Our lives will bear signs of the new COVID realities for some time. Since this is so for all, not least pastors, lay leaders, and church members, we are asking one another important questions as we seek to practice ministry during a time deeply marked by a world-wide pandemic.
Some of our questions are: “Do we go ‘all in’ on virtual church? Will Zoom forever be my new best friend? Have attendance patterns changed irrevocably? How do we respond to those who cannot or will not get vaccinated? Or who cannot or will not attend in person? Can financial contributions sustain congregational life as we have known it? What does church membership mean for people in Australia watching our live-streamed services? What if live-streaming is not sustainable for us?”
As cataclysmic as COVID has been, it is not the only change occurring. We face incredible cultural upheavals over identity, race, gender, sexuality, and politics, etc. The amount of change we are dealing with is staggering.
In the midst of such change, we also seek to remember what is constant. We want to be faithful servants of the Crucified and Risen One. So, what to do? What does ministry look like during a time of great change?
1. My Theological Mentor
The best of times for religion is now. The predictions of Marx and Nietzsche have not proved to be true. Mighty changes in society effected by the Industrial Revolution, and the more recent theological and communications revolutions, have not eliminated religious hunger in the souls of human beings. Augustine’s ancient analysis of the human situation has proved to be true. “Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee.”
These are also the worst of times for religion and for Christian faith. For five centuries the Christian church in Western Europe dominated the worldwide Christian community. Today it is in radical decline. …John H. Leith, The Best of Times and the Worst of Times for Religion, Especially Christian Faith (Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corp., 2001), 1.
When I began pastoral ministry, wise mentors advised me to do two things. One was to find a book of the Bible that spoke to me and then to hone-in on it––not to the exclusion of others, of course. But I should have a long-term interest in that book so that I would keep up with scholarship, acquire the best commentaries, and study the book again and again, so I might gain a level of knowledge and proficiency in it.
The other was to do the same thing with a theologian and to focus on that theologian’s body of work––again, not exclusively, for there are many worth reading (and some who are not). But as I reached a level of knowledge and proficiency with “my” theologian, it would help to provide me with a theological framework for growth.
Romans was the book I chose (or should I say chose me?) and I have tried to keep up with Romans, and I read and teach it as often as I can. My theologian also chose me in a way that will soon become clear. His name is John H. Leith. Who was John Leith? He was a professor on the faculty of Union Seminary (Richmond) from 1958-1990.
I did not study under Leith at Union—I attended Austin Seminary—nor did I read Leith in my first few years of pastoral service. Instead, Leith “chose” me through a booklet surreptitiously placed in my church mailbox in 2001, when I was an associate pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church, Houston, Texas. The title? The ponderous but accurate The Best of Times and the Worst of Times for Religion, Especially Christian Faith. In fifteen short pages, it named one of the elephants in our living room—the crisis of faith and theology at the beginning of the twenty-first century—and then it described cogent, thoughtful steps to respond to the crisis in light of historic Reformed faith and practice.
As was said about Karl Barth’s Commentary on Romans, so Leith’s The Best of Times exploded like a bombshell on my theological and pastoral playground. I began to read Leith. In particular two works, The Reformed Imperative: What the Church Has to Say That No One Else Can Say, and From Generation to Generation: The Renewal of the Church According to Its Own Theology and Practice, continue to speak to me as I think about ministry during a time of great change.
2. Difficult Lessons Learned
Men like to become Christians without crossing racial, linguistic, or class barriers.Donald A. McGavran, Understanding Church Growth (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 198.
Church growth strategies are the death gurgle of a church that has lost its way.Stanley Hauerwas, inside front cover blurb for Shrink: Faithful Ministry in a Church-Growth Culture by Tim Settle (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014).
Before I encountered Leith, I had an experience that was life-changing theologically, ecclesiastically, profession-ally, and personally. I came of ministerial age in the mid-to-late 1980s as the Church Growth Movement ascended to its glory. Books by Donald McGavran, Peter Wagner, Win Arn, Elmer Towns, Bill Hybels, and Rick Warren flooded the marketplace. Willow Creek Church, Saddleback Church, Cathedral of Joy, and other large congregations were showing us all how it was done.
