21st century pastor - fisher

Part 1 of the Pastor deals with four questions for the minister: Who Am I? What’s my address? What time is it? And who’s church is this? The first deals with pastoral identity. The second addresses the importance of geography. The third focuses on the larger culture. And the last deals with the necessity of a sound ecclesiology. In Part II, Fisher elaborates the pastor’s identity using metaphors drawn from Paul’s epistles: “Christ’s prisoners,” “jars of clay,” “God’s penmen,” “father and mother,” “farmers and builders,” “servants and stewards,” and “ambassadors and preachers.”

Two themes are most prominent in Pastor: (1) the privilege and joy of being a pastor and (2) the burdens and frequent despair of shepherding God’s people. Pastoring a church means being intimately connected to people in deeply fulfilling ways, but it also has a dark side. Clergy abuse has two dimensions. In the popular mind, it usually refers to pastors who abuse their privileges and mistreat the church and its members. A more common reality though is of the clergy being abused by the church and larger society. Fisher deals with both kinds of abuse, but he is most memorable for his treatment of the latter. The percentage of unhappy clergy is large and growing. Low self-esteem is the number one problem of pastors, followed by depression. Ministry is one of the most troubled professions in the U.S. Cultural influences that diminish the office of pastor and disparage its holders are one cause. Neglect of pastoral and ecclesiological theology is another. Another factor is seminary education that fails to prepare pastors for the harsh realities of pastoral work.

Fisher is correct in grounding pastoral theology in the larger theology of the church. Ministry and church are intertwined theologically and practically. On the theological level, shepherding has no meaning and no reason to exist apart from that which is being shepherded. Concrete communities are the arenas in which Christian life is made real– where moral struggles are won, lost, and redeemed.

At the practical level, ministers and the churches they lead have a way of reaching an equilibrium. Great ministers elevate their membership while poor ones do the opposite. The same is true of memberships. Good groups lift up their leaders. Bad ones pull them down. Over time, churches and their leaders tend to deserve each other, for better or for worse.

The alternative to an explicit theology of ministry is to let the practice of ministry become self-determining. Evangelicalism tends to do just that with telling results. Popular preachers “can lose three hundred people simply by wearing the wrong tie.” Ministries cut off from theological reflection tend to focus on image rather than substance, activity rather than essence, organization and function rather than ontology and transcendence. The result is a growing mass of unbaptized Christians unfit for real community led by showmen uncertain of their ultimate purpose.

Pastors nevertheless must adapt to culture, but not for pragmatic reasons, but rather for theological purposes. There is a wisdom perspective to ministry that should be respected. God does not reward programs or practices that are sociologically or psychologically suspect, but technique is secondary to sound theology. In that respect, ministry is not pursued simply for ministry’s sake. Rather, the church continues the ministry of Jesus. It is the way in which Jesus continues to “enflesh” Himself in the present age. Ministry therefore has an “incarnational” aspect that provides a framework for both pastoral theology and ecclesiology.

Since the church has an incarnational nature, it is subject to the kind of Christological controversies that surrounded the Incarnation. On one hand, there is a Docetic view that disparages concrete communities of faith in favor of a heavenly church that has no burdensome connection with the world of flesh. Conversely, there’s also an Ebionite view of the church that neglects the incarnational nature of the church in preference for viewing it as a purely human institution. Both views are wrong.

What then constitutes a real church? Historically, the answers have included the presence of an ecclesiastical authority with lineage back to the apostles, administration of sacraments, preaching of the Word, and so forth. Fisher’s answer is the presence of Christ– a correct, but difficult to employ test.

In any case, it is the presence of Christ in His church that constitutes it as a church, not the presence of the Spirit in individual believers. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit in individual believers does not make individuals self-sufficient or render the church irrelevant. Rather, the Spirit is intended to make individual believers fit for being built together with other Christians into a temple of God– the church.

That building is increasingly out of place in the Western world. Internationalism, urbanization, secularism, consumerism, individualism, technology, alienation, moral decay, culture wars, and declining quality of life make the church and its pastor appear irrelevant. The answer is to emphasize the distinctiveness of church and ministry rather than accommodate them to the surrounding culture. The church has no choice but to be the contrast community it was called to be. Likewise, the pastor’s role as prophet and spokesman for God must be more prominent.

In the meantime, Pastor will help pastors old and new alike with their difficult work. Much of that help will come through the large amounts of practical advice Fisher interweaves into his pastoral theology. For example, a pastor must have an internal and external call. Of the two, the internal call will be the one that most sustains a pastor through difficult days.

Although all of Fisher’s practical advice is good, some of it illustrates the insidiousness of present-day culture. For example, “just be yourself” is sound advice from a wisdom perspective, but it’s hard to imagine the Apostle Paul putting it in those terms. Likewise, Fisher’s quotation from Spurgeon on page 215 (which he framed and put on his office wall) concerning “the position of complete independence of all men” could be a goad to virtue on one hand or it could be a subtle manifestation of self-sufficiency on the other.

Although Pastor is ten years old, nothing much has changed except a change in intensity. Pastoral ministry is now more discouraging, more demanding, but more rewarding than ever. Traditional approaches to church and ministry now seem quainter and more provincial in the face of cultural preoccupations with pluralism and diversity than ever. The relevance of a gospel that makes exclusive claims and exclusive promises seems so implausible when the existence of so many “who have never heard” is so prominent. A transcendental solution would begin by first asking what it would take to make ministry relevant in such a culture. The answer is a more holistic understanding of corporate humanity, failure, responsibility, and redemption. Rereading scripture with that mindset reveals a sobering truth. The apparent narrowness of the Christian message does not lie in the message itself, but in the limited imagination of those who haven’t fully appreciated its all-encompassing perspective. Adapting Fisher’s quote of P.T. Forsyth is a proper conclusion. “The church [does] have a Lord big enough to oppose the demonic powers unleashed by the twentieth century.”

— historeo.com

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