Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Pastor: Vital or Vestigial?

I believe things are changing enough both inside and outside the church that we need to begin revitalizing the role of the pastor in the congregation and the community.  Do pastors still have a significant role to play in a culture that prizes highly specialized and licensed scientific, therapeutic, and legal professions?  Can pastors still influence people and communities for God's kingdom?  Is it time for the pastor to learn more from the CEO than the theologian?  Do the people in the pews really want practical advice for daily living, or are they desperately in need of divine activity in their lives?  Our answers to these questions and so many more like them will shape the daily and weekly work of the pastor, the shape of our churches, and the role of the Christian in our culture today.

Without romanticizing the past, it can be said that there was a time in Western communities when the pastor was considered a leading expert on all things important.  For example, Puritan pastors started schools like Harvard and Yale.  The ranks of theologians were the same as the ranks of the pastors in the local parish.  We are still able to gain a great deal of pastoral, theological, and philosophical guidance from sermons preached in the English language 300 years ago.  Newspapers printed the Sunday sermon of the local pastor.

Things have changed,  and not for the better.  In very few circumstances is the local pastor seen in this light.  Rarely, if ever, is he or she known as an expert on human affairs and consulted as such.  If they actually are an expert on theological issues, those issues are considered so inconsequential by both the culture and the congregant, the pastor may as well be a published Ph.D. on Medieval Unicorn Literature.

Tracing this sad turn of affairs would be a complicated journey indeed, but it is useful to survey part of the cultural landscape as it is now.  With the knowledge and information explosion, there is simply more to know and the days of the "renaissance man" are probably over for good.  There can no longer be a single person out there who can be consulted on every issue.  Whereas there was a time an advanced degree covered almost every significant idea and intellectual trend, that simply isn't the case anymore.  It is impossible for a single individual to be deeply informed about every significant issue so they can speak to it wisely and creatively.  How much do you know about the international sociological consequences of fair-trade? Are the fair-trade advocates right?  Are you intimate enough with your Neo-Darwinism that you can speak to the alleged biological and molecular mechanisms invoked by its supporters?  How versed are you in current materialistic, secularist philosophy?  Have you developed a theology of the body robust enough to address the wave of homosexual activism?  And on it goes.

But it is more than just the information explosion.  There are other cultural trends the pastor and church are up against.

Western culture is simply turning more secular in its outlook all the time, turning the pastor into a de facto vestigial organ of society.  And we are not doing ourselves any favors, either.  Degrees in pastoral ministry focus more and more on simpler and simpler things, turning the theologians of our age into middle-level managers of volunteerism.  Pastors no longer carry their own torch of spiritual knowledge and wisdom into the marketplace, but have extinguished it in favor of the practical tips and tricks of mass production.  It allows us to fit in and succeed, after all.

My hopes with these posts is to lay out a vision in which the pastor is able to see their vocation as vital.  But that can't happen until the pastor transforms the way they think about their place in this world.  We cannot expect to have a sanctifying effect on the lives of those around us or the culture in which we swim unless our churches grow deeper in the wisdom and power of God.  We cannot have churches that grow deep until we have pastors who do the same.  It begins, and all too often, ends with the pastor.

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