You have heard it said, “… a waste of time…” or “…a waste of money…” and to the extent these phrases are deemed accurate, they shut down further devotion to whatever activity they describe. It’s a fairly universal axiom that “wasting” time or money is a bad thing, and hardly gets questioned. (When was the last time you questioned either?)
But no one ever, to my knowledge, critiques a waste of God’s Kingdom.
Maybe that is a good thing, but shouldn’t it come up for review at least? How would we know if we don’t consider the idea?
Well, all of that is just a broad-strokes introduction to my real complaint: Ministry books and ministry classes.
This first became an issue for me in school, and I didn’t quite know why for a long time. And at first, I called it a waste of time and a waste of money – which as far as money or time were mine personally, they did waste! But it finally occurs to me that far more value is wasted than just time or money, and yet I don’t think hardly anyone notices.
Hmmm… How do I frame this so it makes sense?
After all, I am almost, literally, the only person I know who speaks of this stuff and finds fault with it.
Starting with my experience in academia, as a Bible/Ministry student particularly, I quickly became disillusioned with ministry courses and the books they tended to feature. I absolutely LOVED my Bible classes, both the textual coursework and the research. We explored Jesus, God, The Spirit, all the Bible narratives and all the mysteries of the universe therein, and I couldn’t get enough. But when it came to ministry classes, all that changed.
Ministry, not the Bible and not Bible study books so much, but the “practical” side of the educational thrust seemed to quietly, and almost imperceptibly, set Jesus aside as if he were just powerless for our purposes. No doubt there were sentences, chapters, even whole books dealing with Bible text that I found objectionable, unhelpful, even useless, but those were the exceptions, not the rule. Nearly every scholar who actually attended to God’s Word offered something worthwhile. However, when it came to ministry, I found them to be almost completely the opposite. I might find a book, more likely a paragraph, and most likely just a sentence or two in those books which seemed important and helpful. The ministry books were all corrupt.
(I must say, though, the one glaring exception to all of this was my homiletics courses, but actually, the more I think on those, the more I wonder if the problem was still there, but somehow flew beneath my radar. I will get that that later.)*
Let’s put it like this: Ministry is the intersection of Bible and Life. (I am sure that won’t fly as a definition, but it surely functions as a good description for our vantage point.)
This notion presumes the two are not already joined together, and it is the job of the minister to join them. And no doubt there is a sense where that is true. The world is full of sin and rebellion and darkness. People at large do not know Jesus. Introductions are in order! And in those simplified terms, it all makes sense.
However, consider my father’s experience: Trained first as an evangelist/minister, he went back to grad school and majored in Marriage and Family Therapy. There at the Christian university, he learned basically all the secular tools of the trade with prayer added to the mix like season salts. This somehow SEEMED better than calling a married couple into the pastor’s office and quoting I Peter 3:7 or Ephesians 5:25 at them, talking about “What does this passage mean to you?” and ending with a quick prayer. AND, it probably was better than that too.
But at some point, Dad began to ask what Jesus was doing in this mix that you couldn’t get from a secular approach, and why wasn’t our Counseling and Therapy Department researching and teaching THAT? Don’t we want the healing touch of Jesus and the hope of redemption? Is all that to be had by taking direction from the secularists and peppering their teachings with a few prayers?
I found variations on this theme in the actual ministry courses too. My problem became particularly apparent as an undergraduate in the year-long ministry prep series – an intro course in the Spring, followed by and internship through the Summer, and a debriefing course in the Fall. The very first thing I was hit with was a psych evaluation via the Myers-Briggs Personality profile. This was to be scheduled outside of class during a semester when I had a particularly heavy load of difficult classes and a desire to manage my GPA. When I missed my appointment a couple of times, I heard about it from my instructors.
It was then I realized that I had actually taken this profile assessment about a year and a half before, when I sought counseling through the Therapy Department which was free to students. As soon as I put that together, I called the Therapy Department and asked them to use my previous results for the file, thus I would not need to be bothered with it any further. After that, I dismissed the exercise expecting I was done with it.
