Guest Post by Rev. Jonathan Boehne, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in El Paso, IL.
Everyone has their place to serve God. Luther showed us that church isn’t the only place people have callings. It wasn’t only by running to the monastery that one could serve God. He restored the joy and sanctity of other places, such as serving your family at home or your neighbor in the workplace. From the Apology:
In the histories of the hermits there are examples of Anthony and of others which make the various spheres of life equal. It is written that when Anthony asked God to show him what progress he was making in this kind of life, a certain shoemaker in the city of Alexandria was indicated to him in a dream to whom he should be compared. The next day Anthony came into the city, and went to the shoemaker in order to ascertain his exercises and gifts, and, having conversed with the man, heard nothing except that early in the morning he prayed in a few words for the entire state, and then attended to his trade. [Apology XXVII, 38]
So you don’t have to be a pastor to serve God. You don’t have to be a church worker. The teaching of “the priesthood of all believers” doesn’t tell everyone they need a seminary degree. It reminds all Christians that their God-given places are sacred and good. It tells them that their work is important even if it’s not “pastor work”. The work of a mother, a father, a banker, a teacher, and a student are all equally meaningful. Every God-given place in life is a sacred place, where a priest serves and offers up sacrifices of prayer and praise.
However, this is exactly the thing we’re seeing ripped away from those in the pews. I have personally seen many examples of Christians in my area who desperately want to serve God and yet can’t find anywhere that seems holy enough to do it. I have seen them literally try to invent their own “congregations” by starting some new type of ministry. In their minds, if it’s not pastor-type work or missionary-type work then it must not be important or meaningful work. If they’re not leading praise and worship or a small group study or building relationships or going on mission trips or sharing the Gospel, then they think they don’t have a real place to serve God.
It’s the old debate over Ephesians 4. The place of pastors is to equip God’s saints to serve in their own places (in home, church, and society). Instead, now the passage gets convoluted to say that pastors are to equip God’s saints to serve in the pastor’s place. Hearers are being told that their place isn’t good enough and that they need to get into the real work of ministry. Of course, pastors don’t always say that directly. But they don’t have to. They infer it with everything coming from the pulpit. Matthew 28 is applied as the ultimate work for everyone. So we’re all supposed to be baptizing? The only encouragement and exhortation from the pulpit is to get busy at Church or get busy spreading the Gospel. If you’re not intentionally doing evangelism, are you really serving the Lord?
Here’s a shorthand: out-of-place pastors lead to out-of-place hearers. Many pastors today don’t want to stay in their own place. Instead of seeing their place as delivering forgiveness in Word and Sacrament, pastors see their primary work as getting other people involved. We’re told everyone needs to feel ownership. In order to accomplish that, they have to get out of their place and come alongside the hearers. So pastors get out of their vestments and out of a clerical collar. They get out of the pulpit and out with the hearers. They get out of preaching, teaching, studying, and visiting in order to attend a thousand meetings on administration and finance. Much of it is done in the name of servant leadership, even though they’ve left the very place where God has given them to serve.
This leads to hearers who aren’t sure where their place is anymore. Their place used to be hearing and receiving God’s Word. Now pastors seem to be saying that’s not enough. Instead of hearing the Word, they need to be lay readers. Instead of receiving the Sacrament, they’re told to help with distribution. Instead of attending Bible Study, they’re told to lead a small group. Instead of finding meaning, purpose, and joy in the places God has already given them at home, at Church, and in society, they are pressed to do the supposed real work that pastors should be doing.
This is also where the Missouri Synod finds the SMP going. Pastors spot a good layman and wonder why he shouldn’t become legit with a few online classes. After all, isn’t that what we’re after? All people doing pastor’s work? Look at the massively growing staffs of some congregations. Why not just hire everybody to work for the Church? Why not just get it over with and ordain every man, woman, and child in the Synod?
Of course, there’s a better way. We could remember that everyone already has their place to serve and every God-given place is sacred and meaningful. Pastors could stop thinking that church work is the only work and remember that hearers are needed at home and in society. Finally, pastors could stay in the place where God has put them to serve and equip hearers of the Gospel for all the other places.