Boot Camp Religion

drill instructorShould pastors be more like cheerleaders, or drill instructors? That’s an interesting question recently posed by the president of World Vision United States.

While flying to Saint Louis, I brought along several magazines I hadn’t had an opportunity to read. (The opportunity to read for an extended period is about the only thing I still enjoy about long distance travel.)

One of the magazines included a review of Unfinished: Believing is Only the Beginning by Richard Stearns.

It included an interesting comparison which intrigued both as a pastor and a military chaplain.

The great commandments of Scripture have now become just great suggestions, offered like fortune cookies, to take with us or leave behind in the pews. Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). If churches are going to lead a revolution to change the world, then our pastors need to act and speak less like spiritual cheerleaders and more like drill sergeants.

It’s a valid question. But, the truth is that we are talking about a spectrum, not an either/or dichotomy. A pastor should never be a mere cheerleader. Nor should a minister ever be a simple drill sergeant.

Being a pastor is much more complex than either of those labels. Far better to use the metaphor of shepherd.

The author’s point is well made though. In our current “feel good” age, with its divinization of the notion of self esteem, many clergy seem to think their primary role is to “encourage” the saints. They forget that we should be encouraging them to do something. Something, perhaps, like running a race.*

That’s actually the theme of the book—Christian discipleship. Following Christ more closely each day, as we correspondingly come to more and more resemble our Father.

Disciples are not expected to just “talk the talk” of obedience; they are to “walk the walk.” Studying the blueprint in Scripture means that we follow its instructions. It requires that we obey what Scripture teaches. Anyone seeking to truly know God’s calling on his or her life must be serious about obedience. Do we really think that God is going to give a critical kingdom assignment to someone who hasn’t been faithful in day-to-day obedience to his commands?

There’s even a passing C.S. Lewis reference in Unfinished, albeit not a particularly flattering one. The author doesn’t actually speak ill of the Oxford don, but he does criticize the way that some preachers tend to “proof text” their message with pertinent quotations. (I avoid taking personal umbrage at the criticism, since the point Stearns is making is quite valid.)

Far too many Sunday sermons bat around theological ideas like badminton birdies for half an hour. They quote a few verses of Scripture, tell a few stories, throw in a line or two from C.S. Lewis or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but never challenge the congregation to change anything in their lives.

The sermon is offered like a piece of gum for congregants to chew on for half an hour, but as soon as they get to the parking lot, most will spit it out. The job of the church is not merely to explain the truth but, rather, to use the truth to bring about life change.

I’ve never been accused of preaching chewing gum sermons myself, but I know exactly what he is alluding to.

Unfinished doesn’t actually object to quoting Lewis, just to a shallow, formulaic approach to sermon preparation. The book, in fact, includes several Lewisian citations of its own, referencing no fewer than four of his works.

As a fellow writer and theologian who loves quoting C.S. Lewis, I’ll forgo pointing out the irony.


* The role of the coach, as in training athletes for their competition, is a useful image. Note 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.”

Also, Hebrews 12:1-2, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”

21 thoughts on “Boot Camp Religion

  1. I really like the analogy to a coach. Certain times require coaches to be like drill sergeants while other situations call for support and ‘cheerleading.’ Since most people are in different places in their journeys toward Christ, each person requires a different brand of motivation.

  2. This particular sermon/article theme always leaves me bemused.

    What the author (of the essay you sited, Rob) seems to say is that sermons/lessons/church participation/salvation must also come with action points and benchmarks. What these writers often actually end up saying is, “Whatever happened to sin?” which seems to me to translate as “People don’t agree with me anymore and that is wrong.”

    I have not read this particular essay. Maybe his point is something different?

  3. A further thought:

    Today’s pastor does not occupy the position of community and moral authority pastor’s once enjoyed. Add to this the fact that, in the American tradition, ministers who meddle in public affairs, and who expect to hold influence outside church doors, are generally regarded as somewhat out of line.

    A minister who wishes to storm at his flock risks losing what influence he might have held.

    Perhaps, a minister who adopts a soldierly view of his calling might place strategic goals above tactical doctrine. Specifically, he might consider a gentle voice and a soft admonishment as more likely to accomplish his objectives than a firm hand and a hard line.

