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Confronting the Idolatry of Family: A New Vision for the Household of God by Janet Fishburn


Janet Fishburn is Professor of Teaching Ministry at Drew University Theological School in Madison, New Jersey. This book was published by Abingdon Press, Nashville (1991). This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 3: The Effect of Family Idolatry on a Congregation


Where a domesticated piety dominates the commitments of a denomination, the conservation of middle-class ideals can blind both leaders and people to the prominent concern for social justice found in the Bible. On the other hand, even when leaders are committed to seeking social justice, they have not been able to sustain a legitimate critique of poverty and injustice in America because the family ideals of the American Dream continue to be linked to democratic values and economic stability. Uncritical loyalty to "the family pew" makes it very difficult to see or comprehend the plight of the poor and the homeless, the oppression of minority persons, as anything but their own fault. It requires courage for any pastor of an old-line congregation to preach prophetically. To ask middle-class Americans to see American culture as Jesus would see it is to ask them to vote against their own privileged position in society.1

Dualism in the Nature and Mission of the Church

The United Presbyterian Church was seriously divided in 1971 over a $10,000 contribution by the Council on Church and Race to a legal defense fund for Angela Davis, a black activist and revolutionary. While the division of opinion revolved around whether the church should ever get involved in politics and whether Christians could support a known communist, the unspoken issue was the historic suspicion that communism is an attack on the American way of life. Among denominations in which membership was already declining in that period, the United Presbyterians experienced the sharpest decline in stewardship as well.

Because of deep division over the "Angela Davis affair," Dean Hoge conducted a survey among United Presbyterians in New Jersey to learn why the action of the council had drawn such extreme reactions. Hoge’s conclusions are not surprising when seen in the context of the role of churches in perpetuating the American Dream. His data, published in 1976, convinced him that American Protestants are divided into a two-party system. The major difference between parties concerns the relative importance of outreach and mission activities in a congregation. He found that liberals define mission as support of social action and oppose evangelism, conservatives define mission as evangelism and oppose social action.

More important, Hoge discovered that mission and out-reach --regardless of definition -- is not the ultimate loyalty of either party. Liberals and conservatives agreed that serving the needs of members and their families is more important than outreach in either form. The "needs of families" are identified with career and standard of living. "If a proposed action is perceived as contrary to middle-class interests, even some persons who favor ‘social action’ in theory will begin to oppose that particular action."2 The value consensus of conservative and liberal Protestants is the middle-class way of life. For both, commitment to religion and church is seen as a way to fulfill personal goals related to family, career, and standard of living.

Hoge’s data is not peculiar to Presbyterians. The data indicates the general controlling power of family loyalty, possibly the most powerful remaining loyalty in the vision of "a Christian America." Church members seem determined to maintain the belief that their church is a family of families. Even if members do not view the family as a little church, they still want the congregation to be a family of families.

Present confirmation practices affirm the belief of parents that their children have been born into the church and should be confirmed. However different private and public visions of the church may be, they do agree on maintaining the status of "the family pew," through worship, Sunday School, and pastoral care.

The two spheres of the dichotomous worldview of Victorian America are reflected in these attitudes about the nature of the church. The private-party church is devoted to saving individual souls, one by one --to drawing the world into the church for spiritual safety. Just as the Victorian home was considered "a haven from a heartless world" the evangelical church offers safety from a dangerous, immoral world to its members. The pastor takes on the role of the mother -- instructing, nurturing, inspiring, comforting members in times of trouble. Like the Victorian mother, the pastor presides over family worship.

The "Christian family church" is usually a private-party church: concern with personal morality is high. Members want the pastor to take a stand on moral issues as long as the position taken claims to be biblical and conforms to their moral values and commitments.3

For the public-party church, the nature and mission of the church require some form of activism in the world, the public sphere of Victorian men. The pastor’s role here is more like that of the Victorian father, with far less emphasis on instruction or nurture of members. Pastoral care may be secondary to the work of inspiring members to find some ministry in the community. Worship, preaching, and the sacraments are rituals of congregational identity for world-oriented people. The modern social gospel is a masculine, worldly form of Christianity. Here, too, members want the pastor to address moral issues only as long as the position conforms to their moral and political convictions.

