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Q & R: how can i make shifts as a pastor

Here's the Q:

As a minister in the Church of Scotland ... I have the privilege of preaching every Sunday and providing pastoral care to an entire rural community - I would go as far as saying I am loved and appreciated by most in the congregation and an entire community outside it believers and those that find it hard to accept. We are an exciting rural church - focused on a lot of the things you major on in your books. We are also blending disparate theologies in a creative way as we work at the intersection of peoples Christian values - I would go as far as saying ecumenical in practice and ethos . All good stuff done with good people you will agree -

The question - How do you address the issue as a pastor of making a major theological shift in real time ministry. Easy enough most of the year - for instance Easter presents its problems - how can I really preach orthodox doctrine - Do I really believe the idea that Jesus died as penalty for sin - or as you unpacked in a New Kind of Christian for being subversive and bringing the challenge of the Kingdom of God.


Here's the R:
Thanks for your question. This year I've spent a lot of time speaking with rural pastors in the US, and I've come to see more than ever how the work of rural pastors is so important - and far more challenging than many people realize.

Your question deserves a far more lengthy and deep reply than is possible here, but let me offer a few brief responses. First, I think many pastors make a mistake when they glibly or quickly attack or critique a widely-held and long-held belief. In so doing, they destabilize and unsettle people and leave them wondering, "How far will this go? Will anything be left to believe?" They expect "outsiders" to attack their beliefs, and when a pastor does it, they think, "Oh no, she/he's an enemy!" They feel betrayed.

That's why I recommend ... if you're a pastor ... you spend far more time positively proclaiming a positive alternative than attacking the problematic understanding or belief. When it's time for critique, make it gentle, careful, and give people plenty of "outs" - time to grapple with the issue in private. Think of Jesus speaking in parables ... using indirect rather than direct communication, so people can rethink and rediscover on their own.

That's especially important relating to the meaning of Jesus' death. Like many, it's clear you're rethinking some traditional atonement theory. Most people don't have the theological background you do, so atonement theory for them - even though they've never actually heard the term "atonement theory" - is foundational to everything. That's why, rather than critique traditional atonement theory in a sermon, I might instead explain how the word "for" in "Jesus died for our sins" could - positively - mean "to cure" or "as a consequence," as in the sentences "I took an aspirin for my headache" or "I got a ticket for speeding." (I explore this in some detail in my most recent book.) I'd emphasize the positive alternative for a long time before critiquing a traditional view. In fact, critiquing may become unnecessary.

Second, I'd remember that believing is a social act. When people change their beliefs, there are social consequences. Relatives, even parents and children, disown one another because of changed beliefs. So realize that if people change a belief, they will likely pay a high price for doing so in some of their social circles. Another reason to be gentle.

Finally, I'd encourage you to focus on the big story. As I explained in A New Kind of Christianity, unless we deal with the "big story" issues, we won't make much progress on the small stuff. As you know, I think we need to see the big story not as "a totalizing metanarrative," but as a multi-story space framed by stories of creation, liberation, and reconciliation ... a "three-in-one" story that gives shape, depth, and breadth to the whole Bible.

I've made mistakes in all these areas ... so I share them in hopes that you will do better than I've often done.