Why Combat Pilots Aren’t Necessarily the Same as Aeronautical Engineers (and Vice Versa) (Sept – Dec 1994)

By Matt Dabbs

by Lynn Anderson
September – December, 1994

19“Man, would you take off in a jet fighter plane put together by a combat pilot?”

“Man, would you ride shotgun into combat with an aeronautical engineer at the controls of your fighter plane?”

They are both in the flying business, aren’t they? Planes is planes, Right?

“Would you pay good tuition dollars for a graduate degree in theology put together by a preacher?”

“Would you try to reach secular people and nurture stressed-out, city-dwelling Christians through a church put together by a theology professor?’

They are both Christian ministers, aren’t they? Ministry is ministry. Right?

Yes. And they both had better know their stuff. These chaotic and challenging times call for a blend of the best that both can offer. But, unfortunately, we hear murmuring these days about a growing gap between professors and preachers. Between theoreticians and practitioners. Between the aeronautical engineers and the combat pilots of the Kingdom. Gridlock between academia and congregational life. In some cases, a “great gulf” has become fixed.

Of course, we also hear some denial: “No way. The difference is imaginary. Only a caricature.” Few people have the IQ and energy combination to excel both as an effective local preacher/church leader and as a good professor/scholar. Finding an unbiased and perceptive observer of this gridlock scenario is nearly impossible.

Except for yours truly, of course. I, you see, am totally objective and unbiased, as anybody would tell you (except maybe my wife and kids. Well, and some preachers and professors). So, if you want the straight scoop, you’d better listen up. Listen and help me evaluate selected quotes from some extremely warped perspectives:

“Now it seems perfectly obvious to me that most aeronautical engineers would make disastrous combat pilots. Most of them don’t even hold a pilot’s license. Those that do haven’t flown in combat, at least not since they traded their USAF uniforms for white lab coats.

“Same with those ivory tower theology professors. They talk with the angels. They play with ideas and split theological hairs, years on end. Everyone knows theology is mostly irrelevant, if not downright dangerous. Theologians read books written by liberals. Just scratch some of these scholars more than skin deep and you’ll find they really don’t believe very much of anything, anyhow. They talk in their own code language only understood by other ‘credentialed theologians.’ That way they can control the conversation. Besides, that academic gobbledy-gook hides their liberalism from the financial supporters of their institutions.”

Or another:

“Those few academic types that do still stand for something are totally out of touch with today’s church. If you were to hang a local church around their necks, they couldn’t lead it out of a wet paper bag.
“They escaped to the safe and predictable world of academia. All they have to manage there is the destiny of a few gullible and powerless graduate students. So far, fair enough. If they can’t stand the heat they ought to flee the kitchen. But why disdain the cooks who stayed?”

Or yet another: “Well, yes. There are a few rare professors who have logged effective local church track records, but if you’ll check them out, it was likely in some stable small town, back in the era of mimeographs, gospel meetings, and filmstrips. But today is different, I’ll tell you. Especially in the city. Rampant secularism, frantic pace, the vertigo of pluralism, and the sophistication of today’s marketplace ministry would blow these guys out of the sky. Where do they get off saying ministry is ministry, planes is planes? Their yellowed class notes won’t cut it in my demanding pulpit—especially since they can’t flunk the congregation for absenteeism.”

Whew! Those are strong points of view! And they are largely untrue and most unfortunate. Is there anything else to be said? Well, let’s eavesdrop on another set of equally impassioned statements.

“Everybody knows academia never built a growing church, changed a community or saved a soul. And surviving five hours in a library is a whale of a different ball game than surviving a five-hour elders’ meeting. In the local church, you spell tenure t-e-n-u-o-u-s! What do these ivory tower eggheads know about flying under combat conditions?

