Alejandro wasn’t a pastor. As an immigrant from Peru, Alejandro’s understanding of church leadership was unlike what he was observing in North America. He found it difficult to see how he might lead, even though his life demonstrated evangelistic faithfulness and fruitfulness that far surpassed many of those who received paychecks from the local churches he had attended.
Alejandro wasn’t your typical ‘Type A’ leader. One-on-one he could converse with anyone and showed an uncanny ability to turn everyday chats into amazing gospel conservations, but he was paralyzed by a large crowd. On one hand, His dexterity in applying the good news of Jesus to commonplace needs was unmatched, yet he struggled in crafting a 4-point, 40-minute sermon on a biblical text.
And, to top it off, his love for the marginalized and broken led to a real struggle relating to the first-world miseries of the average dispirited church-goer. He was drawn to endeavors that pressed to the margins of society—those that required a large measure of risk and experimentation and presupposed a high likelihood of failure.
Is there room for Alejandro?
Diverse factors combine to create the combustible environment we experience as missionaries, church planters, pastors, and congregations today. Say the word “pastor” and certain caricatures are likely drawn in the minds of most. Aside from the physical attributes one might mention, there are certain gifts or abilities that tend to rise to the surface.
One such mental image is often that of the charismatic, silver-tongued celebrity. If there’s a crowd of church goers, the celebrity is right in the middle, exerting his influence by sheer power of will and strength of personality. When this person “on,” everything about the celebrity is big and the spotlight rarely loses focus.
Then there’s the professor, who takes pride in the ability to slice doctrine thin, quote the Church Fathers, and fall on the right side of every highly-nuanced online discussion (a concept that’s a bit of an oxymoron from the outset). The professor studied in the approved seminaries and readily quotes all the right authors, and even has aspirations of publishing a few theogical correctives himself along the way. The glazed look among the congregation each week goes unnoticed since the professor predetermined that the pathway to gospel mission is directly correlated to the volume people bearing through orthodox oration.
Finally, there’s the loving care-giver, the consummate chaplain-pastor—merciful, kind, tender, and long-suffering. Those languishing under sin or suffering want the care-giver by their side. The local hospital staff know this person by name, and the congregation wells-up with tears at the recollection of the care they’ve received during times of crisis. A lack of pulpit prowess is mostly overlooked because of the many first-hand stories of care.
Where does a person like Alejandro fit into these archetypes of a pastor?
The short answer is, “He doesn’t.”
No caricature develops in a vacuum. There’s a lengthy past history that’s contributed to the view most have of the leaders of God’s church.
The Pastor as a Celebrity
This idea is derived from the wholesale embrace of the church growth paradigm adopted almost carte blanche throughout North America as evangelicalism’s principal operating system. In such a model, the church isn’t the only thing that has to be big; so too does the pastor.
The land of leader-driven churches is ripe territory for books like Michael Hyatt’s, Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World to take root. Hyatt, a consultant, publisher, and social media expert, created a bit of a cult following around his concepts meant to do just what the subtitle commends. He helps people, pastors amongst his core cliental, to get noticed. A simple swipe of the thumb on any given day is enough to prove that many on social media have embraced platform building as a primary goal in their ministry. Surely those who have something to say want as many people as possible to hear them bloviate.
The absurdity of such a goal was exposed in one article, which suggested that many leaders, including pastors, were buying followers on Twitter in an effort to boost their platform and therefore their supposed kingdom significance.
Those engrossed in church growth as their missiological aim baptize this triviality under the guise of a means to an end. What’s the harm in a little online jockeying for marketplace position if it enhances the church’s brand by virtue of further elevating their celebrity leader?
But those like Alejandro can’t imagine a worse personal fate than participating in such platform posturing. They see little place for themselves within the North American evangelical ecosystem. They long for humble, simple, missionary practices intent on reaching an increasingly lost world, which, from their observation, seems to be the antithesis of the aim of many in the clerical ranks.
The Pastor as a Professor
As seminaries came to prize the life of the mind and emphasize pedagogical practices designed to transmit theological perspective, future leaders modeled their pastoral ministry from the values and methodologies of the institutions that shaped them. The a-theological sloppiness that masquerade as local church ministry needed a corrective and, it was thought, the best means to bring this change was a rigid, precise theological formulations carefully packaged in a systematic bundle.
The problem wasn’t the aim for correct doctrine, but the divorce of these systematic categories from an overall missiological aim. At one time, evangelical leaders chastised the church for having Fit Bodies and Fat Minds, yet the corrective has often been Fit Minds and Fat Mission. Jesus’ missionary command for global disciple-making gets reduced to a more manageable interpretation of scholastic ‘discipleship.’
