Jerry Sittser Interview Part 1

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jerry Sittser, the author of the book Water From A Deep Well, this past weekend. Jerry was one of my college professors at Whitworth University. I took the questions you asked on the blog and had a great discussion with Jerry. Here is part 1:

Question 1: It seems to me that many ministers today try to avoid controversial subjects for fear of upsetting a portion of their parishioners who may have opposing ideas. With this country’s strict division of church and state it is generally felt that the church should not get involved in politics even if they see injustices being committed. What are your thoughts?

The church has never really avoided politics. I think the question is not so much how does it avoid politics but how does it engage with politics. What’s the best strategy to follow? Its hard to be a pastor over a long period of time and avoid addressing an issue that has some sort of social or political implication. Even in the Reformation the church would go after social issues that would have political and cultural relevance. In the 19th century it was slavery. Later on, it was suffrage. Then it was alcohol. Then it was the civil rights movement. So its hard to avoid those things. I think the right question is what is the best way for a pastor to do that. I would suggest a couple of criteria to be used.

First, you definitely need to be faithful to the biblical witness. Its the Bible that should frame those things. Not, say, modern political parties or the kinds of, often, polar perspectives that govern conversation in our culture. I think the Bible provides a more transcendent perspective if its understood properly.

Second, we always have to trust that the church is God’s primary vehicle for God’s redemptive work in the world. God may use other movements, after all, God used Cyrus in the Old Testament, right? But God’s primary vehicle for his redemptive work, in this world, is the church. The church must constantly assert its identity as being other and over against other kinds of political parties or political movements and that kind of thing. You know, the church is not white or black, its not Republican or Democrat. Its the people of God.

And one of the traps we fall into is as we make the church God’s primary redemptive tool in the world, we make it subordinate to other kinds of ideologies or movements. This is what happened in the 1930s in Germany. They yielded to a kind of Arian philosophy and the church lost its soul and lost its identity in the process. So we have to be, what I call, jealous of the church’s identity. And pastors and leaders, elders in particular, need to make sure that the church is our primary point of identity formed in the gospel and no other ideology or movement.

In other words, I’m primarily a Christian and a member of the church. I’m not a Republican or Democrat. I’m not educated…I’m not this, I’m not that. I’m simply Christian. One of the great tests of the church is if it can put under one umbrella people that identity with one or the other of those movements and realize that those are not fundamental sources of identity.

The last thing is, when we are looking at a particular social issue, its important that we try to provide a larger, transcendent perspective, rather than immediately rush to one particular side. In other words, a good theological perspective is going to provide some measure of transcendence and wisdom that will often break the gridlock that we find in our politics of today. Its not going to solve all of our problems, but I think it will help.

Question 2: The church has had to respond to major changes in the world (i.e. desert saints to Christianity under Constantine, monasteries in the middle ages, the Franciscans and Dominicans to a more cosmopolitan economy and the rise of the middle class). What changes in our world do you see the church having to face today?

Great question. In fact, I just wrote an article on this. First, you have to realize that the church has within itself the seeds of renewal. What you’ve seen is a pattern in the history of Christianity where movements arise that represent a kind of return. A return to the Bible. A return to the church. A return to something that has been lost or compromised. So always in the history of Christianity there is a generative movement that calls people back to something. Back to the original, of some form.

At its worst, it becomes a separatist movement and it leads to division. And that, of course, has happened a ton. At its best it brings renewal to movements or a church that is already well established.

So let me give you an example: the Evangelical movement or the Pietist movement. Early Pietists were all Lutheran. Early Pietists never left the Lutheran church. They saw it as a renewal movement from within Lutheranism. John and Charles Wesley never left the Anglican church. The Wesleyan movement broke away and became the Methodist movement after they had died. So they meant it to be a renewal movement within the larger family of the Church of England.

One of the first things we need to do is try to remain faithful members of a larger tradition. And look for movements that renew that body instead of immediately separating from it. The other thing is we can learn a lot from history. That’s why I wrote the book. History is a great resource because it shows us how the church in the past not only grew and changed and adapted, but also renewed itself.

So the desert fathers challenges the church’s ease of compromise, especially after Constantine came to power and Christendom began to emerge. The Franscicans brought the energy of the monastery and said, “No, we can’t separate from the people” and moved back into the city. We can learn some things from that. So we keep our minds open and we absorb from the past so we can be inspired to address the inertia of the church. Which always happens. In other words, the church becomes dry. Lifeless. Boring. We’re good scavengers, in that we can scavenge from the past and identify movements that can bring some life back into the church.

The last thing I want to say, David, is that always, always in the history of the church the first thing we do to bring renewal is that we turn to God and pray. We say, “God, we sense a church here is disobedient. Its dead. Its boring. Its this or that. And our efforts alone will lead to nothing but division and compromise. We need You to breathe life into these dead bones.”

Question 3: During the reformation period a great deal of emphasis was placed on the preacher and his sermon. I would like to know your thoughts regarding the importance of the sermon as opposed to other forms of christian education such as Bible study and Sunday School.

The whole Reformation was based on a robust doctrine of the Word, with a capital ‘W’. Obviously the Word means the Word incarnated as Jesus Christ. That Word is also incarnated in print, and that’s what we call the Bible. The Word is sacramentalized. And the Word is proclaimed. All of that is an expression of the Word, but what’s central of course is the word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

What happened was that the sermon, such a profoundly neglected form of ministry in the middle ages, became central to the life of the Reformation because they assumed that the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God and that it awakens faith. Luther said preaching awakens faith, it builds faith. And you have to have faith to believe in the Word of God. So these guys, as I say in the chapter, preached a lot.

Now I would add that they also wrote catechisms. If I would write that chapter over again I would spend more time on catechism. Because catechism became a longer exposition of the Word in a kind of systematic form. As you know, catechisms were based on an explanation of the apostles creed, the 10 commandments, and the sacraments. And one of the earliest of course was Luther’s long and short catechism. But then they produced dozens of these catechisms. Calvin wrote one for Geneva. And this was to be a tool that Luther intended to be used in the home by fathers. But it didn’t work so well. So pastors would preach through the catechism every Sunday afternoon and then they were used in classes and Christian schools.

So the catechism was a kind of secondary document that would be used for formational purposes. Unfortunately, they were often memorized in a kind of rote kind of way. Today we would say we would want to be more formational in the way we use catechism. Not only would we emphasize mastery of the content, we’d talk about what it actually means for the way a life in Christ is lived out. They were a little bit more orientated to just mastering the information of the catechism. Obviously some movements were better than others. I think Calvin did a better job of this in the Genevan church than Luther did. Luther actually did a tour in parts of Germany just to see to see how German homes were really embracing and understanding and living out the Reformation ideas and he was actually quite disappointed in what he observed.

So I think this is one of the weaknesses of the Reformation, that they did not create a formation strategy or a disciple making strategy. Catechism became a little bit too subject to the culture of the school.

The rest of the interview will be posted next week!

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