What do pastors do? A lot of things. Perhaps too many things. They preach and teach; plan worship services; officiate at major life events such as baby dedications, weddings, and funerals (“hatch, match, and dispatch,” as one wag puts it); evangelize; disciple; counsel; visit the sick and elderly; disperse benevolence funds; cast vision; raise money; lead meetings; set up auditoriums; clean toilets; eat too much at the potluck; and so on. The list is long, but something else is always being added, as every pastor knows.
But what do pastors do these things for? In the midst of a busy schedule, pastors all too quickly and easily forget their purpose, losing sight of the end toward which all their activities are but means. In Pastor Paul, Scot McKnight mines the life and thought of the apostle to the Gentiles to remind pastors of their fundamental purpose. He announces his thesis early on: “The pastor is called to nurture a culture of Christoformity.” As Paul himself puts it in Galatians 4:19: “My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (emphasis added). In Romans 8:29, Paul describes Christoformity as God’s own goal: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (emphasis added).
We typically understand Christoformity in individual terms. A person — you or me, for example — increasingly becomes like Christ in thought, word and deed. That’s right as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough, for Christoformity must also be understood in social terms. It is a characteristic of both the Christian and of the congregation in which he or she is a member. A church’s culture consists of four elements, according to McKnight: the pastor(s) and leaders; the congregation; the relationship between them; and the policies, structures, and systems that govern them. “No church culture is completely good,” McKnight warns, “because it emerges from human beings who are not completely good. Yet the gospel’s power transforms what could be a bad culture into good at some level, so churches have at least some small chance of emerging as a culture of (some) goodness.”
Chapter 1 briefly sketches “ten elements of a Christoform culture that a pastor can nurture”: people, formation, listening, prophecy, presence, priesthood, servanthood, and leadership, all the while resisting the temptations of celebrity and power. Chapters 2–8 describe what such a culture looks like in terms of relationships, economic stewardship, Scripture interpretation, evangelistic witness, subversion of worldliness, and practical wisdom. McKnight acknowledges that these topics are illustrative rather than exhaustive. Pastor Paul, he insists, is not a complete or systematic theology of pastoring.
Also, throughout the book, McKnight repeatedly states that he writes as a New Testament scholar, not as a pastor. He’s trying to describe what Pastor Paul did, not prescribe what contemporary pastors should do. Even so, the book is illuminating and suggestive. Pastors with ears to hear will hear its Christoform message and know what to do with it in their own congregational contexts.
I close with a quotation from McKnight’s penultimate page, which reminds pastor-readers of their need for the Holy Spirit. McKnight himself isn’t Pentecostal, but as a Pentecostal, I appreciated this statement nonetheless:
Christoformity is not the inevitable consequence of forming the right habits, nor is it simply the result of intentions and willpower. Rather, Christ is present in our word at its core through the Spirit, and the grace of God operating through the Spirit is the only path of Christoformity. Christocentricity is only possible through Pneumacentricity: we can only find Christ at the center if we are open to the Spirit taking us there.
Scot McKnight, Pastor Paul: Nurturing a Culture of Christoformity in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2019).
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