Still Wonderful

nativity3A popular song calls Christmas the most “wonderful” time of the year. But some pastors might be tempted to use a different word to describe the season. Christmas is to churches what Black Friday is to retailers. It is the busiest time of the year, when attendance reaches its peak. Church’s Christmas services are viewed as the most important of the year. Pastors feel pressured to exceed last year’s numbers and to tell the familiar story in a way that is bigger and better.

Unfortunately, this often leaves us feeling exhausted, depressed, and cynical. Attendance may reach a high point at Christmas, but when January comes it dips again. The visitors who showed up at Christmas will not reappear until next December. The heady excitement generated by families coming together at church is mixed with a dash of melancholy for many pastors who serve at a distance from their own extended family. Consequently, we go about our business grumbling like Scrooge, reciting Paul’s warning in Galatians 4:10 about observing special days, and reminding people that Christmas wasn’t actually celebrated by the church until the fourth century. Humbug!

Perhaps this is a good time to remind ourselves of Jesus’ affectionate reproof to Martha in Luke 10:42: “Only one thing is needed!” The wonder is not in the day or in the season but in the birth that they commemorate. We do not need another extravaganza. We do not need to tell the old story in a new way. There is enough wonder in the story of Christ’s first advent to last for eternity. Perhaps we have grown jaded because we have co-opted the story for our own purposes and turned it into a marketing tool. We have allowed our voice (and our interests) to drown out the song of the angels. This Christmas, do not be afraid to say it simply and to say it again: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).

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Shepherding the Suffering

visittothehospitalWhen I was a pastor I thought it was my job to make suffering people feel better. I was dismayed at how unsuccessful I was at it. I counseled the hurting and prayed for the dying, Yet people seemed no better when I left than they were when I arrived. Their condition had not significantly improved, at least as far as I could tell.

In time I came to see that it was not my job to make suffering people feel better. That is God’s job. My job was to remind people of God’s presence. Most of the time pastoral ministry in the context of suffering is the ministry of presence not the ministry of repair. We may sit in silence or we may speak words of promise but we do not fix. We cannot. The problems are too great. They call for a remedies that are far beyond the scope of our skill or ability.

In the moment of suffering this ministry of presence seems terribly inadequate. We leave the hospital bedside confounded. Or we feel a mounting sense of panic as the counseling session progresses and we realize that we have no simple solution to recommend.

Days, months or even years later, when some someone reminds us of the crisis and thanks us for being such a help, we are astonished. “What did I do?” we ask in honest wonder. With a gentle smile they answer in kind, offering truth for truth: “You were there!”

Like Most of the Pastors I Know

I spent this past weekend in Montana with a bunch of pastors. I only got to see the mountains from a distance (except for the one we were on) but I saw the pastors close-up. I found them to be like most of the pastors I know. They are true shepherds with a deep affection for their flock. They are skilled in what they do but do not consider themselves to be remarkable. They are humble. They do not boast about their accomplishments. They are often a little disappointed with themselves–convinced that they could be doing better. They come hoping that I will be able to provide some insight that will help them to be more effective (which is why I am certain they must leave disappointed). They are perennial students of their craft.

 I am sure that there are bad pastors. Every so often I hear a horror story about one from some alienated church member. But none of the pastors I know falls into that category. Not the ones that I know personally. All the pastors I know are like these men: regular, reliable and yes–sometimes unremarkable (at least as far as their gifts are concerned). Faithful is the best word I can think of to describe them. Unfortunately, it is not a word that most pastors would be excited to hear used of them. Not in our day.

 God places great stock in faithfulness. We do not. We would prefer that pastors be described by other words. Dynamic. Transformational. Missional. Especially if the pastor being described is us. To the modern ear “faithful” sounds just a little too dull. It is like being labeled Most Congenial in your senior year when you would rather be crowned Homecoming King. It is like learning that you have been described to your blind date as someone who has “a nice personality.” Faithful is code for boring.

