Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Book Review: Letters to a Young Pastor

One of the blogs that I follow on Feedly (the Google Reader replacement) is Challies. Each day, he trawls the Amazon site, highlighting some special Kindle deals likely to interest Christians. Sometimes it's frustrating to discover the offers only apply in America and can't be found on the UK Kindle store, but often times, the same deals are here too. There are always free and cheap Kindle books going, so when they appear, I fill up my Kindle. You never know when they might come in handy. The book under review was one such 'some day' deal.

I had never heard of Calvin Miller before, and wasn't sure that I would find much in common with a Southern Baptist minister. Yet the title of the book sparked my interest. I'm still a young pastor (I hope!), so it would be good to take an opportunity to learn from someone longer in the Lord's service. And what I found was a captivating writing style, great advice, and a book I'll return to again and again.

The introduction sets the scene:

Walk with me, young pastor, and let us speak of things that are not included in the treasury of all you learned in seminary. Make no mistake, I am pro-seminary. In fact, I am pro-a-lifetime-of-study for every pastor... One reason you should take this walk with me is that I am most imperfect. I have made so many mistakes, but these errors all held lessons of their own. And te mistakes are but the dark threads of success it takes to complete a tapestry. Walk with me and I will show you how you can use those dark threads to put artistic shadows and depth into your lightsome life... But the all-time great reason that you should listen to me is that much of what I write about in the book is written from the edge. Ministry is not for sissies, and the requirement of the tough times brings us to the edge of our commitment.

What follows are a series of letters each looking at an aspect of life and ministry. He doesn't take himself too seriously, which helps to show what life was really like for him. But the thing I loved the most were the turns of phrase. In his obituary, a colleague compared him to CS Lewis, and his writing is certainly memorable:

Now, Don Piper has spent some time in heaven and found it a profitable sojourn, but in my early days most evangelists had spent some time in hell and found it profitable as well. In those days there were a lot of sermons on hell, and even those that were not on hell sounded like hell.

'So many of the letters in this book focus on the long haul and the power of sticking to one thing: tenure.'

The letters take as their subjects: Seeing the significance of your call whatever the congregation's size; keeping the passion in your call; The art of pinpointing your location in a postdenominational world; reputation; the despondency trap; agape and eros; the pastor-parent; the art of self-forgiveness; come, let's make the world rounder; The rule of Jude 3; Avoid any word that begins with 'neo'; the emergent emergency; standing at the corner of orthodox avenue and political boulevard; what does your church offer that's missing at the YMCA?; when you can't find God; when idols fall; when bishops quarrel; the player-coach; breaking your bondage to the success syndrome; image or vision: it's your choice; never resign till Tuesday; vitality: the art of not snoozing through a revolution; nets allow aerialists to file for social security; coping with difficult people; grumpy homiletics; the candidate sermon; preaching to Hansy and Betsy; to entertain or not to entertain?; keeping in touch with the arts; nonconformity: the art of submissive individuality; confession: the art of telling it like it is, however it makes you look; touch: the delicate art of leaving your fingerprints on human need; self-crucifixion: the art of looking good on wood; and finally, humility: the art of doing good stuff and giving Jesus the credit. Thirty-five letters, each one with something interesting to take from them. Among the highlights are:

He analyses the reasons people give up on Christian ministry: 'First, we die because we suffer from congregational social schisms that result from huge doses of unforgiveness between jealous, wrangling laypeople. Second, we have too many pastors who compete within their denominations and fire at each other with blitzes of resentment. Third, many preachers who resent each other's success within their city limits participate in sanctimonious name-calling: 'Easy gospel church!' 'Calvinist Mecca! Bible-free preaching! Social gospelers! Modernists!'

There was an interesting chapter on the rise of the megachurches and his critique of them - made all the most interesting by the sudden decline and disappearance of Mars Hill Church formerly pastored by Mark Driscoll: 'The fact that you are reading this book leads me to believe you are not a megachurch pastor. I am guessing this for a couple of reasons. Reason number one: Most megachurch pastors are not well read, and when they do read, they tend to read from a list of sources that directly relate to church growth - namely, their own church growth... Reason number two: The overwhelming number of church pastors are "small" church pastors who never in their lifetimes will pastor a large church.' On the 'success mystique' of megachurch growth, he isn't a fan of multisite multicampus video sermons. 'The main idea here is that it is better to have a famous pastor at three locations than two nonfamous pastors at the other locations... But overall, this cultural-hero business in megachurches is not saving evangelicalism. It is generally flattening the world... by creating the illusion that each of these churches is unique... by creating the notion that they are saving Christianity. In reality they are destroying it... Third, megachurches are a bog of lost concern. Pastoral care has all but died... Eugene Peterson's pastoral job description is this: Live in the middle of your congregation and love God. The sheer numbers in megachurches render this definition impossible.'

There is also a strong denunciation of emergents and revisionists which has to be read in full to be appreciated, two full chapters worth, at least!

If you're in pastoral ministry, then this is a book for you to read. While it's targeted at younger pastors, it would be beneficial for any pastor of any age and stage. There is much that will do you good here - even if it's just to hear that someone else was going through the same things you're going through. His wisdom - godly wisdom - shines through, and will do your heart good. Letters to a Young Pastor by Calvin Miller is available for Kindle.

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