I received a phone call from a member of my congregation, one who is not necessarily regular in her attendance, but she does attend often enough that I’ve never felt the need to question her devotion. She left a message, but it was one of those messages that when you hear it, even though nothing is spoken precisely with regard to the reason for the call, you know it isn’t going to be good. I returned her call right away.
I read an article some time back which posited that at any given moment a pastor can be certain that at least 30% of members in his parish are wishing he wasn’t their pastor. I spent the next ten minutes talking to one of the 30%. Although she couldn’t tell me exactly why, in a general sense, she wanted me to know that she considered me to be a rotten pastor and that since my predecessor, she hasn’t appreciated anything about the church or my efforts to serve her. But eventually, after listening for a little while and asking some questions, I discovered a window into the room that housed her core concern. And what she so unabashedly revealed was so much more devastating than the personal attacks.
She finally let loose and told me that she didn’t appreciate hearing about what she called “politicized topics.” Although I never preach topical sermons (that is I don’t come to the sermon process with the intention of writing a sermon on stewardship, or faith, or whatever), I do spend time wrestling with those topics as they rise from whichever text is prescribed by the lectionary. In her words, she didn’t want to hear a sermon, read a letter, or sit in a study that mentioned things like abortion or homosexuality, especially if they were being presented as sinful. In her mind, by speaking to these issues, not only was I politicizing her church, but she wanted me to know that if indeed the Bible and the Church understand these as sinful, she happens to have contrary opinions and it offends her to hear otherwise. A recent mailing I sent out served as the final straw and she asked to be dismissed from church membership. I urged her to reconsider and asked to meet with her in person to talk it through in more detail. She refused. I encouraged her to retain her membership at least until she found another LCMS congregation to which she might transfer. Although she hinted at possibly joining the “other synod” (meaning ELCA), she did ultimately decide that retaining her membership until she could find another LCMS church to her liking would be the better course. And so, as the conversation came to an end, she once again affirmed her dislike for me, reminded me that I am nothing like my predecessor, and then pressed again that she wanted nothing more to do with the congregation in which she has held her membership for over 25 years. Then she hung up.
This happens to pastors sometimes. Jesus told us it would (John 15:18-19). Still, it hurts. But in the midst of the hurt, by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel of Christ’s loving rescue, a pastor has what is necessary to put away anger and doubt and to reflect humbly upon the situation. I’ve done that. And I’ve made a few discoveries which I think may be of interest to at least some of you.
Just like everyone else, Pastors get into routines. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, at least not until the routines turn into assumptions. I’ll speak for myself. I’ve been coming to the preaching and teaching task making some assumptions about the people in my care, and I think that they are a reflection of the periodic ruts of naiveté into which even the most experienced pastors can stumble and fall. That being said, with my foolishness now on display, there are at least three mistakes in particular that I can share with you.
The first mistake is that I’ve been assuming that the person in the pew is actually an “objective” listener who sees and hears me as one called and sent by God. Not that I expect everyone to agree with everything I say all of the time. In fact it is the duty of every Christian to listen carefully and discern. Nevertheless, the faithful pastor understands that he is tasked with giving a message, an objective truth, one that comes from outside of himself. I think I may have grown somewhat indolent in a sense, assuming that the listener is one who recognizes and admits unquestionable alignment with the objective truth I am preaching and is not necessarily as affected or influenced by his own subjective opinion. I have taken it for granted that he is actually able and willing to bend his subjective opinion to align with the objective truth he is hearing from the pulpit, in congregation letters, and Bible study. In other words, I am admitting to going about my work mistakenly assuming that the listener is in fact able to ask “What is God saying to me through His servant by His holy Word?” as opposed to actually asking “How will I assimilate what God (or this pastor) is saying to me into what I already believe to be true?” Being someone in a profession established by God to meet face to face with the sin-nature on a regular basis, it is probably better for me to assume that a whole lot of my listeners are predisposed to the latter.
