Saturday, August 11, 2007

There Is a Perfect Pastor! (part 2)

In the previous blog, I critiqued (okay, criticized) a new trend in the world of Church. My ranting was based upon a spoof run by Lark News. According to Lark News there is a trend to replace senior pastors with electronically produced and projected virtual preachers. As a pastor I went through a gamut of emotional responses upon reading the article, from uproarious laughter, to puzzlement, to anger, and then sadness. But wait! You too can have a pastor who has no such reactive emotions. Thankfully, this new pastor will only emote through the messages on screen, with emotions tailored to fit your desires.

In the blog I based my evaluation about this virtual EGHEAD (electronically generated, humanly engineered, adjustable device) from the objective standard of the Bible. After all, that’s what orthodox, Evangelical people do. It wasn’t a purely objective evaluation, nor a complete one; but it was a start. As I began thinking more about it, I also saw some practical implications and problems with this virtual EGHEAD.

By the way, I’ve been trying to come up with an appropriate nomenclature. The congregation in the article had given the virtual thing the name Don Lawrence. Giving the virtual preacher a human name only serves to make it easier for people to believe this thing is a real human (should I say superhuman?), thereby deepening the deceit. Why did they call him Don? And why did they give male qualities to this virtual pastor? Does that mean this particular congregation is still stuck in an antiquated, pre-androgynous and sexist culture? I would have thought the new minister would be sexually indefinable? You know, neutered. As neutered in appearance as it is in spirit.

“Virtual pastor” doesn’t cut it for me. I know pastors, and this is no pastor! What shall we call it? Uhmm, how about PMS for Post Mortal Shepherd? Naaahhh. I like EGHEAD, but I also thought of Automated Simulated Shepherd. People could give it the first name, Jack. But this thing is neither a shepherd nor a pastor. No matter how much one might believe it to be human, it is not. No matter how much one might believe it to be a life-like preacher, it is not. We could call it APE for Automated Preaching Entity. I think a better name might be Simulated Thing that Undermines People’s Intrinsic Design or STUPID. You can think a while about the many reasons why that would fit.

I suppose there is a downside (upside?)to STUPID APE: no God-ordained undershepherd to love you, to pray for you, to counsel you, to encourage you, to exhort you, or to disciple you. You know, all that in-your-life stuff violates too many self-preferential boundaries. What’s worse is that with an EGHEAD there would be no “main man” about whom to gossip or slander, to get angry at, to fight with, to berate, to cut down or to kick out of the church. That, of course, is one of the selling points to this new thing.

Since we are being clever and innovative, perhaps we should develop yet another version of the Bible? After all, the one we have is too out of date with too much of the human element we don’t like. We need a new one that projects the dawning of this new age. This new translation might begin with, “Then Church said, ‘Let us make a pastor in our image, after our likeness…’” But wait! There’s more! To be biblically consistent it should also read, “Then Church said, ‘It is not good for pastor to be alone. I will make a helpmate suitable for him,’” which would require a virtual associate, or virtual elders, or a virtual staff.

Frankly, as a pastor, I really like the idea of a virtual congregation. Granted, it would take much longer than eighteen months to configure just the right kind of congregation. That would be fun, though. Endless hours developing individuals without quirks and problems could be therapeutic. A congregation without abusers, complainers, the lazy, the incompetent, the uncommitted, the half-committed, those who are over-needy and suck the life out of others, the arrogant and proud, the disobedient, the irritating, the angry, the gossips and slanderers, the drunks, and…phew! Such a project could take at long, long time. The virtual church would be like the Stepford Wives, except with Stepford husbands, and daughters, and sons, and brothers, and sisters, and cousins, and neighbors, and strangers. But, there is one major problem with this virtual congregation. You know what it is? No matter how hard I try, I still won’t be able to get it right. Why? Because I’ll be in it.

