Pulpitless Preachers and Other Useless Crap

By Paul Koch

I’ve often wondered about my own kneejerk reaction to all things bureaucratic in nature. It seems to have always been a part of my character, but it hasn’t always been beneficial. It has got me in trouble more than once throughout my life and since being ordained as a pastor, it seems to have gotten worse. Because of this tendency, I am usually outside looking in wondering why no one will take my contributions seriously. Or, on the other hand, I’m on the inside constantly being the asshole in the room (this happens more often than I would like to admit). Sometimes I simply chock it up to being a Gen-Xer and living up to my generational stereotype or maybe it’s just an unfortunate personality flaw. I’ve tried over time to embrace bureaucracy, but it just doesn’t stick. The best I do is use them like an abused girlfriend; I get what I can out of it then push it aside when it gets in the way of what I want to do.

Now, I’m not a close-minded simpleton. I don’t lack the ability to be introspective. I am confronted again and again of my own quest for glory and my sinful selfishness of which I repent. But time and again I keep arriving at the conclusion that my distrust of bureaucracy is warranted. As I examine it again, what I find is people who give advice, who set agendas, and who appear to lead, but don’t actually have any skin in the game. They have “experts,” give opinions and offer theories, but don’t actually do a damn thing.

What appears to have happened over time is a growth in the number of pastors and theologians who no longer have pulpits. Instead, they spend their days looking backward and analyzing the things that have happened in the past and then offer theories on how to move forward. This is done detached from the actual people whom their work is to benefit. In fact, in my opinion, one of the prime indicators of how terrible a church bureaucrat is going to be is how long it has been since they’ve regularly engaged in preaching, teaching, and administering the sacraments.

Preaching-Points

And I don’t mean preaching at the conference or the occasional installation service. I mean sitting by the bedside of the sick, catechizing the young and old, handing over the goods at the rail, and preaching to people whose lives you’ve invested in even when you don’t want to be. Their work tends to be all about the past or all about the future while the present doesn’t much figure in to their “wisdom.”

This is, at least, part of the concern Wingren expressed when he said,

An authoritative Bible whose main characteristic is that it is verbally inspired is a book without a Master and consequently a book with a doctrine instead of a message, its only task to relate what God has already done instead of having to bring men into the sphere of God’s continuing activity. In that way, a gulf yawns between the holy events of the Bible and the holy events awaited in the last times. Thereby the present in emptied of content.” – Gustaf Wingren, “The Living Word” (56)

It is important to recognize this detachment from the present for what it is. It may be wise ideas, clever insights, and so on, but if they don’t actually have any skin in the game, if they don’t actually have to put their theories into practice, then it’s all smoke and mirrors. It’s like a chef that brags about how well she can cook while criticizing the cooking of others but never actually sets her entree down for you to taste.

Now, it used to be far easier to locate the voice of the detached would-be preacher. They were found in denominational church offices, and their pictures would be plastered on every piece of PR literature published from said office. But today these pulpitless pastors are everywhere. They are on blogs (perhaps even this one?), have radio shows, strut around our academic institutions and always have a lot to say about how things ought to be.

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Their work is marked not by their brilliance, though they usually are quite brilliant, but by their lack of being bound into the lives of people they would rather not be bound to. In other words, they have a congregation of their own choosing that applauds their theories and nods approvingly to their clever wit.

The true test is when they find they have skin in the game, as then their future and finances are on the line. Their true colors show when they discover that they are saying things the bureaucrats dislike. When their theories begin to cause too many waves (bureaucrats hate waves), and their congregation begins to turn on them, what will they do?

Will they stay the course; will they stand firm? If so, perhaps they have found their pulpit and we ought to give them our attention and respect. But what if not? If they fold and retreat in to the warm bosom of the bureaucracy, why then we should see them as the frauds they are.

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Proclamation is not a theory, and it is not done only when it suits us or feels good. Theology detached from actual people is vanity. As Wingren put it so well,

The Word reaches the objective for which it was sent out only when it effects an entrance into men. Man reaches the spring out of which he can draw human life only when the Word of the Creator comes to him.” – The Living Word (13)

Stop worrying about those who have no skin in the game. Don’ t let those with no pulpit think they can influence yours.

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7 thoughts on “Pulpitless Preachers and Other Useless Crap

  1. The world is complicated, inside and outside of the church, and we are flawed individually and collectively. This is not easy for us to comprehend, because each of us wants things to be different, and we live largely dissatisfied lives in many respects…and the battles within our own minds are ongoing. Think about Paul. When we read the Epistles, we can see between the lines that he often wants the young church to be better, and he is also self effacing about his own failures and weaknesses. Martin Luther was so unhappy with the early Lutheran clergy…so disgusted by their lack of basic Christianity 101, that he went back to his cold living quarters and wrote the Small Catechism….and made sure it would be used by clergy as well as schoolchildren. I think we just need to pray more, seek wisdom from above, and look for solutions. We need to communicate and get into discussions with people, always with an eye on improving the church and the world, despite opposition from without and within. We should refuse to give in to despair over the inadequacies we see.. There is power in reading the word of God and simply putting our faith in Christ.

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  2. I get my fill of bureaucracies with building departments and code enforcement issues. It gets particularly frustrating when things are less absolute and more “denominational” in code enforcement – each inspector has his own opinion of which things ought to be enforced and which overlooked. Dealing with a single agency can be like dealing with 100 personal interpretations few of which actually pertain to the end result or safe operation (as evidenced by the fact that I deal with multiple municipalities in 8 States and DC and they don’t agree that the same conditions are proper/ improper).

    Last weak, our Wednesday Lenten theme was that we had a God whose concern is people. Sort of fits, here. In outreach, we come across many people put off by church or remaining unchurched because they cannot see the relevance of church and many churches don’t help to change that. Why are you guys liturgical and the other guys down the road, not? How come they’re all about getting ready for judgement, end times, and living right and you’re all confessing shortcomings? What’s wrong with having a rock band in worship? Most of all, aren’t all the others, besides you, still Christian? So, shouldn’t we pick the Christianity we like, if it’s all going to save? I notice the one thing you all do is pass the collection plate.

    People are served only when our practices, doctrines, and systems convey the message. It can never be “this is what we do” or “this is the best way to practice.” We have to say “this is why we do this”, “this is why we say this” and be prepared to hear criticism because no rites or human interpretation are perfect and something we do may be a genuine barrier to grace. In other words, the forms and systems which constitute the church should always be weighed against what God intends the church to do – baptize and make disciples. If we serve all who come in the door and dish out unconditional grace but do not encourage each other to a fruitful faith, both our mission and our discipling suffer. If we bring people in only to fellowship and fun, both also suffer.

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    1. I agree with you. Having worked at one time or another for state and Federal government over the years, we always had rules and regulations which were interpreted differently by various elected political administrations and individual supervisory personnel. Some laws, written by lawyers or bureaucrats tucked away in little cubicles insulated from the real world, would readily codify cumbersome and unrealistic rules for the rest of us and the public to interpret and obey. Lazy political legislators sign off on new laws they haven’t even read, and then they run off to schmooze with lobbyists. Few politicians are adroit enough to fully understand the ramifications, cost, and consequences of some of the laws they pass on to the public or the groups under their bureaucratic thumbs. In the church, would you really and truly expect everything to be different than civil government? You must realize that some procedures and rules are set by people who just enjoy the power trip of making others fall in line. It doesn’t matter that a new order or rule makes sense or not….but it must come down because the originator must feed an egotistic desire to feel important. To view all methods we use and new procedures realistically, it needs to be determined first if it is practical, necessary, and helpful. The same rule applies to the church.

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      1. Where I expect the church to be different, particularly in one that has a congregational polity, is that the case for adhering to traditions or forms should be pressed under examination more often. Instead, the bureaucrats find safety because the parishioners find safety in not having to proclaim, step outside comfort zones to serve neighbors, not having to consider themselves part of God’s plan for others (how often do you come across people wondering what God intends for them and their lives looking for some validation or purpose which makes them better off.) You have your salvation, swallowed a wafer and some wine, let’s have coffee, see you next week, if you feel the urge to do something, don’t get hung up on works righteousness, it’s OK if you don’t do anything good as long as you don’t fornicate this week. No difference between that and “say 10 Hail Mary’s and see you on Sunday!”

        All that we do and say should lead people to full lives in joyful service to each other and their neighbors unencumbered by worry if it is enough but not unencumbered by the need to do these things. Bureaucracy in church creates complacence and that should cause alarm bells to sound and people beating a retreat away from the sanctuary – we should be restless:

        “When a Christian begins to know Christ as his Lord and Savior, who has redeemed him from death, and is brought into His dominion and heritage, his heart is thoroughly permeated by God; then he would like to help everybody attain this blessedness. For he has no greater joy than the treasured knowledge of Christ … He has a restless spirit while enjoying rest supreme, that is, God’s grace and peace. Therefore, he cannot be quiet or idle but is forever struggling and striving with all his powers, as one living only to spread God’s honor and praise farther among man.” (Martin Luther)

        Doctrinal bureaucrats can’t cope with the chaos of restlessness. They’re there to make sure we don’t get carried away. If it’s run from a papal throne through a hierarchy, what choice is there? But if we, the restless ones, call the shots, we should be removing the bureaucrats.

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  3. I think there’s a basic flaw in the church structure. We are called to make disciples. How can you train someone with a 1/2 hour lecture once a week+/-? School class rooms often have 30 students & that is too many in my opinion. I would recommend smaller groups for prayer, repenting, communion & renewing of the mind(Rom 12:2) & gathering all together to worship.

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