What is Jesus Doing?

This month Intervarsity Press publishes a collection in honor of Andrew Purves, the great pastoral theologian who recently retired from Pittsburgh Seminary.  The book, What Is Jesus Doing? God’s Activity in the Life and Work of the Church, is edited by Edwin Chr. van Driel and explores the notion that God is the active agent within the church and its ministry.  Here’s a segment of my chapter of What Is Jesus Doing? 

God’s Agency in the Church Today

“I begin where the practice of ministry must always begin, with the practice of God….  what God is up to….  The most important point is this: God is an actor in our present experience….  What is he up to, and how do I hitch a ride on whatever he is up to? (Andrew Purves, The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Person of Christ [IVP Books, InterVarsity Press Downers Grove IL 2007], 12.)

Andrew Purves Lecturing

            “We’re about to find out just how deeply you believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ,” said an older, wiser bishop to me as we processed toward my episcopal consecration.  Her prediction came true.  These days, the sad state of mainline Protestantism drives church leaders to make good on our theological convictions.  If Jesus Christ has not been bodily raised from the dead, then we’re good as dead.  Either God is up to something, an active agent even in sorry our congregations and denominations, or ministry is misery. 

            Yet as Andrew Purves would remind us, our great challenge is not just to get along with some generic godlet of our own devising.  The fundamental questions is, Who is God and what is expected in service to this God?  It makes all the difference, in church leadership, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself (2 Cor 5:19), often working as agent in ways we did not comprehend.  Though we are most comfortable with a deity who is inactive, arcane, and aloof, Jesus Christ reveals God as active, interventionist, and involved.  Andrew says that the basis for ministry is “a sharing in the continuing ministry of Jesus, for the church and her ministry can be found only where Jesus has already showed up.”   He reminds us that, “the savior is a person rather than a tenet, proposition. An ACTIVE person. Only persons can have agency and, according to John 1:14, the word has gotten personal, became flesh, and moved in with us  That’s why for Andrew the question for us clergy to ask is, “Who is the incarnate savior of the world and what is he doing – here, today, now, in the specific ministerial context that engages me?”

            In my episcopal office in Birmingham, I had a picture of my predecessor, five bishops ago, Kenneth Goodson.  Ken led Alabama Methodists during the Sixties, giving a vibrant witness during a conflicted, fearful time.  Having his picture in my office was a constant reminder of days when many in my church courageously stood up and rendered account of a God who is able.

            Yet there were days when I looked at Ken’s portrait, as he stared back at me with some condescension, and said, “Ken, you had it easier than I.  All you had to do was to face down the Klan, protect preachers from racist mobs, and survive an occasional bombing.  Who needs a robust Christology for that?  Me, I’ve had to close bankrupt church camps, pull the plug on a dozen congregations a year, and kill off beloved Conference staff.  This church has forced me to get to know better the God I’ve spent years avoiding.”

            As a pastor, I’ve watched lots of laity marvel that some dry season, some dark valley they were walking through became — in the hands of a gracious, active God – a time in which they discovered that the Trinity was more interesting than they had first thought.  Might this age be so for those of us who mourn the passing of the mainline Protestantism that gave us birth and to which many of us have given our lives?   

              To be a pastor is to be someone who is giving his or her life in leadership of the institutional church.  Such leadership is surely easier in a time when the institution is thriving, when it enjoys a modicum of respect from its surrounding culture, and when there are at least occasional unambiguously positive results due to one’s labors.  

In my four decades of ministry, I’ve never known such a time.  I was ordained on a pleasant summer night in 1972.  Though I was ordained as a United Methodist elder, the night I was ordained, the whole town was in attendance.  The mayor, though a sometime Baptist, brought civic greetings to the service, reminding me that though I was being paid by Methodists, he expected me to exercise my leadership in behalf of the good of the whole town, placing me on the board of the YMCA and asking me to give the prayer at the next meeting of the Town Council. 

The morning after I was ordained, the United Methodist Church began losing members, loss that has accelerated in spite of my earnest efforts to turn things around.  Fellow United Methodist, Lovett Weems, who knows more about these demographic trends than I, warns of a looming “death tsunami.”  Any church with a median age of over sixty is a church on the way out, notes Weems.  We clergy have moved from decades as sedate, ingratiating pastoral care-takers, to the role of institutional undertakers, the last to turn out the lights in denominations that were once socially significant.

Purves says that, if we’re confused about Christ – who Christ is and what he is up to – we’ll engage in merely structural tinkering that undercuts the church’s peculiar vocation with anxious measures designed for merely institutional survival and compromises our witness to the resurrection.

We church leaders who wonder which way forward must begin not with institutional, organizational strategies but rather with Purves’ basic question, What is God in Christ up to now and how can we hitch on to it?

I begin my Introduction to Ordained Leadership class by telling students, “I’m going to do my best to share what I’ve learned over my years in ministry in the hope that some of my hard earned insights will be helpful to you. 

“But imbibe my wisdom with caution, with a critical awareness that you can’t serve the same church that I served.  You can’t lead as I led not only because people change, the culture changes, and the future presents new challenges.  You can’t duplicate the shape of my ministry because we work for a living God on the move.” 

Two frequent questions seminarians seeking ordination often asked me were, (1.) “Bishop, how can I be sure that you will appoint me to a church that’s worthy of my training and gifts?” and (2.), “Bishop, if I speak out on some controversial issue, can I be sure that you have my back and will support me in prophetic ministry?”

To question (1.) I answered only half in jest, “It’s a pity you are not applying for ordination in our church in 1950.  We could have used someone like you.  Our church was thriving.  Didn’t have to be much of a pastoral leader to keep a church functioning in that day.  There would have been dozens of congregations where you could go, bed down and keep house as their pastoral care-giver.  Being Methodist was roughly synonymous with being a thinking, caring, American.  Between here and there we got disestablished.  We are shrinking faster that bishops can manage.  Therefore we have got to have people who enjoy starting things, risking failure, going where they are not wanted, saying things most people would prefer left unsaid.  If you really need security, protection, and support, I suggest you try the U.S. Navy.  They will at least treat you fairly, which is more than I can say for Methodist bishops.”

To question (2.) I responded, “It’s a pity you are not applying for appointment in our church in 1950.  Back then, not many clergy risked anything worthy of needing a bishop to protect them.  Not much friction between the church and the world when we think it’s ‘our’ world.  Alas for your desire for security, that’s over now.  Nowadays, bishops lack the power to protect you from all the dangerous things Jesus might expect of you.” 

On the other hand, to those who have appropriate Christological rationale for their ministries, what a great time to be leading the church.  What a marvelous age in which to experience the adventure of following a living, demanding Jesus.  How perfect a time to be part of the continuing Pentecostal commotion, rather than to be stuck in service to an institution that’s no more than the world could produce as well through exclusively worldly means.”

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