The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

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The invisible congregation

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Yesterday evening, I sent out a brief and innocent tweet: “Preaching to an invisible congregation is more exhausting than I thought.” I was surprised by the tide of earnest response that it garnered from tired pastor-preachers.

Why should that be? What can we—pastors and preachers, and congregations—do about it? Answering that question will tell us a lot about our theology of preaching and our theology of the church, for better or for worse.

We must first take account of the limitations of pre-recorded or even livestreamed preaching. Perhaps the best way to communicate this is to give a précis of what I said at the beginning of our video recordings yesterday. It went something like this:

We are grateful to all who are joining us (from our own congregation and others) but we need to issue a necessary reminder.

While some means are better than others, because they have more dimensions of communication, recorded videos, livestreams, and the like are not a substitution for the gathering of the church, but reflect an interruption of it.

Genuine biblical preaching is a living man among living men before the living God: it involves a supernatural reality along appointed channels—both preacher and congregation subject to the immediate operations of the Holy Spirit and both communicating with each another under his influence.

In the absence of a congregation, those dimensions of real preaching are stripped away; the livestream or recording further diminishes that reality because of the extra distancing involved.

We are not, therefore, trying to accomplish what cannot be done. We are not setting out to replicate, by electronic means, the vital spiritual reality of the gathered people of God in the presence of our God under the Word of God.

These efforts are not a replacement for the gathered church but a supplement for the scattered church.

The situation we face keeps us spiritually hungry; this temporary and limited provision stops us spiritually starving.

These scraps will, with the blessing of God, keep you going, but they should also make us long for the restoration of the weekly feast and the laying of the eternal banquet.

That gives something of the backdrop to the challenges we face. Without denying the care of our Heavenly Father, or the goodness of the Good Shepherd, or the might and mercy of the Holy Spirit, the simple fact is that this situation robs us of the normal means and channels by which this act of preaching is normally conducted. That dynamic preaching triangle—in which the Holy Spirit is operating along three planes, involving God and the preacher, God and the congregation, and the preacher and the congregation, each operating upon each other with or under the Spirit’s superintendence—is missing one of its corners.

For the congregation, the mentality of ‘going to worship’ is reduced. Under these lock-down and shut-in circumstances, we are being encouraged to maintain a routine for home-working, to get into the groove of labour despite being not in the normal place of labour. In a similar fashion, getting up, getting ready, and getting out for worship, going to a particular place for that particular activity, helps to put us in mind of what we are about.

Add to that the fact that the congregation is now typically in a different and potentially distracting environment. One of the advantages of Dissenting chapel architecture is its deliberately clean minimalism, removing many of the elements which might otherwise take our hearts off the preaching and hearing of the Word of God. Now, the inventive or unfocused mind will find and have a hundred ways still to do that … the animal outside the window … the number of panels in the ceiling or wall … the play of the sunlight … the preacher’s verbal tic … the agitation of the family with the young children … the reflection of light from a watch face. Been there, done all that! But, the fact remains that many church buildings are uncluttered spaces designed to focus the attention on the preaching. Our homes are not the same. There are all the things that we are accustomed to do, all the things that we would not have to worry or think about if at home. We lack the gracious pressure of a whole congregation helping to establish a reverent and attentive atmosphere. We can get up and brew up, we can pause the preacher, we can relax in our comfortable chair and drift away. There is also the novelty factor, especially for those who have children. The fact that it isn’t ‘church’ can make it harder for our children to adapt.

And then, the preacher himself is not there to engage with them, to pick up on the ebbs and flows of a congregation and its listening. This is no longer a mutually responsive environment. Perhaps they are tuning in to someone else who is not even their pastor and usual preacher, so he is not even preaching with them in mind. The reality of this particular under-shepherd feeding this particular flock which he knows and for which he is, under God, responsible, is gone.

The preacher is, perhaps, aware of much of this. It may be that he has some very similar challenges for himself, for many were attempting broadcasts from a study or living room or kitchen. He is not in his typical environment for preaching. Perhaps he is sitting when usually he is standing, behind a desk when usually behind a pulpit. Distractions which are usually absent (barring those of the congregation!) are now painfully present.

