What to do with Syrian Refugees? – An interview with Ron Sider

I recently had the honor to interview Ron Sider to discuss the debate about welcoming Syrian refugees. Dr. Sider is an evangelical Christian and one of our world’s most prominent and thoughtful theologians discussing social concerns. He has written and edited over 30 books, including Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, which Christianity Today listed as one of the 100 most influential religious books of the past century.

In the interview, Dr. Sider shares some helpful reflections on Christian and American history, the role of government, what Christians can do now, and the larger question of open borders.

You can see the transcript below, download the audio here or see the video here:


Teddy Ray: Well this is Teddy Ray. I’m talking today with Dr. Ron Sider. Dr. Sider is one of the most prominent and thoughtful theologians in our world today, especially in the area of social concerns.

He’s the founder of Evangelicals for Social Action. He’s written a number of books that you might have heard of, including Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. He wrote a book called Completely Pro-Life about the sanctity of life, and Good News Good Works about the combination of those two, and most recently two books called The Early Church on Killing, which is a survey of everything that we see in those early church documents about killing, and a book called Nonviolent Action.

So given everything that you’ve been looking at through your whole career, Dr. Sider, I would imagine you have something to say about the Syrian refugee discussions going on right now.

Ron Sider: Yes, I’m saddened by what a number of people are saying. I think that the Bible says pretty clearly that God and God’s people are to have a special concern for widows and orphans and the sojourner, which is to say the refugee, the person who is not a citizen of the country, but who lives in one’s area. And again and again and again, the prophets say that God has a special concern for those people, and that God’s people are supposed to have a special concern for those people. So just in terms of basic biblical teaching, there is an enormous emphasis in the Scripture on God’s demand that his people have a very special concern for the sojourner, for the stranger, for the refugee.

And then of course, you know American history is a whole history of people who are fleeing from one kind of problem or terror and another. Almost all of us in this country are immigrants, the exception being the Native Americans, who still survive after centuries of really tragic, tragic abuse on the part of us European immigrants. And of course, in some ways African-Americans, they certainly didn’t come here willingly. They were brought as slaves, but almost all of us are foreigners, and so I think our own history—“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”—all of that, speaks in terms of this country being a very special place, unusual in its openness to embracing people from other places. And it’s sad when that long, distinguished, and really very biblical history in some important ways, is being ignored and trampled upon by people today.

TR: You just did something really interesting there. You talked about the history of the biblical people and everything we see in the Bible, and you connected it to American history. And I’ve actually heard a number of people doing the opposite, saying, “Look that’s the history of this theocracy, God’s people, and we can’t claim that today, and we can’t impose our religion on other people here. So even if we think we should welcome refugees, politically, the top duty of our government is to protect people. And we’re not sure that we’re protecting them either from physical harm. Or even, we have higher unemployment right now, why would we bring more people in to take more jobs when Americans need jobs?” And they’ve actually argued that there’s a diversion and we shouldn’t impose our religion on other people. Anything that you would say to American Christians that are making that point right now?

RS: Well the question of how especially the Old Testament material, but the biblical material, applies to this nation at this point in time is an important question. And it’s certainly true that, thank God, we’re not a theocracy or a dictatorship. We’re a democracy and there is that significant difference.

Israel was, in an important way, a theocracy. But all through the Old Testament you see the text saying that the people of Israel are supposed to be a light to the nations. In other words, God’s speaking in effect to everyone saying, “This is how I want people to treat each other, with love and justice and fairness and concern for the sojourner,” if you will. And furthermore, the Old Testament again and again applies the kinds of norms that the prophets applied to Israel, applies them to other nations. In Amos chapters 1 and 2, you see Amos talking about evil things that other surrounding nations have done, and he says God’s going to punish them for those things. And then he switches to Israel and says how God’s going to punish Israel for their injustice and neglect of the poor, and so on. And you also get the prophets applying the biblical text to Nebuchadnezzar on the kind of concern for the poor, and saying that God’s gonna punish them because he doesn’t have that kind of concern.

So I think it’s certainly true that we don’t simply take the specific details of this or that Old Testament text—applying the death penalty, for example, to children who are not respectful to parents––but basic principles of justice and peace that the Old Testament tells us should be applied to all nations. Now that doesn’t mean we go into the political realm today and we say, “God says in such and such biblical text that you’ve got to do this, and if the American nation doesn’t do that then hellfire will come down.” But I think we as Christians are informed by what the Bible tells us about justice and treatment of refugees, and then we go into the political realm and we use language that Christians and non-Christians can understand, and we make a case for acting in that kind of way.

