That’s how long I’ve been a pastor. It began with a part time youth pastor gig at my home church in Scarborough which lasted for 5 years. From there we moved to the hills (Lesmurdie Baptist) where we spent 7 years – 5 as a youth pastor and 2 as the pastoral team leader. From there it was a 70km journey to the northern suburbs (Butler) where we planted an experimental missional community for another 6 years. We wound that up in 2009 and joined the Quinns Baptist Church, from which we also planted Yanchep. Along the way there have been numerous other roles that I served in alongside the pastoral gig, but I thought it might be fun to reflect on what I have observed as significant changes in my 31 years of being a paid pastoral worker.
So where to start?…
Why not with the biggie for us ‘Baptists’:
THEOLOGY… I had a woman call recently to enquire about our church. Her concern was that believed the right things. Ok… I could see this wasn’t going to end well.
‘What do you believe about women?’ she asked. Having already told me her previous church context I knew my answer would be ‘wrong’. She asked a few other theological and stylistic questions that eventually had me steer her to a church in our suburb who would satisfy her needs better than we would.
But her questions about theology took me back to a previous era, one that seems so foreign now. what have I observed change over 31 years. Here are a few. Some are ‘practical’ eg spiritual gifts, while others are a little more obtuse.
- Spiritual Gifts and Charismata – In my early days of being a pastor John Wimber was new on the scene and his activities were highly contentious for us Baptists. I remember getting grilled at a job interview as to whether I was into all that Toronto stuff… I wasn’t… but I was open and now I was curious! John Wimber and the Vineyard movement spoke to some core stuff we had forgotten in the church – like the kingdom of God (oh yeah – kinda central)… also a more personal connection with God in worship and a focus on the supernatural. Their theological distinctives were a big deal in 1984, but now they are generally accepted fare in most evangelical churches. By and large Baptists are no longer ‘anti-charismatic’ cessationists, whereas this was deeply part of our identity back then. I remember hearing it spoken to charismatic people that they should ‘get their tongue tested’, with the implication being that it may demonic. Harsh. Words of knowledge, prophetic messages and speaking in tongues were all a no go for Baptists in the 80’s. Now there is little concern and general belief that these gifts are valuable in the church.
2. Women. This one is still pretty contentious in many circles as the ‘egalitarian / complementarian’ issue gets debated, but at least it is firmly on the table now and women are being thought of more intentionally for space in the leadership of churches. My daughter is currently living down in the city and seeking a church. I have intentionally swayed her away from those churches that I know still have a complementarian point of view. I don’t want her to start serving only to discover that she is relegated to the B team when it comes to leadership as I believe she has real capacity in this area. So her choice is limited… I heard it said a few years back that of our 120 Baptist churches in WA, women could only preach at 20. That’s an estimate – but even if it’s 30 there is still a way to go on that one. (Of course she doesn’t have to stay in a Baptist gig, but this is the context I am reflecting from primarily)
3. Divorce – This was a big issue -huge in fact – particularly for Christian leaders – now its not. How the heck did that happen?! How did we go from seeing divorced people as pariahs, to now seeing the whole thing as rather unfortunate but ‘oh well play on?… ‘ I remember the first time I heard of someone in my church getting divorced. I was 18 and this man was someone I highly respected. How could this be ?... My own world was shattered a little at this knowledge. It was a big issue for those seeking accreditation in ministry – now its still ‘an issue’ but dealt with more graciously. So what was the shift that resulted in our theology changing? I would suggest (a little cynically I admit) that as more and more pastors and Christian leaders got divorced we needed a rationale to give permission to this. So we adjusted our theology to suit.
That said I think we have adjusted out theology for the good in this area also. Now a woman isn’t expected to stay wed to an abuser just because he hasn’t committed adultery. We have managed to get out heads around the violation of the marriage covenant itself rather than the act of adultery as the only loop-hole.
4. Jesus changed. Yeah really. I grew up in a world where Jesus was distant, inaccessible and removed from the life that I lived. I could never envisage Jesus as someone I could relate to. I feel like we have done a lot more work on communicating Jesus’ humanity. Maybe we have even over corrected – but I am grateful that now Jesus is someone we can actually imagine as a real human being rather than a super-powered other worldly individual who came to visit earth for a little while.
I still remember being severely chastised by an older woman when I was a youth pastor for referring to Jesus and the disciples as blokes. ‘They weren’t blokes. They were men!…’ I could only shake my head in despair. Even at 27 I knew that was religious nonsense. Jesus was not a ‘super-human’ – he was a man… a bloke.