Or perhaps he is preaching from a church building, and he has only before him rows of empty seats (perhaps a few family members), or just a camera (perhaps not even an operator). (Our recording involves a quick jog to press a button and back to the pulpit.) Now he is missing all the cues which, under God, normally stir his soul. The regular rhythms of gathered worship which so often generate spiritual momentum are absent. Worse, there are no people, no faces, no responses. And he is, or should be, conscious that—whether livestreamed or recorded—he has to overcome, under God, some of the congregation’s disadvantages, wherever they may be and under whatever circumstances they might be listening. And so he begins to preach … except it’s barely preaching. His normal thinking and feeling are all undermined by the absence of that natural and spiritual give-and-take which characterises real public ministry. He never was a mere automaton, spouting religious words. He struggles to concentrate, to maintain intensity, he has no external cues for the ebb and flow of the sermon, no external prompts for getting, keeping, or recovering the attention of a body of people. He is not so much leading the flock to the green pastures as pinging vitamin pellets at them with a catapult. Perhaps he is not sure where to look—at the camera, at the seats, out the windows. He does not want merely to read, but he struggles to do more than speak. Everything feels flat, and there is a possibility that he will over-compensate, and try to do what—under the circumstances—is nigh-on impossible to be done, and end up not with a flat mess but with a hot one.

And, then, perhaps worst of all for him, he may have an opportunity down the line to watch or hear a recording of himself, which—as most preachers know—leaves us ready to crawl into a deep dark hole of mourning and regret (or maybe just a real deep, dark hole), taking perpetual vows never to preach again, let alone in front of a camera, for his own sake, and the sake of all whom he loves and whose sanity he cherishes.

And that leaves us with the last point of that dynamic triangle: God. This is a good place to be left! If it were not for our Lord’s blessing upon regular ministry, it would be at least as bad as that usually, if not worse. It is he who, by his Spirit, establishes all those connections and makes them lively with heavenly forcefulness. The usual means he has appointed are no longer in place. The usual channels of blessing are dry or blocked. But, as a well-established Confession of Faith puts it, “God in his ordinary providence makes use of means, but he is free to work without, above, and against them as he pleases.” Praise God that it is so! What we are doing is just not church, and it is not quite preaching, but that does not stop the Lord blessing the usual means under unusual circumstances, using unusual means to usual ends, or even using unusual means to unusual ends. After all, there are many saints in many churches who are genuinely unable to attend regular services, and the Lord in his mercy makes what would normally be limited means sufficient not just to survive but even to thrive. Why should be not be able to do the same, even under these circumstances, for all of us?

With all that in mind, let me offer some practical suggestions. Members of congregations might plan to meet at a regular time (if livestreaming, this may be already in place). Whether individually, or as a family, prepare to be in a certain place at the appointed time, with everything set up and, if possible, tested. Do not go full slob: wash and dress as you would for church. Minimise distractions where possible—no food or drink, silence your phones, do not be preparing a meal or worrying about other responsibilities. Pray before you press play. Focus on the preaching of God’s Word. You may not be worshipping with the church, but you are and still can be worshipping God. Some technologies allow for commenting and interacting. Perhaps it is worth leaving that alone, and focusing on the listening? Pray afterward, alone or with others, for a blessing on what you have heard. Use what technology is available to interact with others afterward: pick up the preaching with family or friends, maybe send the preacher a message of encouragement to remind him that someone human was engaged and engaging. Be thankful to God for the wonderful means that are available for you to obtain something. And do pray for your pastor. He is trying to feed your soul from a distance. He is like a shepherd looking out over distant fields, seeing his sheep from afar, chained up and only able to lob something good in their general direction.

