Letter to a Young Pastor
As I recall Eugene Peterson writing once, teaching and preaching is the kind of talk that produces new people.
God has called you to the pastoral ministry. That means you have been called to be many things— preacher, teacher, shepherd, visionary, worship director, mentor, evangelist, teammate, missional leader, and more. All of these roles are important, vital to the work of the ministry. And in this short letter, I could lay out five or six of the most important things you need to do to build a vibrant church. There would be nothing wrong with this. But, instead, I want to focus on one aspect of the ministry, the one that undergirds all the roles you will fill.
At the end of the day, this is your calling: to restore health to a sick people, to teach and model to them a different way to live and worship in community, and to send them out, equipped, into the world to be "salt and light." That is it— pretty simply.
As I write this to you, I am sitting just up the street from the Oxford Union, the most famous debating society in the world. At the Union, words are important, arguments are vital, and quick thinking is paramount. The goal is to outsmart, out-debate, outfox your opponent. To defeat them. To win.
But words are for more than winning an argument and defeating an opponent—at least in the pastoral ministry. Words also bring healing. They restore health. I contend that they are at the core of your pastoral ministry, even in an age of image. And you will be speaking lots of them over the course of your ministry. Yes, you will listen, but you will speak, too.
When Paul tells Timothy how to fix the mess in the Ephesian church, he turns to the use of words. Paul says that "certain persons" were obsessed with "religion" but wanted nothing to do with God. They were into godless chatter. They loved using words, but not the right kind (2 Timothy 4:3-4). They loved to argue, to debate. They enjoyed talking and hearing about religion, but had no interest in a real encounter with God. They were spiritual, but self-focused. They had attached themselves to the wrong words; they had inhabited the wrong stories. Paul says they were not well. They were sick.
How do we know this? Because the remedy Paul calls Timothy to apply to this situation is the prescription called "sound words." If godless chatter had infected the Ephesians with a disease, the medicine they needed to restore health was "healthy" or "sound" words. Eight times Paul says the teaching should be "sound" or "healthy." Here is just one example: "If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness . . . "
The Greek word for "sound" is hygiein, from which we get the word hygiene. Paul is calling Timothy to teach and use words in such a way that people's lives are straightened out, made whole and healthy by the ultimate word—God's Word.
Now it is important to realize, young pastor, that sound teaching is not about facts, biblical knowledge, or doctrine for its own sake. So often we teach these things as impersonal information, head knowledge. Rather, it is information tied to a relationship—that is, connected to our relationship with God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. What Timothy was being called to do was teach in such a way that health was restored in his people to help make them a people of wisdom. We are not teaching them how to pass theological exams. This is the mistake that was being made in Ephesus. Words were just for discussion. We are not called to teach just biblical information, or be satisfied with a certain style of preaching, but to teach information that is tied to our walk with Jesus Christ—information that deepens our experience with Him and gives us wisdom to love God and love others.
As I recall Eugene Peterson writing once, teaching and preaching—that is, sound words—is the kind of talk that produces new people. When we encounter God through these sound words, we are encountering the holy God of the universe. Though doctrine and inspiration are important and part of all good teaching, they are not the heart of teaching. Encounter with God is the heart. That is your goal as pastor: to teach and preach in all situations, whether in the pulpit, in a small group, with leaders, or in someone's home; and to do it in such a way that you help people encounter God. Plain and simple.
How, you may ask, is this done? How is the Bible useful for wisdom teaching, for restoring health?
Paul writes to Timothy, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness."
First, God's Word is "profitable . . . for reproof." If your people are going to be made well, they need to know what is wrong with them. The Bible challenges our idols, the alternative stories we live by, the myths we have wandered off into. (2 Timothy 4:3-4). People live in the grip of stories that are not the gospel, stories that can't generate the life that they deeply yearn after. As C.S. Lewis once said, we need a stronger spell to wake us up from the spell we have been under. This "stronger spell," I believe, is the Word of God. And you are called to wield it in a way that helps wake people up.
Second, if rebuke is the negative, correction is the positive. "All Scripture is profitable . . . for correction." God's Word sets us straight, restores us to health. It shows us how to live, to walk in the Light and not the darkness. There is a sweetness to God's Word. We see this in Psalm 19: "The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul . . . More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and drippings of the honeycomb."
Finally, the word of God is "for training in righteousness." His divine power, says Peter, "has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence" (2 Peter 1:3-11).
It is in wisdom, the knowledge of God—that is, his Word—that your congregants need to be restored to health. Another word for this health would be the Hebrew word shalom. What is your ultimate goal as a pastor? What are you called to do? To utilize God's word, in season and out, in every situation, while preaching, teaching, leading the liturgy, serving communion, baptizing, counseling, vision casting, exhorting, disciplining, and sharing life together—in such a way that it restores health to the people of your church, and through them the neighbourhoods, the city, and the world. And at the heart of this new health is enjoyment; being healthy brings deep contentment and even a type of mirth. When signs of health, enjoyment, and mirth are present in our people and our community, you know you are on the right path.
May you, dear young pastor, be a minister who is passionate about "sound words."