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Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

“Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.”

 – e.e. cummings


Why is it so important to learn to ask better questions that help to build positive relationships? Because in an increasingly complex, interdependent, and culturally diverse world, we cannot hope to understand and work with people from different occupational, professional, and national cultures if we do not know how to ask questions and build relationships that are based on mutual respect and the recognition that others know things that we may need to know in order to get a job done.

This is the question that Edgar Schein asks in the Introduction to his interesting and helpful book, Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling, which I recently finished reading.

As one whose childhood curiosity has not lost its fervor as an adult, I am flabbergasted at how some people can be so disinterested in other people’s lives. Further on, Schein writes: “Humble Inquiry is the fine art of drawing someone out, of asking questions to which you do not already know the answer, of building a relationship based on curiosity and interest in the other person.” (emphasis mine)

In our Internet age when information on almost anything is available instantly, the problem of prescriptive pontification is even more prevalent, so Schein is surely right when he says, “we must become better at asking and do less telling in a culture that overvalues telling.”

How does this have any bearing in a Christian context?  A lot. Paul the apostle instructs us to be mutually accountable to one another as disciples, in his repeated exhortation to “one anothering”. It is through genuine care for and curiosity in others through open conversations that we can disciple one another. Such authentic conversations lead “to a relationship [that is] sociologically equitable and balanced. If I want to build a relationship, I have to begin by investing something in it. Humble Inquiry is investing by spending some of my attention up front. My question is conveying to the other person, ‘I am prepared to listen to you and am making myself vulnerable to you.’”

For those in professions or leadership, the lack of curiosity can make us seem aloof or disinterested. The author gives an illustration from an incident involving his wife (emphasis mine):

When my wife Mary had her first bout of breast cancer in her 50s, we were sent to an oncologist who immediately conveyed to her an interest in her total personality and life situation through body language (intense attention and eye contact), through taking lots of time with questions, and always responding sympathetically (Humble Inquiry attitude). He asked her several general and personal questions before zeroing in on the medically related issues. My wife felt respected as a total human being and, therefore, felt more open in voicing her concerns about treatment.

What was striking was his questioning us about our other life priorities, which made Mary feel she could trust him totally.

Schein also explains the importance of leaders willing to listen to their subordinates, “[e]specially in the high hazard industries in which the problems of safety are paramount, I have learned that good relations and reliable communication across hierarchic boundaries are crucial.” While church is not a “high hazard” arena in the same way, that is not to say that there aren’t similar problems. Schein goes on (the emphasis is mine):

… a common finding is that lower-ranking employees had information that would have prevented or lessened the consequences of the accident, but either it was not passed up to higher levels, or it was ignored, or it was overridden.  When I talk to senior managers, they always assure me that they are open, that they want to hear from their subordinates, and that they take the information seriously. However, when I talk to the subordinates in those same organizations, they tell me either they do not feel safe bringing bad news to their bosses or they’ve tried but never got any response or even acknowledgment, so they concluded that their input wasn’t welcome and gave up. Shockingly often, they settled for risky alternatives rather than upset their bosses with potentially bad news.

How does one produce a climate in which people will speak up, bring up information that is safety related, and even correct superiors or those of higher status when they are about to make a mistake?

Sadly, we have seen far too many situations in churches where leaders chose to ignore concerns that members brought before them, and the results were devastating and tragic (think domestic abuse and child molestation).

Schein employs the Johari window to illustrate the complexity of communication in relation to our Socio-Psychological Self:
We all begin with our open self as we engage with another person. Schein explains that “As we converse with others, we send a variety of signals above and beyond the intentional ones that come from our open self. … Much of this information is passed without our being aware of it, so we must acknowledge that we also have a blind self, the signals we are sending without being aware that we are sending them, which nevertheless create the impression that others have of us.” In order for us to gain self-awareness into those areas that constitute our blind self, we can ask for honest feedback—something which most of us are loathe to receive and afraid to give.

