Is the Ministry Keeping Pace?

David Allan Hubbard

The ministry has taken quite a beating during recent years, especially in novels and short stories. Take Elmer Gantry. Sinclair Lewis has given us a picture of a loud talking, backslapping, almost swashbuckling evangelist. Egotistical, unethical, immoral, he uses all his influence for his own aggrandizement. Starkly sensational, ruthlessly hypocritical, he stoops to the lowest means to attract audiences and substitutes emotional appeals for the power of the Holy Spirit.

Then there is Mr. Mackerel in Peter De Vries’ Mackerel Plaza. More interested in Oscar Wilde than in the Apostle Paul, confused in what little theology he has, Mr. Mackerel worships at the shrine of relativity. He became a minister because his mother wanted him to. His church building, he claims, is the first split-level church in history, with five rooms and two baths downstairs, a dining area, a kitchen and three parlors for committee and group meetings. Upstairs is a huge all-purpose interior divisible into compartments by means of sliding walls and convertible into an auditorium for plays, games and dances, with a small worship area at one end, almost as an afterthought.

Dr. Fred Worthington, the district superintendent in Gregory Wilson’s The Stained Glass Jungle, is a man who bounces all over the conference like a loose tennis ball. A gentle kind of schemer who maneuvers men in and out of pulpits according to their loyalty to him and his program, he eases his way forward with one fixed goal before him—a bishop’s chair. The Stained Glass Jungle also gives us a picture of Jack Lee, B.A. ’53, B.D. ’56, minister of the Wentworth Church, who is constantly tortured by the gap that he feels between what he professes to be and what he knows himself to be.

Another example is Dr. Davidson in Somerset Maugham’s short story Rain. He is a medical missionary who heartlessly tries to drive a prostitute from his island and yet is lustfully attracted to her. He confuses justice with vengefulness, a wooden kind of legalism with righteous convictions. Finally he seduces Sadie Thompson just at the time when she had begun to look to him for spiritual help.

And how often on television have we seen doddering sentimental clergymen, impractical, outdated, the butt of jokes and pranks, the object of pity, but not of respect.

It is important for ministers to learn from their critics even when the criticisms are overstated. We can see in such writings what one scholar has called a mirror of the ministry. We must recognize the peculiar hazards and temptations of the calling, the false values that may draw a man into it, the shoddy motives which may govern what he does. Ministers themselves lament the futile busywork, the frenzied activities, the time spent in committee haggling and frothy conversation. They deplore the teas and suppers, picnics and parties, memos and budgets, blueprints and building permits and the half-a-hundred other drains on their energies and time.

Furthermore, there are critics who feel that the ministry has lost its relevance. Times have changed so drastically, they say, that the church has to find other ways of presenting its message and shepherding its people. They declare that the ministry will be among the professions doomed for obsolescence in the next decades.

It is small wonder, then, that all over the country men are slipping away from the ministry by the hundreds—and sometimes writing articles on why they quit. While the number of students in our colleges and universities mounts annually, the theological seminaries across the country strive to hold their enrollments steady. On college campuses one is likely to hear, “I want my life to count —I am going into the Peace Corps.” “I want my life to touch human needs —I am going into social work.” “I want to serve Christ on the front lines—I am going into the diplomatic corps.” “I want to make an impact upon people—I am going into teaching.” “I want to help men and women understand themselves—I am going into counseling.” These things they say.

What about it?

Are we to scuttle our old approaches and try new ways to reach men and women with the gospel? Has the seeming inadequacy of traditional approaches to the ministry spelled its doom? These are real questions and we should try to meet them head on.

Today the Christian ministry offers unprecedented opportunities. The technological achievements of our generation are astounding. Take one aspect—automation. On the one hand the conversion of many of our great factories to automated enterprises has given us more leisure, which ought to mean more time to contemplate the real issues of life, to exercise our discipleship outside of our working hours. Simultaneously this leisure presents a great temptation—a temptation to play more and pray less, to devote hours to the quest of pleasure rather than of holiness. What an opportunity for the ministry to give spiritual guidance in the stewardship of time and in the theology of leisure!

Automation poses an even more vexing problem. As machines take on increasing importance, what happens to people? Are they to be viewed as handles which set the machines in action, as silent sentinels that watch the work? Middle-aged men are left uncertain about their role in the work force of America. They have become part of a surplus, an embarrassment to their employers. and a burden to their labor unions. In the midst of a society greatly in danger of depersonalizing human beings, the Christian minister can meet both worker and employer with the love of Jesus Christ and show them that in God’s sight they do count, as in men’s they ought to.

