“Take thou authority to preach the Word….” These were the words under which many of us were ordained into the pastoral ministry. The issue of pastoral authority is a troubling one for many of us. Here are some thoughts, in a recent book on pastoral leadership, that are instructive for us pastors.

The Reverend John McFadden describes how the difference between worldly power and spiritual authority was revealed to him in the life of the church. The context was his working relationship with his Wisconsin Conference minister (our low-church equivalent of a bishop) in the United Church of Christ. John penned these words at the occasion of the Reverend Fred Trost’s retirement and publicly feted him with these warm pearls of insight.

It was the Budget Committee. Fred greeted everyone warmly, prayed earnestly, and outlined the difficult issues associated with balancing a budget in a year where funds were tight. Then, in a cordial but firm tone of voice, he identified the items in the proposed budget that were not open to discussion or debate!

Having been trained in Puritan self-control, I succeeded in choking back my outrage. Who does this man think he is? What is the point in serving on a committee of the Conference if the Conference Minister makes unilateral decisions? The word “arrogant” was one of the more printable I assigned to him, and I determined to maintain a certain distance. I am certain that for the next year or two he saw me as cool and aloof. The Great Facilitator had met Herr Pastor Trost, and the distance between the two appeared to be unbridgeable.

I can now look back and chuckle at how badly I misunderstood Fred and his motives in that early encounter. What I then perceived as arrogance I now appreciate as conviction; what I then heard as “this cannot be debated!” I now know was “let us debate this with real passion!” I was so deeply schooled in the ways of power that I failed to recognize genuine authority when I encountered it.

Fred Trost stands first among the mentors who have taught me that the integrity of the pastoral vocation grows from daring to claim the spiritual authority vested in us by the church. True spiritual authority begins only when we reject the sinful temptation to embrace the ways of power. Power is self-centered and self-serving; its clarion cry is “my will be done!” Power is measured in dollars, in clout, in control. It is brokered by fear and intimidation. Its goal is always to win and, in winning, to create losers. Power builds fiefdoms and empires. Power always believes in its own wisdom, its own strength, its own purpose. Power answers to nothing beyond itself, not even to God.

Authority is temporarily entrusted to our stewardship by that which is greater than we are and to which we are accountable. Spiritual authority must answer to scripture, to tradition, and to the living community of the church, from which it never stands apart or above. Spiritual authority grows from the humility born of knowing we are creatures, utterly beholden to our Creator. As such, we can never possess absolute certainty that our thoughts are wise, our actions righteous, so the authority invested in us must often be discharged in fear and trembling.

Yet, paradoxically, spiritual authority also grows from the confidence born of knowing that where our wisdom and righteousness end, God’s begin, and that through the actions of the Holy Spirit these frail, earthen vessels may convey deeper truth and work greater deeds than our own limited abilities would permit. Spiritual authority acts most boldly when it first prays most humbly; it speaks with the greatest strength when it first listens most carefully. Spiritual authority seeks to empty itself of the conceit of possessing its own wisdom, so that it may say not “my will be done,” but “Thy will be done.”

True spiritual authority may reside in either a Great Facilitator or a Herr Pastor. It often leads us to a place somewhere between the two. When a Great Facilitator understands the truth of spiritual authority, he or she seeks to help the saints discern the prompting of the Hoy Spirit in their discussion and debate. The goal is not to build consensus or resolve an issue by taking a vote. Rather, it is to discover together how the living Spirit is working and speaking through the gathered community of the church.

When a Herr Pastor understands the truth of spiritual authority, that person spends years in coming to know the saints of the church deeply, grieving with them in times of pain and loss, celebrating with them in their joys and new beginnings, until the pastor can no longer say with certainty where his or her own life ends and the life of the congregation begins. When the line between “I” and “we” becomes sufficiently blurred, Herr Pastor can speak with a clear, authoritative voice that is no longer tainted by the presumption of personal power.

Both the Great Facilitator and Herr Pastor must return frequently to the sources of their spiritual authority. They must study God’s word in Holy Scripture, preferably in fellowship with other Christians. They must pray, both in the stillness of their own hearts, and in settings of Christian community. They must read the thoughts of saints who preceded them, so they can dialogue with the wisdom of the ages. They must worship God frequently, so that they never forget who they are, and whose they are. They must immerse themselves in Christian theology until it becomes second nature to experience the world through God’s eyes, rather than their own.

