Recently I finished reading N.T. Wright’s newest book, The Day the Revolution Began, and my mind and heart continue to be stirred and challenged.
Like for many others, Professor Wright’s works have formed me significantly, having read several of his books and taken a handful of his online learning modules. In many ways, the book is vintage Wright. And yet, he delves deeply into a topic that needed further exploration: the cross.
In typical Wright fashion he doesn’t just talk about the cross and it’s implications on sin and forgiveness; he takes the next step, helping us understand how the cross informs and propels us farther and deeper into participants in God’s mission.
Reading Wright through the Eyes of My Congregation
As a pastor rooted in a local context, I couldn’t help but think about the lives of the people in my congregation as I read the book. I was reminded again of Eugene Peterson’s jarringly honest words: “A local church is a congregation of embarrassingly ordinary people in and through whom God chooses to be present in the world.”
While many pastors find deep theological study to be a great joy (some might even call it a hobby) that certainly isn’t the case with most of the people in my church. Many of our hungry yet “ordinary” people – nurses, union electricians, stay-at-home moms, students, truck drivers, retirees, steel workers, IT specialists – have admitted to me throughout the years that they find the study of theology to be intimidating, cumbersome and even dry.
Most people in my congregation won’t find a 90-minute conversation about atonement theory to be life giving and engaging. And the truth is, most people in our church won’t read Wright’s new book, no matter how great it is. This, of course, isn’t wrong, but it is something I have to keep in mind.
And so, I am left with questions:
How does N.T. Wright’s book about the hope of Christ’s life, death and resurrection intersect with the typical Tuesday afternoons of the “ordinary” people in our church?
And how can I communicate its important message in a way that impacts these “ordinary” people entrusted to me?
The challenge and the goal with deep theological books like Professor Wright’s isn’t to dilute or dumb down the message; instead, it is to break down these important insights into more accessible and tangible truths for their lives. This, of course, isn’t to make the message simplistic, but to make it simple, clear and accessible. Wright states:
Jesus died in order to make us not rescued nonentities, but restored human beings, with a vocation to play a vital part in God’s purposes for the world.
For those in mission-oriented pastoral leadership, our task is to then ask: how, exactly, do these “embarrassingly ordinary people” among us (me included) play this vital part in God’s purposes for the world?
Five Ways Pastors Help “Ordinary” People
Reflecting on these questions forced me to reflect upon the role pastors can play in the lives of our “ordinary” people in a handful of practical and pointed ways:
1. Helping people unlearn – and then relearn – the gospel
The scriptures, of course, were written in order to be understood as a communal story of God and His relationship with His people. In a sense, it is a book majoring on the community as a whole, while minoring in personal and individual implications. And yet, we swim in cultural waters that prioritize individualistic and consumeristic experience; this, of course, leaks into how we read and understand our Bibles.
Our work is cut out for us. It is important to frequently reflect upon not just the gospel message we are communicating, but to ask what gospel message our people are hearing. Much of the role of the pastor today is to assist others in unlearning the inaccurate and truncated versions of the good news – then helping our people to relearn God’s Grand Story and the good news of Jesus that lies within in. Language, of course, creates culture.
Therefore, let us be particularly mindful of our pronouns in how we instruct and pray, preach and converse with others. Training our people to grasp “we” over “me” is a crucial part of our calling.
2. Preaching the resurrection throughout the year, not just during Holy Week
Churches acknowledge the importance of the resurrection of Jesus and the centrality of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But the truth is, too many churches leave this message to unpack almost solely during Holy Week.
A few months ago I asked a few dozen pastors how often they preach on the cross and the resurrection, many told me sheepishly that it was almost entirely left to around Easter time. If the cross is as central and significant as we believe it is, shouldn’t its message be something we proclaim more regularly?
Take inventory of the conversations you’ve had in the past month and ask yourself, how often have you talked about the cross?
Look back the preaching calendar from the past few months and ask, when was the last time my preaching focused primarily on the cross and the power of the resurrection outside of Lent and Holy Week?
These answers can be quite telling.
3. Communicating the gospel that includes both what we are saved from and what we are saved for
Churches can communicate (intentionally or unintentionally) a truncated and inaccurate gospel of a highly individualized theological fire insurance policy, overemphasizing a gospel of fear and individualism of what we are saved from. What’s left out is the good news that God has a significant role for his people to join His mission. As Wright reminds us,
Once we replace the common vision of Christian hope (‘going to heaven’) with the biblical vision of ‘new heavens and new earth,’ there will be direct consequences for how we understand both the human problem and the divine solution” (68).
Does the gospel we are proclaiming possess the hope of what we are saved from and what we are saved for? I find that asking people in my church a simple and direct question can reveal a lot about what we are communicating when I ask them, “Why does the cross matter?” Do their answers reveal a mindset of a rescue plan from hell, or a grander vision of God’s love and grace to join with Him in the renewal and reconciliation of all creation (2 Corinthians 5)?
4. Preaching from weakness and brokenness so people know that I need the cross, too
Preaching from our shortcomings can be one of the most important ways to show our humanity and our need for the cross. It can be easy (and safer) to share only “victory stories” from the pulpit or over coffee. But doing so on a regular basis can easily lead others to believe (or solidify their already held assumptions) that pastors are somehow more spiritual than others. By making ourselves the hero of the stories we tell, people often begin to believe that Jesus does not need to be the hero in their own stories.
Modeling vulnerability by sharing our pain and shortcomings in appropriately vulnerable and courageous ways greases the skids of people’s gospel imaginations and reminds them that, yes, pastors desperately need grace, too.
5. Taking people on walking tours and helicopter flyovers
My family lives two hours south of New York City and we find as many excuses to visit as we can. Each time we visit, we see guides hosting walking tours with groups of curious tourists, pointing out specific points of interest – the intricacies of specific architecture, the historic landmarks, spots where movies have been filmed – and sharing particular stories of interest. When we walk along the East River we hear the constant hum overhead of helicopters, giving aerial tours that provide panoramic perspectives, the topography of the five boroughs and the key landmarks, allowing riders to comprehend the vastness of the Big Apple.
In order to get a clear picture of the context, largeness and beauty of New York City, participating in both walking tours and helicopter rides are significant.
Within local congregations, translating theological concepts into the everyday language of their context – in the boardroom, the classroom, the living room and the playroom – is crucial. Walking tours. But if we only take people on walking tours by focusing solely on the intricacies and nuances of theology – people are unable to see its connection to the larger, wider and grader vision of God’s story and mission for all of creation. And when we spend our time solely on the big picture of God’s story (giving operating helicopter tours) we can easily romanticize God’s mission and the good news can feel theoretical and excarnated.
The Gift of The Day the Revolution Began
Professor Wright’s book is a gift. It is thorough, giving attention to specific portions of Scripture and their nuances. And yet, he wisely strikes the right balance by frequently reminding readers of the overall vision of God’s mission and His heart for the world. He walks us through the streets of God’s story, while also providing aerial coverage of the grand scope of His mission.
Wright’s writing reminds pastors and kingdom practitioners of our calling: to properly translate the insights of deep theological minds in order to make them accessible to “ordinary” people. Additionally, his book reminds us that our calling requires discernment to know when to take our people on a walking tour through God’s cosmic story and when to give a helicopter flyover tour that gives the entire perspective of God’s mission and our role in it. Both types of tours are crucial in helping people grasp the richness, vastness, depth and beauty of the cross and it’s central place in God’s good news to the world.
How are you making the cross accessible to the people you know?