A few weeks later, my instructors approached me again. This time when I rebutted claiming I had already done the profile a couple years prior, they informed me that the assessment results are not intended to be trusted that long. They needed an updated assessment after as little is two or three months!
At this point, I was getting more than a little frustrated. But my instructors were insistent and claimed this was a very important part of my curriculum. Everyone had to do it, and I should be no exception. And after grilling them on its import, I learned, though they would never have put it in these words, that the assessment ultimately provided the school with a shield from liability in case a real weirdo were to get sent to a church’s youth group.
This assessment was weeding out the weirdos! It was protecting the school from liabilities!
At that point I asked, “Did Jesus put The Twelve through a Myers-Briggs assessment? Or did he just spend some T-I-M-E with his flock, getting to know them, helping them get to know him? And did that screen out Judas the betrayer? And is that something Jesus would have wanted?”
In one fell swoop, I had called the whole course into question and found it wanting. Even more, I had called the whole ministerial curriculum into question. And without even realizing it at the time, I had called the whole school into question. To this day, I think that series of coursework has added NOTHING of real value to my life or ministry. I certainly wasted a lot of time and money on it though.
I went on to say, “If you want to know my darkest thoughts, my masturbatory habits, my sins and secret desires, try spending time with me! Maybe ask! Build some TRUST!”
At the time I failed to point out that as an institution serving the church, liabilities are NOT our real concern. Anyone who has taken up a cross following Jesus, who also cares about “liabilities” is surely an anomaly at best and likely not carrying a cross and following Jesus at all.
But if I wanted to graduate with my Bible/Ministry degree, I needed to go take the test.
So I did.
And I was out of there in ten minutes having filled in the dots without reading the questions at all. (Passive/aggressive, I know, but also returning the favor and putting the school on MY test.) I think I even reduced that poor grad student administering it to me to tears with my contempt for the hoop I was jumping through.
Funny thing: I passed the class, and in fact all my classes, with straight A’s. Including the one requiring me to take this assessment. (I wonder if my results – which I did NOT express any interest in – determined me to be a gay, cocaine addicted serial killer or what.) I am sure that it said I was a weirdo. But then I went to work in the prison for my internship where no one REALLY cares for the flock rather than a youth group whose parents pay us to play, so apparently all that talk about how it really mattered wasn’t actually true.
One of the next things I encountered in that class was prep work for job hunting skills. We learned to be prompt and not late, how to write resumes and how to dress for interviews. We practiced interviews, and prepared for professional life “AS MINISTERS,” and I began then, thanx largely to my experience with the Myers-Briggs thingy, to notice that Jesus was late to Jairus’s house, to Lazarus’s house, and treated like a criminal rather than a good job prospect for Messiah. All of that “ministry” stuff they were teaching us had practically NOTHING to do with Jesus, yet it was part of the core curriculum for the degree plan – for any of the degree plans leading to ministry!
Eventually, I took a pastoral counseling class – FROM THE PSYCH DEPARTMENT! The books were all secular in nature. I was experiencing a taste of the same thing my father had complained of a generation before! Over time, I took a “Ministry to Fathers” course where we read Gordon MacDonald’s When Men Think Private Thoughts. It was a fun class and a decent book. It even made me think about things more seriously than I had before. But MacDonald’s book wasn’t required reading for “The Twelve” when Jesus was rabbi. I wondered if Jesus’s school of ministry was deficient! Wouldn’t the world be a better place if they had?
I might be Catholic, but I am also Protestant. And the faith heritage I come from once prided itself far more than Luther or the Reformers on being “people of the Book”! Where are the ministry books that either first explore the Bible in-depth and THEN explore how the meaning therein relates to ministry? What if someone wrote ministry books which functioned as addendums to major theological works from the great scholars like Calvin, Spurgeon, Schweitzer, Wesley, or Barth – among many others? Why were we so willing to dispense with the Bible when it came to ministry? Too eager to embrace psychology, economics, and politics instead???
And every ministry, it seems, is a niche! Prison ministry, youth ministry, preaching, foreign missions, ministry to fathers, to mothers, to minorities, to the poor, to truckers, bikers, and cowboys… and on and on and on it goes. Each niche requiring some psych analysis, some political analysis, some history lesson, some socio-economic consideration – the bulk of which is found in secular teachings.
When Jesus sent out The Twelve on their first mission trip, he told them to take nothing with them! He stripped them down of all pretense, it seems, and sent them out to preach and cast out demons! He was training them to lose their lives in order to gain them.
I recall now that I interviewed for two different positions when I took that internship as an undergrad. One in the county jail and the other in the state prison. Both chaplaincies accepted my application, putting the ball in my court, so to speak. I had to decide.
What was my deciding factor?
Casting out demons!
I went with the prison because the chaplain there described to me how an inmate had made a special request for chaplaincy to cast out a demon from his cell. The chaplain, having NEVER been asked for that before, went back to his office and consulted his books, made a few phone calls to fellow ministers and a couple scholars, and ultimately went with THE BIBLE where he read in Mark 9, “This kind comes out only with prayer.”
He went back to that cell and prayed with the inmate asking God to cast the demon out. After they were done praying, the chaplain asked the man who reported that the demon was gone.
I was told this story during the interview!
I asked if I could visit the inmate. I was led to him, and he confirmed the chaplains story to me, claiming the demons were still gone!
I immediately decided right then that I wanted to be involved with THAT ministry. I figured that while all the other students would return to the debriefing course in the fall with tales of ball games and pizza parties with youth groups, I hoped to return with stories of casting out demons!
(I didn’t get the chance to cast out a demon, by the way, but not for lack of trying!)
It seems to me now that I need to write a post like this on this subject as part of my overall discussion of books like When Helping Hurts and Toxic Charity. These are ministry books. They both have a few sentences and maybe even a few paragraphs worthy of note, but overall, they fail Jesus, fail the Bible and thus fail ministry. They both seek advice from economic developers, psychology, and politics at the expense of God’s Word.
And they are not alone.
I am currently reading another book (on a different subject) which actually is a pretty good book (at least in some parts) but which concedes way too much in throw away lines on page after page. And I am just sick reading it. Like I say, it’s got its good points! Some of it flat out inspirational! Helpful. But other parts are just sickening in either its lack of Bible or antithetical position vis-à-vis the Bible.
I think I would rather just read the secular approach. Somehow it’s more honest, I think.
I am not at all sure of myself with regards to posting this time. I sense I should “say it better” somehow. I sense I should know better what I am talking about than I actually do. I have been coming to this for many years, really. I didn’t see all of this nearly as clearly when I was in school as I do now, and I don’t sense I see it clearly enough yet.
But I will wrap up like I started and say, wasting time and money are problems for those IN BUSINESS. I am very clear now, far more clear now than when I was in school, that my school is a business IN BUSINESS to make money. My school was so closely associated with the church that to speak that way when I was there just seemed cynical. But after a couple decades in prison and street ministry, I see that my church is a business IN BUSINESS too. And I think being IN BUSINESS is a waste of God’s Kingdom.
*Homiletics, or preaching classes, also fall under the “ministry” category. I did not seek any ministry classes when I was in school, and that was true of homiletics too. However, I actually enjoyed the homiletics courses that I took. I still think I learned a lot from them. I will never forget that intro class that warned us against developing sermons with “points.” If you develop a sermon with three points, a poem, and a prayer, you are bound to open by telling your hearers what your points are and then putting them to sleep as you describe them in the “body” of your sermon. On the other hand, the instructor said, “Your sermon should of course ‘have a point.'”
All of that is good stuff, too, I think. But completely extrabiblical. Where is the text in the Bible teaching us how to preach? Some preachers are better skilled at convincing, convicting, moving, stirring, inspiring, edifying, and equipping hearers than others, and I will not deny that at all. But God uses both Moses and Paul, men who we know from the Bible are not good at preaching. And as my dear old dad is apt to point out, God even uses Balaam’s ass to speak his Word! None of these preachers ever studied the fine arts of homiletics, actually have a track record (at least St. Paul does) of putting hearers to sleep, and their stuff was good enough to make it into the Bible!
But who does all this fancy preaching serve? and for what?
Is the church of American in the business of Making America Great Again or of Making America Christian Actually?