Authority gained …
My first major pastoral experience with authority came on my internship from seminary. The church I served had two Sunday services, and there was good youth attendance at the evening service. We wanted to do things to keep them interested and attending.
So we switched to a more interactive style of service, with a passage introduced to the congregation, then a few questions being raised about it, and the congregation circling chairs into three or four groups to discuss, then regrouping as one for a wrap-up and bit of a message from the text. The youth’s were allowed to form a discussion group of their own. After two or three Sundays of this type of pattern, the resistance from the youth increased. The adults loved it. So, after the third such service, I went to talk to the youth after the service to get some feedback.
You need to know a few details before I proceed. I was an intern, a pastor-in-training in a denomination whose teaching somewhat — and whose practice more so — was that the control of things regarding worship was clearly expected to be firmly in the hands of the pastor. It also would help you to know that I had a good connection with the youth, and they knew that I could take it if they said what they really thought. A side realization, by the way, had been that the creative type of worship experience we were shaping for the youth was more based on what I thought my generation would have appreciated rather than listening for what this generation wanted.
So I asked a group of the kids what they thought of the service format. To my surprise I was told they disliked it extremely. My instantaneous response — before I could reconsider, before I could catch and trap the radical suggestion — was to ask them to put together a service for us one Sunday morning, so they could show us what they’d like church to be like. The moment the words were out their attitude became positive, and my fears grew. These kids already came to church with what we would consider a kind of causal attitude and certainly very very casual attire (T’s and cutoffs were common). What extremes would they present as a service? What chaos would transpire? But a couple of them embraced the idea and so there was no turning back.
Most of them moved away from that conversation, and I was left talking to one young man, discussing his thoughts about the services I had presummed innovative and attractive to youth. He said “Pastor Pete, I’d rather have you get up there and preach like usual, then I can just sit there and let it happen and say I’ve been there and my parents would be pleased that I had come.” For a second time in about 15 minutes very risky words came out of my mouth. I told him that if that was the only reason he was there, I did not think he should come at all. I offered to advocate for that with his parents. As these words were coming out of my own mouth, a part of me was thinking “Stop! What are you saying? Take it back! You’re asking for trouble! You’re a student pastor. This is a quick way to upset some parents and get blemishes on your record.” And so on. But I said it. And I had to live with the risk. (It is helpful for you to know this young man was the last of a good long sequence of siblings, and all his older ones had forgone church involvement once they ‘came of age.’ So you can imagine the hopes that might have been pinned on him staying.)
Two stories rose out of this. One is the service the kids put on and a father’s comments about it. The other is something this boy’s mother remarked about at a meeting some weeks later. When she said it, I had an idea what had happened, but I could not say anything about it.
The service by the youth was very well done. They actually had dress clothing, and they actually chose to wear it! Many of them played musical instruments and they had formed a musical ensemble that led us in song! A guy and a girl led the ‘message’ portion of the service. The girl read portions of scripture, and the guy told of some experiences he and a buddy had which demonstrated the validity of what scripture said. The theme was “Honesty is the best policy.” You see, he and his friend had vandalized some construction equipment on a site they had accessed with their four-wheelers. The police tracked them to their homes and they tried to deny they did it, even though there were tracks and there was mud from the site on the wheels of their ATV’s etc etc. So, between passages exhorting speaking truth the young man told that story and showed how if they had admitted right up front it would have been easier for everyone.
It was a well done worship and learning experience. I was deeply impressed with the group. I had deliberately been available for but uninvolved in the preparations. The planners had come to my study on a prearranged day, and had access to my books, my computer, and me. They needed to consult me very little. There was just one piece I had contributed to. They asked me about doing a children’s message. I suggested a “reverse” children’s message, where the kids stayed in the seats and the adults came to the front and sat on the floor and were told a bible story and asked questions. We came up with a question the adults would be asked. It went something like this: “What are the theological ramifications of the symbolic representation of … etc” you get the picture. What I had not told them was that when the moment of confusion came for the adults, I planned to say “Jesus?” which I did when the time came and it had the right effect. There was laughter, but a thinking laughter.
After the service I was standing at the back of church kind of braced for what the congregation members might have thought about it all. Several came by and expressed appreciation. I reminded them that I had little to do with it (if anyone was upset I would have taken responsibility for giving them the freedom) and asked them to make sure they told the kids how much they’d appreciated it. Then the father of the girl who had done the scripture readings came up to me. He was normally a jovial, eye-sparkly, funnin kind of man. He came right up to me, and started trying to talk. The usual mischievous glint was not in his eyes, so I steeled myself a bit. He looked like a goldfish. His lips were moving, forming words that never got voiced. We stood for several seconds as he tried to speak. I began to wonder if he was so angry he could not speak, or if he was having a stroke. Seriously. I was about to begin looking around to see if the nurse was around. But then words started coming. “Pastor Pete” burst out of his mouth “I don’t know what you’ve done with my daughter!” There were no hints of if this was anger or not, so I stayed more or less braced. “You know what kind of a crazy house we have, and how it is hard for us even to get enough peace to say any kind of a prayer at supper, but our daugther has been driving us crazy these past few weeks, with the bible open on the table beside her as we eat, reading pieces to us and saying ‘Did you know the Bible said this?’ It was beautiful, and I thank you for what you’ve done.” Now his eyes were shining again. And I dared breathe again and relax.
I had done nothing but give authority away. I had honoured the youth, and they had honoured us and God back. So it was very awkward to have gained esteem in the eyes of not only this father, but of the youth as well. God’s Kingdom, you see, works the opposite of the world. It seems pretty clear from such experiences that you gain authority by giving it away. Think about it. Jesus came, taught, showed, lived, challenged, had some kind of authority that seemed different, and he elicited a typical worldly response from the leaders of his religion of birth. Their authority and it’s basis was threatened by his. So they acted to regain it. Jesus died, rose, and what did he do for those who were to be his followers? He gave them his authority. What are we going to do with it? Keeping it, gathering it to ourselves, seems to be the way of the kingdom of this world.
OK, enough preachy stuff. Back to loose ends in the story. Back to the young fellow who I had given permission not to attend and whose parents I had offered to talk to about just that. He never asked me to follow through, but a few weeks later, at prayer request time in a meeting, his mother needed to share a thanksgiving. She said “You know that our older children have all stopped attending church and we are trying to keep our youngest in it. What you might not know is that there are two Sundays a year were we have given him permission NOT to come to church, namely when he is taking care of his brother’s farm while his family is on vacation. Well, last Sunday was the first of those two, and he came to church anyway! So I would add a prayer of thankfulness to our prayers tonight.” I felt a spiritual holy shiver. I thought I had a good idea what had happened. The authority of choice had been given away, had been put in the hands of the young man, and he rose to the choice. It was a huge chance to take, but that’s what faith is all about.
So, though I am very poor at practising it all the time, I think a defining princple to operate by as a pastor is that I gain authority by giving it away. The other is that I gain authority by assisting people in discovering what God is authoring in their life. And the wonderful thing is there is little chance of a pride issue arising, because it is so clear it is not me at work.