The majority of biblical academics would appropriately note that pastoral ministry includes the task preaching and teaching, a goal that is well-defined from Paul’s commendation to his protégés regarding their task and the qualifications used to select a faithful leadership (2 Tim 4:2; 1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:9). Yet, three cultural conclusions do not naturally follow from this premise.
First, it is not the case that this preaching/teaching ministry is the sole, or even primary, function of a pastor. A cultural “call to preach” does not naturally emerge from the biblical record. Second, this preaching/teaching ministry need not exclusively flow from the pulpit on any given Sunday. It can also define the interpersonal ministry of the leaders who bring God’s word to bear on the lives of those they love and lead throughout the week. Finally, the task of preaching/teaching is not solely the domain of church leaders; this is the life-on-life ministry of all those who are in Christ to one another.
Another motive may be more sinister in the development of the pastor-teacher evolution. Our broken human nature bends, apart from a great work of God’s Spirit, to playing it safe and leaning into aspects of life and ministry that we can control. An industrialized expository process that requires a pastor to spend 20 hours a week in private study is certainly a more controlled, safe environment than working on the front lines of ministry to the lost and equipping others to engage in the messiness of mission to the broken, wayward, and outcast.
Certainly, the work of public speaking is daunting for some and careful study may not always come easy, but over time such work can often become an excuse for personal missional engagement. It’s far easier to present a polished 40-minute homily to an audience of semi-sympathizers (who can’t speak back) than it is to apply those same truths to share the gospel with an unconvinced outsider.
Again, people like Alejandro are left in the dark. His gifts lie in areas of evangelism and mission. He’s never been to seminary and quickly feels insecure when others start to elucidate on minute theological gradations. If he spends more than two hours in isolated study, his left leg starts to twitch and he’s antsy to go do something with what he’s learning. And when he does do something, he often finds himself corrected by professor-pastors who feel that he minimized or that he has overemphasized some aspect of gospel truth.
The Pastor as a Care Giver
A final model posits the care-giving function as chief among the pastoral occupation. Again, this idea has a past. As the church lost its missionary moorings, the influx of new converts waned. Yes, churches might grow as a result of reshuffling sheep, but in most places, baptism was limited to children of church members, if they happened at all. The average pastor was then left to tend to an already existing flock devoid of a missionary impulse.
Whether the church is 50 people or 500, the result of missional inertia always leads to the internal needs of the congregation becoming paramount. Extract outward mission from the equation and we’re left with nothing but internal preoccupations and family squabbles. Who better to manage these points of pain but the pastor?
In time, the job description loses any hint of missionary leadership to an exhausted chaplain for hire. Between the time spent on sermon preparation and the countless hours attending to the sick in the church and the chaos of broken relationships, this leader has little time for anything else. Couple this with the fact that the care-giver is often the sole pastor in a church that has failed to equip the saints to carry out the work of pastoral care, and this leader is endlessly trapped.
Alejandro doesn’t want to follow this path. He’s been a part of churches in the past where the pastor constantly placated immature sheep and he instinctively knows the deadly end ahead, both for the church and her witness.
Celebrity, professor, and care-giver; the preferable images for spiritual leadership in North America. Each of them has a cultural history. Each is an overcorrection. None represents the biblical pattern.
This leaves us with a daunting question. Does the church in North America have a place for Alejandro in leadership?
I suspect that as long as our answer is ‘no,’ we had better prepare ourselves for the same missional impact that we are currently experiencing.
And that is not a good thing.
Jeff Christopherson is an author and Chief Missiologist of the North American Mission Board (NAMB). He also serves as Co-Executive Director of the Send Institute, a partnership of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College and the North American Mission Board.
I’ll trace these factors in my forthcoming missiology book to be published in 2020 with B&H Academic.
Michael Hyatt, Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy Word(Harper Collins, 2012).
An ironic goal for a vocation who’s mission it is to get Jesus noticed
Note the personal reflections of the late Eugene Peterson in an article to a fellow-pastor reflecting on church size and the need for more: https://www.danielim.com/2018/10/23/eugene-peterson-christian-celebrities-and-the-megachurch/.
Os Guinness, Fit Bodies and Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What We Can Do About it (Baker, 1994).
See this point very well made in Matt Rogers’ article: https://theblazingcenter.com/2016/10/dont-like-way-pronounce-gospel.html.