 Unless, of course, Jesus is the one who is doing the describing. Place the same word on the lips of Christ and there is no higher compliment. According to Jesus, “faithful” is exactly the right the word to characterize what the master wants from his servants (Matt. 25:23). It is the word that Scripture uses to describe Jesus’ own priestly ministry (Heb. 2:17; 3:6). Faithful is a word that contains the promise of great reward and is itself the reward.

 I can’t think of a better word to use to describe the pastors I spent time with this past weekend. I am deeply grateful that I know so many to whom the word applies.

 One of the questions I asked the pastors during my visit was this: “What kind of books would be of most help to you in your ministry?” If you are a pastor, I would like to know how you would answer this question. If you know a pastor, why not ask him for me and let me know what he says?

John’s latest book is coming in September. You can find out more about it at follygraceandpower.com.

Read John’s article on “the trajectory of worship” in the March issue of Christianity Today.

The Preacher Who Failed

I was deeply moved the other day by David Grayson’s description of the Scottish minister in his book Adventures in Contentment:

 The Scotch preacher was finding his place in the big Bible; he stood solid and shaggy behind the yellow oak pulpit, a peculiar professional look on his face. In the pulpit the Scotch preacher is too much minister, too little man. He is best down among us solvent. Is there a twisted and hardened heart in the community he beams upon it from his cheerful eye, he speaks out of his great charity, he gives the friendly pressure of his large hand, and that hardened heart dissolves and its frozen hopelessness loses itself in tears. So he goes through life, seeming always to understand. He is not surprised by wickedness nor discouraged by weakness: he is so sure of a greater Strength!

 A little later Grayson writes:

 As I remember it, our church was a church of failures. They sent us the old gray preachers worn out in other fields. Such a succession of them I remember, each with some peculiarity, some pathos. They were of the old sort, indoctrinated Presbyterians, and they harrowed well our barren field with the tooth of their hard creed. Some thundered the Law, some pleaded Love; but of all of them I remember best the one who thought himself the greatest failure. I think he had tried a hundred churches — a hard life, poorly paid, unappreciated — in a new country. He had once had a family, but one by one they had died. No two were buried in the same cemetery; and finally, before he came to our village, his wife, too, had gone. And he was old, and out of health, and discouraged: seeking some final warmth from his own cold doctrine. How I see him, a trifle bent, in his long worn coat, walking in the country roads: not knowing of a boy who loved him!

 He told my father once: I recall his exact words:

 “My days have been long, and I have failed. It was not given me to reach men’s hearts.”

 Oh gray preacher, may I now make amends? Will you forgive me? I was a boy and did not know; a boy whose emotions were hidden under mountains of reserve: who could have stood up to be shot more easily than he could have said: “I love you!”

Working For God: Part I

Before I entered the ministry I worked for the General Motors Corporation trudging up and down the floors of the company’s world headquarters in downtown Detroit delivering telegrams. Every floor seemed to have its own culture. There were the computer technicians in their white lab coats in the basement who always seemed glad to see me. A few floors up the sales managers greeted one another in the hallway and talked about their golf game. I could feel the competitive tension between them when I stepped out of the elevator. 

High above us all, like the gods of Olympus, the president and vice–presidents were housed on the fourteenth floor. Visitors gained access to their wing by passing through a large glass door that served as a kind of veil into the holy of holies of the corporation. All who entered underwent the scrutiny of a stern looking security guard. This floor was a place of dark wood and dim light. The air was heavy with important decisions. Intimidated, I passed through those offices like a ghost, rarely speaking and barely noticed.

Although I liked my job, I spent much of my time wishing I could be doing something more “meaningful.” Eventually, I got my wish. I quit working for the automobile company and entered the realm of “vocational ministry.” I soon discovered that “full–time–ministry” had much in common with the world of work I thought I was leaving behind. It is tedious at times. It too has its share of mind numbing meetings that seem to go on forever and produce little result. I found that those in the Christian workplace could be driven by the same goals and beset by the same problems as their secular counterparts. I should not have been surprised. While I consider my chosen vocation to be more than a job, it is still work. This is not a bad thing. “Work,” Eugene Peterson has observed, “is the primary context for our spirituality.”

