by Scott Postma
It’s not a secret the church has been in decline for a number of years and for a variety of reasons. Abuse, apostasy, and irrelevance are just a few of the words that keep coming up in the search for reasons for the decline. There are a variety of compelling opinions and I even have a few of my own.
But I suggest there is another area of decline more significant and perhaps much less obvious—and one that certainly contributes to the church’s decline in numbers.
And I think its likely a careful analysis would implicate the church’s leadership for this more significant issue.
In other words, I’m concerned about pastors and the role they play in the church’s decline.
By saying so, I’m not suggesting this pastor has it all together. Nor am I trying to cultivate (or ratify) some dishonest skeptics’ hate for the church. Rather, I’m hoping to raise some concerns in a conversational kind of way.
Further, I’m not claiming to be the expert in all church issues. However, I have been in some form of pastoral ministry for the last 19 years and feel I have some measure of insight about the issue.
So in an effort to pursue this conversation in a healthy way, here are 10 pastors I’m concerned about.
1. I’m concerned about the pastor who is better at managing church programs than he is at making disciples of Jesus. Thom Rainer & Eric Geiger addressed this topic somewhat in the book Simple Church, but I’m not sure how many pastors paid attention to the message. The church is not better because it has more programs. It’s quite possible for programs to hinder its real mission.
2. I’m concerned about the pastor who attracts people with fancy self-help sermons instead of teaching people to be students of the Bible and theology. Sure topical sermons can be helpful teaching tools when used appropriately and in moderation. But to pique interest in the unchurched, church-growth pastors have promoted episodic sermons ad nauseam and to no avail at effectively grounding deeply committed disciples of Jesus, as the statistics provided previously demonstrate.
3. I’m concerned about the pastor who is a chief executive instead of a contemplative sage. The pastor is called to a contemplative life of prayer and study of the word (Acts 6:4 cf. Ephesians 4:11-16). From that life his ministry flows to the church. The pastor was never called to be a rock-star communicator or bench-mark business leader. He was called to model redemption and shepherd the flock of God (1 Peter 5:1-4 cf. Acts 20:28). Perhaps pastors should consider putting away their John Maxwell and Nelson Searcy books and picking up the Bible and the church fathers.
4. I’m concerned about the pastor who uses the pulpit to milk members instead of minister to the saints. It was the angry atheist, Richard Dawkins, who asked Ted Haggard (back in the day) why he needed a multi-million dollar sound system that paralleled that of MTV to teach people about God. I think that’s a question that deserves an answer. Why do pastors need to build bigger and better on the backs of God’s people? I think the answer may be rooted in the human heart. Francis Chan seemed to have caught that vision when he was still pastor in Simi Valley. And if we think we need to build bigger barns, perhaps we should pray about church planting as a viable alternative.
5. I’m concerned about the pastor who makes growing the church the goal instead of glorifying God the goal. There is no biblical mandate for growing the church. Sure there is one for propagating the gospel and making disciples. But the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. There is nothing in Scripture, except pride, that drives pastors to drive the flocks they are supposed to be tending.
6. I’m concerned about the pastor who builds his ministry with people instead of building people by his ministry. It seems I’ve said this already, just differently. But here I’m speaking to a philosophy that often underlies many of the abuses in the church. For example, a well-known mega-church pastor once advised me to think of people in seven-year terms. He explained that people generally burn out after seven years. And if I wanted to build a big ministry for God, I would need to leverage those seven years. Funny, I don’t recall God asking pastors to leverage his people for the pastor’s dream of building a big church for God.
7. I’m concerned about the pastor who cultivates a culture of dependency on himself instead of cultivating a culture of community within the church. Of course, I’m not denying spiritual dependency on Christ is biblical. But the pastor is not the people’s savior. He’s a just man who will burn out and fail himself given enough time and responsibility. Christians should be taught to depend on Jesus as our Savior, the church as our sanctifying community, the Bible as our word from God, and the Spirit as our parakletos.
8. I’m concerned about the pastor who reads and teaches the Bible literally instead of literarily. This is not to suggest the Bible is not important or any less God’s word. It’s to say the Bible is literature, divine literature to be sure, but literature nonetheless. That means it needs to be read and understood as God’s word to us (or for us) in the context of its literary genre. Not all the Bible is prescriptive; and none of it was written to be used as a random list of verses cherry-picked capriciously to beat people up or defend our personal ideas and beliefs. The Bible is the holy canon which reveals God to us through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Pastors who mishandle God’s word are extremely dangerous.
9. I’m concerned about the pastor who contributes to the culture of consumerism instead of combating idolatry. Pastors who pander to the consumerism in the church are no different than parents who give their kids everything they want to keep them from throwing a fit or to get them to reciprocate love. Christianity isn’t a smorgasbord where people get to pick and choose what they like or don’t. It’s a community of believers on a journey and mission of faith who live in communitas with others for the glory of God, the blessing of his people, and the advancement of his kingdom.
10. I’m concerned about the pastor who sees the church as a stepping stone instead of seeing it as a custodian of Christ’s kingdom. Certainly, God moves people. And certainly pastors have a right to pursue other ventures as the Lord leads and gives liberty. But the church is the primary agent for the stewardship of the gospel and the redemption of the cosmos. It’s the integral institution for advancing Christ’s kingdom and for shaping culture and society. It’s not God’s second-hand agency. It’s not his “Plan B.” Jesus died for the church and it is significant.
Great post, I really feel like these have been on my heart too. The real solution isn’t in the diagnoses, but in the action that we can take now. What does it look like to pursue this kind of leadership? Comment below!