August 5, 2020

iMonk Classic: Those Magnificent Young Men in Their Pastoring Machines (4)

Part Four (conclusion) of a series on pastoral ministry, featuring a classic Michael Spencer post.

I’ve Got A Question

Are pastors called to be church growth “entrepreneurs?” The contemporary pastorate seems to be all about church growth, not Christian growth. Evangelism has even been eclipsed by church growth. Worship is now about church growth. The majority of “purpose ” churches are dominated by the agenda of growing larger. Given that church growth is an effect, not a cause, in the New Testament, what is the eventual result of retooling the pastorate to be completely about church growth? Won’t the church be tempted to find a justification for embracing anything that will bring about growth? Are the skills of the entrepreneur really the tools of the pastor?

Are large churches or many churches the New Testament model? In the recent past, it was considered healthy for a large church to start many mission congregations. I served a First Baptist Church that had at least ten “daughter” churches in the community. This was not unusual in Southern Baptist life before the “seeker” church became the model, (with Saddleback Valley as an exception.) But today, churches see no reasonable limits to their size, and believe that a mega-church can evangelize the community better than many smaller churches. (The error of this assumption will have to wait for another day. Suffice it to say that large churches do some things well, and other things poorly or not at all.) Evidence seems to indicate that the growth of mega-churches comes at the expense of smaller churches and their ability to permeate an area with congregationalized Christians.

A large church that I think highly of recently went to two separate facilities, but both will have the same preaching by way of a video link. The eventual implications of this are disturbing, as whole denominations can form without pastoral leaders in the congregation preaching to the congregation at all. This is a solid church, but it is showing the evidences of the seeker approach to pastoral ministry.

Pastor or technician? Pragmatism requires technicians to manipulate the machine. How is it that concerns like pastoral care, theology and discipline have been replaced by worship rehearsal, administration, communications and information technology? It is hard to believe that pastoral interests have gotten even more secular than the days when every pastor wanted to be a psychologist or a political activist, but today’s pastors are envious of businessmen, advertisers, technology geeks and corporate visionaries. The Gospel is a product and the world is a market niche. The Christian pastor is dying of envy.

Why do the boomers (and other niches) matter more than others? Seeker sensitive pastors have inherited the church growth mindset that identifies groups and asks questions about how those groups can best be evangelized and congregationalized. This is commendable both theologically and Biblically. The problem seems to be with the significance and influence of some groups as opposed to others. The seeker sensitive, purpose-driven pastor seems unquestioningly convinced that the boomer  generation should prevail in its preferences for everything in the life of the church. As boomer sensibilities have dominated in the consumer culture of evangelicalism, it prevails in local churches, particularly in worship. Why do boomers matter so much more than the Greatest generation or other senior adults? Why is the idea of a cross generational church so difficult for today’s seeker sensitive pastors? Isn’t the boomers well-publicized narcissism a threat to the church’s calling to pass on the faith?

What are these guys reading? What are today’s pastors reading? Thankfully, there are some reading the Biblical and theological books that shape solid Biblical preaching and discipleship. But if the bigger picture is telling us anything, it is that today’s pastors are consuming large quantities of junk food for the mind. The most often read books for pastors are cardboard, not steak.

Our state Baptist paper used to run a “Top Ten Books for Pastors” list every year. I always marveled that not a single one of these lists contained even one book about the Bible or classical theology. Not one! All that ever appeared on these lists were books about church growth and entrepreneurial “how-to’s.” Preaching and teaching in many seeker churches reflect this famine. The pew is reflecting it as well, as millions of Christians produced by the modern pastoral ministry are thoroughly pagan with the very thinnest veneer of a Christian worldview. With a focus on church growth and a bias against Biblical and theological content, many contemporary pastors are starving the flock in their drive to grow the church, all the while saying they are fulfilling the Great Commission. You know, those verses that say teach them to obey everything Jesus commanded.

What is wrong with preaching? The current pastoral crisis is most manifested in a crisis in preaching. Some of the leaders of the seeker sensitive movement have acknowledged this problem and are modeling more substantial preaching, but one will rarely find strong, distinctive, Biblical preaching among these pastors. Because they are enamored with the pragmatic assumptions of the seeker movement, contemporary pastors seem unable to appreciate the scriptural model of expository, didactic preaching and are wholesale customers for anything that communicates with the preferences of the “niches.” Not only has traditional “preaching” as a ministry taken a hit, many distinctive and necessary Christian doctrines have never been heard in seeker circles. Seeker preachers are convinced that their audiences want low key, high humor, low content, high application, motivational, short, entertaining talks given by a man who constantly walks around the room.

