Guest Post: The Danger of an Atheistic Ministry

No Comments October 23, 2014

nurturing ministry

The following is a guest post by Casey G. McCall

Eugene Peterson writes, “Real work always includes respect for the material at hand. The material can be a pork loin, or a mahogany plank, or a lump of clay, or the will of God, but when the work is done well there is a kind of submission of will to the conditions at hand, a cultivation of humility” (The Contemplative Pastor, 100-101). Peterson is making an important differentiation between the kind of work that seeks to impose one’s will on the subject matter and the kind of work that respects the given conditions. Wendell Berry describes this same distinction by drawing a contrast between “exploitation” and “nurture.” He writes, “The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter’s goal is money, profit; the nurturer’s goal is health—his land’s health, his own, his family’s, his community’s, his country’s. Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity?” (The Art of the Commonplace, 39).

Exploitation is atheistic. The worker imagines himself as the sovereign ruler. His will is all that really matters. Success is defined strictly in terms of increased quantity and bottom-line profit. The nurturer, however, recognizes that the material by which he is to work has been given. There is another sovereign who calls the shots. The nurturer has been entrusted to care for something that he does not own. Therefore, he defines success differently. Faithfulness, stewardship, humility, and submission—these values must supersede profit and outcome. Because God has created and owns the world in which we work, we must submit our work to him. Because Christ currently rules over every aspect of our respective environments, faithfulness to his will must be our first concern.

Exploitation is a danger, not only for farmers (who Berry certainly has in mind), but also for all workers, including ministers of the gospel. Indeed, Peterson’s quote is found in a book written for pastors. Ministers of the gospel, just as much as anyone else, face the constant temptation to exploit. We begin to define success strictly in terms of numbers. We look for the most efficient ways to do things. We quit caring about faithfulness in favor of made-up definitions of success. All that matters is the end goal with no appreciation for the process. The people we are called to serve become means to our greater ends. When efficiency and utilitarianism become our main values, we are pursuing ministry atheistically. At that point we have left behind faithfulness to God in favor of trying to be God.

So how do we avoid this trap? What does a ministry look like that submits to the conditions at hand in humble reverence before the all-wise Creator?

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