An Important and Positive Lesson from the Liberals (which you might not hear elsewhere)

Article by   January 2012

Readers of this column will know the various chips I have on my shoulders. At least I hope they do. I try to wear my chips with a certain amount of unapologetic panache, after all. One of them is disco music. Another is the middle-aged pastor with the soul patch. And one of the more serious is my conviction that the savvy use of modern media has created a situation whereby the great pastoral role models of today actually bear little resemblance to the experience of most pastors and are often, in fact, biblically deficient. Multi-site ministries and the invention of new church officers, such as the bizarre and elitist 'pastors of the arts' (I've said it before and I'll say it again, why no 'pastors of lavatorial hygiene' or 'of street tidying broom technique'? Answers on a postcard...) are so far off the radar for most churches struggling to make budgets as to make the discussions of such about as relevant to most of us as Hollywood stars on late night television debating whether a third home in Malibu or Sedona is the preferred option for A-listers these days. The only difference is that Hollywood stars do not always end such discussions by agreeing to differ.

To these elitist developments, we might add the emergence of the 'flying teacher' as an aspirational goal, given the departure from local pastorates by some to enhance ministry opportunities. Such a lifestyle has much to make it attractive: positively, it does allow wider access to the insights of a talented individual; negatively, it offers the individual limited accountability, not much need to prepare new sermons each week and none of the aggravation which comes from facing the same people year in, year out, sermon after sermon. Thus, it surely lacks the kind of context which would make such leaders truly helpful as role models. It is one thing to preach the same amazing sermon a dozen times a year, each time to a different crowd; but it gives you no insight whatsoever into the struggles of the pastor who has to prepare sixty plus sermons in the space of twelve months and keep his congregation engaged, fed and watered thereby. The loosening of role model from actual local church commitment is becoming quite dramatic and yet an almost unquestioned part of the culture.

Here is an example of this phenomenon: I noticed recently one individual marketing himself as someone who had planted numerous churches. This was clearly being presented as an unconditionally good thing. As the chap was a similar age to myself (middle aged but not enough years on the clock to have done too many things of any great importance), I was left wondering what exactly had happened to these churches, that he had apparently had to plant so many of them in such a comparatively short time. Did they fold within weeks? Or was his church planting ministry a form of ecclesiastical hit-and-run, whereby he had the fun of getting the work started and then swiftly headed out of Dodge before the bullets started flying? Either way, the claim to have successfully planted many churches, like the claim to have successfully dated many beautiful women, seems to me far too ambiguous on its own to enjoy automatic unequivocal admiration. It may be praiseworthy but then again....

Alongside this shift to the big box church is the emergence of big tent alliance movements whose stated objective is to transcend the fragmentation of denominations by providing a common front along mere gospel lines. Such parachurch groups have existed for many years and they often work well as minor adjuncts to the work of the church proper. The events of last year, however, have demonstrated that big tents with big ambitions bring with them big problems: there is an awful lot upon which one has to agree to differ in order to hold together an alliance movement which can fill a stadium to capacity; and history seems to indicate that reformations have not usually been built, and orthodoxy has rarely been preserved, by agreeing to differ on almost everything beyond the merest elements of the gospel, and that outside of a proper ecclesiastical context.

Even in theory, however, such endeavours are always somewhat specious. The transcending of denominations by the construction of what is, whether by intention or merely by function, another denomination is counterproductive. Such groups typically tend to offer less historical rootedness and stability and more potential for personality cults, simony and lack of accountability to anybody but a self-selected inner circle than has been the case in established denominations, for all the fact that the latter have not been immune to such. As I have said many times, parachurch groups can be helpful; but if they have overweening ambition, even if such is well-intentioned, they can be disastrous.

What is clear is that the rise and acceptance of the big box megachurch within such influential and media-savvy neo-denominational movements is changing the playing field for all Christians. In all likelihood, the church in the USA faces a future where more and more Christians will go to fewer and bigger churches. Apparent success will be bought at a very high price: vast tracts of the country may end up with no local witness or simply a church presence mediated by smartphones and tablet computers; there will emerge a normative model of pastoral care that assumes the anonymity of the congregation and the inaccessibility (maybe even absence) of the pastor; many churches will have huge budgets, the servicing of which will impose a level of financial, media and managerial know-how on the leadership that will squeeze biblical qualifications for the eldership and the diaconate; and the typical Christian life will be marked by the consumption of a product rather than by committed participation in the life of the local congregation.

Still, if the economy is making life very difficult for smaller churches, where fixed costs can be disproportionately high and rising and average household incomes have been stagnant or shrinking, what is to be done? Should we throw in the towel, abandon the suburbs and the countryside for the big box churches in the cities? Should the Trueman household simply download the sermons and worship experience from the website of Pastor Meganame, Inc.? I would suggest not. We can surely do better, and more biblically, than that.

As Dean at Westminster, I regularly attend meetings of seminary administrators from across the theological spectrum. Liberal friends at mainline seminaries tell me that bivocational ministry has become an established pattern, even a norm, in many mainline Protestant denominations. Pastors typically have two jobs: they serve their congregations as they can; but their main income comes from their other occupation, whether car mechanic, teacher or whatever.

This pattern is, I suspect, coming soon to a church or denomination near you. The days where small churches could expect to pay a full-time pastor are coming to an end or are at least on hold until the world economy starts to pick up again; but if there are one hundred poor or low income people in an area, should they do without a pastor? And should their pastor have to live below the poverty line? Not at all, if the notion of the bivocational pastorate is properly understood. Nothing in scripture indicates that a pastor has to be full time and that only churches which can afford to pay a full-time salary deserve to have consistent ministry and pastoral care.

So here is my plea: in 2012, think locally, think denominationally, do not be a mere consumer of religious products, ask (in JFK style) not what your local church can do for you but what you can do for your local church. And forget the megachurch pastors as role models. Some of them are good homileticians from whom we can all learn; others are little more than swaggering stand-up comedians from whom we can really only learn what we must avoid; but few, if any of them, offer a way forward for your small local church with a tight budget in the current climate. Ironically, it might be the bivocational pastor at the liberal church down the road who holds the key to your survival as a faithful local congregation and witness.

Postscript: A week or two before Christmas, the congregation where I have worshipped for over eight years and where I now sit on session voted to call me as its pastor from August 1 next year. If the presbytery decide to place the call into my hands at its February meeting, I will most certainly accept it. The call is part time and is, I suspect, the shape of things to come for many of the more modestly sized (i.e., the majority of) churches in the USA, given the current condition of the economy. In this instance, at least, I am hoping to practice what I preach - and indeed to do so while I preach.

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