Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Off the Shelf: The Crucifixion of Ministry

Next month, our church plays host to Andrew Purves, professor of Pastoral Theology at Pittsburgh Seminary. He came for last year's fall conference. With him he brought wonderful teaching, pointing to Jesus as the center of our hope and faith.

Thus, it is good to prepare for Andrew's return by reading through his latest book, The Crucifixion of Ministry: Surrendering Our Ambitions to the Service of Christ. I requested the Cincinnati Public Library to stock a few copies...they purchased 6 and have them available.

The book is a 149 page medidation on this theme: Ministry isn't ours, it's His. It's all His. In every pastoral situation, Jesus is up to something. We need to kill our ambitions and desire to appear in control. Only then are we released to be used by Jesus in the unfolding work of His Kingdom.

Like a great Jazz artist, Purves weaves key themes through the text: the Mystic Union with Christ (that when we are His, we're united with him...thus his righteousness is exchanged for our rags, and vice versa) and the Vicarious Ministry of Jesus Christ (that even now he reigns, he continues to serve as the High Priest in the Heavenlies, and He offers His worship to the Father). Thus everything important is being done.

None of these are new to me....cognitively I was aware of them and their implications long ago. However Purves shows some great wisdom in making us aware that intellectually knowing a truth is not the same as living into it: “More elusive is the deep conversion of mind, will and heart where we know the inner reality of being laid hold of by Christ in the Spirit, so we share in his active obedience to, communion with and mission from the Father. From my observation it requires the pains of ministry in midcareer to prepare a person for the radical transformation of ‘I, yet not I, but Christ.’”(111)

From my vantage point, I see pastors who talk about the transformational power of Christ, but live as practical atheists....little prayer beyond the obligitory few sentences at the start of a committee meeting. Little brokenheartedness before the Lord. Sure we can pray, but then let's get on to something practical for Pete's sake. As though Jesus' work wouldn't get done without them. And there's a vast moneymaking industry of conferences, publishing houses, gurus, and seminars designed to give you the magic keys to effective ministry. I suggest that none of the people involved in this industry would deny the truths that Purves lays out. Yet in the room are palpable and false excitements that betray where the treasure is buried.

I know, because I'm there too. I know better, but too often have I picked up Leadership Magazine with despair because I'm not on the cutting edge. Too often have I felt anxiety because we're not doing some cutting edge ministry. And time and again, I must repent.

A helpful illustration comes from Iain Murray's Revival and Revivalism. Murray looks at the history of the Second Great Awakening. He shows the difference between true revival of heartfelt religion and the manufactured kind of revivalism that relied on technique, tents, and snappy goodfellow preachers. Murray leans heavily on BB Warfield's history of Perfectionism, in which Warfield shows that the revivalist Finney was very good at using technique to get people to come forward, but very bad at making disciples who would last. The Ghosts of revivalism float around today, and they haunt me with their howling.

Purves, however aims his guns at the more prevalent model in the mainline churches...not revivalism, but Ministry as Chaplaincy. Purves describes the stereotypical Chaplaincy model of pastoral ministry: “Everybody…has something that oppresses them. Your job as a hospital chaplain is to assist people to bring the feelings from that oppression to the surface and then to draw from within themselves the strength to overcome it. You connect with people on the ground of their own agenda and needs. Ministry means drawing out latent possibilities for healing that lie buried within. It is not your job to introduce God language or to provide a theological commentary on the person’s situation.” (58)

Now don't get me wrong, I profited greatly from my Chaplaincy experience. That said, I'm with Purves that Chaplaincy is not the model for Pastoral Ministry. “….the only mission strategy which will encourage our congregations, usefully employ our clergy, enable history-changing and kingdom-of God anticipating ministry, and enable us to evangelize with any degree of faithfulness and power is the preaching that there is salvation in no other name.” (44).

Purves speaks of God who is not a frozen celestial iceburg, but rather a vital living active God. Perhaps the best part of this book for me is Purves' own story of God showing up in the midst of his own crisis:

“I remember lying in hospital after cancer surgery, wondering what the upcoming six months of chemotherapy would be like and whether I was going to make it through the process. What I need now, I thought, is not a theological treatise to edify my mind, though that has its place, not some sense that God in Christ is in solidarity with me in my suffering and fear, though that too is helpful. What I need is a God of power. I need a God who acts to change things.

As I cried out ‘Save me, Lord!’ I did not expect any rending of the heavens. What I did hear in an inner way was the quiet word of the God who acts. It was a voice heard by a lonely, fearful, pain-filled, morphine-dominated, fifty-six year old man.

God said to me that whether I lived or died, I did so unto the Lord, and he would not abandon me.Not everyone gets healed, and that is a great mystery, but the promise of his peace is not an empty promise, and it is given for all who know him. God acts. I believe it even when God acts in ways that utterly confounds my xpectations.” (49-50)

The most common error in critiquing Purves book is to accuse him of saying that pastors should do nothing. Far from the point, indeed. Rather, Purves calls us to be freed from distraction and throw ourselves with abandonment into the work that we're called to. “Grace does not leave us passive. In grace (charis) the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Grace (Hebrews 10:29) gives to each Christian his or her particular grace-gift (charismata), which is to be expressed in thankfulness (eucharista) in Christian service and ministry.” (67) Christ's grace is utterly transformational of us ministers too. Deep down we want to be useful. Grace frees us to be useful, rather than simply "productive"

I think that Purves' point could benefit from reflecation on the doctrine of Providence. Providence talks of God's superintending of all the Universe. And in His Providence, He delights to use His servants. Providence helps us see ourselves as agents, as pots in the hands of the potter, as an instrument in the hands of the musician. Michael Card captures this sense in his wonderful song "Poem of Your Life"

This is a book that could also profit anyone in the church. Too many people are burned out by church machines that chew up their gifts and then move on when the people are exhausted. Too many people buy into the idea that they can buy God's love by service to the institution. I would love to see Purves come out with a second title: "The Crucifixion of Church Membership."

Soli Deo Gloria

For a more critical analysis of this text, check out Jesus Creed's take on it from last December: He points out that Purves doesn't interact with the Pastoral Epistles in working up his theology of pastoral ministry, and that there are an awful lot of "do" commands when the Bible actually speaks of pastoral ministry. I think that this critique misses some of Purves' point. It also misses out on how the Last Supper Discourse of John 14-16 is likely the most pointed treatise on pastoral ministry ever given .... Jesus to his twelve disciples who will carry on his ministry. I suggest that in dealing with John's discourse, Purves is deeply rooting his theology in what the bible says about Pastoral ministry. Even so, it's worth reading the critique.