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Today in the Mission Yearbook

Harvard professor warns about the dangers of public praise

Worship explores theme of ‘Living Again’

April 18, 2018

Jonathan L. Walton’ speaks during his plenary talk titled “Be suspicious of praise!” on the last day of the NEXT Church 2018 gathering in Baltimore. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

Dr. Jonathan L. Walton, Harvard University Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and the Pusey Minister at the Memorial Church of Harvard University, wrapped up this year’s NEXT Church gathering with a talk titled “Be Suspicious of Praise!” His keynote presentation gave voice and encouragement to bold and prophetic ministry.

“It’s special for me to be here as a non-Presbyterian who has crossed over the burning sands of the Reformed tradition,” he joked as he acknowledged many seminary classmates and friends in attendance.

“One of the most baffling concepts in Christianity is the incarnation. … Jesus is God’s love made manifest as God came to walk in the garden of suffering with us,” he said, referring to the tendency to make Jesus into a sort of superhero. “When you consider the ways Jesus is taught in our churches, or how he’s seen in popular culture, I’d submit we are more comfortable with his divinity than his humanity.

“Maybe it’s easier for us to worship a supernatural savior than accept the challenge of a moral prophet,” he said, calling attention to Luke 4:14–28, in which Jesus moves from the adulation of those around him to disdain from the crowd.

“[These] 15 verses of popular acclaim and public contempt. … In 15 verses Jesus experiences the warm embrace of adulation and the icy chill of contempt,” he said. “If we leave the story here we miss an important part of Jesus’ story, an important wilderness experience. Victory and defeat, success and failure, aren’t as easy to identify as one might think. Jesus subverts the conventional and often inverts what we would regard as acceptable.

Attendees of the NEXT Church 2018 gathering serve communion to one another during closing worship. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

“Jesus welcomed the stranger, but Jesus challenged the social relations that made them strange in the first place. With every personal act of grace, there is a critique of corruption,” he said, pointing out the critique contained in the stories of the healing of the woman with the issue of blood and the man healed at the pool.

“We’re called to confront those, even our colleagues in ministry, who are abusing power,” Walton said. “If that’s true, then every minister should always endure some form of attack. And if we are not, then it’s safe to say we are not doing our job.”

Walton went on to explore whether burnout, mental health issues, alcohol abuse and addiction are a result of what people enter ministry expecting — some sort of euphoric spiritual experience — and the realities of serving a church or a community.

“Others find out there’s an underside when you take on the challenges of ministry and leadership,” he countered. “The same people who praise you when you speak about injustice ‘over there’ are the same ones who call a meeting in the parking lot when you address injustice in your own backyard. … The same people who get behind your mission efforts in Central America or Central Africa are the same ones who accuse you of misusing ministry resources when you want to help people across your own town.”

The Rev. Kathryn Johnston preaches during the closing worship of the NEXT Church 2018 gathering in Baltimore. (Photo by Gregg Brekke)

The quick-lived cycle of praise and condemnation, he said, is contained in the Gospels, which “reveal to us how quickly the crowd can go from admiration to yelling at the cross ‘crucify him.’”

Saying religious leaders ought to be skeptical of being over-appreciated, Walton admonished attendees to establish a consistent moral framework by which their ministries could be judged and held accountable.

“My friends, if we are going to be a NEXT Church and turn the page on a milquetoast, corrupted, cowardly church, leave here suspicious of praise,” he concluded.

Closing worship brought an end to the NEXT Church 2018 gathering and theme “The Desert in Bloom: Living, Dying and Rising in a Wilderness Church,” focusing on “Living Again.”

The Rev. Kathryn Johnston, head of staff at Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church in south central Pennsylvania, delivered a sermon on the topic of “the holy way” and added an intercession for NEXT Church director Jessica Tate, who had recently gone into labor. “May this sermon not be the only thing safely delivered today.”

The 2019 NEXT Church gathering will be held in Seattle on March 11–13.

 Gregg Brekke, Reporter, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus:  NEXT Church Gathering

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Sherry Kenney, FDN
Emily Kiefer, PPC

Let us pray:

Almighty God, we give you thanks today for opportunities you give us to build better relationships, do justice and be witnesses of the reconciling love we have known through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Daily Readings

Morning Psalms 99; 147:1-11
First Reading Exodus 19:16-25
Second Reading Colossians 1:15-23
Gospel Reading Matthew 3:13-17
Evening Psalms 9; 118