Historically, the pulpit has been attacked by the secular critics. Today, traditional preaching is under attack by the new generation of pastors. Preaching needs constant reformation, but that reformation needs to come from scripture, not MTV and SNL.

Whatever happened to worship? I can’t move on without acknowledging that the contemporary seeker pastors have contributed to a gutting of worship. The “worship wars” are a most necessary battle, because many churches have now become audiences for a show that is called worship. With video entertainment on the big screen, a band playing CCM for the boomers and an outlined stand-up routine for a sermon, many churches have abandoned Biblical worship entirely. Evangelicalism had the ax at the root of this tree by allowing revivalism to take over much of their own approach to preaching and worship, but the seeker movement finished the job. The secular concert or club scene, not the Biblical drama of redemption, dominates in the worship of many pastors who are committed to the new approach.

Can the contemporary pastor recover from the confusion the seeker movement has brought to the work of the undershepherd of Christ? I believe real, lasting, irreparable damage has been done, and thousands of young people will enter the pastorate under these assumptions and experience failure, while millions will sit under ministries that choose to starve the flock in favor of church growth. I believe the traditional churches that bring in these pastors are going to be torn into factions and see much painful pastoral turnover. But, at the same time, I believe the reform of the church and the work of the pastor are hopeful trends, precisely because many churches and young pastors know that the way forward cannot be down the seeker-driven path.

Whatever happened to the church? Many seeker pastors actually have a strange dislike for the church itself. It goes beyond just getting away from the traditional building and trappings. It is defining Christianity as a movement and not as a local community of believers. It is this impulse that has ripped away denominational labels and left Christians with the idea that every “Community Church” believes the same, generic message. In fact, church membership, church discipline, church continuity- all are non-starters with the seeker crowd. Longtime BHT readers know well my insistence that a church must have a confession, a covenant and a constitution to move away from just being an audience or a gathering of semi-interested persons. This conception of the church is no-go with the seekers. Theology on Tap on Thursdays at the pub is the church as much as Sunday morning at the sanctuary. Our definition of church has to be more sophisticated than both of these. Without the identity, boundaries and definition of specific local fellowships, Christianity will die.

A Last Word: The Volatile Mix

Before I end this essay, I need to mention that I am beginning to see a volatile mix occurring between the pragmatism of the seeker-sensitive approach and the quasi-Gnosticism of the Charismatic movement. These two streams of evangelicalism share a low regard for scripture’s authority in anything other than the essential Christian message. The seeker movement’s pragmatism looks to the culture while the charismatic movement increasingly looks to experience and “prophecy” for their visions of the church and their direction for pastoral ministry.

The results are distressing. More and more churches are becoming almost unrecognizable as Christian fellowships. As if the pressure of church growth pragmatism was not enough, there is an increasing pressure in the pastorate to generate spiritual experiences. Out from under all forms of authority except the direct authority of the Spirit, an increasing number of pastors are free operators who glibly claim divine direction for any idea that suits them. (I recently asked a young pastor to follow some guidelines our school has for the use of the invitation. Though he was a guest preacher and had just arrived the day before, he told me, “The Holy Spirit is my authority and I have to do what he tells me to do.” And he was Southern Baptist.)

Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God books have contributed to the idea that a single pastor and his subjective impressions about what “God is doing” are sufficient for any pastor to claim God’s authority and endorsement. Blackaby’s idea are persuasive and appealing.  No doubt, this model will see results, but it will hurt churches and further push the already damaged template of the Biblical pastor into the fringe. Blackaby needs to come to grips with the potential for fanaticism in his approach, and bring a few thousand pastors back to earth.

My own pastoral experience was most deeply influenced by knowing many solid, faithful pastors, often in small churches. While the model of pastoral ministry in my SBC upbringing was flawed- particularly in its emphasis on having only one, full-time pastor for a church and in emphasizing church growth far too much- it was sufficiently faithful for me to know that a pastor’s ministry is defined by scripture and is lived out in loving the Church as Christ loved it. I patterned my life after preachers who preached the Bible, taught the congregation, visited the shut-ins, shepherded the flock, believed in prayer and kept ministry in balance. If I had grown up under the current crop of pastors, I would not have seen these things. I may have been just as deeply drawn to the ministry, but I would have a very different conception of it.

