Enter the Pastor-Theologian

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J. Roswell and Alice Reynolds Flower, ca. 1950

There is no better place for doing theology than in the life of the local church. It is in the local church that the rubber hits the road and one’s attempts at careful theological reflection need to be applied to the life of God’s work in the world. Where there can be no mere hypothesizing, but praxis is called for if one desires to be a faithful minister and disciple.

Andy, over at Hopeful Realism, has just posted a couple of articles on the pastor-theologian in the mega-church and in the small church. His introduction to the topic offers several strengths to each context.

Certainly the complexities of pastoral ministry, whether in a mega-church or small church, can seem enough of a challenge without attempting to be a so-called “pastor-theologian”. However, the responsibilities of caring for Christ’s church should demand that we take up the charge to study to show ourselves approved unto God in every way. This is not a day for leaving the work of careful theological reflection to those who do not serve in the context of the pastorate.

We NEED more pastors committing to applying themselves to intensive study of the Scriptures (original languages, hermeneutics, homiletics, etc.) and theology (historical, contemporary, systematic, biblical, etc). Our churches NEED ministers who will vigorously study and apply what is studied to writing, preaching, counseling, and pastoral care. And will do this all in the power of the Holy Spirit.

This is a HUGE task, but it is one that is essential to the overall health of the community of believers (locally and globally).  We need more women and men committed to the task. We need more Augustines, Teresas, Calvins, Wesleys, and Alice Reynolds and J. Roswell Flowers. Will you give yourself wholly to the work set before you?

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Originally posted by myself at bluechippastor.org on April 25, 2013.

What Are You Doing Pastor? Growing the Church

PurposeSo what exactly is the job of a “pastor”? It would seem it is about the formation of God’s people and not about the gathering of people (God’s or otherwise). The call to serve the Church by serving a local gathering of those who call on the name of the Lord is not a call to gather crowds. It is a call to see folks transformed by the power of the Spirit into the community of God. It is to see God’s kingdom in the lives of God’s people. It is to share in the life of Jesus and to grow in our staying in step with the Spirit. It is about reconciliation, whole-ness, and holiness. It is about the making of disciples, not the growing of numbers in a service.

Preaching and teaching play their part in this. The public (and private) hearing and obedience to Scripture. Praying without ceasing. Guarding one’s life, family, and church against the wiles of the enemy by walking in mercy and holiness. I could go on, but the point is that it is about the formation (really, the transformation) of God’s people as saints who are being discipled and making disciples. It is not about numbers. It is about people…God’s people.

So what is the job (perhaps I should say “calling”) of a pastor? To be a faithful, Spirit-empowered equipper of the saints who, together with all those whom God by His Spirit gifts, serves to see the whole community of God’s people growing together in

“unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church.” (Ephesians 4:13-15 NLT)

Amen and amen! This is actually the only “growth” laid out for the pastor (indeed for all of the Church). Growth in Christ Jesus as Lord of all!

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Originally blogged by me at bluechippastor.org on March 25, 2013.

What Is Your Story?

My StoryI don’t know about your church, but in mine we typically have an open testimony time (hey, we are Pentecostal after all). We like to tell our stories and that sure works well (sometimes not so much) in a post-modern personal narrative obsessed culture.

What I’m thinking of, though, is your story of first knowingly encountering Christ. Do you recall what he has done in your life? Do you remember a moment (or perhaps a longer time period) of the dawning of your need for him? It is a powerful reminder to think on your own story of encountering the resurrected Jesus in the power of his Spirit. We need to remind ourselves as those tasked with leading the church of this (ongoing) story and remind ourselves of where we’ve been led personally and congregationally. We need to allow our churches to share and relive their own stories, even as they continue to encounter Jesus in new ways in their lives. To re-awaken that first transformative love for Christ and his work in the world is to re-awaken ourselves to sharing the good news of Jesus with others.

I was reminded of my own story the other day (which I won’t share here and now) as I was listening to another pastor share his own story of being set free from a life of selfishness, drugs, and sex (his own words). A life being destroyed by sin. And then he shared his wife’s story of coming to faith as a six year old raised in a Christian home. The thing is: both stories are radically invigorating to hear and he admitted as much. After all, what isn’t amazing about the dead being raised to life? Neither story is about simple reform of sinners. Both are about those once dead in their sins who are now raised to new life in Christ. That is the amazing wonder of a regenerating encounter with the Lord and Giver of Life.

So my question is: Do you allow for folks in your church community to share their stories of encounter with the Lord and his redemptive work? When was the last time you shared yours?

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Edited from an original post by me at bluechippastor.org from March 6, 2013.