Of course we also have our hidden self that we are hesitant to reveal for various reasons. The dilemma is we “realize that in a relationship-building process the most difficult issue is how far to go in revealing something that normally we would conceal, knowing at the same time that unless we open up more, we cannot build the relationship. … The reluctance we display when someone asks us for feedback mirrors the degree to which we are afraid to offend or humiliate. We duck the issue by trying to emphasize positive feedback, knowing full well that what we really are dying to hear from others is where they see us as wanting or imperfect, so that we can improve.” (emphasis mine)

In the course of a conversation, as we alternatively (and cautiously) ask and tell, the degree to which we open our door is dependent on how much we perceive the other is revealing. Schein goes on to say that “If these early revelations and questions are acknowledged and reciprocated, the relationship develops and allows ‘going deeper.’ But it has to be a slow and carefully calibrated process … before the relationship gets to the personal feedback stage, and even then it probably works best if it stays on task-related matters. Personal feedback remains dangerous even in an intimate relationship.” (emphasis mine) Because most of us are rather adverse to receiving honest feedback, this is an area I will explore further in the future (as I indicated at the end of a previous post), based on the insights from Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well (Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen).

Schein summarizes:

Now imagine the conversation as a social seesaw with two people getting to know each other, a reciprocal dance of self-exposure through alternately questioning and telling based on curiosity and interest. Gradual self-exposure will occur either through answers to Humble Inquiry or by deliberate revelations. If these early self-revelations are accepted by the other, then gradually more personal thoughts and feelings are put out as a test of whether the other will still react positively to them. In each move, we claim a little more value for ourselves and thereby make ourselves a little more vulnerable. If the other person continues to accept us, we achieve a higher level of trust in each other. What we think of as intimacy can then be thought of as revealing more and more of what we ordinarily conceal. (emphasis mine)

Or, in reference to the Johari model again: We can reveal our hidden self through self-disclosure so that we can be more authentic. We can solicit feedback to help us discover our blind spots and become more self-aware. As we become more self-aware, we can uncover more about our unknown self through self-discovery, other’s observations and through shared discovery in an interpersonal and/or communal context.

The principles and practices of Humble Inquiry thus “functions as an invitation to be more personal and is therefore the key to building a more intimate relationship.”

Yes, obviously there are risks and hazards in expanding one’s Open Self. But the rewards of more genuine and intimate relations is worth it—at least for me. The challenge for me always is finding others who are willing to journey with me into the Blind, Hidden and the Unknown in our interactions.

“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.”
– Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

As The Who sang, Can you see the real me, can you?

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On Categories and Cages

Churches exert a homogenizing influence on its members as unity becomes confused and conflated with uniformity. At the same time, we consciously or unconsciously group members according to our narrow categories. Michael Foley notes that “Our categorizing tendency likes to put people in pigeon holes (often contemptuously, as ‘the careerist’, ‘the philistine’, ‘the slob’, ‘the shrew’, etc.), then notices only behaviour that fits with the simplistic classification and finishes by dismissing people as superficial, limited, predictable and boring.” (Life Lessons From Bergson, Macmillan; 2013)

In particular, those who are different, who march to the beat of a different drum, who are outspoken, and who are not yes-men, are viewed with discomfort,  fear and suspicion. We think, Why can’t they be normal like me?  Once labelled, it is hard to escape from other people’s perception of you, unless perhaps, you go out of your way to act out your life according to another carefully chosen script. Foley goes on to say that “It is common even to want others to behave badly in predictable ways in order to confirm our own good judgement and enjoy superiority and righteousness. Conversely, because we hate change and want people to stay in their labelled boxes, unexpected developments can be irritating.”

I find it challenging therefore, to navigate the tricky balance of behaving according to biblical norms, church cultural expectations and one’s authentic expressions of self. No doubt I am not doing a good job of it.

