Most Christian congregations confess, theologically, that the faithful—and, we should hope, even the unfaithful—are saved by “grace alone.” In point of fact, however, and much like the foolish Galatians, we have turned to a different gospel. Individually and corporately, spiritually and pastorally, vocationally and ecclesiologically, what we really believe is that salvation (read “success”) is the result of “work alone.” Or if not work alone, then work mostly, which, unlike grace and faith, produces measurable results and therefore testify one way or the other to the effectiveness of a minister or the vitality of a congregation.
One practical consequence of this theological eclipse is easy to observe: how many of the mailings crossing a pastor’s desk or filling the inbox of Christian Educators are selling technique? The latest products for programming? Some new skill set that will increase attendance, engender enthusiasm, generate giving?
Eugene Peterson has long-lamented and often written of the temptation and tendency pastors have to substitute technique for spirituality. One result of this dire exchange is impatience: We have to get busy! Another is fear: If we don’t do this and now the church down the road will and we will get, as it were, left behind! Yet a third is the kind of frustrated and, often, quixotic jumps pastors make from church to church when the physical plant, the staff, the program or pulpit/platform is seen as more amenable to the pastor’s goals for his/her ministry. These idolatries and self-deceptions, among others, prompt Peterson to encourage pastors to cultivate a spirituality of both place and incarnational patience.
Now, before readers dismiss this observation as mere curmudgeonliness on my part—frustration born of the jaundiced regard of my superiors—I have to disclose that I recently received a nice “promotion” and partly, it seems, because the quantifiable and observable evidence is that I was “successful” in my last appointment. Looking back, I am not at all convinced—but that is for another blog, when I have more time to reflect on the joys and regrets and many mixed feelings of pastoral transitions.
Still, in this new place—where I am exceedingly thankful to be and thrilled to pitch my tent—I have been trying to locate (so as to avoid if I can) the traps set for all ministers, and especially at the beginning. One of them is this: even well-meaning congregations often believe they will be saved not just by work, but by the work of the pastor—her preaching and personality, his pastoral care and visitation, the winsomeness, marketing and programming that will change the old First Church from “inglory” into glory.
We in the trade are prone to lament our congregations’ unrealistic, unyielding and even idolatrous expectations—but I suspect that secretly we are flattered by it all. In fact, for all our protestations, the most dangerous trap is one that we set for ourselves: many of us desperately want our people to be dependent on us; want the flock to turn to us in every little crisis, to solve their every little problem and sign-off on every little decision. Such regard can, for the moment, assuage a pastor’s insecurities. It can, or so the pastor supposes, validate the call and reward the sacrifice. But John Baillie identified this pastoral neurosis for what it was when he confessed that his "care of others" was often, simply, a "refined" form of self-care.
As I start this new work I am thinking of the Baptizer’s benediction: “I must decrease and He must increase.” But what does salvation by grace alone look like in the local church? I have insufficient experience to say.