Your pastor is an ordinary person

As I was preparing for worship this morning, I was reading a brief article with the title “God uses ordinary people”.  It was a well written article about a woman that has made a big impact on children’s hunger in our area.  She is the ordinary person the author was referring to.

I believe that God uses ordinary people.  In fact, I believe that God only uses ordinary people.

Here’s my problem: whenever we use the term “ordinary people”, we are also saying that there are “extra-ordinary” people.  

This distinction between ordinary and extraordinary people in reference to ministry is just a 21st century version of the clergy/lay-person divide of old.  However, the distinction is not along the lines of role or position, but something inherent to the person themselves. How did this happen?

The culprit, in my view, is the virus of America’s celebrity culture which has infected the church as well.  Yesterday I read a piece by Tom Krattenmaker entitled ‘Rock star’ pastors lose their luster. (read here).  He makes the same point.

Somewhere along the road, the virus of celebrity pastors, caused all pastors to stop being thought of as “ordinary people”.  They are placed on a pedestal.  Held to different expectations than the “ordinary” people. The example of what the Christian life should look like.  Super-disciples. When they do positive ministry, it isn’t “God using ordinary people”, it is expected.  Their vocation is not seen as a sacrifice for the kingdom of God – at least not like someone who worked a secular job, made a lot of money, and then “left it all” for ministry (the ultimate ordinary person story) .  Their faithfulness to their calling is not seen as obedient discipleship or a faithful response to God in the midst of a idolatrous culture.  It is often assumed that they choose to pastor, want to pastor, love the position, are comfortable under the pastoral mantle, etc. (actually, some of them – more than you may think –  said “Yes” to God’s call to pastor while kicking and screaming).

This hurts the church.

Your pastor is ordinary. You are ordinary.  The only difference is that God has called your pastor to a particular role within the church. The calling doesn’t make them extraordinary, while you remain ordinary.  It doesn’t mean that he or she is called to live as a different type of disciple than you are – Jesus’ call to follow is the same.  It doesn’t mean that they have more responsibility for the community called the church than you do. It just means their gifts are going to be used in a different way.

That’s why I think it is best to stop using the word “ordinary” when referring to people and ministry.  It sets up a false distinction between folks within the church.

We’re all ordinary. If something extraordinary happens, it is God, not us.


Quote of the Day

Do not Christ’s “scandalous” words from Luke point in the direction of such universality, which ignores every social hierarchy?  “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his mother and his father, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26)  Family relations stand here for any particular ethnic or hierarchical social bond that determines our place in the global Order of Things.  The “hatred” enjoined by Christ is therefore not the opposite of Christian love, but its direct expression: it is love itself that enjoins us to dissociate ourselves from the organic community into which we were born; or, as Saint Paul put it, for a Christian there are neither men nor women, neither Jews nor Greeks.  No wonder that, for those fully identified with a particular way of life, the appearance of Christ was seen as either a ridiculous joke or a traumatic scandal.

- Slavoj Zizek, The Year of Dreaming Dangerously


Quote of the Day

When the gospel is offered to man, and he stretches out his hand to receive it and takes it into his hand, an acute danger arises which is greater than the danger that he may not understand it and angrily reject it. The danger is that he may accept it peacefully and at once make himself its lord and possessor, thus rendering it innocuous, making that which chooses him something which he himself has chosen, which therefore comes to stand as such alongside all the other things that he can also choose, and therefore control. … Wherever the gospel is proclaimed…it is exposed at once to the danger of respectability.

- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, p. 141


The predicament of American preachers in our consumer context…

An artist owes only to his art.  Anything else is propaganda.

My favorite novel is My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potak. In that story I encountered the above quote.  Not only does this apply to the serious artist, it applies to the preacher as well. The preacher owes only to the message God has laid on his heart through careful, prayerful and Spirit-led preparation and attention to Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Some people call this the preacher’s burden – that thing that God has laid on their heart that they cannot NOT say.  As someone who preaches regularly, I believe that delivering that message faithfully is the best measure of effective preaching

Unfortunately, the consumer context of early 21st. century America has infiltrated the church to such a degree that many preachers have their eye on a different measure of effectiveness.  That measure is how well they think people in the audience will received a given message.  John W. Wright gets at this better than I can when he writes;

In a market driven ecclesial economy the preacher knows that members of the audience (it’s hard to speak of congregations anymore) can and will go elsewhere to find preaching that will meet their perceived needs – or, worse, drop out of church all together.  It is not surprising then that contemporary preaching consistently seeks a comedic end – not through providing humor (although audiences usually enjoy a funny preacher) but through successfully fusing the horizon of the biblical text into the preexisting horizon of the audience/congregation

- John W. Wright, Telling God’s Story

The challenge created by  “fusing the biblical text into the preexisting horizon of the audience/congregation” is that the biblical text often becomes secondary to the preexisting horizon.  This is seen over and over in American congregations where the biblical witness, in the fullness of its prophetic power, is made to bow to the the “dominant scripts” (1) of American culture; especially in the form of the fusion of God and country through forms of Christian nationalism.

To further complicate matters, these dominant scripts enter our lives through ideological formation that is largely invisible.  Zizek defines ideology with this simple phrase “they do not know it, but they are doing it.” (2)  Most of the Christians I know (and love) are unaware of the ways they have been shaped to think and act in particular ways by the way they were taught the American story. Furthermore, the ideology that has shaped them goes largely unchallenged by the right or the left  – as both are different sides of the same ideological coin. Therefore, the dominant ideology that shapes their will and way in the world is reinforced constantly by the powers that continue to benefit from that ideology.  Dissenting voices are often marginalized, silenced (think the assassination of MLK), sanitized (think the legacy of MLK), and co-opted by the powers that be (think the way all in our culture claim the legacy of MLK).

