The Pastor as Community Theologian
Reclaiming a place of influence
There was a time in our culture when people considered local pastors experts on issues of importance to the community. Pastors received invitations to town hall meetings, the newspapers published their sermons on Monday mornings, and their pronouncements from behind the pulpit were part of how people thought about life.
Unfortunately, the pastor’s place in culture has changed. According to several polls in recent years, respect for pastors outside the walls of the church has nearly disappeared. We, as pastors, feel the effects of this change.
The people who call our church home may love us, but tell a random stranger you are a pastor, and prepare for all kinds of awkward reactions. People don’t know what pastors do or why they do it, so they have no compelling reason to listen to one.
This change should alarm us. It is a loss to our cities that pastors are no longer a respected voice on the issues that concern us all, so it is good for us to reclaim the roll of theologian for our communities.
When our culture wrestles with life-transforming issues, the population rarely looks to pastors as experts who have something important to say. Unfortunately, when society excludes pastors from the public debate, a biblical point of view is often missing entirely.
Learning to engage theologically can be tough, and part of what makes communication as a theologian complicated is that we represent a view increasingly foreign to the culture around us. When we articulate a biblical position on human sexuality and marriage, for example, we swim against the cultural stream. But our difference is exactly what makes us so important.
The local pastor is our counter culture. Pastors spend time cultivating spiritual disciplines, and, as a result, a unique sensitivity to the things of God develops in our hearts. God shapes our words and deeds, and because culture simply does not value God’s way of life, the pastor’s voice is often the only one that speaks God’s truth.
Pastors speaking as theologians must build trust to make their voices heard. We must challenge ourselves and hold to high moral standards, learning how to engage people with God’s truth about important matters.
When we address our culture poorly or in an overly hostile way, we perpetuate an “us vs. them” stereotype and shut down potential avenues of communication. And when we address complicated problems in overly simplistic ways, we reinforce the perception that pastors do not have anything to add to the public square.
It is a loss to our cities that pastors are no longer a respected voice on the issues that concern us all.
This means that we need to do our homework and learn how to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Speaking truth to a broken culture does not require hostility, but it does require courage. And courage comes from study and prayer.
I once accepted an invitation to spend a couple of hours with a student atheist group, and the experience thrilled me. Instead of the confrontational format of a public debate, we had an honest back-and-forth conversation about what we all believed. None of us became aggressive or mocking, and we went longer than the allotted time.
It was an afternoon of trust building. I may not have changed any minds that day, but, by God’s grace, I exposed them to the possibility that a local pastor might have something thoughtful to say.
Steps to Take
Building trust and a reputation as a theologian in your community means we have work to do. We cannot be content to skim the news of the day and consider ourselves informed. Before we engage with our congregation and community about complicated issues, it is wise to spend time reading people who have dug deeply into a topic.
Consider subscribing to a thoughtful magazine you know will challenge your views. Look up Christian theologians and philosophers who have written on the issue you study. It has always been the conviction of the church that all truth is God’s truth, so the deeper we dig, the closer we get to the manifold wisdom of God.
As you do this, you may want to consider expanding your education. It is not only the values of culture that change, but the arguments change with just as much speed. Once the pro-life cause defeats one argument, for example, the pro-choice movement builds another.
Pastors can’t afford to be caught flatfooted when the people we minister to are constantly engaged in an information-rich world. Consider taking advantage of the distance education some of our Assemblies of God universities offer. Encourage your church board to include some form of tuition assistance or book allowance for your staff, and find ways of building the habit of continuing education into your schedule.
It is critical to find ways to engage your city. If people in our communities already believe pastors have nothing of value to add, it is unlikely they will listen to what you preach. One way to be proactive is to create spaces in your local community where people can interact with Christians on some of the most important issues of the day.
Our church sponsors events in which we host a high-quality Christian speaker in a local banquet hall to talk on hot-button issues, with me, a local pastor, serving as emcee. We advertise in places we know have a high percentage of non-Christian readers, and we have had wonderful experiences every time. We are building the Christian voice into our city’s conversation on important issues.
Pastor, you have something important to say to the city around you. The gospel you are called to proclaim is not just for the congregation; it is the message of life for everyone. The world may not think pastors have much to say, but you are a standard-bearer of truth for the whole community.