Because finally what God was telling Israel in terms of the basic shape of justice is what God wanted Abraham and his people to share with the whole world. Because God said, “I’m calling you to be a light to the nations.”

TR: So when you talk about that justice orientation, the importance of hospitality, how do we balance that, or do we, with a duty of government to protect people? With the people who say, “But what if this isn’t safe?” Should we expose people to risk that they shouldn’t be exposed to because of this?

RS: Well certainly it’s a proper task of government to protect the people of that nation. And as a matter of fact, we have a very elaborate process in place that is designed to do exactly that. It takes a couple years at least for refugees to get processed and to have the authorities do all the very, very elaborate kinds of things they do to make sure that we’re not letting in dangerous people. So it’s not a matter of trying to make sure that terrorists don’t come in. It’s a matter of doing that and being generous with our long history to be concerned with refugees.

So I mean, we’ve only I think approved a couple thousand refugees in the last several years. Germany is going to take in 800,000 this year. I mean, surely the United States, with a much much larger population—four times or so that of Germany—surely we could decide to take in some tens of thousands. President Obama said 10,000 more. I mean, that’s really not enough. We ought to take in twenty and forty thousand over the next several years, at least that many.

We’ve also got a tragic history of not doing what we should. You know, in the days of Hitler, there were many Jews that were fleeing Hitler and wanted to come to this country. And there were even ships that approached our shores with Jewish refugees, and we turned them away. And they had to go back to Germany and many of them died in the in the death camps. We dare not repeat that kind of history. At that point, you know, there were people who said that those Jews were dangerous somehow to our culture. So people who stir up a kind of nativist fear in this kind of situation, it’s simply, fundamentally un-Christian and un-American.

TR: That’s a strong statement, especially since we have 26 states I believe it is now, where the governors have announced, “We are refusing refugees.” What does the average Christian in one of those states, or really anywhere in the US, do practically here? Can we be anything more than a voice? What do we do?

RS: First of all, they don’t have any authority to do that, so it’s empty rhetoric. It’s obviously just political standing and posturing and it’s an example of a kind of sad, finally I think disgraceful use of a particular fear that’s around to take a stance that just isn’t in keeping with American history or with our values. But I think Christians and Jews and other people of good will in those states ought to be writing their governors and the legislatures, if the legislatures are involved, and say, “This is not what we believe in. This is not the kind of country we have been and want to be. And we oppose your stance, and we vote, and we want you to change what you’re saying.”

TR: Thank you. That’s a great word. I’m just down the road from Asbury Seminary here, and was really proud to see them recently say, “You know what, we’ve got to do something ourselves,” and so they said, “We’re going to make room for a refugee family here,” and have offered through the government to personally house a refugee family. It’s exciting to see some people say we can do something here.

RS: That kind of personal modeling is powerful and wonderful and if evangelical Christians, congregations, and so on, organizations would do that on a wide scale it would really be noticed, it would be a part of the public discussion, and it would make a difference.

TR: Let me ask you one broader question because we talk about refugees here, we talk about hospitality and justice. With the bigger issue of how do we open our borders, or how much do we remain a country that isolates and protects. Do we get to totally open borders, or what would you advocate when we look at the bigger issue there?

RS: That’s obviously a very difficult question. I don’t think a biblical framework means that we must have totally open borders, but I also think it’s the case that there’s no biblical justification for saying that the people in one particular geographic area—which happens as we know, to be very beneficial and bountiful in the US—that we’ve got all the right to all that wealth and abundance just to keep for ourselves, and not to share with people in other places. That contradicts any kind of biblical teaching from Jesus that we’re supposed to love our neighbor, and the neighbor is anybody in need, not just one’s own ethnic or religious group.

So at the very least it seems to me a biblical understanding of nations is that yes, the people in that nation have worked together and they’ve created wealth, and it’s right to think that to some extent, some significant extent, they have a right to enjoy that. But it’s also true that, the US is an example, that we’ve created a lot of wealth because we had enormous abundant resources—land and favorable climate and all kinds of natural resources—and furthermore, we benefited from trade relations with other parts of the world. Sometimes those trade relations weren’t even particularly fair and they’ve benefited us in a way that they didn’t help poor people. So some of our wealth has come to us because of unfair trade relations, although that’s another complex topic.

