call me "Forgetful Jones."

But hindsight is twenty-twenty and I have come to the conclusion that the advice "to change nothing" is stupid.

First of all, preaching the Word is doing something. And as Brian Croft notes in his post when the Word is preached change will take place. Secondly, loving is doing something as well. When you love them you'll build relationships. Finally, giving the instruction that pastors should wait at least a year before instituting change works on an assumption of time that is outside of the biblical witness.

"You fool!" Jesus said. "This very night your life is demanded of you!" No one knows the length of their life, all we know is that God is our source of life and length of days. To assume that God has called us to a church for a least a year is arrogant. To further then assume that for the first year the most important thing we can do is nothing is to castrate the calling that God has put on our hearts.

Perhaps we have forgotten that Christ will return and that it will be unexpected, like a thief in the night. The Apostles expected Christ to return within their lifetime, and they are sometimes ridiculed for getting this wrong. But that sense of urgency fueled their ministry. They traveled incessantly, preached boldly, established churches, fed congregations and defied civil authorities. The result? A church spread throughout the most powerful empire in the world uniting slaves with rich merchants, royal officials with uneducated fishermen, Jewish scholars with Greek philosophers. A church that claimed absolutes in defiance of the established pluralistic philosophy of the day.

They turned the world upside down.

Today our seminaries and established pastors encourage first call ministers to change nothing.

"Change nothing" is another way of saying "be a maintenance man." What are we maintaining? A sinking ship with four churches closing for every one church that opens its doors.

The solution? Change nothing during your first year because apparently, we have all the time in the world.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Salt, Light and Honey Part II

Following the last post a natural question arises: who is to blame?

I would say the primary blame lies with pastors.

The pastor can't be everything in the church, but when it comes to denominational structures those who are ordained (so in some situations elders as well) serve as the gatekeepers. They interview and examine candidates to see if they truly are called and to see if they are theologically sound. Through General Assembly or General Synod (or whatever such gatherings are called in Episcopal governments) doctrine is upheld or altered, policies are set, and the future is planned.

All of these important decisions start at the local church and work their way up. Or they should. They should begin with the pastor and the pastor should begin with the Word of God and prayer. Their relationship with how they approach Scripture, how they understand it, and most importantly, how they preach it naturally follow. Is the gospel still proclaimed throughout American churches today?

In Helmut's criticism of Christians mistakenly thinking they are the honey of the world, and not the salt, he carries that criticism over into the pulpit. "So where there is no bitter reaction to the message, the true salt is lacking. It is a dubious sign if the world lives too peacefully with the church. It is not a good sign when people are all too admiring of their preacher, for then as a rule he has not been scattering salt from the pulpit...Enthusiasm and excessively unanimous agreement with a sermon usually indicates that it is suffering from a serious deficiency disease" (p. 29).

This has led me to reflect on my role as a pastor. Do my sermons bite, at least occasionally, the way salt bites at a wound? Or do I seek praise and affirmation that I am "doing a good job"? I once heard that a pastor should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Yet how many pastors truly seek to do just that: afflict those who have become too comfortable with the world by confronting them with the Word of God or comfort those aware of their depravity with the hope of the gospel?

A sermon should light a fire in the hearts of those who hear it. We should, like Jesus, explain to others what the Scriptures say concerning him so that they can, like Cleopas and his friend, feel their hearts burning within them as the Scriptures are opened before them (Luke 24.13-35).

If the word of God is not being proclaimed on Sunday from the pulpit, it is only naturally that we will end up with (or have already) a collection of Christians who believe they are the honey of the world.