Beware of your fictional church
His words rang in my ears for days and triggered a few nights of nocturnal unrest. “What were you expecting in the pastorate? You’re not in seminary any more and this church isn’t filled with your seminary buddies. You’re in the real world now, son.”
I had been on the job exactly seven days when a man who’d been in ministry for several decades hit my beautiful, peaceful, fictional church with the force of an F-5 twister. I’m not certain what my expectations for ministry were as a rookie pastor, but it didn’t take me long to realize that prior to arriving on the battlefield that is the local church, I had unwittingly built a fictional church in my mind that was nothing like the congregation that now called me “pastor Jeff.” I suspect that I’m not alone.
I had built a ministerial Shire that didn’t exist anywhere in this fallen world. It was long on success as some who analyze churches reckon success, and it was decidedly slim on tribulation, anxiety, and pain. It was a church that loved everything I “brought to the table.” It was populated by a people who delighted in my preaching, my family, even my personality. I simply showed up, preached, and instantly it grew both spiritually and numerically. My “honeymoon period” would endure indefinitely. But, it was pure fiction, ministerial Disneyland, and being a church historian and a preacher/teacher who is fairly well aware of Genesis 3, I should have known better.
And if you’re not careful, you may construct a variation of this church while in seminary or even fantasize about it being your “next” congregation while you are serving in a difficult place of ministry.
After a few years in the pastorate—and in the wake of far too many foolish pastoral missteps on my part—I realize how my fictional ministry life plagued the early days of my non-fictional pastorate and grew into sinful (but thankfully, temporary) disillusionment from which God, in his excellent mercy, helped me to learn many valuable lessons about both the glories of ministry and the poison ivy of self-centered expectations that had grown along the walls of my heart.
Six reasons why this is dangerous
Why does a fictional church have such deadly potential? Six reasons:
- Your fictional church might make it difficult to adjust to your real church. If you enter with false expectations of your congregation, staff members, and yourself, failure is inevitable. And it won’t take long. Ministry is difficult. If you’re prepared to be at ease in Zion, the first appearance of the Philistine Goliath on the hill will send you running for cover.
- Your fictional church might leave you disappointed with your real church. You may be trying to reach an artificial—perhaps even unbiblical—standard that neither you nor the people in your care are able (or should be striving) to meet. You will be frustrated with them and they will be frustrated with you. You are called to love the congregation God has given you, not the church you desire. It’s easier to be orthodox than loving (see 1 Corinthians 13), but God has called you to shepherd these flawed sheep, not the you-centered sycophants who populated that fictional church. Remember, you are a deeply flawed man too.
- Your fictional church might unleash your inner Pharisee on your real church. As the next step down the path from danger number 2, you may be tempted to hold them in contempt due to the bareness of their cupboard of theological knowledge, their lack of interest in your ministry heroes, their disinterest in talking about the things of God. Your inner Pharisee will tempt you to be proud that you’re not like them, that you possess deep theological knowledge, that it’s far more spiritual to talk about the decrees of God than college football. But you are called to be a shepherd and it’s your privilege to lead them—slowly, patiently, and humbly—to the green pastures of delighting in the things of God. There was surely a time when you did not know the Bible and its theology very well, that you were not well-versed in the things of God. You must never forget this. Besides, learning about the things that interest them, like college football, will greatly improve your ability to relate to the congregation.
- Your fictional church may have equipped you with a mental encyclopedia of cut-and-dried answers to questions that are not cut-and-dried in your real church. Real life ministry requires wise nuance in the application of Bible and theology. It requires others-focused relational savvy. In a former venue of service for me, the church was constitutionally elder-led, but had no elders in place when I arrived. In my fictional church, we would have elected elders in the first month. After all, plural leadership is the New Testament pattern, and we want to be biblical in all things. However, I had to take time to see whether there were qualified men in the church and needed to get to know them well before this right and good step could be considered. Sadly, years later I’m convinced I wasn’t patient enough. You will face many challenges for which there are no cut-and-dried answers, challenges that require careful, patient, wise, nuanced application of God’s Word. Some of them will call for seeking wisdom from pastors who are more seasoned than you. Bathe yourself in the wisdom of Proverbs 15:22.
- Your fictional church may have subtly contorted your theology of suffering. You may even begin to wish—in some dark corner of your fallen mind—that a theologically respectable version of the prosperity gospel was but true. You always knew ministers suffered. You’ve read about Charles Simeon, Jim Elliott, various Puritans, and the Reformers, but if you’ve live too long in a ministry fantasy camp, you’ll be shocked, perhaps even a little peeved at God that it’s happening to you. It wasn’t supposed to be this way . . . or was it? But listen closely to Peter: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet. 4:12-13). You will suffer in ministry. It’s axiomatic, and it’s glorious (2 Cor. 4:17-18). Paul used an entire letter, 2 Corinthians, to trace out out a pastor’s job description. It tells us that, at times, it’s not going to be pretty and that local church ministry is not for the squeamish. And know this sobering reality: the cauldron of real-life ministry might either confirm your calling or cause it to evaporate like a mist in late summer. You must cling to the one who suffered in your place and learn to find your contentment in him (Phil. 4:12).
- Your fictional church may cause you to forget who builds the church. You are the under-shepherd of Christ’s church. He is the hero, not you. Christ builds his church—see Matthew 16:18. Whether your real ministry efforts seem to bear fruit that is puny or healthy—and the difference between the two is often difficult to discern from our limited vantage point—God is strong and you are weak. Ministry has nothing to do with your glory and everything to do with his. As Paul makes clear in 2 Corinthians 12, God demonstrates his power through human weakness, builds his church through the spiritual atomic bomb that is the gospel, and does so by means of weak clay pots. That’s you. That’s me. Your ambitions must be God’s ambitions, the glory all his.
Set a watchman
Just as the Lord calls his people to perpetual self-examination (2 Cor. 13:5), so pastors—both present and future—must always be weighing the motives of their hearts. We must keep a sharp eye trained on the landscape of our hearts lest we build upon it unreasonable—fictional—expectations for ourselves or for those whom God has granted us, or may grant us, the choice privilege of shepherding.
Jeff Robinson (M.Div. and Ph.D., SBTS) is editor of the Southern Seminary blog. He is pastor of New City Church in Louisville, serves as senior editor for The Gospel Coalition and is also adjunct professor of church history and senior research and teaching associate for the Andrew Fuller Center at SBTS. He is co-author with Michael A. G. Haykin of To the Ends of the Earth: Calvin’s Missional Vision and Legacy (Crossway, 2014). Jeff and his wife Lisa have four children.