What’s the answer? I think we need to be more curious, make less assumptions about others. We need to slow down and open our lives to each other, something that is sorely lacking in the superficial chit chat that too often passes for genuine conversation during the coffee time at church.

For me, my love of the arts has been helpful in arresting my own instinctive reflex to cast premature judgement or be unthinkingly dismissive. As Foley rightly observes, “A crucial function of the arts is to prevent, or break down, dismissive labelling and reveal the singular instead of the similar, the peculiar instead of the familiar, and the inscrutable instead of the understood.”

It is sad that there is no room in many churches for the arts.

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Here are 6 short, helpful videos about church leadership:

Note: while I don’t endorse everything Terry Virgo teaches, he has some very good points on what constitutes biblical leadership.

Curt Paton has written a good article and for more details, the reader can consult Alexander Strauch’s comprehensive study in his excellent book: Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership.

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disappearing church

“The disappearance of a mode of church engagement characterized by commitment, resilience, and sacrifice among many Western believers. In its place a new mode of disengaged Christian faith and church interaction is emerging. This new mode is characterized by sporadic engagement, passivity, commitment phobia, and a consumerist framework.”

Mark Sayers, Disappearing Church: From Cultural Relevance to Gospel Resilience (Moody Publishers, 2016; Kindle Edition; p. 8).

Sayers astutely analyzes the subtle allure of the “beautiful culture” and “delicate beauty” that characterizes Western culture of the 21st century. Sadly, large segments of the Christian church have fallen captive to its appealing spell.

“Through the mythologies of advertising, media, the Internet, and the instructive example of celebrity, a vast mental world is daily constructed in our minds, painting the possibility of a godless utopia—a secular heaven on earth in which an individual life infused with pleasure, peace, and possibility is achievable this side of death.” (p. 11)

Such utopian fantasies are concomitant with “the enthroning of the self as the greatest authority” (p. 11), i.e., the same old gnostic illusions dressed up in modern garb. Having been infected by such a mindset, many Christians may pay lip service to the Bible, but “experience, desire, and preference” (p. 14) have become the hermeneutical lens through which they think and live.

In a world of instant messaging, emojis, and tweets, there is an aversion to think deeply and wrestle with ideas. In my two years since returning to church life, I have yet to find someone to engage with in serious theological conversation. Instead, at best, pious platitudes, cute cliches, superficial sentiments, and trite “truths” are the best that one can hope for.

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Let’s Get Radical

Radical. Epic. Revolutionary. Transformative. Impactful. Life-Changing. Ultimate. Extreme. Awesome. Emergent. Alternative. Innovative.

On The Edge. The Next Big Thing. Explosive Breakthrough.

You can probably add to the list of modifiers that have become, ironically, part of the ordinary conversations in society and in today’s church. …

We’ve become accustomed to looking around restlessly for something new, the latest and greatest, that idea or product or person or experience that will solve our problems, give us some purpose, and change the world.

—Michael Horton, Ordinary: Sustainable Faith in a Radical, Restless World (Zondervan; 2014; Kindle Edition; p. 11)

In my recent soul searching journey, I have to guard against a certain kind of restlessness that can subtly creep in unawares. I have to remind myself that our significance, security, and satisfaction is ultimately bound up with our identity in Christ. It’s who we are, not what we do; and yet, in church circles, it is easy to get caught up in the cycle of “virtue signalling”.

The daily, ordinary grind of life, of faithfully following Jesus in whatever He has called us to somehow doesn’t seem enough. Horton asserts that “‘Ordinary’ has to be one of the loneliest words in our vocabulary today.” In our social media saturated world, the desire to appear anything but ordinary is only amplified.  Horton goes on:

Our life has to count! We have to leave our mark, have a legacy, and make a difference. And all of this should be something that can be managed, measured, and maintained. We have to live up to our Facebook profile. It’s one of the newer versions of salvation by works. (p. 12)

And yet. And yet, when I stop and think about it, it is often in the small, quotidian details of life where God in fact, does His extraordinary work in and through us. As the Supertramp song goes, “Even in the quietest moments / I wish I knew what I had to do”, and it is only as we journey through each day with intention that we will recognize the opportunities before us.  Indeed, modern life in the Internet age conspires to make it difficult for “forming genuine, long-term, and meaningful commitments that actually contribute to the lives of others” (p. 13, 14), as our attention skips from one post, tweet, email, text to the next.

