Pastor Paul (Scot McKnight) - A Review

PASTOR PAUL: Nurturing a Culture of Christoformity in the Church. By Scot McKnight. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2019. Xvii + 253 pages.

What might Pastor Paul, who lived and died in the first century, have to say to pastors and churches living in the 21st century? What message might we hear in an age where many churches (including mine) are experiencing decline, even as church growth experts offer us pathways to success that are largely based on modern marketing techniques? Perhaps Paul dealt with critics who used numerical metrics to judge performance, but in our day that is the primary metric. Yes, how many bodies are sitting in the seats? By that metric, many of us aren’t doing well, but are we failures? Or is there a different metric we might pay attention to? Put differently, what metric did Paul (let alone Jesus) use to measure ministry? It’s probably good to remember that both Paul and Jesus ended up being executed by the Roman government, whatever that says about the meaning of success!

This question of how Paul understood ministry is the focus of the book Pastor Paul, written by Scot McKnight, a biblical scholar (professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary), and popular author and blogger (Jesus Creed). McKnight acknowledges upfront that he is a biblical scholar and not a pastor, but he seems to understand the realities facing modern pastors. In this book, McKnight offers us a possible vision for pastoral ministry that is defined not in terms of cultural success (something Paul never experienced) but in terms of developing a culture in which congregations conform to the person and message of Jesus. That is, “Christoformity,” the subject of this book.

I have read a number of McKnight’s books. I don’t always agree with his positions on things—he’s more "evangelical" and I'm more "progressive," though both labels are fluid. While I might not affirm everything I found in this book, as a pastor I found much here to be thankful for. Most importantly, it is McKnight’s challenge to the contemporary measures of success that bedevil pastors and churches who find themselves chasing the latest theory of church growth only to be disappointed that stands out for me.

The question raised here concerns the true nature of pastoral ministry. In an age of specialization, McKnight starts with the premise that pastors are general practitioners or perhaps "teachers in a one-room schoolhouse on the prairie" (p. 2). In other words, pastors do more than one thing with their vocations. They (we) preach, teach, provide pastoral care, and offer administrative leadership. The life pastors live is complicated. As Scot notes, quoting Paul, pastors are called to be "all things to all people" (1 Cor. 9:22). With that in mind, Scot offers his premise—pastors are called to be culture makers. The culture pastors are called to nurture is "Christoformity," which brings together  "bio-formity," "cruci-formity," and anstasi-formity." What these words mean, I will leave to the reader to discover, but the point is that Christoformity involves the totality of Christian life—being conformed to the likeness of Christ. In an age of megachurches, where most the pastor knows few of the church members, this vision works best with average-sized congregations, where pastors know their people.

So, standing at the heart of this vision is a call to relationality, a call to know your people. While this isn’t impossible for pastors of large churches, it is a vision that fits small to medium congregations where pastors can get to know not just staff and a few lay leaders, but congregants. Another way of putting what McKnight has in mind here is spiritual formation, which he believes is the pastor's first responsibility. It can involve preaching and teaching, but it is more than that. Here is where things get tricky, because in recent years many clergy have steered away from the idea of being an example to the people in the congregation, but that is at the heart of this calling, in McKnight’s mind. It is central, as he notes, to Paul’s own vision of ministry, for Paul continually invites the churches to imitate him as imitates Christ.

So, what does it mean to nurture a culture of Christoformity? That is the focus of the book that emerges from McKnight’s conversation with Paul's letters. In the course of seven chapters, we are introduced to cultures of friendship, siblings, generosity, storytellers, witness, world subversion, and wisdom. Regarding friendships, he addresses the challenge of making friends (not always easy for clergy). This includes friendships with other clergy, which raises the age-old question of whether pastors can have friendships with congregants. He gets at this question by engaging Aristotle's view of friendship, which Paul seems to adapt. The aim of friendship according to ancient sources was growth in virtue. There are of course different forms of friendship, but the way Paul understands friendship involves a covenantal view, noting that Paul uses the word agape rather than philia to describe his understanding of friendship.

