My fancy bound dissertation came in the mail this week! In the coming days, I want to share several excerpts from the introduction and concluding sections of my thesis — the more personal and less academic parts of the thesis. Unfortunately, the footnotes don’t transfer. Here’s how my introduction begins:
“The good pastor knows his own people by name and leads them out…The good pastor’s people follow him because they know and trust his voice…I am a good pastor; I know my people and my people know me.”
John 10:3-4, 14
“My pastors have committed two sins,” the weeping prophet might preach to the American church today. “They have forsaken their calling to shepherd souls, and have instead dug themselves into a hole pursuing ministry models that may grow a church, but rarely lead to deeper formation.” In our pragmatic and consumeristic church culture where organizational growth is often valued above individual soul formation, the role of pastors has shifted in the past decades away from being wise sages, spiritual shepherds, and doctors of the soul, to being vision-casting CEOs and business savvy executives who can grow the organization and meet the bottomline.
A quick survey of pastors through twenty centuries of church history will show that this shift in the role of the pastor is a very recent development, carried on the wings of ambitious and enterprising Western capitalism and the Church Growth Movement of the final decades of the twentieth century. Churches have been measuring numerical growth more than soul growth. Pastors have been rewarded for drawing crowds more than making disciples. Churches are going wide rather than deep, and celebrating ‘relevance’ and ‘reach’ more than wisdom and renovated souls. Speaking of the twentieth-century, Eugene Peterson wonders in Five Smooth Stones, “Has any century been so fascinated with gimmickry, so surfeited the fads, so addicted to nostrums, so unaware of God, so out of touch with the underground spiritual streams which water eternal life?”
Many pastors today trying to heed the ancient call to “care for the flock that God has entrusted to you” (1 Peter 5:2 NLT) feel out of place in this particular moment. While ambitious Type A leaders may be relishing this aberrant wave we have been riding the past 50 years, far more pastors have been reading their Bibles, studying church history, listening to their soul, and scratching their heads over what has become of the pastorate in late modernity.
I find myself among the head scratchers, longing to be liberated from certain expectations placed on pastors today in order to get back to being and doing what pastors have been and done for most of church history. Over three decades ago, my late hero and Protestant “Saint” (if Presbyterians canonized people) Eugene Peterson opens his book Working the Angles on pastoral ministry with a zinger:
American pastors are abandoning their post, left and right, and at an alarming rate. They are not leaving their churches and getting other jobs. Congregations still pay their salaries. Their names remain on the church stationary and they continue to appear in pulpits on Sundays. But they are abandoning their posts, their calling. They have gone whoring after other gods. What they do with their time under the guise of pastoral ministry hasn’t the remotest connection with what the church’s pastors have been doing for twenty centuries….Being a pastor is difficult work; we want the companionship and counsel of allies. It is bitterly disappointing to enter a room full of people whom you have every reason to expect to share the quest and commitments of pastoral work and find within ten minutes that they most definitely do not. They talk of images and statistics. They drop names. They discuss influence and status. Matters of God and the soul and Scripture are not grist for their mills.
Peterson had the countenance of a warm and gentle Mr. Rogers, but he could wield a sharp machete tongue and pen when the occasion called for it.
In what follows, I want to take the spotlight off the megachurch stage and shine it instead back into the early centuries of the church to see how pastors plied their craft and shepherded souls using ancient methods of moral formation we would do well to recover for ministry today. Now echoing Jesus, What does it profit a church to gain thousands of Sunday attenders, yet forfeit the central task of deeper discipleship? What does it profit a pastor to get thousands of sermon downloads each week, yet forfeit their calling to shepherd souls?
An Unexpected U-Turn
When I first began this research, I planned to expose the problems of the “personality cult” so prevalent in many churches today. My concern was that instead of being transformed by a relationship with Jesus and a commitment to His teachings, many Christians were being formed into religious consumers and admirers of this or that dynamic upfront personality. Before this project, my personal approach and stated conviction as a pastor to my people might have sounded something like this: “In this church or ministry, Jesus is our only teacher and the Holy Spirit is our only leader. Don’t follow me; follow Jesus alone. Don’t heed my teachings; obey Christ’s teachings.”
From this vantage point, the large upfront presence and authority of dynamic personalities leading many megachurches seemed like a complete affront to my more humble, self-effacing “get-out-of-the-way” approach to pastoral leadership and teaching. I figured I was following the lead of John the Baptist and eager to tell other pastors, “We must decrease, Jesus must increase” in our ministries.
So, armed with this thesis—or axe-grinding agenda—I set out to prove from the New Testament and examples of Jesus and the apostles how unbiblical and dangerous these personality-driven churches were. I was eager to call these churches and pastors to repentance, urging them to place Jesus and the Bible—not the pastor—front and center in their teaching and discipleship ministry. As you will see in the next chapter, the only problem with my thesis was that all the evidence was stacked against me. Quite to my surprise, Jesus, Paul and the early church fathers actually supported the centrality of human person and the necessity of embodied wisdom in the task of discipleship and moral formation.
The following thesis details is my journey into the world of the great sages and moral teachers of antiquity, examining how they went about teaching and discipling their pupils, and my search for the ideal context for this formational task today. The problem, I discovered, is not personality-driven ministries led by dynamic upfront teachers per se; but rather the lack of personal relationships and meaningful interactions between the teacher on the stage and the anonymous disciples sitting in the crowd. What I end up confronting and bemoaning below will not be personality-driven ministries, but the growing trend toward more impersonal modes of teaching and pastoring.
Disembodied Information vs. Embodied Wisdom
Churchgoers today have access to more information and high quality teaching content than ever before (e.g., RightNow Media, YouTube, online classes, etc.). Likewise, pastors and Christian influencers have more means of disseminating their teaching and engaging their congregants than ever before (e.g., online sermons, podcasts, blogs, eNewsletters, email, videos, etc). Yet, biblical literacy continues to plummet and faithful church participation and real spiritual growth continue to wane. Apparently, information alone doesn’t lead to deeper formation. Discipleship content without pastoral contact is inadequate.
After ten years of preaching Sunday sermons and leading small group Bible studies, I am left wondering if there might be more effective ways to guide my people toward spiritual maturity. My research has led me to conclude that we need to recover a “wisdom culture” in the church today to push against the strong current of the “information culture” coupled with the “convenience culture” that currently hold sway. Part of recovering a Wisdom Culture entails recovering the role of the sage in spiritual formation and discipleship. Ultimately, I will attempt to show that wisdom and truth that truly transform are embodied in a real flesh-and-blood relationships between the spiritual teacher and student, the pastor and parishioner.
Next time I will provide some background on my own church context and personal pastoral experience that energized this project.