It’s not too surprising that it takes about eighteen months to fine-tune EGHEAD to fit the desires (read: lusts) of the congregation. It also takes twelve to eighteen months for a congregation to identify the multitude of things they don’t like in a new pastor. That’s usually when the conflicts begin. One of the selling points to this EGHEAD is that by having a congregation manufacture a pastor in their own image they won’t have someone to criticize since they will only be criticizing themselves. Uh-huh. As if that ever stopped criticisms before. Given time, the focus of sinful grumbling and disgruntledness will shift to the associate pastor, a staff member, elder, deacon, teacher, or the team who put together EGHEAD. C’mon! Are we so biblically illiterate that we’ve forgotten what Israel did in the desert? They grumbled against Moses. But their real anger was directed at the most pure, perfect, complete, all-encompassing, super-fulfilling, all-knowing, beautiful entity – God! If a mega-church congregation like that, who witnessed unbelievable live-action, special effects that superseded by a million times the best, most captivating reality show, quickly became fickle complainers, what makes anyone think EGHEAD will do better? Hey! I’ve got news for you. It ain’t a pastor problem! It’s a people problem. And it’s called sin.

The heart of what’s wrong with the virtual pastor is the philosophy behind it. It is clever, but shallow and wrong. It is wrong because it is a sophisticated attempt at creating heaven on earth; and a heaven on earth without God’s involvement. That was the mistake Adam and Eve made. They wanted utopia without God. This virtual thing also attempts to address sinful attitudes and actions of people without the redemptive work of Jesus. For some mysterious reason God determined to work with, in and through sinful creatures to accomplish his redemptive and transforming purposes. He designed and used sinful and imperfect prophets, priests and kings in the old covenant era, and designed and uses sinful and imperfect evangelists, pastors and teachers in this present covenant era. No virtual pastors, just actual ones. That was God's design. How can we think we can do better?

I suspect that if these virtual pastors explored the depths of biblical theology, rather than the breadth of the internet, they would be able to find the mind of God as to why God intends to use sinful but redeemed people to accomplish his purposes in history. I also suspect that if the truth came out these virtual EGHEADs would crash and fizzle into oblivion.

However, I’m not that optimistic. Since this virtual stuff is all about avoiding problems and pleasing people the trend will only grow, and with it will come new and innovative things. This “church” of the future won’t resemble anything of God's Church in history, let alone the Church described by God in his Word. Yet, that’s all right, because throughout redemptive history God has always called forth a peculiar remnant. And peculiar they will be, because they’ll be real.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Hey! There is a perfect pastor! (pt 1)

Hey! There is a perfect pastor!

A friend of mine sent me an email the other day. He recommended I check out a news article at It seems an ingenious group of postmodern, computer engineers have developed and now market a perfect pastor. Actually, it’s a virtual pastor. More precisely, a virtual preacher. Now, congregations can be happy. Very happy, in fact. After all, that is the goal of church these days, you know?

Lark News enjoys posting spoofs on the latest church trends and views. This is no exception; and I'm going to run with it.

