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by Allan Janssen

After forty years preaching, I now sit in a pew. And since I am a preacher’s kid, I have never before had a pastor. Both experiences are revealing

I discovered that not only am I eager to listen to sermons, I need to hear sermons. I admit that as a preacher, I cannot completely shut off my critical ear. But the dynamic goes something like this. When I hear the text read, my mind goes to the homiletic possibilities offered by the text(s). Then the preacher doesn’t go there. Instead he takes a different track. As it turns out, that take is often what I need to hear that day. The Word that comes to me (us) is not a word that emerges from our own thinking. I wouldn’t have to go to church to hear the echo of my own thoughts, to hear the sermon I would have preached. The Word that comes, comes from without. It outshines my critical faculties.

That said, retirement has allowed me to hear preachers of all sorts. A lot of what I hear is more moralism or secondary psychologizing than gospel. And this from both the left and the right. There is more must than there is is. That is, I hear very little of the gospel of what God has done—the stunningly good news that salvation has dawned—and much more of what we are supposed to do, even if that “supposed to” is simply to accept or to believe something. This is not to gainsay the judgmental strictures of the gospel, but there is very little working through of the gospel that comes judgment.

More Prayer, Less Program

I become more critical, however, when it comes to liturgy. This rises from my need as a church-goer. Here are a couple places where I bristle. One happens with Sundays that are more about program and promotion than they are about worship. As a former pastor, I understand why we have youth Sundays and the Sunday when the missionaries take the pulpit to promote church work. Nonetheless, I come longing for the gospel, and also needing to pray, both in praise and in intercession—and that, whether I thought I needed it that morning or not.

The second place where I inwardly cringe is with the minister who needs to act as master of ceremonies, not only telling us what to do next, but often even why we have to do it next. I get that we need to be open and transparent to those who are not familiar with our liturgical practices, but there are other ways of handling that, including acknowledging that our liturgical activity is a habit. I pick this up when I attend a Roman Catholic mass. Church members can be trained, for example, to assist visitors with finding the place in the morning bulletin or hymnbook. Let the liturgy flow. My spirit moves in such a way that I don’t need always to think of what I am doing. The liturgy carries us.

Having a Pastor—for the first time

There is yet another way that sitting in the pew has provided something new. I am a member of a congregation in a new way. On the one hand that means that for the first time I have a pastor. That takes some getting used to, I admit. I have always been the pastor, and if I needed “pastoring,” and I did throughout my years, I simply would call up a colleague. But my current pastor is not my choice. And he doesn’t wait for me to call. So it is learning not only that I have a pastor, but I need a pastor. That should come as no surprise; I am a human and a sinner like all the rest of us struggling souls. But because I am a sinner, I want to protect my invulnerability. To have a pastor is to be graced in ways that I am still exploring.

And then too I am a congregant with all other congregants, strangers most of them, thrown together with people that I have neither chosen as friends nor am I locked into as with family. In fact, I may not like some of them. I’m pretty sure that our political and even ethical positions diverge. Nor is it just that I have gathered with them as co-religionists. I am one with them in Christ. That was just as true when I was a pastor, but I experience it in a way that I am only now (late) beginning to experience.

So I begin to get in touch, bodily, with why we are “obliged to unite with the church” (Belgic Confession) or indeed confess that we “believe…the holy catholic church.”

It is a delight to go to church, not to lead worship, but to sit in a pew, listen, and unite my voice with others in prayer and song.

Allan Janssen

Allan Janssen is a retired minister of the Reformed Church in America who also teaches at New Brunswick Theological Seminary. He resides in Glenmont, New York.

3 Comments

  • Emily Brink says:

    I’m grateful for the grace and wisdom that shines through your seasoned view, no longer from the pulpit, but now from the pew. As a former church organist and choir director for many years, I have many of the same needs to let the gospel shine through in what we sing and how we sing together. The older I get, and I’m getting up there, the more I long not only for good preaching and liturgy, but for beauty. That’s too often the missing element.

  • mstair says:

    Lots of good stuff in here, Allan. The last image I have – as you finish – is that of the pastor as shepherd. You, the former flock-leader have now become part of the flock. Your discipleship circumference has contracted a bit. You are no longer solely responsible for bringing the flock back home. In fact, you have already successfully delivered a considerable number of souls into the hands The Great Shepherd. Now, as one of “the elder sheep,” you get to assist the flock-leaders with their awesome responsibility. It should be easier for them because you know the way – and others will trust and follow you, even if they wouldn’t at first follow a new flock-leader. Of course, as you once did, flock-leaders will notice where “the green pastures” and “the still waters” are before you will now, and might lead the flock on a new and different route than you have become accustomed to.

  • Mark Ennis says:

    I understand what you are saying. Every vacation it is a joy to worship with a congregation in a pew. It is a joy that I hold on to.

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