Pastors, too, should perhaps seek to maintain, as much as possible, their usual routines, even if their sermons are necessarily adapted to the present crisis and its particular circumstances. It is no bad thing to wash and dress as if you were ‘going to church.’ If you can, sing and pray, even if alone, so that your soul is stimulated and enlivened by those spiritual exercises. Whether at home or in a church building, it may help not so much to imagine as to visualise the congregation. Remember the faces to which and the lives into which you are normally preaching. In the same way as you normally preach to the people who are or who you wish be be in front of you, and not the people who might listen later, on this occasion speak as if to the people who are normally in front of you, regardless of who might hear it otherwise.Do not so much speak to a camera as through it. You may need to speak more briefly and pointedly, both to help you stay engaged and focused, and to help those hearing or watching to do the same. And then, when you have finished, do what you usually do—go to God with all your failings and feebleness, and ask him to bless what will lie dry and dusty on the surface of the soul without his gracious ploughing to carry it home and his refreshing mercies to cause it to spring up into life. Expect to be drained, perhaps in different ways or in different aspects of your humanity to the usual. Make sure you rest, and think about your labours, and learn how better to communicate truth under these circumstances, for as long as they may last. How thankful we should be that, though we may be physically far from the flock of Christ, we can still bear them up in our hearts, knowing that the Good Shepherd has promised that he will be with them always, even to the end of the age!

When all is said and done, do not expect it to be real church and do not expect it to be real preaching. Even with the blessing of the triune God, it cannot and will not be that. And so, let preacher and hearer alike be stirred up to eager anticipation for the day when we can once again see each other face to face, so that your joy may be full (2Jn 12), and when we—together in the presence of God—hear the word of life once more.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 23 March 2020 at 16:34

Preparing sermons with John Owen

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After a cracking day on Monday at the Evangelical Library in London on “Reading John Owen” (opening, it has to be said, with Nigel Graham giving what may be one of the finest popular introductions to the life of Owen that it has been my privilege to hear – lively, careful, engaging, insightful) I want to do more reading and re-reading of John Owen. I was reminded, by my own efforts and those of others, why I do and may and must enjoy the privilege of reading such profound theology.

One of the works that piqued my fancy afresh was Owen on The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually-Minded (in volume 7 of the collected works). This was in Robert Strivens’ section of the works, and what prompted me to turn there again was the warning that preachers, accustomed to handling and speaking God’s Word, can develop a facade of spirituality which masks a spiritual dryness. Conscious that one can do much apparent working for God without much genuine walking with God, I thought it would be good to dip again into this work.

Re-reading can be as fascinating as reading. I am sometimes struck by what struck me the first time, or what failed to strike. The passage of time and the expansion of experience makes one wish, perhaps, that one could be as freshly excited as one was before, and one must learn to be more deeply excited than one was. Or, perhaps, some things have simply become more relevant because of the reader’s different circumstances while reading. On this occasion, I was struck by something in the preface to the work.

Owen, as you may know, had been unwell before preaching and preparing this material. He was so sick that not only was he unable to serve others, but he feared he might be taken by death and never able to serve again. Under such circumstances, he began to meditate on the grace and duty of spiritual-mindedness from Romans 8.6, where the apostle says that “to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” Later, Owen took the fruit of his sickbed meditations and turned them into sermons. “And this I did,” he says,

partly out of a sense of the advantage I had received myself by being conversant in them, and partly from an apprehension that the duties directed and pressed unto in the whole discourse wore seasonable, from all sorts of present circumstances, to be declared and urged on the minds and consciences of professors: for, leaving others unto the choice of their own methods and designs, I acknowledge that those are the two things whereby I regulate my work in the whole course of my ministry. (7:263)

I am, I confess, sometimes amused by the homiletical handbooks that pass for pastoral theology in our day. Some of the guidance given for the preparation of sermons seems entirely out of touch with the life of local churches. I am amused when I hear the big cheeses of the evangelical world assure congregations that they prepare their sermons, or perhaps know what they will be preaching on on any given Sunday, a year or so in advance. As the pastor of a small congregation, preaching and teaching several times a week, that seems to me to be ludicrous, even dangerous. I do not think I could do that even if I were in circumstances that seemed to allow it.