    1. Nice contrast of tactical and spiritual goals.

      As for calling out one’s flock… seems to me that some of those preachers are rather “successful.” I think the reason they draw so many is due to many of their hearers thinking, “yeah, he’s really got their number!”

      Those folks leave the church thinking, “wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was as righteous as I am..?”

  4. I believe much of this can be resolved by faithfully working through Scripture. I try to let the comforting passages comfort, the challenging passages challenge, the encouraging passages encourage, etc. and adjust my tone to the tone of the passage. I’m sure I don’t do a great job but I think it’s a worthy goal.

    1. A wise approach. In my own (evangelical Lutheran) tradition, every sermon needs to include both Law and Gospel. Of course, due to the rich variety of the lectionary, there is always a wealth of Scripture from which to prayerfully discern what the Lord would have us preach.

  5. One thing I can say is I feel for pastors and believe they have a difficult job. I do think they’ve got to preach from the scripture and have the courage to preach the truth. This day and age, it unfortunately seems there are too many pastors trying hard to preach messages which won’t upset anyone in their congregation. An another note, I thought of a guest pastor I heard several times when I read the drill sergeant bit…lol. He’d holler, hold his breath on and off, and turned red in the face so often that I was afraid he was going to pass out and need CPR. The sad part is, any message, was lost on me through his actions. I just decided to skip church the next time I found out he was preaching. I knew I wouldn’t be able to get past worrying he’d pass out any moment. I’m not from an odd denomination either, just plain old southern Baptist.

    1. I remember hearing a Church of God in Christ chaplain preach at a “General Protestant” service when our children were quite young. They said, “Daddy, why is he yelling at us?!?” To which I responded, “He’s not yelling at you because he’s mad, he’s just very excited about Jesus.” That satisfied them.

      Not sure about the breath holding approach in the pulpit though… smacks of a tantrum-like behavior that I too would find extremely distracting.

  6. As a pastor AND blogger, I wish I could plug one of my last posts regarding the delivery of sermons, but I won’t. What I will say is that a true pastor is most definitely best pictured as a shepherd. The reason is that a good shepherd knows when to cuddle, when to discipline, and when to shear. But most of all, like the Good Shepherd, even the hardest, boldest, most drill sergeant-like preaching will be done while his heart is breaking for having to do it. Like a parent who spares not the rod (you know what I mean), he will truthfully say: “This hurts me more than it hurts you.”

    I am human, so I want people to like me. But I am an ambassador of the King of Kings, also, so I must say what He wants me to say. it’s not always a pleasurable experience.

  7. Being a military chaplain must be very complex and difficult.
    I have always felt that a pastor is a shepherd responsible for a flock (which is sometimes a handful and a collection of assorted personalities, and the pastor must meet all their needs) No pressure there….
    All the current warm fuzzy everything you do is wonderful ministers are really doing a disservice to their congregation? Like a parent praising a child for every single little thing? Sometime the flock must hear tough messages and shape up? It’s really complicated. Not everyone has the ability.
    Much thanks to those who try

    1. Military chaplaincy is challenging, but no more difficult than being a good civilian pastor. You’re right about not helping people by avoiding truth and simply tickling their ears with things they want to hear.

  8. “But, the truth is that we are talking about a spectrum, not an either/or dichotomy. A pastor should never be a mere cheerleader. Nor should a minister ever be a simple drill sergeant.

    Being a pastor is much more complex than either of those labels. Far better to use the metaphor of shepherd.”

    Thank you for this. It’s encouraging to see it said. In our sound-bite world, things get simplified far too much far too frequently and we loose all nuance and the truth that comes in nuance.

    “Do we really think that God is going to give a critical kingdom assignment to someone who hasn’t been faithful in day-to-day obedience to his commands?”
    This quote bites deeply, though. My own attention-deficit-like failings make me paranoid, and even though I know the paranoia itself is my enemy, it’s hard to fight it because I believe statements like the above are quite true. Frightful paradox.

    1. I’d be intimidated by that last quotation if I thought there ever was a person who truly was faithful every single day. There’s never been a disciple who didn’t stumble, and I’m quite comfortable being a member of that cadre. Best thing about it is that with people like Peter leading the way, we’re not likely to hear much condemnation within godly ranks. The rooster’s crowing reminder remains fresh across the centuries that none of us is appointed to judge.

  9. Pingback: On the Nature of Virtue « Mere Inkling Press

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