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What can 1870 teach a 2018 minister?

This month we asked our bloggers about how they view the role of pastor, how they understand their pastoral identity, or to share what a pastor really does all week.  Here’s how they responded.

 

When I daydream, it’s almost always about the future – flying cars, spacecraft, jetpacks and the little pieces of gum that make you feel like you ate a three-course meal from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

Sometimes, though, I get swept in the other direction – especially when it comes to the history of the local church. The church I currently serve, Langcliffe Presbyterian Church in Avoca, Pennsylvania, was established in 1870, which is the same year its presbytery (Presbytery of Lackawanna) started. It’s a young church by many standards, including the standards of the First Presbyterian Church of Wilkes-Barre down the road, which was established in 1772 (as a Congregationalist church), and the other Congregationalist, Baptist, Roman Catholic and still other denominational churches in this area.

Compared to me, though, this church goes back a long way. And I love looking back to its early days to imagine what the former pastors of the church did on a day-to-day basis: the challenges they faced, the culture in which they lived, the strategies they used to share the Good News with the community. You might expect that I would have nothing in common with the first pastors of Langcliffe, and you’d be mostly right. I certainly don’t share their epic sideburns or mustaches. But I do share the same basic tasks of ministry: reading from and teaching about the Word of God, administering the sacraments, walking alongside people in the good and bad times in their lives, and presiding over weddings, funerals, baptisms and Sunday morning services, among many other things.

Of course, there are many more complications in ministry today than there were in 1870. In 1870, the pastor didn’t need to know how to maintain a website, manage a Facebook account, deal with globalization or sit with parishioners as they navigated a gigantically complex healthcare system. The fields of psychology and sociology were only just being established in the Western world, and even technologies such as the car, airplane, radio and television were still somewhere in the future. Those things aside, I think the core tasks of ministry remain relatively unchanged.

At the end of the day, I just want to get the chance to see the shock in the eyes of a child when the first realize that Jesus really died before he came back to life. I want to be there for a baptism that was decades in the making. I want to watch as teenagers take the faith of their parents and make it their own. I want to share the Good News of the gospel with people at birth, death and everywhere in between. I can only assume that pastors from 150 years ago shared similar desires. I can imagine what it felt like for Langcliffe’s organizing pastor (N.G. Parke) to be a part of the church’s first communion service where three infants were baptized. I can sense the pain of pastor David Smyth after the first church building and the new, nearly finished building both burned on Easter Sunday in 1909. And I can almost touch the joy and laughter from the “GREAT(E) CONCERTE” on April Fool’s Day 1891 (in which “A new-fangled instrument, called a piano, will be played”), and especially the laughter from “YYOUNG FOLKES CONCERTE” on the following day (at which “Ytithing-man, Cranston, will see that ysmall boys do not clamber over ybenches, or put their muddy feet on yseats in ykirke”).

I may, in my duties as a modern pastor, find it necessary to run Facebook ad campaigns, contemplate the necessity of church smartphone apps, learn how to do Fortnite dances, know how to use 12 different videoconferencing services and navigate questions about everything from e-giving to how to connect to the church’s Wi-Fi. But these aren’t the things that capture my imagination or dominate my thoughts. The things I tend to focus on are challenges and opportunities that seem more timeless: the challenge of bringing the peace of Christ to a broken and complex world and the opportunities that God presents to us even in the most difficult of times. And that’s nothing new.

I want to be innovative in my ministry like Langcliffe’s Sunday school classes of 1909 who thought to melt down the destroyed church bell to make handbells that could be sold to fundraise for a new church building. I want to have the vision of the 24 charter members of the church who looked at a small coal-mining town and a hard patch of bedrock and saw instead the thriving church that it would become, with over 100 members 10 years later and nearly 200 by 1890. I want to have the grit of the trustee board of 1932 who were faced with an empty bank account and $500 in bills (equivalent to about $8,800 today) due by the end of the month – the same trustees who helped bring the church back from the brink of insolvency during the course of that year.

These saints from ages past keep me grounded and remind me that I am not alone: I’m not the first to face these challenges, nor will I be the last. I belong to a long history of Christian ministry that will continue long after I’m gone, even if the form changes. These lessons from the past remind me to never get so focused on the newest trend in ministry that I miss the oldest trends. And so, I hope I don’t mistake the current tools I’m using for the work of ministry that I’m doing. The tools are incidental; the work is central. To use the agricultural metaphor for ministry: the tractor might have GPS autoguidance and variable rate seed application, but seeds still need to grow in the dirt like they used to.

So I’ll keep daydreaming about the “new fangled” toys of ministry (like our church’s new wireless sound system!), but I will try to do so in a way that honors the timelessness of the core of Christian ministry: loving God and loving my neighbor as myself.

ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.

 

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