Watch Your Language: Part Seven

The Pastor.jpg


The ways we Christians commonly use that word often block the path to shared church. As one who has spent decades as “layperson” and 21 years as pastor, I can speak from experience. This seventh episode of “Watch Your Language” takes us into a delicate zone. So I want to speak the truth in love.

Let’s begin with today’s common understanding of the word pastor itself. A pastor, says the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is “a clergyman serving a local church or parish.” We use the term constantly. Countless church road signs display such identifiers as Pastor So-and-So. While I was serving in the pastor role, our local bookstore provided a discount card called “Pastor’s Perks.” A Google search on “pastor,” in quotation marks, turned up 357 million hits.

And yet . . . not once does pastor (singular) appear in the New Testament. In the plural, the word pastors turns up just once—in Ephesians 4:11—as one of five church-equipping roles. So, yes, in Scripture the term is there but rare. We have turned this biblically scarce word into a surplus. The problem? Our traditions have locked us into some hurtful ways of using the word.

Pastor as Title

It’s one thing to say, “Pastor Bob Smith” and another thing to say, “Bob Smith, a pastor.” The first turns the word pastor into a religious title. The second describes Bob’s role in the church. We don’t change other church roles into titles. For example, the person who hands out bulletins might squirm if introduced as “Usher Mary Grayson.” How would the woman who signs church payroll checks react if we greeted her with, “Hello, Treasurer Sheila Thompson!”? We don’t stiffly refer to the one who leads an adult Bible study as “Teacher Patrick Mason,” but comfortably say, “Patrick Mason, our Bible study teacher.”

No, only pastors are entitled. We even omit names and simply use titles in speaking to or about pastors: “Pastor, our daughter would like to be baptized.” And, “I spoke with Pastor about baptizing our daughter.” Through our speech, in the way we use the word pastor, we help to raise one member of the Body of Christ above all others. Titles support pedestals. Titles undergird the British aristocracy, from its Lords and Ladies all the way to its Barons and Baronnesses. Titles help keep order in armies and navies. But titles work against shared church.

That’s why Jesus warns his followers not to use religious titles. "But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ” (Matt. 23:8-10). In every case, Jesus speaks of “calling” certain people by religious titles, whether Rabbi, father, or teacher. The title pastor can be used in exactly the same way.

Jesus Explains. Immediately, Jesus tells us why he rules out the use of titles among his people: “If you put yourself above others, you will be put down. But if you humble yourself, you will be honored” (v. 12, CEV). The Message paraphrase puts its memorably: “If you puff yourself up, you'll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you're content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.” Titles puff up. They magnify and elevate. “All of you, said Jesus to his followers, “are equal as brothers and sisters” (Matt. 23:8, NLT). In families, titles by which some siblings outrank others will play havoc with relationships.

Naturally, Jesus was not asking us to shun words like father and teacher to describe roles. Luke speaks of teachers in the Antioch church (Acts 13:1). James says not many should become teachers—implying that some should fill that role (James 3:1). Children, Paul urges, are to honor their fathers and mothers. And he instructs fathers not to frustrate or alienate their children (Ephesians 6:3; Colossians 3:21). It is only as these and similar words—like pastor—turn into religious titles that they become hazardous to church health.

We Christians often speak of “the Apostle Paul.” Yet Paul never entitles himself that way in the New Testament. His consistent way of identifying himself and his role is: “Paul, an apostle.” He does so in the first chapters and first verses of II Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Colossians, and I and II Timothy. If Scripture is our “only rule for faith and practice,” why not let its patterns in this area guide our practice?

Pastor as Solo

If we Christians watch our language carefully, we’ll see that we typically use the title pastor in the singular: “The Pastor.” Not, “the pastors,” plural. After all, on Sundays one personality so often eclipses all others. The pastor calls for greetings. Prays. Preaches. Gives announcements. Baptizes. Officiates at the Lord’s Table. And speaks the benediction. Many have used the phrase, “one-man show,” to describe the all-too-typical church meeting.

