It has taken my two months to complete my series reflecting on the questions I was asked during my examination before the EPC's Presbytery of the Pacific. Today I turn attention to the final question, which was something like, "What do you find most challenging in your ministry?"
Now, I am prone to complaining and this question could have given me a platform to air out all of my complaints about pastoral ministry. At the time, however, the Spirit did not lead me in that direction. Perhaps consciously or unconsciously I was thinking about Jude 23: "save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh." So my answer then, and now, is that I do not know how to get the Gospel into the hands, hearts and minds of those who need it most. To be fair, this is the work of the Holy Spirit, but as a disciple of Christ I am one through whom the Spirit works. Indeed, Heinrich Bullinger in his masterful Second Helvetic Confession in the first chapter alludes to the idea that the ordinary, or at least usual, way for people to receive the illuminating power of the Holy Spirit is the proclamation of the Word. The 154th and 155th question of the Westminster Larger Catechism agrees with the point Bullinger had made about 100 years prior: "The ordinary external ways Christ uses to bring the benefits of his mediation to his church are his regulations, particularly the word, sacraments, and prayer, all of which are made effective for the salvation of his chosen ones...The Spirit of God causes the reading and especially the preaching of the word to enlighten, convince, and humble sinners..." [As an aside, as you read questions 154-160 I really like that the Westminster divines concluded with a section of the requirements of those who hear the Word preached. Too often the responsibility for the preaching ministry of the congregation is couched only with the preacher when the responsibility is actually shared between preacher and hearer under the guidance and illumination of the Holy Spirit].
To recap, I find the challenge of my ministry is that I do not know how to snatch people out of the fire. The ordinary means of doing so is the proclamation of the Word--yet I do not know how to proclaim the Word effectively outside of the Sunday worship service. In my ministerial context, I find this particularly challenging.
In my ministerial context I am 1) young, 2) in a foreign cultural context (moving from suburban to rural) and 3) fairly well convinced that my seminary training was not particularly useful for doing actual parish ministry. Now that third point needs some qualification (the first two I addressed here and here). I will be grateful until the day I retire that I received exegetical, theological and relational tools to use in my ministry from my seminary education. The challenge is that I was trained for a ministry context that largely does not exist any longer.
The cultural expectation of church attendance has dissolved in the Pacific Northwest. The Pacific Northwest never had the church-going cultural of the rest of country, but there was still an underlying notion that most people would attend a church, at least occasionally. That expectation first dissipated in the cities (Portland, Seattle, etc.) but has now reached the rural communities as well. The result is that my training--conversion through proclamation from the pulpit--is no longer an effective ministry strategy. To date, I have nothing to replace this strategy and so I feel the tension and challenge of the call of the Gospel to proclaim Good News to the captives (Isaiah 61:1-3), yet I do not know how to get into the vicinity of those who need to hear the Good News most.
I think that my personal challenge is really the challenge of the American Church in the 21st Century. I am all ears regarding ways forward through this challenge.