Life in Death-Gurgle Valley
This post was originally written for a blog connected to Cranmer Hall in Durham. Missional Leadership (Notes from the North East) is populated with posts from students on the Free Church Track at Cranmer, led by our legal alien tutor, Andy Byers.
I took an old Watkins Electric Music amplifier to pieces when I was thirteen…I thought I could fix it with a screwdriver and a wrench. I’d only ever tinkered with lego up until that point, so in hindsight it was a bad idea- I blew myself six feet across my bedroom floor and my whole body kinda tingled for a while. I didn’t tell my mum (I didn’t want to trade my first electric guitar for a euphonium).
Enthusiasm + naivety + electricity = trouble.
Reflecting back on my early years of pastoral ministry in York, there are some parallels to my ill-advised attempts at electrical engineering. In the early flush of youthful idealism/romanticism/naivety I thought that I could fix the church. Aside from the arrogant presumption that Mr. Alan Rose could be the one who would pull this feat off, the very fact that I thought the church needed fixing tells you a fair bit about me and how I thought at the time.
Arrogance + naivety + church = ?
Eugene Peterson probably saved my pastoral skin 3-4 years ago. A good friend recommended that I read Peterson’s memoir, The Pastor, and (having eagerly devoured that title) I quickly followed it up with The Contemplative Pastor. God began to unravel some things in me as I learned that drivenness of any sort in the pastoral vocation is bad news, and, to paraphrase Peterson, the church I wanted was becoming the enemy of the church I have been given.
It turns out that it wasn’t the church that needed fixing after all.
Peterson led to Scot McKnight, Zack Eswine, Henri Nouwen et al, and more recently I have begun to get acquainted with the work of Stanley Hauerwas and George Lindbeck. Hauerwas’ assertion that Christendom is dead and that the church should stop hankering after the ‘good old days’ seems to resonate with me in some deep ways. Even if Christendom is not quite dead yet, it could be said that we are experiencing its ‘death gurgle’ in our nation (and maybe even the Western world as we know it).
I suppose you could say that I am beginning to ask questions about what the pastoral vocation looks like in a post-Christendom church. Along the way, I’ve been learning that the calling and vocation of a pastor is not a calling to make a success of the church- at least not in what we might call a Christendom sense of that word, where success mirrors what we might expect to see in the world around us, but with a religious veneer- but to be unswervingly faithful to Jesus. I’ve been learning that, for a pastor, unswerving faithfulness to Jesus has to do with- among other things- speaking the dangerous, disorienting, yet surprisingly compelling word of a crucified and resurrected messiah, who even now is claiming the rubble of old certainties and bringing new life from the dead.
Pastoral work is seldom easy. It’s not glamorous; it’s not Hipster; it’s not an upwardly mobile career trajectory. So as we learn to navigate the uncharted waters of church and the pastoral vocation in our times, a prayer from an imprisoned Paul for the church in Colossae seems a good place to end, ‘May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy…’ (Col 1:11, ESV).