5. Mission – This was a massive shift as we finally accepted that our own country was a mission field. I discovered a clue as to how churches think about mission. When the plural is used i.e. ‘missions’ it is talking about stuff that happens outside of our context, but when ‘mission’ is spoken of it generally starts local and ripples out from thetre.
I found my way into the ‘missional conversation’ back in the early 2000’s around about the time I was also completing the Arrow leadership course. That meant I was getting involved with Alan Hirsch and the Forge tribe at the same time as I was learning how to run the church like a business. It was a massive clash of cultures and while I appreciate that these things simply can’t be mutually exclusive in todays world, I realised I just didn’t buy the business model of church and I couldn’t give my life to it.
Our understanding of mission shifted significantly and what began as a contentious and provocative movement – calling the church to recover it’s missionary identity – eventually became mainstream. Every church has now heard of the idea of being ‘missional’. My great fear is that we have adopted the language, but used it describe what is essentially ‘church growth’ philosophy. We still measure our influence by bums on seats.
Once we allow words to mean things they were never intended to mean we are in serious danger of losing our way. If you think missional means getting more people to come to your church then you need to start over 🙂 Here’s a clue – ‘missio’ comes from the Latin for ‘being sent’… So trying to lure people in is a fail.
6. God’s sovereignty and foreknowledge – This is a complicated subject at the best of times, but I have appreciated those theologians who have made a case for open theism and the potential that God actually doesn’t know every detail of the future, but rather he knows how it will evenutally play out. Perhaps he does know the ‘number of hairs on my head’, but I find the open theist perspective easier to live with than what Scot McKnight refers to as ‘meticulous sovereignty’.
7. Hell – eternal conscious torment was the view I had when I entered ministry at 26 years of age. And my firm commitment to this view was a motivator in some of my evangelistic messages. ‘You don’t want to go to hell!!’ I simply wasn’t aware of other options. Now I would sit in the annhialtionist camp fairly comfortably, but with the hope that the universalists have actually got it right. I sense there is a move in people to rethink some of these more difficult doctrines. At some point we have to reconcile Jesus Christ agreeing to send a finite flawed human being to infinite punishment. It doesn’t smell like Jesus to me…
8. The Bible – I remember the ‘inerrancy’ debates of the 80’s as our denomination fought over this issue. The need to keep the Bible absolutely inerrant is still present in some churches, but I think many now have a more balanced and reasoned perspective. We tend to use words like ‘inspired / God breathed’, ‘reliable’ and ‘authoritative’ – although even there is a debate over that word actually means.
The longer I have read the Bible the less I have found a need for it to be ‘inerrant’ in any way. The simple fact that we have multiple English translations of an ancient Greek document ensures that we will read it differently. Don’t get me wrong – it’s our book and it matters that it contains truth, but let’s not overplay our hand here.
I have had to work thru how we deal with Old testament violence, God appearing to act in unjust ways and various other issues. The old fundamentalist container just couldn’t hold these difficult questions in a way that satisfied me.
9. Creation – 6 days? I have no doubt that God could create a universe in 6 minutes if he wanted to, but I’m not at all convinced that the 6 day creationist view has currency. In my early days of pastoring this was the norm and there were few dissenters. Fortunately, in time, as I attended Bible college, I was able to think differently here. So nowadays I would hold that creation was by God (not sure how long it took or how it happened), but that there is also a process of evolution that we need to come to grips with. Likewise a literal worldwide flood doesn’t have the currency I gave it growing up. Understanding genre was pivotal to allowing these ideas to morph.
10. Atonement – If you were raised (as I was) with penal substitution as the only lens thru which to view this central act of Jesus on the cross then it is difficult to embrace and own other perspectives. That said I have appreciated the work others like Scot Mc’Knight and Greg Boyd have done to allow us to view the atonement from multiple angles rather than just the one.The language of ‘penal substitution’ is our native tongue and it is by far the dominant perception in our churches, but I sense this is also shifting to allow for a broader take on the subject.
11. The church – while my own views on church shifted many years ago I feel like COVID may have done us a massive favour by pushing us into re-imagining our ecclesiology. There are a handful of pastors experimenting with alternative forms and expressions of church, but by and large the dominant mode is for a gathering on a Sunday morning, with 3 fast songs, offering, announcements and any guests followed by 3 slow and a sermon. COVID saw us having church in our homes, in parks and online and we were forced to admit that these types of expressions worked (for some). That said – so many folks are just so innately conditioned to see church as an event that takes place on Sunday mornings in a building with a kids program etc that anything less feels like its not ‘real church’.
I’m sure there are many more theological shifts that have influenced us in the last 31 years, but those are some of the ones that first come to my mind when I consider the question.
What would you add?