Ministry is my vocation. It is also my career. This is both a blessing and a curse. Its curse is that it means I am tempted to approach my vocation with the mentality of the hireling. One who is merely a hired hand will do the work but will not take responsibility for the outcome. The hireling does only what must be done and will do no more. When the task demands more than expected, one who is merely hireling does not possess the degree of commitment required to meet the challenge (cf. John 10:12–13).

Yet despite this threat, it should be noted that Jesus Himself introduced the metaphor of the “worker” into Christian ministry. It was Jesus who sent the disciples out and told them that “the worker deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). The apostle Paul used this standard as the basis for his guidelines to those who provide for the church’s elders (1 Tim. 5:17–18). Because my vocation and my career are the same, I enjoy the privileged of devoting myself without distraction to the calling that I love. I don’t have to try to fit it in around my regular job.

Those who direct the affairs of the church are worthy of “honor.” Those who labor in preaching and teaching are especially deserving.  Ministry is our work. It is good work, worthy of our time and energy. Hard as it sometimes is, it is work that is well worth the reward which is yet to come.

Ten Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #8: Prophet or Priest?

I first felt a calling to preach when I was in my teens. To my surprise my mother, who was not a church going woman, beamed with pride when I told her about my intention. “Oh, Johnny,” she gushed, “you’d make a darling minister.” I did not want to mouth poetry in a clergyman’s tame frock. Camel’s hair and thundering declamation were more my style. I aspired to the prophet’s mantle.

 The parallel between the preacher and the prophet is obvious. But prophet is not the only metaphor that should shape our pulpit ministry. There is also a priestly dimension. Priests, like prophets, exercised a ministry of God’s word (Lev. 10:11).  The priest, however, differed from the prophet because he shouldered an additional burden, serving as the people’s advocate. Priests were not only “selected from among men” but were “appointed to represent them” (Heb. 5:1).

 Like the priest, the preacher does not stand apart from those who hear but is called from among them in order to sympathize with them.  Whenever we take our place before God’s people to declare his word, we also take upon ourselves this responsibility advocacy. We may stand above or before the congregation in order to be seen or for the sake of acoustics, but our true location is in their midst. We speak to the people but we are also for them.

 The key to priestly advocacy is identification. This means that the priest/preacher functions as a kind of mediator, standing between the text and the congregation and listening to the word of God on their behalf. The prophetic nature of preaching gives us authority to make demands of the listener. But it is the priestly nature of preaching obligates us to make demands of the text. It compels us to take our cue from the patriarchs, the psalms and the apostles, as well as from the prophets, and ask God to justify himself: Will not the judge of the earth do right? How long, O Lord? Why have you afflicted us?

Our priestly responsiblity compels us to give voice to the silent questions that plague our listeners. Our prophetic obligation means that we will refuse to smooth out the sharp edges of the text. These two dimensions work in harmony.

Challenges Pastors Face-Challenge #6: Feeling Underutilized

William Carey
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William Carey’s famous maxim was: “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.” Yet some of us suffer from a nagging fear that we are underutilized in our current field of service. Our preaching ability merits a larger audience or our leadership gifts would bear more fruit if we served a congregation that was more responsive to vision. How can we achieve great things when we aren’t allowed to exercise our gifts to their fullest ability? 

 It is possible, of course, that we have overestimated our abilities. I know that I am better at some things than I am at others. But I also know that I think I am better at some things than is really the case. This is a conviction based upon common observation rather than self observation. Hardly any of us is really self aware. Overestimating one’s abilities is a common fault. One that is more easily seen in others than it is in ourselves. The kind of denial that causes us to think too highly of our abilities is usually immune to self-scrutiny. 

 But it is also very possible that we genuinely possess gifts and abilities which are greater than our current opportunities. A pastor who serves a small congregation may preach better than another whose ministry attracts a larger number. An associate pastor may have better leadership gifts than the senior pastor. The race does not go to the swift or the battle to the strong. The world is full of people whose talents go unrecognized. 

God who assigns us our field also determines the scope of our influence. Carey offers good advice, as long as we grant that God’s definition of “great” may not be the same as ours.