Please do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that pastors preach on a whim or without a plan. I am not against systematic, sequential expository preaching. But I do wonder how much even Owen’s aside might teach us here. This work of his springs from what I would call a topical expository series. But how did Owen come to it? And why did he choose to preach it?

He has those two answers: first, because it did much good to his own soul when he had considered it for himself; and, second, because he perceived that the same truths which had helped him would, with the blessing of God, prove a timely and profitable study for other believers under his care.

However, he goes on to confess that those two principles are the “things whereby I regulate my work in the whole course of my ministry.” That, in itself, is fascinating. Here is the great theologian and the profound scholar, sitting down as a pastor of God’s people, and asking, first and foremost, what has blessed me, and will it bless others also?

If you are a preacher and teacher, however far you are willing and able to plan ahead, do such considerations have a place in your own preparation? Are you so soaking in God’s truth that you can assess what has been of particular blessing to your own soul? Are you so attuned to and concerned for the saints that you can discern what would prove particularly timely and profitable for them? Are you visiting the congregation regularly and getting to know their lives and their needs so as to be able to make such a judgment? Are you prayerfully thinking of the particular congregation before whom you will stand, converted and unconverted, more and less mature, more or less wounded and wearied, more or less hale and hearty? Are you willing to put in the effort to invest in such ministry? Are you willing to get off the treadmill of your regular or scheduled course of exposition, perhaps to plough fields that would otherwise have remained unbroken, to invest in hours of composition that you had not scheduled into your work patterns? Are you improving your own studies and sufferings to this end?

Such an approach might require that you prepare far in advance a particular course of systematic and sequential exposition, compelled by the fact that this book or section of Scripture will serve those to whom you preach. It might keep you from changing to other, apparently easier or more palatable potions of the Bible, held fast by a sense of responsibility. It might demand that you drop such a long course of sermons and preach for a few weeks on a particular portion of God’s Word. It might compel you to preach a single sermon on a single text. It might prompt you to develop what you thought was a one-off into a shorter or longer series. Again, it is no excuse for a pastor-preacher simply riding his hobby-horses to death. You will note that Owen does not manipulate his hearers by the claim that the Spirit imposed the duty upon him, though I do not think anyone can fail to see the hand of God at work in the matter. This is a man who is sensitive to the truth, sensitive to the operations of the Spirit of God, sensitive to the circumstances and needs of the saints, sensitive to the spirit of the age, sensitive to the demands of a particular place and people, and deeply concerned to be a means of blessing to those to whom he speaks.

This, I would suggest, is pastoral preaching of the highest order – ministry of God’s truth that flows from the heart of a true shepherd of souls, a man who has drunk deeply of the sweet waters of the gospel, and is persuaded from the depths of his being that others need to taste and see that the Lord is good, and to obtain the blessing designed for those who trust in him.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 25 October 2016 at 18:41

Moved by Christ’s love

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Richard Baxter to gospel ministers:

O then let us hear those arguments of Christ, whenever we feel ourselves grow dull and careless: ‘Did I die for them, and wilt not thou look after them? Were they worth my blood, and are they not worth thy labour? Did I come down from heaven to earth, to seek and to save that which was lost; and wilt not thou go to the next door, or street, or village to seek them? How small is thy labour and condescension as to mine? I debased myself to this, but it is thy honour to be so employed. Have I done and suffered so much for their salvation, and was I willing to make thee a co-worker with me, and wilt thou refuse that little that lieth upon thy hands?’ Every time we look upon our Congregations, let us believingly remember, that they are the purchase of Christ’s blood, and therefore should be regarded accordingly by us.