— From Who Are You to Say? Establishing Pastoral Authority in Matters of Faith, by Dale Rosenberger, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Brazos Press, 2005, pp. 87-89

Keeping Work In Its Place

George MacLeod, founder of the Iona Community of Scotland, said that he took the job of cleaning the community’s toilets so, “I will not be tempted to preach irrelevant sermons on ‘the dignity of all labor.'”

I haven’t preached many sermons on the subject of work.

When I do preach on work, I will tell them that I believe that the fabled “Protestant work ethic” is a decidedly mixed inheritance for the church. Martin Luther attacked medieval monasticism by dignifying all work as divinely ordained. You don’t have to become a nun to serve God. Even the lowest servant cleaning floors in the rich man’s house mops to the glory of God. God did not simply create the world and quit. God keeps creating and invites us, in even the humblest work, to join in God’s continuing creativity.

Luther’s thought on work is not so much a glorification of our human work, but rather a celebration of the work of God. When Luther uses “vocation” he uses it more to refer to tasks like marriage and family than to jobs. Our vocation is not work but worship.

Sometime ago, I saw a book for Christian students. It began, “How can you serve Christ on campus?” Answer. “First by studying hard. You are called to be a student. You have gifts and graces from God for study. You are not studying just for yourself, but for what you can eventually give to others through your study. Now, study!”

That sounds like “vocation.”

Unfortunately, the “Protestant work ethic” tended to elevate even the meanest job to the status of divinely ordained, so that today, when we say “vocation,” we mostly mean “job.”

Sometimes the “Protestant work ethic” defended the indefensible. If you’re in a demeaning, degrading job, it is because God put you there, therefore, don’t strive to better your condition. Such thought was a powerful hindrance to revolutionary thought and action.

Today, most people can expect seven job-changes in their lifetime. Many of these will be forced upon them by external economic factors. How can these multiple changes, forced upon the worker from the outside, be called aspects of divine vocation?

While Protestantism, in its attempt to honor all work as a vocation from God, may have contributed to some of the abuses of capitalism, the Christian and the Jewish faiths also bear within a prophetic critique of work. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, humanity is graciously invited by God to work. God creates a garden, then invites the woman and the man to tend the garden. Yet Genesis also admits that work, gracious gift of God, can also be a curse, when abused and used in sinful ways. Adam and Eve are cursed by hard work when they’re kicked out of God’s garden.

We have no record that Jesus ever worked or urged anyone else to do so. The “call” of Jesus appears to be a call to ordinary people like fishermen and tax collectors to leave their careers and to follow him on his travels about Galilee.

Thus, while work may be a good gift of God, our present structures of work are not divinely ordained. Work, like any human endeavor — sex, money, art — may be tainted with human sin. For some, that sin will take the form of idolatry, in which we give honor and energy to our jobs which should be reserved for God.

I think that we pastors ought to be cautious about claiming too much for work. Most of work’s rewards are most mundane. For one thing, most of our friends are somehow related with our work. One of the most dehumanizing aspects of unemployment is the loneliness of the unemployed.

Also, from a Christian perspective, your work has value because it contributes, not to your well being, but to someone else’s. As a mechanic said to me recently, “People need me more than they need a brain surgeon. When I put somebody’s car back on the road, they’re grateful and I’m happy.” Work is a major way we discover our dependency on one another, our connectedness in a wide web of other persons’ work.

For another thing, most of us work for the mundane, but utterly necessary need to earn a living. Our work puts bread on the table. Rather than debate which forms of work contribute to our personhood and which do not, we ought to focus on which work fairly compensates a worker and which work doesn’t. We ought to admit that most of us work for pay. While we are working for pay, we can achieve many other noble human values. But none of those noble values should deter us from the most basic value that all ought to have work and that all ought to be justly compensated for their work.A fair, living wage is more to the point than our high-sounding theological platitudes.

We are right to seek meaningful work, since work is a major task given by God to humanity. We are right to criticize our present structures of work, expecting them to be sinful and in need of reform in various ways. Our work, suggests our faith, is source of great joy, also of much pain. Making a life is more significant than making a living.

William H. Willimon

I hope you will join me at the “Growing Healthy Churches” Event with Dr. Paul Borden on February 9 and 10.

For God’s Sake Say It!

