In his book, No Place for Truth, David Wells argues that two features of the disabling of the church are impermanence and marketability. In the next two posts, I would like to address these two features individually with particular attention paid to my current situation in life. Perhaps you might be able to relate to some of the things I have been thinking about in this context. Let’s being with the issue of impermanence in the church.
Providing some a historical backdrop to the current ecclesiological disablement, Wells writes, “Lying between the eighteenth century and our own is a cluster of steadily declining graph lines indicating shorter and shorter tenures, growing pastoral impermanence, and increasingly shallow bonds between pastors and their churches” (228). Referencing Daniel Calhoun’s Professional Lives in America, Wells draws attention to the some specific points in the declining graph lines:
* In 1670, the average pastoral tenure was twenty years.
* In 1810, the average pastoral tenure was fifteen years.
* In 1830, the average pastoral tenure was five years.
* In 1860, the average pastoral tenure was less than four years.
What these plot lines reveal is a paradigm shift in pastoral ministry that has continued to mark the church today. In the old ministerial paradigm, Wells explains, “It was typical in the eighteenth century for a church and its ministers to enter into a compact that was sometimes legal in character but always morally binding and generally understood to last for the duration of a minister’s life. It was possible for a minister to move from one church to another, but only with the consent of both the original church and the surrounding churches or those in the presbytery” (229). Indeed, it was often the case that “given the closeness of these ties, it is not surprising that the rhetoric associated with calling a minister was similar to that of a marriage ceremony; the forms spoke of the church and the minister being ‘united’ to one another” (230). On the other hand, Wells explains that in the new ministerial paradigm, “The terms of the contract had been reduced from life to five years at the most and sometimes to as little as one year, and from this time forward partings between churches and their pastors became commonplace and almost expected. The links between pastors and churches became as thin and tenuous as the links between audiences and the circuit riders or wandering evangelists who visited them” (230).
As a twenty-eight year old man, I find myself entrenched in a culture of impermanence. Very little seems to have enduring value these days. Indicative of this reality is the fact that this blogpost will have a likely lifespan of less than twenty-four yours in the blogosphere before it is replaced with another article or two. I can look in my father’s closet and find clothes he has worn since the day he was married; I look in my closet and find clothes I have worn a handful of times before they were out of style. While going through my dresser drawer last night, I found a random collection of cell phones that are seemingly replaced with every seasonal contract renewal to stay abreast with the latest telecommunication features. The hairdo’s of today will become fashionably taboo before your next visit to the barber shop. In light of this, one can easily see how this cultural ethos can become the status-quo of a church that has become culturally captive to tragic and pervasive reality of impermanence.
When I was a student at the University of Mobile, several of the ministerial students would travel across the state of Alabama and preach in various churches on what was called “M-Days.” A local association would coordinate with the area pastors to allow us to preach in their pulpit, and a special offering was given for International Mission trips taken through UM. A distinct memory I have during this time of my life was preaching a “M-Day” at a church which has had 52 pastors in its 78 years of existence. You don’t have to be a math major to know that the average tenure of the pastor was less than two years. As the Director of Missions drove me back to our meet-up, I was notified that this phenomena was not peculiar to this church but had become the norm for many churches in that area.
The implications of pastoral impermanence are huge, and I couldn’t begin to elaborate on all of them in this post. What I do hope to convey is a heartfelt desire to be an unapologetic misfit in this world of impermanence. In earnest, I am praying that God would lead me to a place after seminary where I can find a home and also a burial plot. I want to be able to tell God’s people that unless God intervenes, I have come to serve God’s people, give my life away, and die. Here. With a clear conscience, I want to spend and be spent for the glory of Christ and the building of His Kingdom through an enduring ministry that is marked with singularity and sacrifice. Knowing that I am on the brink of making such a decision makes me tremble, pray, and seek the face of God with a sense of desperation and dependency unknown to me.
Over the course of the past six months, I could not begin to tell you how many times people have asked me, “So what are you going to do after seminary?” And with every question, I have tried to humbly answer, “I don’t know right now. What I do know is that I want to be prepared to die wherever He takes me.” If that is the barrios of Brazil, the urban centers of India, rural America, or the church next door, I pray that God liberates me into embracing obscurity and anonymity for the greatness of His name and the salvation of souls. If, perhaps, God can use me to be an anomaly in the current statistical database of impermanence, then maybe I could help to make this next generation become the new “enablers” who see glory in the Church as never before. We are living in a day of change, but it could be that the very best change in the church would be the unchanging faithfulness of God-sent ministers who put their hands to the plow and quit looking for greener pastures. It might just be that the soil God has you trotting upon to be the fruitful ground for a sweaty, life-long laborer in the field of souls.