I was ordained in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, a denomination born out the Second Great Awakening with an unusual perspective for Presbyterians: Arminian theology married to Presbyterian polity. After serving a short period as a solo pastor and then a denominational staff member, I “pursued” (in a business-like way) and received a call to be a church planting pastor or “new church development” pastor. A new congregation in a fast-growing Dallas suburb, near where I grew up, needed someone. The organizing pastor left because of alleged sexual indiscretions. Twenty people remained from the original two-year planting effort.
Devoted to the Church Growth Movement and convinced I was uniquely qualified for the position (I was young, energetic, articulate, and reasonably attractive—all stated here with great humility), I leaped into my new pastoral call. No robe, but open collar and shirtsleeves? Check. No hymnals, but lyrics on overheads instead? Check. Praise choruses instead of hymns? Check. Meet in a shopping center? Check. A more relaxed, casual style of worship? Check. Take homemade cookies to the resi-dences of first-time visitors to show how welcoming and eager we are? Check. Send mass mailings as often as we could afford? Check. Focus on middle-class families with two kids and a mortgage? Check. Talk to the session and presbytery committee about changes needed to grow us into the medium-sized church, as a prelude to changes needed to move us into our destiny as a large church? Check. For two years I toiled away in one of the fastest growing suburbs in the country. Surely we would bring in the people! But the people stayed away in droves.
When people did visit, we were as friendly, welcoming, and savvy as we knew how to be, as all the books, semi-nars, and conferences had taught us. But the desperation oozing from our pores no doubt frightened most away. A few hung around. In two years, we increased our group from twenty to fifty, which was not a bad outcome for two years, considering how truly dysfunctional we were.
But at the time, our growth was nothing like the stories we had heard—okay, I had heard—and nothing near where we needed to be according to our preliminary mission design’s goals. We needed more people and we needed them quickly, for we had a first phase of a multi-phase building plan the denominational leadership was pressing us to begin. So, with our somewhat chaotic church leadership, we engaged an architect, looked at preliminary drawings, and stared googly-eyed at each other over the prospect of owing a six-figure bank note.
As we neared the edge of the precipice, I began to doubt whether a fifty-member congregation should owe such a large sum of money. I also began to doubt the validity of the entire enterprise. My concern was not just that the church growth strategies I had been applying were not working to the extent we needed. But I began to doubt the theological premise of the Church Growth Movement as a whole. I was diligently applying the techniques. The results were not what I thought was promised. So, what if the problem was not my knowledge and application of growth strategies, but the theological foundations on which those strategies were built? What if my theological house was built on sand instead of solid rock?
Thus, I began to examine what I believed and why, and how my theology and practice should better intersect. The process took five years of study, prayer, and reflection. The result? A more classically Augustinian and Calvinist faith, tethered to the practices of centuries.
So, I have given in to faddishness in faith and practice before, and I have seen the results. The pressure to go with the latest, greatest thing can be immense. I have no desire to follow a similar path again as we move into whatever future God has designed for us. The words of C.S. Lewis mean more and more to me each year I serve: “All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”
3. Three Essential Forms of Ministry
The church is renewed by preaching, teaching, and pastoral care as they have been traditionally practiced in the church. … Hence the renewal of the church rests upon two foundations. The first is the renewal of faith, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that enables us to say that Jesus is the Christ, that enables us to experience the Bible as the Word of God, that makes us sensitive to the activity of God in nature and in history. The second foundation is the act of remembering and recovering our identity and persuasively proclaiming it in the life of the church, especially in the ministries of preaching, teaching, and pastoral care.John H. Leith, From Generation to Generation: The Renewal of the Church According to Its Own Theology and Practice (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1990), 14–16.
