Reinhold Niebuhr, 1892-1971

It’s time for a change.

I’ve been writing this blog for over three and a half years under the tagline “Posts from the Blog of an (un)Tamed Cynic.” It was a nod to Reinhold Niebuhr’s fascinating book Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. I suppose there was some hubris involved in naming my blog after the published journal of one of America’s greatest theologians. Mostly, I just thought it was something clever that no one else had done. If anyone ever picked up on the reference, they never mentioned it.

Leaves is a marvelous book. It should be required reading for those considering parish ministry and a frequently consulted companion for those in the midst of it. Before his long tenure as a professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York, Niebuhr served for thirteen years as the pastor of a small congregation in Detroit. Leaves is a collection of selected journal entries that span the period of his pastorate, 1915-1928. On topics such as preaching, pastoral care, denominationalism, the intellectual challenges of Christian faith, ethics, urban realities, and many more, Niebuhr chronicled the ups and downs of a young pastor faithful to his call and the integrity of his conscience.

I regret that I’ve never blogged through Leaves. There are so many rich insights to mine in this book, so many places to launch into contemporary reflections. Maybe this is a project I can return to some day.

Niebuhr’s Leaves is a reflection of its time. These journal entries find their context in the kind of classical Protestant liberalism he would eventually reject in favor of neo-orthodoxy. In his preface to the 1956 reissue of the book, he notes that it represents a particular stage in his theological development:

Thus indisputable evidence is offered for the fact that we are all, whatever our pretensions, the children of our day and hour. What we think of man and God, of sin and salvation, is partly prompted by the comparative comforts or discomforts in which we live.

So it is with this contemporary enterprise of blogging. The posts I have recorded over the past three and a half years, not to mention the ones I never finished or even started, are all provisional and contextual in-the-moment reflections of a young pastor in his first ordained call. After seven years as an ordained pastor and thirteen years of professional ministry—the same length of Niebuhr’s pastorate—I have some sense of how my theological thinking and approach to ministry has changed.

When I entered seminary in the fall of 1999, I was still in the midst of deconstructing the fundamentalist faith of my youth and rebuilding it into something more progressive. Much of my early preaching and teaching reflected that. At times I would take on a polemical tone. This continued when I began blogging in 2010. I have often been passionate about presenting a version of Christianity that is a clear alternative to the more conservative versions that have been so popular in America throughout my lifetime.

Over the course of the last six years, in addition to my local context, I have been engaged in denominational work at both regional and national levels. These experiences often frustrate me and leave me pessimistic about institutional expressions of Christianity. This frustration is no doubt compounded for me because I work in a very large congregation that suffers from many of the same institutional problems.

These influences have provided rich fodder for my natural cynicism. Whether this cynicism is generational or particular to my internal wiring I’m never quite sure. In any event, it is easy for me to dwell in such cynicism. As Niebuhr himself writes in the “Preface and Apology” to Leaves:

It is no easy task to deal realistically with the moral confusion of our day, either in the pulpit or the pew, and avoid the appearance, and possibly the actual peril, of cynicism.

In the ecosystem of my chosen tribe, the Presbyterian Church (USA), I have often played the role of Jeremiah in the way discussed by Walter Brueggemann in The Prophetic Imagination. I’m often frustrated by what appears to me to be a unwillingness to engage the realities of decline in mainline denominations like the PC(USA). My approach has been to lift up and articulate the death of 20th century denominationalism so that something new can be born. Admittedly, this approach receives mixed results.

I resonate with Niebuhr’s final words in the “Preface and Apology” to Leaves:

I make no apology for being critical of what I love. No one wants a love which is based upon illusions, and there is no reason why we should not love a profession and yet be critical of it.

While I also make no apology for my posture over the past few years, it is time for me to make a change. The impending death of Protestant denominationalism as we’ve known it is as certain to me as it has ever been. The posts of this blog will remain as a testimony to my own journey of working this out. But for my own mental and spiritual health, I need to ring a different bell now.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for something new.

John W. Vest

John is a "church hacker" attempting to overcome the limitations of church as we know it. To connect with him and learn more about his work, please visit

Reader Interactions



Leave a Reply