Anyone who has been called to pastoral ministry has to be a people watcher. The pure academic might be able to sit in the office and grapple with biblical texts and artifacts, but for those of us called to minister to real people we have to be an observer of our fellow human beings. What makes them tick? Why do they do the things they do? What are their felt needs, and how are they trying to achieve those? A good pastor needs to be at least an amateur sociologist if he or she is going to connect with others in a way that will be relevant to their lives.
That's why I've always enjoyed watching people in the malls. It's why I enjoy reading books that give insight into how people think and why they choose certain behaviors over others. Several years ago I read a fascinating book titled Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam. In the book he showed how we have moved away from community and into lives of isolation. The title comes from the research he did that showed how team sports, such as bowling, have been replaced by other activities that we can do alone. His research also explained how this impacts politics, churches, and other areas of life in the US.
Currently, I'm reading Stop Acting Rich: ...And Start Living Like A Real Millionaire by Thomas Stanley. It's another interesting look into the research done by the author looking at the differences between how the wannabe rich live and the lives of actual millionaires. Stanley has found that a large percentage of real millionaires have little interest in impressing people with their wealth. It is often the pretenders who purchase the Rolex watches, the BMWs, the million-dollar homes, and hundred dollar bottles of wine, and many of them are barely keeping up with the payments their pretend world is costing them.
Why is a book like Stanley's important to a pastor? Because we may have someone like that in our church. Publicly, they exude nothing but confidence and success, but inside they are wracked with fear that their plastic world is about to crumble. Unless we can understand what drove them to live a life of such excess we will struggle to minister to them, especially if their world does crash in around them. J. P. Moreland says such people are plagued with an empty self and calls this an epidemic in America.
I preach a sermon that compares people to a puzzle. Even if you can put 999 pieces of a 1000-piece puzzle together but cannot find that one missing piece, that puzzle is not complete. There is a missing piece in each of our lives. Not able to find that piece many people try to complete the puzzle with a different piece, and for some people it is trying to convince others of their wealth and success. Such deception seldom works long-term, and these people are soon exposed for the empty selves they are.
That missing piece, of course, is Jesus Christ. Until we invite Him into our lives, there will always be something missing. As a pastor, it's important to be able to identify what people are trying to substitute for that relationship. At some point, we are likely to have an opportunity to explain to them why they never found the peace, joy, and happiness they were seeking in their pretend world. Then we can point them to the one who can complete their lives and give it purpose.
This is why I enjoy watching people and reading books like the ones mentioned in the post. The more I understand those I'm called to serve, the better I can serve them.