Congregational Inconsistency

Pastoral expectations, idealisms, fantasy’s and fictions are often held by both pastor and congregation.  Pastors have very high hopes (in God) for the church and often live with having these high hopes unrealised, unmet and often dashed upon the rocks of their own inflated ego.  Congregations on the other hand, have very high hopes (in the pastor) to make their imagined version of the church a reality.

It was Bonhoeffer who reminds us that God will not permit us to live in a dream world.  When the pastor’s plans flounder, he or she will often lash out, and blame this, that or them!  When the congregation’s collective plan fails, they may just get a new pastor, as one gets a new car.  A new product for a consumer who is tired of the old and hopeful for the new.  Sometimes the pastor’s own denominational institution not only allows this to happen but too readily encourages it.

In a previous post, we are reminded of Eugene Peterson’s charge, that a pastor’s role is to say the word “God” accurately.  In all the mundane routine of life; in the flickering inconsistency of those saints who make up church congregations, the boredom and lukewarmness that constitutes much of contemporary Church life, the pastor is there, present, to say “God.”  Peterson goes on, “We are there for one reason and one reason only: to preach and to pray.”

He continues, “We are there to focus the overflowing, cascading energies of joy, sorrow, delight, or appreciation, if only for a moment but for as long as we are able, on God.  We are there to say “God” personally, to say his name clearly, distinctly, unapologetically, in proclamations and prayers.  We are there to say it without hemming and hawing, without throat clearing and without shuffling, without propagandizing, proselytizing, or manipulating.  We have no other task.  We are not needed to add to what is there.  We are required only to say the name:  Father, Son, Holy Ghost.

IMG_2695All men and women hunger for God.  The hunger is masked and misrepresented in many ways, but it is always there.  Everyone is on the verge of crying out “My Lord and my God!”  but the cry is drowned out by doubts or defiance, muffled by the dull ache of their routines, masked by their cozy accomodations with mediocrity.  Then something happens – a word, an event, a dream – and there is a push toward an awareness of an incredible Grace, a dazzling Desire, a defiant Hope, a courageousness Faithfulness.  But awareness, as such, is not enough.  Untended, it trickles into religious sentimentalism or romantic blubbering.  Or, worse, it hardens into patriotic hubris or pharisaical snobbery.  The pastor is there to nudge the awareness past subjectivities and ideologies into the open and say “God.”

We must do only what we are there to do: pronounce the Name, name the hunger.  But it is so easy to get distracted.  There is so much going on, so much to see and hear and say.  So much emotion.  So many tasks.  So much, we think, “opportunity.”  But our [pastoral] assignment is to the “one thing needful,” the invisible, quiet centre – God”  (Under the Unpredictable Plant, p.87)

If pastors within churches can’t, don’t, won’t say the word “God” accurately, who will?  Yet if our denominations will fortify pastors in this regard, if churches will grow less consumeristic by becoming more Christ-like, maybe we will see more of the treasure that has been entrusted to us.  Jesus did say the wheat and the weeds grow together and Paul wrote to the inconsistent Corinthians that there are bound to be factions, indeed there must be, in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognised (1 Cor 11:19).

So not only do we have the absurdity of churchy impostors, religious fakers, nomistic finger-pointers, argumentative factionists and spiritual consumers, we also have, among those who are genuine (to use Paul’s phrase), those who do love the Lord, those who do want to grow – inconsistency on a biblical scale – and pastors must not be afraid to keep on being pastors in the middle of it all.  Sometimes and often these categories overlap, in fact, they more than overlap, they mingle and weave.  The congregation is inconsistent, it was never promised to be anything but.  This is normal.  What is not normal is the weirdness of the pastoral role:  Preaching and praying.  And what is amazing is that all are loved, deeply loved by the “God” we have been called to name!


(The picture was taken by me a couple of years a go.  This bundle or congregation of drift wood easily resembles the Church.  One of the bits of battered and broken wood is the pastor.  God is doing all the gathering, all the while whispering to the pastor, “Keep telling all the other bits of odd and broken wood my Name, don’t stop, keep doing what I’ve called you to do.  I will keep gathering.”)

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