I may have a high view of preaching, but I believe that the preacher stands at a crucial place and is called to proclaim a prophetic message to the church.  The proclamation of the Kingdom of God in all its power and fullness is intended to be a light shining in the darkness, not a night light that allows people to sleep better at night.  By subjecting the biblical texts into this preexisting horizon, the preacher is taking away the very event whereby, in the Christian tradition, the ideology of the principalities and powers is brought to the surface and subjected to the light of the good news of the Kingdom of God.

For the preacher, meeting this challenge -week in and week out – requires spiritual resources that come from places well beyond our degrees and preparation.  There is a battle – not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers – that is very real and very present in the preaching event.  Winning that battle requires, first of all, the willingness to fight it, and, second of all, the power of the Spirit in preparation and delivery of the preacher’s burden.

For the congregation, the challenge is to stop being individual consumers and become rooted to a people in a place.  We have to unwind the belief that preaching is about tickling ears or meeting my felt needs (which Peter warned us about). We need to embrace the spiritual practice of sitting under the preaching and teaching authority of the church (which itself is rooted in the authority of Jesus, extend by the Spirit, via the Scriptures, to the church – which is the body of Christ and the individuals who are a part of it).  That doesn’t mean becoming puppets controlled by ecclesial authorities and pastors. That means being open to the reality that God speaks through the preaching event, with power, and that when that happens we might not always like it. It may challenge our unspoken assumptions and commitments and that’s OK.  It’s better than OK, it is the way by which we become aware of the distance between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God. It is the way by which we see ourselves clearly in relation to those two kingdoms.  It is the moment where we can choose to repent, if need be, turn to God and participate fully in God’s Kingdom.

(1) See Walter Brueggemann’s 19 Thesis for more on this idea.

(2) See The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Zizek.

Non-Christians don’t buy this…

There is a common message that Christians repeat when a high profile Christian says something hurtful about gay people in public.  It goes like this…

(1) Christians don’t hate homosexuals.  (2) They are speaking out against the homosexual lifestyle, not the individuals who practice it.  (3) They are loving the sinner, but hating the sin just like Jesus did.  (4) Please know that this is coming from a place of humility.  (5) I am a sinner, too.   I do not consider myself any better or worse than any other person. (6) I am thankful that I am a sinner saved by grace through Jesus. (7) Everyone, even gay people, can experience salvation through Jesus.

I’ve come to believe that this message is meaningful for Christians, but nobody else is buying it.

Do you buy it?



Idolatry, Santa and Advent

What is Idolatry? Peter Rollins explains the structure of idolatry this way; (1) Our lives are marked with a deep sense of anxiety, (2) We believe that our anxiety is the result of something we lack, (3) We then believe that if we can just get what we lack our anxiety will go away.[i]What is an idol? An idol, then, is that thing we think we lack, that when we get it, we believe will make us happy and whole.

This is more than theory.  To paraphrase John Calvin, the human heart is an idol factory. [ii] If Calvin is correct that means that we are all adept at creating and pursuing idols. I think he is on to something. If someone asks, “Are you an idolater?” most would say “No! Of course not.” That’s an honest answer. It is sometimes hard to find idols by looking for idols. It is much easier to find idols by looking for the structure of idolatry. What is the source of your anxiety? Where do you perceive the lack in your own life? What do you look for to meet that lack? These are helpful questions when answered soberly.

If you look closely, you will see that the structure of idolatry is the very foundation of consumer culture. During the Christmas season idolatry functions openly and without shame. Again, just look for the pattern. It’s why people fight over cheap televisions on Black Friday. The Santa of American culture – over and against the real Saint Nicholas – may very well be the embodiment of idolatry.

The question for Christians during the season of Advent is this; does Rollins’ pattern of idolatry show up in our expectations of the Messiah, too? Rollins gets at this when he writes, “Today the ‘Good News’ of Christianity operates with much the same logic. It is sold to us as that which can fulfill our desire, rather than as that which evokes a transformation in the way that we desire. Like every other product that promises us fulfillment, Christ becomes yet another object in the world that is offered to us as a way of finding happiness and ultimate satisfaction.” Does Jesus function as an idol – not by his own volition or mission – but by being co-opted by consumer culture with the cooperation of the idol factories of our hearts?

Some people will say that Jesus can never be an idol because He’s Jesus. They say this because they also believe that Jesus came to “fulfill our desire” and offer us a way of “happiness and ultimate satisfaction”. After all, Jesus is the one who said that he came to bring life and life to the full. I agree that he said this, I just don’t think it means what many people think it means. The birth narratives in the gospels say that Jesus is coming to set things right: justice, healing, freedom from oppression, economic leveling, and so on. And when Jesus said he came to bring life and life to the full, he wasn’t talking about material blessings and inner peace, he was also talking about justice, healing, and freedom from everything that steals, kills and destroys.

The difference between idolatry and discipleship is who sets the agenda. If we set the agenda and expect Jesus to fulfill, it is likely idolatry. If He sets the agenda that we faithfully submit to, then it is likely discipleship. This Advent season; consider again the true import of the first coming of Jesus. Do you embrace Jesus as that which can fulfill your desires? Or do you respond to Jesus as one who invites you into his way of life?

[i] Peter Rollins, The Idolatry of God, 8-9.

[ii] John Calvin, Institutes Book I.XI., 8-9.