The Unnecessary Pastor: Rediscovering the Call, Marva J. Dawn and Eugene H. Peterson, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000. (Published jointly with Regent College Publishing)
Reviewed by Brian Halverson
In a homily given at a conference for church leaders recently, a pastor remarked on how he hears the same response given by clergy when they were asked: “How are things going?” Invariably the answer is, “Busy. I am too busy.” The pastor surmised that pastors must feel very proud of the tremendous hours they work, or else they would not tell everyone about how overworked they are. Could it be that church leaders let everyone know how busy they are in order to show how necessary we have become? Have we let society dictate to us what it means to be valued as a child of God by suggesting that we have value according to the marketplace? Do we want to be popular or faithful?
In The Unnecessary Pastor: Rediscovering the Call, Marva Dawn and Eugene Peterson provide a sharp critique of clergy and other church leaders who strive to become relevant to today’s culture, and in fact, allow the culture to define the ministry. Those who do this lose their authenticity as bearers of the gospel. Peterson writes:
Contrary to public opinion, pastors are not jacks and jills of all trades. We have been bullied long enough by well-meaning but ignorant demands telling us what wemust do, telling us why we are necessary to this or that program, this or that life. Everybody and his dog has a job description for the pastor. Everybody knows what a pastor must do to be a real pastor.
That’s a problem, but what complicates and compounds it is that it’s nice to be so needed, nice to have culture and congregation alike interested in defining our work and giving us instructions on how to go about it. It’s nice to be so much in demand . . . until we find that none of the job descriptions seem to agree. It’s even worse when we discover that virtually none of the people who write our job descriptions seem to have ever read or even heard of the text, the Holy Scripture, that orients our work, or to have been present at the ordinations that define our work. Necessity is laid upon the glorious but beleaguered life of pastor.
That is why, in this book, Marva and I are trying to set you free, set you free from the necessities that burden your life. We aren’t trying to set you free from Jesus or the authority of the Scriptures. But being a slave of Christ is far better than being a slave of culture. (p. 184)
The authors believe that the culture defeats the Good News by accommodating and co-opting the gospel’s counter-cultural message, thereby removing its power to transform lives. The gospel, they claim, is reduced into a more controllable and predictable form more palatable for popular consumption. The mystery of faith is quantified and dissected in order to promote it to minds trained in scientific method, and which adhere to factual data and logical conclusions.
Dawn and Peterson challenge us in our leadership positions to daily recommit ourselves to the authority of Scripture, to recognize the powers and principalities that try to separate us from God, to repent, forgive, and be renewed in God’s grace, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Their model for ministry is drawn directly upon the letters of Paul, particularly his letter to the Ephesians and the pastoral letters to Timothy and Titus. The chapter by Peterson entitled Timothy: Taking Over in Ephesus is a case in point.
From Paul’s letter to Timothy we learn that Timothy is sent to the church in Ephesus, primarily to turn around a congregation that had once been vibrant and healthy but had since fallen into chaos and disruption. At the heart of the controversy were persons who were creating controversies in the church, promoting heretical ideas and concepts to challenge the teachings of Paul. The church in Ephesus seemed to be cut from its moorings and was drifting into dangerous waters.
Peterson bridges the context of the church in Ephesus to our churches today. He writes:
Most of us, no matter how wonderful a place we enter into, are going to find ourselves in the middle of a mess sooner or later. For the Christian faith is always lived out in the conditions of the world; try as we may, we cannot isolate our Christian lives from the world in which we make our living. And this culture seeps into the church, just as it seeped into the Ephesian church. (The distressing thing is when we invite it in.) (p. 123)
This culture seeps into the church through the pores of our congregations: a religion without commitment, spirituality without content, aspiration and talk and longing, fulfillment and needs, but not much concern about God. (p.125)
Peterson then cites the letters to Timothy and Titus to offer us a model of a faithful response to such cultural infiltration. At the heart of changing chaos into order is the teaching of sound doctrine. In teaching the people about Jesus Christ as he is revealed to us in Scripture the pastor or church leader provides guidance to people who are lost. In contrast to the “godless chatter” of persons who are religious but not concerned with God, Peterson points to Paul whose words are wisdom-filled, words that contain meaning and purpose to life and which reveal the glory of God. (p. 134)
Pastors have both the responsibility and opportunity to teach their parishioners the content and form of our faith lives that are lived in community. From wisdom teaching, standards become clear and accountability is woven into the fabric of Christian life so that authentic Christ-like faith infuses the congregation, its life and ministry, as becomes witnesses to God’s power over sin and death.
Many of our critics would counter that spirituality without commitment is preferable to a church without love. As the apostle Paul writes:
If I speak in tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all the mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Cor. 13:1-3)
As pastor in my own congregation and community, I am often told we Christians are indifferent to the concerns of others and that the people in our churches are cold and uninviting. Furthermore, these persons express feelings of “unconnectedness” with our congregations or the Christian faith. I have found that many persons are less interested in knowing the correct doctrines taught in our new members class than they are in searching for a place in which they can belong, a place in which they are not judged, a place where they can reveal themselves for all of who they are, both saint and sinner. They want to know they are loved.
The question I have for Dawn and Peterson is this: Can God use culture to infuse the church with love and compassion, something that the church sometimes lacks? Can good, loving, striving people outside our confessional heritage remind us of God’s grace and mercy? Is the Church open to the Spirit, the Spirit that creates all things new, even in and through our culture?