This attitude has infected the church: “We want big results — sooner rather than later. And we’ve forgotten that God showers his extraordinary gifts through ordinary means of grace …” (p. 14).

 

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Although both authors, Vanhoozer (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) and Strachan (Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) are academic theologians, they both share a concern for the well-being of the church, hence this book.

After the introduction, the book is structured as two parts of two chapters each, followed by a concluding chapter. The book shares the same goal as Hiestand and Wilson’s book of recovering the lost vision of the pastor theologian. They furthermore argue that the pastor theologian is a public theologian as indicated by the book’s title.

In the book’s Introduction, Vanhoozer laments how today’s pastors are more focused on “management skills, strategic plans, ‘leadership’ courses, therapeutic techniques” than they are on theology. The book’s “underlying conviction is that theological minds need to return to where they belong: in the body of Christ” (2) rather in the academy. In laying out his thesis, Vanhoozer notes that there are “three sets of people, three publics, each with its own kind of opinion. By three publics, I mean three social realities, three locations, into which pastors [me: only pastors?!] may speak of God and Jesus Christ: (1) the academy, (2) the church, and (3) the broader society.” (p. 4)

He argues that pastor-theologians “must be trilingual, able to speak the language of all three social locations, or at least speak it well enough to ask directions (and give them). Our task in this book is to argue, first, that pastors must be theologians; second, that every theologian is in some sense a public theologian; and third, that a public theologian is a very particular kind of generalist.” (5) He then goes on to survey how the vision of the pastor-theologian was lost, and here the story is a familiar one, if one has already read Hiestand and Wilson.

They argue that theology became an academic discipline during the rise of the medieval universities, so that the locus of theological influence shifted from church to academy. This shift was decisive after the rise of liberalism in the early 1800s with the restructuring of the “theological curriculum into its now-familiar fourfold division—biblical studies, church history, systematic theology, and practical theology” (5). In their view, the

perception that academic scholarship is abstract and “theoretical,” disconnected from the issues of daily life, neither relevant nor necessary for “practical” ministry, is perhaps the single greatest prejudice against theological education, along with the corresponding notion that the “practical” disciplines are pragmatic and lacking in theological sophistication in its underlying foundation. (5-6)

The situation is  exacerbated by the reality that “much theology is written by academics for academics”, or as he calls them, “professor-theologians”.  As such, it is “often difficult to translate or apply these technical treatments of specialized topics to the everyday needs of one’s congregation.” (6)  Furthermore, the divide in the academy between biblical studies and theology, and their increasingly sophisticated and specialized nature adds to the challenge in trying to reap the benefits of the scholarly insights therein.

Within the church context, Vanhoozer and Strachan argue that metaphors used to paint the picture of pastors’ roles have changed and multiplied, e.g., the pastor as CEO, manager, and therapist. Many of these images reflect shifting cultural trends and are not always healthy (nor biblical!).  Eugene Peterson notes that the “vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans” (The Pastor: A Memoir, p. 4). In another book, Peterson has even stronger words of critique: “American pastors, without really noticing what was happening, got our vocations redefined in terms of American careerism” and that they are consequently driven by “opportunity for advancement” (Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, p. 20). I think any honest observer of the religious scene would have to affirm the detrimental effects of the professionalization of pastors. This is not entirely the fault of your average, well-intentioned pastor, who are subjected to both the expectations of the congregation and pressures for growth (i.e. numbers) from denominational HQ.