When I was courting The Rev. Carl Parker’s daughter (who eventually became my wife, Patsy) Mr. Parker was serving as a District Superintendent in the Marion District of the Methodist Church. I was nervous. I wanted to make a good impression. I was considering entering seminary in the fall, and I wanted the approval of this preacher’s family.

Because a District Superintendent does not serve one congregation, but supervises those preachers in the district, Mr. Parker spent many Sundays in the pew rather than in the pulpit, a situation that he detested.

That particular Sunday, the preacher was a master of ambiguity and equivocation. Mr. Parker squirmed in his pew as the preacher carefully qualified just about every statement made in the sermon. Mr. Parker withdrew his large railroad watch from his pocket at five-minute intervals throughout the sermon, the watch that had been given to him by some thankful congregation of the past. He would gaze at his watch, shake his head, thrust it back into his pocket and groan slightly. The poor preacher continued to flail away, thrashing at his subject, rather than delivering it.

“We need to be more committed to Christ…but not to the point of fanaticism, not to the point of neglect of our other important responsibilities.

“We need to have a greater dedication to the work of the church. Now I don’t mean that the church is the only significant organization of which you are a member. Most of us have obligations to various community groups….” And on, and on. Every five minutes, with some ceremony, Mr. Parker withdrew his gold railroad watch from his pocket, opened it, looked at it, remained surprised that so little time had been used, closed it, and slapped it back in his pocket with regret.

After service, all of us in the District Superintendent’s party brushed right past Mr. Milk Toast with barely a word of greeting. Mr. Parker led us down the sidewalk back to the District parsonage, like ducks in a row. He went right through the front door and charged up the stairs. Pausing midway, he whirled around, shaking a finger at me and thundering, “Young man, if God should be calling you into the pastoral ministry, and if you should ever be given a church by the bishop, and if God ever gives you a word to say, for God’s sake would you say it!”

Mainline Protestantism seems to be suffering from a failure of theological nerve. Our trumpets suffer from our uncertain sound. The bland leading the bland.

Courage to speak arises, in great part, from the conviction that God has given us something to say. I recall Leander Keck (in a debate on the most effective sermon styles) saying “When the messenger is gripped by a Message, the messenger will find the means to speak it.”

As preachers, we know the challenge, in a relativistic culture, if standing up and saying, “This news is good, this word is true.”

On one occasion Walter Brueggemann said to us, “If you are a coward by nature, don’t worry. We can still use you. You can get down behind the biblical text. You can peek out from behind the text saying, ‘I don’t know if I would say this, but I do think the text does’.” I like that image – the preacher hunkered down, taking cover behind the biblical text, speaking a word not of the preacher’s devising.

Courage to speak requires clarity about our source of authority. If we only stand in the pulpit to “share ourselves,” or to “tell my story” as some misguided recent homiletics has urged us, then the church shall end, not with a bang but in a simpering sigh after a thousand qualifications and reservations.

This Sunday, take Mr. Parker’s advice. If God gives you a word for God’s people, for God’s sake, say it!

William H. Willimon

Divine Wisdom among "Little Old Ladies"

A few years ago, a friend of mine returned from one of those National Council of Churches trips to the Soviet Union. Two weeks had made her a Soviet expert. When asked about the churches in there, her reply was, “There’s nobody left in the churches except for a few little old ladies.”

Poor, out-of-it church. Nobody left but a few little old ladies.

In the light of complete collapse of the Soviet Union, and the resurgence of the church in Russian and the former Soviet Republics, we are now better able to assess the relative importance of those few believing women. As it turned out, those women had put down their money on the right horse. While leaders of the World Council of Churches were busy having dialogue with the Communist bosses in Romania and elsewhere (the very same bosses who were making life so miserable for Christians there), the pastor of a little Romania Reformed church, probably assisted by a few “little old ladies,” was busy bringing down an empire. And as usual, no one was more surprised by all this than those of us in the church.

When will we ever learn the truth that God has chosen “what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are” (I Corinthians 1:27-28)? I know that this passage concludes with “so that no one might boast in the presence of God” but is it OK to boast in the presence of our half-hearted church that those believing women, that faithful pastor knew a great deal more about the way the world works than all of the Pentagon strategists, White House-Kremlin planners, World Council of Churches dialoguers and most of the rest of us?

At the World Methodist Conference a few summers ago, the former Dean of Duke Divinity School was talking with a bishop from one of the Baltic republics. “How in the world were you able to keep going with so many years of hostility and persecution?” he asked the bishop.