Either way, the pastor is expected to model the gospel that is preached. Congregations look for a pastor who models their form of Christianity while serving as in-house family chaplain for members. The pastor is expected to lead the congregation by strengthening its particular identity. Effectiveness is generally measured by how well the pastor conforms to local expectations, adds new members to the roll and money to the treasury. Members of most congregations would not want their pastor to give spiritual direction to their congregation if that meant a challenge to present commitments.

The "family pew ethos" institutionalized in late-Victorian Protestant spirituality depended on an unquestioned belief that Christian faith is most powerfully nurtured in the Christian home, while knowledge about the Bible is best learned at church. Unless pastors acknowledge the truth that the church cannot rely on the home for nurturing Christians, congregations are doomed to keep repeating the dichotomous patterns of a Victorian worldview.

The belief that love and moral commitment are learned at home while persons learn about the Bible at church has had the devastating effect of separating life at work and life at home from the life of faith. That is why there is so little transfer of learning from the church to daily life in the world. The Protestant churches have institutionalized a split between church life and the daily life of church members for so long that members either do not want or do not expect their pastors to relate the Bible to their loves and moral commitments.

It is doubtful that Protestant families ever functioned as little churches. But it is certain that unless that illusion is named and confronted, the present gap between church life and the daily life of church members will not be bridged.

Confronting Family Idolatry

The loyalty of church members to visions of an ideal family is a tragically misplaced love. Where love of parents, children, or spouse commands more commitment than love to God, the one who loves is bound to be disappointed. Love to family members and spouse can be an expression of love to God. But that is different from the kind of faith in the family found in many congregations.

The 1961 survey of Fairchild and Wynn reported an "unhealthy ultimacy" in an expectation of "complete self-fulfillment" in family life among parents of children attending Presbyterian Sunday Schools. They also found that the parents interviewed knew very little about Christian faith. This suggests that the attitudes about the family held by most adult church members are not very different from those of any other American.4 One difference is that members of congregations expect the church to help them achieve fulfillment in their family relationships.

There is little reason to believe that parental expectations of the church have changed much since 1961. The idea that a family can be a source of self-fulfillment has a tenacious hold among the ideals that Americans hold dear. Even if this ideal is no longer as important to Americans in general, research indicates that the life of many congregations revolves around their reputation for being "a family church."5

Love of family is still a dominant loyalty in Protestant congregations. Jesus was quite clear that anyone who loved family more than they loved him would not be found among his followers (Matt. 10:34-39). This suggests that attempts to keep the loyalties of "the family pew" intact in a congregation is a tragically misplaced loyalty.

American Christians are so imbued with a subtle mixture of love of country, family, and God that it is difficult to see this as a false god. It is hard to condemn love of family or patriotism. Nevertheless, Protestants in America have been dreaming of a Christian America for two hundred years; they have known only a Christianity in which God has been identified with prosperity and family stability. The hope that God will bestow blessings on family members seems more like a form of Old Testament tribal religion than the post-Pentecost faith of Christians who "turned the world upside down."

Jesus commended the scribe who saw that to love God and neighbor above all else "is much more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Mark 12:33). The scribe recognized that preoccupation with religious traditions even those commanded by God -- can become idolatrous. When any act of faithfulness becomes so important that the activity obscures the ability of the people to know and praise the faithfulness of God to them, then they have forgotten that God is the source of all human love. "The family pew" is an American form of the ancient Hebrew tendency toward preoccupation with burnt offerings.

Whenever the people of Israel became preoccupied with religious ritual they lost their capacity to enjoy God’s love for them. Any love more important than God’s love can become an idolatrous love. Amos’s condemnation of an idolatrous form of religion is as clear today as it was at the height of Israel’s power and prosperity.

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (Amos 5:21-24)

Membership Growth and Decline

It is striking that congregations once considered main-line have become "side-line" since the freedom-movement era of the 1960s. No subject has commanded as much attention among pastors and denominational leaders in recent years as that of declining membership in formerly main-line churches. The Church Growth Movement offers books, workshops, and evangelism programs to stem the tide of membership loss.

