This past week I was named interim pastor of the 1,400-member First Baptist Church of Decatur, Georgia. I will be fulfilling as many of the pastoral responsibilities as I can manage on a part-time basis. They are already considerable: preaching, vision-casting, pastoral care, staff management, and more.
I first “felt the call” to be a pastor when I was 17 years old, a year after my dramatic conversion experience in a Southern Baptist church. During the course of my education at William & Mary, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Union Seminary in New York, my pastoral calling never went away, and through the years I have often served in churches. But over time I began to believe that my primary calling was academic, doing work in Christian ethics aimed at advancing faithful Christian discipleship and bearing public witness to Christian values. That is the particular version of Christian vocation that I have been pursuing since about 1988.
It has been a very meaningful calling. Over almost three decades, I have written or edited 21 books and hundreds of posts like this one, taught thousands of students, and lectured around the world. I have also had the chance to do quite a bit of public policy and social change activism, most notably on human rights and human dignity issues.
My entire career has been spent in the shadow of the culture wars, and far too much of my time and energy has been drained in contesting one side or the other of them. The fact that pretty much every issue I have dealt with is enormously controversial has left me, almost 30 years later, nearly exhausted. There are people who enjoy the cut and thrust of polemics, who like nothing better than a good theological or moral or political argument, the nastier the better. I am not one of them.
Over the years I found that my focus shifted more and more to society and politics rather than the church. That is not uncommon among Christian ethicists, and it became one of the central concerns of the brilliant Duke ethicist Stanley Hauerwas — that Christian ethics in America was almost always about America, not about Christianity or the church.
Now that I am reading through the entire body of works written by Social Gospel writer Walter Rauschenbusch, I am seeing the very birth of this tendency. Rauschenbusch, whom I admire very deeply, believed that addressing the social problems associated with unregulated laissez-faire capitalism was the most pressing problem facing the church in his early 20th-century context. He wrote brilliantly and in detail on numerous questions of economic and social policy, blazing a trail that many Christian ethicists have followed.
But after a while the question arises — is there anything distinctively Christian, or any particular role for the church, in this kind of Christian social ethics?
So I am finding myself drawn back to the church qua church, the distinctive identity and mission of the church, which includes but is not reducible to a social ethic. I find myself more drawn to challenges such as crafting richly biblical, effective sermons, retrieving or developing meaningful liturgy, building relationships and unity in the congregation, and offering care of souls in the demanding journey of life.
This may have something to do with feeling that after 30 years, I have made every public moral argument I really care to make, and have made more than enough enemies while doing it. It may also be related to this particular election cycle, in which the weaknesses of our two-party system, our entrenched culture wars, and our hyperactive but shallow media, have never been more apparent. As Americans, it really feels like we are at the end of something here. It’s like when you can see a car wreck about to happen, and you can only wait for that sound of crunching glass and metal. It’s eye-catching, but in a ghoulish way. I myself can hardly bear to watch.
What I am excited about is teaching seminary students at McAfee School of Theology, part of Mercer University in Atlanta, about how to integrate moral vision into their ministries. And teaching college students at Mercer in Macon about great moral leaders in history, and how to craft a meaningful life in response to other meaningful lives. And figuring out how to move a Christian congregation toward flourishing in a challenging, increasingly post-Christian context.
So now I am a pastor (again). My writings in months to come will probably reflect this new focus. I hope you will come along with me for the ride.
NOTE: I am grateful to the Religion News Association for awarding me 3rd place for my opinion writing here at Religion News Service. The ceremony was Saturday night in Bethesda, Md. I couldn’t make it. I had a sermon to give the next day.