PrayTell links the NYT Op-Ed from Rev. G. Jeffrey MacDonald who laments the desire for the feel-good message on Sunday. Is he really onto something? I’d like to think not. At least in his diagnosis, I think he misses the point.
First, in presenting only two options (the morality sermon versus the pep talk) he himself falls victim to the dumbing-down of the cultural milieu. We’re not going to flood you, our corporate masters seem to tell us. Pick between blue state and red, Brady and Manning, Pink or Lady Gaga. They ignore, of course, that we love a field of 64 … or 65 … or 68. We like fifty-seven (hundred?) channels, even if there’s nothing going on. The Pew Forum finds that people in unprecedented numbers are abandoning childhood faith and ministers, according to Rev. MacDonald, are burning out under the pressure:
Americans now sample, dabble and move on when a religious leader fails to satisfy for any reason.
In this transformation, clergy have seen their job descriptions rewritten. They’re no longer expected to offer moral counsel in pastoral care sessions or to deliver sermons that make the comfortable uneasy. Church leaders who continue such ministerial traditions pay dearly.
As a United Church of Christ minister, Rev. MacDonald may or may not adhere to a Lectionary. Maybe Protestants and some Catholic clergy should consider that maybe the “sermon” isn’t the best way to engage the Word of God for their communities. As a Catholic and a liturgist, I’d like to think there’s great wisdom in having a Lectionary. We don’t choose the Scriptures. The Word of God chooses us, as it were.
As for the ministry, it should go without saying that some groups of people are more mature than others. A flock of pewsitters might all look like adults, but if their inclination is to hear feel-good messages, they are spiritually immature, clearly. How to move them? Do you dump a bunch of bad news on them starting at week one? Or do you have a plan that, as a cleric, you may need to commit a significant portion of your life to implement? Are ministers really looking for ready-made congregations that match them in the awareness of sin, reconciliation, social justice, or artistic worship? It seems to me that’s the job of a pastor: to help them transform into a community of Christ and his Gospel.
Protestant ministers will usually get a call from a congregation, as I understand it. Do prospective candidates interview the community, and assess where the people are and what they will need? Don’t they have the freedom to decline a post not to their liking? Isn’t it a little narcissistic to expect that the great environment of seminary will continue in the wide world? Ministry is hard work. It is very demanding, and it can bring any serious minister to her or his knees–in more ways than one.
I have a hard time mustering deep sympathy for Rev MacDonald on this essay. Yes, he’s right: some Christian communities are gravely lacking in significant ways. There is a liturgical solution to the preaching dilemma: go with the Scriptures. Preach neither hellfire nor pats on the back. Just ask people to encounter the Word of God and link it to their lives. Eventually you’re confronted with the Passion, death, and resurrection of Christ–you can’t avoid it liturgically. And people all over may appear to avoid vital issues, but eventually life comes along and slaps us hard. Then we need a way to pick up the pieces, dust ourselves off, and move from there. I don’t know of any other way than with the suffering and glorious Lord.
I’m interested in other views, though. Would you read over Rev MacDonald’s essay and add anything you think he’s missing. Or something I’ve missed? I do think people need to be brought along, and eventually, a good pastor can deepen the spirituality of a community. I’m not saying it can happen on the scale of months. I wonder if it wouldn’t be a lifelong pilgrimage. And if that’s true, it possibly says something about the wisdom of a permanent charism for ordained ministry.