Weak Clergy, Watered Down Christianity

I’ve said it before, I say it again. Few writers are as tough on us clergy as Soren Kierkegaard, that melancholy Dane. However, few writers better remind me of the high calling to which we clergy have been summoned.

Kierkegaard, here in his Journals, notes that in his day clergy had moved from being powerful people in their societies to “being controlled” by the surrounding culture. The result was a desperate attempt on the part of the clergy to be useful, to get a hearing, to appear to be relevant to whatever it was that the culture wanted. Thus was Christianity “watered down,” according to Kierkegaard.

The good news is that the situation now calls for clergy who are as tough on ourselves as the gospel is tough on humanity. Lacking the former crutches and accolades of the culture, we now must get our courage strictly from the gospel itself. We clergy must begin by applying the gospel to ourselves, before we apply it to others.

“Even then,” says Kierkegaard, “things may go badly”:

As long as the clergy were exalted, sacrosanct in the eyes of men, Christianity
continued to be preached in all its severity. For even if the clergy did
not take it too strictly, people dared not argue with the clergy, and they could
quite well lay on the burden and dare to be severe.

But gradually, as the nimbus faded away, the clergy got into the position of themselves being controlled. So there was nothing to do but to water down
Christianity. And so they continued to water it down till in the end they
achieved perfect conformity with an ordinary worldly run of ideas – which were
proclaimed as Christianity. That is more or less Protestantism as it is now.

The good thing is that it is not longer possible to be severe to others
if one is not so towards oneself. Only someone who is really strict with
himself can dare nowadays to proclaim Christianity in its severity, and even
then things may go badly for him.
Kierkegaard, Journals[1]

Still, all things being considered, being a pastor is a high vocation, a great way to expend a life. The way of Christ is narrow and demanding, but it is also a great gift, even “in its severity.”

These are my thoughts, thinking with Kierkegaard looking over my shoulder, as I begin this week of ministry.

Will Willimon

[1] The Journals of Kierkegaard, Ed. Alexander Dru, Harper Torchbooks, 1958, 205.

12 thoughts on “Weak Clergy, Watered Down Christianity

  1. As a fellow minister, you have put your finger on probably the most significant reason for the ineffectiveness of the church today. Have we not often admired the boldness of Peter and John (Acts 4), and was it not due to a praying, believing church? Exclude that and men scramble for the latest method to take its place. E. M. Bounds wrote, “A vitally diseased heart is not a more fearful symptom of approaching death than nonpraying men are of spiritual atrophy” (The Weapon of Prayer). Thank you for this and the many strong words you use to call ministers back to a bold, impassioned faith.Dave Nelson


  2. The good news is that the situation now calls for clergy who are as tough on ourselves as the gospel is tough on humanity. Lacking the former crutches and accolades of the culture, we now must get our courage strictly from the gospel itself. We clergy must begin by applying the gospel to ourselves, before we apply it to others.This sounds like a formula that could have been used for clergy in the first century. You got a winner here Bishop.Thanks


  3. I believe that as clergy we should be in the word of God every single day. I strongly hold on the fact that God’s word does give us strength and power. It is sad that so many believers and especially clergy spend more times reading other’s books instead of the Word of God. Yes, Christian books can be very benifital but it doesn’t match the Bible in what it does in strengthen faith and presentation of the word of God. As believers and clergy we need to realize that God has given us not timidity but of power!!!! If Christianity is going to be real to us as clergy we must completely trust God in every aspect of our life. There are many clergy who simply fail to completely surrender to the will of God in every single aspect of their lives. Complete surrender is a must. Complete trust is a must. We must really believe that God can renew our souls and give us the wisdom and power to lead the Church. As pastors we need to be concerned for those in need, the poor and spiritually broken. We need to be the kind of ministers as Jesus and show the world mercy, peace, love and hope.


  4. Got here through the blog of a young would-be-preacher in LA. I’ve worn through many copies of Kierkegaard over the years and have spent my life encouraging a more ‘progressive’ approach to evangelical Christianity in both university campus ministry and ministry among the urban poor around the world. So I appreciated the post. I think :^)I’m assuming you meant this post to underscore the fact that evangelical preachers over the past couple of decades in America have had a field day heaping moral burdens on others while enjoying all the social and financial benefits of supporting (pretty much) godless Republican political regimes that shamelessly used evangelicals for their own purposes. Though to be fair, I guess we can’ get used unless we give our ok. I was especially interested in the timing of some of comments here. What exactly is ‘the situation’ that has b’ham billy so concerned? What makes michael think that the ‘lions are out in force’ now more than they have been over the past 25 years? I’m truly interested. Maybe all of you can begin your attempt to be ‘more bold’ with me. I’m praying too, but in my case, that evangelicals will wake up and start questioning the right wing cultural and political captivity of the American church. I think that’s exactly the kind of thing Kierkegaard was getting at in his own day.


  5. Tom the situation that I’m describing I think is very close to your own. That is in my opinion the church has always been in a tug of war between political and cultural parties with one side or the other winning at any given time. But I think that those in the first few centuries were able to step up their game with the gospel that was pure, unashamed, demanding and just as risky living as it was proclaiming. These times beg for great faith like that.


  6. 13″Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.


  7. I want you to know brother that I have all of your book and have deeply inspired. They have been a blessing to my life, my family, my ministry, and most of all has helped me grow in my relationship with God. I want you to know that you, your family and all you do for the kingdom of God all are in my prayers daily. I want you to know that God has great plans for your life and all you do for His church.


  8. It seems to me that we spend so much time affirming our culture in the church that we don’t challenge our culture’s ideals. Sometimes I question the UMC’s advertising campaign because it insinuates that people will show up and never be challenged to throw off personal sin. We talk a lot about corporate sin, but not individual sin in the UMC, and I think in that way we are watering down the message of the Gospel. I think this is particularly sad when people suffer from sin on an intimate level. It can eat people from the inside out, but it’s not always acknowledged in church. We are often quick to talk about corporate greed and civil rights, but I have yet to hear a sermon preached about how quickly addiction to drugs, alcohol, and pornography can wreck a person’s life. We talk about the financial crisis and “those people on Wall Street” but we don’t acknowledge the gambling problem in our own backyard. It really bothers me that we leave these subjects for other churches to handle, because our history as the UMC is so steeped in the nitty-gritty of real life. John Wesley was both high theology and intimate healing. We should be too. We should not be afraid to handle sin head-on instead of dancing around it.We need to empower clergy to speak the Gospel rather than reiterate what society already tells us is truth. Clergy should not have to worry about preaching what is fashionable, because the Gospel is always timely.


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