So in basic summary, what I’m trying to say is I think it’s a crucial biblical theme to say that for Christians, everybody in need is one’s neighbor. And that means that we ought to be always pushing our nation to be generous, to use our abundant resources, to empower poor people around the world, to feed refugees and make things better for them.

I mean, just one more very concrete example: the United Nations refugee program is telling us that they have I think it’s less than fifty percent of the money they need right now to feed the refugees that they’re trying to care for. I mean, it would be no problem at all for the US to say, “We’ll give another five billion this year so that we can feed and care in a decent way for the refugees in Jordan and Lebanon and in Turkey, some of whom are flooding into Europe in a way that creates problems. At the very least we ought to immediately provide generous funding for both governmental programs like the UN refugee program and private agencies. Christians should give vastly new sums to programs of evangelical and other Christian agencies that are working with the refugees in those parts of the world.

So one thing to do immediately is a lot more funding for the refugees who are fleeing Syria and Iraq but living in surrounding countries in desperate kinds of circumstances.

TR: That’s an interesting point because some of the people I’ve heard speaking to this have said, “Can’t we help without having to extend hospitality?” And I hear you saying, not one or the other, but we need to do both of these.

RS: And one other comment: it’s just fundamentally un-American and un-Christian to say we should take in Christian refugees but not other refugees. It’s contrary to the first amendment, to the whole approach of this country to be a welcoming place for people of all faiths. That’s not to say that there are not specific circumstances at particular moments in time where a particular group of people are being so mistreated that it’s appropriate for us to have a special concern and activity for them.

We’ve done that sometimes in our history. The group of Sahidis, they were being mistreated in a very special kind of way, and it’s not wrong to say we’ll have a special concern, special category for them. That’s not because they’re that religious group. It’s because they’re in a special circumstance of enormous mistreatment and danger. But to say that, “Okay, it’s safe, and we’ll welcome Christians, but not Muslims,” is just tragically wrongheaded.

And it’s really sad when we have prominent evangelical leaders who make sweeping statements about Islam as an evil religion. I think there are significant parts of Islam that are finally wrong. But it’s certainly not true that there are no good parts of Islam, and it’s certainly not true that all Muslims are terrorists, the way some people imply, although hardly anybody is that crude to say it directly.

And it’s desperately urgent that Christians, especially evangelical Christians at this point in time, reach out and get to know Muslims better. Now it’s true that ISIS and related kinds of groups are a dangerous threat to the world. That kind of terrorism grounded in a very wrongheaded, finally un-Muslim view of Islam is a real threat in the world. But almost all of our political leaders acknowledge that long-term you’re not going to defeat that primarily with arms. You’ve got to defeat it in the level of ideas, the level of economic development, the level of hope for the young people in those countries that can’t find a job and in desperation turn to violent terrorist groups. And that means that we need to get to know Muslims in this country one-on-one.

That means we need to have our Christian agencies doing better economic development in poor Muslim countries. It means that in all kinds of ways, Christians need to have a much better understanding and relationship with Muslims than we do at this point in time.

TR: I’m going to underscore that again, you said it’s desperately important that evangelicals today get to know Muslim believers. I think that’s a great point to end on. I know we’re out of time here. I just want to thank you again for your time today, Dr. Sider.

I commend again to anyone watching or listening to this some of Dr. Sider’s books. You can find a number of them on Amazon. Most recently again, some issues related to justice: The Early Church on Killing and Nonviolent Action. I hope you might have a chance to pick up one of those up.


I’ll post more of these interviews in the future. To make sure you don’t miss one, click here to subscribe to my blog updates list.

On Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion – An interview with Os Guinness

I recently had the honor to interview Os Guinness about his newest book, Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion.

Dr. Guinness is one of our world’s most prominent social critics. He’s a devout Christian who seems equally comfortable assessing issues in the church and in the world. One of the things I love most about Guinness’s work is that he constantly points us back. Rather than creating new solutions, his work is about recovering what’s been lost.

Our interview covers apologetics and evangelism in the changing American landscape, errors in church growth, hypocrisy as a useful tool, and America’s historical near-sightedness. You can listen (right-click here to download), watch, or read the transcript below.

(My apologies for the *dings* you’ll hear if you listen. I’ll have those cleaned up before the next interview.)

Teddy Ray: I’m talking with Os Guinness today. Dr. Guinness is a prolific writer. He’s written and edited over 30 books. His most recent book is called Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. Dr. Guinness, thank you so much for joining me today.

Os Guinness: Well, my pleasure to be with you.

