In September 1540, Spanish conquistador Garcia López de Cárdenas and a handful of comrades happened upon something no other European had ever seen before: the Grand Canyon. It's difficult to imagine what they must have felt. López didn't keep a journal. We only know that he hurried back from the edge of that chasm as soon as he saw it, gripped with "awe that was almost painful to behold."
Novelist Walker Percy believed that López was not only the first European to see the Canyon. He was nearly the last to see it as it truly is, the last to see it for himself. This is because the explorer—tired and thirsty after a 20-day march across the Colorado Plateau—stumbled upon the gorge with no expectations. He was just trudging along, and there it was.
As for the rest of us, our experience of the Grand Canyon is largely determined by our expectations. Popular culture has immortalized the iconic road trip out West, which invariably includes a stop by the great gorge (think National Lampoon's Vacation). Even if we've never seen it ourselves, we've seen enough movies, postcards, textbook photos, and television specials that we have a pretty good idea what it looks like.
As a result, all of us after López come anticipating the Grand Canyon experience as it is defined by the experts—the filmmakers and postcard photographers. We predetermine whether we will like it. The way we rate our encounter is based, in large part, on how well it conforms to the expectations we already have. Percy puts it this way: "If it looks just like the postcard, [the sightseer] is pleased; he might even say, 'Why, it is every bit as beautiful as a picture postcard!' He feels he has not been cheated. But if it does not conform, if the colors are somber, he will not be able to see it directly; he will only be conscious of the disparity between what it is and what it is supposed to be."
Many ministers have surrendered their judgment about what constitutes "the authentic church experience" to expectations shaped by experts. These experts write books, speak at conferences, and typically lead large and influential congregations. Because of their success, we imagine them to be great pioneers who are part of something we have never seen—the "real" church experience. Over time, the experts have done for church what postcards and PBS specials have done for the Grand Canyon: they've made it difficult for us to appreciate our own experience apart from theirs. We have lost the ability to see and experience and appreciate ministry for ourselves. All we can see is the disparity between what our churches are and what they are "supposed" to be.
Ambitions and Revisions
I began my ministry career at the tender age of 20 (it seemed like a good idea at the time). When I accepted my first post as pastor, I was entirely seduced by the experts' description of ministry success. The arc goes something like this: at some point in your life you sense a clear call from God to enter the ministry. It makes a better story if this happens after years of success in a lucrative secular career or a period of profound and sinful rebellion. After some sort of preparation—whether in seminary or careful perusal of church planting materials—you take a position in a small church. Over the next several years, your ministry grows. You see people reconcile with God; lives are changed. You feel confident you are squarely within God's will. You've found your calling. You may move from church to church—usually to increasingly larger, more vibrant congregations—or your church plant grows rapidly. Soon your peers recognize your success and a publisher asks you to write a book about your story. You share it at conferences. You have arrived.