A couple weeks ago, disintegrated anticipation was the topic of a podcastconversation my wife and I had with each other. It’s an idea that I’ve thought a lot about since a friend first introduced the idea to me. The implications of disintegrated anticipation are experienced every day in pastoral ministry. The cause and the effect can both weigh heavily on pastors and those who aren’t as willing to run on the hamster wheel as others are.
The big idea is simply this, as pastors who have been at this for over a decade or two, we have lived through the appearance of a long series of “new things that God was doing.” Each of these new things often came with a promise, implied or explicit, that this would solve all our problems. Our church would grow, pagans would come pouring into the Church, money would cometh, and our church would grow. Did I mention our church would grow? That’s the anticipation part.
The disintegrated part is that after a while, with some amazing highs, these “new things” would become “old things” and the ultimate payoff would never arrive or the original expectations would be reframed or retold to lower the bar closer to what actually happened. About that same time a new “new thing” would be ramping up and we would be too busy getting on the bus to spend time reflecting on the fact that the last bus didn’t get us to the advertised destination. So, over time, anticipation starts to disintegrate as we jump on the “next bus” for the next “new thing.”
Think of it like this – you go on a 1 mile hike to a peak that promises amazing, never before seen vistas. After a mile, the guide tells you it’s actually just one more mile. Then, after the next mile you’re told they’re sure it’s just one more mile. And so on and so on and so on. You might be really into hiking but as some point you start to find your excitement about the peak and the vistas start to wane. Add to that disintegrating anticipation other people on the hike who join along the way and are super excited about the upcoming peak and vistas and who say some unkind things about your obviously lack of faith and “religious spirit” because you’re just not buying into the promised peak ahead the way you would if you were really full of the Spirit.
Oh, and then add to that a small group of people on the same hike who, upon reaching the next 1 mile marker, insist that they ARE on the peak and they CAN see the vistas and if you can’t, well, you’ve obviously got a “religious spirit”, “spirit of cynicism” or some other dysfunction that is keeping you and others from receiving the joy and glory of the peak and vista.
Are you feeling it?
So let me spell out here, as clearly as I can, some of the peaks and vistas that my wife and I can recall over the last 30 years of ministry. I’m not sharing these to say they are bad or good or neutral. This is simply meant as a record of all the peaks that were a whole lot sexier than “a long obedience in the same direction.” Some of these I quite like. Some I think are rubbish. Some are just funny footnotes. Some were really hurtful. But none of them have (in my experience) achieved the implied or explicit peaks that I remember in the buzz that surrounded them at their outset.
In no particular order…
“Christian…” as a subset: our own bookstores, colleges, radio stations, music, news, breath mints.
Focus on the Family.
March for Jesus.
24/7 Boiler Room Prayer.
Small Groups: Kin, Study, Fellowship, Home, Life, Koinonia, Affinity, etc.
Campus Crusade, InterVarsity, Young Life
Willow Creek Sensitivity.
Steps to Freedom.
Signs & Wonders.
Dream Interpretation at Psychic Fairs.
Restoration of the Apostles and Prophets
Watchmen for the Nations.
Church Growth Movement.
Natural Church Development.
Schools of Ministry & Internships – where the best and brightest of our youth are sent off to other larger churches/programs for a year to two years (often never coming home again) to be discipled, grow and do ministry (because God knows they couldn't grow in their home church).
Christian Celebrities as “spokespeople” for the Church.
This is not an exhaustive list.
The reason I think this matters for pastors is that we’re often called to take a lead role in these things, even leading the hike to the next peak, and frankly, the disintegrated anticipation wears us down mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Or, and this is a very real reaction, we have to insist on the unproveable: we’ve actually achieved all we set out to achieve. And I would suggest that the cognitive dissonance created by that reaction ultimately hollows us out and leaves us trapped playing pretend and losing our faith. A long obedience in the same direction is a tough sell in an instant society, especially tough when the church down the street is promising all the peaks with none of the valleys.
It’s a challenge for a pastor who has been pastoring for a couple decades is getting excited about the next “new thing God is doing” or the next program that is rolled out for us from our denomination, publishing house or big church or big Christian personality. It’s a challenge to have someone in the church come in to tell you about this cool program/move of God they are all about and want you to be all about too, without regard to or in spite of what’s already going on in your local church. It’s a challenge having someone in your church tell you they are switching to another church because God’s doing a “new thing” there and you’re part of the “old thing” God used to be doing.
It’s challenging as a pastor when people want to focus on the “success story” behind something when you’ve been around enough to be aware of the bodies that have been thrown under the bus to make that “success” happen.
It’s challenging as a pastor because we’re offered books and stories at conferences and gatherings that tempt us to plagiarize and plunder someone else’s story and try to make it our own so that we can get to the same peaks and same vistas as the author and speaker have reached. We’re invited to cut n paste from other sources with the empty promise that we can have their ending without ever having had their beginning or middle. The truest thing a senior pastor of a very large church told me once, when I asked about the secret behind their growth from 35 to thousands was, (as he leaned in close to say quietly) “we were in the right place at the right time.”
Pastoring is challenging because we often find ourselves being asked to make a sort of “Sophie’s Choice.” Will we invest ourselves in the church as it is or will we invest ourselves in the church as we think it ought to be? Bonhoeffer warns us against this wishdream but here in North America we live in a culture that develops our sense of self-worth out of our conviction that we are winning: best job, best spouse, best kids, best house, best church. If one of these is off we’re likely to jettison one or all the rest to plug in a replacement so we can maintain or recover that winning feeling.
Pastors face many challenges but I am convinced that one of the greatest challenges for pastors in North America is the pressure of disintegrated anticipation. Pastors in evangelical, non-liturgical churches, especially those that lean towards charismatic and Pentecostal flavors, will feel this most acutely. I have a deep appreciation for those pastors that are willing to face the giants in the land with their little stones and sticks, who get laughed at by those who know better and who continue to put their trust in faithfulness over props and illusions. I’m praying for you and the story you are in and that you will find that a long obedience in the same direction satisfies your hearts greatest hunger.
Have you ever felt disintegrated anticipation? What made your list? How do you stay off the hamster wheel? What gives you the juice you need for the long obedience in the same direction? Have you ever tried to cut n paste someone else's story to make it your own on the way to "pastoral success"?