Lastly, with respect to the context of the larger society, the authors lament the loss of the golden age when “pastors were revered and respected public figures with a certain degree of social status … and frequently the best-educated persons” (10). Drawing from studies such as Oracles and Odysseys of the Clergy: Images of the Ministry in Western Literature (David Larsen; 2007), The Church on TV (Richard Wolff; 2010), and Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature (Leland Ryken, Philip Ryken, and Todd Wilson; 2012), they outline the shifting (and increasingly negative) characterization of clergy in popular culture (novels, television and films). On the flip side, there is also the disturbing trend of churches capitulating to the culture of celebrity worship, where big name brand preachers are idolized and lionized, and rewarded with financial gains and church growth.

In clarifying what they mean by their proposal of pastors as public theologians, they urge “Christians to be neither a domineering presence in society nor an otherworldly absence, but rather a witnessing presence”, or in other words, “to be salt and light by bringing the Christian vision of God and the good life into the public sphere” (20). They go on to quote Miroslav Volf to crystallize what they have in mind: “A vision of human flourishing and the common good is the main thing the Christian faith brings into the public debate.” (A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good; 2011). They further note that the word public has in view “people”, hence public theology is simply “theology made up of people” (20), i.e., the life of the church is a “hermeneutic of the gospel” (Newbigin’s phrase):

In sum: the people of God are the public place where what is in Christ is remembered, celebrated, explored, and exhibited. Stated simply: the pastor’s task is to help congregations “to become what they care called to be.” This is the ancient-future task of the pastor as public theologian. (21)

The rest of the book is the fleshing out of this vision and task.  Part 1 (by Strachan) approaches the subject from the standpoint of Biblical Theology and Historical Theology and comprises two chapters:

  • Of Prophets, Priests, and Kings: A Brief Biblical Theology of the Pastorate
  • Of Scholars and Saints: A Brief History of the Pastorate

Vanhoozer takes up the task in Part 2 from the standpoint of Systematic Theology and Practical Theology, again in two chapters:

  • In the Evangelical Mood: The Purpose of the Pastor-Theologian
  • Artisans in the House of God: The Practices of the Pastor-Theologian

An added bonus is the inclusion of 2 or 3 short practical meditations at the end of each chapter from practicing pastor-theologians, sharing their experiences in trying to live out this vision.

As this review is already way too long, I can only highlight a few salient points and offer my personal observations. In chapter 1, Strachan attempts to argue for the pastor as (in some way) inheriting the roles of prophet (ministering truth), priest (ministering grace) and king (ministering wisdom). However, while certainly, in some sense, pastor do fill these roles, they do so non-exclusively; i.e., all Christians constitute a “royal priesthood” (as he himself does acknowledge). In this sense, I cannot fully agree with him when he writes that “the pastor emulates the priest through self-sacrificial ministry of the gospel, participating in Christ’s own high-priestly ministry as his earthly delegates.” (51)  I fail to find this exclusive emphasis in the New Testament. More importantly, these roles are fulfilled in Christ, and therefore, all Christians are called to emulate them by virtue of our union with Christ).

Strachan is correct to note that throughout church history, “the pastor was a theologian” (70) and a “scholar saint” (David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant; 2008). Sadly, that is rarely the case today. Part of the problem is the unbiblical expectation of the pastor as a “one man band”, responsible for doing all the teaching/preaching, administration (including budgets and buildings), counselling and visitation. The other factor is that some so-called pastors are more interested in being the CEO, the psycho-therapist, or the life coach. How to address this? First and foremost, get rid of pastors  who are clearly not qualified (they never should have been “hired” in the first place!) Secondly, spread the load amongst all the pastors/elders. Thirdly, partner with church members who demonstrate the gift of teaching and a passion for studying to form a collegial fellowship to study and reflect on biblical and theological studies. Lastly, pastors (and all Christians for that matter) need to be more intentional about how they use their time, and to let go of things that distract.

