HOW is Christian ministry tyrannised by the assumptions and ideologies of modern culture?
That was the challenging question put to the pastors of our Methodist churches during the clergy session of the Aldersgate Convention 2002 on the morning of May 22.
Dr Thomas Oden, Professor of Theology and Ethics at Drew University, was addressing the clergy on the topic: “Pastoral Vocations in the 21st Century: Lessons from my Theological Pilgrimage”.
Bishop Dr Robert Solomon also addressed the group. His topic, “Royal Food, Loyal Priesthood”, was based on the text John 6.52-59. Later, he led everyone in Holy Communion.
A United Methodist pastor for 50 years and a theological professor for most of that time, Dr Oden related his shift from theological liberalism to orthodox evangelicalism. Though he was baptised as a child and had a religious experience, he had learned to forget it all in the light of modernist teachings, such as from John Bultmann and Paul Tillich, and form critical methods for studying the Bible. The power of the Gospel was reduced to economic and political categories.
Instead of letting the Bible speak for itself he “had been accommodating to a modernity that was passing away”, he said, “but I didn’t know it”.
In the early 70s, after teaching for 15 years in American seminaries, he rediscovered the writings of the early church. It was a move that helped him to remember the meaning of his own baptism, that is, the core doctrines and confessions of our faith. Seminaries, he said, should be places that help people understand the meaning of their own baptism.
Pastors divided into five groups and discussed the question: “To what extent are the assumptions and ideologies of modern doctrine tyrannising my ministry?”
The Rev Dr Daniel Koh, responding for one of the groups, suggested four modern ideologies that can tyrannise the ministry: 1) Pragmatism leads to believe that whatever works is good; 2) the current interest in religious harmony may lead us to accept compromise in our faith; 3) the conveniences of IT technologies may lead us to expect instantaneous results; and 4) our economic culture leads us to see everything in terms of economic values instead of God’s values.
Others expressed concern about the training and support of pastors. “Theological training needs to teach pastors how to swim”, said the Rev Gordon Aw, noting that many pastors are overwhelmed with the practical matters of leading a congregation.
The Rev George Martzen is Minister Attached to the Bishop’s Office at The Methodist Church in Singapore.