Thursday, August 30, 2018

Some Pastors and Teachers: A Manifesto - written by Michael Pohlman

The Tortoise wins.

I remember hearing Aesop’s famous fable The Hare & the Tortoise as a little boy and thinking, “I’d still like to be the hare. After all, the tortoise may win, but who wants to be a tortoise?”
Many years later I’ve reconsidered, especially when it comes to pastoral ministry. If there ever was a vocation wherein “the race is not to the swift,” it’s the pastorate. A faithful shepherd will pace himself for the long haul given the nature of the work. Pastors are not pounding out “products,” but doing heart work. And heart work can be messy, unpredictable, and slow to change.
When I was a child our family took annual trips from our Southern California home to the northwest corner of Iowa to visit my grandparents, aunt and uncle, and cousins. I come from a family of German immigrants who came to Iowa for its rich farmland. I recall the first time my grandfather pointed out the living room window of their home (a converted school house overlooking farms as far as the eye could see) as he explained to me the way farmers rotated out the crops each year: corn, soybeans, corn, soybeans. This, I learned, was good for the soil. With other stories my grandfather would tell of how farmers needed great effort and patience as they waited for the crops to come in. To see the fruits of their labor farmers needed time: time to prepare the soil, time to plant, time to water and, finally, time to bring in the harvest. Being a farmer is not work for those wanting instant gratification. The parallels to the pastorate are many. Much like the farmer, pastoral ministry demands patient toil.
This, of course, is not the world we live in. We live in the age of instant. We want our WiFi to fly, our coffee ready, our music streaming, our shopping at the speed of Prime, and our social media and news feeds constantly refreshed. As Cal Newport helpfully observes, our age mitigates against “deep work.” 1Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (Grand Central Publishing, 2016).  And pastoral ministry is the ultimate deep work. In 2009 David Gordon concluded that Johnny Can’t Preach in large part because Johnny can’t read and write. 2T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers (P&R, 2009).  The modern day preacher seems increasingly unable to do the deep work required given how media have shaped the messenger. Gordon was prophetic writing before smart phones, Twitter, and texting became ubiquitous in the culture making his thesis still more tenable. In the last decade there’s been a steady stream of scholarship focused on the impact of digital media on the mind. And not only on our minds, but our humanity itself may be at stake. The literature is ominous regarding the effects of our technological age. 3See, for example, Adam Alter, Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked (Penguin Press, 2017); Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: Why the Internet is Doing to Our Brians (W.W. Norton & Co., 2011); Donna Freitas, The Happiness Effect: How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost (Oxford, 2017); Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (Basic Books, 2011) and Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin Books, 2016); Jean Twenge, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy–and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood–and What That Means for the Rest of Us). Each of these scholars, of course, is building on the work of earlier philosophers and social scientists such as Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (Vintage Books, 1964); Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Signet Books, 1964); and Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (Penguin Books, 1985) and Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (Vintage Books, 1993).
At Some Pastors and Teachers we want to go counter to today’s frenetic pace. Our digital world feels frenzied because, well, it is. There is a hyperactivity to our time that works against pastoral ministry. What Nicholas Carr observes about the impact of the Internet on his life and thought can be applied to pastors today:
The boons [of the Internet] are real. But they come at a price. As McLuhan suggested, media aren’t just channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski. 4Carr, The Shallows, 6-7.
Pastoral work is not like riding a Jet Ski — zipping along the surface water of God’s Word and people’s hearts. Pastors are “stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Corinthians 4:1) laboring for people’s “progress and joy in the faith” (Philippians 1:25). This is not work done in the shallows.
This is the vital lesson the apostles learned early on in the church. In Acts 6 we see the temptation for the church’s leadership to be pulled away from the deep work required of an under-shepherd. Rather than be deterred from matters of first importance, the leadership provided for another way to satisfy a very real need. After all, widows being neglected in the daily distribution of food is no small thing. But their need couldn’t be met at the expense of prayer and the ministry of Word:
Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5Acts 6:1-4
The word translated ‘devote’ means “to attend to, devote oneself to” with regularity and steadfastness. 6William Mounce, Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, 180. Pastors must cultivate sustained, concentrated focus on the ministries of Word and prayer. And we need to be ruthless in keeping at bay distractions from this primary work. The apostle Paul trained his young apprentice Timothy in this understanding of the pastorate when he reminded him of what every pastor should be devoted to:
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. 71 Timothy 4:13-16
Note the verbs in this passage: devote, practice, immerse, keep a close watch, persist. To be sure, the current state of evangelicalism is not amenable to these disciplines. But this is no excuse for the pastor to not practice them.
