The Church is Not Your Canvas

Mark D. Roberts has a piece at Patheos now that warns pastors against the presumption that their churches are all about them.  It’s a nice companion piece to Monday’s post — “Rob Bell, Hollywood Celebrity?” — on the growth of the culture of celebrity-pastor-worship in evangelical circles.

Roberts interacts with pastors frequently through his work at Laity Lodge, and he often asks them to tell him about their church and its health.  Different personalities can respond in different ways, of course, but what particularly concerns Roberts — and I would agree here — is the pastor who speaks mostly about himself when he’s describing his church.  He writes:

Sometimes, the way pastors talk about their churches makes me uncomfortable. I think, in particular, of conversations I’ve had with pastors who talk endlessly about themselves. I hear about their preaching, their challenges,their successes and their disappointments. This isn’t necessarily wrong, though at times I get the feeling that a pastor sees Christian ministry primarily as an exercise of personal talent and the church primarily as a reflection of a pastor’s leadership. One pastor boasted: “I raised $5,000,000 in our recent building campaign.” You raised that money? Not the church, not the Lord, but you?

The article concludes:

The example of Paul and his co-writers challenges pastors to consider how we speak about our ministries and churches. Does God play the leading role in the stories we tell? Do we acknowledge the centrality of the gospel in all things? Do we see our roles as embodying the gospel in our character, or are we more excited about the words we preach and the decisions we make as leaders? Are we encouraging our people to imitate us as we imitate the Lord, or are we seeking their love, affirmation, and honor for ourselves?

Moreover, if the church is primarily God’s work, then our role as church leaders is to discern what God is doing and wants to do. We must surrender our personal agendas in order to discern the agenda of the one who gives the church its existence, life, and mission.

The Danish religious writer Soren Kierkegaard — on whom I wrote my doctoral dissertation — draws a helpful contrast between imitation and admiration.  Christ calls for us to take up our cross daily and follow him.  Following, in this case, means to put our trust in him and his guidance and leadership, and to become like Christ in living a life like Christ led.  Christ calls for us, in other words, (and among other things) to be imitators.  Christ does not ask for admirers.  In fact, when he has admirers who have no interest in becoming imitators, he tends to drive them away.

Yet too many people, Kierkegaard says, want to admire Christ but not imitate him.  They suspect that if they admire Christ enough, speaking movingly of how important and wonderful and beautiful he is, if they can summarize Christ’s teachings and the significance of his life, then they may be excused from the call of Christ to take up our crosses and follow (imitate) him.  Admiration becomes a refuge against imitation, and Christ becomes an object for our appreciation instead of a Person who rescues us from sin and calls us through an intimate relationship to be his feet and hands and lips to a perishing world.

Something similar can happen when the proper pastoral relationship breaks down.  The right relationship is described several times by Paul — “imitate me as I imitate Christ.”  Just as God made himself flesh in Christ, so we need flesh-and-blood examples of what righteousness and imitation look like in the world today.  Ideally, the pastors, the elders, and other mature believers around us will lead such lives that we are challenged to follow them in following Christ.  But when the relationship breaks down, the pastors seeks the *admiration* of his congregants, rather than seeking their *imitation* as he imitates Christ.

As Dr. Roberts makes clear, the church is not a playground for the pastor’s talents.  It is not the canvas on which the pastor creates his masterpiece.  The church does not exist for the pastor, and the church is not about the pastor.  The church is a work of God, through the gospel, and through the transformation the gospel works in our lives.  If the church is a stage, then we are at best the supporting cast.  If we focus upon ourselves when we’re telling the stories of our churches, then we’ve lost the narrative — because we’ve forgotten the identity of the protagonist.  As Rick Warren famously said, “It’s not about you.”  While God’s intimate care for each individual is mind-shattering, the story of salvation is ultimately not about us.  It’s about God.  The story of the church is not about us, either.  And the story of an individual church is not about the pastor.

There are all sorts of images we might use to communicate this.  Perhaps it’s best to say that the pastor is not the artist; the pastor is the brush, and the canvas.  The pastor is an instrument in the hands of God, a vessel for God’s creative and redemptive act, and then the pastor too is one of the re-created and redeemed.  The Artist is always God, and we are blessed to be both an instrument in his hands and the object of his exquisite care.

About Timothy Dalrymple

Timothy Dalrymple was raised in non-denominational evangelical congregations in California. The son and grandson of ministers, as a young boy he spent far too many hours each night staring at the ceiling and pondering the afterlife.
 
In all his work he seeks a better understanding of why people do, and do not, come to faith, and researches and teaches in religion and science, faith and reason, theology and philosophy, the origins of atheism, Christology, and the religious transformations of suffering

  • Eric Larson

    The Book of Mormon warns loudly against the above-described “Priestcraft,” clearly defined as “men preach and set themselves up for a light unto the world, that they may get gain and praise of the world; but they seek not the welfare of Zion [the church]…The laborer in Zion shall labor for Zion…” (2 Nephi 26:29-31). The same passage presses upon the importance of having charity for our fellows.

    Loosely interpreted, “priestcraft” is just as dangerous in the church as in the halls of government, or in any other context. As Mr. Warren so aptly put it, it is not about you. It’s about loving your neighbor. That has to be the motivation, but it’s very easy to lose sight of – we crave validation.

  • http://mdrobertson.com Mark D. Robertson

    I was hooked by the pastor’s name, but I was rapt by your interesting handling of the two PATHEOS articles. Great forum there.

    I have been listening to Mars Hill podcasts while living Brazil and feel that there is something of a rockstar in Rob Bell. I don’t think this is damnable–I love his message, and hae found great comfort listening from across the equator. I used his Nooma videos during some instructional seminars on rhetoric, visuals, and kinesthetic movement. Perhaps he was always an artist and rhetorician, and his pastoring was a vessel to get to his true vocational home (Hollywood…eerily near to Fuller Seminary).

    The pastor is “less than” and yet “more than” himself (it’s a kind of self-negation that goes with the vocation, I think). This is Paul’s picture…as well as the great parsons and sermonizers across time. A pastor should be like an a capella singer (he finds his greatness in the smallness of his voice). Notice: the “capella” is chapel. This is the place of the Christian.

    On a personal level, I did notice that Bell’s sermons were kind of like rhetorical and aesthetic experiences; I compare this with (in my limited opinion), is the best preacher in the US, Timothy Keller, from whom I feel enobled, and edified (even as his word trip through the wires).

    Great piece, and I appreciate the iteration that “it’s not about me.” This is a four-word-life-long-lesson.

    Cheers Timothy.
    M

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      Very well put, Mark!

      -Tim

  • Jeff

    It seems to me that we often shelve the need to imitate Christ because of the extraordinary greatness of His life and the dramatic intensity of the climax of the ages, the crucifixion and resurrection. We reduce imitation to metaphor. He was God after all. I totally get that.
    What I don’t get is the glossing over of Paul’s encouragement to imitate him as he imitates Christ for an imitatio Dei practice a little more down to earth. Where is the risk taking and life of obscurity one assumes to preach only Jesus Christ, and Him crucified?


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