Drawing on Heidegger’s term “mood” for the way in which we experience being-in-the-world, Vanhoozer writes: Pastor-theologians exist to embody the evangelical mood, an indicative declaration (“He is risen! He is Lord!”) and a concomitant way of being that is attuned to the world as already-not-yet made new in Jesus Christ. I can certainly add my Amen! to this, except once again, this statement is equally true of ANY Christian! Why this insistence on singling out truths to apply only to pastors?!

He also encourages pastors to minister understanding by cultivating habits of knowledge acquisition:

  • Reading God’s Word: Biblical Literacy
  • Reading the World: Cultural Literacy
  • Reading Fiction: Human Literacy

Again, I wholeheartedly agree, but that should not be required of pastors only! Especially when they write, “Understanding is also practical. … Gaining understanding produces know-how, as in knowing how to act out knowledge in everyday life.” (120) Surely, such practical knowledge is of utmost interest and importance to all Christians! And clearly, Christians need to be able to learn how to discerningly apply the truth of God’s Word to their specific situations in a theologically sound and wise manner. How else can Christians get weaned off milk and become mature enough for “solid food”, as those “whose minds are trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb. 5:13-14; ISV) This seem to me to be the only scriptural, sustainable and scalable solution.

In the closing chapter, Vanhoozer writes: “For, while all Christians must bear witness to their life in Christ, it is the special privilege and responsibility of pastors to baptize and teach disciples.” (141)  Really? Where does one find this is in the pages of the NT? Further in the chapter, he writes: “Other people care for us, but the pastor cares in a special way: as one appointed to Christ to minister the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel to every person in the church.” (153)  This does not resonate with my experience at all: the person who has ministered to me the most in a special way is a dear brother who works as a janitor but serves God “full time” otherwise. He goes on to single out the pastor as Evangelist, Catechist, Liturgist, and Apologist, making pastors out to be Super Saints and a One Man Show whereas scripture focuses on the One Another approach to mutual edification and ministry.

The book concludes with 55 summary theses on the pastor as public theologian, distilling the main points discussed in the book. In thesis 18, the authors uncritically accept the rise of the monarchial bishop as a natural ecclesiastical development. In thesis 24, they rightly state that many “modern pastors … came to see their vocation as a helping profession [and therefore] lost interest in theology”. In thesis 33, they state that pastor-theologians “devote themselves to the privilege of studying, interpreting, and ministering understanding of God’s Word to others” (186). But, by the grace of God, I have had the same privilege of “privilege of studying, interpreting, and ministering understanding of God’s Word to others”, albeit with less opportunities (to share the fruits of my studying) in my current church since the pulpit is more “fenced off” than the Brethren assemblies where I spent my formative years. Does that make me as a pastor-theologian?!!

 

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The authors of this book are co-founders of the Center for Pastor Theologians and co-pastors of a church just outside of Chicago. Their zeal for restoring theological acumen to the pastorate is commendable and their book largely succeeds in arguing their case in an engaging manner.

The title of the book’s opening chapter summarizes and signals the thesis of the book: Pastor or Theologian? A Division of Labor, a Crisis of Identity, or as they state it plainly: “to help resurrect a once-thriving but now-deceased vision of the pastor, namely, the pastor theologian” (10). In surveying the landscape of modern Christian culture, it is hard not to disagree with their observation that “pastors no longer traffic in ideas” (11). At best, pastors see themselves as “intellectual middle management” who broker theological truths from professional theologians/scholars to the laity. At worst, some pastors are ignorantly indifferent to theology, and are satisfied with feeding psycho-babble pablum to their unwitting congregations.

The resulting bifurcation of the pastorate into pastors as separate from theologians has serious consequences: “theology has become ecclesially anemic, and the church theologically anemic” (13). One need only peruse some of the obtuse titles of scholarly monographs and journal articles to ascertain the immense gap between academic theologians perched in their proverbial ivory towers and Jane Christian struggling to make sense of the recent loss of her five-year old son to cancer. Theologians: “ecclesially anemic”. Conversely, it is tragic and troubling that some pastors are so theologically illiterate and ill-informed. One need only undertake a random sampling of sermons (readily available thanks to the Internet) to affirm this sad state of affairs. Pastors: “theologically anemic.”

