Friday, January 21, 2011

True Grit: The Need for Real Men in the Ministry

There is a problem in American Evangelicalism; and it presents itself in the men who enter the pulpit and the continuation of a broken system. The Evangelical Church (read: Protestant, Bible-believing Christians) has become ineffective; the spiritual equivalent of a fat, lazy, couch-potato in desperate need of a Jillian Michaels butt-kicking. We've been fed plenty of food, but most of it has been nutrient-poor and we haven't spent the time using what we've taken in. We've been modeling, spiritually, the cultural worldview that we see around us, and that modeling begins in the pulpit. We must understand that pastors, like the people they minister to, are only human and are sinners saved by grace. Yet, as Jesus said, "a student is not greater than his teacher."

Whether or not they like it, pastors set the spiritual tone for their congregation. It should be a very humbling thing to be the "leader." Yet many pastors (and there are quite a few notable exceptions) are ill-equipped to lead. Some rule as arbitrary tyrants while others are weak, frightened of their congregations. Many are passionate about the wrong things. How could someone who feels called into the ministry be passionate about the wrong things? It is easy for a man to lose sight of his original vision and be swept a long an alternative path, especially if that path holds things that stroke his ego.

Let me illustrate. There are many young men who start out training for the ministry with good and idealistic goals. "The gospel is sufficient!" they cry. Over time, however, the cares of the world creep in and begin to replace their previous goals. Soon they begin to question, "How do I make a comfortable life for myself?" "How can I be more respected?" "How can I force my congregation to see things my way?" "How can I justify this activity?" We see the results all the time in pastors who would rather go golfing than evangelize; who would rather live in the suburbs than in a rougher area near their church; who use the pulpit as their personal mouthpiece; who fall from ministry due to sin. These are men who have drunk the cool-aide that the world around them has to offer. By their lifestyle and even the subtle nuances of their preaching, they are raising up others to follow their example.

The abject selfishness of these pastors is obvious upon examination of their lives. As Thomas Aquinas said, "What we love tells us what we are." Little time spent in the Word, or spent intensely shepherding their flocks; much time devoted to hobbies and sports, networking and denominational politics, dreaming of bigger and better "stuff." We have whole sections of the Protestant Church that are given over to the pursuit of wealth (see examples here, here, and here). These people are ruled by selfish passions.

Selfishness is not the only problem. Our culture has practically outlawed manhood. Our culture expects a much longer period of "adolescence" than generations past. It is also amazing how quickly this change took place. My father was born in the mid-forties and was required to work on the farm while still a young boy. He lost part of a finger in a work accident at ten years of age. He matured quickly. I was raised in the city and many of his efforts to raise me were thwarted by outside influences -- a culture that didn't require any maturity. I remember his consternation as I made poor decisions or did not actively try to mature. It wasn't until I was in college that I began to see how far off the mark the trajectory of my life was heading. Our culture would keep us boys. It would tell us: "Go ahead and live with your parents until age 40." "Mess around with women and take all that you can, but do not offer anything in return." "Be Homer Simpson." I have personally experienced being passed over for secular promotions and positions because my age (twenties-early thirties) somehow indicated irresponsibility. It is very easy for young men to float along with the tide of cultural expectation rather than fight for good goals and responsibility (Please see Darrin Patrick's video at the end of this article).

The ministry is not immune from this phenomenon. In part because of an acceptance of cultural standards by churches, and thus continuing to place the same pressure on young men seeking the ministry, and also because of the immature young men who are placing expectations on the churches. "No, I don't want accountability." "Don't require anything really hard from me." "Why should I visit the sick or the old? Can't I just preach, or teach, or play music instead?" "How dare you criticize my decisions, don't you realize I have authority?" "Blogging and reading the next big theological idea doesn't constitute ministry?" "We're not growing; it must be the congregation's fault, not mine." We have boys in our pulpits and our churches are languishing.

A third problem is the preparation (or lack thereof) received in seminary. Let me say that I do not regret my time in seminary; it is generally a good and helpful thing. It trains you to think deeply. But it is woefully lacking in actual ministry application and character development. I have spent the last eight years in theological education. I have seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. I have even heard professors say that only those seminary students with the highest grade point averages are fit for the ministry. They implied that they were weeding out those that they did not see as fit academically from the ministry.

Only recently has there been any incling that the modus operandi may change. In a recent article from The Gospel Coalition, several professors and the president of my own alma mater, R. Albert Mohler, made some helpful insights on how seminaries should change in order to better prepare ministers of the Gospel. Several writers echoed that it was not the seminary that set the stage for learning, but the needs of the Church. Also, integrating learning with practical experience is essential. Richard Pratt said,
I'd find ways to reach academic goals more quickly and effectively and then devote most of the curriculum to supervised battle simulation. I'd put students through endless hours of hands-on service to the sick and dying, physically dangerous evangelism, frequent preaching and teaching the Scripture, and days on end of fasting and prayer.
D. A. Carson suggested that there be:
Close integration with an expanding apprenticeship program in our best churches, led by pastors who believe in theological education but who will also train our M.Div. graduates in relationships, spirituality, consistency, hands-on ministry [and] street smarts.
They are on to something here. Seminary, in this vision, would cease to be a comfortable, academic, bubble where ministry would be looked at from a safe distance, but rather a proving ground in which a call to ministry might be confirmed.

Why hasn't this happened yet? Two main reasons. First, the seminary faculties are largely filled with Academicians who, themselves, are uncomfortable working in the trenches. Second, we have a lot of young squeaky wheels with an idolatry of ministry who would not appreciate having anything really hard required of them. If they were challenged with being thrown into the deep end, they might leave. If they left, their dollars would follow them (to which I would say good riddance). The threat of loss of money is something the seminary boards cannot seem to brook.

The good news is, however, some churches and even seminaries are taking note. They recognize the problem and are doing something about it. Many churches are beginning to offer training programs that offer close-to-seminary quality courses and which require hands on ministry experience as well as character building. Some examples are: Hope Community Church, Sojourn, Bethlehem Baptist Church, Mars Hill, among others. Bethlehem Baptist's new college and seminary also have been built with integration between school and church in mind.

I am encouraged that there are things changing within our churches and our schools and I hope the change continues, because the Church cannot afford more apathy and complacency while immature tyrants run churches and souls into the ground. I look forward to the raising up of more men to the pulpit. Men who are unafraid to be different from the surrounding culture; who stand upon the bedrock of Scripture, and not their whims, when they preach. Men who evangelize as though they long to die and men who see their congregations as an end and not a means to an end. Yes, I long for the boys to become men and for our institutions to let them.

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