The Resident Rabbi Leading Believers to Light

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash

Introduction

Pastors spend many hours on tasks unrelated to theology. They work on budgets, help to design new programs, and visit the sick and shut-in. Considering the more essential questions of faith and preparing congregants to approach their faith, worship, and scripture with anything other than a cursory approach occasionally homed in children’s Sunday School is often at the bottom of the task list. This is tragic. The Pastor’s role in the church’s life has been reduced to that of a corporate manager. This paper will challenge this notion by discussing how adopting a rabbinical approach to their call pastors can form a more theologically aware laity.

The Need for a Theologically Aware Laity

Donald G. Luck, in his book, Why Study Theology, posits that much of theology today is left to the ordained, who, aside from preparing Sunday sermons, leave this task of doing theology to the academy.[1] Luck argues that much of American culture is based around doing. This is very true and reflected in the culture of many congregations. The megachurch movement of the 1970s and 1980s changed theology from faith formation and study to an organisation that met spiritual, emotional, educational, and recreational needs.[2] And the mainline denominations followed their lead to hold onto market share rather than focusing on their core mission of educating the laity. This focus on doing worship, doing activities, doing small groups, all this doing has left many people needing answers to many questions that are critical to be answered during our lives. Luck discusses how many believers in America see theory as irrelevant. Luck, however, makes the brilliant but obvious assertion that ideas are fundamental.[3] The Covid pandemic that came with a rejection of the scientific method and the academy that has relied on it in favour of folk remedies and conspiracy theory proves that ideas don’t hold the value they once did in the American context.

Part of the issue Luck argues is a rejection of the Hebraic and Christian traditions, ideas, and doctrines and accepted ideas contrary to biblical principles, such as a disregard for the environment.[4] This is a valid argument. Too often, a pastor will focus on just getting the sermon done and not ask themselves what questions the congregation is wrestling with and how the church has dealt with them. Instead, it is easy to pick up a popular article or a secular book and try to wedge these ideas into a homily.

I asked my mom recently why she didn’t come to church. She replied that she went to church every weekend. She watched Joel Osteen on TV! Aside from this being insulting because we also streamed, and being her son, I asked to clarify why. She said that Joel gave a simple message of hope every Sunday. That took me by surprise because it confirms what Luck is arguing. As pastors, we have spent so much time keeping up with pop culture and speaking to it from the pulpit or engaging in a culture war that we have forgotten our core mission of bringing hope through the Gospel. As a result, the church resembles many other institutions as neither unique in its culture nor relevant in the lives of believers. We are not developing our congregations’ skills in knowledge of the word and church history as a witness across time beckoning us to be different.

In the Gospel of Matthew chapter six, the writer discusses that believers shouldn’t conform their spiritual practices to this world and make big ruckus like the pagans do. Instead, a believer should go about their lives confident in their spiritual practices of prayer and fasting to raise treasury in the eternal Kingdom of God. The Church has failed to teach the Word and Tradition, and as a result, people are looking elsewhere in the culture to create experiences to meet these needs. It comes down to a theologically aware Laity. But who within the Church can remedy this crisis of laity being theologically unaware? It comes down to pastors embracing their role as rabbis within the congregation.

The Need for More Christian Rabbi

Luck posits that rabbis in early Pharisaic tradition were “…Scholars and interpreters of the Written and oral Torah that shaped Jewish life.”[5] In the United Methodist tradition, this would be Word and Order. The early church realised that trained clergy would be needed to carry out the church’s ministry.

The United Methodist Church is struggling with the amount of highly educated clergy leading congregations. Recently, more and more pastors have forsaken formal Divinity education in favour of a course of study. This has placed increasing burdens on the remaining Elders and Deacons to carry the loads of teaching their congregations and writing articles for and guiding Licensed Local Pastors, many of whom don’t read academic literature or choose to write within the academy because they are not credentialed to. This leaves our Theologians with two choices. Either they decide to report directly to the laity, and there are very few voices in the United Methodist Church doing this, or they are writing to a smaller and smaller clergy cohort capable of engaging in dialogue over the ideas.

Last Semester, I considered staying a Licensed Local Pastor instead of ordination. The Minnesota Annual Conference has routinely raised the bar on the requirements, and as a middle-aged man, I questioned whether the time was worth it. But Luck has convinced me that the presence of a pastor trained in the Rabbinical tradition is critical to the life of a healthy church. Moreover, while my staff has hounded me to place less emphasis on writing to people online, I realise after Luck that the internet is the new mission field. Those pastors who embrace Whitfield’s rhetorical traditions while giving hope in everyday language, as Joel Osteen, will succeed. The value of wandering around town, handing out tracks and leading people to decisions are over. They worked in the 1980s, but Covid has changed the culture radically. Instead, YouTube, TikTok, Facebook, and other gathering tools where people of all ages now live need to be made a priority. Contrary, however, to entertainment evangelism, it is possible to address the deep questions that people are looking to self-help books, podcasts, talk radio, and other pop culture without compromising the core message of the Gospel.

Conclusion

. The challenge of adopting a rabbinical approach to form a more theologically aware laity will be difficult. For many decades the church has ceded the role of formation and pastoral care to popular culture and entertainment evangelism venues. But as the US culture now faces an apocalypse from the dual demons of Covid and social unrest. There is a dire need to address the why of the situation, provide hope through a biblical worldview, and provide answers and tools to the deep questions of life now in front of the country. Theology can help with this by giving everyday people the tools, experts, and processes to make sense of the world and provide hope that God is still present in all of this.

[1] Donald G Luck, Why Study Theology?, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1999), 51.

[2] David E Eagle, Historicizing the Megachurch, Journal of Social History (February 2015): 1.

[3] Donald G Luck, Why Study Theology?, 51.

[4] Donald G Luck, Why Study Theology?, 55.

[5] Donald G Luck, Why Study Theology?, 57.

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Lead Pastor Bloomington Hillcrest United Methodist Church

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