A Brief Snake Handling Journey

I visited Tennessee this week to meet with my PhD supervisor (who is based in Cleveland even though my school is Bangor University, Wales). I had decided this visit that since I was “in the neighborhood” of the origins of the “serpent handler” churches, I’d like to visit the original site: Dolly Pond Church of God With Signs Following (you know its fun when a church name is that long).

As it happens, I also do a lecture on the origin and theology of snake handling for an undergraduate course I teach every Spring–Pentecostal Heritage. In part, I do this lecture as my final lecture of the semester in order to assure students will show up on the last day of class. I also do it because…well…its just plain fascinating to me and thus a fun way to end the course.

A Brief History of the Founder

The “founder” of snake handling churches, George Hensley, had been a moonshiner who came to the Lord at special meetings held by Homer Tomlinson just north of Cleveland, TN. Hensley took to preaching himself around Owl Hollow (eventually joining the Church of God Cleveland TN for a time) and was doing so on Mark 16:17-20, but some of his former moonshining buddies thought to scare off the meeting by tossing a box of poisonous snakes into their midst. While the congregation fled in terror, Hensley snatched up the snakes “like a boy would gather stovewood in his arms to carry into the house” (Tomlinson p. 41). This was apparently the beginning of Hensley handling serpents, but appears to have created quite a sensation throughout the region gaining the attention of A. J. Tomlinson. Of note is an invitation in 1914 by A. J. Tomlinson to Hensley to the General Assembly of the Church of God (Cleveland, TN) in order to demonstrate the handling of serpents. Hensley apparently had a difficult time in life as he was married four times and went back and forth preaching and handling snakes to making moonshine even spending time jailed for both practices (Olsen p.24). A not-so-surprising end, he died on July 24, 1955 as the result of a snake bite for which he denied medical care and was declared to have committed “suicide”.

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Snake handling service held in Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky at the Pentecostal Church of God, September 15, 1946 (National Archives and Records Administration, photo by Russell Lee)

My Surprises

I set up my visit to see the site of the Dolly Pond Church of God With Signs Following (Hensley’s church which was torn down decades ago). Church of God historian Dr. David Roebuck kindly arranged the trip north a half hour to Owl Hollow and Dolly Pond. As it turned out he had asked Bishop Wade Phillips to guide us. Bishop Phillips had just published the first volume of a series on the history of the Church of God and I was familiar with his work. This was a pleasant surprise tour guide.

We arrived at the site (where now a Church of God of Prophecy stands nearby) and saw something laying on what appeared to be the foundation of the Dolly Pond church we were looking for. It was a sloughed snake skin. A delightful find indeed. Especially as it was not a live snake. 🙂

 

 

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Sloughed snake skin on the “foundation” of the location of the Dolly Pond Church of God with Signs Following.

Naturally we posed with the serpent remains.

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Bishop Wade H. Phillips, Dr. David G. Roebuck, and myself (holding the sloughed snake skin we found)

While wandering around the site, Phillips mentioned that he had been told (some 20 years prior by a nearby neighbor) that there was a small gathering of graves up on a hill near where the church had stood. We climbed the hill in search of the graves of potential members of the Dolly Pond Church of God With Signs Following and were again delighted by our find. We found a grave of one “Minnie L. Harden” (maiden name of Parker) buried near her parents Ben and Maggie Parker.

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Minnie L. (Parker) Harden’s grave on the hill just up from the Dolly Pond Church of God with Signs Following
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Picture from W.H. Phillips, “Quest to Restore God’s House” p. 356.

As it turned out Minnie had been pictured in Phillips’ book Quest to Restore God’s House: A Theological History of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) Volume 1, 1886-1923, where she has a rattlesnake draped across her forehead with the sign “The Dolley [sic] Pond Church of God With Signs Following” just over her shoulder.

While I know this is not a typical trip (for anyone), it was a fun historical adventure reminding me of locating historical figures and movements in their times and contexts. It also reminds me that even when I vehemently oppose a practice I can still appreciate the sense of experiencing the stories of others and how they may have handled issues of faith and practice.

Works Cited

Olsen, Ted. “They Shall Take Up Serpents,” Christian History 17.2 (May 1998): p.24.

Phillips, Wade H. Quest to Restore God’s House: A Theological History of the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) Volume 1, 1886-1923. Cleveland, TN: CPT Press, 2014.

Tomlinson, Homer A. “It Came to Pass in Those Days”: The Shout of a King. Queens Village, N.Y.: Church of God, U.S.A. Headquarters, 1968.