Leaders say that spiritual vitality of members is as important as the number of members. Yet, maintaining some level of financial viability does get priority over spiritual formation when membership is declining. Freedom of religion means that a free market forces pastors, congregations, and denominations to compete against one another for members. Ecumenical cooperation can only flourish when churches are growing and financially stable.

Like the economy, American congregations have regular periods of growth followed by precipitous decline. During the past twenty years sociologists have tried to explain why some denominations and congregations grow while others lose members. It has been argued that conservative congregations are growing because there are clear expectations concerning what a person must be and do in order to become a member. Where there is clarity about what a congregation stands for, members do have more conviction about their faith.

In congregations that are not growing there is often lack of clarity about group identity. Over time, a diminishing sense of commitment to the church affects the morale of the congregation. Members are not likely to give the church high priority in their lives if belonging requires no particular effort on their part. People cannot be expected to invest themselves in an organization that asks nothing of them; if little is required that is exactly what they will give.

Research about adults who are "church shopping" indicates that they want to find a congregation with good worship and preaching, a church where the people are "friendly." But they are also thinking about the person most likely to be with them in times of family transitions. They want a pastor with whom they will feel comfortable at a family baptism, confirmation, wedding, funeral. Denominational identity is less important to most church shoppers than finding a pastor and congregation where they feel comfortable. In part, it is family-pew loyalties that lead people across denominational lines. They are looking for a church that will satisfy the needs of their family members.

Loyalty to "the family pew" -- and to "our kind of people" -- is a powerful motivation that directly affects church membership choices. It also has an effect on denominational policies concerning sacramental practices, definitions of membership, ministry, and the role of pastors. Trends toward increasing homogeneity in the membership of congregations are troubling indicators of lack of concern about racism, sexism, and classism in the church.

Sociologists have studied, probed, and measured change in church membership patterns over the last twenty years, trying to understand the precipitous decline in membership. The prognosis is not all gloom and doom. The latest phenomenon among the now "old-line" churches is the growth rate of churches with 1,500 or more members; this accounts for virtually all membership gains in once "main-line" denominations. Otherwise, small "old-line" congregations grow smaller. The average size of most congregations is now 100-150 members on the roll.6

Most of the growing churches with 1,500 or more members are located in the South and Midwest. These are the two regions where the conventional values of "the family pew" are still strong. Just as economic prosperity and church-going habits have always reinforced each other as family-pew values, the towns and cities in which churches are growing are usually located in regions where there is recent economic and population growth.

In recent years the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the most explicitly conservative denominations, has grown. Denominational leaders are quite explicit about preserving the values of "the Christian home" and the moral standards associated with the God of "a Christian America."

A combination of economic growth with the conservation of the dualistic worldview of Victorian America -- especially attitudes related to sexuality -- partially accounts for growth in conservative churches. At the June 1988 Southern Baptist Convention, delegates voted unanimously to condemn homosexuality as "a manifestation of depraved nature" and "a perversion of divine standards."’ There is some evidence that when church-shoppers look for a church with lively worship and good preaching this includes a concern for moral values they can affirm."

In the northeast, where church membership losses are greatest, there is far less economic expansion. The moral standards of a "new" sexual ethos dominate urban centers and influence attitudes of church members in the northeast. The spirituality of the sexually conservative family-pew ethos is far less attractive to persons living in the northeast than it is to persons living in the south and midwest. Nevertheless, wherever churches are growing it is often because they remain faithful to some of the attitudes and aspirations of the American Dream.

Sociologists report that strong Sunday School programs attract couples with children to a particular church. Studies of growing multiple-staff congregations indicate that the two most important factors that attract new members are good preaching and worship and "a friendly congregation."9 These are also the churches most likely to have a well-organized Sunday School with classes for all ages.

The emotional climate of any congregation with more than 1,000 members has the appearance of warmth but makes no particular demands of members. It has friendly looking people who exchange casual greetings or do church business before and after worship. It is very likely a church where each age group and interest group has its own proper place. The capacity to offer more than one time for worship and Sunday School usually means that children will attend their classes while adults worship. That way adults can enjoy quality sermons and a good choir without being disturbed.