Nothing like this comes from the New Testament. Paul says that when believers come together, “everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation” (I Cor. 14:26). A few verses later, he adds, “All of you can take your turns speaking what God has revealed” (v. 31, GWT). When the family of God got together, everyone could contribute something. No wonder, then, that John saw that the situation in the assembly of his good friend, Gaius, threatened shared church: “Diotrephes,” John wrote, “loves being in charge” (III Jn. 9, MSG).

Plural Church Leadership. New Testament churches had leaders, but they worked as teams of elders/shepherds/overseers—not as solo pastors. A few (of many) examples: while in Miletus, Paul “sent to Ephesus for the elders [plural] of the church” (Acts 20:17). Timothy was to “appoint elders [plural] in every town” (Titus 1:5). Those who were sick were to “call the elders [plural] of the church to pray” (James 5:14).

No, the “one-man show” comes not from Scripture but from church tradition. In his book, Your Church Can Grow, C. Peter Wagner helped confirm that tradition by writing, “The local church is like a company with one company commander, the pastor, who gets his orders from the Commander-in-Chief [Jesus]. The company commander has lieutenants and sergeants under him for consultation and implementation, but the final responsibility of his decisions is that of the company commander, and he must answer to the Commander-in-Chief....the pastor has the power in a growing church.”

Notice that Wagner speaks of “the pastor [singular].” And he uses military terms—company commander, lieutenants, sergeants—to describe church leadership. Nowhere does the New Testament use such language. The church is a body and family, not an army. Because the Holy Spirit lives in each member of Christ’s Body, all receive orders from Jesus—not merely from one pastor serving as “company commander.”

Pastors, according to Ephesians 4:11, are part of a team of gifted ones Jesus gives to outfit those in the church to minister to others. In a church of 200, Jesus has likely gifted it with several people to serve as pastors. Most will not be on the payroll. Many have yet to be discovered.

“Beware the papacy of the pastor,” said the late John Stott. Too many, he added, “believe not in the priesthood of all believers, but in the papacy of all pastors.” The way we use the word pastor can either help support the traditional system or move us in the direction of shared church.

Pastoral Job Description: Shared Church

Suppose a church begins acting as an assembly of priests (see previous two blogs). What, then, does a pastor do? Will practicing the priesthood of all believers impair pastoral work? Might the fear of a reduced role discourage pastors from sharing the priesthood? Since the Reformation, Christians have spoken of the priesthood of all believers. Spoken of? Yes. Practiced? Not so much.

Daryl McCarthy, with the Forum of Christian Leaders, says, “Tragically, the priesthood of all believers is the one Reformation doctrine that has never been fully embraced by evangelical churches.” And Dr. Art Lindsley adds, “The priesthood of all believers has been the most neglected central teaching of the Reformation.”

But why?

Might pastoral job descriptions be putting a damper on practicing a shared priesthood?

I just reviewed a few such job descriptions offered as models. They have the pastor doing nearly everything in gathered-church meetings: preaching, leading worship, administering ordinances, and officiating at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. One job description has the pastor heading all boards and committees to develop the vision for the church, supervising staff, providing pastoral care, and so on. The first sentence in one model said: “The pastor is to be the spiritual leader of the church.” Not one of the spiritual leaders, but the spiritual leader.

In most cases, pastors get paid to do what these job descriptions call for. Those in a congregation typically receive no compensation for doing church-related work. So, paychecks add pressure on pastors to carry out their extensive to-do lists. Any surprise so many burn out?

What, I wondered, might a pastoral job description look like if it were written for a church that wanted to actually live out the priesthood of all believers? My pondering prompted me to jot down a list—practices that would connect the dots between how the New Testament pictures church leadership and congregational life in the 21st century. Would the following role description fit every setting? No. But I hope it will stimulate some creative thinking:

 Job-Description: Shared-Church Pastor

Job Title: Pastor/Elder

Reports to: Board of Elders and Church Body

Job Summary: The pastor/elder, coequally with fellow-elders, is responsible for watching over and nurturing the life of the church body and for preparing those within it to serve in both the gathered and scattered church.