Given this, we’re creating a platform for pastors that seeks to slow things down. We want to cultivate thoughtfulness and reflection about things of first importance to a pastor: things like theology, ecclesiology, preaching, apologetics, and counseling. We’ll do this through a publishing cycle that allows for time to absorb thoughtful writing about topics relevant to pastors. Rather than an avalanche of content burying pastors in “right now,” our goal is to create a space of “less-is-more” content that is worthy of sustained concentration for the sake of wise application. Our editorial approach will not exacerbate attention deficits, but seek to cultivate attention surpluses.
Some years ago I worked for a major media company doing editorial work. My boss had a phrase he loved to use when it came to the Internet: daily addiction. The idea was to have so much new, fresh content on a daily basis that people felt compelled to traffic our websites everyday, throughout the day. And, believe me, this can work. Adam Alter is right. 8Alter, Irresistible. But by feeding the frenzy we were (unintentionally) undermining people’s ability to think beyond the surface of any given issue because before you knew it, we were on to the next thing.
I recall an acquaintance of mine during my undergraduate years at the University of Washington. Brad and I attended the same campus ministry. Our small group of guys was asked a question by one of the leaders about how we deal with the hectic nature of our lives, how we carved out time (if we did at all) for thoughtful reflection on God and the Bible. What Brad said has stuck with me all these years. He said, “I walk slowly.” Rather than move quickly from one class to the next or from one meeting to another, Brad said, “I intentionally slow down my pace.” Whether Brad was on time for things is beside the point. His effort to slow things down for the sake of contemplation seemed right in 1994 and seems all-the-more important in 2018. 9Cf., Mumford & Sons’ “Lovers’ Eyes” from their 2012 album Babel and Carl Honoré, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed (HarperSanFrancisco, 2004).
Some Pastors and Teachers is designed to help you “walk slow.” We dare to use the Internet in a way most people think impossible, if they think about it at all. We are moving contra frenzy. How will we do this?
Some Pastors and Teachers is, in a sense, a manifestation of Neil Postman’s “Loving Resistance Fighter.” 10Technopoly, 181-200. In this resistance we demand that the Internet serve us in our calling as pastors and teachers. We are not modern day Luddites longing for a past “golden age” before the Industrial Revolution gave birth to our wired world. That said, we firmly believe the Internet was made for man not man for the Internet. And this conviction brings with it several unique editorial characteristics that will be evident on our website, our podcast, and during the colloquia we host.
At our website we are establishing a publishing cycle that drops less, not more, content in a week. This is an intentional effort to emphasize quality over quantity. Also, you will find at the site, more often than not, articles and essays not blog posts. And we love footnotes. The reason for this is simple and profound: pastors are called to deal with the deep things of God and the human heart. The issues relevant to pastors can’t be worked through in a tweet or two, or a blog post of five or seven bullet points. 11On this point see Janet Lowen, “It’s Never as Easy as One, Two, Three.”
Another way we plan to “walk slow” on our website is to champion the weekly columnist. I remember my senior year in college waiting in anticipation for Friday morning to arrive. This was the day one of my favorite columns in our school newspaper landed. I couldn’t wait to read this weekly opinion piece for its thoughtfulness and provocation. While I didn’t always agree with the author, his columns almost always inspired me to think deeply. In a time when many people think they have something valuable to say every day throughout the day, at Some Pastors and Teachers we aren’t convinced of this. But we do believe good thinkers can produce thoughtful columns on a weekly basis. Our plan is to give you weekly columnists you can’t wait to read given the quality of their prose and ideas. We are bringing to the site true writers.
