When Eugene Peterson was in seminary in New York City, Dr. George A. Buttrick was pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, overseeing a large urban congregation. He was renowned for his preaching, and held his position in the church from 1927-1955. He then went on to Harvard and other universities and seminaries as a distinguished professor. Buttrick was known, as a biographer puts it, as one who “combined the scholar’s mind, the pastor’s heart and the preacher’s passion.”
After Sunday evening services each week, he would invite seminarians back to the manse for fellowship and discussions. There was no agenda, just a simple give and take between pastor and students.
I will let Peterson take it from here.
On one of these evenings he was asked by one of the students something about preaching. Something on the order of ‘What is the most important thing you do in preparing to preach each Sunday?’ I think we were all surprised by the answer, at least I was. His answer, ‘For two hours every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, I walk through the neighborhood and make home visits. There is no way that I can preach the gospel to these people if I don’t know how they are living, what they are thinking and talking about. Preaching is proclamation, God’s word revealed in Jesus, but only when it gets embedded in conversation, in a listening ear and responding tongue, does it become gospel.’
– The Pastor, p.86f
That is one of the best and truest sentences I’ve ever read:
“Preaching is proclamation, God’s word revealed in Jesus, but only when it gets embedded in conversation, in a listening ear and responding tongue, does it become gospel.”
A pastor cannot do his/her job unless his/her words and actions are “embedded in conversation.” What happens on Sunday is of a piece with what happens during the week. A romantic dinner with my wife is connected organically to the life we live together when we are relating to each other as we act out our normal routines day by day: ”fixing, eating and cleaning up after meals, going to work, keeping house, paying bills, doing chores, relating to our children, planning our family calendar, watching television. The special occasion celebrates, fortifies, and enhances the relationship that is built in the everyday.”
Without the daily work of marriage, that romantic dinner might as well be a blind date.
Unfortunately, this is how many ministers operate. They want to stand before the crowds on Sundays without walking through the neighborhoods and making visits on Tuesdays and Thursdays. There is proclamation but little conversation. They are not conversant with the lives, families, work environments, daily pressures, relational situations, and personal questions of those who hear them speak each Sunday. They may be knowledgeable about books, ideas, giving “leadership” to an organization and overseeing programs, but how much do they know about you and me? As speakers, teachers, visionaries and motivators, they may be very good at what they do, but they if they do not live attentively among their people cannot rightly be called pastors. “I am the good shepherd; I know my own sheep, and they know me…” (John 10:14).
I’m not saying we shouldn’t have people who specialize in public speaking in the church. I am saying we need a whole lot more of them to be pastors. There is no substitute for “walking the neighborhood.”
In one of his classic books on ministry, Eugene Peterson wrote about the pastor’s work between Sundays, calling it, “ministry amid the traffic,” away from the church building and program. He contrasted this with the oft repeated job description, “running a church.”
Today, he might write, “The between-Sundays work of American pastors in this century, though, is growing a church.” As Michael Spencer once pointed out, the ethos of growth has overwhelmed the contemporary pastorate. This has changed the pastor’s role. No longer is he/she devoted primarily to “the cure of souls.” Now the job consists of being an entrepreneur, who not only administrates a corporate entity, but who is also expected to energize and transform it into a brand name enterprise. “The Gospel is a product and the world is a market niche.”
In contrast, Peterson has consistently said, “our most important work…is directing worship in the traffic, discovering the presence of the cross in the paradoxes and chaos between Sundays, calling attention to the ‘splendor in the ordinary,’ and, most of all, teaching a life of prayer to our friends and companions in the pilgrimage” (CP, p.73).
In this sense, I therefore heartily encourage congregations everywhere to rise up and tell their pastors to “take a walk” — around the neighborhood, that is.