I am currently reading Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: the Shape of Pastoral Integrity, one of three books he has written on pastoral work, and some of the best writing on pastoral ministry I have ever read. In the opening pages of this book he writes these words:
“The biblical fact is that there are no successful churches. There are, instead, communities of sinners, gathered before God week after week in towns and villages all over the world. The Holy Spirit gathers them and does his work in them. In these communities of sinners, one of the sinners is called pastor and given a designated responsibility in the community. The pastor’s responsibility is to keep the community attentive to God.”
If I was to describe pastoral ministry as I see it played out, I would alter that last sentence to say something like “One of the pastor’s responsibilities is to keep the community attentive to God.” Pastors have lots of things to do like sit in meetings, plan budgets and then preach on giving so those budgets can be reached, cast visions, strategize new programs, attend to building matters, follow-up on absentees, pray with the sick, comfort the sorrowing, counsel those going through difficulties, prepare lessons and sermons, perform funerals and weddings, plan services, spend time with unsaved people, attend pastors’ meetings, and take up the endless assortment of social, moral, and political causes that seek the pastor’s involvement and support. Oh, and high on that list, maybe even #1 is keeping the church attentive to God.
But that’s not what Peterson wrote. He said it is the pastor’s responsibility, not one of many responsibilities. In other words, if the pastor doesn’t do this he is derelict in his duty, no matter what else he may do to busy himself or no matter what he may accomplish that looks good. But if he does do this, he has done his job and fulfilled his calling.
That is it? Just one thing? What about preaching, training, and disciple-making? Here’s the deal: none of those things are ends in themselves. Keeping a community attentive to God is. As long as those other things are aimed at the one thing, a pastor is on track On the one hand the responsibility sounds simple; a one-item job description: “Keep the community attentive to God.” But the reality is that this is a difficult thing to do.
This is difficult because our world is not attentive to God. At best it ignores Him; at worst it outright rebels against Him. So these “communities of sinners,” as Peterson calls churches, work and play, laugh and weep, love and hate, and seek to display the grace of God in surroundings that honestly want nothing to do with God and are disinterested in anything He has to say and opposed to anything He seeks to do. And that world entices all to do the same.
This is difficult because churches are communities of sinners who still struggle to be attentive to God over self. This self-focus manifests itself as people approach the church with the expectation that it exists to “make much of them” (in the words of John Piper). And so the church becomes consumed with meeting the expectations of self-focused people who want their needs, their likes, and their causes to be attended to, all in the name of God.
This is difficult because pastors themselves can become inattentive to God while being very attentive to the litany of pastoral activities I cited earlier. When it comes to being attentive to God, pastors suffer their own unique kind of attention deficit disorder.
Therefore, the pastor must not be surprised by sinners being self-focused nor should he constantly chide them for it. The old ways and the flesh are not easily dislodged. What he cannot do, however, is abandon his one responsibility in the pursuit of satisfying all other expectations. As real as the battle may be in his own soul, the fact remains that from among the gathered sinners, he has been specifically ordained to keep that community attentive to God. If he abandons his post, nothing but disaster awaits.
Keeping a congregation attentive to God may sound vague, but Peterson goes on to cite
three specific activities the pastor must engage in to accomplish his work, activities that cannot be pushed aside by other pressing demands.
- First is praying, in which the pastor brings himself to attention before God.
- Second is reading God’s Word, in which the pastor brings attention to the things that God has said and done over thousands of years in Israel and in Christ.
- Third is giving spiritual direction, in which the pastor gives attention to what God is doing in the life of the person before him at any given moment.
Activities other than these may be necessary in the church, but they are not pastoral work.
I intend to examine my pastoral work and give every effort to discard or delegate away those things that hinder me from doing the one thing that I must do for the sake of the community of sinners of which I am a part – keep us attentive to God.