Thursday, July 15, 2010

Pastors Preaching

For our denomination’s area meeting this Spring (what we call District Council), I was asked to give a workshop session on combining an expositional preaching style with what you might call week-to-week applicability/relevance/practicality, etc. The basic issue I was asked to address is the reason why so many evangelical churches have moved away from sermons that begin and end with a biblical text – the fear of irrelevance. The talk I gave, The Dogma is the Drama, emphasized the need to begin with a commitment to Scripture and keep in mind what you might call the prophetic element; the present-day realities and needs of the congregation.

I was asked a question at the end about how a pastor can go about building this kind of point of view and effectiveness from week to week. I gave an off-the-cuff answer that was pretty thin (sorry, Bob!). But after a little more reflection, I might have a better answer. So how does a pastor go about getting to know both Scripture and the culture well enough to build a pulpit ministry that is faithful to Scripture first and foremost, and yet speaks wisely into current issues and cultural settings?

First of all, there is no substitute for biblical literacy, and because it should go without saying, I won’t spend any more time on it. But what does need to be said is that pastors need to deepen what else they read. We are in the business of handling the mystery of the gospel of Christ, and thus we should be in the regular habit of reading thoughtful and intelligent books. We ought to put down Olsteen and pick up the Stotts. We should read a little less off the “Christian Inspiration” shelf and a little more off the “Theology” shelf. Most of what passes for Christian best-sellers are pretty thin on substance, and if that becomes our primary mental diet, we ought not be surprised if our sermons follow form.

I have another pastor friend who always has at least four books going in four areas: theology, philosophy, science, and Bible. While that might be a heavy load for some, it is an example of where we ought to be headed. What was the last good book on theology you read that stretched you? Have you ever read anything by a Christian philosopher?

I would like to add to the list of potential books works by dead people. There is a perspective that comes from faithful Christians in different contexts that becomes invaluable to us over time. A thoughtful pastor ought to read Baxter’s Reformed Pastor – it is worth 100 current books on pastoral leadership. The journey of discovery, confession and conversion in Augustine’s Confessions is priceless.

Cultural Literacy
My original answer in the workshop was along these lines: I read a lot of things that frustrate me. Reading up on what the secular culture thinks about spiritual things can be very enlightening. At the very least, it helps to get us out of our comfort zones and puts us in contact with people who think and believe very differently than we do.

Francis Schaeffer is probably our modern North-star when it comes to this. He read, understood and could communicate with the disciples of Nietzsche. Can I read, understand and communicate with the modern disciples of Hitchens, Singer, and the like? If not, I might be unnecessarily limiting my spheres of influence.

The Weekly Conviction that Scripture Speaks
All this folds into how we approach Scripture. Do I need to “make” it relevant? Do I have to pull in some outside source to help the dry text communicate well? Do I need to buy illustrations off the internet about perseverance?

The Scriptural text is like the oven that bakes all the influences together into a tasty treat. All the flotsam and jetsam is consumed in the heat, and the various ingredients are subsumed by the larger purpose of the text itself.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Chickens are like Peanuts...

This story is absolutely brilliant. From the online version of the Wall Street Journal, the first couple of paragraphs speak for themselves:

Hobbies often hatch small-business ideas. Chickens are no exception.

Ruth Haldeman began adopting pet chickens in 2002. "I wanted fresh eggs, but I found that chickens are like peanuts, you can't have just one," she says. Before long, Ms. Haldeman had founded in Hot Springs, Ark.

"Everyone was talking about how there was a need for diapers," she says, given that chickens typically can't be potty trained. "Oh, lord, what a mess they make."

I think this is brilliant, well, because it is about diapers you put on chickens. Secondly it is a great example of what individual entrepreneurs can do if they see a need (or a messy niche) and have the economic freedom to take the initiave and fill it. You may not need very many chicken diapers, and I find them hilarious, but you have to admit a command and control economy would never have room for un-housetrained chicken potty accessories.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

The Vocation of Pastor

Eugene Peterson is a deeply important theologian for the evangelical world today primarily because he has wrestled against cultural stereotypes of ministry and pastoral work for decades. This makes some of what he writes esoteric, but more often than not it is simply prophetic. My calling to be a pastor was saved by one of his less known books, Under the Unpredictable Plant. In this Out of Ur post, Brandon O’Brien uses one of his more recent works to discuss the difference between jobs and callings, careers and vocations.

