Since I was a kid I have had the privilege of getting to spend time with some of these extraordinary people. Now, when I was young and we ate a meal with a missionary to Africa I was admittedly more interested in my French fries than them, but thankfully times have changed. As a pastor I again have the chance to spend time with them and I have learned to ask probing questions and listen intently to what they have to say about the establishment and life of the Church beyond our American and Western borders. More often than not, I talk with Americans and Westerners who have had their vision of the church radically changed (maybe more properly "broadened") by their non-Western experience and their commitment to other cultures. They see the world and the church differently than most of us Westerners do, and I think the differences are significant. The church is growing "over there" (by leaps and bounds, actually), and it is languishing here. The church is thriving through all forms of persecution "over there" and we struggle mightily with each change in our political winds.
What do they know that we don't pay attention to? How does the church get built and grow in places hostile to the message and lifestyle of the gospel? I am interested. And I think I see a few answers coming from their work, both explicitly and implicitly, that the American Pastor needs to learn.
Whether you like it or not the cultural landscape underneath the American church's feet is changing radically. Our culture is becoming - some would argue has become - more post-Christian than it has been in a very long time. As a result I think we have a lot to learn from those who faithfully and fruitfully proclaim the gospel around the globe. The role of American pastor looks more and more like the role of missionary.
One way to get a fish to recognize the water it has been swimming in is to take it out of the tank. Missionaries from the West to other parts of the globe have the privilege of that experience being thrust upon them. American pastors born and raised in the American culture now have the responsibility of self-imposing this culture shock. We are accustomed to a certain set of broad values, to a way of talking about people and things that pervades the way we view them, a way of talking about the value of other cultures that tints our perspective, and to ways of presenting the gospel that may have more to do with a diminishing cultural milieu than we recognize. If things are changing around us, and I believe we would be naive to think they are not, we must come to terms with two things: our foundational identity formed by Christ alone, and the new shapes and forms of culture around us.
The Reestablishment of Church as Culture
The conversation about the relationship between Church and culture is vast, complicated, fascinating, and necessary. But my simple addition to the current conversation is that pastors must begin to see church life, not as an extension of the culture around them, but as an alternative culture. The church is a culture-making institution in this world guided by Christ that cannot isolate itself or leave culture to secular elitists. This vision of the role of church and pastor in culture is necessary for our impact in our developing post-Christian world, but it cannot be spelled out in great detail by me for you. You, pastor must learn to do the serious and probably hard work of getting to know the city and community around you in order to become the kind of influence Christ can empower you to be.
Be it implicitly or explicitly, the people in our pews have learned to take their cultural cues from political debates, their favorite form of media, their technological entrapment, television and entertainment. And they take some of their spiritual cues from the cultural cubicle that is their church. Their attendance is spotty and the influence we have on them reflects their unconscious priorities. It will take a radical new vision of the church to turn things around, and it must begin with the pastor pulling themselves out of their theological stupors.
I believe the age of the short-term pastor is finished. At least is should be. We can no longer have the impact we need to if we hop from congregation to congregation every few years looking for that place that "fits" us just right, recognizes our leadership potential, pays us what we are worth, and is larger than the last place we served. Our culture needs no more spiritual carpetbaggers. It needs long-term pastors who are willing to sink roots, make friends, build families, suffer losses, endure hardships, celebrate joys, and die well among the same group of people. It is obvious that churches need pastors, it needs to become obvious to us that communities need pastors.
In my experience with overseas missionaries, those with the greatest impact have taken the time to get trained, learn the culture, and plan on spending as much time on the field as they can. In years past they simply "packed their coffins." They literally left for the field with their belongings packed in their coffins. They had every intention of staying there until God called them home. Contrast that with what is often a self-obsessed evangelical celebrity pastor culture and then wonder aloud about the progress of the church "over there" as compared to here.