Our modern world is mechanical. We are consumed with the idea of making things “work,” whatever that means. We second-guess ourselves constantly. We seek ways to manage and manipulate to reach our ends. We have even been encouraged to spy on our neighbors and report things to the police which seem to hint of something potentially illegal. We have become a culture of little robots.
This isn’t new. We have viewed relationships like that for a long time now. Even romance is often treated mechanically. Back in the 60s a song by the Association was explicit in this:
Oh I’m beginning to think that man has never found
The words that could make you want me
That have the right amount of letters, just the right sound
That could make you hear, make you see
That you are drivin’ me out of my mind
This has affected the pastorate and, as Kevin VanHoozer and Owen Strachan discuss in their book, “The Pastor as Public Theologian,” it has led to a disintegration of the pastoral position. You may be sitting under sermons which contain a large amount of emotional manipulation. Emotion is not just the excitement generated in the charismatic and pentecostal fellowships. It is the pietistic mixture of burden and guilt (we can do more so why aren’t you doing more?) that we experience in many fundamental and other revivalist-type fellowships.
This is a by-product of the 19th century. It’s the revival mentality, something that the authors cover. It is a desire to say the right words, the right turn of a phrase, that might persuade the person to come to Christ. Even today the apologetics movement is, in ways, seemingly driven by this mentality. Find the right academic argument to counter the assault on Christianity and people will come to Christ.
This is our modern world, far adrift from the world of relationships and community we experienced before the modern era. And the church followed society. It happens quite often, probably more than we realize. The specific issue of the authors is the position of pastor and returning it to a position less of a revivalist and more of a teacher-leader. There have been many influences on this, both external and internal.
As the nineteenth century wore on and the twentieth began, pastors yielded to academics as thought leaders, giving up much of the disciplinary ground over which Kuyper’s (and Edwards’) Christ shouted “Mine!” According to George Marsden, this transition centered in a few major moves that together helped to transform the American academy, and with it, the American church. First, scholarship was “seen as a profession in its own right.” Second, in this framework, philosophy, philology, and later the hard sciences displaced theology as the queen of the disciplines. Third, theology itself was separated from the life of the church, in large part due to the Kantian division between “noumenal” (spiritual) and “phenomenal” (verifiable) truth. (p. 88)
We cannot change society. What we can change is how we behave in the church. When will we realize that very, very few enter a church as a real seeker? The ministry of evangelism needs to be accomplished outside the church. When will we realize that the sermon, even a highly informational one, is not really training?
VanHoozer and Strachan present a perspective on the pastorate, and it includes pastoral responses, which should be useful to any pastor as he struggles to clarify his purpose and calling.
At the same time, being involved in education, I think it needs to go much further. On the one hand there’s the position and ministry of the pastor and on the other hand there is Christian education and the fuller scope of education in the local church. That is, much of today’s church has a structure which allows for enhanced educational opportunities. We have graduates of Christian and Bible colleges and seminaries by the score available. These people often misunderstood “calling” so they’re not in a pastoral position. But they are trained and the Lord has provided them to your church for a purpose. It’s time to gather them together to enhance the training available. In short, let’s take a key challenge of this work and go further with it to build churches of sound doctrine and sound mind, able to both confront and with stand challenge as the gospel is presented.
Christian educators, even in the local church and especially so, have a distinct advantage over the pastor/preacher. We get to teach. We get to do it weekly, to sit down with a class and dig through books and passages. We get to do more than tell. We get to train. We provide exegetical skills and tools as well as bibiographies. Though the sermon may be the historic focus of the church I would suggest that function of the sermon, training and teaching, has been lost to various forms. Even exegetical preaching remains a monologue and is often a lazy approach, allowing some to avoid public challenges and issues. But the function of today’s Christian educator in the local church has the ability to fulfill the educational function of centuries past.
Second, everything about book, it seems, and its view of teaching is oriented to the monologue of the sermon. But sermons, whether today or 200 years ago, are not what they were in the early days of the church. That is, the primitives of Christian practice have been lost to form and volume. On the one hand the sermon, while it can teach, it cannot train. Seldom is it coupled with a systematic didactic, a Διδαχή if you will, oriented to our purposes that not only teaches but trains. Of course 200 years ago many catechetical groups might have done this. But today it is not, at least not so commonly as in the past. It may be because the Presbyterians saw that the Baptists down the road had a big gym. (G. North) Not only is doctrine not preached (taught, that is) but the function of teaching — fulfilling a training scenario — is completely missing. It gets a little lip service but nothing enough to assist a pastor in implementing the appropriate fulfillment of the sermon.
Sermons today are much a matter of form. For the revivalist they include, as the old song said, “just the right letters, just the right sounds” to make the listener respond, if that is possible. For those in teaching churches it’s a teaching monologue. Though a plain and clear presentation of God’s word it generally amounts to doing the thinking for people rather than opening doors through which they must walk in their relationship with God. So we do the application for them. We make things easy. And that’s another problem.
Conclusion: I highly recommend this book as a starting point for developing a better understanding of what might be the best role of the pastor. Yet I caution the reader to not consider it the ending point. Treat your theological role with even more depth. Stretch people. Push them to the edge. Push yourself and your church leadership. Always take things further for the advancement of the kingdom of God lest you become lazy and just do exegesis without a greater goal.