The Reformers were engaged in theology as retrieval long before it became trendy. … At the same time, retrieval does more than repeat: it reforms. And it reforms not according to the standard of a past formula but according to the living and active Word of Scripture… As the Reformers retrieved the gospel to meet the challenges of their time, so I want to retrieve certain aspects of the Reformation to meet present challenges. … To retrieve is to look back creatively in order to move forward faithfully.Kevin Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2016), pp. 23–24. Italics original.
How do we minister in the wake of such great change? How do we deal with the cultural, theological, and ecclesial crises we face because of COVID and a com-plex stew of other factors that COVID exacerbates, not to mention other societal tsunamis we are encountering?
I hold that we should emphasize three central ministries of the church, as Leith describes and as classically defined: preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. Simply put, we preach the gospel of Christ as we explicate Scripture on Sundays and at other times. We teach the Faith as we share both what we believe and what we do because of our belief. We care for people both inside and outside the church as shepherds look after sheep. We acknowledge that all this is done only through the superintending guidance of the Scriptures and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
This does not mean preaching Calvin’s sermons verbatim or a didactic, running commentary style of preaching. Nor is it a teacher-centric pedagogy of lecture to the exclusion of other methods. Neither am I advocating for more pastoral counseling. I do not want to repeat the past but to retrieve it. To retrieve preaching, teaching, and pastoral care as our theological core entails three things.
First, we are called to preach sermons that are rhetori-cally simple. They open up the meaning of a passage in a competent way and address at least one implication with integrity, skill, and passion. The significance of this approach to preaching is manifold: 1) there is not merely truth, but Truth; 2) this Truth is knowable and communicable; 3) this Truth is, in the words of Alvin Plantinga, “properly basic”; 4) Scripture as illuminated by the Holy Spirit is sufficient for revealing this Truth, and; 5) “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God,” according to the Second Helvetic Confession.
Second, we are called to teach the foundations of Christian faith and practice as provided in Scripture and through our sharpest theological minds, and not to assume we are past needing them and thus can move on. Among the many implications of this understanding are two. First, we can and must pass on to others a coherent and cohesive narrative of the Christian faith primarily through Scripture, and to a lesser degree through our history, experience, tradition, and theological discourse. Many congregants, much less most North Americans, do not know the Story. They believe Christianity is about keeping rules and regulations; we must disabuse them of this error. Second, we must develop some theological muscle within our congregations, especially as centered in the best of the Reformed tradition. Theological illiteracy is even more pronounced than biblical illiteracy. Most church members have little knowledge of what makes us distinctively Presbyterian and Reformed.
Third, we are called to address the whole person. We share the gospel as we develop relationships. We pray for and with people. We reach out to those in need with acts of service and communicate that we do this because Jesus wants us to. We seek justice and reconciliation for and with those marginalized by society. We practice ordinary deeds of mercy, listening and proclaiming the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. Two implications of this principle are noteworthy. First, saved by the gospel, we are to live by the gospel, so legalistic and moralistic mindsets are to be repudiated. Second, since words and deeds go hand in hand in bearing witness to Jesus, if our care and conduct are found wanting and hypocritical, our preaching and teaching will not be heard.
4. Overcoming Our Love of Technique
Management skills, understanding of goal-setting processes, therapy, public relations, [and] conflict management do not gather and build churches. Churches that serve basic human needs sometimes thrive without much theology, and modern communication techniques can turn ministers without education into excellent entertainers. I know of no evidence that these skills gather and build congregations of faith. The Protestant churches that endure are those that emphasize preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. There are no shortcuts.Leith, From Generation to Generation, 14–16.
Leith’s scathing indictment of uncritically received technique loses none of its resonance thirty years later. In fact, we may add more techniques to his very American-sounding list of management skills, goal setting, therapy, public relations, and conflict management.
Two strong possibilities for inclusion? First, our current fascination with technology in general and the Internet in particular, with little constructive guidance provided for both how to use it and how not to use it in ways that shape our witness. Second, our deeply entrenched habits as consumers of religious goods and services, both in terms of receiving them ourselves and of packaging them for others to receive, and the great difficulty we encounter in escaping this perspective in twenty-first century America.
