The Resurrection and Pastoral Ministry
As a former pastor with a bit of a confused sense of what ministry was about, in seminary I was deeply impacted by Andrew Purves’ Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation (which he has since followed up with the more accessible volumes The Crucifixion and The Resurrection of Ministry). In these books the basic thesis is that ministry too often focusses on the imitation of Christ and forgets that it is always participation in Christ first. In his introduction to The Crucifixion of Ministry, Purves’ writes: “Ministry should be understood as a sharing in the continuing ministry of Jesus Christ, for wherever Christ is, there is the church and her ministry…. Swiss theologian Karl Barth said it: It is not Jesus Christ who needs our ministries; it is our ministries that need Jesus Christ” (12-13).
Perhaps that sounds pretty straightforward, but when I first read this stuff it was like balm to my soul. You see, while pastoring, for my ordination I had to read Mark Mittelberg’s Building a Contagious Church, and it simultaneously inspired and confounded me. Some of the impulses were right on, but there was something amiss. While I wouldn’t want to discredit him or the “seeker church movement” as a whole, I think I can illustrate where things went wrong by way of one of Mittelberg’s diagrams. Building on the well-worn image of God on one side of the sin-gap and humanity on the other side (with a cross to be inserted in the middle; we won’t get into the oversimplification here), it goes on to add another gap that I just don’t think ought to be there:
The idea pervading the book is that once one crosses the sin gap by faith in Christ one has then to cross this other gap – the culture gap – to get others over. I suppose that’s a way of saying we have to be witnesses precisely in our place and time. Excellent. But the problem with the diagram as it plays out in the book is that Jesus fills in the one hole only to set up the church on a mediating platform with the distinct task of filling in the other.
At the time it seemed odd to me that we evangelicals would reject priestly mediation for priesthood-of-believers mediation – switching sides in what Reinhard Hütter calls the ‘alternatives of institution and charisma’ – but I wouldn’t have put it that way at the time (see Suffering Divine Things, 95). I just remember struggling with the overwhelming task of figuring out how to set up a vernacular church culture that would get the neighbours flocking in the doors. The burden was heavy and I would have crumbled under its weight if my congregation was not so good at keeping it real.
At the time I could not put my thumb on the ecclesiological and missiological shortcomings. But according to Willie James Jennings’ The Christian Imagination, it might have something to do with what Lamin Sanneh calls “the unintended consequences of vernacular translation,” wherein the believer and the church begin to position themselves as “the inseparable carrier of the message.” When this happens they unwittingly ask people to first change cultures in order to then receive Jesus. In this move, says Jennings, the “scandalous particularity” of Jesus the Jewish Messiah is flattened into timeless truths and the “social and political materiality” we attach it to (i.e. our Christian culture) short-circuits the power of the gospel. In short we forget the resurrection and Pentecost, where the power of the gospel is seen in “the joining of peoples in the struggle to learn each other’s language in the process of lives joined, lives lived together” in Christ’s formation of “a new history for a new people” (See Jennings, The Christian Imagination, 156-160).
This doesn’t mean we make no attempt to embody the gospel in our particular contexts and to communicate it in the vernacular, but it does mean that we refrain from absolutizing any particular culture’s appropriation of the gospel. To be fair, Mittelberg put up warning flags regarding that tendency, but my observation of pastoral theology in the last couple decades suggests that these have not able to stem the tide (in many cases) of the wrong-headed theology represented in that diagram. I think this has put many pastors on a path that leads only to burnout on one side or undue hero-status on the other. It also has had the unfortunate side effect of attaching the values of the marketplace to almost every aspect of pastoral theology and, in my view, perverting them all in the process.
So what is the alternative? For starters I’d like to offer the outlook recommended by John Howard Yoder in For the Nations:
“The faith community and the human community are connatural; each is human, historical, social. No apologetic bridge needs to be built from one to the other. No deductive derivation of concrete specifications from general theories or metaphors is needed. If and when and to the extent to which women and men order their common life in the light of Christ’s lordship, they are already actualizing in, with, and under ordinary human forms the sanctification of creaturely life…. So it is that the order of the faith community constitutes a public offer to the entire society…. It is not that first we set about being a proper church and then in a later move go about deciding to care prophetically for the rest of the world. To participate in the transforming process of becoming the faith community is itself to speak the prophetic word, is itself the beginning of the transformation of the cosmos” (27-28).
Perhaps this seems an uncontroversial point. I kind of hope it is. But I think that when you start to pan this out in practical ministry it actually ends up being pretty starkly different from what so often passes for pastoral theology today. In fact it reminds me of some words that kept me afloat in some of my most anxious days in the pastorate.
At a district prayer retreat I was at the end of my rope and so I cornered a senior statesman in our denomination, a man whom I had long respected, and pointedly asked him what he would do in a specific counselling situation. I completely expected that he would outline a kind of plan of attack or a little trick of the trade to getting these counselling sessions to “work” (such was the mantra of the books on my desk). I will never forget what he said. His carefully formed, simple sentence spouted wisdom with every baritone word: “Well, Jon, I usually just sit down and get comfortable in their living room, talk as friends do, and at the right time ask if it is okay if we open the Bible and pray together about what God might have us do.” It was not a recommendation toward proof-texting or a trite Sunday School answer to get me off his chest. This man simply believed in Jesus as the living Lord of the Church and the Holy Spirit as present and active in the world – no matter whose side of the “culture gap” someone’s living room was supposed to be on.