According to this pseudo-article, there is some soon-to-be very successful company has the ability to come to a church and provide a perfect pastor. The company takes a detailed survey from the members to find out what each one wants in a pastor (hair style, dress, mannerisms, accent, personality, preaching style, etc.). Then they filter the “needs” of the people through a bunch of computers. After eighteen months of fine-tuning their perfect pastor, the church gets exactly what they want: a pastor made in their image.
This is beyond the postmodern. This is post-mortal. This is a post-mortal pastor; actually a meta-mortal pastor. A designer pastor. The future is now, and the Church of Jesus Christ has leaped from church-lite to church-sci-fi, going where no man (or woman) has gone before.
I like sci-fi. It’s my favorite genre for movies. And I’ve thought long and hard trying to imagine what the church might be like twenty, fifty or one hundred years from now. This new fangled virtual pastor, which is really some adjustable, electronic, projection device for religiously itching minds, isn’t too far from what I expected. I imagined something more along the lines of a virtual church, not just a virtual pastor. Perhaps that is coming? Maybe it would be like Star Trek - The Next Generation’s holodeck. The holodeck was a large room with a super computer that projected a virtual reality of one’s choosing. Church by holodeck would provide individuals with a perfect church, a perfect pastor, a perfect staff, and a perfect congregation. Or would it?
However, I tend to think that given our Western proclivity toward narcissistic individualism and penchant for convenience, we would far prefer to put on virtual goggles complete with a sensory suit to get the full experience of a church made in our image, without having to travel. We would wear our suits all the time, and when we wanted to “do church” we would merely hang the goggles on our faces and go for the experience. Church could happen at the office, or in the home, at the Mall, or Starbucks, or, heaven forbid, while sitting on the bathroom throne.
I also enjoy progress: the new, the different, the better. Change is good, advancement is good, improvement is good (of course not always). As an American modernist adapting to postmodernity, I often get restless with the old, the traditional, the repetitive and redundant. This post-mortal, virtual pastor should appeal to me. But it doesn’t and in my opinion this virtual thing is not good. Here’s why:
As Evangelical Christians who hold to the historical truths of the biblical Faith we have an objective standard against which to evaluate things – the Bible. Only secondarily, if we are consistent with the teachings of Scripture, should we evaluate things subjectively. This means we should carefully appraise this new trend against the clear teachings and derivative principles of God’s Word. This is what it means to be wise. To be unwise is to accept or reject this innovative technology merely because it fits (or doesn’t fit) our culture, our era, and our preferences for most things new, different and better. As long as humans race faster and faster into ever-changing ways and times the Church is going to have to continue to learn to live consistently with the unchangeable Word while living with the new ways and times. By the way, here’s one for you: could a future AIE (artificially intelligent entity) be a Spirit-filled pastor?
What explicit things would Scripture say that touches upon the virtual pastor (better to say virtual preacher)? For one, a solid study of Scripture tells us that true preaching of the Word of God is the authoritative proclamation of the will of King Jesus through an ordained man to a community of people. The normal setting in biblical times was face-to-face and to an assembly of hearers, most often whom were professing believers, and often in the environment of worship. The means was by the Holy Spirit through the Word and through the Spirit-endowed preacher to a living audience. The point being is that the ordained servant (a living being) personally engages the assembly through the Spirit-endowed preaching of God’s Word. I argue that if you take the Word of God, the Spirit of God and/or the presence of a living man of God out of the picture it would not constitute true biblical preaching. The artificial preacher, whether mechanical, virtual or holographic, would not be filled with the Holy Spirit, hence this would not qualify as biblical preaching. Merely communicating a good sermon taken from another person who is not personally engaged with or presently engaging the community of people would not constitute the definition of biblical preaching. For example, reading an old but great sermon from Spurgeon would not be true biblical preaching.
A second explicit teaching from Scripture is that God’s clear design has been and always will be to take a redeemed sinner, called, gifted and ordained to service, and place him within a local community to serve up God’s Word privately (discipleship) and publicly (preaching). Whether we like it or not, God has never seen fit to place perfect, sinless, and flawless pastors in local churches; even if that is what people want. (Come to think about it, wasn't Jesus just that? Yet most people rejected him.) That’s one of the beauties and miracles of Christ’s redemptive work: to use sinners to serve other sinners for the glory of God. Aside from saying that no spiritually gifted and anointed person is good enough to preach, it seems to me that virtual preachers also circumvent God’s better plan of iron sharpening iron and sinner sharpening sinner. It also seems to be rather arrogant to assume that a preacher fashioned in our image is superior to one fashioned, gifted, and ordained by God’s design. Apparently God got it wrong all these centuries, but we can do it better.
A third thing, clearly tied into the above two points, is that the philosophy behind virtual preachers misunderstands the purpose and role of God’s Church. We are a community of sinners who trust in Christ as savior and master and are thereby immersed in God’s redemptive work and plan. Part of that plan involves transformed sinners who are in Christ, using their natural talents and supernatural gifts of the Spirit to serve one another. This is clearly taught in Romans 12, 1 Corinthian 12 and Ephesians 4. If a pastor and/or teacher gifted by God and given to the local church is not good enough for God’s people, then what about the evangelist? Or the Sunday school teacher? Wouldn’t virtual Sunday school or VBS or Bible study teachers be better than you? But let’s not stop there. If you don’t like how you are or are not being served, then let’s find a virtual servant, or some virtual device to replicate showing mercy. Better yet, how about if each person or family has a virtual thingamajig to replicate the gift of giving! Since church people are just as bothersome and disappointing as preachers and pastors, we would then have to have virtual church members. That way when we want to feel loved, or when we have a need for someone to rejoice when we rejoice or to weep when we are weeping we could plug into our virtual member. You know, just a few more steps and we’re in a matrix of cyber church! Will we need Neo to save us?
Fourth, this virtual thing, “Preacher EGHEAD” (electronically generated, humanly engineered, adjustable device) takes “having itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:3) to a whole new level. Actually, to a whole new dimension. It’s now about itching minds. One might argue that this EGHEAD can still present sound teaching. However, there is no great leap from accumulating virtual teachers according to our own desires, to gathering to ourselves virtual doctrines according to the our own desires. Let’s play out this scenario: people, who are so fickle, get tired of hearing old truths from the Bible. The Bible, after all, is so….yesteryear. Those truths are no longer true for me, or you, or him, or her, or us. Let’s put together a survey and find out what we all want to hear, make it a little more entertaining, but still relevant to our needs. Right. Like that will last. Soon people will get impatient because this EGHEAD might be meeting your needs, but not all of my needs, and I don’t have time to take a few applicable nuggets here and there. I need as much as I can get and need it now. You see, EGHEADS contribute toward deconstructing the Church; so postmodern. The Church deconstructed is not a Body, a new Temple building. It is something else. It would no longer have Christ as its center or its head, but it would have you. Or worse, me!