TR: In this book, I’ll just jump straight to your main point. The main problem you’re trying to address is that you say we’ve lost the art of Christian persuasion.

Could you explain what you mean by Christian persuasion and then also how you think we’ve lost that art?

OG: Well obviously the passion to communicate, to share our faith with others so that they may know Jesus the way we know him, is at the very heart of the Christian faith.

But if you look, say, at America over the last 50 years, we’ve gone from a broad Christian consensus where everyone understood, even if they didn’t themselves speak Christian. We’ve gone to a world in which public life has grown infinitely more secular and many people are trying to drive religious voices out altogether. And private life has grown infinitely more diverse. People say everyone is now everywhere. Well in that world, we can’t communicate as we used to.

And far too many Christians, if they communicate at all, are using cookie-cutter recipe approaches, formulas, 1-2-3-4, and so on, which simply don’t work with people today.

And we’ve got to go back and really rediscover the Christian tradition, the Christian art of persuasion, which is in the gospels, in the New Testament, and certainly down through history. But we’ve lost much of it in America.

TR: Are you attributing so much of that loss to the fact that we were living in an easier time when we didn’t need to creatively persuade, and we just forgot how to do this in the process?

OG: Well that’s right. You just take one person, say, the Eisenhower era gave rise to Billy Graham. In the Billy Graham era, he was a magnificent preacher of the gospel and reached millions of people. But that was evangelism. And you can see that today, many people are hostile, indifferent, self-sufficient. They’re closed to the gospel.

So we need not only evangelism, sharing the good news straightforwardly. We need apologetics and the art of persuasion to people who are not open, not interested, not needy.

TR: And so because of that, you talk about this creative form of persuasion that starts where people are and helps them open up without their expecting to, as opposed to some of these techniques.

You talked about our left-brain schooling. We’re so well-educated in reason and logic and analysis, but without creativity and imagination and irony. Can you share your antidote to that? How do we get back some of that creativity and imagination?

OG: Well when we talk about this, a lot of people say, “Well obviously I haven’t been educated enough…” And I would argue no, that’s not the problem. The problem is too many of us, I include myself, we’ve been educated too much in an unbalanced, or the wrong way of thinking.

If you look at all the very best––and I’m not minimizing at all––of Western education, it’s rational, logical, critical, and all these good things. Which it should be. I’m not minimizing it.

But what it’s lacking is imagination and irony and creativity and things like this. In other words, we’ve got to fight ourselves out from the chains of much of how many of us in the best universities have been educated and go back to things that were actually much more human all along.

TR: You said that was the case for you, as well. Could you share some about how you made that transition or were able to be exposed to some of those things?

OG: I had the privilege of going to Oxford, which is certainly one of the best universities in the world, but very very heavy on rational, critical thinking, which is magnificent. But not quite so good in terms of the imagination and irony and creativity and things like that.

Whereas, when you look at subversive communication. People often say today, “We’ve got to use stories because we’re postmodern.” In other words, in the modernist world, you could talk logically, discursively and so on, but today in the post-modern world, we’ve got to use stories, narratives and so on.

Well that’s not the way the Scriptures put it. I’d put it somewhat differently. People are open. You can use tough-minded, logical thinking to take something like Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome. That is very high reasoning, logical thinking, etc. But the Roman Christians were obviously open to what Paul was saying, so it’s thoroughly appropriate. And obviously many people’s sermons are like that.

But you look at our Lord. It wasn’t that he was a countryman talking to country people, as some people say very patronizingly. It’s rather that he was speaking to people—including the scribes, the Pharisees and others—who were dead-set against him. They were anything but open. And so his communication is thoroughly creative, subversive and so on. It’s indirect.

So we tell stories not because we’re post-modern. No, but because many of the people we’re speaking to are not open and stories are more subversive than statements in this case.

But as you know, I’ve got a chapter on all the different ways of communicating in Scripture that carry this particular creative subversion within them.

TR: Your references there, especially to David and then to the prophets and the ways they would approach these things were excellent.

You also mention people like Pascal and Dorothy Sayers and Chesterton and CS Lewis. Is there any living theologian today, or any few, that you would point to and say, “These are people who are doing it that way. They’re exemplifying what I’m talking about here”?

OG: Well I’m sure there are, but I’m not myself a theologian. I don’t move in the world of seminaries very much. I’m much more out in the culture on campuses talking with people who are trying to do apologetics.