Here, the law of unintended consequences is a severe one, and unless we think deeply, biblically, theologically, and ecclesiastically about how we will use technology and how we will address our incessant consumerism, these consequences will come around to bite us.
I know I could use more instruction in many techniques. I remember situations when better knowledge of conflict resolution, for example, would have been quite helpful. But my point is that as helpful as they may be, techniques will not renew or strengthen the church. As I look back, there were many occasions when I know I wasted time on such endeavors as retreats focused on mission statements and goal setting, conferences to make preaching and worship more user-friendly, staff meetings and seminars based on the latest business best-seller, and workshops and books on better non-profit management practices.
I have not arrived at the Promised Land. I still grapple with how to maintain this historic focus on preaching, teaching, and pastoral care in my ministry. A term often used within my own denomination, reveals a challenge here. The phrase “best practices” is ubiquitous. When sessions meet with one another or pastoral covenant groups gather, we are to share our “best practices” with one another. The phrase is borrowed with little hesitation from business. It sounds helpful, objective, and clinical. Who could argue with seeking the “best”? Do we not want to give God our very best? Of course!
But how do we define what is best? We often assume that we all know and agree. Yet it usually comes down to our definition of success, popularity, or positive response from the intended audience. Much of the time in ministry, we think of “best,” if we are honest, in pragmatic or utilitarian terms. If something “works” or “gets results” ––and by that we usually mean increased attendance, participation, commitment, or giving––then it becomes a “best practice” that we commend to others.
Yet so much of the Kingdom’s work is directly opposed to what many today think is “best.” What if what is “best” in some cases is a ministry that strips away rather than adds participants, that winnows down the nominal to a committed cohort, as with Gideon? Can the “best” include this possibility? I wonder. Yet my vision of what is “best” leaves open the possibility that God may work differently than by twenty-first century business models.
Even if we wish to honor the three-fold emphasis on faithful preaching, teaching, and pastoral care, we can be led astray if we are not attentive. For example, when it comes to what a good sermon is, many say, “Well, we know it when we hear it.” But there is little recognition of what our tradition has historically considered faithful, competent preaching. Instead, today’s encouragement is toward a much more listener-centered approach.
Some say a sermon relevant to today should be more like a TED talk. By the TED standard, a good sermon possesses: 1) extemporaneous and noteless delivery; 2) a casual, conversational tone; 3) adept use of multimedia; 4) focus on a topic or story of great human interest; 5) the TED talk typical plot or structure, and, perhaps most emphatically; 6) holding to an eighteen-minute time limit. Individually, perhaps, there is nothing inherently wrong with most, if not all, of the characteristics. Some of them I wish I could pull off well: I would like to preach without notes, for instance, but my attempts flounder. But when these characteristics are assembled, the popularity of the TED talk’s standard for preaching is almost a lead pipe cinch. Reflect on the comments you have likely heard: “Don’t you love it when the preacher speaks from the heart and doesn’t use notes?” “Didn’t you like that personal story in the sermon?” “That movie clip was awesome!” And who in our congregations will advocate for sermons longer than eighteen minutes? Nationwide, I suspect that group can meet weekly in a booth at Denny’s!
But what is left out of TED Talk criteria? Responsible biblical interpretation. Theological integrity and rigor. The scandal of the gospel. The power of the resurrection. The good news of grace through faith. In other words, what makes a good sermon is defined by non-biblical, consumeristic standards that are designed to appeal to non-biblical, consumeristic people. Technique prevails.
Therefore, amid COVID and other challenges in this kairos moment, I am more convinced than ever that what we do must be rooted in the three-fold practice of preaching, teaching, and pastoral care. It comes from the best of our heritage. We preach the gospel as we explicate and show the implications of the Scriptures Sunday in, Sunday out. We teach the Faith as we study the Bible’s grand Story and learn central theological truths. We care for people as we love them in Christ and share the gospel in word and deed. We seek to do this all under the Bible’s authority, direction, and guidance, and through the Holy Spirit’s power, encouragement, and leadership. This is how I will seek to practice ministry in the midst of great change.