When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. And he began to teach them many things. Mark 6:34, ESV
Pastors often find themselves in positions to minister to those who are in need of congregational and/or pastoral help, and yet have good reasons not to offer it. While it is not true that the soon-to-be-married, new parents, or those in crises find their way back to church in the numbers they once did, an occasional Millennial or Gen Xer still feel the tug back to church when such normalizing rites as baptism and weddings are called for. And when they do, pastors are caught in the crossfire between serving those who come to us at a time of need and the real prospect of being taken for granted or, worse, performing a service for what may turn out to be filthy lucre.
Here are some examples that probably every pastor has dealt with more than once: the death of a church member’s sibling, cousin or friend, who died with no church affiliation and perhaps no sign of faith; a young couple seeking marriage, but already living together; a couple seeking marriage wherein one or both parties are divorced; a couple seeking marriage where both are not believers (the “unequally yoked” problem); a couple with a Roman Catholic past but without an available Roman Catholic priest or parish due to previous relationship divorce complications (the “you’re not Catholic but you’re close enough” problem); baptizing the grandchild of a member, even though that child’s parents will likely never attend church again; communing those who are not Lutheran, but read the notice in the bulletin and came forward anyway.
These are all situations the pastor faces on a regular basis. Some, of course, are longstanding sources of disagreement and even schism (open communion, for example). Some are points of disagreement even within denominations, seeing that they are matters of pastoral discretion.
But what pastors face in each situation is the prospect of administering the means of grace either too loosely (and not taking into consideration proper boundaries and discipline) or too tightly (and acting as the disciples did when they shielded Jesus from the Syrophenician woman or the little children, not to mention the Pharisees who would have kept him from the prostitutes and tax collectors.
So when these opportunities present themselves we want to be neither the wonton liberal who treats God’s grace like “cheapjack’s wares”, nor the Pharisee who protects God from himself by holding too fast to our rites and sacraments. In some of these situations, it is obvious that the pastor should not comply, for some folks are looking for religious cover for outright sin. But in many situations, especially in 21st century secular America, where fewer and fewer even have a church background to rebel against, should we say “no” too quickly to those who make an effort to return to the church, even under less-than ideal circumstances? And then, if we charge for services rendered (say for a non-member wedding), at what point are we basically whoring out the church in the faint hopes of restored lives?
At what point do we work with a couple to get married who is already living together instead of refusing to dirty our hands? If it is best that they get married, shouldn’t we facilitate it? At what point do we marry the couple that is “unequally yoked”, warning of the pitfalls and predictable arguments in their future, but hoping a heart can change? At what point do we work with a Roman Catholic who is ready to be catholic without the ritualistic legalism they’ve found in Rome? At what point do we baptize those who agree to the promises in the baptismal rite, even if we are 51% sure they will not keep those vows?
I don’t think there is a uniform “yes” or “no” to most of these situations, but it strikes me that ministry in the 21st century is ministering mostly to sheep without a shepherd. Of course, Christianity has boundaries. But what I see in the next generation is not as much willful disdain of Christ’s Church, but a genuine ignorance of what even goes on inside of one. I recall working with a young man to get baptized as an adult several years ago. He asked me during one of our meeting how church’s “made money.” The language of offering, stewardship, and sacrifice meant nothing to him. He was genuinely curious how bills got paid, and amazingly, he had no clue that the brass offering plates were for collecting volunteered funds to support Gospel ministry. If he is more and more the norm among his generation, we should begin to presume that we are not ministering among those who hate us, but among those who know nothing about us.
Therefore, perhaps moreso than in previous generations, perhaps our “yes” should be said more often, even in compromised situations. Because it may be that these rites are the only chance we will have to introduce these sheep to their shepherd. I know that there are good reasons to say “no” a lot, and it is usually a safer bet among our more conservative peers. And sometimes, for the sake of Christ, a “no” must be said. But I have decided to work with more and more people where they are, even as I hear my more conservative brothers and sisters in my ear telling me I have sold out or even encouraged sin. And yes, for my troubles, I have been burned and used more than once. But in the best of cases, some sheep came home. And in the worst of cases, I was used in the service of introducing sheep to their shepherd, and I’m happy to be abused for such a service.