And think what a confusion it will be at the last day to a negligent Minister, to have this blood of the Son of God to be pleaded against him, and for Christ to say, ‘It was the purchase of my blood that thou didst so make light of, and dost thou think to be saved by it thyself?’ O, brethren, seeing Christ will bring his blood to plead with us, let it plead us to our duty, lest it plead us to damnation.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 13 October 2015 at 15:57

Posted in Pastoral theology

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The privilege of dangerous seasons

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You will doubtless have heard on a number of occasions those who bewail the present day. I admit to having limited sympathy with those who argue that we are living in the absolute worst of times. I read of the social conditions, cultural norms and spiritual battles of past days and I sometimes think, “We do not have it so bad.” However, very often, those who have decided that these are the worst of days use that conclusion to drive a certain way of thinking and acting. Perhaps it is the pastor’s conference where the prevailing mood is one tending to despair, where most of the older men are quick to suggest that the nation is under judgement, or some such assertion, ready to root any sense of believing anticipation out of the heart of those naive young bucks who think they have a prospect of blessing. Perhaps it is the crippling affliction of a whole congregation, maybe under the influence of a more negative spirit in the preaching, by which the diagnosis of local, national or global malaise has become an excuse to attempt and expect nothing. After all, why bother?

My gut instinct – and, I hope, my scriptural instinct – is to reject that spirit of defeatism, even where it comes from men whom I otherwise esteem and respect. And yet, it is worth bearing in mind that there are harder times and easier times. Paul wants Timothy to “know this, that in the last days perilous times will come” (2Tim 3:1). It seems that Paul means that, in the period between the first and the second and last coming of the Lord Christ, there will be seasons marked out by distinctive and heightened spiritual danger, periods of intensified spiritual combat. The apostle goes on to describe those seasons: “men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power” (2Tim 3:2–5). I would suggest that it takes no great exegete to recognise that, in the modern West, and perhaps in other particular places around the world, we seem to be heading into – if we are not already in – a perilous time.

And so Paul goes on to counsel Timothy: “Whatever you do, boy, don’t try anything. The Spirit has departed and prospects are poor. Keep your head low, and don’t make eye contact. Batten down the hatches, retreat behind the barricades, and hope against hope that somehow you and a few others make it through relatively unscathed. Dodge, duck, dive, and do whatever it takes to survive. Try and keep it painless. Maybe once the storm has swept over you will be able to creep out of your hole and try again. Keep face, of course! Learn to preach and pray primarily against the failings and compromises of other Christians and churches. Build up your sense of superiority on the graves of their reputations. Teach about faithfulness in the midst of trials in such as way as to allow everyone to paint their own face in the portrait. Present revival as a panacea, as something that happens to bad people out there, resolving all our difficulties without requiring faith, repentance, or Spirit-stirred activity among the saints. Press on in this way, Timothy, and perhaps I will see you on the other side.”

What nonsense! I trust we are all aware that Paul spoke in rather different fashion:

I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2Tim 4:1–5)

So it is quite possible that we look out and see something of a present spiritual wasteland, perhaps increasingly a spiritual battleground. We may be troubled at a perceived paucity of proven men and fear a sickly trickle of younger ones. We recognise surges in atheism, paganism, idolatry and false religion, some of it militarised. Old errors are stalking the land, and capturing many hearts. And it may in some measure, even in large measure, be true. We may shortly be living through one of the perilous times, if we are not already doing so.

But is now the time to run or hide? Can we responsibly and righteously walk away when others may be ready to walk in and make the sacrifices necessary to exalt Christ? Who will call sinners to repentance? Who will hold the line and set the standard for those who may be following? Should we interpret these as the days of small things, and so make our excuses for little faith and low expectations?

Surely a field of battle on which holding the line, let alone advancing it, is hard, is a field of honour? If our analysis is in any degree right, have we considered the privilege of being called to serve Christ in this hour? To what has he called us? “You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier” (2Tim 2:3–4). We cannot say we were not warned! In the words of Andrew Fuller, “A servant that heartily loves his master counts it a privilege to be employed by him, yea, an honour to be intrusted with any of his concerns” (Complete Works, 3:320). How much more ought we to count it a privilege and an honour to serve such a Saviour as Christ in dangerous seasons?

We must of course beware of vainglory, that casual and carnal bombast that presumes that heroism runs in our veins. It is probably still the case – it certainly has been in past conflicts – that the men who are most full of themselves on the training ground are not often (even rarely) the ones who acquit themselves well on the battleground. It may be worth remembering the words of Ahab, albeit in a different context: “Let not the one who puts on his armour boast like the one who takes it off” (1Kgs 20:11).