“Well, though it was tough, we in the church always took the long view,” was his reply.

Three years ago the World Methodist Council gave Mr. Gorbachev its “Peacemaker of the Year” award. A couple of months later, he ordered the tanks into Lithuania. As far as I know, he did not return the award.

Is it possible for us to look behind the encouraging headlines coming out of the East, to take the long view, to read them sub specie aeternatis, to let ourselves be schooled by those wise, so worldly wise, little old ladies who knew something that even the CIA did not?

I quickly learned, in my first parish, that if I really wanted something done, something pushy, a bit risky, something out of the ordinary, I needed to go to the members of the Alice Davis memorial Circle of the United Methodist Women. It wasn’t that they were all over seventy and had time, it was that they were all well formed as Christians and had faith. While Nixon was pondering whether or not to go to China, they were finishing the UMW Fall Mission Study on The People’s Republic. When we all celebrated the end of the Vietnam War, they were sending letters to the people of Vietnam apologizing for our destruction of their country, putting aside a portion of their Social Security checks to contribute to the Church World Service Refugee resettlement program. When I spoke to the church about the need to do something about the plight of the homeless, three of them came forward to tell me that they work as volunteers at the Homeless Shelter so, if I were really serious, they would be happy to take me for a visit.

Sometimes, there is nobody left to be the church “except for a few little old ladies.” Thank God.

William H. Willimon

Big Church

It took until February 1965 for the Alabama voting rights movement to spread from Selma to less populated environs. Martin Luther King visited both Perry and Wilcox counties, appearing even at little Gees Bend, encouraging the tenant farmers not to give up now. In one demonstration in Perry, seven hundred students from SCLC were arrested and incarcerated like cattle in a makeshift stockade with brutal living conditions. Local organizers called Selma asking for help, specifically requesting C. T. Vivian, veteran of the struggle with Sheriff Clark. Vivian had become a giant in the movement.

C.T. was at first reluctant to go, having just been released from jail. But he stood that Sunday night in the pulpit of Zion Chapel Church Marion and fired up a packed church with his eloquence. The church was filled with determined, angry people who, angered by the arrest of their children, were determined to march from the clapboard church to the city jail. C.T. admired their bravery, but he knew that they were on a perilous course. Night marches were rare; the night belonged to the Klan, though in the Black Belt, Klansmen didn’t need sheets to cover their identity. The assumption was that even the local law enforcement officers were free to do whatever they wanted, acting upon the orders of Governor Wallace.

Enflamed by C.T. Vivian’s sermon, marchers streamed out of the little church anyway. When police chief T. O. Harris ordered them to return to the church, they knelt to pray. The police attacked. Many were assaulted, knocked to the ground, pursued through the dark streets. An NBC reporter, Richard Valeriani, was also beaten.

It was for the freedom seekers, the last straw. The rage engendered this night was the decisive prelude to the historic, massive march on Selma across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7.

For Christians in Alabama, white and black, this is our history, our inheritance. As a relative newcomer to the church in Alabama, I believe it is important that we claim this past as power for the present. The Holy Spirit, in countless little churches all across our state worked miracles, defeated Satan, and won a new people. What a resource for the living of the Christian life, to have these living reminders among us. We’re not there yet, but in our better moments, we are on the way. And every time we take one little step against the great sin of American racism, we are moving closer to Christ. That’s but one reason why we are gathering at Clearbranch on January 6. C.T. Vivian will be there to encourage us, along with Tony Campolo. We’ve still got great work to do, and we’ve got a great place in which to do it.

Thank God for a church that keeps holding up before us what Jesus expects of us. Thank God for a church that keeps convicting us of our sin, keeps holding before us redemption. I’ve met people ho have been attracted to one of our congregations because there people are visibly dealing with this continuing American dilemma of racial justice. I’ve also met people who are no longer in our church because a congregation is avoiding or denying this sin. The church at its best is God-given free space in which to deal with and overcome our sin.

Years later, C.T. Vivian was back in Marion and looked at Zion Chapel Church again. He was stunned that the church was so small, little more than a clapboard box. Could it have been the same church that ignited such a liberating conflagration? That tiny church?