Marva Dawn points to Alcoholics Anonymous as an example of a community of persons who work together and support one another to overcome addictions. Most of us would agree with the effectiveness of the programs and the hope they bring to many who are suffering. Ironically, however, AA and other 12 step programs are very clear. There is no proscribed religious dogmas or doctrines to which new members must adhere or conform in order to belong. In fact, many persons come to 12 step groups having been alienated by “organized” religions. Support groups work because those who come into the group are loved, precisely because they share the same suffering and hope and not because they share the Apostles Creed or praise God through the church’s liturgy. It could appear that God’s love can heal and bring a sense of belonging to a community whose members may have a different conception of God than Christians or who do not believe in God at all. Can this commitment, support, and love in this culture pour into the church and bless the church?
In a sense, these twelve step groups have formed their own culture – a common belief system, liturgy, symbols, and experiences which bind them together. They are a culture that lives and thrives within several much larger cultures, e.g., the white European culture, the African-American culture, the Hispanic culture, the youth culture, and so on. It is understandable that people will interpret the Scriptures from their own distinctive cultural context. For instance, in attending a Bible study in the south side of Chicago with my African-American colleagues, I became immediately aware that the lessons that were read were being interpreted in ways I had not considered, based on their experiences in black culture. From my own rural, Scandinavian based, white culture, I would not have seen the insights into the passages that they brought to the discussion. All the pastors at the Bible study were and are Christ-centered, but the expressions and experiences of that Christ-centeredness were formed differently than mine. Are they any less authentic than mine? Of course not.
Dawn and Peterson write, however, as if there is only one culture – the North American culture. It is a culture marked by a consuming, status seeking, idol producing people centered in self-gratification and immorality. It is a culture that predominates and subsumes everything. Sometimes the reader gets the impression that both authors feel that “the culture” in all of its aspects is evil and the counter-cultural people of Jesus are always in the good. For example, Peterson writes:
In order to develop community in Christ, we have to deal with people the way Jesus deals with them. The corollary to this is that we have to make sure we don’t treat them the way the culture deals with them. The culture thinks organizationally, functionally; the gospel thinks relationally, personally. The gospel says, where two or three are gathered together, there am I in the midst of them. The culture says, where two or three are gathered together, one has to be the chairperson and another take the minutes. (p.191)
Are these always true marks of our “culture?” Do people in “our culture” always treat persons functionally and not relationally? Is it true that persons in “our culture” always de-value persons whereas true followers of Christ organize systems that bring value to persons in a purely relational manner?
I would suggest that the authors take caution in portraying reality in such stark terms with a perhaps a false set of choices: the culture on the one hand versus the church on the other, or even more specifically, those in the church who are true followers from those who are captive to the culture. Here is one such example. Dawn writes:
One of the most severe failures in churches today is that so often preaching has become therapeutic instead of proclamatory. The point of sermons is not to tell listeners how to lift themselves up by their own bootstraps; we don’t advise them on how to fix their lives and adjust their attitudes. Rather, we preach to paint so beautiful and compelling a vision of the kingdom of God that we enable the hearers to inhabit it. (p. 149)
Does therapeutic necessarily stand apart from proclamatory or does therapeutic necessarily mean “pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps?” Cannot proclamatory include the therapeutic in which people find healing in God’s love not only proclaimed but shown? Again, what about persons in 12-step groups who experience healing in meetings because they felt loved and welcomed. No matter how beautiful one might paint that picture of the kingdom, if it is not experienced, people will not believe it.
Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God but his proclamation was inextricably linked with his touch, his healing. People heard the Word and their lives were transformed physically, mentally, and emotionally. Dawn’s experience has been that sermons today are all about us and little about God. My experience is that many sermons can be all about God but have little to do with how God’s grace brings us into relationship with God and how that relationship can be experienced in our lives.
I do not want to infer that Dawn suggests or advocates that we divorce God from human experience. Quite the contrary. She uses her language powerfully and directly to persuade pastors to preach Christ crucified and risen, tying what God has done for us to our lives.
Our ministry to others is always to show them Jesus – that he went to the depths of the abyss on our behalf, that he is in the pit with us right now. Lent shows us how deep was the grave of sin in which we were buried so that we never presume that we could ever find life on our own. At the same time, Lent invites us to sit by the tomb of Jesus and know the truth of why he is there – from our side and from God’s.
And, oh! Then the exhilaration of Easter – this wild, ebullient, blazing Joy! This inconceivable victory, this unprecedented triumph, this monumental good news! Since every Sunday is a remembrance of Easter, how can we not preach sermons that proclaim this gospel, this truth of the resurrection that it is no longer we who live, but Christ lives in us? (p.152)
She boldly and confidently holds our “feet to the fire,” centering our faith life in God’s salvific work. Having written about her own afflictions and difficulties, the reader can appreciate her own suffering and understand the joy of the liberating power of God’s love in her life.
In reading this book, however, I felt at times that I was reading yet another book written about the miserable state of the Church and how we pastors are responsible for it. From the church growth books that find fault with pastors for not being relevant enough to the culture, or the social justice books which claim that pastors are not advocates for the powerless and dispossessed; or the books on liturgy which bemoan the fact that pastors have abandoned the traditional symbols, music, and prayer of the church; or the books on leadership which express deep concern that pastors do not manage well or efficiently. The list goes on and on. Each expert or group claims the authority of Scripture. Who to follow?
What gives encouragement is Scripture itself. “‘Teacher, we saw someone casting demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.’” (Luke 9:49-50) I take great comfort in this.
Overall, I commend the book to the reader. Dawn and Peterson have provided a challenging and provocative book that gives clear direction and guidance to all of us who are constantly struggling to remain faithful to God’s call for us in the midst of so many distractions and seductions. It is a book I would certainly commend to anyone who may feel called to vocational ministry as a basis from which to consider the essence and implications for the role of pastor in a culture that is hungry for the Good News of Jesus Christ.