Expert vs. Expertise

Over the last two years I’ve been directing a research project at Luther Seminary that seeks to understand a little better what makes congregations thrive. Toward this end, we’ve partnered with about 40 congregations across the country and worked with them to discover what seems to work the best as they invite people more deeply into the faith.

We’re at a point in the research where teams of two faculty members from Luther are traveling to visit each of the congregations. Our job, really, is just to listen to what these congregations are discovering and learn a) what we can share with other congregations and b) what we can do better at our seminary in order to prepare leaders to cultivate vibrant congregational life.

This past weekend I was with a congregation that is giving particular attention to preaching. And one of the comments made by a parishioner in an interview really got me thinking: “You (the pastor) are the expert in the Bible, in theology, and pastoral care. And that’s important. But you’re not the expert in life. We’re all experts in life. So maybe you should have some of us talk on Sunday about how our faith gets played out in daily life.”

I really like that. You’re the expert in Bible and theology. The role you play is important. But we’re experts at how faith shapes everyday life. I think it gets at an important distinction between expertise and being an expert. We have tended in our culture to give great authority to experts. But how helpful is that when it comes to our faith lives? Do we really benefit when we set up some people as experts in the faith and the rest of us are – what? Oh yeah, we call ourselves lay people.

But this statement frames it differently. Yes, the pastor has great expertise in working with the Bible and theology and the rest – and in that sense is an expert. But we’re all working at this faith-thing, we – that is, all Christians – have a lot to contribute to the conversation in terms of how faith gets played out in daily life. The pastor’s expertise, that is, should be deployed to help us discover and express our faith better, not as a substitute for our talking about the faith.

What would happen, I wonder, if Sunday weren’t set up as the big performance where the pastor puts on an interpretive show demonstrating his or her prowess at interpreting Scripture and connecting faith to daily life? What would happen, that is, if we imagined that Sunday was really the rehearsal – that life was the performance, the place we meet God in the world – and the pastor used that time not to perform the faith for us but instead to help us practice, to gain the skills we need to live our faith in daily life? In this scenario, pastors are less like performers and more like coaches, guides, and conductors, helping the rest of us to gain confidence in living out our faith in the world.

A lot would need to change, I think, to move in this direction. But we might end up all feeling more competent and confident about sharing our faith with others. You’re good at some things. We’re good at others. Maybe all of us should contribute to Sunday’s effort to practice and rehearse the faith. Yeah, I like that a lot.