Primary Job Responsibilities:

Sets an example for other believers by:

  • Maintaining a vital relationship with Christ and with others in both the gathered and the scattered church.
  • Living a life—in attitudes, actions, and speech—God would approve as a model for other believers in the church body.

Together with fellow-elders, ensures that the gathered church is fed regularly with sound biblical teaching and guards the church against false teaching.

Shares with fellow-elders the work of helping those within the church body to identify and  develop their God-given spiritual and natural gifts.

Helps to recognize and train others within the church body who are gifted and motivated to serve as elders, to preach and teach, and to lead the gathered church in public prayer.

Oversees the setup and maintenance of:

  • A listing of those in the church body with ministries in these five sectors: family, school, marketplace, neighborhood, and hobbies/recreation.
  • A church-wide prayer ministry for those ministering in the five sectors.

Sets aside one day a week to spend “on location” with those in the church body who minister in one or more of the five sectors, gathering their prayer needs and hearing their stories of how they see God working.

Coaches believers in writing and presenting personal testimonies.

Structures gathered-church meetings in such a way that they provide opportunities for:

  • Those with teaching gifts to develop and exercise them.
  • Those who have been prepared to do so to lead in public prayer.
  • Christians to report on what God is doing in their ministry sectors during the week.
  • Public prayer for the issues and opportunities Christians are facing in their workplaces, families, neighborhoods, and other areas of their weekday lives.

Invites and helps to prepare others in the church body to baptize believers and to take the lead in overseeing the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Seeks to include personal testimonies in gatherings for baptisms, weddings, and memorial services.

Pastoral Role Enhanced

So, practicing the priesthood of all believers in a shared-church context does not set aside or reduce the importance of pastoral service. Rather, the pastoral role becomes even more important as catalyst and multiplier, releasing the gifts and ministries of others.

In our traditional non-practice of the all-believer priesthood, church governance language often says that elders, boards, deacons, etc., “shall assist the pastor.” Shared-church practice turns that upside down. Pastors/elders assist other priests to develop and carry out their respective ministries in the gathered and scattered church. In doing so, they fulfill Eph. 4:12.

According to Paul, pastors—along with other church leaders—are “to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.”

Dialogical Christmas

During this Advent season the biblical account of Jesus’s birth has reminded me how much God favors dialogue. The buildup to Christmas—the entire Old Testament—shows him as the God who speaks and listens. God had conversed with his human creatures in Genesis 1 and 2, but the real give-and-take begins in Chapter 3. In verses 8-13, God calls the pair out of hiding, asks them four questions, and they reply three times.

God also dialogues with their firstborn. In his conversation with Cain in Chapter 4, God asks five questions. Cain gets in a question of his own. And his spoken responses reveal his heart—both  dishonesty and fear. The relationship between God and Abraham is often a ping-pong-like series of questions and responses. The patriarch’s responses to God took many forms: falling down in worship, laughing, asking how, and negotiating. Moses, too, had a dialogical relationship with God, beginning at the fiery bush.

In his book, Communicating the Gospel God’s Way, Charles H. Kraft contends that “God’s interactions with human beings are characteristically in the form of dialog, rather than monolog. The Bible, from beginning to end, represents God as seeking conversations with people.” Imagine that: the God of ocean-like wisdom asks for input from those with nanodroplets of insight!

Birth Announcements: Dialogical

So no surprise that, when God began to speak to the world through his embodied Son, the advent is announced dialogically. Conversation does come as a shock, though, to Zechariah the priest. As he goes about his usual routine, burning incense in the Temple, a heavenly being suddenly appears and begins to speak. The announcement that Zechariah’s aging, childless wife would have a son—welcome as that might have been—prompts the elderly man to ask how he can know for sure. After all, he reminds the angel, “I am old and my wife is well along in years” (Lk. 1:18).

Several months later, the same heavenly visitor addresses a young woman in Nazareth. Again, the angel makes a birth announcement, this time of her Son to be called Jesus—but also the Son of the Most High. And as with Zechariah, the angel allows Mary to speak, to ask a logical question raised by this incredible announcement. After a bit more dialogue, the angel takes his leave.