No, C.T., you are taller than you appear and that little church is a great cathedral. All of us who attempt to walk the way of Jesus in Alabama today, travel in your lengthened, encouraging shadow. Jesus fully intends to rock our world, to purge us of our sin, including the sin of racism, through preachers like C.T., through churches like Zion Chapel.This is the way this God works miracles.

William H. Willimon

I got this account of C.T. Vivian at Marion from chapter 17 of Frye Gaillard’s amazing book, Cradle of Freedom: Alabama and the Movement that Changed America (The University of Alabama Press, 2004).

On Faith

“Faith is not only God’s gift but also God’s assignment.”
Conversations with Barth on Preaching (Abingdon Press, 2006)

So much of the time we think of faith as our own personal achievement. In looking to theologian Karl Barth, we are reminded that faith is always a gift from God. In addition to faith as divine gift, it is also a holy assignment for each of us. Christianity is less a club and more of a shared vocation – especially in how well we put to task the commands of God as a community of faith.

To what assignment are you called through the gift of the faith?

For more on faith from Karl Barth:

“Faith is not, therefore, a standing, but a being suspended and hanging without ground under our feet. Or conversely, in faith we abandon whatever we might otherwise regard as our standing, namely, our standing upon ourselves (including all moral and religious, even Christian standing), because in faith we see that it is a false and unreal standing, a hanging without support, a wavering and falling. We abandon it for the real standing in which we no longer stand on ourselves (on our moral and religious, or even our Christian state), and in which we obviously do not stand on our faith as such but — now at least firmly and securely — on the ground of the truth of God and therefore on the ground of the reconciliation which has taken place in Jesus Christ and is confirmed by Him to all eternity.”
Church Dogmatics, II, 1, pg. 159

Christmas Meditation

Throughout the churches of North Alabama United Methodism, we are preparing to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation. The proclamation that God became flesh and moved in with us (John 1) is one of the most distinctive affirmations of the Christian faith, perhaps the most distinctive. Comparison with other accounts of who God is and what God does is instructive.

In Islam, at least from my amateurish reading of the Koran, there is this constant distancing of God apparently as a means of honoring God. The view of God that emerges in the Koran is noble and exalted, but God is clearly at some remove from the world. God is as absolute, as majestic as God can get. You would have to know the Christmas story to know why that’s a problem.

Christians don’t know that God is sovereign, noble, exalted, absolute, high and lifted up. We know that God is in the world, with us, for us, Immanuel. Jesus is a prophet, but prophets, even the most truthful and courageous of them, cannot save. When we see God next to us, stooped toward us, in the muck and mire with us in order to have us, that’s what we call sovereign, noble, and exalted.

A story: A man died. He had not lived the most worthy of lives, to tell the truth. In fact, he was somewhat of a scoundrel. He therefore found himself in Hell, after his departure from this life.

His friends, concerned about his sad, though well-deserved fate, went down to Hell, and moved by the man’s misery, rattled those iron gates, calling out to whomever might be listening, “Let him out! Let him out!”

Alas, their entreaties accomplished nothing. The great iron doors remained locked shut.

Distinguished dignitaries were summoned, powerful people, academics, intellectuals, prominent personalities. All of them stood at the gates and put forth various reasons why the man should be let out of his place of lonely torment. Some said that due process had not been followed in the man’s eternal sentence. Others appealed to Satan’s sense of fairplay and compassion.

The great iron gates refused to move.

In desperation, the man’s pastor was summoned. The pastor came down to the gates of hell, fully vested as if he were to lead a Sunday service.“Let him out! He was not such a bad chap after all. Once he contributed to the church building fund and twice he served meals at a soup kitchen for the homeless. Let him out!”

Still, the gates of Hell stood fast.

Then, after all the friends and well wishers finally departed in dejection, the man’s aged mother appeared at the gates of Hell. She stood there, stooped and weak, only able to whisper softly, in maternal love, “Let me in.

And immediately the great gates of Hell swung open and the condemned man was free.

Something akin to that great miracle happened for us on a starry night at Bethlehem

William H. Willimon

Resisting the Clutches of Consumerism

Our government no longer refers to us as “citizens,” but as “consumers.” If we can get you to consume cigarettes, cars, mouthwash, and sedatives, then we can get you to consume people. That is why Calvin Klein uses soft kiddie porn to sell blue jeans. Consumption.

Therefore the question: “How could we, who confess Jesus Christ as Lord, rather than say Michael Eisner as Lord, how can we as a church resist the corrosive acids of Capitalism?”

