Last week I started looking at some of the concepts articulated by professor Andrew Root in The Relational Pastor. I’d like to continue to unpack some of his thinking this week, particularly as it relates to the shared life of Christians in community.
I think it’s significant that Root contextualizes things in terms of ministry. While he gets theological and ecclesiological, Root reminds us that there is also a necessary place for ministry within the church. And possibly moreso than more specific things like preaching and teaching and leading in worship at church, ministry is messy (and maybe difficult to define). In most churches, ministry manifests through programs and acts of compassion. In his thinking, Root wants to “place [ministry] again on the Christian concession of personhood.” He continues:
… relationships in ministry are an end. Relationships are the very point of ministry; in and through relationships people encounter the person of Jesus Christ and are therefore given their own personhood– a true personhood free from sin and death.
And so we come together, we relate to one another as people who have encountered Jesus Himself. And that changes everything for us . . . and between us. This serves as a potent contrast to a culture, our culture, that has capitulated to an unhealthy individualism. Root asserts that our views on something as fundamental as conversion have been effected by it.
But even the theological concept of conversion has been overtaken by individualism. In our churches we desire ministries that change people, that transform and convert people from death to life, from the old to the new. But too often, caged by individualism, we contend that transformation or conversion is solely an epistemological reality. Even when we dress it up with personal language, like saying we want people to “have a personal relationship with Jesus,” what we actually mean is not something personal but something individual; we want them to individually, in their own minds, assimilate knowledge about Jesus and become loyal to the idea of Jesus. We use our relationships as leverage to get people to know things about their own individual ideas or behaviors, to change to new ideas and behaviors. We use the relationship to convince them that our Christian subculture is better than another. And so often in ministry we become burned out or discouraged, or burned out because we are discouraged, because transformation never seems to stick. People can individually be be converted to an idea, only later to be individually captivated by another competing perspective. Bound within individualism, transformation is like fashion, it is important for the now, but eventually we’ll move on.
“Relationships as leverage” is sobering enough. Root’s inclusion of “transformation” as something affected by individualism is also a shock . . . because I don’t think he’s wrong. There was a time when conversion meant personal encounter and change because of the revelation of Jesus and the power of the Spirit. And transformation was towards a likeness of Jesus Himself. That’s a big part of what I thought Christian maturity always pointed to. But maybe transformation really is like fashion. And we are expected to roll with the punches, change with the times, and trade out one style for another even if some of the substance gets lost.
That last part I don’t actually believe. But I do believe that we have lost a sense of “the long story” with Jesus and what that “long obedience” can and should look like.
You can purchase Root’s book here.