“Harrumph! Armchair quarterbacks is what these professors are (to switch metaphors again). Put ‘em on the field, in a game. It’s easier to read a playbook than to actually run a play against fire-eating Philistine Goliaths. And teasing a bright-eyed young college student through a semester doesn’t make you an authority on turning around the value system of a Fortune 500 CEO or putting hope in the eyes of a third-generation street person. Keeping a captive audience focused and motivated (who paid $250 an hour for your course and who fear a dropping GPA more than AIDS) is peanuts compared to holding the lifelong focused attention of volunteers whose pay and survival depend on sources from an alien planet.

“Did you know that some of these academic types have the nerve to tell you that they are ministers? And because they are involved every week in the congregational life of their local church they are local ministers! But let me tell you, serving coffee on an airliner is not the same thing as landing a plane in zero visibility, on one engine, in a crosswind.

“Yes, just because someone is a Sunday school teacher, or a boardroom elder, or even a weekend guest preacher at Pebble Hill doesn’t mean he could lead a flourishing church in our kind of world.”

With these extremes pulling me in their respective directions, I feel disoriented and confused. Let me see if I understand well enough to be a peacemaker:

“Look at it through my clear eyes. A totally unbiased preacher like me has a leg up on insight into this gridlock thing, because, you see, I’m also a totally unbiased professor—an academic, if you will. Yeah, I know, I only teach a few Mickey Mouse adjunct ministry courses. But I’ve also read a book or two. Well, at least I read the reviews. So you can trust me as both theoretician and practitioner, with no small expertise on both sides of the street (even if I do have to say so myself). But , you see, the professor in me has those crass practitioners pegged.”

Listen to a voice murmuring another strong point of view: “Just check out those preacher types. Non-academics. Anti-intellectuals. No telling where they’ll take the church if someone doesn’t rein them in.”

Or another: “They posture as authorities, but most of them ‘know not what they speak, nor whereof they so confidently affirm.’ They claim to ‘exposit the Bible’ to their people, but most of them cannot even read the Scriptures in the original languages. Their idea of exegesis is to haul down a concordance and muster proof-texts for their latest gimmick. Or to strengthen their jobs at the consciences of the poor victims in their pews.”

Or another: “These preacher types seem to think spiritual growth comes from some slick leadership skills they picked up at some management seminar or at some exploding megachurch. Raw pragmatism is what runs them. If you scratch below the surface, a lot of them are actually secularists marketing religion. They are part salesman and part politician. Always selling something. Tapes of their latest sermon series. Their latest user-friendly-church gimmick. Or their latest pop book.”

Still another: “What’s that? No, of course I don’t listen to their tapes or read their stuff. Beneath my dignity. But I know what they think. And where they get it. They don’t read anything. They just listen to tapes on the freeway, then wheel up in their expensive cars, climb into their Plexiglas pulpits, and regurgitate a collection of Swindoll stories. It never occurs to them to ask the tough theological questions about their latest programs. They only ask if it ‘works.’ If it doesn’t, they don’t mind trashing it, even if it is fundamental to Christian tradition. If it does work, they will dig up a proof text to get it past the fundamentalists. Too many of them don’t even know the difference between teaching and selling. Between a church and a crowd. Between worship and Woodstock. Between approaching the Holy One and creating a mood with some sad story or some new song.

“Theology indeed! Atheology is more like it. Most of them don’t know the difference between psycho-babble and spiritual substance. They dabble in pop psychology and marketing-level sociology because that stuff pulls a crowd. And pulling a crowd is what floats their boats.”

Or one more: “They just need to ‘let the church be the church.’ Rather than all this tinkering with programs, marketing techniques, fast music, dim lights, and catchy titles.

“Amazingly, some of their careers flourish on this stuff. The ones with savvy have learned the church politics game. Which elders to butter. Which lectureships to be on. Which big shots to suck up to. Which journals to leave on their coffee table (and which ones to harangue). How to make shallow sermons sound deep. How to make demanding people feel placated. What passages and cliches to throw in so as to lend their message the ring of orthodoxy. Or to make it sound hip or smart, or whatever the market calls for. Always an eye to the market.