The immediate problem that confronts is that our church is accommodationist. Even though we know that there is a strong, critical strain in Wesleyanism against the evils of “riches,” we quickly learned in this society that there is no way to be a successful, responsible, public church, without submitting to the political vision that says that there is no greater purpose of human community than accumulation and aggrandizement.

For this reason, the “user friendly” approach to church won’t work. There is no way to entice people off the streets with hymns that are based on advertising jingles and end up with the cross-bearing, self-sacrificial, burden-bearing Jesus. Evangelism cannot be based upon our basic selfishness (“Come to Jesus and get everything you want fixed.”) and end up with anything resembling historic Christianity.

One of the reasons why Church is difficult is that the modern media culture (a culture which has no other purpose than giving us what we want, since “getting what we want” is the main purpose of life) has been so successful in forming us into such consumers.

In the middle of a sermon I said, “If you bring a child into this church, say a child of four or five, that child will have a difficult time during the service. Church does not come naturally. The child will have to be trained to sing this music, to bend his life toward these stories, to pay attention to that which he quite naturally avoids. If you take that same child into Toys R Us, no training is necessary. Greed comes to us quite naturally. After all, this is America.”

But then I caught myself in mid-sentence, and said, “No, that’s not quite fair to Toys R Us. Billions have been spent, and our very best talent expended, in forming that child into the habits of consumption. Barney is not innocent.”

For me, one of the most moving moments, is when people come forward to receive the Lord’s Supper. They shuffle forward and hold out their hands to receive the elements of communion. I look into their outstretched empty hands. I say, “I notice that your hands are empty, as if you were empty, needing some gift, grace.”

They reply to me, “Oh no, not at all. I have my Masters degree, a well-fixed pension.”

I persist, “That all may be true, but in this moment, you look touchingly dependent, as if your life would be nothing if you did not receive a gift.”

The good news of the gospel is that such bad news about us is the great good news about God. God is determined to get back what God owns. And we, timid church though we are, are part of God’s plan to win back the world.

One night in a Duke dormitory Bible study I had some bad news to deliver. Luke 18:18-26. Jesus meets a young, upwardly mobile, smart young man. The students perk up upon meeting one of their own in the Bible. Having kept all the rules so well, the young man is looking for a real spiritual challenge. Jesus says, “Just one little thing is left. Go, sell all you have, give it to the poor, strip down, follow me.”

With that the young man got real depressed. Jesus remarks to his students, “It is hard to save these upwardly mobile types. Easier to shove a fully loaded dromedary though the eye of a needle. Impossible! Of course, with God, anything is…possible.”

I then asked the students what they thought of Jesus’ prejudice against wealth.

“Isn’t that great?” one said, “Just laid things out so directly. Lots of times with Jesus, you can’t figure out what he wants you to do. Here, it’s different. I like his candor. He’s so clear, almost anybody can figure it out. This guy hears what Jesus is up to and knows he doesn’t want any part of it. That’s great.”

Then another student. “I like the way Jesus believes in him. He invites him to join up. I’m looking for a challenge just now; maybe that’s why I like this. Jesus believes in him. Like me, this guy probably can’t imagine that it’s possible for him to break free, to let go of all that stuff, not to go to law school, not to please his parents. But Jesus thinks he can do it, even him.”

That night I learned that sometimes the difference between bad news and good news is where you happen to be when you get the news. The breakdown and dissolution of American culture, otherwise known as Disneyworld, is a gift, a marvelous time for us to attempt to save people before it’s too late, to learn to worship a God whose victories come through righteousness not riches. To call everyone to confess that Jesus Christ is the one Word of God whom we must listen in life and in death.

William H. Willimon

Don’t forget to join Tony Campolo, Dr. C.T. Vivian, and me at ClearBranch United Methodist Church on January 6!

Imagination and Ministry

“The Bible is a book of the imagination.” So writes Harvard’s Peter Gomes. One reason why Peter is such a great preacher, and biblical interpreter, is that he has a fertile imagination. It is as if Scripture has as its purpose to stoke, to fund, and to fuel the imagination, thereby to make available to us a new heaven and a new earth.

