What is involved in shepherding a church? What are a church’s leaders and especially its pastors called to do? This is a question that, despite fifteen years as a pastor and a lifetime in the church, I find myself revisiting quite often.
There are some things I know are involved. Sometimes pastoral work means offering a listening ear. Always it means praying for and with people, always it means loving our people. It also means leading congregations in worship and preaching in our Sunday gatherings. In my own work, I try to do all of these, but I know that I do not do any of them perfectly.
But there is more involved in a pastor’s task, and it’s the “more” that leaves me scratching my head and wondering exactly which way to go. That’s what I want to consider here.
According to Ephesians 4, God has given a bunch of people to the wider church, among whom are “pastors and teachers” (NIV). These people-gifts (which are a little bit different than the skill-gifts or ability-gifts talked about as gifts of the Spirit other places in the New Testament) are said to be given “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” How so? If the church hears, as was the case several times in my church growing up, that a person needs a new roof on their house, does the pastor’s “equipping” role mean he is the trainer for all the roof workers? Thankfully, no. (Although I have been on five or six roofs in my life, nailing away at shingles, I wouldn’t trust me to take the lead on any such project.) If not that, does it mean instead that there are internal church jobs (“work of ministry”) like reading Scripture or serving communion, and the pastor’s task is to teach the basics of voice inflection or tray-holding? Well, it might actually include that kind of guidance, but we still haven’t made it to what the passage probably means.
As I am increasingly coming to see it, the work of pastor and teacher that best “equips the saints for the work of ministry” is that of imagination-training. This is related to Bible teaching (another candidate for the pastor’s primary work) but it is more than that.
The church’s work of ministry depends on our being able to see the world in a certain way. Christians are people who come to see that Jesus is present in the face of the weak or needy. Christians see the opportunity to give up their rights as a chance to display the self-giving story of Jesus Christ crucified. Christians are people who see the movement of God just barely beneath the surface of the sometimes-hypocritical community that is the church, or a similar activity of God in the often God-denying world around us. Christians see a life of bonded commitment to Jesus and his way as the ultimate freedom one may experience.
But all of these circumstances can be seen differently too: the needy person as a nuisance, the loss of personal rights and freedoms an inconvenience, the church a self-deceived society, the world an enemy to guard against, commitment to the way of Jesus a form of self-imposed slavery. Many people not only outside the church but also within its ranks see things in these terms. We are then seeing things on the world’s terms, with an old framework. We are called to what Richard Hays has referred to as a “conversion of the imagination,” a new way of seeing our lives in the light of the coming kingdom of God. This “imagination,” by the way, has nothing to do with things that are “imaginary,” in the sense of not being true. Rather it points to images and ideas in our minds and hearts that give us a special way of seeing things. It’s about learning to see the world around us in a fresh way. Imagination-training is, in fact, what Jesus did every time he told a parable: he gave the people a new picture or idea to help them see the world in a new way.
With our imaginations renewed by the gospel, we will certainly see an impact on our behaviours and practices (“where the rubber meets the road,” to use a cliché), but it will be at a much deeper level than if the church were just spouting dos and don’ts. “Whereas the church and its related institutions tend to focus on ‘moral acts,’” writes Joel Green, pointing out our common mistake, “Scripture is far more concerned with shaping our imaginations, our patterns of thinking, which, inevitably, find expression in transformed commitments and practices” (Seized by Truth: Reading the Bible as Scripture). There is a further bonus: with gospel-shaped imaginations we are prepared not only to meet today’s challenges, but also for those that might arise tomorrow.
To recap: pastors and teachers are given to the church to equip the saints for the work of ministry. The saints are best equipped for ministry when they have Scripture-formed, gospel-shaped imaginations. The work of pastors and teachers, then, will to a large degree be the work of helping their people in this work of imagination-shaping.
As I’ve considered our own church, it seems to me that sometimes I haven’t done enough of this work. I try to do it in Sunday sermons, but sermons serve a special purpose within worship, and may not be enough on their own. Certainly they don’t allow for the kind of consideration and conversation that other settings do.
So this fall I’m going to open up a couple of new opportunities. One will be to provide weekly resources that will aid in shaping our imaginations. These blog-style posts will deal with different ways of hearing the Bible, key themes of Scripture, the meaning of the gospel, and so on. They will be posted to the website each Thursday or Friday, and I’d love for people to engage in comments and discussion in that forum.
The second will be a theology class, the start date for which I’m still working out. This class, I hope, can be aimed a bit wider than just our own congregation, for everyone from the person who is interested in engaging their faith at a more thoughtful level to the person who isn’t sure what exactly Christians even believe. This will be run on a classroom model, with lecture-style teaching followed by conversational engagement, and the plan at the moment will be to record these in-person sessions and share them online. More details will follow on this.
I hope through these activities that we can learn better to see the kingdom Jesus proclaimed and incarnated in his life, death, and resurrection, so that we can proclaim it for the sake of our God and his love for the world.