Okay, let me be absolutely honest. If I had a pastor, I would want him to be Ted Lasso. Now, either you get that (and you’re incredibly wise) or you don’t (and you are . . . well, we’ll just leave it at that). The Apple TV series Ted Lasso ended last week and Jo and I are still in mourning, but what better way to go through mourning than together.  After all, Ted said:

“I promise you there is something worse out there than being sad, and that’s being alone and being sad.”

That is some great pastoral advice. But Ted is filled with such wisdom. For instance,

  • “For me, success is not about the wins and losses. It’s about helping these young fellas be the best versions of themselves on and off the field.”
  • “You know what the happiest animal on Earth is? It’s a goldfish. You know why? It’s got a 10-second memory. Be a goldfish.”  
  • “Sometimes you remind me of my grandma with the channel hopper. You just push all the wrong buttons.”
  • “What I can tell you is that with the exception of the wit and wisdom of Calvin and Hobbes, not much lasts forever.”
  • “I have a real tricky time hearing folks that don’t believe in themselves.
  • “Be curious, not judgmental.”

Pastoral advice–Kierkegaard hated it. Okay, maybe not the advice as much as the pastor, but he still had strong feelings about both. Now, think about all the great theologians that come to your mind. Have any of them been strongly opposed to pastors? Of course not. Pastors are the good guys, and theologians love pastors (who else would buy their books?). And, just to keep the love flowing, pastors love theologians (where else would they get their sermon material?). But Kierkegaard, the theologian, had a huge issue with pastors. In fact, he was unrelenting in his criticisms of pastors. And what makes many of Kierkegaard’s criticisms so irksome is that they are, unfortunately, right on target. I ought to know. I am a pastor. We are looking at Mark Tietjen’s excellent book, Kierkegaard: A Christian Missionary to Christians (IVP Academic, 2016); and today, we want to look at Kierkegaard’s problem with pastors. 

Kierkegaard creates two stories which set the foundation for his rebuke of pastors. The first story is about a pastor who routinely shares the story of God’s call to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac as an illustration of what our faith and obedience ought to look like. Again and again, he comes back to this story, but he is “entirely unmoved by its weighty claims: that God would command a man to kill his teenage son for no apparent reason and—what’s more startling—the man would be willing to obey” (Tietjen).  But then, one of the men of his church decides he, too, should follow the example of Abraham and literally sacrifice his son. After all, it is (apparently) God’s approved way for us to prove our faith (“If it wasn’t, why would our pastor keep bringing it up?). But when our pastor-friend hears of this, he (as if out of nowhere) literally becomes quite moved and springs into action to stop the father. He denounces the very thought of actually sacrificing one’s son and wonders how, in the name of all that is holy, the father could even think of doing such a thing. Kierkegaard writes: 

The mistake was simply that the pastor had not known what he was saying [when he was preaching].”  

As a result of using the biblical story to make a sermon point on numerous occasions, the pastor had become immune to its real meaning, indifferent to its implications and disconnected from what he was saying (it was all theory and thought-experiment, never intended to have real life application). As we can now see, the pastor’s life and his preaching were worlds apart. Even more damning, the pastor, over time, had become disinterested in the witness of his own life and faith, finding it far more important to focus on how his sermon was received and if people liked him. Have I ever said in these posts that I hate Kierkegaard? I do. I really do.

Kierkegaard’s second story revolves around a recent seminary graduate with all the skills and talents and personality to go far in life. He is offered a job in a little church, but he turns it down, waiting for just the right church with just the right prestige that offers just the right future. And finally, after weeks of hard work, steadfast determination, and clever politicking, he wins the church position of his dreams. On his first Sunday, he took to the pulpit and preached a spectacular sermon from Matthew 6 entitled: “Seek First the Kingdom of God.” The sermon is engaging and moving, and the congregation is thrilled to have him as their new pastor.  But no one seemed to notice that in his pursuit of this prestigious job, the graduate had no concern for putting God’s kingdom’s first, but, instead, was fully committed to seeking his own kingdom. Kierkegaard makes this unflattering comment: 

There was no agreement between the preacher’s life and his sermon.” 

In case you missed it the first time, let me say it again. I really hate Kierkegaard. I really, really do.

Kierkegaard spent a lot of ink criticizing pastors. Here are some of his sharpest critiques (see Tietjen, page 116):

  1. No matter how good or how poorly a pastor preaches, his sermons always speak far better than his life.
  2. Pastors, in calling people to follow Jesus in the way of the cross, rarely, if ever, mean what they say – since they (the pastors) rarely, if ever, actually do what they tell others to do in their sermons.
  3. Pastors often water-down the claims of the gospel and its demands to make their sermons more palatable and themselves more popular
  4. For many, the pastorate is seen as just another position; no different from a lawyer, a physician, or any other professional position. As a result, many pastors are drawn to the pastorate for secular reasons: things like personal gain, fame and hopes of glory. Unfortunately, many pastors discover too late that they signed up for the wrong business for all the wrong reasons.  
  5. In their sermons, pastors foster the view that doctrine is what matters, not the imitation of Christ (i.e., that it is knowing, not doing, that counts) and that faith is almost entirely an intellectual pursuit.
  6. Pastors are too secluded in their own world. As a result, they do not understand the world in which they live, the way the unchurched think, or the motives, hopes or dreams of the secular person.  Worse, they don’t care to engage that world.  As a result, their message is irrelevant.
  7. Pastors offend their congregations, but for all the wrong reasons.

