If you ever want to see what a room full of tired men looks like, go to the closest pastors’ conference.
Of course, in any room full of pastors, you’re bound to find a mix, from fresh graduates to veterans, fauxhawks to receding hairlines—each gray head a crown for a lifetime of leadership and love.
Wherever your find them, pastors of all shapes and sizes share something in common on some level: exhaustion. This is true whether such men are only beginning to sense the weight of the ministry or have seen countless tours of spiritual battle. Though advertisers tell us that for everything else there’s Mastercard, or there’s an app for that, or something, for this malady of pastoral exhaustion there is really no cure other than horse-tranquilizer amounts of grace. To that effect, Scripture tenderly reminds such shepherds that in the Lord our labor is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58).
What causes pastoral exhaustion? All the usual suspects—family-life balance, church politics, meetings galore, emotional strain, the fishbowl effect of full-time ministry, and so on. But there’s another type of exhaustion that has less to do with what pastors are going through and more with what they’ve come from. And this sort of exhaustion is special cause for concern considering the culture conflict in which we currently find ourselves.
A Preface on Pendulums
Legend has it that, sometime between the fundamentalist/modernist controversies of the early 20th century (which drove theological liberalism underground) and the navel-gazing of the emergent church (which exhumed liberalism’s corpse), there was a respite period in which conservative evangelicalism was “a thing.” This is, of course, mere folklore; there were really no good ol’ days. But let’s assume for the sake of argument that there were, and that biblical orthodoxy was generally safe and institutionalized in the mid-20th century.
This means that those who grew up under the thumb of fundamentalism—by which I mean the inbred kind that came to care more about tithing from the spice rack than observing the weightier parts of the law like justice and mercy—were able to take certain things for granted. Once they emerged out of the legalistic excesses of fundamentalism, realizing that Scripture often commends the drinking of wine and Paul actually didn’t write Romans in Elizabethan English, they did still have Romans in their Bibles. They took for granted things like the deity of Christ and justification by grace alone through faith alone—things their forbearers had bled and died for.
History is often a tale of ideological pendulum swings, and 20th century American evangelicalism is no exception. Somewhere in the process, these same evangelicals, though orthodox on paper, became convinced that if the world only knew how cool Christians were now they’d give Jesus another try. After all, we’re allowed to have drums and guitars now. The seeker-sensitive movement was born, driven by market consumerism and the desire to recapture disenfranchised Baby Boomers who grew up on the archetypal youth group culture of the ’40s and ’50s. (On this topic I highly recommend Thomas Bergler’s The Juvenilization of American Christianity.)
The problem with pendulums swing in the church is that what people are not doing is drilling back down to the sources—going ad fontes. This is part of the reason why Reformed theology has enjoyed a resurgence among Gen Xers and Millennials—that is, as a countertheme running against the sort of seeker-driven, attractional rot offering shallow responses against the strict yet equally ignorant of history fundamentalism of bygone days. This is why you can go to a conference like Together for the Gospel and see several thousand men in their twenties and thirties bellowing out “Before the Throne of God Above” and “He Will Hold Me Fast,” arm-in-arm with the grayheads, and the very next weekend see the same guys issue a collective yawn go home in their megachurches (engineered by Boomers to reach the young’uns) when the fog machines and laser shows switch on.
Simultaneously, we’re also seeing Millennials in growing numbers chasing the smells and bells of Rome and the East, searching for something that feels well-worn connected to the past. And the so-called Reformed resurgence will be guilty of the same reactionism as these other ecclesiastic migrations if it elevates an aesthetic over its spiritual roots. Unless we know the God of Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli the way they did, sporting their busts on our desks will profit nothing. If our knowledge of God goes no deeper than the ink on our “Spurgeon is my homeboy” t-shirts, it will be said of us, Ichabod.
“I’ll Have the Culture War du Jour”
What does this have to do with the phenomenon of pastoral exhaustion?
Only this: those who battled their often well-meaning yet strict fundamentalist parents and grandparents, all while assuming the core tenets of the faith, are burned out from fighting. One can only debate secondary and tertiary separation issues until one tires of intramural fights in general. On one end, some run as far as possible away from fundie-ism, falling into the arms of liberalism. In the middle are swarms of godly men, full of grace, willing to fight when needed, but who know there is more to ministry than controversy. And on the opposite extreme, are some who simply replace polemics with positive thinking. They’ll fight for the substitutionary atonement of Christ and the Trinity, but beyond that, they’ve already fought enough.
Unfortunately, the rest of the world missed the memo. The culture war is raging on unabated, only it’s not over the color of the sanctuary carpet; it’s over core imago Dei issues and whether six-year-old Johnny’s choice of latrine should be affected at all by his own plumbing.
So, while Christian leaders were busy catching our breath from that knock-down, drag out over reupholstering the pews, the high priests of secularism were busy waltzing down the center aisle with the whole LGBTQIA+ conga line in tow, and it wasn’t to the tune of the 37th chorus of Just as I Am.
How should godly leaders respond to societal chaos? First, it is not altogether cowardly to dislike conflict. An overseer must not be quarrelsome (1 Timothy 3:3). We must be keenly aware of the corrosive effects of controversy on the soul, of which John Newton wisely warned. Jesus did not, after all, say, “Blessed are the nitpickers.” Conversely, there is a difference between being peacemakers and going AWOL—especially in a day in which the culture battle lines shift and rotate as frequently as the soup du jour.