After establishing the problem, Hiestand and Wilson take the reader on a historical tour covering 5 periods, beginning with the apostolic Fathers and concluding with the Enlightenment. Some of the figures who are lifted up as exemplars of their pastor-theologian vision include: “Irenaeus, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Anselm, Calvin, Edwards, Wesley, etc.” (22) While I found the historical survey brief but interesting, there is no critique of the post-biblical ecclesiastical developments that (at least partially) underwrite their vision, e.g., the rise of the mono-episcopate and the ensuing curtailing of the “charismatic” and participatory nature of church gatherings, to name but two. More fundamentally, how did the term pastor (used only once in the NT to refer to those who shepherd the church) get differentiated from and elevated above the synonymous terms elder and overseer?

They argue that the demise of the pastor theologian was due to the seismic shifts brought on by the Enlightenment and the American Revolution. The shift from church to the university as the intellectual center, followed by the rise of divinity schools in response to the increasing secularization of the universities finally led to the separation of pastor and theologian from what “was once viewed as a single occupation” into “two distinct —and mutually exclusive—vocations” (42).

In chapter 4, the authors examine the “theological amnesia of the church” and assert that “the moral laxity of evangelicalism” is at least partly due to “a failure of belief” (54).  Drawing from Augustine’s ordo voluntatis, they note that our actions are motivated by our desires, i.e., what we love. However, love “does not arise in a vacuum”, but rather, from our beliefs, whether right or wrong. God has given us a mind “to understand what is true and to love what is good” (City of God, 22.24), and it is because of this that theology is so vitally important for our Christian formation. On this point, one encounters the sentiments of your average Christians (including some pastors!) that run counter to this, viz., that theology is irrelevant and boring, and offers nothing of practical value to their life. Such is the current sad state of affairs.

However, theology is nothing less than learning to think and “say right things about God, ourselves, and our world in ways that shape true belief and orient human beings toward their proper purpose.” (55)  Or, in the other words of Puritan theologian William Ames, theologia est scientia vivendo Deo. Casting theology as impractical and a waste of time betrays a mind that has already been swayed and held captive by competing messages from our fallen world, as well as our experiences and habits. Indeed, it is deep theological analysis and critical reflection that can unveil the false assumptions (consciously and unconsciously held) and distorted beliefs and desires that animate our actions and shape our imaginations. This is in fact what James K.A. Smith seeks to explore and expound in his Cultural Liturgies project, of which the third volume is about to be published.

Furthermore, there are grave consequences to such theological anemia: “evangelicals are floundering ethically because we are floundering theologically” (56). To this I would heartily agree and grieve with them at the theological poverty that characterizes most churches today. Hiestand and Wilson then go on to say that “pastors bear the day-to-day burden of teaching and leading God’s people” (57). Let us consider this statement carefully. First of all, it is signally not true that pastors have a “day-to-day” impact on the average congregational member, for which the Sunday morning sermon is the only instructional intake they receive for an entire week. The stark reality is that the messages they daily receive from our media-saturated world is what is more determinative of their spiritual formation (cf. Smith’s Cultural Liturgies books mentioned above).

Even if we consider the messages that are putatively Christian ones, there is no guarantee of discerning sound doctrine unless they have been taught to think theologically. Realizing the didactic limitations of the Sunday sermon, most churches supplement with Sunday School / Bible study classes and small groups during the week. However, depending on whether there are any biblically astute people in these classes or groups, often the result is “pooled ignorance”. Far too often, the scripture passage under consideration serves only as a launching pad for people’s own opinions, as hermeneutical principles are trampled underfoot in the mad rush to squeeze something practical and useful out of God’s Word. Now granted, in an evangelical setting, most of the discussion, however misguided, are usually not heretical. However, the teaching and discussion is certainly not as “nutritious” as it could be, and over the long haul, our Christian walk will become anemic.

