Timothy Larsen: Is there an expert in the house?

What do you do when the pastor asks you, “Is that right?” Or when you are tempted to ask your more learned colleagues the same thing?

When I found myself living in Toronto for a couple of years, I ended up attending a mainline church. This brief Canadian interlude is the only time in my life when my home congregation has been what I like to refer to as a “real church.”

All the decades before and since, I have spent my Sunday mornings in much more humble and makeshift places. Young congregations aimed at young people. Startup churches without denominational connections. Churches that rent auditoriums where industrious 20-somethings disperse chairs in the early morning, only to stack them up again before lunch.

I’ve attended relentlessly informal churches, where the worship leaders might be wearing shorts and are apt to chat between songs about what they have done the night before. During the sermon, the preacher might suddenly ask someone in the congregation, “Are you going to watch the game this afternoon, Brittany?”

Toronto was the only time in my life when I had a minister with an M.Div. The rest of my various pastors have learned their craft mostly by doing it.

So there I sit on my stackable chair as a professor of theology -- the “expert” in the house.

There are several disconcerting things about this position. In my current congregation, where my family members and I have worshipped for a decade, one of the strangest is that while everyone refers to our senior pastor by his first name -- “Curt” -- they persist in calling me “Dr. Larsen.”

Assuming that this was grounded in undue deference, I tried for years to break them of this habit. I have come to suspect, however, that it is really a kind of alarm signal, like the snake’s rattle, warning everyone that there is an expert within striking distance.

It is revealing, if deflating, how often the mere presence of an expert can cause people to become almost paralyzed with the thought that what they are saying might not be true. Most disconcertingly, this happens to preachers in midflow. They will catch my eye, be seized with self-doubt and suddenly ask, “Is that right?”

What can I possibly say? What I always think is, “Well, even if it’s not, we couldn’t possibly fix it on the fly, so just keep moving and do the best you can.” Boldness be your friend.

As the erstwhile fisherman Peter, who must have had to learn to steel himself against the crippling gaze of experts, so astutely recommends, “If anyone speaks, they should do so as one who speaks the very words of God” (1 Peter 4:11 NIV).

As a side note, I should mention that the same thing happens to my wife, who is a medical doctor. The preacher will be deep into an analogy between our junior high school winter retreat and the body’s immune system, then abruptly address her with the dreaded, “Is that right?” (I might have unwittingly helped to foster this by trying hard to get the congregation to think of her as “the real Dr. Larsen.”)

Curiously, as I have also spent the last decade of my life in a rather large and formidable biblical and theological studies department, I have been living this experience from the other side as well.

Having come up through do-it-yourself churches in which I began delivering Sunday morning sermons at the age of 16, I have a lot more preaching experience than many of my colleagues. I also have a reputation for being able to “connect” with students (who, um, might sometimes value entertainment over exegesis). This means that I am repeatedly called upon to speak in chapel.

As a church historian passing for a theologian who finds himself expounding a passage of Holy Scripture, I tend to get struck by impostor syndrome.

Often in the congregation are experts who have written a learned commentary on the very book of the Bible from which I have taken my text -- or who were even (I exaggerate not) on the committee that created the very translation I have read it from!

How are we supposed to navigate the relationship between expertise and community? Our attitude when there are experts in our midst should be, I believe, a teachable spirit that is open to correction and new insights, combined with a holy boldness to do what God has called us to do.

When I am in the role of the expert in the house, I try to live by a few rules.

First, I go out of my way to make sure the leaders know that I believe in their ministries and our collective mission. I try to mention most every time that I am blessed by something, grateful for it, or impressed with how it was done.

When they see me coming, I don’t want them to expect that it is because I want to correct them.

Instead, I pick my moments very carefully. Every now and then someone really is stumbling unwittingly into heresy or sub-Christian practice, and I feel the need to guide them gently back to the path. I hope these quiet admonitions find their place in the ongoing flow of affirmation, encouragement and joyful service that I am also providing.

The last thing I want to be is the perpetual critic. After all, most of the right ways of looking at me don’t reveal me to be an expert at all. I’m certainly not an expert at a life of holiness, for example.

Maybe someday a minister will suddenly turn to me when speaking about the garden-variety sins that so easily entangle and ensnare ordinary people.

“Is that right?” the preacher will wonder. “Yeah, that’s right,” I’ll reply.