Can I say it again? I really hate Kierkegaard. I really, really, really do, but not because he is overly-critical, hard-hearted or exceedingly nasty, but because he is absolutely right.  My sermons always speak better than my life speaks.  It is so easy for me to tell people what they need to do, especially in calling them to die to self, but it is so hard for me to do what I need to do and let’s not even talk about me dying to my own wants and needs. And yes, I want people to hear God speaking in my sermons, but I also want people to like my sermons. Even more importantly, I fear that I want people to like me most of all. And while these are only the top three items on Kierkegaard’s list, trust me, I didn’t end there because the other four do not apply to me. I most certainly could go on, but let’s all agree that it would not be helpful. In short, pastors are the worst. And the only thing worse than being the worst is to have people know you are the worst, and Kierkegaard absolutely knows that we are the worst. We are all blind guides. As a result, Kierkegaard says: 

We should not hesitate to preach against Christianity in Christian sermons.” 

I couldn’t agree more. Just one problem. After doing that for two or three weeks, the unemployed pastor would either be on the outside of the church looking in or on the inside of the church looking at all those empty seats. But Kierkegaard’s point still stands. We should preach repeatedly against Christianity. Mark Tietjen writes: 

What goes by the name of Christianity so often is something else, and thus true Christian preaching must be self-critical as much as it is critical of the easy and obvious targets like ‘the world’ or ‘the flesh’ or ‘pagans.’” 

That truly is our calling, but who is brave enough to do it?

Now, everything in me wants to explain away Kierkegaard’s criticisms and say, “Yes, but,” and give an explanation for why we pastors are such weasels (or how, it has to be this way). After all, who can stand in front of a church filled with people and be Jesus’ representative to them? Who can be that holy, that devoted, and that committed? Or who could have lived a life where they continually and repeatedly have died to self, so much so that they feel capable of leading others down that path? And isn’t it better to have a pastor scarred by life and beaten down by its frustrations, trials and temptations than someone who is so holy that they cannot relate to you in any meaningful way? Isn’t it better to have a pastor who is familiar with your struggles, than someone who feels no appeal to sin like you?  And I want to say that pastors are simply beggars who are telling other beggars where there is bread, not those who have little need for bread since they have tasted something far better. Yes, I want to say all sorts of things to defend myself, my job and my reputation; but when I read Kierkegaard, his words cut me to the quick. As I said, I hate Kierkegaard because he is so very, very right.  And so, I conclude that the best possible response to Kierkegaard is to do what Job said (Job 42:6):

“Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.”


En Garde with Kierkegaard

Usually, at the end of every post in this series I ask a few questions and then give one or two great Kierkegaard quotes for you to ponder. Today, I am going to flip that on its head. Here are seven great quotes for you to ponder followed by five quick questions. But first a word of caution. Read these quotes carefully. They are not merely interesting ideas. Their intention is to pierce the darkness like a sword and reveal a very inconvenient and harsh truth, a truth we need to hear. Kierkegaard says:

  • “It is absolutely unethical when one is so busy communicating that he forgets to be what he teaches.”
  • “On Sunday it is taught that Christ is everyone’s example – and if anyone on Monday were to talk about Christ as his example, people would call this presumption, terrible arrogance, and so on. Consequently, most preaching is nothing more than Sunday jargon.”
  • “To preach from the pulpit means to bring charges against oneself.”
  • “If it is assumed that speaking is sufficient for the proclamation of Christianity, then we have transformed the church into a theater. We can then have an actor learn a sermon and splendidly, masterfully deliver it with facial expressions, gestures, modulation, tears and everything a theater-going public might flock to.”
  • “The reasons why preachers are so eager to preach in a chock-full church is that if they were to say what they have to say in an empty room they would become anxious and afraid, for they would notice that it pertains to themselves.” 
  • “It is a risk to preach, for as I stand up–whether the church is packed or empty–I have one listener, God, whom I certainly cannot see, but who truly can see me. And this listener pays close attention to whether what I am saying is true, whether it is true in me; that is, he looks to see whether my life expresses what I am saying. And he can do that, because he is everywhere present in a way that makes it impossible to be on one’s guard against him. And although I do not have authority to commit anyone else to obey what I say from the pulpit, I have the authority to commit myself to every word I say–and God heard every word I say. Truly, it is a risk to preach.”
  • “What one’s life proclaims is a hundred thousand times more powerfully effective than what one’s mouth proclaims.”

And now five questions for you to ponder.

  1. What are the top five qualities you value in a pastor?
  2. What is more important to you in a pastor: authenticity that shows he struggles with the same sins and temptations as you do or that he is clearly following Jesus and is far more spiritual than you will ever be? Why?
  3. What do we do with the fact that most every sermon a pastor preaches goes far beyond his own personal life? 
  4. Which would you rather, a pastor who knows God and the Bible deeply or a pastor who knows people and the world deeply?
  5. How would you think it would feel if Jesus was the pastor of your church? Would that be easy and encouraging or discouraging and hard?

Thanks for reading. Next week, we will focus on our calling to be Jesus’ witnesses on earth. And yes, there is a part of me that hates Kierkegaard for being so right-on-the-money; but overall, I love Kierkegaard. He makes me think and act differently, and that is a gift that is worth its weight in gold. But would I want Kierkegaard to be my pastor? I’m not so sure. I think I would prefer Ted Lasso. But I am open to suggestions. After all, Ted did give us this piece of pastoral advice:    

“Never bring an umbrella to a brainstorm!”