I am also increasingly drawn to websites that display a minimalist aesthetic for the sake of thoughtfulness. Too many websites have too much “noise.” The clutter crowds out contemplation. These websites are so overloaded with headlines and graphics and videos — things popping up and talking when not asked — that they turn us into zombies clicking unconsciously on the first thing that gets in our way. When you come to our site we want you to enter a “clean” space where your mind is not bombarded with chaos but quieted with order. Navigation will be simple and the content displayed in a way that is inviting rather than repelling. We actually think our site is a place you’ll want to visit and stay a while because it is a refuge in a world ruled by the tyranny of the urgent.
With the democratization of knowledge in the digital age, like Tom Nichols, we want to push back against the death of expertise. 12Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (Oxford University Press, 2017). In 2007 Andrew Keen observed that the Internet brought with it the “cult of the amateur.” 13Andrew Keen, The Cult of the Amateur: How Blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the Rest of Today’s User-Generated Media Are Destroying Our Economy, Our Culture, and Our Values (DoubleDay, 2007). While the death of expertise and the cult of the amateur is bad for our democracy, it’s disastrous for the church. Theology matters and God has given to the church “some pastors and teachers” to be guardians and purveyors of orthodoxy. 14Cf., Ephesians 4:11-14  We believe formal theological education is good and needed and should be valued in the church. Therefore we will solicit writers who have evident expertise in the area they’re writing about. Not potential expertise, but established knowledge and wisdom. This puts a welcome burden on our editors to bring writers into our fold who model this editorial conviction: expert prose in the service of pastors for the good of the churches they serve.
Our weekly podcast is designed to accomplish many of the same goals as our website. What we do in print we want to do with audio. The episodes will feature topics and guests that pastors need to consider if we would be faithful in our work. The main goal will not be to entertain but to inform and inspire. Each program will be relevant without being a slave to relevance as we, not the world, seek to set the agenda for the pastor. In other words, what is most important or relevant isn’t always what’s happening today. The podcast will not be news driven, but ecclesiologically driven even as we take up current events from time-to-time.
Perhaps the one adjective that comes to mind more than any other to describe our podcast is serious. We are serious about God, the Bible, the gospel, the pastorate, and the church. Of course, we hope our seriousness is communicated with an attractive tone and, at times, good humor. But our podcast will always be more D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones than The Babylon Bee.
During my residency work for my PhD I always looked forward to Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m. This is when our weekly colloquium gathered. Assembled in the room was the entire church history faculty and my peers in the program. With nervous excitement I loved how a given faculty member would pursue us on the reading for the week. Those discussions were both humbling and exhilarating. I learned much.
Part of why I learned so much was the close proximity I had to the professors and my peers. We actually discussed, debated, and argued over deeply significant issues. We looked each other in the eyes, studied body language, and picked up on nuances of tone that might be missed in a larger gathering. And unlike the social media world we live in today, civility was nurtured. We were not unknown emojis opining, but real people forced to practice neighbor love in person. It’s much harder to treat someone poorly in person than it is in the virtual world. 15See, for example, “Are We All ‘Harmless Torturers’ Now?” (The New York Times, August 9, 2018).
In smaller gatherings you’re more accountable for what you say. This is a good thing because it forces you to think before you talk and to measure your words in a way you might not otherwise. Everyone is a genius in the crowd. But when you have to actually test your thesis in a closer community of people who will critique your content, this makes your work better.
Our colloquia will be annual events purposefully smaller than the large conferences in evangelicalism today. We want to give attendees close proximity to the keynote speaker as well as their peers for the sake of going deeper in knowledge and application. We want to use these events to resource fewer people (than the major conferences) for the sake of making stronger impacts on the many. We see a model for this in Jesus’ earthly ministry with his focus on the twelve and the three.
Pastors are “stewards of the mysteries of God” and called to “care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” 16See, 1 Corinthians 4:1 and Acts 20:28. Pastoral ministry is the ultimate deep work. This is why Some Pastors and Teachers exists: to help equip pastors to better care for the churches they serve.
We are aware that the world (and much of evangelicalism) doesn’t prize our approach. It may seem too slow or too serious or not flashy enough. After all, the world doesn’t revere turtles. But we’re hoping to enlist thousands of turtles to take up the cause of Some Pastors and Teachers.
Because the Tortoise wins.