Definitions are in order. According to Peterson, a job is “an assignment to do work that can be quantified and evaluated.” Most jobs come with job descriptions, so it “is pretty easy to decide whether a job has been completed or not…whether a job is done well or badly.” This, Peterson argues, is the primary way Americans think of the pastor (and, presumably, that pastors think of themselves). Ministry is “a job that I get paid for, a job that is assigned to me by a denomination, a job that I am expected to do to the satisfaction of my congregation.”

Jobs are quantifiable. We may be better or worse at them qualitatively, but they are primarily about quantifying the outcomes of job descriptions. Vocations are entirely different. They are what we are called to do, and they are rarely quantifiable in neat and tidy ways. The calling of the pastor is very much this way. Is a pastor’s vocation about numbers on Sunday mornings? If so, I can tell of the personal anxiety and havoc they inflict. Is a pastor’s vocation measurable by budgets? If so, what makes him any different from a corporate middle manager?

Instead, the pastor’s calling is about things like souls, spiritual formation, Gospel communication, reconciliation, truth, and so forth. Try keeping track of that in Excel. The result is a conflict of pressures: the standard cultural model wants to put quantifiable categories on “pastor,” but the call and the actual week-to-week work resist at every turn. So, to which do we acquiesce?

According to O’Brien, Peterson notes:

And the struggle for pastors today, he continues, is to “keep the immediacy and authority of God’s call in my ears when an entire culture, both secular and ecclesial, is giving me a job description.”

What do we expect of our pastors from week to week?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Peter Singer and the Cleanest Apocalypse

Peter Singer is a rather infamous ethicist at Princeton and a public thinker who is often published in the pages of influential papers and popular journals. This gives Singer’s ideas a relatively powerful public platform, which is a little unfortunate. Most of what he argues for ends up being quite extreme in its dislike of the human species, and certainly at odds with a Christian worldview. Recently, he wrote a short opinion piece for the New York Times titled, “Should This Be The Last Generation?”

His basic question is this:

How good does life have to be, to make it reasonable to bring a child into the world? Is the standard of life experienced by most people in developed nations today good enough to make this decision unproblematic, in the absence of specific knowledge that the child will have a severe genetic disease or other problem?

Singer argues that it is certainly true that the birth of each child brings more suffering into the world, and that the birth of any child is neutral in its benefits/drawbacks at best. In other words, it is arguable that the birth of every child is a detriment to both the future of the human species and the planet. The reader should be aware that Singer is the current flag-bearer for utilitarianism, the ethical view that all meaningful notions of good and bad are wrapped up in the consequences of a thing or action. So, given this, it might be reasonable to argue that the totality of the goodness of the birth of a child may be measured by their carbon footprints. And, since they will inevitably add to the overall pollution of the planet, bringing them into existence is an overall moral negative. Hence, “If we would all agree to have ourselves sterilized then no sacrifices would be required — we could party our way into extinction!

To return to the original question of the piece, whether the expected quality of life is good enough to bring a child into existence, it strikes me as deeply ironic that the answer for most potential children in all the developing world is likely, “no.” If we were to implement Singer’s argument, it would result in eugenics on a scale the world has never seen against the poorest of the poor, the darkest skinned among us, and every economic and ethnic minority you can think of. Surely Singer (and others) doesn’t really want to argue for that. Singer cites another philosopher who has written in depth about this.

...South African philosopher David Benatar, author of a fine book with an arresting title: “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.” One of Benatar’s arguments trades on something like the asymmetry noted earlier. To bring into existence someone who will suffer is, Benatar argues, to harm that person, but to bring into existence someone who will have a good life is not to benefit him or her. Few of us would think it right to inflict severe suffering on an innocent child, even if that were the only way in which we could bring many other children into the world. Yet everyone will suffer to some extent, and if our species continues to reproduce, we can be sure that some future children will suffer severely. Hence continued reproduction will harm some children severely, and benefit none.

The argument is simple; the assumptions are convoluted and debatable at best. Is the environment more important than having children? That might be a false dichotomy, but Benatar assumes yes. Is the human species the most significant (possibly negative) factor on the environment? With apologies to Al Gore and the NY cocktail circuit, anthropogenic global warming is far from a settled science. Is the value of a potential child captured by either their assumed “quality of life” or impact on the environment? Absolutely not.

And finally, with a kind of “wave of the hand” and after providing some tentative arguments for stopping childbearing altogether, Singer says that’s not really what he thinks. “I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe. In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living.”

I know it is a short article intended to provoke, but I am not sure Singer’s form of utilitarianism or general worldview can supply as robust an argument for continuing the species as it can for ending it.