If you want some thoughtful insights on the modern church, you must read this interview with Methodist pastor Larry Burton. He pastors a small town church but there is nothing small about his beliefs. I love his answers and to some important questions and you will too. As a cowboy photographer, I’ve been to Spur, Texas. It’s everything the name implies and I love it out there. Can’t wait to visit again one day. Thanks Larry for the interview.
To start things off, did you want to be a Methodist pastor even when you were a boy?
No I didn’t. I never expected to be a pastor, and didn’t want to be and didn’t even consider a call till I was 43.
What was church like for you growing up?
It was the place my family was actively involved, just a few doors down from my grandparents house. Would park at their house and walk with them to church and the go back for a great lunch. I remember being very frightened of hell and the devil growing up and had many nightmares over this. Also remember thinking challenging thoughts to God to see if He would really get me or not in church. Did participate in many youth activities but at 15 a very “life changing” event happened. I came upon some people stranded on the side of the road and went to the church to get them some help. The person at the church, was put out about having to help them. I interpreted this as hypocrisy on the part of the church and began my mental move from being a Christian. (realized later that there were many reason for the response of the person at church and it was most likely not about helping others but I was 15 and the world revolved around my thinking, I thought.)
Do you think church has changed at all over the years?
The church has become more than an institution that I am involved with or a particular flavor of faith tradition. The church is a place of rehabilitation for misbehaviors, of which we all are, to find redemption, love, encouragement, mild confrontation when we need it, support, and building up so we can go out and shine our lights brightly for Jesus Christ. It is much more than a place where there are programs or other attractions to try and bring people in. It is a place of relationships and bonds that build over time that should be practiced in ways that hold up Jesus, not ourselves.
Since we all make mistakes, we should lift each other up and expect that God’s love, grace, and forgiveness will take us through any situation. The church is a place of hope, earthly hope and spiritual hope that is centered on Jesus. When churches fail to be what they should be, then the church should pray, talk, seek help to allow the Spirit of God to bring healing and wholeness to the body of Christ. Size is not what is important to the church, but being a functioning, loving, center of faithful worship in Jesus, both for itself and for the community in which it located.
The American Church Project has estimated that 83% of Americans do not attend church. Why do think the stats are so high?
That’s a good question that may need to include the statistic that over 50% of pastors in their first 5 years quit the pastorate. Could it be that “the Church” has become like everyone else. We can be greedy, mean, hopeless, political, seek to please only ourselves, a place of reinforcing our own prejudices, a business that strives to continue so that the bills are paid, a nice social club to meet people and get contacts, a place of prestige, a way to try and prove that we are better than others, etc. Many people, see the church as being a place where people go and do one thing on Sunday’s and another the rest of the week. Other people see the church as a place that judges and puts people down for their lifestyles and beliefs. Other people think the church wants them to join because of their ability to give money and keep the institution alive. Sometimes there is a realistic belief that going to or watching an NFL game is more fulfilling than sitting in church.
Unfortunately many American’s see the church as a place for NO! NO you can’t do this or that, no you are not loved by God but going to Hell, no you can never live up to our expectations, etc. Many pastors and their families have learned that the church can be more brutal than any corporation in the way they are treated. ( You may want to visit the website of Stressed Clergy Association, a good deal of information is given about how the church is failing it leaders.)
Maybe the stats being so high are a good thing, because we can no longer believe in the myth, in my opinion, that we are a Christian nation, and everyone wants to attend a church. We have to be places that the Spirit of Christ is alive and working in to expect people to put their trust in us.
You pastor a church in Spur, Texas. How are things different in Spur compared to other churches you’ve pastored?
Never pastored any other churches. Been here 17 years and was a Clinical Social Worker and taught in College before going to Seminary
Do you think there are any unique skills needed to pastor a small town or rural church?
The small church is relational in nature and a small church pastor must be willing to be a part of the community and the lives of the people in the church. It is also important try and live your life as best you can and admit your mistakes, because everyone else will know them. It is equally important to be show hope in the future, not because it is a nice thing to do, but because of the strength of faith in Jesus, that shows us that hope is real, even when the weather, economy, events in life say differently.
I’m assuming you have church members who ranch. Do you ever help out at branding time?
No, some have in the past, but I don’t. I am willing to eat the steaks when someone butchers a cow.
What does a pastor like yourself do to stay spiritually strong?
Realize that I am spiritually weak and must depend of Jesus to carry me through the hard times. If I depend on myself I am in big trouble because I get the big head, think I can do everything myself and then move away from Jesus. My prayer life includes study and working on sermons, watching life and trying to see how God is working in others lives. Any strength I possess is because of realizing how gracious Jesus is to put up with me.
Are there any good books you can recommend our readers about growing spiritually stronger or about the spiritual disciplines?
C. S Lewis books, and books by Martin Kelsey. I just read a series of Christian fiction books: Healing Sands, Healing Waters, Healing Rocks by Stephen and Nancy Arterbum and they give me many insights into Christian discipleship.
What is your favorite part of being a pastor?
Having time to explore ideas in preparing sermons, but most of all the people.
Finally, if you could no longer work in ministry, what would you choose to do?
Would do some type of type of counseling ministry. I was a psychotherapist in my former life and would enjoy helping people with their life struggles in a manner that demonstrates Jesus love.