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Part Three

There are a number of obstacles that potentially might hinder someone from pursuing pastoral ministry as vocation. These also account for the high percentage of those who either drop out of seminary or leave the pastorate prematurely. If we are to succeed in our efforts to direct people into vocational ministry it is essential that these barriers be identified and addressed.

(1)       One of those obstacles is the changing nature of the seminary itself.

There is a trend among many seminaries to function more like graduate schools of religion than training centers for church leaders. Is the seminary a place for advanced religious studies to prepare scholars for a career in teaching, or an opportunity to explore the faith of the church with a view to preparing future leaders?

On the other hand, and largely in response to the inadequacies of that form of education in preparing men for the pastorate, some seminaries are revamping their curricula to focus more on the practical and pastoral dimensions of church life and less on the theoretical aspects of theological study or emphasis on the biblical languages and exegetical skills.

There is also the fact that “seminaries now have faculties made up almost exclusively of persons who have no distinguished record as pastors. The question can rightly be raised whether faculties made up of persons who have never demonstrated the ability to organize, nurture, and develop a local congregation can prepare students for this important task” (John Leith, Crisis in the Church: The Plight of Theological Education [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997], 22).

Individuals are often discouraged from pastoral ministry when they observe the blurring of theological boundaries for faith. With the increasing loss of theological identity and the inroads of pluralistic thinking, people question the value of a life devoted to communicating a belief system that lacks specificity and purpose.

Related to the above is the increasing conviction in our seminaries of the inadequacy of the faith of the church to address the more pressing ethical and social issues in a post-Enlightenment (and now postmodern) world. This invariably leads to accommodation to the prevailing culture and the loss of any real sense of mission.

(2)            Another obstacle to the pursuit of vocational ministry is the loss of a sense of the church as community.

The influence of western society on the ethos of the church is profound. This is especially true of the spirit of individualism. The tendency toward isolation and independence has diminished the importance of the church as a community of interdependent members who rely on the resources and support of others. The elevation of the autonomous and unencumbered self as the ideal approach to life cannot help but undermine the appeal of the church and its focus on the contribution of each individual part.

The emergence of the “parachurch” ministry as a voluntary association of believers has also contributed (unwittingly) to the absence of a healthy ecclesiology among Christians.

There is presently a resurgence of interest in the concept of community. Scholars are increasingly recognizing the vital role of community in epistemology (in which a cognitive framework is mediated to the individual by the community; although I think this can often be overblown) and identity (the story of a person’s life is often embedded in the larger narrative of the community in which they live), to mention only two. This is no less important for the many communities of “faith”, in which we are all inextricably embedded and by which we are shaped in terms of personal development, theological convictions, and overall worldview. Robert Bellah explains:

“We find ourselves not independently of other people and institutions but through them. We never get to the bottom of our selves on our own. We discover who we are face to face and side by side with others in work, love, and learning. All of our activity goes on in relationships, groups, associations, and communities ordered by institutional structures and interpreted by cultural patterns of meaning. . . . We are parts of a larger whole that we can neither forget nor imagine in our own image without paying a high price. If we are not to have a self that hangs in the void, slowly twisting in the wind, these are issues we cannot ignore” (Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life [New York: Harper & Row, 1986], 84).

(3)       There are a number of specific issues facing the church today that serve unwittingly to deter prospective ministers:

a) the controversy over same-sex relationships and the increasingly politicization of whether homosexuals should be ordained

b) the equally controversial and divisive issue of women’s ordination and the influence of feminist ideology in the church at large

c) the volatile issue of worship styles, as the younger generations insist on more contemporary forms, often in such a way as to alienate the elderly

d) the consistently low wage of most pastors often drives potential ministers into other career choices

(4)            Perhaps the greatest hurdle to overcome is the virtual absence in evangelicalism of a healthy ecclesiology.

Stanley Grenz has recently brought our attention to “the relatively insignificant place given to ecclesiology, at least historically, in the work of evangelical theologians” (Renewing the Center: Evangelical Theology in a Post-Theological Era [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000], 289). It should come as no surprise that so few feel drawn to vocational ministry when those who ostensibly construct its theological rationale routinely display little indication that they have given serious thought to the questions about the nature and function of the church in God’s broader redemptive purposes.

This de-emphasis on ecclesiology can be traced to a number of factors, perhaps primary of which is the late Puritan and Pietist heritage of the evangelical movement. “Rather than engaging the ecclesiological question of the nature of a true church, the Pietists, under the rubric of a concern for authentic Christianity, turned their attention to the individual, that is, to the inner life of the regenerate believer and to the personal practice of the Christian faith” (Grenz, 291). In effect, the Pietists inaugurated a new vision of what it meant to be a Christian, one in which the institutional church was relegated to the sidelines. The Pietists, notes Grenz, “bequeathed their vision of true Christianity to the fledgling evangelical movement. The personal experience of new birth became the sine qua non of authentic Christianity, a move that occasioned the development of a benign neglect of the church, if not a certain anti-church bias, among many evangelicals” (291).

As something of an aside, I wish to point out that there is nothing intrinsic to a concern for the welfare of one’s soul that should lead to such a “benign neglect” of the church. One of the primary tasks of the church or community of God’s people is to teach and live in such a way that each individual member is awakened to his or her sustained need for a relationship of intimacy with Jesus Christ. Being concerned for one’s own eternal salvation does not necessarily lead to a neglect for the corporate body or its life and mission. We must be careful to avoid such dichotomies that suggest we either are focused on the personal state of our souls or are so enmeshed in the life of the community as to lose our sense of individual intimacy with Jesus.

Key to renewing interest in vocational ministry is a recovery of the sense that the church itself is a “called” community. Paul Hanson points out that

“the community of faith in the Bible is the people called. It is the people called forth from diverse sorts of bondage to freedom, called to a sense of identity founded on a common bond with the God of righteousness and compassion, and called to the twin vocations of worship and participation in the creative, redemptive purpose that unifies all history and is directed to the restoration of the whole creation within a universal order of shalom” (The People Called [San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986], 467).

Another critical element that unwittingly contributes to the relative unimportance of ecclesiology among evangelicals is the otherwise biblical distinction between the invisible (i.e., spiritual) church of the elect, or the truly converted, and the visible (i.e., institutional) church whose members include both the regenerate and merely nominal confessors. Says Grenz, this understanding

“of the distinction between the invisible church and the visible church led evangelicals to elevate the invisible church, often to the expense of the visible church. If the true church is the invisible church, the ‘fellowship of all genuine believers’ understood as those who are truly born again, participation in the visible church ultimately becomes soteriologically irrelevant [as over against Catholicism in which salvific grace is tied to the sacraments of the church and mediated through the priesthood]” (299).

And if the latter be true, participation in the institutional church

“can quickly become, at best, motivated more by pragmatic concerns than by a sense of necessity, and at worst, merely a matter of personal preference. . . . [Thus] by invoking the invisible church as the true church, evangelicals were freed from excessive concern with matters of church order” (299).

If, in fact, a person is viewed as a redeemed and complete “self” antecedent to and apart from membership in a local congregation (what Robert Bellah calls “ontological individualism”, or “the belief that the truth of our condition is not in our society or in our relation to others, but in our isolated and inviolable selves” [“Community Properly Understood: A Defense of ‘Democratic Communitarianism,” in The Essential Communitarian Reader, ed Amitai Etzioni (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1998), 17]), the potential exists for the latter to assume at best a secondary role in the life and calling of the Christian. And again I emphasize the word “potential”, for although such has occurred, it need not occur.

Much the same point is made by Andrew Kuyvenhoven of the Canadian Christian Reformed Church whose comments were evoked by what he perceives as the current indifference toward denominational identity:

“The most painful negative feature of this new tolerance of denominations is the underlying theological indifference toward the biblical teaching about the church. We simply have a poorly defined ecclesiology. Evangelicals tend to believe that a personal relationship to Jesus is the one thing that counts. At their meetings they have been told that membership in a church cannot save a person, that baptism cannot save, that the Lord’s supper is not magic, and that personal conscience is greater than the rules of any church assembly [true enough, in their own right]. For them the church exists for personal growth and as a means for mission” (“Denominationalism: From Fanaticism to Indifference,” Faith Today 9 [July-August 1991]:13).

This is hardly an incentive for an individual to give serious consideration to a life in service of the established church.

The effect of such a minimalist ecclesiology is that for many evangelical Christians it is entirely possible to fulfill one’s divine vocation in relative isolation from the institutional church.

What is called for among evangelicals is a recovery of the centrality of the church in God’s redemptive purpose. Vocational ministry will never be viewed as it should as long as the church is relegated to a subsidiary role in the divine program. There is need for evangelicals to acknowledge that central to the work of God in human history is “the establishment of the eschatological community – a redeemed people dwelling in a renewed earth, enjoying reconciliation with their God, fellowship with each other and harmony with all creation. Consequently, the goal of community lies at the heart of God’s actions in history” (Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology [Downers Grove: IVP, 1993], 158).

If there is widespread ignorance of the concept of “vocation” and a consequent measurable decline in the interest of the current generation in pursuing a life devoted to ministry in the institutional church, a concerted effort to reverse this trend must begin with rebuilding a healthy theology of the church and a recognition of its critical place in God’s redemptive activity.