Monday, August 6, 2007

An excerpt from The Perfect Pastor?

Chapter 7


Winter was exhausting itself in futile attempts to suppress the emerging spring. This March witnessed a rigorous battle of the seasons, but the brilliant hues of the newborn spring won out like a persistent hatchling. It was Mona’s favorite time of year.

One Sunday afternoon a month the Lee family hosted a luncheon for the new visitors and members. The night before, Melissa, a naturally talented decorator, charmed the usually plain living room with a full bloom of spring. Mona was elated, but had to work hard to keep her little brood from spreading spring color and cheer all over the place. Sunday school could not come soon enough.

Warming temperatures and cheerful buds most likely contributed to an especially pleasurable morning. It seemed everything went well and overall things at church were upbeat. Two new members were formally received. By now the grumpy bunch made it a habit of leaving almost immediately after the service, sometimes before. A couple of the elderly ladies set their watches to ring right at noon. “Since good preaching should take no more than fifteen minutes,” they expected Dan to be finished by noon. If he wasn’t, then too bad – they would just stand up, shuffle to the aisle and leave. Thankfully they sat in the back row. They missed the reception after church for the new members and a special cake afterward to celebrate the new union.
Because the new members brought their friends, and Matt brought a few of his new college mates, the Lees’ living room was filled. After prayer everyone circled their way around the dining room buffet. Mona’s expertise was cooking so she was used to hearing admonitions to open a catering business or restaurant. With brightly colored plastic plates balanced precariously on laps, people sat on the couch, dining room chairs and even on the floor. In the background one could watch Melissa helping Mona feed the children and ready them for their naps.