One of my complaints in the book is there’s far too much thinking about apologetics rather than doing apologetics. We’ve got to get out there and actually do it.

Now when you come to the practitioners, this approach I don’t think is as strong or as common as I’d like it to be. Now I remember earlier on, Malcolm Muggeridge who came to faith in the Lord in his 70s. One of the reasons he loved the Christian gospel: it gave him a grounding for the way he saw the universe the way he did. It wasn’t just that he was a humorist and a comedian and he saw the world like that. No, no. He saw the gospel gave him a theological basis for that, which I love.

The gospel, put simply—and you’ve got to say it reverently—the gospel is closer to the dynamics of comedy than it is to the dynamics of tragedy. And we’ve got to recover a lot of this.

But I don’t know the world of the seminaries. That’s your world.

TR: And that’s quite all right. I think these, though, are excellent things to bring into that world. And you’re right. What you point out is that you see quite a bit more technique. Here are the four steps to take. Do this, this, this, and this. And this will work with everyone.

You’re saying, “No, every individual requires something different.” So I really appreciated your chapter on technique.

To bring it to church world in a bigger way. You related our obsession with technique to the way we’re starting churches now. I’d love you to say a bit more about that. How you’re seeing that happen and what you would advise.

OG: Well you can see in the last fifty years the popularity of church growth. But there was a very significant moment when Pete Wagner said, “We need church growth,” and I’m quoting now, “on new ground.” In other words, it wasn’t the power of the gospel, the word, the Spirit, and things like that.

It was management, marketing, sociology, psychology. I have nothing against those. My background is the social sciences in my own life. Nothing against them, but they should never replace theology. And I remember there was one book in the early days on marketing the church which made the point that in marketing the church the audience, not the message, is sovereign. I’m almost quoting exactly.

Now that’s a recipe for heresy. The message—the word of the Lord, the gospel itself—is always sovereign.

So yes, we listen to people, we get close to people. Paul says, “I’m Jew to the Jews, Gentile to the Gentiles.” So Gadamer the philosopher’s term of “fusion of horizons,” or what you might call identification. All these various words that come in.

We get as close to people as we can, but they don’t shape our message. We have the same message that brings them back to the Lord.

And so there’s a lot of thinking in the church growth movement that was very unntheological and very unwise. And you can see that just as the extremes of Protestant liberalism led us astray and virtually committed spiritual and institutional suicide over the last 200 years.

We’ve had varieties of some of the extremes of the church growth movement, or the extremes of the emergent church, that have done the same thing within evangelicalism. And that’s been extremely sad. Not nearly enough critical thinking.

TR: It’s funny to me that you say you’re not a theologian, but the ways you’re pointing us back to actual theology over all these other social principles, which you say is your world… I wish we had more people, whether we call them theologians or social sciences people, who would point us in these directions. I appreciate you doing that.

And actually, let me point to another piece of what I would call theological argument that you’re making. You talk about how Christians are inconsistent to our beliefs, too. We claim one thing and then we live differently. You talk about hypocrisy. You didn’t budge on that. You said, “Where unbelievers cannot be consistent, we should be.” Is part of our problem with Christian persuasion tied to holiness?

OG: Oh, absolutely. But I would say we have to appreciate the sting of hypocrisy.

Sadly, we’re at a place today, take, say, the New Atheists, where the main argument for atheism is the Christian faith. In other words, the corruptions and failures of the Christian faith, whether it’s the Inquisition, or the notion that error has no rights and all these things back in the medieval world, or Christians today.

And you can often see some moments in the lives of great atheists, say Bertrand Russell or whomever, where they were wounded by Christians and they never got over it. In other words, we have got to take hypocrisy very seriously. We have created many of the grounds for the objections against the Christian faith.

But as I was arguing, we shouldn’t be depressed by that. Because the simple fact is, people who get really angry about Christian hypocrisy, or any hypocrisy, they sound as if they have outrage on their side, but in fact they don’t have a standard or foundation for truth or for justice by which you can judge anything as hypocrisy, let alone have an answer.

And so I would argue that there is no greater counter-hypocrisy program in all history than our Lord’s, and he is the toughest person challenging hypocrisy, and of course, sadly that includes many of his own followers—us. So we’ve got to take it deeply seriously.

And while non-Christians can’t be consistent to what they claim they believe because it isn’t finally true, we should be! So every time there’s a charge of hypocrisy, we’ve got to say, “Lord, is it right?” And if it is, we’ve got to put something right in our individual lives or in the church as a whole.

