Life Together - or Maybe Not

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A friend who works at a seminary told me the other day of an incident which he described as `personally very instructive.'  Somebody called his institution, wanting to know about the state of the soul between death and resurrection.  The person was transferred to my friend who was able to open up the Bible's teaching on this issue for him, and also point him to the relevant section of the Shorter Catechism as a helpful summary.

What was interesting was that this person was a member at one of the flagship Reformed evangelical churches in the US where the pastor is seen as one of the great hopes for the spread of gospel churches in the post-Christian world.  In fact, this church member had actually tried to speak to this pastor about the issue, but had not been able to get an appointment. The  church leader was simply too busy, with countless external demands on his time; and now, presumably protected by a praetorian guard of personal assistants and associate pastors, he was essentially as unavailable to the masses in his large congregation as the average rock star is to the punters who buy his concert tickets.

Three things occurred to me as I heard this story:

First, I am immensely grateful that I have only ever held membership in churches of a size where the pastor has always been accessible and available.  Indeed, my pastors have always even known my name, my wife's name, my kids' names, and even what sports they play (this latter may seem trivial but it has been peculiarly important to me: my kids may not always enjoy going to church; but they have never doubted that the pastor actually cares for them; and that is something for which I am more grateful than I can articulate).  Indeed, each of my pastors has cared about his people, not as a concept or a good idea or as an indeterminate mass, but as real, particular people with names and histories and strengths and weaknesses; and this surely reflects the character and love of God who, after, calls his sheep by name and cares for us all as individuals. If I gave you the names of said pastors, few reading this post would ever have heard of them: they have written no books; they have never pulled in huge crowds; and they have never spoken at megaconferences.  But they have always been there when even the humblest church member has called out for advice, counsel or even help with bailing out a flooded basement.

Of course, too often we think that such pastoring represents something less successful and less influential than the man who writes the bestseller or gets quoted in the broadsheet press.  The more successful a pastor, the more his time is spent doing little more than honing his writing and speaking skills.  Ironically, in the past this was not the model of pastoral success; and neither did the increasing wider importance of a pastor necessarily take him away from daily pastoral duties and distance him from his people.  For example, Luther not only ran the Reformation, he also had time, at the height of his international influence, to write a treatise on prayer for his hairdresser, a man called Peter, when the latter told him he was struggling in his devotional life. Richard Baxter, second only in importance to John Owen in seventeenth century Puritanism, spent much of his time visiting his people and getting to know them, so that he could pastor them more effectively.  Think also of Thomas Chalmers in nineteenth century Glasgow.  As brilliant, wealthy, and patrician as he was, he was tireless in his pastoral work among the poorest in his parish.  He knew his people by name, what they did, where they lived, what problems they faced. And, putting theology and ecclesiology aside for just a moment, when Cardinal Newman died, the streets of Birmingham were filled with ordinary, working class people who turned out to honour him.  The reason?  Newman never allowed his brilliance, his importance, or indeed his natural shyness and preference for study, to stop him from pastoring the ordinary people in his locale.  That's why, when Birmingham endured a bout of the plague, Newman stayed put in order personally to tend to his people: he cared for them, he really did care for them, more than he cared for his own person. It was as simple as that.

Second, as a consequence, I wonder if we do right in our little Reformed world to make so much of the big personality with the big church.  Why invite a man who pastors a congregation of two to ten thousand people to speak at a conference or write a book on church leadership?  How much does such a one really know about leading a church, as opposed to merely being a good public speaker, winsome writer, or CEO?    Does he know his people by name?    Can he pray for them in an informed manner?  Does he really understand what it means to die each day for those to whom he seeks to  bring the gospel? Is he ever actually there when his people call to him for help, or is that the task of one of his underlings?  Is he too busy listening to the questions and needs of those outside the church to have any real time to spend with those within his fellowship?   And if Dave Bogstandard-Member calls him, with a pressing pastoral problem, will he cancel a TV gig or a book signing in order to to help him?   If not, should we really set such up as the ideal to which those going in for the ministry should aspire?

Third, I was reminded of a passage in Bonhoeffer's Life Together.  OK, I'm aware that these days quoting Bonhoeffer is like quoting Bono: you have to do it if you want the soul-patched thirty-somethings to take you seriously.  But, unlike quotations from the sayings of the insufferably pretentious and self-promoting Bono, the words of Bonhoeffer do not just sound as if they mean something; they often really do mean something.  This is the passage: `The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.  Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.  It is God's love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends His ear.  So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him.  Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render.  They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.'

There is a great temptation these days to listen -- to what the culture is saying, to what the postmoderns are saying, to what the world is saying -- to put it bluntly, to what people who don't give a tinker's cuss for Christ or his church are saying.  It would be tragic and a travesty of New Testament church life  if, in spending so much time listening to everybody else out there, pastors ended up with no time on their schedule to listen to the voices of their own people.  Of course, listening to the little people struggling with sin or temptation or who cannot come to grips with some basic doctrine is a whole lot less glamorous than appearing on stage somewhere, takes up oodles of time, won't get you on the front page of a glossy magazine or listed as one of the `50 Most Important Church Leaders,' and may well in practice impose a cap of some kind on the size of any given church (and thus maybe facilitate more proactive church planting); but it would be a whole lot more faithful to the New Testament model of what a pastor is and, indeed, it might help ministers more truly to reflect the character of God, who -- as noted above -- calls us each by name and cares even for the little things, not to mention the little people.  

And one final word of wisdom: if you don't know the names of your people, then don't recommend that they read Bonhoeffer.  Quote Bono to them instead.  Invariably vacuous but oh-so-conveniently cool.  If you start referring to Bonhoeffer, they might start expecting you to pastor like him too.
Posted August 30, 2010 @ 6:35 AM by Carl Trueman

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