Then what about the educational advances our society is making? More people are engaged in the learning process at every stage than in the history of mankind. We can fill rooms with books on theology, psychology from a Christian’s viewpoint, Biblical studies and devotional living, books which were written specifically for laymen and which our laymen are reading with avid interest . More and more the minister has an opportunity to be a teacher, training laymen for leadership.

At the same time these educational advances have brought with them a growing wave of skepticism and agnosticism across our country. Many of our great universities have become centers of uncertainty and doubt. Without either truth or grief the obituary of God is being written across the land. Our country faces a challenge not unlike the challenge which deism presented to the Christian faith in the years immediately after the Revolution. Christianity and paganism are meeting in raw confrontation as surely in our citadels of learning as on the foreign mission fields.

Sociological changes also present fresh opportunities for the ministry. The move away from the farm which has closed so many rural churches should he taken, and is being taken, as a new call for circuit riders. Would that we would see a revival of the spirit of the circuit rider, who laced the frontier territories with his restless tracks and countered the call of the wild with the Word of grace. 

Our great cities are freighted with opportunities, though they present their own peculiar difficulties. What more could a minister ask for than occasion to work out the meaning of redemption within the tension-stretched context of a West Side Story. Christ came to seek and save the lost, to heal the sick, to call sinners to repentance.

Another urban problem is the high-rise apartment buildings. Behind the protection of a doorman and an electrical buzzer system, hundreds of thousands of people live in deliberate isolation. What a challenge to crack the hard shell of these structures and of the people who live within them and to see their hearts laid open to the grace of Christ!

What about the suburbs? Ministers are needed who will lead these people into the realization that the Christian church is more than an activity to he squeezed into a busy week along with bridge, Scouts, Little League, and PTA. As suburbanites commute from home to city, so they live as commuters from the secular to the sacred, scarcely realizing the surveillance of God over all of life.

The American frontier showed us the importance of a ministry which is mobile, creative and aggressive when confronting a transient society; and today, as then, America is on the move. Who is reaching our migrant workers? W ho is touching the vast communities living in trailer courts, following the soil and the seasons? Who is serving the host of people who drift front city to city, job to job?

The racial revolution has issued a challenge for ministers to sound the call for love—a hose that flows not only from white to black but from black to white. Without fear or favor, without glib answers or private prejudices, should we not remind society that the avid integrationist and the rigid segregationist are both sinners under judgment and men for whom Christ died?

Worldwide political changes challenge the ministry. The hot blood of nationalism is flowing and with it a renewed concern for national religions. The need is great for men and women to proclaim the one and only way in a world suffering from an almost narcotic stupor of sentimentalism The clay has come for new Amoses to leave their orchards and flocks in Tekoa and call for righteousness and justice; for new Hoseas refined, if necessary, by personal suffering and even tragedy to demand that men bend themselves in worship before the living God.

Present in and through all of these changes — technological, educational, sociological, political —and indeed contributing to them, are the pressing emotional needs of mankind. Our sophisticated refinements, the rapid evolution of material things from luxuries to necessities, the relative ease of our physical living, our increased longevity, our ability to cope with so many material problems, our skill in identifying and labeling emotional ills— none of these things nor all of them put together have contributed measurably to our quest for meaning. Homes are breaking up, parents are baiting their children, and children are hating their parents. Labor and management face each other toe to toe. Extremists to right and left try to outdo each other in sarcasm and slander. The colossal insolence of man causes him to refuse the only true refuge in life; and though in fact he is totally dependent upon God for all that he has, he blandly and blatantly revels in his independence. 

It is part of our sinfulness as human beings, even as Christians, that we sometimes have shied away from because of the difficulties or because of the attractiveness of other vocations. Like Dr. Garrison in the novel The Stained Glass Jungle we have often asked the right questions with the wrong meaning. A layman, recently converted and impelled by the wonderful zeal of the new convert, came to Dr. Garrison and asked him to consider leaving his splendid congregation and coming to the struggling Inner City Church named Macedonia. Dr. Garrison was shocked by the temerity of the layman. Finally, as if to end the embarrassing conversation, Garrison said, “Very well, Mr. Waddle, exactly what is Macedonia prepared to offer?’ Waddle’s reply was brief and cogent. “Everything a preacher could want! There’s taverns and dives, and the new thruway has jammed all kinds of people in there. There’s 110 playgrounds. The kids just run wild in the streets. We got more sinners in a mile of our church than in all the rest of the city put together.” 

Paul knew the reputation of the people of Crete: “Liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” Yet he said to Titus, “This is why I left you in Crete, that you might amend what is defective.” The Christian ministry today does offer everything that a true minister could want, not because there are no difficulties but because there are many!

