The pastor at my mother’s church was wonderful. His name was Bill. His capacity was endless. On Sunday, he welcomed people at the door. He then marched to the front of the church and welcomed the congregation to the service. He read out the notices. During the hymns, he stood at the front, and sang extremely loudly. He then said the prayers, and on occasion followed that with the Bible reading. Finally, he always delivered the sermon. At the end, he said the benediction and marched to the back, where he would greet everyone, charming many of the elderly ladies who comprised the congregation.
It was quite the performance. Bill was a star.
But you can see the problem, can’t you? Remove Bill, and the whole thing collapses. Which it did on occasion. Who could follow such a superstar? How would anyone else measure up? Yet that is not the most serious problem.
The real issue is something I call “being too priestly.”
What is a priest? A priest is a person who communicates with God on behalf of the people. By contrast, a prophet communicates with the people on behalf of God.
During the Protestant Reformation, the “priesthood of all believers” was a clarion call to the faithful. No longer would Christians rely on a man in robes to speak to God for them. Luther’s story led many in Europe in a different direction. Perhaps the most pertinent verses are these from Peter’s first letter.
As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him— you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 2.4-5
A holy priesthood. That’s all of us now, as followers of Jesus. We’re all priests, because through Christ, we all have access to God.
All well and good. But what about Pastor Bill?
He certainly seemed to be acting in a very priestly way. In church, he did almost all the speaking and he spoke to God on behalf of the people. Surely you can see the problem. It can be summed up with the word “vicarious.” (I don’t think there’s a noun.) When we experience something vicariously, we ride on the back of another’s actions. It requires the other person to act or speak in order for us to gain the experience we seek.
It happens a lot in parenthood.
Just take a look at the touchline every Saturday morning. Hundreds of parents cheering on their kids. See Peter Parent there? See the look of absolute delight as he watches his son score a goal. He used to play football until his gammy knee ended his career. Now he plays football through his son. And what about the pride filling our hearts when our children perform in a play or win an award at the science fair? Vicarious delight is a sweet joy for parents.
In our church life, however, we all stand in danger of leading vicarious Christian lives. For though we each have access to the Father through the Son – a vicarious experience? – we must all approach God on our own. My pastor’s spiritual life is not my own. My wife’s is not mine. My home group leader’s is not mine. I alone must approach God and I do so relying on his grace. As someone once said, “God doesn’t have grandchildren, only children.”
And that’s why Bill’s performance, as magnificent as it may have been, was doing a disservice to his congregation. He may well have thought he was leading people to Jesus – and perhaps some did find their way to God through his words – but many others simply sat and rode piggyback on his words. Bill was talking to God for all of us. We had become redundant.
So where do the dangers lie? And what should be our response?
Too much you
As I’ve written many times on this blog, one of the primary roles of the leader is to equip and release the followers of Jesus. In my mother’s church, there was far too much Bill up there. The intention to equip and release his people was totally absent. So think carefully about how prominent you are in your church life. How much effort do you put in to develop lay leaders, releasing gifts within your community? Why not invite someone else to preach once in a while? What about ensuring that others lead the weekly prayer meeting? Still others could visit the sick, or well, do most of the things we do in church. Equip, equip, equip. Then release, release, release. Step aside and let the saints flourish.
What are you doing when you utter public prayers? You are modelling intimacy with Jesus. Talking to your heavenly father, who loves you. Your prayers aren’t “on behalf of the whole community.” Each of us, as we hear you pray, approach the throne of grace in our hearts, echoing your words. We don’t just sit back and let you do it for us. If we do, we haven’t understood public prayer. So ensure that your people understand what’s happening when you pray publicly.
Avoid leader worship
In some churches, the leader is such a strong, dominant character that people can come to believe that the leader’s success is somehow conferred on them. That’s why humility is so important. Leaders aren’t there to succeed. They’re there to serve. Post-Reformation, priests are there to lead people to Jesus. Their role is to make disciples – individuals who each in his/her own way are growing more and more like their saviour. If, at any point, you as the leader suspect that your people are using your expressions of faith as a vicarious means of connecting with God, then something has gone seriously wrong. Modelling, yes, but a priestly function which substitutes for someone’s own devotion to God, no. Absolutely not. Why not preach on 1 Peter 2 in the near future?
Sometimes it can be helpful to insert a circuit breaker. Equip and release lots of people who can do public prayer. Step back and let others lead. Have others preach for a while. Seek to make your church a place where many have the chance to express their own devotion to God. The more people who speak to God and about God, the more the priesthood of all believers is visible. It becomes the air that you all breathe.
When I and my wife were raising our children, we used to pray at mealtimes and before bed. As they grew, I was very conscious of the dangers of raising young people whose faith was dependent on their parents. That wouldn’t do at all. At some point, they would need to trust in Jesus for themselves. I made very clear that each of us – all five of us – come before our heavenly father, who loves and cares for us. Mum and Dad are not the priests. Mum and Dad may be praying, but when we close our eyes, we’re all talking to Jesus.
That’s also true on a Sunday as you step forward to pray. Think, I may be praying, but when we all close our eyes, we’re all talking to Jesus.
May my church be a place where everyone knows that . . .
When the leader prays, and when we close our eyes, we’re all speaking to Jesus.