In a large congregation only a small percentage of adults will ever be asked to participate actively as leaders of the congregation. A growing congregation bustles with life; the staff is excited and exciting. Morale in growing congregations is almost guaranteed to be high. Yet, here is a "church home" where anonymity is also guaranteed to anyone who wants it. Where there are more than 1,000 people who worship on a given Sunday morning, intimacy can easily be avoided. The membership rituals in a large church, of necessity, can be little more than a perfunctory introduction of persons who will never know or be known to more than a small group within the congregation, if they are known at all.

The personality of the pastor is crucial to a large, growing congregation in a way that is not true for smaller congregations.

There is [also] evidence that the pastor’s influence on church membership growth increases with the size of the church. Many members in mid-size churches and most members of large membership churches listed the pastor along with the friendliness of the people as the principle reasons for joining their present church. In churches with fewer than 100 members, the pastor may or may not be a critical factor in church membership trends.10

The pastor is less likely to be a critical factor in membership trends in churches of one hundred or fewer members because of the natural capacity of the small congregation to be like an extended family. Here, there is usually a stable core of members who provide ministry to family members in times of need. Whether the pastor is a critical factor in membership trends or not, people are looking for a "church home" where they can expect someone to be with them in their times of family transition or crisis.

Membership in all but a handful of congregations today is relatively casual, making few demands of persons who indicate interest in a congregation. Current statistics indicate that the larger the congregation the faster it will grow. The rate of growth, percentage of membership at worship, health of church finances, and percentage of budget given to benevolence are typical measures of a church’s success.

This all too typical quantitative measure of church success is like the standard of success in the Victorian family where wealth was considered evidence of God’s blessing on good people. For a long time the wealthiest people were thought to be the best, most moral people. No main-line denomination ever condemned the "ill-gotten gains" of any "captain of industry." Denominations and pastors were only too happy to benefit from the philanthropic impulses of the rich.

None of the above factors -- membership growth, financial stability, a friendly congregation, quality worship, or good preaching -- is necessarily evidence that members are committed to participation in the Body of Christ. Where gains in church membership do represent commitment to participation in the Body of Christ, the surrounding community is aware of a Christian presence in its midst. Often a congregation is known because of its ministry to various kinds of family situations. Where members of a congregation are expected to embody the Spirit of Jesus, their attitudes about family life, work, and stewardship are distinctive. Their commitments of time and self to seeking well-being for others in the congregation and in the world can attract new members.

Members of congregations that lack clear identity often treat the church as a peripheral activity. If the membership standards of a congregation do not indicate the all-encompassing nature of faith in Jesus Christ, it is likely that membership commitments will be perfunctory.

Exclusive and Inclusive Membership Practices

Most conservative congregations have clearly stated expectations about what their members stand for. Some require their members to have a particular kind of religious experience as evidence of the work of God in their lives. It may be a conversion experience, a spirit baptism, or speaking in tongues. There is still an expectation in many conservative congregations that members should worship regularly, study the Bible, and support the congregation financially.

Liberal theologians who favor "inclusive" membership policies tend to believe that a congregation will exclude people who are different if there are stated principles regarding church membership. They are rightly suspicious if the principles are the sexist and racist values of the American Dream. But they are wrong if they also conclude that a congregation should not have any requirements of its members lest this lead to a spiritual elitism.

An inclusive church, by sociological definition, is one where no one is excluded from membership because he or she lacks some distinctive mark of calling such as a conversion experience.11 This way of distinguishing exclusive from inclusive membership policies misses the point that all children born into a religious tradition will be encouraged to conform to the practices of their parents. For instance, among so-called exclusive Baptists where a conversion experience is required to become a church member, young people can be expected to, have a conversion experience. But among inclusive Presbyterians where membership may have been considered a family tradition, youths are expected to confirm their baptism. Any religious ritual can come to seem like a requirement for membership when it is the tradition.

Old-line denominations are almost always inclusive in their membership practices. They distinguish themselves from their more charismatic or pentecostal brethren by the very fact that they do not exclude anyone from their membership by spiritual distinctions. They function more like the civil religion of the state churches of Europe, insofar as members are usually born into the church. That is, most members think of themselves as "birthright" Christians. Membership in an inclusive church is often associated with family and citizenship. The implicit old-line mark of a work of God is birth into a white middle-class Protestant family. Here, too, children are expected to conform to the religious practices of their parents.

