Like any writer, the narcissist in me believes you would enjoy a peek into the book I plan to release this fall, The Impossible Mentor. Advance praise for this book comes from my wife, my children, and the stray cat we keep feeding at the back door. They all agree: this will be the finest book on spiritual formation ever to come out of Campbellsville, Kentucky. Just because these witnesses are deeply biased doesn’t mean they are wrong, it just means they will buy the first thousand copies.
I've shared previews from the first three chapters. Today, the final preview, a bit from the opening of chapter four:
Chapter Three: "Paralyzed by Grace"
Chapter Four: “The Fellowship of Low Expectations”
Across the spectrum of Christian worship, our churches are filled with individuals who do not believe Christlikeness is possible. Individual believers have camped beside the river of God’s grace and drink daily of his forgiveness, unaware that this same grace can can provide spiritual transformation into Christlikeness. Discipleship, they suppose, is for those few super-saints called into the ministry.
Perhaps even more striking is the number of church leaders who have largely abandoned the task of making disciples. In the first years of my work as a pastor I attended a weekly breakfast “prayer meeting” of local pastors. I was looking for practical help in fulfilling my vision of equipping every believer to do the work of the ministry. Assembled were church leaders from a variety of faith traditions, both liturgical and Evangelical, representing a variety of the American denominational spectrum. In two years of regular meetings with these shepherds of the flock, the only subject which drew complete agreement was their low opinion of the people they were called to lead. Each pastor shared story after story of petty arguments and disagreements, all to the same point: the people were impossible to lead! Clearly, I had fallen in with the wrong crowd. It will come as no surprise that by the time I celebrated my fifth year in the pastorate, every single pastor who attended the prayer breakfast had moved on to other churches or left the ministry.
Our difficulties embracing discipleship occur not only at the individual level, but also at the level of Christian leadership. Pastors rarely describe their task in terms of reproducing the character and power of Jesus in the people of their congregations. Nor do the people of the church expect their pastors to be spiritual mentors. Sadly, many pastors do not think the image of Christ is reproducible in their charges. As a result, leadership in Christian churches looks less and less like the Biblical model and more and more like models drawn from the secular world.
Individual Christians struggle in their relationship with Jesus, the Impossible Mentor. So do pastors. When pastors do not have a realistic expectation that every Christian can live up to the example of Jesus, pastoral ministry becomes about something other than making disciples. If pastors are not convinced of the Christlike destiny of each person in their charge, the role of Christian leadership drifts away from the Biblical example toward any number of earth-bound substitutes. These earth-bound substitutes may each be a moral good in their own right, but they will miss the high calling of developing a royal priesthood capable of demonstrating the glory of God to a watching world.
How many pastors carry the vision Peter expressed for the people in his charge?
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens and strangers in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (I Peter 2: 9 - 12)
These four verses express high expectations for the assembled people of God. Consider this partial list drawn exclusively from these four verses: the people are chosen by God to do ministry; God has a regal view of his people; the people are ordained to represent God; the people are the light-bearers for the world; the people have a new identity with one another; and the people have a reason to embrace life-change. Peter presents a vision that the everyday conduct of “average” Christians will elicit praise for God from those who are not yet believers. In my personal experience pastors rarely present such a high view of those they are called to shepherd.
If pastors do not have high expectations of those in their care, the door wings both ways: local churches place any number of responsibilities on their pastors: preaching, visiting the sick, counseling, and supervising the ministries of the church. These are all standard aspects of the job description, but reproducing the character and power of Jesus in the lives of individual members is rarely on the list. Since most Christians do not consider themselves capable of Christlikeness, they do not look to their pastor for assistance in spiritual formation. Indeed, any pastor bold enough to declare, “You are called to bear the image of Jesus; I am here to re-shape your lives,” will likely face opposition from his charges. They hired him to perform religious services, not change their lives!
When both the pastor and the congregation lack vision for the possibilities of life in Christ, the relationship between shepherd and sheep must necessarily find some area of common ground. Some churches choose to stake their identity upon the meeting itself: “our services are exciting!” Others look outward to the community: “our church exists to serve this city.” Still others agree on a bunker mentality: “we are the faithful few, worshipping God while the rest of the world travels the path of destruction.” Whatever persona the pastor and congregation select, it invariably falls below the vision of church presented in the New Testament. Both church leaders and the flock have become the Fellowship of Low Expectations.