What’s a pastor to do? It’s a simple question, but it’s surprising how different pastors answer it. Some say they’re here to shepherd. Others say they’re here to teach. None would say they’re here to entertain, but a steady diet of their teaching leaves the listener wondering. I once saw a pastor begin his service with guests using golf clubs to chip candy into the audience. He wanted to warm up the crowd.
There’s a better way, and it’s outlined in Kevin Vanhoozer’s Hearers and Doers: A Pastor’s Guide to Making Disciples Through Scripture and Doctrine. Above all, pastors shape the hearts and minds of God’s people with his holy Word. It’s a simple, but all-too-neglected, fact.
Vanhoozer, professor of systematic theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, exhorts pastors to disciple their church members with Scripture. The evangelical yard is littered with rusty cans of pragmatism and empty bottles of consumerism, and Vanhoozer pleads with pastors to clean up the mess by returning to a theological, biblically rich, church-centered form of pastoral ministry.
What stands out first is Vanhoozer’s assertion that the culture is discipling us, whether we know it or not. Everyone is being discipled by something; Vanhoozer singles out diet, fitness, and exercise fads as examples (23–42). These movements shape our thoughts about who we are and who we should be. They compose our “social imaginary”—”the net of background assumptions, often implicit, that lead people to feel things as right or wrong, correct or incorrect. It is another name for the root metaphor (or root narrative) that shapes a person’s perception of the world” (8).
Pastors may think that, in the absence of their influence, the people in their churches are blank slates. Not true. The issue is not if people will be discipled, but by whom or what. For good or ill, our culture is constantly shaping us.
Vanhoozer would have our social imaginary shaped by the Bible. Only a theological reading of Scripture can mold the believer into the man or woman of God designed him or her to be. According to Vanhoozer, “Theology serves the church by helping to shape its collective imagination so that its image of its body life, and everything else, is governed by the gospel message at the heart of the master story that unifies Scripture” (10).
But how does this work? How is the Bible a disciple-making tool in the hands (or mouth) of a pastor? Vanhoozer doesn’t provide a step-by-step guide to making disciples. Rather, he urges pastors to have more confidence that Scripture—carefully taught and applied—is our only hope of making disciples.
Hearers and Doers is, above all else, a call to read the Bible theologically. We’re to see it as one unified story, a message of redemption, and a powerful counterpunch to the world’s attempt to capture our mind and heart. As Vanhoozer explains, “Reading the Bible theologically . . . is our best hope for breaking free of the pictures that hold us captive: consumerism, humanism, transhumanism, nihilism, existentialism, moralism, scientism, and so on—idols all, of heart and mind” (85).
Modern reading practices are lacking, according to Vanhoozer. Believers surf across the pages of Scripture instead of diving in. (At this point, Hearers and Doers would’ve been strengthened by an appeal to the tremendous practice of meditative reading, modeled by the English Puritans).
The church in every age needs to be reminded of sola Scriptura. Recovering this precious doctrine is our greatest need. Sadly, many believers have lost confidence in the power of the Bible to transform their minds, their consciences, and their actions. Perhaps this is because, as Vanhoozer notes, “Pictures of success disseminated by business schools and television shows have not trickled but slammed into our collective unconscious” (105).
Centrality of the Church
The centrality of the local church is a pleasant and recurring theme in Hearers and Doers. Vanhoozer paints a fresh and compelling picture of the church’s role in the life of a Christian. Believers “tired” of the church will be challenged to reconsider their antagonism toward this imperfect but divinely mandated “company of the gospel” (125).
Pastors have a crucial role to play in recovering a biblical sense of the church’s vitality. Not only should they labor to teach and apply the Bible well, but they’re to shepherd those who hear the Word by ensuring that believers find their place in the congregation in accordance with their spiritual gifts.
The more that churches focus on theologically rich and hospitality-driven spiritual formation, the less they will be shaped by the cultural currents of the day. Again, Vanhoozer explains: “The church is not an institution invested in maintaining or increasing its own power (though sadly it sometimes acts like it), but a company of the gospel intent on communicating the truth and love of God poured out in Jesus Christ, which is its service to God on behalf of the world” (164).
The most fascinating (and helpful) section of the book is chapter 7 on the “communion of saints.” Here, Vanhoozer addresses the reality that countless gospel-centered believers come to the same text only to walk away with a different interpretation—interpretations that divide us. This can be problematic for the Protestant tradition, which has no Supreme Court (or pope) to give a final word on disputed readings of the Bible.
Vanhoozer’s answer (which is worth reading in full) is to lean into both one’s local church and denomination. Individual Bible readers shouldn’t read the Bible individually. It’s not just that we stand on the shoulders of giants; we stand amid a congregation filled with God’s Spirit and therefore equipped to interpret God’s Word for the glory of God’s name and the good of God’s people. Further, we stand in a world with many churches, and those congregations should be listened to carefully, even if one walks away disagreeing.
By leaning into both what the church has said in the past as well as the leadership God has given the church today, believers can humbly draw biblical conclusions by which they can rightly live. “Sola Scriptura is not a blank check individuals can cash in to fund their own idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible,” Vanhoozer argues, “but a call to attend to a broader pattern of Protestant authority and to listen for the Spirit speaking in the history of the church’s interpretation of Scripture” (183). In light of so much disunity over interpretation of texts, Vanhoozer appropriately calls us to “see one’s one church or denomination as a local expression of the church universal” (171).
Hearers and Doers is a book for pastors. The shepherds of the sheep have a unique responsibility to shape the “social imaginary” embedded in the soul of every Christian. Pastors wield God’s Word, and the more they trust its power to change hearts and minds, the less they’ll lean into the foolish and futile fads of the day.
Aaron Menikoff is pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Sandy Springs, Georgia. This article was originally published by The Gospel Coalition.