Therefore, I think the best preaching from the Bible is that preaching that is evocative, suggestive, and thick, rather than that preaching which, in wooden fashion, merely lays out principles and precepts, abstractions and rules. We pastors are those who are called, in great part, to open up the imagination of our congregations to what is possible and probable now that a creative God is determined to get back what belongs to God. Too often we preachers think that our job is to take a biblical text and narrow the possibilities of that text, force it to speak univocally, and reduce it to the one authoritative, right interpretation. More creative, and perhaps more faithful, biblical interpretation and exhortation seeks to multiply the possibilities, to open up new perspectives, and to help us see something that we would not have seen without the imaginative stimulation of Scripture.

Professor Carol Zaleski of Smith College, herself a wonderfully imaginative interpreter of the Christian faith, writes that what is possible for us as Jesus’ disciples is directly proportional to what we will imagine:

Every institution with which we deal – our schools, hospitals, courts, theaters, newspapers, stores, playgrounds, and even our churches – tells us by signs overt or subliminal that the dramatic parts of the Christian story are over; except for some commotion at the end on which it’s best not to dwell. We know this can’t be right, and yet these blandishments, claiming to be the voice of reason, whisper in our ears so continuously that we begin to suffer imagination fatigue. Imagination fatigue doesn’t directly attack the Christian faith; instead it diminishes the power of the Christian story to quicken culture. “The heart is commonly reached,” as John Henry Newman wrote, “not through the reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions, by the testimony of facts and events, by history, by description.” But if imagination is fatigued, faith is surely in jeopardy, and even testimony begins to falter.

— Carol Zaleski, “Faith Matters, Habits of Hobbits,” Christian Century, June 14, 2003, pg. 37.

Be sure to join Tony Campolo, Dr. C.T. Vivian, and me at ClearBranch United Methodist Church on January 6 if you are in Birmingham, Alabama. Remember, the event is free but please register so the planning team will know you are coming. I hope to see you there!

William H. Willimon

Reaching People for Christ or for the Culture?

Jesus commands us to go and to reach out to all the world in his name. Yet sometimes, in evangelistically reaching out, we fall face down into the culture. In offering people the Christian faith, we offer them nothing much more than they could get anywhere else in the world. Pastor Rick Barger thinks about the difference between Christian evangelism and any other marketing venture.

On the front door of our house hung a little white plastic bag with a videotape in it. On its cover was a picture of an immensely obese sumo wrestler. He hung suspended in the air. His legs were split, almost parallel to the ground as if he were a gymnast. His right arm was stretched straight up over his head. The hand in this outstretched arm palmed a basketball. He was a four-hundred pound Michael Jordan!

Under this picture were these bold words:
In smaller print were these words:
7 minutes.

So what the heck? Not knowing who hung this curious tape on my door or what it was about, I turned on our television, cued up the VCR, and inserted the tape. Almost immediately the room was filled with upbeat music. On the screen appeared a video shot zooming in on the new church facilities of a non-denominational mega-church located on the perimeter of our neighborhood. The audio portion began with the words, Just imagine. What unfolded over the seven minutes was very clever and inviting. Filled with scenes of smiling and happy people, the tape asked me, the viewer, to just imagine a gorgeous place with all kinds of wonderful programs. There were programs for small kids, junior high kids, and high school kids. There were programs for married couples and programs for singles. There were programs for small groups. And there were worship programs. Each of these programs promised excitement, meaning, and fun. I, the viewer, was then invited to come to the grand opening of this place.

What unfolded on this seven-minute tape was not unlike another videotape that I had received some time ago. This other tape was from Sandals, a small chain of couples-only resorts located in various places in the Caribbean. My wife and I had celebrated thirty years of marriage by spending a week at a Sandals resort in Jamaica, and they were now offering a special deal to generate more repeat customers. This tape also had all kinds of smiling and happy people. It too promised a gorgeous setting with all kinds of exciting and fun-filled programs.

The similarities between these two videotapes and the experiences they are selling ought to cause us to pause and reflect upon how our market-driven culture perceives the nature and purpose of the church of Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified and is now raised.

— A New and Right Spirit: Creating an Authentic Church in a Consumer Culture, by Rick Barger, The Alban Institute, Herndon, Virginia, 2005, pp. 2-3.

Please join Tony Campolo and me at ClearBranch United Methodist Church on January 6 if you are in Birmingham as we explore ways to respond to the challenge of our Conference Vision Statement: Every Church Challenged and Equipped to grow more disciples of Jesus Christ by taking risks and changing lives.

William H. Willimon