Confused Clergy

Kevin Vanhoozer asks:

“What do pastors have to say and do that other people in the helping professions—psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and so forth—are not already doing, and often doing better?” (The Pastor as Public Theologian: 9)

In a quick-fix generation that wants to take a single pill and feel better in the morning, it’s easy to slip into Talk Show mode. I’ve done it myself more times than I want to count (or admit). “Four Simple Ways to Build a Better Marriage.” “Three Sure Steps to Financial Freedom.” Serve lightly sprinkled with some Scripture, and call it a sermon.

Pastor as TheologianPastors and preachers around the world have often gravitated towards “felt need” messages. This is, after all, what people want to hear; not antiquated messages about sin, redemption, obedience, or holiness. I once had a dear mentor describe preaching as “counseling the masses.” But I wonder, is this the clergy’s highest call?

Is it possible that the unique contribution of the pastorate is not Christianized counseling but Kingdom proclamation? The one starts with us; the other starts with Christ. The one starts with human experience; the other addresses the human condition. The one requires my own strength; the other calls me to faith.

Pastoral ministry faces enormous pressures and expectations, and these can distract—even derail—our best intentions. And for some of us, beneath and behind our best efforts to serve Christ and His people, lies some quiet confusion; a hidden crisis of confidence that emerges in silence and solitude. We cannot compete as therapists and we are only moderately adept as managers. What do we have to offer?

Simply the Gospel.

Pastors are theologians, declaring the presence, the purposes, and the plans of God.

Pastors are theologians, caring for communities and curing souls.

Pastors are theologians, affirming the fundamental brokenness of humanity and the power of redemption.

Pastors are theologians, re-telling the story of God—the only story that matters—and placing us in His story (rather than Him in our story).

I certainly need help with my marriage, my parenting, my finances, and my friendships. I’d like to be successful in the workplace and respected in my community. But my pastor, on his or her finest days, lifts my eyes (again and again) to the greater realities—the metanarrative of history—the heavenly Father who loves me, the Son who gives Himself for me, and the Holy Spirit who transforms and guides me as I trust Him unreservedly.

The Gospel is the power of God that brings glory to God.

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ISIS and Paris

We’ve all been horrified by the violence in Paris this past Friday. The death and injury toll has shocked people all over the world. But perhaps it’s the setting that shocks us most — a restaurant, a football game, and a concert hall. These are not war zones.

Eiffel TowerWe have grown almost desensitized to mass graves in Syria and religious violence in Iraq. We have almost forgotten civilian deaths in Ukraine and the brutality in Afghanistan.

In recent years, thousands of men and women, boys and girls — all created in the image of God — have died on battlefields and in conflict zones. But Paris? It shakes our confidence.

People have challenged the efficiency of European security services. “Why did they not stop this?” Others have suddenly been shaken from complacency and reacted in fear. “Bomb them back!”

Those of us who value life, who see it as sacred, who believe in the dignity and equality of all human beings, face an earnest dilemma. Will we hold the high ground? It has been rightly said that “our enemy has won when we become like them.

Let’s keep in mind the following two Kingdom mandates.

Love must triumph. Fear, especially terror, can reduce any of us to prejudice and indiscriminate violence. But followers of Christ are called to the extraordinary mission of loving our enemies (Matthew 5:43-44). In the flesh we will want to retaliate, punish, berate, and hate. God appoints governments to decide these things. We must resolve to pray and love.

Faith must sustain. It’s more clear than ever that tanks, planes, and police forces cannot guarantee our security. We dare not place our confidence in our own strength. The Psalmist reminded ancient Israel:

The king is not saved by a mighty army;
A warrior is not delivered by great strength.
A horse is a false hope for victory;
Nor does it deliver anyone by its great strength. (Psalm 33:16-17)

Our trust — our faith — rests in the Lord. It must rest in Him.

Never has the Christian witness been more severely challenged. Never has it been more urgently needed. Those who follow Christ have an opportunity — no, an obligation — to lift the common dialogue. Those without Christ might be driven by fear, anger, and retribution. Can we model something higher and something greater?

It will not be welcome. But only this voice can produce true hope.

May our words be shaped by grace this week, despite the fear and the tears.

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A Poverty of Attention

My friend David Beck, in his book Luminous, writes:

“The amount of information we consume has skyrocketed. Information overload takes its toll on us. ‘What information consumes is rather obvious,’ says economist Herbert Simon. ‘A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.‘ We think of ourselves as consumers, but in the age of information overload, we have become the consumed.”