Hypocrisy, understood properly, is a very useful accusation. It’s a stinging one, but a useful one.

TR: That’s a great word, and one we seem to miss. I’ve even seen the bumper stickers that say, “The Church—we’re full of hypocrites!” And it has become a celebratory point. “We’re full of hypocrites, and we could take one more, too!” Rather than saying, “No, we have to live differently!”

What you just did there, pointing back to our past, pointing back clearly to our Lord, seems to be a key theme that runs through almost all of your work. You point out a problem in the present, and rather than presenting a new solution, you’re presenting really old solutions. You’re constantly taking us back, even in your social critic work, you’re pointing back to the founding fathers, and in your works on the church, you’re pointing back to classical understandings.

Could you share some about that approach and why you lean on it the way you do?

OG: Well I just happen to have been brought up in England with a strong sense of history. The prime minister when I was a boy was Winston Churchill. You hardly heard a speech of his that didn’t sort of breathe the air of a thousand years of English history.

And you don’t understand anything today unless you understand history. Now I had that in my background, so when I came to faith, I wasn’t one of those who believed that we only discuss things today and we jump back to the New Testament, and know nothing in between. No, obviously the Scriptures for us are authoritative, and our Lord supremely.

But we thank God for every year of Christian history in between. Some of them sad, some of them incredible, some of them really bad. But we need to understand them all so we don’t make the same mistakes today.

So Americans often have a very short sense of history. For example, all the discussion of racism and slavery. I’ve even heard sermons in the last month that speak as if the 19th century––where you had the justification of slavery in the south––was the norm.

And they forget that the whole notion of freedom came from the freed slaves, the book of Exodus. And it was Christians, and long before the 19th century worst happened, Wilberforce— who was a friend of my great-great grandfather’s, who founded the Guinness brewery—Wilberforce had abolished slavery in the British empire. So the greatest reform in all human history was by an evangelical. And we should have some of these great historical perspectives in our mind when we tackle some of these issues today.

But many Americans are incredibly myopic when it comes to history.

TR: I have a friend who talks about “out-traditioning” the traditionalists. He says so often we grab onto the last 20 or 30 years and say, “This is who we are!” He says, “Let’s talk about who we’ve been over the past 200 or 300 years.”

OG: That’s right. You remember the phrase in the 1960’s, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” And Tom Oden gave a brilliant answer to it: “Don’t trust anyone under 300.” And you can see today, that’s hitting the church and hitting America in what I call generationalism. We’ve narrowed and distorted the generations down to the cohort of shared experience.

And it’s become a new form of identity. “I’m a millennial,” “You’re a boomer…” She’s a this. He’s a that. And it’s become a new form of relativism. “Well of course, you wouldn’t understand, it’s a generational thing.” Now that’s actually crazy.

We see in Scripture the Lord is from generation to generation. Our Lord is the same yesterday, today, forever. So we’ve got to part with this generationalism, this incredibly myopic thinking, and recover a living sense of tradition. And the millennials have a very distorted view of that, as if all tradition is the dead hand of the past rather than safe-keeping from generation to generation.

TR: Yeah, there’s a much deeper identity there. A deeper rooting. That leads me to one final question I wanted to ask you. I wanted to point to one of your earlier books, The Call, because it’s been such a great guide for me. I think I’ve quoted it at least five times in the past year in sermons.

As I was working with a group through it last spring, we started recognizing how calling answers questions that everyone seems to be asking. Christian evangelism always used to start with sin and how you can be forgiven. And that seems to have made sense in earlier eras. But people aren’t asking about sin and forgiveness much in our culture.

They’re still asking a lot about calling and purpose. And that gives me a great chance to say, “There’s no call without a caller,” to quote you. So I’d just ask you if you think we were seeing things correctly. Is calling one of those natural entry points into Christian persuasion?

OG: Oh, absolutely. As you said rightly, calling is the ultimate answer to that human longing for purpose. And it’s one of those wonderful places where… I have this little apologetic principle, “Contrast is the mother of clarity.” And if you look at the other worldviews, religions, philosophies of life in comparison with the gospel, it’s dramatically different at that point.

I’m simplifying it drastically, but if you look at Hinduism and Buddhists, their essential answer to purpose, forget it. Why? To take yourself seriously as an individual is to be called into the world of illusion. And freedom in the East is freedom from individuality. Not freedom to be an individual.

