Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson
Blog, Church, Leadership, Pastoral Theology

The Tension We Face

Every week, I get the pleasure of dialoguing with future leaders of the church, a.k.a. seminary students. I am confident in them, though I fear for the contemporary church and its waning influence. These students will enter a world that is losing both its mind and its soul. They will step into churches, some of which have lost the same.  

Not that it was easy in my day for me and my peers, but there is this sense of a greater crisis in our present moment. Thoughtful preparation is more critical than ever. 

Some of the students are nearing completion, and they will enter ministry with a certain idealism. I know I did. It’s easy to romanticize ministry. One assumes there will be time for prayer, thoughtful reflection, leading people in worship, and seeing lives transformed. But, in most cases, it turns out that things are a mess. Expectations and demands begin to squeeze out the time you assumed you would have to give to spiritual direction and contemplative exegesis. 

I talk a lot about my mentor, Eugene Peterson. After planting a church in Bel Air, Maryland, Peterson faced his own crisis. Looking at the landscape from the pulpit, it wasn’t so impressive. He began to ask, “Has any century been so fascinated with gimmickry, so surfeited with fads, so addicted to nostrums, so unaware of God, so out of touch with the underground spiritual streams which water eternal life?” 

But it was worse. There was this tension. He feared that what he was called to do would be co-opted by the religious establishment. To use contemporary language, Peterson sensed a form of collusion between consumptive/corporate America and pastoral ministry. The evidence was overwhelming. If he did not stop this growing influence, the lines and angles of ministry would get reshaped, and there would be no substance to his work. He would become a shopkeeper, focused on bottom lines and annual reports. Not a pastor. 

Some of you know the story. With the fierceness of an Old Testament prophet, he began to call the church out, using pen and paper. Over a span of twelve years, beginning in 1980, he wrote Five Smooth Stones, Working the Angles, and Under the Unpredictable Plant. These formed a trilogy of sort, calling pastors back to the integrity of their calling. He warned of the real possibility they would become those who drift into “meeting people’s religious needs, on demand, at the best possible price.” The pastoral vocation would be reduced to religious economics. There would no time for what one was trained to do. 

We talked about this last night. There will be the temptation to look for something exotic, like Jonah (Peterson’s working material for Under the Unpredictable Plant). Driven by our American careerism, we might be prone to commit ecclesiastical pornography (i.e. parish glamorization). This usually happens after we tire of the mess we find ourselves in in our first ministry. This happened to me. And this is bad for churches. It’s a wonder there hasn’t been a #metoomovement by the established church. 

As in the Jonah story, there will be storms, which expose our motives and reveal our God. We might even find ourselves tossed overboard, landing in the belly of the fish. Here, in the sanctuary and the silence. God will redirect, calling us, perhaps, to the place we are trying to avoid in the first place. For seven years in Holland, the dunes were a sort of fish belly. In the solitude, I began to learn how to pray. You find in such places God purges our idolatrous nature and instills regimens for the future journey. Here we are rescued from our self-absorption and our tendency to create a god of our own making.. We recover our core activity and come to accept our obscurity. 

In the end, we will either revel in the nature of God’s unpredictable ways or remain offended by his undeserved grace. Offended by grace, according to Peterson, is what happens to those who are unpracticed in the ways of God. Jonah’s failure of imagination disallowed him the eyes to see the possibilities. So the book ends with him sulking. And if we’re not careful, this is where our ministry can end. 

Tomorrow’s leaders will need to be more imaginative than ever.


  • alex
    6:17 PM, 22 March 2019

    well done, robust thinking and interesting….sounds like the core of a new book!

  • Greg Smith
    10:04 AM, 23 March 2019

    Excellent read… thank you

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