Category Archives: Ministry

Sacraments as a Protestant Problem

communionofapostlesI attended a wedding at a Presbyterian Church this weekend, which to my delight included a communion service towards the end.  This is a rarity in my denomination, and was a nice surprise at a wedding of two people whom I did not know were particularly sacramental.  My own practice is to offer communion by “intinction,” whereby the minister gives each person a piece of bread to dip into a common cup.  At this wedding, however, a common cup and loaves were blessed, but the actual sacrament was organized quite differently.

Here, the loaves were torn in half and placed on trays.  As each person came up the center aisle to receive the elements, they tore off a small piece of bread themselves, ate it, and then grabbed a little “shot glass” of juice from the tray, pounded it, and returned it to the tray.  The effect of all of this was interesting.  Rather than being, in my eyes, a congregation going forward to receive the sacrament together, it turned into a large group of individuals waiting in line to get their own little mini-meal.  I felt it was unseemly.  Moreover, there was no invitation by the pastor that expressly said who should and should not come.  Although this is not his fault, perhaps, the liturgy he used described this act as a “symbol,” and as one of my seminary professors said, “If it’s just a symbol, then the hell with it!”  In other words, if what we are doing at the Lord’s Table is merely a symbol, then what power does it have other than a reminder, a nice ritual that either gives us warm-fuzzies or turns us to repentance?  A far cry from “This is my body…” 

I would welcome someone from the Reformed tradition giving me some insight onto Presbyterian practices on this point.

But to the larger point: Protestants have a problem with the sacraments.  Perhaps not Lutherans and Episcopalians so much, but the rest of us, probably so.  How often do we celebrate Eucharist? What is baptism, and who should receive it?  These questions lead to questionable practices so deplorable that it makes me not want to celebrate “Reformation Sunday.”  Note, for example, the youth group that had “communion” with Coke and Doritos.  ::Sigh::

Sacramental Protestants, then, have a problem as well: how do we educate people in the practices that the Christian Church has maintained for centuries?  Churches aren’t focused on these questions anymore.  We are too busy opening coffee shops in our churches and enjoying the pizazz of multimedia and jam-bands to worry about something so stifling and traditional as Eucharist.  But it is these rituals that pull the veil back, that help us peak at the really real.  If they are lost, or worse, marginalized and bastardized, what will keep Christian worship from being simply another social outlet, a charity organization, a motivational seminar, or worse, a gathering of people having “the form of religion but not the power.”  Joel Osteen, take notice.

Authority for Preaching

I’ve been struck recently by the close relationship between pastoral care and preaching authority.  My previous church responsibilities involved only very limited pastoral functions.  This is the first time I’ve been a “one man show,” so to speak.  And I’m convinced that it matters.  It matters than the pastor who visits you in the hospital also teaches your Bible study, also spends time with your children, also visits your mother at the nursing home, and also attempts to preach the Word each Sunday.  I believe it matters greatly.

I think this is what makes small church ministry simpler in a number of ways than role-related ministries in larger churches.  If your people only see you preach and lead the occassional meeting or funeral, it’s unlikely they will have little personal investment in hearing what Word the Lord has that Sunday.  Let’s face it: it is the rare Christian (relatively speaking) who comes Church with ears to hear.  I believe that is why preaching is in such poor shape: we feel forced to bend our sermons (please don’t dumb them down more and refer to them as “messages”) to hardly creative, culture-oriented and chimerically “practical” advice or storytelling with very little chance of revealing anything of the Divine.

I believe that this pastoral authority also lends itself to preaching authority.  When your people know that you care about them – that you have sat with them in their homes, in the hospital, married and buried their loved ones – then real homiletic freedom is possible.  We are not bound by the need to impress or dazzle because our hearers are already convinced that we are genuinely concerned for them as fellow Christians.  We also do not fear to step on toes and push our people if that is what the text demands, because we are confident that our people trust us enough to speak the truth in love.

There is a strain of Protestant Christianity right now that is, I believe, self-conciously and dangerously “radical.”  It follows, to some extent from a Barthian perspective (I believe Tom Long calls it the “herald” model of preacher) that would prefer to damn the torpedoes and fire away with the percieved “truth” of the Gospel without any thought to how it is heard or the lives of the flesh-and-blood people sitting in the pews.  This has recieved a boost, I believe, from Stanley Hauerwas and others in the ‘radical’ orthodoxy and/or postliberal strain.  Conciously taking up a place that is neither theologically conservative  nor liberal, such preachers are susceptible to believing their word is the Word.

I have heard horror stories of many such pastors who, in their zeal for being radical, forgot to be pastors.  Case in point: the uproar among everyday Americans over the Jeremiah Wright scandal.  Maybe he said what needed to be said, but certainly his manner and his context can be legitimately called into question.

On beginning in the ministry, someone told me the oft-repeated phrase “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”  It is trite, to be sure, but there is wisdom in that phrase.  It is especially important wisdom for people like myself just out of seminary and eager to prove that we do indeed know something worth hearing.  Our authority for preaching in a local church, especially a small congregation, will largely rise and fall with our relationships with the people in the pews.  This can be a great terror, or a great tool.  The choice is ours.

The Church and Singleness

Churches are generally not great for single people.  Even churches with vibrant singles ministries only construe them as a place to meet other singles with the hopes of making them no longer single.  Protestant churches in particular do not know what to do with single Christians.  We have no vocation of singleness to look at, no imagination for what the Christian life looks like as an unmarried person.

My last semester of seminary, I noticed a mad dash to the altar.  NOBODY wants to be a single pastor, and with good reason.  All of the social events involving my denomination’s structure are geared towards “pastors and their spouses.”  I went to my first such meeting this week, and found that I was not only the youngest person there, I was, as far as I could tell, the only one who was likely single and had never been previously married.

What does holiness look like for the single person?  How the hell does a single pastor date?  My fundamentalist past tell me, “no sex before marriage,” but this is not a positive vision for the single life.

The best I’ve read on the subject is Lauren Winner’s Real Sex.  She re-convinced me that the church’s traditional stance on marriage was correct, by being honest and giving sound theological reasons for believing them.  I have read nothing better on the subject and encourage all committed Christians, single or not, to check it out.

Again, as a Protestant, I don’t have a tradition of saints to look at, or nuns, monks, and priests who model the single life.  What are we to do?  “It is better to marry than to burn with desire,” I suppose.  But how does a pastor date? Who wants to marry a pastor? (Probably no one, if they knew what they were getting into!)  And yet our churches expect married clergy.  Truth be told, they expect the spouse to be a bit of an unpaid co-pastor.

We Protestants desperately need to find ways to affirm singleness.  Not everyone is called to be married, and if indeed it is OK to, as Paul says, “remain as you were,” they deserve better from us.