Or if you look, say, at our atheist friends, secularists, agnostics, materialists, naturalists… You can put their position in three words: Do it yourself. In other words, there’s no meaning in the universe. So if you want meaning, you’ve got to create it. You know, Bertrand Russell, or the Greek giant Atlas with his own world on his own shoulders. Or Nietzsche, you’ve got to live to be able to say, “Thus I willed it.” Do it yourself! Frank Sinatra, “I did it my way.”

And you contrast that with the Jewish and Christian, the biblical understanding. There’s purpose because we’re created unique. So it’s, “Be who you are.” But not only that, “Become who you can become.” Because as you rise to follow the call of the Lord, you’re in touch with parts of yourself and things which he knows we can do, which no one else knows for us.

And so, not surprisingly, there’s no deeper sense of purpose in all human history than you have in the biblical understanding of calling.

TR: We had someone in our group… We asked everyone to interview someone about calling, and one of them intentionally interviewed a staunch atheist. And we said, “Well what an interesting thing that you chose a staunch atheist to talk to about calling!” And he said, “This is universal. This guy sat and talked to me about this great calling on his life, and I sat there and said, ‘So where did this come from? Where is the caller?’”

It was a brilliant moment. So I’m seeing how all your work on calling and your work on Christian persuasion come together there.

OG: Well, thank you. No, it’s a wonderful time.

Going back to something you said earlier, Teddy. Many of the of the deepest, profound problems today, whether philosophical or practical, social-political… they raise questions that are only answered in the profundity of the biblical answer. So it’s an incredible moment for us where we’ve got to go back to go forward.

TR: And that’s what you’ve done so well in this book. We’re out of time. Let me just commend to my readers—I would love for you to grab this book and take a look.

It really does counter a lot of our current notions about what evangelism is and really calls us back to something before evangelism and to something that has been lost in our history in a lot of ways. So grab this book if you can. I want to thank you for joining me today, Dr. Guinness. I appreciate your time.

OG: My privilege. Thank you.

TR: That was Os Guinness. His new book is Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion. You can see the link for it both on my site and on the video here. I’d love for you to pick it up. I hope you enjoyed this conversation. We’ll have more to come.


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My deepest gratitude to Jason Huber for producing this. His studio, graphics, and detail work made it possible.

The Classical Pastor (pt. III, Threats, an addition, and does it scale?)

pastor and paper

1 – The greatest threat to the classical pastor

A pastor friend of mine has a mantra, “People over paper.” He reminds people of that because “paper” (i.e. all task-oriented work) has come to rule the day. We send emails, check off to-do lists, craft strategies, complete reports, and attend meetings. We can fill an entire week with nothing but those tasks. And still feel behind when it’s over.

Sometimes the “paper”-work consumes us because we react to the demands in front of us. We fail to set higher priorities.

Sometimes we allow the “paper”-work to consume us because it’s more comfortable. Easier to allow predictable busy-work to bury us than to face an unpredictable conversation. Easier to talk with people about strategies than to talk with them about their souls. More exciting to create plans for a big program than to do the routine work of visitation.

“Paper”-work is today’s greatest obstacle for the classical pastor. At every turn, it threatens to distract from worship and visitation.

If pastors believe in the slow, steady, deliberate work of the classical pastor, they must reduce the “paper”-work. Almost to the point of elimination.

“I can’t eliminate this!” you protest. I know. I haven’t eliminated it either. But if I treat “lead a fine worship” and “visit the people” as top priorities, little time remains for the rest. I used to allow all the “paper”-work to squeeze out worship and visitation. Now I’m allowing worship and visitation to squeeze out the rest. By doing that, I’ve realized that much of the “paper”-work was inessential. By limiting my time for these things, I’ve learned how to do what I must in shorter time and how to delegate the rest.

A good test for pastors––can you take a week or two away and actually be gone? Can you spend time away in peace? You don’t stress about what’s going wrong or put out fires from a distance all week?

If your day-to-day presence is so essential that you can’t get away in peace, something is wrong. And the problem may be you. Some of us need to be needed.

For the sake of any ongoing, legitimate ministry, we need to get over ourselves and let others do some of the work. For the sake of the most important things, we need to remove ourselves from every urgent, daily need. For the sake of our health, we need to delegate some responsibilities. For the sake of our humility, we need to recognize that other people can do things as well as we can, and often better.

Eliminate. Delegate. Say no. Ask permission to stop doing things. Have the courage to stop hiding behind these things.

