How Culturally Up-to-Date Must My Pastor Be?
Ryan, a listener to the podcast who is also a pastor, writes in with a very good question: “Pastor John, how much of the news should I read? I’m a pastor and a very average reader in terms of speed. I want to stay up on the news to be a good citizen and an informed leader. I want to help my congregation think biblically about major cultural trends and issues (when relevant). But I could spend hours every morning reading different online newspapers and opinion pieces, perhaps to the neglect of my Bible and solid theology books. So my question is not whether to read the news, but how much? Is there any practical advice you can give from your years as both a Christian and a pastor that would help discern how much is too much and how little is too little?”
I do have one main piece of advice from my experience, and it might be partly owing to my own slow reading limits and things like that. But more important for your people, our people, and their ability to be Christ-exalting husbands and wives and community participants and civic contributors and vocationally effective, more important for all those things than a pastor’s being widely read and culturally up-to-date on lots of fronts is the way he deals in preaching and leading and living with a few key social issues, like three or four or five over his ministry.
The principle I have in mind here is the same one that drives me in understanding the aims of education in school. The principle is to impart to your people by the way you preach and teach and the way you think biblically and culturally, a way of thinking, a way of dealing with issues, a way of reading their Bibles, a way of applying their Bibles on various issues so that you don’t bear the burden of thinking you have to be the expert on all the issues. You have to model for them how they become the expert on the issues that are facing them most immediately.
“Each person bears the responsibility to think through how Christianity bears on their vocation — not the pastor.”
So we go deep on a few issues and we are aware, of course, of more. And we preach and teach on the few that seem urgent and major. We try to be sure that the sermons are not mainly political. When I say deal with the issues, I don’t mean mainly being a politician, but mainly aiming to show how to think and pray and act from the roots of things. How they are rooted in human nature, and how they are rooted in God’s purposes for the world and rooted in Scripture.
Then we show them those roots in Scripture and roots in human nature. We pray that certain kinds of outcomes of behavior will result in a kind of righteous life in the culture. We show them how it all relates to God and his ways in history and in the world and in this city — in this situation in particular.
You don’t need to be a world expert to address the biblical and ethical matters relating to the key issues. You need to go deep with your Bible and with human nature. That is your bread and butter as a pastor. The Bible and human nature. That is your expertise and that is what your people want and need from you.
Free Them to be Experts
Another implication of this approach would be that we should make clear to our people that we think they, not we, are to become the experts in the fields where they endeavor. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding here in the church that, if a big ethical issue comes up in their vocation, the pastor should have the answer. How in the world is that possible? If they are lawyers or doctors or carpenters or computer programmers or salesmen, they bear the main responsibility to think through how Christianity bears on the nitty-gritty of their vocation. That is not the pastor’s job.
I think sometimes there is a blame-shifting here that is a cloak for laziness. Pastors should give help for sure, rich biblical insights, week-in and week-out from the Scriptures. But there are hundreds of issues in every line of work, every vocation, that the pastor does not and cannot know about. He is not the expert in that vocation, that business, that trade.
The people in those vocations bear that responsibility. That is what it means to be a Christian where you are. That is what makes those jobs a place of influence for Christ — Christians thinking and reading and studying and praying and talking about what it means to be a Christian in this job. There are hundreds of them, and it is naïve to think that a pastor can be an expert in any of them. So I am a little disenchanted these days about the way some of this thinking is talked about.
“You don’t need to be an expert to address key issues. You just need to go deep with your Bible and human nature.”
Pastors empower and we encourage our people to become the experts on how faith and work fit together — how the issues they are dealing with in life fit together. All the while, the pastor is pointing and encouraging and pointing them to the Scriptures and feeding their souls.
And not just jobs — and I was thinking vocation when I said all that — but cultural issues as well. Out there in our congregation people should be studying health care and immigration issues and racial profiling and police reform and the roots of poverty in their neighborhood and so on. There are just dozens of social, ethical, moral justice issues in the world that our people ought to be engaged with and that vastly outstrip the ability of the pastor to be up-to-date on all of them.
Preach the Word
So my point is, whatever else a pastor reads, whatever else you read, for focus and for learning and for awareness, focus on a few key issues and bring God’s word to bear on those. Model in preaching and teaching and leading and living how a Christian thinks about those issues. And tell them. Tell the people you hope they can take that method — what they see you doing with these texts and that issue — and apply them in other issues where they may run into ethical conundrums that the pastor hasn’t thought about, and that they haven’t thought about.
I want to say to this pastor: Let part of your modeling be courage — courage to address hard issues. And let part of it be wisdom in how to relate to those who disagree with you. Model for your people — as well as embracing the right position on an issue — how to deal with people who don’t take that position. And whatever you do, don’t try to sound like you know more than you know. And don’t try to drop clever phrases that make you look like you are culturally informed. That is just fluff. And it is ego. It will entertain the superficial, but it will disappoint the spiritually insightful. So admit to them your limits, and take them as deep into God’s word as you can on a few key issues.