Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The More Things Change

I have been reading E. Brooks Holifield's excellent work God's Ambasssadors: A History of the Christian Clergy in America.  Holifield's study demonstrates that our contemporary church conflicts and trends are not all that new--in fact many of them are as old as the very beginnings of the Christian ministry in the United States.  Some complaints are perennial: the new, young pastors are not as spiritual, educated, gifted, etc. as the old.  Clergy have too much power (from parisonhers).  Parishoners have too much power (from clergy).  The church is in spiritual and moral decline.  Pastors are not adequatly paid.  And so on.  But some issues troubling the American church a hundred or even three hundred years ago have a very contemporary ring to them.  Consider the following.

"A number of clergy fell into trouble with their cogregations in the 1720s when they tried to change worship by having their congregations sing by note and in harmony." (p. 87)

Revivalist Geroge Whitefield brought a theatrical form of preachnig that "to his opponents . . .seemed little more than 'harangues' . . . and brought 'downright Disgrace on the sacred Function of the Ministry.' To his many imitators Whitefield brough a welcome relief to 'the learned and elaborate Discourse of clergy whose sermons now appeared as 'without life or Power'." (p. 92)

"Populists contended that the educated clergy could not reach the common people. . .'The illiterate Methodist preachers actually set the world on fire' while the clerical gentlement 'were still lighhing their matches.' (p. 125).

Even mega-church pastors are nothing new.  Nor are surefire techniques for success and church growth.  Few American preachers were as famous and popular as the 19th century's Henry Ward Beecher.  He attracted thousands to his Brooklyn parish.  He could be said to be the father of the personality driven church and ministry.  His sermons were full of humor, stories, and personal refelctions.  He also provided a dubious model for his many successors in the messy sex scandal that clouded the latter years of his ministry.  He was not alone in offering new approaches to ministerial success.  His contemporary Charles Grandison Finney was convinced that one could produce a revival by following the right technique.  His methods are studied and followed to this day. 

Prominent throughout the book is the struggle between the pastor as evangelist and the pastor as shepherd.  Throughout the history of the American church these roles have often been in conflict.  The conflict continues to this day.  To what extent should the pastor reach out to the "lost" and to what extent should the pastor care for the "flock"?  Holifield cites another ongoing conlfict.  In the late 19th and early 20th century the pastor as "executive" rose to prominence.  Large and complex urban churches required competent administrative leadership.  Executive ability became more important that theological learning or even personal piety.  The "business model"  for ministry was as hotly debated in the late 19th century as it is today.

This suggests that what we think are new challenge to the nature of ministry are not really new at all.  It also suggests that we could learn from the squabbles and struggles of the past.  Holifield seems to suggest that something is lost when one side of the various debates is emphasized to the exclusion of the other.  That is no less true today than it was in 1720 or 1920.  I highy recommend God's Ambassadors.

1 comment:

  1. annual meeting today at my church....thinking they might have added page 87 if they could have!!!!