I’m a news junkie. Others are gamers. Still others live on Facebook or social media. No matter the specific focal point, the impact is often the same — a poverty of attention. Without realizing it, we slowly sacrifice our time, energy, and attention. What we think we control gradually gets control of us. We, the consumers, become the consumed. The instant-society, the microwave-culture, has lost patience, focus, and depth.

Woman using iPhoneI see this in the University classroom. Many students have severely eroded attention-spans. They dismiss the suggestion, as we all do, by claiming to “multi-task.” I see this in restaurants as couples sitting at a table each stare at their own phone screens, tapping and scrolling intermittently. “A poverty of attention.”

A world of sound-bites, captions, Tweets, video-clips, and pokes has transformed us — robbed us. And it begs the disturbing question: Is the hyper-stimulation of our culture undermining our ability to hear God, to think deeply, or to be fully present to each other?

Gambling grows compulsive to many people, in part because of the chemical stimulation that the brain receives when the unpredictable happens. If the process and outcome of a game is entirely scripted, we would be bored. Something similar happens with email, gaming, social media, and even the news. We check in repeatedly for something new and something unexpected. It functions like a drug, not only distracting us but stimulating us. And the pleasure of the stimulation masks “the poverty of attention” that is developing within us.

Little needs to be written here about the obvious implications of this for our spiritual formation. If spiritual formation is “a long obedience in the same direction,” we cannot hope to be well-formed by short bursts of attention to Christ and His Kingdom.

What would need to change for each of us, today, to overcome this cancerous condition and truly find rest? I suspect that only with such rest can we truly flourish.

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The 15 Minutes After

George Müller (1805-1898), a remarkable evangelist and missionary, lived in Bristol, England.

Over the course of his life, he cared for over 10,000 orphans. He also started 117 schools that served over 120,000 kids; many of George Muellerthem the poorest of the poor. Not everyone agreed with his focus. Some folk argued that offering such hope merely encouraged the poor to pursue something above their God-ordained station in life. Müller felt differently.

But for all of his activity, busyness, and service, Müller became renowned as a man of prayer. On one occasion, speaking of his own prayer-life, he noted: “The most important part of prayer is the fifteen minutes after saying ‘Amen.'”

The fifteen minutes after.

“Amen” usually closes the prayer and concludes our prayerfulness. Not for Müller. “Amen” simply marked a transition. It indicated the time to listen harder for Christ to speak and look harder for Christ to answer.

In 1877, while crossing the Atlantic, his ship ran into thick fog. Müller needed to be in Quebec by the following afternoon, but the captain had to slow the ship for its own safety. Müller asked to use the chartroom to pray for the lifting of the fog. The skeptical captain followed him down, and after Müller prayed the two men went back to the bridge. The fog had indeed lifted. The captain became a Christian shortly afterwards.

The fifteen minutes after.

We’ve been trained to think that the time during prayer is what counts. Have we failed to listen and look earnestly after prayer?

With the “Amen,” some of us immediately stop listening … if we listened at all. And the voice of Christ quickly gets swept away by chaos and distraction. Others of us pray with such little expectation that we’re almost afraid to look for answers, lest we feel let down.

It’s easy to seize from God “the fifteen minutes after.” Harder to seek Him in those moments. Perhaps this week Müller’s testimony can become our testing ground?

The Book of Acts suggests that “the fifteen minutes after” may have delivered the most exciting minutes of the day!

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Pathway to Love

The apostle Peter is no first-century psychoanalyst. He does not preach pop psychology, but he does understand—inspired by the Spirit of God—how the human condition works. Obedience leads to purity, and purity leads to sincere love (1 Peter 1:22).

It’s surprisingly simple. No short-cuts. No options. No alternatives. Obedience produces purity; purity paves the way to true love.

1 Peter 1-22This rings true in marriages, families, churches, and friendships. Sincere love—the kind that is selfless, genuine, and authentic—only emanates from a purified soul. All other love is tainted by mixed motives, unclear intentions, or simple selfishness.

If we want to love someone deeply, it must flow from a place of purity. It’s not just an act of our will. We must do more than simply decide we’ll love deeply. Purity forms the foundation for authentic love. Listen up, if you’re dating!

This true purity of the soul, according to Peter, flows from obedience; obedience to Jesus. The more we obey Him, the more He changes us … and the more we can love others. If we find ourselves indifferent to other people—the suffering and the marginalized—it’s likely that we have lessened our obedience to Christ and thereby corrupted our purity.

It’s simple, really.