Is it only a coincidence that old-line denominations have declined in the same period when middle-class parents find themselves less able to expect their children to conform to the family tradition? A recent analysis shows a 30 percent decline in Presbyterian church membership from 1965 to 1988 despite a 27 percent gain in the United States population in the same period. Jack Marcum points out that if the membership loss is attributed to a declining birth rate the decline should have started in the early 1950s. "A more plausible explanation of membership decline among Presbyterians -- at least in the beginning -- is in terms of the denomination’s declining ability to hold onto those [members] who have been reared in Presbyterian families."12

Whether the membership policy in a congregation is inclusive or exclusive, both have been deeply influenced by "the family pew" tradition of the American Dream. Either way, most new members come into fellowship because they are either children of members or friends of members. People who are not like member families socially will not feel welcome. Either way, there are distinctions that are often, though not always, indicative of class affiliation. A visitor to any congregation will know if he or she is in the "right" place by simply observing the dress, the manners, and the language used by members.

It is not exclusive membership requirements that make people feel they do not belong in a congregation. It is the attitudes and values that are acted out by the people who are members which make people feel excluded. This exclusion is a reality for homosexual Christians who are not able to be themselves in many congregations. Although no statistical data are available to verify that homosexual Christians are members and pastors in many congregations, the statistical probabilities from other national data would suggest that concomitant numbers of pastors and laity are homosexual in orientation; however, most do not reveal their identity as homosexuals. They may choose to conceal their identity rather than risk becoming objects of fear and prejudice of other members.

Studies about church growth indicate that a major factor in growth is a homogeneous congregation.13 The most homogeneous congregations in America today are those that are committed to the values of "the family pew." However, the price of uncritical commitment to "the family pew" is the perpetuation of attitudes that will make anyone who is the "wrong" color, class, or sexual orientation feel excluded. Under the surface of many successful congregations catering to the needs of middle-class families lurk the stereotypes and prejudices now ruled unacceptable in civil law. It could be concluded that laws intended to guarantee equal opportunity to all persons are more Christian in intent than the attitudes found in many congregations.

Membership in a church "family" can become idolatrous if a congregation includes only people who are socially comfortable with one another. If people who are "different" feel uncomfortable then that congregation has a membership policy that is exclusive in practice if not in theory. Present practices give an outsider the impression that church members and their pastors are right while the outsider must somehow be wrong. As in Jesus’ day, this may be a case of members of a religious tradition imagining themselves acceptable to God only because they are not like the "sinners" and "outcasts."14

Spiritual Direction as Prophetic Ministry .

It may seem like a contradiction in terms to suggest that giving spiritual direction to a congregation is a form of prophetic ministry.15 Yet, many Protestant congregations are in a state of spiritual drift, in bondage to some part of the American Dream. Although denominational leaders, seminary professors, and pastors may know that dreams of American manifest destiny influenced nineteenth-century theology, few seem to recognize the ways in which the American Dream still influences the church today. The task of giving spiritual direction to a congregation that does embody some of the attitudes of a family-pew theology calls for pastors with the convictions of a prophet, able to tell the people of God that their loyalties are misplaced.

Times of spiritual drift can occur when the present theological tradition is no longer adequate to the task of describing the meaning of Christian faith when there is a major cultural transition. This is one of those times. Recovery of spiritual vitality comes through leaders who feel compelled to speak the word of God to the people. Whether that impulse comes through the preaching of a George Whitefield, the spiritual search of a Martin Luther, the passion for justice of a Sojourner Truth or Martin Luther King, or the humility of a Pope John XXIII, renewal always comes from a rediscovery of the spiritual power of the gospel. Spiritual renewal today depends on awakening to the power of the gospel to transform persons through the Church.

There are signs of new life in the church today. Spiritually restless Christians join Bible study groups, prayer groups, healing groups. Some are church members; some are not. Some of the most impressive evangelism and justice ministry is being carried out by ecumenical groups outside of denominational affiliation and power structures.