As promised, Mary delivers the One who will save his people from their sins. Twelve years later, Joseph and Mary, in company with others, take Jesus to Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover. On the return trip, however, they discover the Boy is not with them. So back they go, only to find that Jesus has—for at least three days—been dialoguing with the rabbis in the Temple: listening, asking questions, and offering answers. All this prompts even more dialogue among Jesus, Mary, and Joseph (Lk. 2:41-50). 

Adult Ministry: Dialogical

The Boy with the dialogical beginnings becomes the Man who relates to people with back-and-forth conversation and interaction. Far more than 100 times the Gospels show us Jesus “asking” and “answering.” The Master Teacher understands the cooperative process of involved in effective teaching and learning. Why, then, do so many churches continue to make the monological sermon the centerpiece of the Sunday gathering?

Reuel L. Howe, in The Miracle of Dialogue, asks: “How does the Church or any other group of people become a community?” His answer: “It becomes a community when as persons, the members enter into dialogue with one another and assume responsibility for their common life.” In his opening paragraph, Howe says, “Dialogue is to love, what blood is to the body.” And he flatly states, “Monologue is not effective communication.”

Contemporary Sermons: from Monological to Dialogical

My book, Curing Sunday Spectatoritis, includes interviews with pastors who have seen the advantages of dialogical preaching. For example, Dan White, one of the pastors in Axiom Church in Syracuse, NY, had preached monologically for years. Influenced by his training and experience, he saw himself as a platform preacher. “When I visualized what preaching is all about,” he says, “it came down to me, a pulpit, and an audience. I relied heavily on my personality, my words, and my ability to bring the Word of God into focus for his people.”

But that all changed when he began to look into some of the New Testament Greek words surrounding the preaching/teaching of Paul. “Most of his preaching,” White says, “had an element of proclamation, but it was very dialogical. I began to realize that I had been interpreting what the New Testament said about preaching through my own contemporary lens.” How, White asked himself, could he translate the way preaching was done in the first century into the twenty-first century context?

He wanted to make certain his congregation continued to hear messages rooted in the authority of Scripture. And he determined to avoid the pitfall of a meandering, rudderless conversation. Over time, he developed a method of dialogical preaching—now used by himself and the other pastors—that  includes four “movements”:

Instructive. White takes 10-15 minutes to explain his text in its historical and sociological context. This segment includes no dialogue. Following this, he asks two thought-provoking questions: (a) in what you have just heard, where is there conflict for you? and (b) where is there clarity? He then calls for a full minute of silence to “level the playing field” between those who tend to dominate and those who need time to process what they have just heard.

Expressive. In this 10-minute segment, White invites the congregation to respond to the two questions posed just before the waiting period. He acts as moderator, drawing out comments and relating them to the theme of the message. Sometimes, White says, a comment from the congregation may contain a better insight than what he had planned.

Collective. Next White moves to a whiteboard on which he summarizes what has been shared during the expressive segment. This 5-minute Collective time, too, is interactive, with opportunities to refine what has previously been said.

Summarative (a word coined by White).  In the final 10 minutes, White uses material prepared beforehand to draw together the truth from the text and the congregational comments. He usually ends with questions, such as: “What is God proclaiming over our lives,” and “What is our take-home?” As the congregation has grown in dialogical experience, this segment includes more and more of what has been written on the whiteboard. Together, all four segments total about 40-45 minutes, of which more than half has been prepared in advance by the one teaching.

Sharing the Body-Building Workload

The interviews with 25 church leaders in Curing Sunday Spectatoritis includes accounts of other pastors who have also developed methods of dialogical preaching. As one of them says, “All in all, participatory church meetings have made it clear that there is a lot of wisdom in this church—far more than just what I am able to bring.” This insight seems to echo the last half of Eph. 4:16, that the Body of Christ “grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” When practiced on Sunday, the dialogue seen throughout the Bible and in the Christmas story distributes the body-building work—shared-church work. Does it also point toward a way out of pastoral burnout?