More than 20 years ago, when I first entered ordained ministry as a campus minister, I was getting to know an experienced youth pastor at a large local church. I really liked him (and still do), but I remember an unguarded moment when he shared how he really felt about his church and the senior pastor: “All big church pastors really do is fund-raise for the mortgage.”
I was shocked at how jaded his comment was.
Decades later after working in regional and local level ministries and two different denominations, I am no longer shocked. In fact, I now believe he had a more clear-eyed view of what church ministry was becoming than I did. Everywhere I look (not every church), I see an obsession with ‘success.’ We are enthralled with ‘success’ as defined by range of influence, financial power, impressive facilities, large attendance and, more recently, views and likes. We want ‘rock-stars’ in pastoral ministry that can ‘make it happen.’ Search committees feel the pressure to find these individuals. Pastors feel the pressure to be this kind of personality. Elders board feel the pressure to empower those pastors to ‘do their thing’ and make it all happen. They want their pastoral leadership to create something ‘amazing.’ And many of them do… much to the detriment of the Church in America.
They bring in the money and the notoriety. Then churches reward them financially and with a wide berth to conduct themselves as they see fit. In the process, our churches have degenerated into something less than ‘amazing’ and something very ordinary: fan clubs. Many of our churches and ministries have become cults of personality that appear to be spiritually alive on the outside but are actually poisonous landscapes. Carl Lentz, Mark Driscoll, Bill Hybels… even Ravi Zacharias… all had reputation and even fruit, but there was something rotten at the core. Sure, there may have been impact within their slice of ministry but their range of “influence,” no matter how wide, pales in comparison to the breadth of the global church. When they were exposed, they tarnished the reputation of Christians and the Church everywhere. Does the “good” they did balance out the harm in that equation?
8 Better is a little with righteousness
than great revenues with injustice.
We have a real problem in the institutional church in America. We have confused institutional and career success with fruitful Gospel ministry. In the process we pushed ministry to those ‘bruised and broken by the fall’ to the side because its “not cool” and doesn’t build an audience. In our misguided effort to attract the masses, we turned worship into a music production and surrendered church leadership to narcissistic personalities hungry for the spotlight. We have been looking for new messiahs to bring us to the promised land of Megachurch status. We have raised to the highest places of honor and authority the wolves that are feeding on the sheep. This must end.
“We have raised up to the highest places of honor and authority the wolves that are feeding on the sheep.”
We don’t need more charismatic leaders who have skills but lack character. What we need is a fresh vision of Christ and the character of his ministry that we might adopt those values. If I may be so bold, what we need is a new Reformation, not in doctrine per se, but in practice. If I may be even more bold, I would like to post a new set of “theses” on this digital Wittenberg Door… by no means exhaustive but certainly a starting point:
- We must end the priority of pragmatism and live consistent with our professed beliefs.
We claim that the Bible is our only authority and to trust the work of God’s Spirit, but we cast them both aside to employ the methods of emotional manipulation and authoritarian management to accomplish ministry goals.
- We must redefine success of our institutions as pointing people to God’s glory and Christlikeness.
Modern church success is measured by attendance, facilities, budgets, book sales and social media audience size. The standard of Christ’s character and love for the least of these has been displaced by personality and lust for celebrity.
- We must emphasize pastoral ministry over “multiplication” ministry.
Many (not all) church planting conferences, assessment centers and even seminaries have for decades pushed young and impressionable staff to think about strategies that “multiply” their ministry for wider reach but have failed to disciple into these future leaders a shepherd’s heart. Churches have opted for reputation and range of influence over pastoring their people.
- We must prioritize the dignity of people over efficiency.
We must come alongside the Spirit’s agenda and timetables as we shepherd hurting and broken people. Instead we have set arbitrary standards of discipleship, imposed our own timetables for people to comply with our programs in order to make the most efficient use of our time, and grown impatient with the perceived slow movement of God’s Spirit in people’s lives and in congregations. In the process, our ministry has become soul-crushing as opposed to life-giving.
- We must send ministry out of the church walls.
The Church is a house of respite and rest, a safe harbor for ships for refueling, repairing even refitting. But ships don’t live there. They live out on the sea. Pulling people into the walls of the church to support the growing number of programs that serve a growing insular community pulls the salt and light out of a world that desperately needs it. It also puts incredible pressure on families to be “busy” at church, turning joyful service into resentful duty.
- Worship must become worship again.
Often, we see the worship service as the most opportune time to cast vision and rally support for causes. As such, we tend to turn them into a kind of political rally for our programming strategy or worse, to promote the status of our earthly leaders. Worship needs to become again an encounter with the holy and gracious God.
- We must lift up the character of Christ as what we aspire to be.
Narcissism and narcissistic culture are common in the world. These values have seeped into the church because this self-centeredness seems effective as a means of building ministry. Instead of seeking out pastors who are gracious, wise, kind and also justice oriented, we have recruited narcissistic personalities to lead us into “church success.”
We could think of more, but this is enough to begin a conversation. Would you join that conversation? I would love to hear your thoughts on “reforming” the church in America that it might better realize the call that God has given us.
Also, this is what we are hoping to see fleshed out in the Safe Harbor Project: not a perfect church but a community of people striving to realize the law of love among us and for our surrounding communities.
If you would like to know more about the Safe harbor Project, contact me here.