The format was simple: enjoy the food, get to know each other, and ask the tough questions. Dan enjoyed the tough or theological questions, but nine out of ten times questions were of a more mundane nature. Crystal washed the bite of hoagie down with punch before she spoke up. “I have a question,” she declared almost apologetically and kept her hand raised until Dan acknowledged her. The stylish twenty-something was a regular visitor and friend of one of the new members.
“Go ahead, ask away.”
“Like, don’t get upset or anything. I’m not sure I should even ask this.”
“Don’t apologize; just ask the question,” Dan kindly pressed.
“Uhm, what do you do? I mean, as a pastor. Like, I know you are busy on Sunday but what do you do the rest of the week?”
With a very serious face Dan teased, “Sunday is the only day I work. It’s a great job.”
Most laughed, but Crystal wasn’t sure how to take him.
“He’s just giving you a hard time with his bad humor,” Mona apologized, coming down the stairs. “Dan, shame on you!”
“That really is a good question and I’m glad you asked. I get that quite often. Sometimes people actually believe the pastor only works on Sundays. Maybe there are pastors who only work that day. After all, one could be extremely lazy or a workaholic and get away with it. In some ways it is like being self-employed. You have to be fairly self-motivated and organized to get things done unless you are in a church that dictates what will be done.”
“My old pastor, and he was really old -- older than you, Pastor Lee -- used to say that his job was to study all morning, eat lunch and then knock on neighborhood doors in the afternoons, teach classes and preach on Sunday,” proclaimed a serious college kid.
“I didn’t know thirty-seven was old, Brian. Yeah, what you are talking about was one popular school of thought. A few even hold to that today. So, what do you think I do?”
“I know for a fact that you disciple people one-on-one,” Matt defended.
“Do you do counseling?” asked another.
“Sometimes I offer counsel. Yes.”
“Obviously you have to prepare for sermons and class lessons,” said Matt.
“He teaches then,” surmised Crystal’s other friend looking at Matt.
“Yep. Keep going…” Dan encouraged.
Melissa spoke up. “I know he reads a lot. You should see that library of his! And he visits people in the hospital.”
Scott volunteered, “He also visits people in their home for a spiritual checkup. That’s what my cousin told me.”
“True. Anything else?”
No one offered anything more than the clatter of forks on plates. In the pause three of the young men went back to reload their plates.
“All these things would take up at least two days. Now, what else do I do with the rest of my time?” Dan questioned with a leer.
Mona jumped in right away. “Well, whatever it is, it keeps you busy day and night, practically the entire week.” Turning to Crystal she added, “I know he’s consumed by the work twenty-four-seven. It’s even hard for him to take one day off!” She was a little defensive since she had on too many occasions been the recipient of people’s complaints that her husband did not do enough.
“I really appreciated that page you had in the membership class that showed your average weekly schedule. It was revealing. You really do work ten hours a day?” asked one of the new members.
“Thanks. Yes, ten hours is normal, but sometimes it is eight and sometimes it is sixteen. Depends on the day’s demands. Jane Rubietta says that ‘Most pastors work in excess of 70 hours a week. Seventy percent don’t take a week of vacation during the year, and sixty percent don’t get a full day off during the week.’1 I’m glad I have vacation time that is somewhat mandated by our denomination’s tradition. All right, I have a question for you,” Dan proposed, scanning the circle of guests. “What do you think a pastor should do? And I want you to be honest.”
Again, for a while the only sound was the symphony of the feast. Matt broke the silence with a dribble of mustard on his chin, “Weddings!” Everyone broke out laughing. “What? What’s so funny about that?”
“Got someone in mind, Matt?” one chided. He threw a pillow at his challenger.
“Funerals!” spoke another which provoked more laughter as they all looked at Matt’s target.
“I know you run meetings. What’s that called?” Tom queried.
“Moderating,” Dan taught.
“Do you do the finances too?” Rose asked in her Argentinean accent.
“I suppose some pastors do the finances, but it’s not a practice in our church. Our churches normally have treasurers. In some churches the treasurer is a deacon. The only part I have with finances is when the elders review the budget each month and at the end of the year, and prepare a new one for the next year.”
“Are you the janitor for the building?” Maria asked seriously.
“No. Okay, it’s time to let you in on a secret: pastors do many, many different things and wear many different hats. Because of the varieties of churches and philosophies of ministry you could not formulate one job description for all churches based upon the wide range of views out there. People expect the pastor to do everything from being the church’s CEO to working as its maintenance engineer. Some expect him to be the great communicator, a building architect, the master problem solver, and all around jack of all trades. Excuse me, I’m gonna get something,” he said while whisking off to his home office.