An interesting email
"Pastoral care, you might say, is my greatest concern for the church. Preaching, sacraments, prayer, worship - all critical components to it - but actually spending time with your people (as elders), knowing them, ministering the Word of God in encouragement and rebuke without a row... well... this is a lost art and, apparently, one that few people see any need for anymore.
"I worshipped this Sunday with my in-laws at their home church which is pastored by a man featured at this year's [conference name supplied] with 6000 of my closest friends. My father-in-law has been dying for five years (renal failure) and is very likely within months of his death. I can't get a pastor or elder from this congregation to come and visit him once, let alone make it a weekly priority to help him die well - in the full confidence of the Lord Jesus. But there's time, mind you, for (yet another) conference."
I am sure that big churches can provide good pastoral care just as I am sure that people can slip through the pastoral cracks in a small church. I do believe that the cracks are wider and more frequent in a large church, however; and the situation above is heartbreaking, though even in in my limited experience not entirely unprecedented.
Now, before I offer a few thoughts, let me stress once again: I am not opposed to big conferences. I am simply concerned at the culture which they can foster. I will go to T4G next year; some may well shout `Hypocrite!' at this point. Fair point -- believe me, I am more hypocritical on more things than you could ever imagine; but the following Sunday I will be back at my own church where I know everybody by name and everybody has access to my home telephone number and where anyone can grab me for a conversation at the coffee machine after the service if they wish. Hey, you can even come along to the coffee machine and tell me I am a hypocrite to my face, I am that accessible.
Having said that, here are some other concerns which the above email provoked:
1. With the rise of the conservative evangelical celebrity megapastor, are we creating a situation where the expectation of the rising generation will be that they will never know their pastor personally at any level at all? That he will simply be the famous guy they see at a distance each Sunday, or, even worse, on some remote television monitor? That is a tragic travesty of what a people should expect their pastor to be. And it is a travesty of what Christians have thought the pastor and the church should be throughout the ages -- from the Didache to Bonhoeffer's Life Together. When I lie dying, I do hope I know the person sitting next to me and praying for me; I do not want some stranger intruding on my family's grief.
2. Do we really want men who represent the kind of ministry described being held up as role models? I warn students at Westminster that such ministries bear no resemblance to that which they are going to experience. That is one reason I love my friend Tim Witmer's book, The Shepherd Leader. It is actually written by a man who does not have the luxury of not visiting the dying or praying with the sick or counseling the broken-hearted.
3. Frankly, who wants a ministry where you do not get to know people anyway? Is that not a major part of what ministry is meant to be?
4. Should conference speaking not be the thing that one does only when one is absolutely confident that the pastoral duties at one's own church are fully covered? Men are called to pastor local congregations and to preach to churches, not to speak at conference venues. The latter is a spare-time bonus.
One of my favourite books is Howard Spring's Fame is the Spur. It is not the greatest literature, but Spring could tell a good tale and this is one of his best. It is the story of a young man, Hamer Shawcross. who becomes a Labour MP to stand up for the poor people in the slums where he grew up. Over the years, he rises through the ranks until, at the very end of his life, he realizes that he has become the very opposite of what he intended; that he has (unintentionally even) come to betray the people he once fought for. The book is a salutary warning: the sell-out can be imperceptible and devastating.
The last line in the book is haunting, speaking as it does of the tragedy of losing the plot and putting priorities where they should not be. Returning to the cottage where he and his wife fell in love, Shawcross lies down to sleep and to die:
`He fell asleep there where he had known love that night when the snow fell upon the hut pitilessly, relentlessly, like the falling of the years which give so much that in the end they may take all away.'
Which give so much, that in the end they may take all away.
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Fallen: A Theology of Sin
Systematic Theology, Volume 2
Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction