Category Archives: Loving the Church

Great Buechner Quote on “The Church”

In light of our series on loving the church in all its glory and messiness, I wanted to post this from Frederick Buechner.  It is from his sermon “The Church” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons (New York, HarperOne, 2006), pp. 146-53.

Jesus made his church out of human beings with more or less the same mixture in them of cowardice and guts, of intelligence and stupidity, of selfishness and generosity, of openness of heart and sheer cussedness as you would be apt to find in any of us.  The reason he made his church out of human beings is that human beings were all there was to make it out of.  In fact, as far as I know, human beings are all there is to make it out of still.  It’s a point worth remembering.

Interview with Jason Byassee (pt. 2): The Rift between Church and Academy

This is the 2nd part of our interview with Jason Byassee (for part 1, scroll down or click here).  We have written quite a bit on the idea of the pastor-scholar / pastor-theologian here at HR (see previous posts for some links).  Jason’s pastoral and writing ministry seems to hug the edges of the (sometimes over-emphasized, sometimes under-acknowledged) divide between the church and the academy.  We are glad to feature some of his wisdom here at the blog….


Church, Academy, and the Pastor Theologian
HR: You used to have an office ensconced within one of the most esteemed academic institutions in the land (oak-lined quads, Gothic-style architecture, and a state-of-the-art library, even!).  What do you miss about the academic setting?  And what about the parish setting has been most freeing or most constricting?  

I really miss the library. Appalachian State University, the institution without which Boone would not exist, has a good one, but trying to borrow the obscure stuff I need for my work is really hard. The interlibrary loan people see me as a guy off the street, which technically I am. It’s almost tempting to adjunct just for the library card or use of the school’s sports palace.

App is a growing and strong academic institution that’s comfortable in its skin. It hitched its wagon to the green economy stuff before it was cool. It serves its region beautifully. And it’s growing in sustainable ways. Duke is constantly unhappy with itself. It was founded in 1920 to catch Harvard, founded a third of a millennium before. You have to hustle to do that. That hustle makes Duke great. It also makes Duke constantly dissatisfied with itself, and that affects how people treat one another.

At Duke I was surrounded by brilliant people with worldwide reputations in their (very narrow) fields who rarely even spoke with one another. In the church I’m surrounded with brilliant people, not all of them academics blessedly, and I usually get to have conversations with them much more easily than in Durham. But we talk about their work—in business, medicine, parenting, academia etc. The range of conversation is so much wider. The academy is great at going deep, not broad. The work I’m doing now often goes both deep and broad. It’s more intellectually challenging in some ways, with less bluster.

I do feel less shielded from the culture now. Broader culture has become more coarse, more outraged—outrage is the only coin in fact. FoxNews and talk radio are to blame for this. People deal with me as though those are appropriate ways to do so. And the church is made up of really kind people who aren’t good at standing up to their fellow members when they’re being bullies. Who is good at that really? Sometimes that’s my job, to stand up to people when others won’t. And I don’t like it anymore than anyone else. Surprisingly academia can be more civil than that.


HR: Suspicion towards intellectualism and academic institutions persists or even flourishes in many local churches (and sometimes for good reason, of course).  How can pastors inclined toward rigorous intellectual pursuits promote a healthy vision of the “pastor-scholar” within local churches and the wider community of faith?

Maybe my parish is different in this—I don’t find my folks anti-intellectual at all. They don’t want me to hide in jargon not designed for them, and I don’t blame them for that a bit. We do have town-gown tensions that come out in church. Someone thanked me once for praying for Boone’s businesses. Seems obvious—they’re struggling, like everyone’s. But what she really meant was that I’m sometimes solely focused on the university in my preaching and prayer. There are other industries in town. She was gracious in pointing out a genuine oversight.

One way this comes out is in how the church receives historical criticism. On that I find folks all over the map. Some want me to affirm historical accuracy on every point; others are reading Spong. This doesn’t trouble me. I don’t trust in historical criticism either, and it’s not my job to pass judgment on ‘what really happened.’ My job is to bring Spong readers and other fundamentalists of all kind closer to Jesus. They both want to be close to Jesus in their deepest selves, under the tarnished imago dei. So I think some of the strain between theological academy and parish in modernity has been something like this, “How come they don’t want to hear about Q or deuetero-Isaiah in my preaching?” Answer: because historical re-creation cannot save. Neither should it be feared.


Counsel for the seekers…
HR: Granting that everyone’s situation is different, what general counsel would you offer for young women and men in the church who are intellectually gifted and dreaming of doctoral work in theology or biblical studies, yet simultaneously sense a call to ministry?

Eugene Peterson borrows from Denise Levertov a description of a dog walking, “intently haphazard.” That’s been my life. There is no single job on which to land. Pursue what lights you up. That’s a sign from God, a healthy, gospel-shaped ambition. Do it as a servant to increase love of God and neighbor. There will be more kinds of jobs in the future, not fewer, with social media’s proliferation and new forms of church and the academy’s bubble perhaps bursting on the horizon (its funding model can’t be sustained, and competitors will move in that aren’t as stupid as the for-profit industry). So study hard as an expression of love of God and neighbor. I had no idea 2 of the 3 jobs I’ve had existed. This one, which I did know about, I was both hopelessly overtrained and underprepared for. That makes it really, really fun.

Checking back in with Jason Byassee (pt. 1): Theology, Writing, Social Media & the Local Church

For our series on “Loving the Church” in all its grit, grime and glory, we had some exchanges with Jason Byassee.  Before accepting an appointment as Senior Minister at Boone United Methodist Church (North Carolina), Jason worked at Duke Divinity School, heading up their Center for Theology, Writing and Media.  Since a lot of our posts here at Hopeful Realism have prodded and poked around with the idea of the pastor-scholar or pastor-theologian (most recently, see here and here), we were intrigued with the news of the job shift—it is not everyday that someone leaves a coveted academic post at a prestigious university for the pastoral trials of the parish.  We interviewed Jason last year (click here) in what turned out to be one of my top five favorite posts of 2011.  We thought it would be fun and helpful to check in and find out how plying the fused craft of theology/writing/ministry was faring….


Writing and Reading as a Pastor

HR: How have the past several months as a pastor shaped your writing?  Any change in style, content, length… or changes in topics of focus? 

I certainly have a less romantic view of the parish! The small church cured me of that in one way (I wrote about this in The Gifts of the Small Church), but a largish church (1400 members, 700 on Sunday) cures in another way. There are more critics. There are also more selfless servants. And those are often the same people! Sunday is more of a performance, and that’s not a bad thing. We can do more in mission. We’re also a tall steeple in a town that’s still Christendom enough that being a visible member can help you advance in your career. Odd—but there’s nothing to be done about that other than to receive it as a gift. We’re in a university town with an entrepreneurial spirit. Those are all gifts, all potentially dangerous, potentially sources of grace.

I’m struck by how much of my job is leading staff. I have no idea how to do that other than not to do what supervisors I’ve had did that I disliked. Of course merely avoiding things is no way positively to lead. I find myself faking it far more often than I’m comfortable with. But lots of senior pastors tell me they’re doing the same.

I find my view of theological education growing. Smart people are right to demand sophisticated intellectual engagement that respects and takes them seriously. But academia often serves up inside baseball debates when it thinks it’s being intellectual. Who has the patience for that outside the guild? Folks want preaching that engages their life with the treasures of the church and harsh realities of the world and takes their minds seriously. Some sui generis geniuses can do that, but that’s not most of us.

I’m sure all that’s shaped my writing some. It comes in smaller bursts of time, certainly. To be honest I know what I’m doing when I write but not when I’m leading, so writing can be an escape in the negative sense for me.


HR: How has serving as a pastor expanded (or constricted) your reading and studying? 

I find I read more fiction. I’m not sure why exactly. I wish I had a theory that I found narrative helpful in reading scripture or reading the congregation or working with words but it might just be fun. I certainly read more commentaries and sermons. When I get ready to preach I see if I have a sermon on a text and am sure to read it. If I’m being extra diligent I’ll read commentary on it, but not always. Modern commentary always feels the need to act more clever than anything that came before, so I get annoyed and distracted by that.

I also read things parishioners give me. Not email forwards usually, but books, and I try to work what I learn there into sermons. I both want to show them we can discover things together and I want genuinely to know what they’re reading and thinking about.


HR: How does your process of sermon-writing differ from the research and writing you have done for more academic purposes?

More is at stake. A sermon declares the word of God in a specific time and place, a word that judges and saves, contradicts and makes whole. Academic work also has its place in God’s purposes, but less is up for grabs. It’s second-order discourse (borrowing from Robert Jenson here): it offers reflection on scripture or church at a remove, potentially correcting or encouraging things being said in first-order discourse like sermon or church teaching. But if an academic piece gets things wrong, who cares?

That said, ideas do have legs. Terrible theologies of suffering or salvation or politics get disseminated from a variety of sources and can do harm. I’m also aware of my own post-liberal training more than I have been. The temptation is to try to turn people into liberals before they can be turned into post-liberals! Of course there’s no credit for doing that. The better goal is to approach Jesus together and see how we’re changed for having done so.

It certainly matters who I imagine will be listening on Sundays. I often find myself thinking how specific people will hear things. I hope that’s not selling out on the gospel—I believe it’s not, but it seems unavoidable anyway.
HR: You have devoted considerable amounts of time and energy to studying Patristic exegesis.  Do the approaches of those early writers on Scripture give shape to your own exegetical practices as a pastor?

They must, but I’m not sure how. Augustine is rigorously textual in his preaching. Graham Ward calls this a “letteral” sense—Augustine’s paying exacting attention to the letter, but not doing what we moderns think of as “literal” reading. Scripture has a fulsome sense, it includes history and letter and language, all that is remote. Yet it’s also brought near us in Christ, as he leads us in discipleship now. The fathers know this: that the bible is both far away and unbearably near. Monica is a good image for Augustine’s preaching. She’s uneducated but fiercely intelligent, pious and superstitious in one way, in another dramatically dedicated to Jesus in ways that affected generations. My parishioners are far more educated than Monica in a formal sense but not in theology—otherwise it’s a perfect bullseye.


Media as a Pastor
As a Research Fellow with the New Media Project, I know that you spend a lot of time thinking about media.  How are social media incorporated in your pastoral ministry?

Not near as well as they should be, but better than they were when I arrived. We had a 90’s era flash presentation on site that just screamed “dated.” Now we have a pretty nice looking site, put together by a lay staffer and good consultant. We have a Facebook presence where we had none before. We’re not using it very well yet. I’m struck anew by how difficult it is to connect to people in social media as an institution. They work so much better for individuals. I’ve got 2500 Facebook friends; something like 160 people “like” Boone UMC. So we’re trying to ask people what I ought to preach on etc. But it’s slow.

Personally I find it much easier to connect to people via text message or Facebook than it ever was with the tools around when I was last in the parish—phone and email. I like praying on people’s Facebook wall on their birthdays. Social media is a great way to connect with first-time visitors. All that is borrowed from folks we studied in the New Media Project. I like Tony Lee’s language—pastor of Cathedral of Hope AME in DC. He says new media increases his “pastoral touches.” Sure enough—folks I’d never connect with in person, who don’t elbow their way through the greeting line to get in the pastor’s attention—I can connect with really well digitally. It only works if face-to-face and social media work integrally.

But I don’t claim to have this figured out at Boone UMC in the slightest.


[Part 2 of the interview will be up in a couple of days on ” The Rift between Church and Academy and the Pastor Theologian“…. ]

Here are Jason’s books if any of you are interested—








Churches and the Church: Soaring Vision | Messy Reality

This new series is devoted to loving the church.

A hard sell.  Especially for younger Christians for whom leaving the church, or at least heftily criticizing it, is vogue.  Those departures and critiques not entirely without some justification.  I wrote in my book on cynicism toward the church that as “an untidly conglomeration” of damaged, sinful people lunging toward redemption, we are bound to generate a lot of “in-house wounds.”  Church on-the-ground is often messy and hurtful.

In “loving the church,” we are not interested in just loving the ideal of the Church—capital ‘c’—but also with loving its local instantiations around the corner and up the road.  We want to love the Church conceptually… and to love local churches practically.

Many of us are disgusted with the “local church” because of how poorly it measures up with the concept of “Church” presented in the New Testament.  And it is right to be disgusted… though not because we are indignant idealists.  And our disgust should be grounded in love and should stretch only as wide as our compassion.

What I am hoping to clarify in this blog series is that the New Testament writers who have offered us such a robust, lofting vision for “Church” were in no way removed from the messy realities of local churches.  They did not write as ecclesial idealists.

If our vision of church/churches is taken from the NT at all, then we will be quite at home in the tension between the soaring theological vision and the ugliness of the actual situations we find at the ecclesial ground zero.  The most extensive treatment of the powerful church-as-body metaphor is found in 1 Corinthians, a letter addressed to a church doting foolishly on celebrity teachers, divided by socioeconomic castes and fragmented along lines drawn between the hyper- and the hypospiritual.  There was even a case of sexual immorality that would make the pagans blush.  The Galatians were carefully instructed in the theological largesse of the Gospel, and then exchanged it all for some hotshot apostles who rolled into town with a different message.  Even the highly praised Philippian church had its struggles—two hard-working church matrons (Euodia and Synteche) seemed to have had a falling out that was spreading throughout the congregation.  Outside of Paul’s letters, we see that the Apostle John had much to critique about “the seven churches that are in Asia” (Rev 1:4).  Peter and the writer of Hebrews had to exhort churches to exhibit stronger endurance in hard times.  James offered a wisdom-styled critique of public speech, wavering faith and reliance on wealth.  And in spite of the deep Christology of the churches under Johannine influence, that divisions were underway seems clear from 1, 2, and 3 John.

And yet all these writers offered a dense, powerful, ecclesiological vision of the Church as a Bride of striking splendor (Rev 19, et. al.), as a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2), as “a pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim 3).  Our divine status as a holy people is so unspeakably high that we find this prayer in Ephesians,

“…that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe….” (Eph 1:18-19).

Soaring vision, yet messy reality—it is all part of the entire ecclesial kit.

Luke seems to be the NT author most called on as a witness against the contemporary church.  Specifically, Acts 1-4.  There we have pristine church.  Pure church.  Simple church.  We sing the song of wanting to be like the early church, the church of Acts.  But let’s not forget that within a few days a couple is lying about their property gifts (Acts 5) and a huge interracial dispute erupts when widows are found to be going without meals.  Luke may have presented an idealistic picture of the newly generated church, but he was no idealist.  His vision is tempered by accounts of the actual struggles of the earliest communities.

I am wanting to experience church not as an idealist and not as a cynic, but as a realist (a hopeful one, to be precise!).  It’s ugly out there in the pews and trenches.  That need not surprise us.  Neither should the beauty lingering between the same pews and in the same trenches… if we have the eyes to see it.

No one expects perfect people… just perfect churches

Two ongoing series are underway here at HR.  Joel Busby is writing on “The Process of Missional Engagement.”  We are also looking at the church in all its splendor (and disappointing ugliness) through a series called “Loving the Church.”

“Nobody’s perfect.”

This anthropological confession easily rolls off the tongue (more easily than “anthropological confession”).  Most of us know by brutal experience that perfection is a foolish, impossible goal.  Even those of us struggling with that  awful malady of “perfectionism” know that we are being quite silly when we demand that we get everything right all the time.

But many of us seem to expect perfect churches.  We want a church that is “the perfect fit” for our perspectives and our gifts.  We want a church that meets this standard and that expectation.  Even if we are not personal perfectionists, many of us are ecclesial perfectionists.  That is, we want a church that perfectly satisfies our needs.

In this series of posts we are looking at the church in all its splendor, but also in all its ugliness.  It is much more trendy to write observations about the latter.  We love to express dismay at the latest dumb thing some churchy somebody said.  Balking at the latest church scandal has come to be good sport for many of us.

But ecclesial perfectionism is as cruel an expectation as personal perfectionism.

In fact, I would not want to be a part of a perfect church.  If I were part of a perfect church, then that would mean I would have to be perfect, because I am one of its constituent parts.

But “nobody’s perfect, right?”





The Surprise of Self-Righteousness

[“Loving the Church: The Soaring Theological Vision | The On-the-Ground, Messy Reality” is a new ongoing series for HR.  The Process of Missional Engagement is still underway, and there will be random blog posts from here and there,  some from guest contributors]


The church is beset by ailments innumerable, of which many voices in the blogosphere regularly remind us.  One of the churchly plagues most off-putting for younger Christians is self-righteousness, that religious disorder of assumed superiority, a superiority (falsely) premised on the grounds of better spiritual performances or loftier spiritual perspectives than others.  Young believers have a highly keen sense of smell when it comes to self-righteousness—they can sniff it out instantly.

But here is the surprising thing about self-righteousness: the moment you hear or read the term “self-righteous” and you immediately think of someone else, then you know you are self-righteous yourself.

If on reading the opening paragraph of this post you thought of someone other than yourself, or if you thought about some demographic of Christians other than your own, then it may well be a sign of self-righteousness.  We can sniff self-righteousness all over the place… except when it is stuck on our own clothes and eking out of our own souls.

The purpose of the “reader entrapment” underway here is simply to point out that self-righteousness is one of those plagues you don’t even know you have.  That’s the nature of this disease, isn’t it?  Self-righteousness comes with a spiritual pride that blinds us to all self-righteousness except that which is in others.  Hence that haunting question posed by Jesus:

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Mt 7:3).

Self-righteousness is not a disorder stereotypically unique to the church establishment.  A mutated strand of the disease is flowing through my own veins.  It has infected as well, perhaps, an enormous host of our younger generation of disgruntled Christians for whom critiquing the church is now rather vogue.

Let’s consider that parable Jesus told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Lk 18:9-14, emphases added).  In the scenario he creates, Jesus contrasts a Pharisee and a tax collector, both of whom “went up to the temple to pray.”  Here is the account of how the Pharisee prayed…

“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get….”

Could we possibly re-word the voice of the Pharisee in the parable to express the attitude that many of us in the younger crowd have toward the church…?  Something like this, maybe:

“The embittered young Christian, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like the institutional church-goers, legalists, homophobic, hypocrites, or even like this older lady who has been attending that traditionalist church up the road for years.  I am culturally savvy; I give to social justice causes….”

You get the picture.  And it is a picture I have found myself in many times.  Enlightened in my 20s by an authentic experience of Christ and Christian community unfettered by traditionalist trappings, I have at times assumed a position of spiritual superiority over “institutional church-goers.”

I am not suggesting that the institutional church—its cultural irrelevance, its politicizing tendencies, its neglect of the poor—should be immune from critique.  I am just thinking that if I myself dare to offer any sort of critical observations, my preliminary discipline should be that of ripping all the massive, ugly logs out of my own eyeballs… because I’m stricken with many of the same spiritual diseases.