From friendship, we move to a culture of siblings. This is perhaps a better description of the church. Terms such as adelphos (brother) and adelphe (sister) appear regularly for the congregation. Indeed, so common is the usage of adelphos for the church (in a non-gendered form), that it is perhaps a better descriptor of the church than the often noted “body of Christ” or “church” (assembly). In other words, the church is a family. Why family? Because it is the most basic of human relations. If church is family, of course, we must talk about boundaries, and he does. I struggle here because I’ve been emphasizing breaking boundaries, but there is value in discussing the need for boundaries. After all, not everything is worthy of being present in the church, which is why Paul addresses behavior in Corinth.  While I struggle with boundaries, I appreciate the emphasis on both friendship and church as a community of siblings because it suggests relationality, rather than institutionalism.

From these foundations, we move to a culture of generosity. This conversation involves economic stewardship, concern for the poor, and economic justice. Now McKnight has expressed in other places some concern about the current pursuit of social justice, focusing on building the community of faith, an area where I have expressed some disagreement. Nevertheless, there is good material about finances and generosity as an expression of being conformed to Christ. It’s a good reminder that “stewardship” sermons must about more than the budget.

Cultures of storytelling and witness seem to fit together. Regarding storytelling, it is interesting how McKnight addresses the challenge of statism, which he calls the "new American Story." Here he draws on his engagement with anabaptist traditions, challenging the more transformative visions of the church, which he believes leads to an embrace of statism (where do church end and state begin?). There is truth here. On both left and right there are visions of engagement with the world that involve embracing political cultures that undermine the Gospel. I'm more open to engagement with political forces than he is, but this is a good warning. Regarding the culture of witness, McKnight notes that this does involve preaching. He suggests that there are three stories to be told: that of the Gospel, that of the pastor, and that of the congregation. In the course of this conversation, McKnight raises the question of whether Paul was a convert, and what that meant, especially if Paul didn't really change religions. Key here for pastors is being an embodied witness, letting what we say connect with how we live.

The call to engage in forming a culture of world subversion is intriguing. Here he addresses the question that emerges most prominently in the Corinthian letters, where Paul encounters Corinthian worldliness, which includes the rise of personality cults. Bringing that into our time, he addresses the "drive for celebrity" (see Kate Bowler’s new book The Preacher’s Wife on that score). While it is part of human nature to want to be great (I feel that desire on occasion), but according to Paul, the call is not to “greatness” but to “faithfulness.” In his concluding section of the chapter, McKnight points to the preface of the 1961 edition of The Screwtape Letters, where Lewis wrote that "we must picture Hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment." (p. 167). According to McKnight, this description fits the realities of Paul's churches and many pastors and churches today. I tend to agree.

The final chapter addresses Paul's vision of a culture of wisdom. Though we might not equate wisdom with Paul, especially since he challenges the attraction to worldly wisdom, McKnight lays how out how wisdom fits Paul's of ministry. He does so in addressing what he calls a culture of "Juvenilization" of the church. This is not a diatribe against millennials. It is a reminder that wisdom comes with age and experience and that something can be learned from the elders. As one who is moving through his 60s, I did find this chapter affirming. But what is wisdom here? First, it is conservative, by that he doesn't mean resistance to change but recognizing the value of the past as we move through the present into the future. It involves "receptive reverence," or listening to instruction (something that is found in the Hebrew Bible). It involves the "fear of God," which is reverence and obedience to the ways of God.

McKnight confesses at the end of the book as he does at the beginning that he's not a pastor. He doesn't offer this book as a manual for pastors. He doesn’t intend to tell pastors, like me, how to do our job, because he hasn't experienced personally this reality. At the same time, he wants to point us to Paul as a possible guide to pastoral ministry, one that is committed to nurturing this culture that conforms to Christ's life and message. This leads, he believes, to maturity in Christ.

One may find places of disagreement with this proposal, perhaps based on experience as a pastor, but Pastor Paul is a worthwhile read for pastors (even those who struggle with Paul!). It is rooted in scholarship but is accessible as well. For those of us who haven't experienced worldly success as pastors, this might even be a word of encouragement! That is good news!


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