 

Thinking Big About Pastors of Small Churches

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I am delighted with the growing interest in helping small church pastors be the best pastors (and their congregations the best congregations) they can be. Serving faithfully wherever God calls. One recently discovered resource is offering a plethora of helps for small church pastors and Karl Vaters has apparently only been at it for 100 days (but WOW! has he done a LOT in that time). What a terrific day and age to be a small church pastor. There are opportunities like never before to serve our communities and be resourced to bring greater glory to God.

With that in mind, I was listening to a message by pastor Mark Dever delivered at the recent Desiring God conference for pastors. He shared a quote–that has stayed with him and made impact in his own life and ministry–that I was struck by:

John Brown in a letter of paternal counsels to one of his pupils newly ordained over a small congregation:

“I know the vanity of your heart, and that you will feel mortified that your congregation is very small, in comparison with those of your brethren around you; but assure yourself on the word of an old man, that when you come to give an account of them to the Lord Christ, at his judgment-seat, you will think you have had enough.”

And while you are at it, check out his first message on being a discipling pastor in a discipling community titled “Centrality of the Church in Discipleship” (neatly summarized toward the end by the poetic: Preach and Pray, Love and Stay). Love it!

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Originally blogged by myself at bluechippastor.org on February 27, 2013.

Three years later, I am even more passionate about seeing pastors of small congregations succeed in doing what the Lord has called them to do. I say this as one who regularly preaches to gatherings of a few dozen and has pastored churches of 20-60 congregants. I am also grateful to serve in an institution like Trinity Bible College and Graduate School that equally cares for churches of all sizes and the pastors called to serve them.

Preaching Christ and Helping Marriages

Love and Respect
Love & Respect (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Marriage seminars and sermon series are all the rage. Churches seem to offer a regular smorgasbord of options intended to strengthen the family, but are we doing what we were intended to do? Is it the local church’s responsibility to provide marriage counseling? Is it the church’s duty to detail the nature of inter-personal communication and conflict resolution?*

I know these questions are provocative. They are questions I wrestle with regularly. And I do so even as I am specifically offering a marriage series on Sunday nights (the “Love and Respect” Small Group study**). I do believe the local church must offer helps to its congregants and to the local community, but is it perhaps overly easy to fall into attempts at psychological answers in place of Biblical answers? I firmly believe the church (my congregation included) MUST strengthen families through every means available, but the question remains…where do we say that the Church MUST be the place where God’s Word is proclaimed and lived out and not simply another tool. Where the Scriptures function as more than a crutch to our marriages, but functions as the transformative, life-giving message of God’s Spirit changing and conforming us into the image of God.

It is far too easy (as Eugene Peterson pointed out in “The Pastor: A Memoir”) to fall into offering helps that are not the direct purview of the Church or the pastor. It is easier in some sense to speak to the psychological and social issues involved and offer such models for resolving conflicts, or improving the well-being of our congregants, but (while these can be incredibly beneficial) do such things belong to the direct responsibility of the local church? Can we offer such helps (as in some sense para-church outreaches), even while retaining our primary responsibility of preaching Christ crucified, risen and coming again as the grounds for our daily lives? I am persuaded that the good news says much about our relationships, but do not want to put undo emphasis where it does not belong. I guess what I’m asking is, should the task of preaching be to offer marriage seminar-like messages…or does it need to be something more? Messages where Christ is central and marriage peripheral.

If so, how do we maintain the centrality of the story of God’s redemption of creation in Christ, while still offering helps which do not belong centrally to that message, but may still be vital to the overall health of our churches?

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* Disclaimer: I offer pre-marital counseling, marriage counseling, family counseling, have preached (and will continue to) on issues of the family and marriage (as a matter of following the text of Scripture we are working through and not as a separate series), and offer specific events targeting families, marriages, singles, and parenting.

** I highly recommend this series for its helpfulness.

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Originally published by myself at bluechippastor.org on Jan. 21, 2013.

Responding to Decline

Church growthHow should the church, and we as ministers, respond to decline?  It seems our normal way is to try to be ever more inclusive (just look at many of the mainline churches in the North American context).  Is there perhaps a correlation between excessive inclusiveness and decline?  But is this really the best response to decline of pastoral applicants and shrinking congregations? The following is a Facebook post by Chris Green that rather provocatively offers an answer to the question at hand:

I don’t think it’s possible to agree more with someone than I do with Fabricius on this point: “How should the church respond to congregational decline, financial deficits, and vocational shrinkage? The answer is obvious: make ministerial selection more stringent, theological education more demanding, and spiritual formation more exacting. And burn anyone who proposes a managerial or entrepreneurial solution.”

So what are your thoughts?  Should our churches develop better “business” models to try to grow the declining church…or should our churches become ever more rigorous in our requirements?  Or is there some other direction the Church should take?

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Originally published by me at bluechippastors.org on December 12, 2012.