March 22, 2017

The Pastor As Navigator

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The pastoral role has been described in rich and varied metaphors from the Bible, but a function that I am increasingly drawn to is fromGreek mythology*; that of the navigator sailing people between the monsters Scylla and Charybdis guarding the Straits of Messina.

*(it’s since been pointed out to me that the semantic field of the word for the gift of administration in 1Cor12:28 contains the idea of navigation, so thanks Hefin Jones and Sandy Grant)

For just as Odysseus had to sail between the two great monsters, charting a course that minimised his losses, so too the pastoral task has to sail between competing extremes, that while good when sailed between, can threaten to crash ministry on their rocks if we  sail too close to either side.

Two monsters, two rocks, the retelling of the myth has changed through the years, but the point still stands.  In light of the rapid discontinuous change in our culture, this nudging and nurdling between extremes that would shipwreck God’s people is a vital task for pastors.  And part of that task is identifying which of the extremes that creep up on God’s people most urgently call on our navigation skills.

Let me give you some examples:

1.Cultural Withdrawal or Cultural Assimilation

This is a big one at the moment, especially in light of the celebrated/demonised Benedict Option.  There is a cultural push that many Christians are struggling with.  The temptation is to bunker down (I don’t think the B/O is saying this btw), and withdraw from cultural engagement altogether.

The role of the pastor here is to keep the ship away from that particular jagged rock, encouraging people to see the manner in which new covenant theology equips us to engage with the world and remain faithful, due to the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit.

At the same time we must avoid the other extreme; becoming so assimilated in the cultural frame that we no longer look distinct from the world. There is pressure to shut down any counter-narrative in regards to ethical issues, and certainly a wooing by the culture towards the hearth gods of ease and comfort.

The pastor shows how the Biblical frame challenges rampant individualism whatever its forms, and how it finds our hope in the age to come, not this age, nor the acceptance of the world.

2. Holy People or Broken People

Are we called to be a holy people?  Yes.  Are we a broken people? Yes.  Without holiness, we are told, no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14).  Pastors need to steer people away from the destructive monster that would turn a blind eye to sin and its lure on our lives.

They need to convince people (and themselves), sometimes with tears, that the end of those whose “god is their belly” (meaning those who follow their passions first and foremost) is destruction.

Yet at the same time to forget that we are broken people desperately in need of the Saviour’s help, who often have besetting sins that keep cropping up, could see us crash on the rocks of a zeal we demand but cannot maintain.

We need the grace and forgiveness of the gospel and the comfort of a community that understands where we are at.  We need to steer people away from the desperation that unless they are completely sorted in the here and now they are damned.  We must steer the middle course of grace that empowers God’s people to live holy lives.

Get too slack and it’s anything goes.  Get too zealous, pointing out the least mistake and pouncing on it, grace goes.

3. Radical or Ordinary

A popular book by David Platt is called “Radical”.  An equally popular book by Michael Horton is called “Ordinary”.  Each was written to correct a problem in the church.  Platt’s book calls God’s people to a radical faith that could, if taken to its extension by unwise hearts, lead to a ninja style Christianity in which the only true believer is the one who has left ordinary life well behind.

I have been part of such a group.  It’s radical all right, and it crushes a lot of people.  Platt’s book is great, but don’t crash into this rock by failing to chart the middle course and seeing that most of our lives are darned ordinary.

Horton’s “Ordinary” is a great response to “Radical”. Most Christians live ordinary lives. It’s the ordinary Christian life, lived out with the ordinary means of grace that is our sustenance. The push for radical lives is so often misinterpreted and can result in either self-righteousness or crushing self-doubt.

 So far, so good.  Yet on the other hand, there is a call by Jesus to give up everything for him, to take up our cross and follow.  And sometimes that is just not going to look ordinary.  In fact sometimes it is going to cost you a lot; friends, comforts, status.

4. Church Family or Natural Family

Is the church the true family of the Christian or is the natural family the true family of the Christian?  Yes.  Both are true families, and the Bible teaches this.  Yet in the increasing tension of fractured earthly families; a generally dispersed family network, and the failure of many churches to enact their theology of the family of God, some movements have overreached and sailed too close to the rocks on the other side.

I have belonged to one such group in which the saying was “Blood is not thicker than water.”  And they meant it.  They meant it to the point where they would discourage university students living away from home to spend their holidays with their families back in their childhood homes. There was a subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – pressure to see the church as your primary family now.

Unfortunately many Christians eager for a thick experience of church community have crashed themselves on that particular rock.  For when it goes pearshaped, as it often does, it is incredibly destructive.  As a pastor it is my role not to proclaim an over-realised eschatology of family that would lure people away from honouring and attending to their biological families.

At the same time, there is such a thing as making the biological family an idol.  And that is the other extreme to avoid.  Pouring all of your time and attention into your biological family, ensuring their comfort, sorting out their futures, all at the expense of showing them how important God’s family is, and what a privilege it is to belong to it and serve it, simply taps in to the “family as an island” philosophy in our culture.

Neither does it serve well those within our church who are single for whatever reason and who discover that our family life is so well guarded, and so well structured, that there is no place for them at the table – ever.

The pastoral task is to sail the ship between both realities of family. Sometimes, when you see that people are burning out or overdoing it in ministry roles, it can be helpful to ask how you might have played a part in allowing this to happen.

At other times, when time and time again, families isolate themselves from God’s people and spend next to no time with them as their children are signed up for every sporting and cultural activity they can be, you need to press gently on whether they are missing out on the great life promised to God’s eternal family, and merely settling for the good life of this age that cannot last, or fully satisfy.

Of course there are many more extremes to avoid as we chart our way through increasingly troubled waters.  But the primary aim is not to simply pick a few hot button issues and see how you stack up, but to strengthen your overall ability to hold two truths in tension; to chart a course for your people that avoids making false dichotomies the only options available.

And this all takes a maturity and a conviction that comes with time, and through making mistakes.  God’s people need navigation, and the pastor practiced at steering a course for his people between extremes that could shipwreck them, will ensure that they reach safe haven eventually.



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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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