Your Battles Pick You
In Acts 15, the apostolic church sees its first bit of doctrinal debate: “Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved’” (v. 1). Notice how the controversy did not start. Peter, James, and Paul did not convene the other Apostles for their annual vision-casting retreat and say, “Well, we’ve determined that our core values are evangelism, discipleship, and community service, so we can afford a battle this year about one of those.” Rather, under God’s providential design to spread the gospel to the Gentiles, the battle over the ceremonial law chose them. And I suspect that they all had things they’d rather be talking about than circumcision. (Doesn’t everyone?)
In a sense, I pray that every gospel minister in the Western world right now would rather not be contending against ungodly political philosophies and theories of race, gender, and the like. Why? Because a good pastor resolves to “know nothing” except Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 2:2). Because the word of the cross preached plainly is wiser than all the world’s machinations (1:25). Because the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). We should be more excited about Jesus than cultural issues.
A mature man of God is one whose belly burns with gospel fire (cf. Jeremiah 20:9) but who speaks begrudgingly about the philosophical or political fads. A pastor ought to be like George Washington, who was willing to do serve as president but whose heart was at Mount Vernon. To whatever extent we contend for biblical teaching out in the public square, we must maintain our shepherds’ hearts and not forget the local flocks to which we have been called.
That being said, why these fights, especially when it seems so much heat and so little light come of them? Wouldn’t it be nobler—and more enjoyable, like a sort of holy Civil War re-enactment—to retrace the same arguments and fights as the Nicaean fathers or the Reformers, rather than debating things like same-sex attraction in the PCA or reparations in the SBC? Why does God give us these battles? Here, the Sunday school answer really works: for his glory.
Not Just a Hill God
In ancient (and modern) pagan cultures, various deities were thought to preside over every facet of life and society, from the fields that produced the grain to the kitchen where the bread was baked. In this context, throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh is continually asserting himself as the God of gods who transcends all domains of life and lines of geography. This theme, for instance, is written into the subtext of Jonah—a book about an Israelite prophet, called to a fish-god worshiping Assyrian city, who runs to another locale, only to find that even there Yahweh can summon stormy waters and a fish to spew him in the direction of Nineveh. The false gods are territorial spirits; only Israel’s God is the God of heaven and earth, and there’s no escaping his lordship.
This theme is also at work in 1 Kings 20 when Ben-hadad of Syria challenges the Northern Kingdom of Israel. King Ahab is encouraged by “the prophet,” probably Elijah, to prepare for battle. Meanwhile, Ben-hadad’s servants advise him, “Their gods are gods of the hills, and so they were stronger than we. But let us fight against them in the plain, and surely we shall be stronger than they” (v. 23). They assumed that Yahweh was just another deity with a limited domain—the hills—just as Baal presided over storms or Hadad over fertility.
God, acting for his own honor, would not allow this blasphemous misapprehension of his authority to go unchallenged. “And a man of God came near and said to the king of Israel, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Because the Syrians have said, ‘The LORD is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys,’ therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the LORD”’” (v. 28).
Ahab was no righteous king, and God was not entitled to grant victory to Israel. But he called Ahab to this particular battle with the Syrians precisely because they had assumed that Yahweh‘s authority was limited. To them, God was just a hill god.
Might it not be true in our own day that God is mobilizing us into the war theater of gender, marriage, sexuality, ethnicity, economics, and civil law so that he might assert his divine prerogatives over this terrain too?
Postmodernity (or late modernity if you prefer), is, after all, predicated on the assumption that all the “Jesus is Lord” talk is only meaningful in the interior realm of the spiritual and religious. It holds no weight in the the judge’s chamber, and certainly not the bedchamber. The inner and subjective domain of the soul are the hill-land where God’s relevance begins and ends.
It should be further noted that the secularists have not truly deposed all deities from the various cultural spheres. When the Triune God is removed from the courthouse or the household, other gods fill the void. Nature abhors a vacuum. Now, the capricious spirits of Emotion and Experience rule over these territories, and evangelicals, rather than smashing these idols, are often more inclined to propitiate them—hence the wide-scale compromise.
If we restrict the battlefront to the familiar theological turf, the pagans can still assure themselves, Well, we expect the Christians to be comfortable fighting in the hills. We have the plains—the state, the schools, and the family. By the time enemy soldiers are flooding into your gates, the time has passed to station archers atop the wall. Likewise, tired pastors may prefer to fight only when the “big” doctrines are at stake, but by the time these come into question, it’s too late.
We may prefer to limit our public debates to explicit “salvation issues,” but this opens us to the world’s response: “Since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves” (cf. Acts 18:15). The gospel is inherently political, and the world knows it. We fool ourselves when we try to live otherwise.
Where does this leave us? Too long our Christian-ish culture has flatly rejected Jesus’ claim of cosmic authority (cf. Matthew 28:18), enabled by a pietistic and often indifferent church. Now, God is sovereignly reasserting his authority over the lowlands. His zeal for his glory will not allow him purely to be known as a hill god, or a god of private religious gatherings. He rules the plains too—from sea to shining sea.
Tired pastor: don’t let the culture relegate you to the plains. We would not have chosen these battlefields, but the fight has picked us. Since Jesus is Lord over all, let us follow him into the fray, for his glory.