Secondly, in smaller churches, the burden of preaching the Sunday sermon usually falls to a single person, which is less than ideal in the best case, and absolutely frightening in the worse case. The short of it is that from pedagogical, practical and logistical perspectives, placing the “day-to-day burden of teaching” upon one person is unrealistic (and sub-biblical, I would also argue) no matter how gifted and energetic that person is. What passes for biblical instruction in your typical sermon is often anemic and lacking theological awareness and biblical substance. Part of the problem is that we have exalted the sermon far too high and placed too much expectation on the sermon as the only means of nurturing believers. Though he still insists on the primacy and centrality of preaching, Jonathan Griffiths concurs that:

Preaching is necessary and vital – but not all-sufficient – for the nourishment and edification of the local church. All God’s people are ministers of his word, and a healthy church will be a church where all kinds of word ministries (formal and informal) flourish and abound.

Preaching in the New Testament: An Exegetical and Biblical-Theological Study (New Studies in Biblical Theology; InterVarsity Press, 2017).

Finally, the authors assume that there are no autodidacts in the congregation who are passionate about studying the Word and growing in theological maturity. Granted, this would constitute a very small minority in most churches. Nonetheless, some of these theology geeks and nerds can often have more breadth and depth of knowledge, if for no other reason than the simple reality that pastors are torn in so many directions, with hours sucked away by administrative duties and countless meetings. Therefore, pastors need to partner with those in their congregation who have the capacity, passion and burden for serious theological engagement, and work together with them if this vision (of “theological integrity”, p. 58) is to be realized in your average church. With much concern for the Church, I sadly echo David Wells: “I have watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy” (writing in the introduction of his seminal work, No Place for Truth: Or, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?).

The authors go on to propound a taxonomy of the “pastor theologian”:

  • local theologian: here, they have in mind “a theologically astute pastor who ably services the theological needs of a local church” (81)
  • popular theologian: this is a local (pastor) theologian who expands his influence by a writing ministry that popularizes academic theology for the masses
  • ecclesial theologian: here, they have in mind a pastor who provides theological leadership (almost on par with academic theologians in their scholarly aptitude) to the larger church on issues that professional academic theologians have ignored or have done so without taking the ecclesial context in mind

With respect to being called to be an ecclesial theologian, I doubt there are many pastors who would be able to fill those shoes in this busy day and age, but all power to those who can (like the authors!). Hiestand and Wilson acknowledge that “[n]ot every pastor is gifted or called to be an ecclesial theologian, of course”, but they do assert that “evangelicalism’s future vision of the pastor theologian must include that of the ecclesial theologian” (101). Amen! God knows we need more theological leadership in our churches!

In chapter 8, the authors lay out 10 strategies on how to be an ecclesial theologian in a local church setting, and also provide brief profiles of pastors who are attempting to follow such a path. In the book’s concluding chapter, “The Future of a Movement, the Renewal of the Church” they write: “for the sake of the church, it is high time to hold out the historic ideal of the pastor as ecclesial theologian.” (p. 123)  Though I am still somewhat skeptical that the movement will become pervasive, I do sympathize with their diagnosis and heartily agree that “theologically passive pastors only perpetuate the perception that theological acumen is largely an ‘academic’ concern.” (124)

In conclusion, though I have quibbles with their view of ministry (which in fairness is the majority view), I do believe the authors have done an admirable job of arguing their case and I join with them in praying that the vision of the “pastor theologian” might be widely realized. I’ll let Hiestand and Wilson have the last word:

The church needs pastors who are capable of connecting—with robust intellectual integrity—the deep truths of God and our contemporary context. We need pastors who are able to assess the underlying assumptions of our culture and who are able to offer, on behalf of the larger church, cogent responses to that culture. (127)

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