One of my mentors told me that when the church lays hands on a minister, they are calling him to remain faithful when they are not. Today’s pastors are running after a vision of the church that does not come from the church at all, but from cultural capitulators on the fringes of the church. This is the church’s loss and a tragedy in the body of Christ. God’s plan is for his pastors to represent Christ and to equip His people with word and ministry to be faithful followers of Jesus.

Today’s pastor’s aren’t servants as much as they are experts. They don’t so much love the church as they are energized by what they can lead the church to do. By seeing everything in the church as a means to an end, the end becomes all the more important. On that note, scripture is clear.

Ephesians 3:21— To him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.

I would like to invite anyone who is interested in reading a far different, far more Biblical view of the pastoral calling than you will get from anyone else, to read the Pastoral writings of Eugene Peterson. Peterson saw it all coming far ahead of his time. I enthusiastically recommend his books such as The Contemplative Pastor, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work and Working the Angles, among many others. All his writings are full of a rich and full view of the pastorate.

Comments

  1. A very good series! I am a member of a fairly good sized Baptist Church (300+) and have been unhappy with the content of the preaching and the lack of pastoral care by the ministers, particularly the senior pastor(?).
    Not to mention the music. My wife has attended this church for 30 years. I am an ex-Catholic, and sadly the preaching and pastoral care in this Baptist church is not any better than what I experienced in the Catholic Church.

    • Bill F – what is it that you are expecting from the senior pastor? That he is available to have personal one-on-one meetings with all of his 300 members whenever they demand it? That his wife and kids grow to hate the church because he is “married” to the members? Maybe that is not what you mean, but believe me, that is what many members want when they talk about a “lack of pastoral care”. Jesus preached to multitudes and healed in public – but he only “pastored” and spent any time with 12 men. Same with the apostles. “Pastoral care” in the Bible is found in the many “one-anothers” of the New Testament – “love one another, pray for one another, encourage one another, carry one anothers burdens” etc. One man – or even one staff team – can’t do that. that is your responsibility and the responsibility of your fellow members. Pastors get continually criticized by their members for not doing a good enough job in a way that doctors would never get criticized by their patients. Pastors should be supported, encouraged, prayed for and given thanks for – they have dedicated their life to serving God, even if they are not perfect.

  2. This is a splendid conclusion to the iMonk’s essay. Every one of the questions he poses here deserves to be discussed and resolved separately.

    I would note that the megachurch option is a curse that goes along with too much hoarded wealth. Most congregations through history shared, and most congregations throughout the world today still share, their wealth because they didn’t and don’t have the option of building themselves a big sanctuary. For the very practical reason that a 20-foot sapling is the longest and strongest piece of building material available to them, our Kyrgyz friends can only build a room large enough to contain about 30 people. The mega church option is closed to them.

    Many congregation in the poorer parts of the world would succumb to the Edifice Complex (just as they would eagerly become obese if the could obtain the calories) if they could afford it. I imagine it is a blessing from God that they don’t even have the option. Which, of course, signals something dire about the western religion which God has abandoned to mammon.

    (Medieval cathedrals were magnificent and expensive, but they were also an example of sharing the wealth. Building a cathedral took the wealth and labor of about three generations. The people who started building a great cathedral knew they’d never see it completed, and that they were doing it for others to enjoy.)

  3. I worked at a seminary several times over the past 30 years and what I saw there did give me pause, especially the last go around. I saw little focus on “people skills” as though the people in the pew did not matter, except to be receptacles of the teaching of proper doctrine. I had numerous conversations with students about the need to earn people’s respect, and not expect to be handed it. I tried to explain that when people are in crisis, they don’t need to hear the church’s doctrinal stance on sin in the world, but need someone just to be there and suffer with them. I had students relate to me how they preferred to serve in very small churches so that they would have plenty of time to study, read, and blog; I rarely heard any student talk about a desire to be involved with people’s lives. Any practical courses were generally dissed as a waste of time. They weren’t going out to love their flocks; they were going out ensure those people were following the correct doctrinal beliefs. I didn’t see much emphasis on training pastors, but on training scholars and while I would hope a pastor would be well educated, I saw far too many men flounder when they were sent out to some small parish in the hinterlands and stood in shock to discover that their members didn’t know the difference between vespers and matins, didn’t know which pastoral garb was appropriate for which church service, and didn’t much care, and that there were, gasp, Democrats in their congregations. Their glorious visions of proper church music usually faded when they realize the only musician available was an 80 year old woman on a Hammond electric organ. Many never recovered from the shock…