I’m blessed to work at a church with a structure for this. Our pastors are free to be pastors. We have other staff and volunteers to administrate. We have great administrative assistants. They handle most routine, week-to-week needs so we can focus on pastoral work.

To the pastor who doesn’t have that, you need to look for those people and ask for those structures. To be sure, it may come at a cost. I’m still classified as part time. That keeps enough money free for us to hire administrative help. Most pastors need more help more than they need more money. The average United Methodist elder in Kentucky is in the top 15% of all U.S. income earners.1 Given that astounding number, shouldn’t we be asking about the wisdom of some of our raises? Aren’t they robbing the church and the pastor of what they really need: more help rather than a more wealthy pastor?

2 – One other essential task for the classical pastor

I’ve based this series on a quote from Sam Stanley, who says, “There’s really only time for two things in ministry.” I know, but I’ll add a third. I don’t think I’m violating the spirit of Stanley’s advice. I think this one was implicit.

The classical pastor must devote time to study and prayer. One of my favorite responses from Stanley Hauerwas in our interview:

“I think it’s very important for people in the ministry to train their congregations on why, as ministers, they need to have time set aside to pray and to read. I know that sounds odd, because one says, ‘Well, they probably are doing that all the time.’ No, I just think you need time set aside for study, and study is a form of prayer.

As someone who talks to several pastors, I can tell you that pastors do not, as a rule, study and pray all the time. Many disregard these activities as less important than the other work of ministry. Others can never find time for them. Each new day’s demands crowd out prayer and study.

To lead worship well, to preach well, and to visit people well, we need to study. Seminary training is a good foundation for a pastor’s study. It’s a lousy conclusion to it. John Wesley scolded any preachers who weren’t reading enough. He said they were starving their souls and would be “petty, superficial preachers.”

I budget six hours per week for intentional study, outside of work specific to the sermon. That doesn’t feel like enough, but it’s something.

I’ve written much more about this. See my post “A pastor’s reading plan” for more detail.

3 – Does it scale?

Lead a fine worship and visit the people works well for a 50-person congregation. What happens if that congregation becomes 200, much less 1,000?

It would be most fair for me to say I don’t know. I’m the happy pastor of a small congregation, where I can still know every name and sit with every person. I haven’t experienced the demands of a 200-person congregation.

If I were deciding today, in a congregation of 200, I would seek out an assistant pastor. What would that assistant pastor do? Lead a fine worship and visit the people. They would help with the extra demands of a larger worship service and visit the people I couldn’t. Their work would be a direct extension of my work.

While this is theory for me, it also seems to be the classical pastor’s model in history. Look at what the brilliant Richard Baxter advised in The Reformed Pastor:

“If you have but a hundred pounds a year, it is your duty to live upon part of it, and allow the rest to a competent assistant, rather than that the flock which you are over should be neglected. If you say, that is a hard measure, and that your wife and children cannot so live, I answer, Do not many families in your parish live on less? Have not many able ministers in the prelates’ days been glad of less, with liberty to preach the gospel?”

And here we are, back at money again. We don’t ask these questions enough today. (And we’re not well-liked when we do!)

Baxter’s top priority: ensure care for the whole flock. Baxter was writing about this within a larger exhortation for his pastors to visit all the people. If they couldn’t do it themselves, they needed to get an assistant.

In both my theory and Baxter’s reality, this model scales. At least to a point. Can it scale to a 1,000-member congregation? Even in that large context, can we ensure that everyone is known––no one falls through the cracks? I would like to believe so, but I’m too far removed to answer with certainty.

I know that most of our 1,000-person models would need to change. You may say, “That’s why we do small groups ministry.” I hope you’ve seen here something that goes beyond that, though it could certainly include it. The mega-church I referenced in part II had a small groups ministry, too. A pretty good one. You may say, “Some people like to remain anonymous.” Perhaps so. That doesn’t mean we should let them.

Your thoughts?

I’ve shared plenty about this now. What do you think? Is Sam Stanley right that worship and visitation are pastors’ most important duties? Is he right that there’s not much time leftover once those are done? What are your biggest challenges for living in this model? Your biggest questions or disagreements?

See pt. I, Lead a fine worship, and pt. II, Visit the people.

And if you liked this series, would you consider sharing it with some others? Click to share on Facebook, share on Twitter, or send by email. Thank you!


  1. Average salary plus minimum housing allowance in Kentucky is $78,000. I’m not including our very generous pension and health benefits in the calculation. Use this nice tool to see for yourself.