Before I re-entered the full-time preaching ministry in October 2012, I was deeply engaged in thinking, reading, and writing about bioethics. For several years I had been living with one foot in the local church—preaching and pastoring—and the other foot in the Christian academy—pursuing my Master of Divinity and working for the seminary at which I was studying.
My seminary studies introduced me to bioethics and also spurred my passion for exploring it theologically. I delivered a paper on nanotechnology, wrote another on cognitive enhancement, became a member of The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity, and attended their annual conferences.
Simultaneously, seminary enabled me to bring bioethics to the local church. I co-authored an article on why Christians should care about bioethics for a popular-level magazine. I organized a seminar on bioethics. I even preached a series of five sermons on bioethics to a small congregation of elderly farmers and rural folks. I am pretty sure they had no idea what I was talking about.
When I re-entered full-time pastoral work I was confident that I would bring my passion for bioethics into my ministry, and for a while I did. I broached the issue of transhumanism in at least a couple of sermons and attended a seminar on upgrading humanity.
Since then, however, my attention to bioethics has waned. So many other matters—the constant demands of pastoral care, leading a ministry staff, administrating programs and events, and weekly preaching, among others—have seemed more urgent, more necessary to the work I am called to do. My membership with CBHD lapsed. The bioethics books on my shelf have remained unread. My intention to educate church members about bioethics has gone unrealized. So, when the invitation came to write this piece I was surprised and, frankly, unprepared. My immediate thought was, “What on earth can I write about and not seem like a totally uninformed fool?” But it occurred to me that many pastors probably find it difficult, like I now do, to integrate bioethical education into the daily, monthly, and yearly work of local church leadership.
And Then There’s the Chasm
A more fundamental, and more difficult to correct, problem is what I perceive to be a Grand Canyon-sized chasm between the world of the average evangelical congregation and the world of the Christian academy. The most consistent complaint about my preaching over the first three years at the church I now serve was that it was too academic and difficult to understand. I was told that the hiring committee, having watched videos of some of my sermons, had this concern from the outset, and that a respected church leader with whom they were consulting said something like “Oh, don’t worry, that’s just the seminary in him. It will take two-to-three years for that stuff to work itself out.”
I do not share this vignette in order to shame my congregation, the hiring committee, or the consultant. In fact, they were all correct: much of my preaching was too academic and it did take about three years for me to begin to figure out how to communicate more effectively and understandably.
The problem is two-fold. First, most evangelical congregations simply are not well equipped for serious biblical, theological, and ethical reasoning. Second, bioethical discourse—even that which is intended for educating the church—takes place at a level which is not accessible to the average church member.
My own journey of adjustment over the past four-plus years has led me to realize that not only did much of the content of my preaching not connect with the majority of my listeners, but also that our ways of thinking and what we consider most important were miles apart. I came to my current congregation with ten years of combined undergraduate and graduate theological education. Contrast this with most congregation members, who have received no formal theological training and who have not been taught how to think in a deeply Christian way about such issues as medicine and technology. The habits of thought that are now second nature to me after so many years of theological education are completely foreign to most Christians. This is understandable. IT specialists have developed habits of thought which are completely foreign to me.
I re-entered full-time ministry believing that current studies in historical Jesus research, debates within philosophy of mind, and bioethical issues such as end-of-life decision-making and human enhancement were of central importance to informed and faithful discipleship in the 21st century. These things aren’t even on the radar screen of most Christians in my congregation. Instead, and now I understand and feel the weight of this, congregants want to know how to raise their kids, how to cope with and heal from divorce, how to learn to forgive or to seek forgiveness, and how to read and understand the Bible. (I wonder how many pastors realize just how many of their parishioners are intimidated by the Bible?)
I have always been passionate about integrating Christian scholarship with Christian ministry, and while I had one foot in each world I was able to at least attempt integration. However, since my return to full-time ministry I now appreciate how difficult it is to integrate the academy and the average congregation. I recognize that there is a significant disconnect between the intellectual world of biblical studies, theology, and philosophy on the one hand, and the day-to-day struggles and concerns of congregants on the other.
Bringing bioethics into ministry is challenging for at least two reasons. First, the enormous demands of pastoral work can cause bioethics to recede far into the background of a minister’s focus. Second, there are the intellectual obstacles created by the disconnection between academy and congregation. Congregation members do not have the working background knowledge to understand bioethical discourse, and academics struggle to write and speak about bioethics in a way that is both appealing and accessible.
Do not think that I consider this enterprise hopeless, however. I confess that adjusting to the realities of full-time preaching ministry distanced me from bioethics and discouraged me from attempting to make bioethical education part of our discipleship curriculum. Yet, even as I write, I am inspired with new ideas and possibilities.
But, for now, I would love to learn from you. Have other ministers or scholars had experiences and struggles in the local church that are similar to mine? What successes have you had in integrating bioethics with ministry? What failed attempts have you gone through? What obstacles do you see? Are they the same as mine, or different? What opportunities are present that I have not recognized? I look forward to the discussion.