    • Richard Hershberger says

      You’ve got me confused. One of the challenges with these discussions is that many different churches have seminaries, with widely different approaches and expectations resulting in widely different experiences. So when you wrote of your experience at a seminary, I tried to figure out what denomination it was. When you got to talking about vespers and matins and pastoral garb, I thought it was Episcopalian. But there is no way the product of an Episcopalian seminary would be surprised to find Democrats in a congregation. Methodist, maybe? This still seems a stretch. While there is hardly a one-to-one match of liturgical churches with liberals, liturgical churches tend not be surprised to learn of liberals in their midst.

  4. “Preaching needs constant reformation, but that reformation needs to come from scripture, not MTV and SNL.”

    Wonderful series. The seeker-friendly movement tore down many of the vestiges of the reformation of the 1500-1600’s, and called their work good, because their buildings were packed.

    Question is, though, is broad cultural appeal the real goal of Christ’s Church?

    I’ll take the creeds, rood screens, icons, and Eucharist over the absence of any evidence of crosses, blood, and crowns of thorns any day of the week. Do we really need smoke machines and 3D projected images of a pastor 50 miles away in order to relay the Gospel message?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Question is, though, is broad cultural appeal the real goal of Christ’s Church?

      During the early years of the Church, “broad cultural appeal” to Put Butts In Seats meant chariot races and gladiators. Did they really need chariot crashes, gladiator fights to the death, and snuff-porn shows between the gladiator fights in the Sanctuary to pack the buildings in the name of Church Growth?

  5. Although I think Michael Spencer was painting with too broad a brush, and that some of his views did not take into account the the worthy goal of many of those pastors, I do agree that with him when he said,

    “…many distinctive and necessary Christian doctrines have never been heard in seeker circles.”

    That is the situation, and a very serious matter, in some seeker circles (but not all).

  6. So much of the discussion here and in the past few days reminds me of “In the Name of Jesus” by Nouwen. He writes about the temptation to be relevant and spectacular, as well as calling christian leaders to be grounded in contemplative prayer and confession. This book is a great read.

    • Yes! Wonderful book, great correlation.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      He writes about the temptation to be relevant and spectacular…

      Something anyone chasing after Relevance (TM) needs to know:

      NOTHING GETS STALE FASTER THAN OVER-RELEVANCE.
      EXCEPT PRETENTIOUS OVER-RELEVANCE.

  7. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    Man, am I free-associating today…

    The seeker sensitive, purpose-driven pastor seems unquestioningly convinced that the boomer generation should prevail in its preferences for everything in the life of the church.

    Translation: Time-stopped in 1968. Groovy, Man. Get Out Of Vietnam…

    The “worship wars” are a most necessary battle, because many churches have now become audiences for a show that is called worship. With video entertainment on the big screen, a band playing CCM for the boomers and an outlined stand-up routine for a sermon, many churches have abandoned Biblical worship entirely.

    Worship = “ROCK SHOW AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL!” And it isn’t even a GOOD Rock Show — sanitized and bowdlerized until what substance the original Rock had is gone. “Gimme that Christian Side Hug!”

    • > Worship = “ROCK SHOW AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL!” <

      Substance:

      “It’s like a relic from a different age.
      Could be. Oo-wee!”

  8. Randy Thompson says

    I’m not sure he’s being completely fair to Henry Blackaby, whose books I’ve admired and benefited from. From my perspective, here in New England, I wish we had more people reading his books! Of course, fanaticism is generally not a huge issue in these parts. . .

  9. Another interesting thing about this classic post is how quickly the term “seeker sensitive” has become “old fashioned”. I don’t hear the newest young men in their pastoring machines use the term lately. They have moved on to bigger and better things. Doesn’t take long to become old fashioned.

    But, everything else about the post is true, and even more extreme now than when it was originally posted.

  10. Thanks so much for posting this series. As a fairly new pastor (in my 4th year, but I also worked overseas for a number of years) this has been very helpful to me. I wish I could say that I am not attracted to some of the dangers that Spencer talks about here, but the truth is the spotlight is attractive.

    A few weeks ago Darryl Dash posted this personal vision statement from a pastor:
    “Preach the gospel, die, and be forgotten.”

    God enable me to live that vision as well.