Those who write denominational policy continue to respond to role confusion among pastors and laity by redefining ministry. Laity are now better represented at every level of corporate decision-making than ever before. But this stab at inclusiveness and equality in ministry bears virtually no relationship to what happens in the life of congregations. It indicates that political power to make decisions has been confused with spiritual power. A quota system will not lead to spiritual renewal. Neither will a redistribution of the responsibility of ordained leaders of the church among the laity.

Pastors -- not the mothers of America -- are "keepers of springs" of living water. But their responsibility for Word and sacrament will be surrounded with ambiguity unless they are able to claim the ministry to which they were ordained. In the midst of confusion about the ministry of all Christians it may seem reactionary to claim that the role of a pastor is to give spiritual direction to a congregation. Protestants do not think about ministry in terms of spiritual direction. Yet, the writer of Ephesians indicates that it is the life work of church leaders to "equip the saints for the work of ministry . . . until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ" (Eph. 4:12-13).

Leaders of congregations should be people who have been set aside to care for the spirit of other Christians because of their own spiritual gifts and sensitivity. God calls such people to serve as teachers, preachers, evangelists, and prophets to strengthen the unity of the church through knowledge of the Son of God. How else might pastors equip laity for their rightful ministry if not through offering spiritual direction for their lives?

The spiritual authority of a pastor depends on a capacity to interpret Scripture so that it becomes good news to the people of God. It depends on ability to plan and lead worship in which God’s love -- a love too great to be conveyed by words alone -- is experienced. The provision of spiritual direction for the life of a congregation requires the courage of a prophet to challenge illusions about "the good life" and the gentle love of a shepherd who leads a flock to springs of living water.

The office of ordained ministry has traditionally been defined as responsibility for Word, order, and sacrament. The church in the late twentieth century is no different from the church in any age in her need for leaders to feed God’s people by telling them the truth about God, the world, and themselves. To ask a pastor to give spiritual direction to a congregation is another way of saying that the church needs leaders who can help people come to know that God loves them through their study of Scripture, participation in the sacraments, and membership in a fellowship of Christians.

It is rare to find a congregation where members realize that it is the life work of all Christians to seek and find God’s will, that this is learned through corporate Bible study and prayer. In recent years, the Protestant tradition has not cultivated the practice of traditional spiritual disciplines among either pastors or laity. Yet, these are the disciplines that undergird, inspire, and sustain the commitment to Christian ministry. They are the disciplines that give direction and meaning to life.

Ordination to ministry sets people aside to be responsible for the care of the human spirit through Word and sacrament. Extensive involvement in pastoral care leaves some pastors spiritually depleted. Where the pastor is the only person making calls in times of family tragedy, the only person sought for counsel in times of trouble, this can lead to a misuse of God-given gifts for ministry.

This does not mean that ministry does not require sensitivity to the particular needs and circumstances of members of a congregation. It does mean that more pastoral care should be carried out by members of a congregation so the pastor can devote more attention to the disciplined study and meditation necessary for lively preaching of the gospel, teaching, and worship leadership.

In practice, most senior pastors enjoy this luxury. They are known for their gifts in preaching and worship leadership. If a congregation is to know the power of God’s word, the pastoral leader needs time to learn what it means to faithfully exegete Scripture. Every pastor should be able to devote at least one full uninterrupted day a week to Bible study and sermon preparation.

A pastor is not called merely to provide spiritual services for a congregation. If any one person gives excessive amounts of service, other members are robbed of growth through ministry. Every Christian has some gift for ministry, some way to give God’s love to others. The exercise of gifts for ministry is essential to growth in commitment to Jesus Christ. The task of the pastoral leader is not to do all of the work of the church; it is to engage all of the people in all of the work of the church. That is what it means to give order to the life of a congregation.

Very few Protestant pastors ordained in the last thirty years have been educated to think of themselves as the spiritual leaders of a congregation. A theological education may represent little more than learning about theology, the Bible, and church history; it may seem unrelated to being a spiritually disciplined person. Yet, the very same knowledge can be spiritually formative if it is expected to inform and transform the life of the learner.

