Saturday, April 27, 2024

Pastors Among the Unthinking Herd

(One of my favorite postcards)

I love pastors. I have taught many pastors. I am a pastor. I am not to be conformed to the leadership styles of this world.

The warning Paul issues in Romans 12:1-2 concerns the shape of our hearts; viz., that we not be world-conformed. This is relevant in every age, and especially so in today's America, where the invasion of secularity has captured and shaped the hearts of the masses. Many Christians, and many pastors, have joined the ranks of the unthinking Kierkegaardian herd.

In the midst of this nihilistic wasteland God raises up prophetic voices, even speaking from the grave. One of them is Henri Nouwen. In The Way of the Heart he writes:

"Our society is not a community radiant with the love of Christ, but a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul. The basic question is whether we ministers of Jesus Christ have not already been so deeply molded by the seductive powers of our dark world that we have become blind to our own and other people’s fatal state and have lost the power and motivation to swim for our lives."
(Nouwen, The Spiritual Life: Eight Essential Titles, Kindle Locations 893-896)

Nouwen sees the manifestations of pastoral captivity and world-conformity. They include:

  • Pastors are too busy with meetings, visits, many services to lead. Pastors move through life in a distracted way, rarely stopping to ask if any of this busyness is worth thinking, saying, or doing.
  • Pastors have become advertisers who must motivate people to come to church, who must make sure the youth are entertained, who must raise money to keep the infrastructure going, and above all, pastors need to see that everyone is happy.
  • Pastors have become "busy people just like all other busy people, rewarded with the rewards which are rewarded to busy people." (Ib., K899)
  • Pastors have lost their real identity in Christ, and have morphed into affirmation addicts: "Who am I? I am the one who is liked, praised, admired, disliked, hated or despised." (Ib., K906)
  • What matters to many pastors today is not what God thinks of them, but how they are perceived by the world.
Nouwen saw anger in pastoral leaders, coming from culture-shaped hearts that have taken on the consumer values of the world. He writes:

"Anger in particular seems close to a professional vice in the contemporary ministry. Pastors are angry at their leaders for not leading and at their followers for not following. They are angry at those who do not come to church for not coming and angry at those who do come for coming without enthusiasm. They are angry at their families, who make them feel guilty, and angry at themselves for not being who they want to be. This is not an open, blatant, roaring anger, but an anger hidden behind the smooth word, the smiling face, and the polite handshake. It is a frozen anger, an anger which settles into a biting resentment and slowly paralyzes a generous heart. If there is anything that makes the ministry look grim and dull, it is this dark, insidious anger in the servants of Christ. (Ib., K919-923)

Are things really that bad in ministry? I think so. I've taught my spiritual formation materials to five thousand pastors, and Nouwen's insights resonate with me. And, I have discovered the seeds of secularity in my own heart.

The warning the apostle Paul gives against world-conformity is real, and the entrapment is subtle. It doesn't happen overnight. One morning a pastor can wake up and sense that something has gone wrong in his or her heart. They realize, following Nouwen, that they are passengers on a ship that is sinking.

Nouwen's counsel, and mine as well, is: Jump ship! Swim for your life! Run to the place of your salvation, which is the place of solitude and presence of God. Reside there, and be transformed into Christlikeness by the renewing of your mind. (This is why the Desert Fathers went to the desert in the first place.)

Two of my books are