Michael Jinkins: The abba replies with a word

Last week we posted Tom Arthur's questions as a young pastor in a start-up congregation modeled on megachurches to his elder, Michael Jinkins, about his "Letters to New Pastors," which assumed a very different pastoral context. Here is Jinkins' reply.

Dear Tom,

I am delighted you found "Letters to New Pastors" of value. You are right to say that the kind of church envisioned in the book has more in common with Lischer’s “Open Secrets” and Robinson’s “Gilead” than with churches like Willow Creek. The reason is simple. My experience has been shaped by congregations I’ve attended and served. Those congregations do not represent all the possible ways of being church. They simply represent the ways I know best. When I speak from that experience my intention is not to exclude any other forms of congregational life, simply to speak from what I know.

It grieves me that it is so difficult for a group to speak up for what they are doing without running down others. If early Christians were ever known by their love, we are now known by our factionalism. Wherever the gospel of Jesus Christ is preached I hope Christians will gather to learn from one another and will seek to discern the face of Christ in others.

Second, you said: “It was amazing to me to see how pastors have essentially dealt with the same issues over the last two thousand years.”

Yes, indeed. That’s why Gregory the Great and Chrysostom have so much to teach us. Human beings yearn for community because we are created in the image of the triune God whose very being is in communion. So our greatest need is not self-improvement but redemption. That is true both in fourth-century Asia Minor and twenty-first century North America.

The faith practices of Christian communities take different shapes, but over the centuries witness-bearing, worshiping, care-giving, stewarding, welcoming and serving remain. Technologies differ and ways of communicating change dramatically day-to-day, but we still need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, to forgive others and be forgiven, and to grow into the maturity of the God who took our ruined humanity into himself and brought us home from a far country.

Third, I was impressed when Willow Creek “repented” after its research indicated that active participation in the church’s programs did not seem to increase discipleship, love of God or love for other people. Bill Hybels said, “We made a mistake. What we should have done when people crossed the line of faith and become Christians, we should have started telling people and teaching people that they have to take responsibility to become self-feeders. We should have gotten people, taught people, how to read their Bible between service, how to do the spiritual practices much more aggressively on their own.”

I was deeply moved by the courage of Willow Creek both to do the research and to respond to it publicly. I would encourage other congregations to follow their lead. Willow Creek and Saddleback may be emblematic of a market-driven, business-oriented church culture, but they are not alone. Eugene Peterson has complained that “pastors of America have metamorphosed into a company of shopkeepers, and the shops they keep are churches. They are preoccupied with shopkeeper’s concerns – how to keep the customers happy, how to lure customers away from competitors down the street, how to package the goods so that the customers will lay out more money.” Peterson’s complaint is as valid for many mainline Protestant pastors as it is of those who lead mega-churches.

There is a tendency in our society to believe that theological language is merely elitist jargon, that words like “stewardship,” “evangelism,” “grace” and “atonement,” can be translated to more familiar terms like “fundraising,” “recruitment,” “acceptance” and “connectedness” without loss. But with each translation the faith suffers reductionism and the slide to superficiality. There is also a tendency to believe that the life of faith is basically a personal lifestyle option or an enriching experience, rather than an encounter with the holy God whose Word and Spirit are mediated through the deeply patterned practices of a community of faith. This encounter is often disorienting, uncomfortable, or even frightening because it leads to transformation. The cross is not the only symbol of Christ, but there are good reasons why it is the preeminent one.

There may be good reasons for differentiating between mainline and mega-church congregations, but there is more that is similar than different among us. In fact, there is little if anything unique about mega-churches; in some sense they are just North American Protestantism exaggerated. Mainline Christians who dismiss mega-churches as “big boxes” are as wrong in their disdain as the mega-church Christians who call mainline Protestantism “hide-bound.” The hubris of either version of disrespect is a spiritual problem antithetical to reverence of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

Whatever the form of a congregation or the shape of its building, whatever its philosophy of ministry or its formal ecclesiology, I would hope we are guided by two questions Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asked as he drove past impressive church buildings in the mid-twentieth century on his journey to liberate our country from the shackles of racial segregation. Looking up at the lofty spires and elaborate education buildings, Dr. King asked, “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?” In the end these are the most worthwhile questions, and they are questions any pastor and any people will want to ask for themselves.

Sincerely,

Michael Jinkins

Michael Jinkins is academic dean and professor of pastoral theology at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary.