The Issues Paradox

The issues you most want to push are beyond pushing.

Churches in the modern age troll for pastors who know how to grow a church. They are desperate for men and women who know how to promote, market, and sell. When the pulpit becomes empty, churches now look for sales-types, the same kinds of people who would succeed in real estate and life insurance. That’s why the old words of Karl Barth ought to be required reading for both pastors and pastor search committees:

The word of God is not for sale; and therefore it has no need of shrewd salesmen. The word of God is not seeking patrons; therefore it refuses price cutting and bargaining; therefore it has no need of middlemen. The word of God does not compete with other commodities which are being offered to men on the bargain counter of life. It does not care to be sold at any price. It only desires to be its own genuine self, without being compelled to suffer alterations and modifications. It will, however, not stoop to overcome resistance with bargain counter methods. Promoters’ successes are sham victories; their crowded churches and the breathlessness of their audiences have nothing in common with the word of God. (Wasteland)

In spite of Barth’s warning, the modern church has bought into the notion of the pastor as manager/salesperson/psychologist. And would-be pastors trolling for pulpits know what the market demands: “Seminary students are not blind to the fact that the big churches and the big salaries often go to those who are untheological and even anti-theological. They know what kind of training they need: they need to become managers who have the status of professionals, not scholars, thinkers, or theologians.” (No Place)

But this trend toward turning pastors into ecclesiastical corporate executives is destined to water down the true purpose of the church and lead people to the false notion that churches exist solely to get larger and richer. This trend is also destined to frustrate men and women who feel called of God to be pastors. Not salespeople. Not executives. Not fund-raisers. But pastors.

Just beneath this infatuation with results, numbers, and growth, just beneath the idea that pastors exist to be dynamic and make things happen, lies a falsehood that needs to be explored. The falsehood is that pastors have the power to make things happen. Oh, I suppose we pastors can make some things happen. We can raise money, comfort the bereaved, lead building campaigns, officiate at weddings and funerals, and play shortstop for the church softball team. We can do these things and more, but the things that truly matter—eternally matter—are beyond our power.

I think of the old cliché that says, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” That would be a fine saying to put on a plaque in every pastor’s study. It would keep us tethered to the truth and do wonders for our attitude. We pastors can lead a horse to water. We have the power and know-how to do that. But we can’t make that horse drink. We simply don’t have the power or expertise to make that happen.

The next paradox we need to know about, then, is the Issues Paradox: The issues you most want to push are beyond pushing. What we’d like to see happen in people’s lives—experiences like commitment, community, and celebration—are beyond our power. We simply can’t push anyone into commitment, community, or celebration, and that truth has been known to frustrate many a preacher. The Issues Paradox brings us face to face with our limitations. Think, for a moment, about those three desires.

We’d like the people who come to our church to find commitment. We want them to commit themselves to God. We want them to commit themselves to their spouses and children. We want them to commit themselves to a life of health and wholeness. We want them to take Jesus seriously and to commit themselves to following him.

We’d like the people who come to our church to find community. We want them to bear one another’s burdens, laugh with one another, and know they are in a place where they can love and be loved. We desire for them close Christian friends and people who know them deeply.

And we’d like the people who come to our church to find celebration. We’d like them to understand that joy is the most infallible proof of the presence of God. We’d like them to see the church as an oasis in the desert, as the one place on earth where they can let loose and be glad.

Those are three wonderful wishes, and my guess is that most of us who are pastors wish them for our parishioners. But we also learn, early on, that we don’t always get what we wish for. Even worse, we learn that it isn’t appointed unto pastors to push those realities on church members or to create those realities for anyone. When it comes to commitment, community, and celebration, we can lead a horse to water, but we can’t make it drink.

I think about all the people I’ve known through the years who have needed commitment in their lives. It was so obvious to me that they needed commitment to Jesus. And they needed to be in some committed relationships. And they needed to be committed to their jobs. They were adrift, with no real purpose or passion, nothing to anchor their days.

So I preached eloquent sermons about commitment to these folks. I told them about Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount and how building your life on his teachings was like putting your life-house on a rock foundation. I tried my best to model a life of commitment before them—loving Jesus myself, being faithful to my wife and children, and staying at the same church for twenty years. But though I preached commitment to them and modeled commitment for them, some of these un-anchored souls never paid much attention. They seemed quite content with a life-house on sand, flimsy relationships, and bouncing from job to job. They heard my brilliant sermons, glanced at my exemplary life, and went on their merry way.

Is there anything more frustrating than that for a pastor? We know how crucial commitment is to abundant life. We know that without it people are destined for hard times. But commitment is a gift we can’t bestow on others. It rises, like all of the truly significant things, from within a person. It can’t be pushed on someone from outside.

Community is the same way. Haven’t we all had experiences in which church fellowships, billed as fun, friendship-building events, flopped and made everyone miserable? Haven’t we all seen people sitting glumly across from one another at Wednesday night suppers? Haven’t we found ourselves stuck in social gatherings touted as fun and festive that are actually draining and depressing?