The second mistake may have been the assumption that because the listener is a regular, longtime “church-goer” in an LCMS church, he is most likely a “Biblical conservative” and relatively aligned with the public confession of the church body in which he has held his membership for so many years. Yes, on paper the LCMS holds a very different public confession than that of, say, the ELCA, but to assume that the members of my congregation systematically believe what the LCMS believes as opposed to the ELCA is very dangerous. In so many ways, postmodernism appears to be blurring these types of distinctions and therefore the Biblical “givens” that shape our positions on topics like abortion or homosexuality. Being associated with a particular synod or fellowship may not necessarily mean all that much anymore to most folks, at least not as much as it used to. A pastor’s vigilance is required here, too.
Although as a pastor I do A LOT of teaching, the third mistake I’ve made is that I have assumed that outside of the many studies offered, the listener actually reads his Bible on his own and holds enough familiarity with the contents that certain topics, no matter how controversial they are to everyone else, are no-brainers for Christians. For example, it would seem to be a no-brainer that abortion is ungodly, and yet I began this article by sharing with you a startling phone conversation with a veteran LCMS Lutheran admitting that she doesn’t necessarily believe that the Bible presents God as solely a “pro-life” God. In fact, she doesn’t really think that the Bible has anything to say about the topic. Hmmm.
Now, my next point may seem a bit tangential at first, but give it a chance. It is an attempt to reflect upon the accusation of politicizing the church. If we LCMS pastors are to assume anything about the people in our care, perhaps we should be assuming that it is more than likely they truly are postmodernists, affected by politics, culture, and generational biases, and as church-goers, may very well be conservative in name only. With regard to identity, especially here in America where we have a strange mixture of culture and patriotism, our listeners call themselves Christians while simultaneously subscribing to the liberalism of “freedom”, “destiny”, and “choice” ideology. I came across and appreciated Stanley Hauerwas’ words about this in his book A Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching. Here Hauerwas argues that it is the subjective notion of liberalism to develop “arrangements without memory.” He writes:
“Thus my claim that modernity names the attempt to produce people who believe they should have no story except the story they chose when they had no story. This is called “freedom,” and it is assumed such an account of freedom is necessary to sustain an account of morality that cannot acknowledge that we live by gift.”
William H. Willimon speaks similarly in his book Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized:
“(A)ll our talk of “freedom” is but the rattling of the chains binding us to the authoritarianism of a liberal, democratic culture, a culture that, whether it is intended to do so or not, destroys human community by fragmenting us into a herd of isolated units, each detached from tradition, community, history, and one another, all the while telling us that we are free. Ironically, in such condition, detached from sources of true meaning, we have not gained our individuality but have lost it, for true individualism comes only for someone who knows and can name who she is. Of course, the democratic Empire now knows what the monarchs of old did not: detached, rootless, historyless individuals are more easily managed than people in groups, people who have names, stories, histories, and a home.”
Both Hauerwas and Willimon are onto something here. For the sake of this discussion at least, they are making the general point that if you are human, you already have a story and you are bound by it to others around you whether you believe it or not. But they are also inferring that if you are a human living in the current age, it may be likely that, you not only don’t believe this, but you don’t “want” to believe it and you are inclined to work against it. These are our listeners – a huge group of “individuals” sitting in the pews disconnected from one another and perfectly content with devising their own truths and politely giving room for the truths of others, no matter what the collective narrative may actually be, no matter what the objective truth may be.
And so, as a pastor, I guess that the solution for any of this is to be well grounded in the Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions in order that catechesis may remain constant and full, and while this catechizing is happening, I need to be more mindful of the cultural undertow while actively urging the catechumens toward the truth that they are actually blessed to be slaves to a narrative that comes from outside rather than from within, the Biblical narrative, the Word of God that shapes them and not the other way around. It’s easy to roll along and assume that they already agree with this, but in reality, unless they tell me otherwise, I should teach according to the assumption that this is less and less likely to be true.
 Stanley Hauerwas, The Cross-Shattered Church: Reclaiming the Theological Heart of Preaching (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2009), 148.
 Hauerwas, 148.
 William H. Willimon, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1992), 53.