Eugene Peterson has been one of those writers who has always had something to say to me. Perhaps it is our shared vocation in ministry. In Marva Dawn’s book with him, The Unnecessary Pastor, Peterson describes how much of the early counsel he was given on how to do ministry didn’t seem to have much to do with the scriptures:
“When I became a pastor, I found that most of the counsel and direction I was given came not from Scripture but from the culture. It was, most of it, good counsel – it made sense, it was responsible. If I had followed it, I probably would not have done any harm. But I didn’t follow it; I wanted not only my life but my ministry to be shaped by the Christian gospel revealed in Jesus. None of my learned advisors ever suggested that I give up my Christian faith so that I could be successful at this pastor business; but what they did do by implication was suggest that I give up on Scripture as having anything definitive to do with the pastoral vocation in contemporary North America. Scripture was good for preaching, but when it came to running a church, organizing a congregation, managing conflict, training church schoolteachers, and getting out the publicity on the new missions emphasis, the Holy Scriptures didn’t offer much. Isaiah, after all, never had to I run a stewardship campaign; Jeremiah didn’t know the first thing about conflict management – in fact, he was in trouble most of his life with his religious colleagues in Jerusalem. My advisors were happy to supply me with up-to-date texts written by various experts in the field, showing me how to be relevant to the culture.” (Marva J. Dawn and Eugene H. Peterson. The Unnecessary Pastor: Rediscovering the Call. Ed. by Peter Santucci. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000, pp. 7-8.)
There is a kind of reaction to “business practices” in the church that isn’t very thoughtful, but rather categorical and dismissive. This doesn’t help. It is fair to explore and embrace truth wherever we might find it. But there is a way of embracing of “what works” in business and using it in the church that is unthinking. The assumption is that “if it works, it is good.” What about a few follow-up questions? “What work is it doing? Is it work Jesus is engaged in or even interested in?” The work is usually measurable in simple quantitative terms: more people keep coming, more dollars are collected, more buildings are built, more staff are hired. It works.
But what about the qualitative measure of deeply transformed lives? Some business practices and values, at least as practiced in ministry settings, seem to prefer breadth over depth. These shouldn’t be an “either/or”, but we seem to prefer focusing our choice on one or the other side of this polarity. Did Jesus make choices on the basis of what would grow a “bottom line” of some sort? Actually, He seemed to be willing to make choices that might actually do the opposite, at least for a time. He didn’t make it easy to follow Him. He didn’t make it artificially difficult either. He wasn’t trying to create spiritual super-athletes. He didn’t appeal to ego or to the consumer impulse. He spoke to the soul. He appealed to the deeper reality in the heart of a person. This was what He sought to bring to the surface.
Peterson urges us to let the scriptures guide us and counsel us in the work of ministry. This isn’t the same as some who, in the name of sola scriptura, seem to prefer simplistic Bible quotes to deep wisdom. Their way of using the Bible ends up surprisingly confirming their pre-existing preferences and assumptions. Their image of Jesus ends up surprisingly reflective of their own self-image.
The Bible not only provides our message, but gives us insight into our method as well. We tend to think that any method that works will do, but we often don’t think about how it works or why it works. God is not behind everything that works. Temptation works. Ambition works. Manipulation works. But who does such work serve or highlight?