All the same, surely now is the time to rise to the challenge. Now is not the time to step back, but to step up. It may or may not be ours to see great advances made, but those advances might need to be weighed rather than numbered. To accomplish a little something in the darkest hours of the hardest fights may be worth as much in the grand scheme of things as to do great deeds when the enemy is already running. Brands snatched from the burning are worth risking much to save. The enemy may not start running until some of those hard stands and have been taken and those hard yards have been won. Besides, “when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do’” (Lk 17:10).

Now is the time to assess the days, count the cost, and preach the Word. We must be ready in season and out of season. It is our duty and our privilege to convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. This is part of the good fight of faith, what Spurgeon called “the greatest fight in the world.” It is the hardest; it is the best; it is the most worthy, being fought for the best cause and the best Master, and offering the best reward.

Remember how Mordecai spoke to Esther as the people of God faced devastation and she began to explain her circumstances and make her excuses. He informed her bluntly that her circumstances would not save her. He assured her confidently that the Lord had not forgotten his people. He promised her soberly that cowardice might see her swept away. And he questioned her graciously, stirring her soul: “Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?”

Are we living in the last days? Certainly? Is this one of the dangerous seasons? Possibly, even probably. Yet who knows whether or not this is our high privilege: that we have come to the kingdom for such a time as this.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 26 January 2015 at 11:28

Growing as a preacher

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Here is a stimulating article on preachers and preaching, focusing particularly on one’s growth as a minister of the gospel. There are a few points at which I might wish to fine tune things, but I think that the thrust of it is excellent. Those who preach, who consider preaching, or who wish to improve their preaching, would all be well served by reading this with a humble heart. In short, the author roots growing as a preacher in four areas:

1. Calling
2. Teachability
3. Passion
4. Reckless abandon

Read it all.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 19 July 2014 at 10:55

Posted in Pastoral theology

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A noble task

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My friend Barry King, pastor of Edlesborough Baptist Church and MC of the Grace Baptist Partnership, is labouring to grow leaders, plant churches and reach nations. He lets me know that there is a special event coming up for men in England and Wales who are considering the possibility of church planting and/or pastoral ministry. GBP will be running a webinar, entitled A Noble Task, to give interested men an opportunity to hear a talk about ministry and the preparation (educational and otherwise) needed to do it effectively.

The Noble Task webinar will take place, God willing, on Thursday 31 July 2014 from 9:00 – 10:00pm.

Participants will also have an opportunity to complete an online assessment. This will assist us as we develop plans to train increasing numbers of men for ministry in general and church planting in particular. If you are interested in this event, please register your intention to participate by emailing Barry King at <gracebaptistpartnership@googlemail.com> and you will receive log-in details nearer the date. Participation is limited to 300 men so please respond promptly.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 9 April 2014 at 10:10

Review: “Pastors in the Classics”

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Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature

Leland Ryken, Philip Ryken & Todd Wilson

Baker Books, 2012, 192pp., paperback, $16.99

ISBN 978-0-8010-7197-3

This is an odd book. It is not a bad book, but it is hard to categorise. Divided into two parts, the first consists of twelve fairly detailed considerations of literary representations of pastoral ministry, drawn from a reasonably wide sweep. The second contains 58 précis of other such representations. It is difficult to gauge for whom and for what this book exists: from the blurb and endorsements one is clearly meant to come to the book as a pastor and here find prompts to profound self-awareness together with penetrating insights into the pastoral calling. Frankly, this was not my experience. For Christians (not least pastors) with a literary bent it might provide an interesting reading list or a stimulus for study and discussion. However, as a means of getting to grips with the challenges, demands and struggles of pastoral ministry, I think that there are far better lessons to be drawn from life than art: this is one area where reality trumps realism. I am not suggesting that this is a worthless book, but I think it will sit more readily in the literary theory than the pastoral theology section of the library.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 24 February 2014 at 15:25

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