The ministry has its satisfactions too. Christian ministers reach people at the high and low moments of life. They help to give counsel during the difficult teenage years, vocational guidance and premarital counseling as the crucial decisions in life are taken. We stand before couples on their wedding day and view their radiance and the warmth of their tender looks from a vantage denied to others. We dedicate their babies and stand by faithfully while the coffin of a loved one is closed. If this is a personal universe, ruled by a personal God who revealed Himself to us as a person through a personal Christ, then persons stand at the center of life. No one but the minister call know the full-blooded joy of being close to persons in all their vital personal experiences.

A minister contributes to a community what no one else can. The medical doctor enters into certain emergencies; the lawyer, others. The tax expert, the butcher, the grocer, the appliance repair man, the teacher, the playground director and the newsboy all make their contributions, but permeating every area of life is the love and support of the minister. He has the satisfaction of the shepherd who calls his sheep by name. The power of resurrection energizes his work, and he knows that, whatever it appears on the surface, his labor is not in vain in the Lord. Phillips Brooks put it this way: “There is no career that can compare with it for a moment in the rich and satisfying relations into which it brings a man with his fellowmen, in the deep and interesting insight which it gives him into human nature, and in the chance of the best culture for his own character.”

And if there are disappointments and frustrations along the way, and they are many and frequent, he remembers that the servant is not greater than the master; he recalls, too, that it is not required of stewards that they be found successful, but faithful.

One thing remains to be said about the ministry: It is essential because God has ordained it. The ministry is not an idea contrived by men to cope with the difficulties of communicating the message or building up the Church. It is God’s way of ministering to the Church in order that the Church may carry on more fruitfully her ministry in the world.

In the midst of all the confusion about the nature of the ministry that had grown up in medieval times, the Reformation sounded some clarion notes. It was Luther who wanted the Church to realize that every legitimate vocation was an opportunity for ministry. Justification by faith meant that there were no second-class citizens within the kingdom. Every believer was a priest, and some priests were called to be preachers. 

Calvin also reminded us that the ordained ministry is a special office of the Church. And not only a special office, but a gift of grace. It was God’s loving and gracious way of making the message of the Incarnation, and of that reconciliation which was the aim of the Incarnation, known to men. The ministry, according to Calvin, was to be reformed. That is, it was to be under the authority of the infallible Word of God rather than under an ecclesiastical stricture. The ministry was to be catholic: each minister was a representative of the universal Church working in a particular situation. The ministry was to be apostolic in the sense that it had been commissioned by Christ Himself, and its message was to be the message of redemption through Christ that the apostles preached. The reformers viewed the ministry as God’s way of accommodating Himself to human need.

But the ministry is not only a gift, it is a necessity: it is the means God chose by which to put across His message. In our day and age men may take the call to the ministry casually, but the Apostle Paul never did. “Necessity is laid upon me,” he said. “Woe is me if I preach not the gospel.” “All this is from God,” he claimed, “who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” As long as there are lost sheep, there is need for ministry.

As time brings changes, approaches to the ministry may change; refinement of methods of preaching, techniques of counseling and administrative skills may take place. But the ministry itself is indispensable because God has made it so: To call into question the success of the ministry in any period or the performance of any given minister is to call attention to the earthiness of our human vessels. But to question the role of the ministry itself is to engage in speculation that borders on blasphemy. It is to say that God did not know what He was doing.

Any evaluation of the ministry must include a plea to every Christian layman to reassess his attitude toward his own ministry and his pastor’s. He must recognize both the splendor of the revealed treasure and the earthiness of the vessel. Honor and respect should be his attitudes toward the ministry, riot adulation or adoration. He should allow his minister to be himself, a frail human, a forgiven sinner. It is essential that the layman shake off the temptation to be a spectator or a sponsor in his church, when be is called to be saint and witness.

Let the call go out to every college and university campus in our land for men and women to join the company of those dedicated to Christian discipleship. Others may make their vocational decisions in terms of ease and comfort, remuneration and prestige—but Christians cannot. Others may seek to escape the seamy side of life and to live as though men were not sinners, as though Christ had not died—but Christians cannot. The Christian knows that it is love and not knowledge that stretches man to his full height. His life has been gripped by the grace of God, and he can never be glib or casual again. He has heard the twin themes of mercy and judgment, and their ring penetrates all the other tunes of life.

This is a day for recruiting and enlisting, a day of enduring hardness, running with patience, keeping a firm hand on the plow and not looking back. Theological educators across the land are seeking to face their responsibilities squarely. They join me in begging the whole church to spare no effort, to see to it that men are prepared for the ministry, who can give themselves to what the Puritans called “painful preaching”—preaching which takes great pains to apply the Word of Cod to human predicaments with stinging relevance. 

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