The heart yielded fully to Christ in surrender and obedience, discovers real security. And only the truly secure soul can thrive amidst the sacrificial demands of sincere love.

Want a richer experience of love in your marriage? Seminars are filled with tips and tid-bits, but the real clue rests in obedience to Christ. Want unity and harmony in the church? We can talk about reconciliation and forgiveness till the cows come home. But the real way forward rests in obedience to Christ.

When we take the courageous step of obedience to Christ—every day and in every way—everything changes.

If you are yearning for something more; if you suspect that you have settled for second-best; if you wonder what more you could do to improve a relationship—work backwards through Peter’s admonition.

Obedience to the truth requires that the truth be embedded in us—read Scripture and reflect deeply on it this week. Purity flows from this obedience as the Holy Spirit uses the fuel of obedience to light the fires of transformation within us. And the ultimate manifestation is sincere love; life to the full.

Thanks, Peter.

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Truth and Facts

We have a truth that is greater than the facts.

Dr. John Jackson, President at William Jessup University, reminded us recently that our circumstances do not define us, nor are they our greatest reality.

TruthAll of us have a set of facts which we face right now. Those facts might include financial difficulties, health issues, family struggles, work stress, and so much more. These facts fill our lives. They dominate our thoughts, govern our conversations, and even slip into our dreams. Some facts excite us; others feel toxic. Some delight us; others distress us.

In the old television drama series Dragnet, Jack Webb famously said, “All we want are the facts, ma’am.” But when we live only with the facts, and not with faith, we live at a lesser level than Christ intended.

Those of us who follow Jesus have a truth that is greater than the facts. What we see does not hold a candle to the unseen. Our situation in life never defines us as much as our position in Christ. When darkness settles around us, we have an inextinguishable light—the Light of the World (John 1:9)—within us. The challenges of today will pass, but we trust the One who governs all time and eternity.

Our culture tends to equate truth and facts. People around us—even we ourselves—can lose sight of the forest for the trees. We can become so distracted by the particulars of our experience that we forget the focus of our faith.

The facts we face today (and tomorrow) should neither define us nor control us. Facts form merely a small subset of truth. Let’s put them back in perspective. We find hope, confidence and certainty in something—Someone—greater. Look afresh to Jesus. You’ll find new strength in the over-riding truth of His Presence.

Because of grace.

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Spreadsheets and Spirituality

Quit weighing all the pros and cons of a decision. Instead, seek the Lord’s leading and follow that path.

This past weekend our pastor preached on decision-making, and while he didn’t exactly call us to prayer, he did delineate between spreadsheets and spirituality in decision-making. How many of us create columns—at least in our minds—when making decisions?

Pros and ConsFor example, when it comes to dating: Christian? Check. Fun? Check. Attractive? Check. Good job? Check. And so it goes. We do this for many major decisions; new jobs, new homes, starting a family, finding a church home, and more.

Our pastor made this simple point: When we lean on our own understanding we make spreadsheet decisions, not spiritual ones. Rather, we are to learn to “trust in the Lord with all our hearts” (Proverbs 3:5).

Very good.

It got me thinking.

Our church (in California) is a franchise from Texas. Branding is all important. Nothing can be done without Texan approval. Someone has weighed the pros and cons and decided that local church autonomy is simply too hazardous. McDonald’s in one state looks the same as in any other state—Golden Arches, menu, packaging, the works. So does our church.

Many congregational leaders (including ours) have also embraced the “Simple Church” model. This model involves shutting down most ministries except weekend services, small groups, and limited youth ministry. “It prevents burnout.” “It focuses our corporate energy.”

I can see the benefits of running the church along these corporate lines, if indeed a church is a “business” that we “run.” Branding and burnout afflict many congregations. Badly handled budgets are a blight in many fellowships. But I must admit it feels like spreadsheet leadership. I wonder if the Church in one location can, or even should, look the same as the church in another location?

I’m not wading into video venues or stage sets designed to trick the mind of the audience, though these seem related issues. I’m just wondering, perhaps out loud with you (my friends), whether our ecclesiology (our understanding of the basic nature of the church) needs to be re-visited.

To what extent should a local congregation have a local DNA? Pastoral leadership that knows the people, understands the community, and builds a congregation that is culturally and spiritually sensitive to its context, would seem to require spiritual leadership rather than spreadsheet leadership.

The wise will always look to the leading of Christ. The “wise in their own eyes” may find themselves distracted by the common cultural wisdom around them rather than the work of Christ among them.

Do we need a deeper, richer, more local, more biblically-grounded understanding of the Church?

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