“These combat pilots are just hi-tech barnstormers. They’re out looking for more stripes. Or another skull and crossbones on the nose of their F16. Or a medal at review time. Or a purple heart. Fire your big guns. Fly the thing at red line. Just jump into your miracle machines and roar off into the wild blue yonder. We engineers are the ones who have got to be responsible for them. One fraction of a millimeter of engineering error on one wing surface and their whole world would come crashing down.

“Why, these throttle jockeys haven’t a clue what it takes to actually design a high performance jet aircraft. Never saw a combat pilot yet that could design even a seat cover! Couldn’t care less about ‘metal fatigue.’ Can’t even spell ‘aerodynamic.’ If it weren’t for engineers, there’d be no fancy airplanes. Then how would they fly?”

************

Well, now that you’ve sat in on the unfair caricatures in this non-conversational un-dialogue, you’re wondering how any military air operation has ever succeeded, as disdainful as some of these guys are of each other. Can’t help but wonder, too, how churches flourish, or broken people get mended, or real worship happens, or hearts get turned toward God, if some preachers and professors are that interested in protecting turf rather than in expanding the Kingdom. Caricaturing each other. Choosing not to listen to each other. Both wanting to be tomorrow’s hope. At the center of God’s action. Really in touch.

But is this the whole story? The straight scoop? Of course not!

Let’s be real. Obviously these are caricatures—polarized in black and white extremes, largely inaccurate and terribly unfortunate. Actually, we see a growing army of ministry colleagues who span the “great gulf.” We know many excellent scholarly professors who are also skilled in practical ministry and very much in touch with street-level congregational life. Conversely, we see more and more pulpits filled by highly effective contemporary congregational leaders who are also well equipped with theological, exegetical, and research skills. Thank God for a growing middle ground.

But walk carefully here. Seems to me these multitalented, interdisciplinary superhumans will likely remain a relatively rare breed. Most of us will “do well to do well what we do well,” and to network with others who celebrate variety in specialized expertise.

We simply cannot afford leadership gridlock in these challenging days. It is high time both specialized preachers and specialized professors play their God-given and mutually supporting roles in Kingdom business. Both roles are biblical. Both are indispensable. Each really needs the other. And, although both are ministers, in many situations the two roles are very different. The different roles and unique skills are to be mutually celebrated, not mutually disdained.

The skills of the scholar build the Kingdom theologically. Generally speaking, scholars supply the tools and resources to church leaders who may not have the expertise or the time to garner them on their own. I thank God for the help scholars give me every week in my preaching ministry, for the thousands of hours of passion and expertise some scholar poured into the pages of each helpful book on my shelves. And scarcely a week goes by that I am not compelled by my own limitations to seek help from some dear scholarly brother.

And generally speaking, the skills of the preacher or local church leader build the Kingdom organically and strategically. They supply the scholar with a delivery system for the fruit of his labors. They translate the abstract to the concrete, target the general to the specific. And, the skills of the local church leader can help the professor stay in touch with the grassroots church and its issues. Some of the most widely read theologians do their writing while serving as preachers in the midst of congregational life. And some of the most effective church leaders keep their minds rooted in sound scholarship.

So there is a sense in which dividing ministry into preachers and professors is contrived dichotomy. But local church leadership these days, like scholarship, is both specialized and complex. It requires specific skills. Of course, the local church leader is primarily a spiritual leader so he dare not become biblically and theologically careless. An effective local churchman needs some skills in such areas as education, organizational culture, change management, financial management, vision casting, administration, pastoral counseling, church growth, leadership development, conflict resolution, evangelism, sociology, worship leading, and the like.

The skills for the scholar might include advanced expertise in languages, exegesis, hermeneutics, epistemology, theology, and, above all, in biblical studies. The professor also uses the practical tools of research techniques, writing precision, and classroom skills, just to mention a few. While a local church leader cannot afford to be totally in the dark in these areas, he must rely heavily on the advanced expertise of scholars who are teaching and writing theology under academic discipline. Whatever our role, we must remember that God is sovereign. Both professors and preachers find our mutual portion of strength and wisdom on our knees in brokenness  before Him.