Community can’t be pushed. We can create occasions where it can bloom, but that blooming is well beyond our control. Forced intimacy doesn’t work and is really no intimacy at all.

Years ago, our church had a spiritual renewal weekend complete with leaders who came from out of town. One of the leaders informed me, when he arrived at our church, that the grand finale of the weekend would be a time at the end of the Sunday morning service when people filed by to tell Sherry and me how much they loved us. We were to stand at the front of the sanctuary while people, on command from the leader, filed by to express their love.

I told him we’d pass on that part of the weekend’s agenda. He insisted that it would be a meaningful time for the church and for Sherry and me, but I was adamant. We didn’t have the grand finale that weekend.

I was adamant about that because appreciation-on-command isn’t appreciation at all. Just as community-on-command isn’t community at all. If people, of their own volition, want to tell me they love me, I’ll be grateful and thrilled. But if people tell me they love me because they’ve been told to do so, because it’s part of a renewal weekend agenda, I want no part of it.

Yes, I want to be loved and appreciated. Yes, it’s wonderful to try to build community. But community depends primarily on the inner workings of people and the chemistry that exists between them, not on techniques conjured by a “community builder.” Like commitment, community must come from within people.

So, too, must celebration. Celebration can’t be forced on anyone. When it comes to people being joyful and glad, you can’t force that horse to drink. I once heard about a church that wanted to do something creative in worship.

On a particular Sunday, all of the worshipers were handed balloons as they came into the worship service. Then the pastor told the worshipers that worship is supposed to be a time of celebration and that the balloons were a reminder of the good news Christians have. He also told them that the good news is not be hoarded, but shared, that the joy they’ve found in Christ is to be released to the world. So, he said, when you feel especially celebrative this morning, when God really gets hold of you, release your balloon and let it soar to the ceiling.

It sounded like a creative, celebrative worship experience, but it went over like . . . well, like a lead balloon. At the end of the service, more than half of the worshipers still clutched their balloons, still waiting for God to get hold of them. I can almost picture the embarrassing scene at the end of that creative worship service: somber worshipers filing out of the sanctuary wondering what in the world they should do with this silly balloon. And dejected church staff people standing in the foyer collecting balloons and vowing never, ever to try another creative worship experience.

Is it the church’s fault that those people can’t feel glad enough to release their balloons? Maybe. Maybe the church’s worship service is drab and joyless. Maybe the church is a lifeless place with lifeless worship. But I doubt it. My guess is that those people hanging on to their balloons don’t have it in them to celebrate at church. The problem, I would guess, is with the people, not the worship service. A truly celebrative person would probably unleash the balloon at the first peal of the organ for the processional hymn. But a truly un-celebrative person couldn’t hoist the balloon if Jesus himself walked into the sanctuary.

Like commitment and community, celebration is an inner phenomenon. We can decorate our sanctuaries with bright colors, play and sing upbeat music, preach the gospel with fervor, and be as friendly as any church on earth and still not stir celebration in the hearts of some people.

Shall we pastors call ourselves powerless, then, and seek a career in real estate? If we can’t conjure commitment, community, and celebration in people, why are we wasting our time at church? Why not get an easier job that pays better? Shouldn’t the Issues Paradox send us pastors scurrying to the woods in utter frustration? If we can’t push what we really want to push, aren’t we destined to a life of rolling the ball up the hill only to see it come tumbling down again?

Not really. I’ve come to see the Issues Paradox as good news for me as a pastor. I see it as good news for two reasons:

First, it reminds me that I’m not God. I can’t invade other people’s lives and inject them with commitment, community, and celebration. But God can. My role is to relax, be as real as I can be, do the best job I can do at church, and trust God to work in people’s lives. What a relief it is to get off the throne of the universe! True, some people will never find commitment. Some will never live in a loving community. And some will never have a song in their hearts and celebrate life. But I can. Ultimately, I think that’s what God expects of me.

Second, it restores to me the rightful role of the pastor. When I believe the pastor has the power to make things happen, I need to wear my manager/salesperson/psychologist uniform when I go to church. I need to push people to change and pull them into faith. It’s all in my hands, and I’m responsible. Life becomes a strenuous tug-of-war, all in the name of God.

But once I recognize the Issues Paradox, I’m free to do the real work of the pastor: pray, preach, read, enjoy my calling, dream, rest, play, write. Those things might not make things happen, but then again they might. Those activities might not grow a huge institution or cause pastor search committees to start knocking down my door. But I’ll be content, knowing I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and trusting that I’m not supposed to make things happen anyway.

God is.

Quoted in David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 60.

David F. Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 112-13.

This post originally appeared in The Leadership Labyrinth: Negotiating the Paradoxes of Ministry by Judson Edwards.

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