Monday, July 8, 2013

On "What does a pastor do?" and the missio dei, or something like that

I was at the doctor today, getting my routine physical for the ordination process in the United Methodist Church. (As a brief aside, I'm glad they care about our mental and physical health, but this stuff is not for the poor. Ordination is expensive. Jesus would be less than impressed).

So my doctor asks why I need a physical, and I tell her I'm going to be a pastor, and she asks me the inevitable first question, which is "Can you get married?"

"Yes, I can get married."

"Well that's good. I mean, if you want to. It comes with it's own set of problems."

I chuckled at her response. 

"So, what would you do as a pastor?" she asked.

Now, in fairness, as she asked this she was simultaneously sticking a light up my nose, so you will perhaps forgive me for stumbling through my answer a little bit. But I pretty much told her I would plan and lead worship, organize the work that the church does, and counsel and visit people who need counseling and visiting.

When she left the exam room, it hit me that I had given her an answer that was entirely about taking care of the people already within the church. 

This, for the church nerds out there, is called an attractional model of ministry. It's what one of my professors calls the "If you build it, they will come" form of ministry. The idea is that if you have great programs and great preaching and great classes, people will come to church to experience all that. This worked very well for churches in the 50s and 60s, when you could hang a sign on your door that said "All Are Welcome!" and people would come through your doors to see if that was true.

The attractional model of ministry, though, is coming under some scrutiny. For one (obvious) thing, it just isn't working very well anymore. Mainline denominations are struggling, while evangelical churches are seeing their growth slow to a halt. People just aren't pouring through the doors anymore.

But more importantly than that, the attractional model of ministry is built on a theological assumption that the point of church get people to church. Church is a sort of refuge, and a place to grow and to learn. 

But what if the point of church is what happens outside of church? This is an idea (if I understand it correctly) called a missional model of ministry. The attractional church tries to draw in; the missional church sends out. Theologically, the missional church sees its goal as participating in the mission dei--that is, the mission or activity of God in the world. 

For me, the missio dei is all about a God of vulnerability and solidarity, acting in the world to overcome alienation, to heal, to reconcile. So if that's a valid understanding, then the church needs to be about participating in the overcoming of alienation, in healing, in reconciling.

So back to my "you-have-a-light-up-my-nose" answer. The understanding of a pastor's job that I communicated to my doctor was all about taking care of the people in a church. It didn't say much about what I do outside of church, or about the church equipping people to go out and participate in God's reconciling work in the world. 

Now, this isn't to say that what goes on inside a church--in a worship service or a classroom--is worthless. Churches can be places of radical hospitality and of spiritual formation. My understanding of worship involves the naming of a God who forms us to be sent out into the world, so I think worship is very important. But it's the sending-out-into-the-world that is the goal. And that sending doesn't primarily ask, "Do you go to church?" It asks, "What is your story? What is your passion? What is your longing? What are your questions and doubts?"

This year, I will help plan worship for 4 separate faith communities. That's a lot of worship. Will I be participating in the missio dei? Will I be equipping others to do so? What might an answer to the question, "What does a pastor do?" look like?

I was having a conversation with my friend Dan recently, and he asked me--half-jokingly--"What do you Christians do, anyway?"

So--what do we Christians do, anyway? Do we mainly gather together on Sunday morning (or evening), and then get together once or twice a week for study and fellowship with each other? Or (and?) do we try to participate in the missio dei? Do we heal? Do we reconcile? Is the church for us? Or are we for the world?

None of these are new questions, I know, but as usual for me they were brought home most strongly by perfectly normal encounters. By a conversation with a friend and a light up my nose. 

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