Sunday, May 10, 2009

Bob Russell, Part 2: Difficulties in Ministry We Face Today


Yesterday I said that I had attended a preaching workshop featuring Bob Russell, formerly preaching minister at the large Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, KY.  

While the event was promoted as “A Passion for Preaching,”  Bob announced up front that he was really going to talk primarily about preaching, but about ministry in general.   That was disappointing to me.  I had gone to hear specifically about preaching and it seemed like a bit of bait & switch.

But Russell began talking about the Difficulties that Ministers Face Today:

    • Downturn in the Economy- “If there is not money, many projects in the church cannot be accomplished”.  And Russell is concerned (rightfully, in my judgment) that this recession may last many years.  Not necessarily the crisis, but economic lethargy.  (My thoughts: the church MAY be hindered by lack of money perhaps, but the downturn also provides huge opportunities for showing people the strength of the gospel.  If our church is programmed focused, then yes, we are hindered by a lack of money.   If we define success in the church as building programs and large program-centered events, then he may be right. But I still believe two things: 
      • Our Father owns the cattle on a thousand hills and when there is true need, he seems to provide. 
      • In times of crises, God seems to raise the creativity and faith level of his people.  I believe this CAN be an opportunity for God really to help us sort our our priorities. 

2. Stark generational differences Russell talked about the worship wars.  While this is,surely, a difficulty many preachers in established churches face, it is one we have faced for forty-plus years.  It is nothing new.  In the 1960’s there were struggles in my home church about what type of music was “appropriate” for Sunday worship.  The issue will probably never be totally decided until the current generation of leaders has died out, but I don’t really think that this is a “new” problem.

3. Increased cultural wars. Bob highlighted this less than some of his other points, but I think that it is really more important than either of the first two.  He mentioned the examples of conflict over stem cell research, gay rights, abortion, etc.   My thinking:  This does place real challenges before the pastor.  Of course, this is nothing new.  The conflict over slavery in 19th century American churches was also a huge cultural war.  The conflict over “scientism” in the early to mid-twentieth century was a huge culture war, the repercussions of which we continue to live with today. There will always be some level of cultural war when the kingdom of God is not yet come “on earth as it is in heaven.” Russell did point out that the level of incivility in public discourse has heightened. And it has…from the twentieth century.  But if you go back to the nineteenth century and before, I think you will find even great levels of incivility in public discourse.

4. Postmodern thinking.  The subjectivism and relativism that is apparent in many postmodern thinkers today is, truly, amazing and a challenge for the preaching of the truth of the Word.  And the church cannot compromise on the issue of Truth and the uniqueness of Jesus.  I was troubled by one thing that Russell said, however.  He was commenting on the fact that, while many are saying that in order to reach you adults, you must be willing to compromise the truth and uniqueness of the Gospel.  And he used as his example Brian McClaren.  He said that while McClaren compromises, he “only preaches to a church of 400 people”, while Mark Driscoll [who is NOT known for doctrinal or moral compromise] “preaches to thousands every Sunday”.  But if we determine who is right by the size of the crowd they preach to, then Joel Osteen is one of the most right preachers in the country!  And that (at least to me) is totally offensive. 

5. Unrealistic expectations on the part of the people. Russell concluded his section on Difficulties Faced by Preachers Today by stating that congregational criticism is more intense than it has ever been.   E-mails make criticism harsher than before. Before you had to write out a letter and then mail it and by the time that many (not all!) had done that, they had reconsidered the rashness of their words and pulled back or at least tempered them.  But today it is much easier to send notes. One can dash off a two sentence diatribe or cutting remark and hit the send button on e-mail and it is gone, out to do its damage.   And what he says is true.  But I hesitate to place too much stress on that.  Preachers in America in 2009 certainly do not hold the positions of honor and respect and influence that they did 50-75 years ago. And yet, historical/biblical perspective is always needed in discussions like this. In previous times, “Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy.” (Heb. 11:35-38)

In some ways, I fear that we preachers of the 20th & 21st centuries are pretty soft & coddled.  I have had my fair share of garbage thrown at me, but perspective says that we still have it much better than a large number of God’s spokesmen throughout the centuries. 

More on Bob Russell’s presentation tomorrow and I promise to get down to the subject of Preaching.

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