Oh, my dear brothers, preachers and professors have so much to learn from each other. The effectiveness of each specialized ministry depends on the expertise of the other. More importantly, God has called us all to throw ourselves into his enterprise with one heart. He is the one who gave us our unique gifts and callings.

We must affirm each other. We must value and respect each other’s unique contribution to Kingdom enterprises. Rather than eyeing each other with suspicion, looking for flaws in each other’s work, and critically analyzing each other’s motives and modus operandi, we must become students and fans and defenders of each other.

When we do not understand the perspectives of another, rather than taking him publicly to task in print and pulpit, let’s take him privately to a restaurant, living room, or golf course with lots of loving, respectful conversation. And then, deal only with real divergency of ideas, not with suspicion of imagined motives or hidden agendas. Let’s attempt to clearly understand the minds and hearts of each other. When we do come to those inevitable points upon which we cannot agree, let us hold those differences in respectful and dynamic tension.

**************

There is one more point of view we should consider. Meet this West Texas rancher who sounds both bewildered and sage at the same time:

“Don’t know as I understand what those boys are talking ‘bout.” He drawled. “Neither of ‘em throws hay to my cows fer me, but I shore am glad we’ve got ‘em both.

“Let me put it this way: The other day, the hired man and me carried a calf in from the tall weeds in the bottoms. On a pole. My shoulder under one end, his under the other, ‘cause nary one of us could handle it alone. But now you tell me, which one of us on what end of that pole was carryin’ that calf? We’d both been useless without the other.

“Son, it’s like that with the preachers and the professors, too! For a few years, we had a preacher in our little church that put no stock by higher learnin’. And nobody could teach him nothing. He had all the answers. Didn’t need to read no books, nor take no classes, nor ask fer no help. Well, sir, followin’ him, we got preached to for some time by this drive-out professor who had never led a church. He didn’t ask much help neither. Already knew what to do. Got his answers out of books. Son, them boys both helped cripple our church. And each one blames the other.

“Then, several years back we got this preacher that loves this church and this town. He’s real down to earth, but smart as the best of ‘em. Yet he knows his limits. Him and one o’ them scholarly Bible professors has got to be real good friends. Now when he gets stumped, which he says is most every week, he’ll pick up the phone and call somebody he thinks knows more than him. Sometimes he calls old Brother Ben There. Figures old Ben’s checked out a lot a blind alleys in 50 years of preachin’ afore he retired. And sometimes he calls that professor feller: Preacher says the man over at the university has more time to read them hard books and sift out them gold nuggets from the gravel stones. And, my preacher says, ‘That professor cares as much about the Lord’s church as I do.”

”Understand, our preacher works hard on his sermons. But with all the prayin’, and evangelizin’, and carin’ fer the sick and dyin’, he hasn’t time to go as far in them books as the professor does. Besides, he jest ain’t inclined that way. Same as the professor ain’t inclined to the stuff our preacher does good at.

”The preacher says that he don’t always understand where that professor is comin’ from. And the professor says sometimes he can’t figure out what the preacher is up to. But I think they both learn from each other. And I’ll tell you what: The two of ‘em together has carried our church out of the tall weeds. One on one end of the stick, one on the other. That preacher sure ain’t no professor. And that professor, he sure ain’t no preacher, but both of ‘em say they think that’s good, that God meant for both of ‘em to be added up together, not divided apart. Now, once in a while you find both professors and preachers rolled up into one man. Wish we had more of them, but that’s a lot to expect from most folks.

“I shore wouldn’t want a degree from no university that was put together by a preacher who didn’t know nothin’ about what those guys call ‘academia.’ And I sure don’t fancy a church put together by no professor who’s out of touch with local church life. Fact is, in most cases, I wouldn’t give you a nickel for either by hisself. But I went and put my soul in the lap of a church the both of ‘em is buildin’ together. Yep, and my boy that wants to preach—I trust him (and a chunk of my money) to that Bible Department them preachers and professors is runnin’ together.”Wineskins Magazine

Lynn Anderson

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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