Just as theological studies can impact the life of the learner, a pastor’s preparation for preaching, teaching, and leading worship each week can be spiritually formative. These preparations are the practices of a spiritually disciplined person. It is through preparation to lead others into fellowship with God that a pastor acquires the spiritual vitality that is communicated through acts of preaching, teaching, and leading worship. Any pastor who leads a congregation so that members can see God’s grace at work in their lives and in their world is already giving spiritual direction to that congregation.

The next step -- leading others into ministry -- depends on the pastor’s understanding of the nature of ministry. The focus on ministry as spiritual direction requires the pastor to become the servant of all, the person who enables the ministry of every other member of the congregation. To accomplish this objective would require a redistribution of work in most congregations. In that process, both pastor and congregation will find that their understanding of the nature and mission of the church is changing.

Jesus did not begin ministry until he had been baptized and empowered by the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:21-23). The apostles could not begin their ministry until the Holy Spirit appeared in their midst on Pentecost (Acts 2 :1-12). Faithful ministry in every age has been ministry guided by God’s word as it is known through scripture and illuminated by the Holy Spirit. The fire of Pentecost represents the power of God’s presence, the same fire encountered by Abram, Moses, and Elijah.

In the tongues "as of fire" seen at Pentecost, God made the power of the Spirit available to every follower of Jesus Christ so that each one would be able to speak about "God’s deeds of power" (Acts 2: 11). The power of the Holy Spirit is promised to every pastor in ordination. Like the grace of God and the love of the Lord Jesus Christ, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit must be claimed to be fully enjoyed. That is the only purpose of spiritual discipline: that all might know the love of God.

 

Notes

1. Some of the "border-line" denominations founded late in the nineteenth century by emigrants and blue-collar workers are more responsivc to social injustice today than their old-line counterparts. However, the pattern of moving up in America is so strong that this orientation grows weaker as members become more middle-class. This phenomenon is seen in recent histories about The Assemblies of God.

2. Dean Hoge, Division in the Protestant House (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1976), pp. 83-90.

3. Carl S. Dudley, "Using Church Images for Commitment, Conflict, and Renewal," C. Ellis Nelson, ed., Congregations: Their Power to Form and Traniform (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), pp. 99-100. While this is only onc of cight images described by Dudley, I suspect that the other seven include some allegiance to the idea of a family church.

4. Roy Fairchild and J. C. Wynn, Families in the Church: A Protestant Survey (New York: Association Press, 1961).

5. See Carl S. Dudley, "Using Church Images."

6. In Choices for Churches (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), Lyle E. Schaller discusses these two types of churches in terms of church as community and church as society. A major issue addressed in the book is how a smaller community oriented congregation can attract younger members.

7. "Southern Baptists Condemn Homosexuality as ‘Depraved,’" New York Times (June 17, 1988).

8. Donald Capps, "The Deadly Sins and Saving Virtues: How They Are Viewed by Laity," Pastoral Psychology 37 (Smumer 1989): 229-53. Capps’ research indicates that "our kind of people" does include a concern for ethics. He suggests that denominations are moral communities which see "sin" and "virtue" in different ways.

9. Warren J. Hartman, Discipleship Trends vol. 5, no. I (Nashville: General Board of Discipleship, The United Methodist Church, February 1987). United Methodist trends can be considered typical of other "main-line" denominations.

10. Ihid.

11. 1 am using inclusive as it is used in the church/sect typology of Ernst Troeltsch. His association of the church with inclusive membership and the sect with exclusive membership policies has been widely used by sociologists of religion in the United States. His typology is not directly applicable to religion in the United States because of the difference in cultural setting. The church, as he described it, is more like the established churches of Europe.

12. Jack Marcum, "Membership Decline: Is It a Lack of Babies?" Monday Morning (December 18, 1989).

13. Donald McGavran and George G. Hunter III, Church Growth Strategies that Work (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1980), chap. 2.

14. For further development of this point, see Suzanne Johnson, Christian Spiritual Formation in the Church and Classroom (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), pp. 81-86.

15. My suggestion that it is an act of prophetic courage for a pastor to serve as the spiritual guide of a congregation is not a metaphor or a "model" for ministry. It is a contemporary application of the historic formulation of the role of ordained church leaders as priestly, pastoral, and prophetic. From this perspective, I see administrative and leadership skills as acts of pastoral care for a congregation

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