January 15, 2021

Opinion: Are We “At Our Courageous Best”?

By Chaplain Mike

At their courageous best, clergy lead where people aren’t asking to go, because that’s how the range of issues that concern them expands, and how a holy community gets formed.

• G. Jeffrey MacDonald

How wonderful to open the New York Times Sunday edition this week and find a thoughtful word of critique and challenge about the nature of pastoral ministry and preaching in American churches. The op-ed piece is called, “Congregations Gone Wild,” and was written by G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a minister in the United Church of Christ, and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul.

MacDonald laments that many clergy are suffering from burnout, not only because of their hard work and the natural demands of their vocation, but because congregational expectations in today’s church are forcing them away from their true calling and into work that they are ill-prepared to do.

The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.

As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.

MacDonald blames “consumer-driven religion” for this state of affairs. It has become so pervasive that a 2008 Pew Forum poll he quotes reports that 44% of Americans now say they have switched their religious affiliation at least once, or dropped it altogether. The shoppers seem to hold the power in this marketplace. One implication of this is that pastors’ job descriptions have been rewritten. Attracting people and building the organization now takes priority over spiritual direction and proclamation that is designed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

MacDonald speaks from personal experience—

I have faced similar pressures myself. In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.

Pastors, in many cases he says, have become “the spiritual equivalent of concierges”—meeting every customer request for information, entertainment, and religious experience. As Eugene Peterson wrote so many years ago, this is the natural result when “pilgrims” forget their calling and view themselves as “tourists.” Pilgrims need strength and direction to persevere on their journey. Tourists want to know who gives the best massage.

Thanks to G. Jeffrey MacDonald for a timely word, and for saying it in such a public venue.


  1. Great poignant description of pastors as “the spiritual equivalent of concierges”. The church is meant primarily to serve and not be served.

  2. This is excellent. I read MacDonald’s book and was very impressed with his diagnosis of contemporary consumer Christianity. I highly recommend his book.

    The sad thing is, just this morning I spoke with a parishioner who is mentoring a young woman that is being pulled by consumerism to a different church. Our church is smaller and traditional and we can’t compete. What we are doing, however, is working to put a strong emphasis on serving. I often remind people that Jesus said he came not to be served but to serve, while we often say, “I’m here to be served, so serve me.”

    Sadly, serving is “out of style” among many Christian groups.

  3. Another proof that capitalism and its market-oriented mentality corrupt and destroy everything they touch…

  4. In recent years hubby and I have observed that it was pastors who wanted to be CEOs with all the prestige that entails, while the laypeople were bemoaning the fact that sermons were not Christ centered and based on The Word! Perhaps it’s a little/a lot of both!

  5. A 10 min sermon! Now THAT’S efficiency, especially factoring in the opening joke and ending anecdote. Really sad stuff. Sat through “sermons” like that before and felt as though I need to take a cold shower afterwards. As Piper would say, brothers, we are not professionals.

    • In the Catholic churches I have attended, ten minutes is about how long the homily (sermon) lasts. The congregation seems to be satisfied with that, as am I. The message that God loves us, that “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again” can be told in that amount of time. Plus, the whole Mass gives that same message. And yes, sometimes the homily reminds people that they need to respond more to this message and bring God’s love to the world.

      • VolAlongTheWatchTower says

        There’s many a country preacher who say more, better, and for the right reason than most will say all day if not all their lives! JoanieD brings up a good point, it’s similar in the local Episcopal church here. That said, the intended point in the article is both obvious and dead on.

        • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

          I recently heard an interview with a priest who said that at his seminary they were drilled on being able to deliver 7 minute homilies without notes on the gospel readings, ‘cuz the professors felt that they might just lose the congregation’s attention if they needed more than that. At my university, we were told to keep it under 20, with the realization that it never happens :p

          • Headless Unicorn Guy says

            One of the reasons homilies in liturgical churches are usually shorter than sermons in non-liturgical churches is that in a liturgical church the homily is only one part of the entire liturg. In a non-liturgical church the sermon (and increasingly the music) has to carry the whole load.

      • “The message that God loves us, that “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again” can be told in that amount of time. Plus, the whole Mass gives that same message.”

        The problem is that in many (not all!!!!) of these churches don’t preach that message, either in 10 minutes, 30 minutes, or 1 hour.

        Instead they get pleasant, encouraging series on how to be a better parent, or spouse, or steward of finances, etc…. Only now-and-then is the centrality of Christ ever mentioned.

  6. cermak_rd says

    I don’t think the Pew survey on people who change their religion is pointing to the problem of consumer religion–though it does indicate the fact that it’s a buyer’s market. After all, one may switch religions not out of what one can get from the new faith but simply that it’s a better fit. Or one my trade in a faith for non-belief or non-belief for a faith.

    The survey I would point to would be the one that indicates that in a survey of 1000 people, the question asked was why does the church exist and the most popular answer at eighty nine (89%) said the church’s purpose was to “take care of my family’s and my spiritual needs”. I’ve seen that survey quotes a few times and I’m not sure where it originates.

  7. I believe there are people who leave a church to find another more entertaining one. But I also know there are churches that change and abandon the principles and practices that at least some of its members expect — principles that the very same church had taught the importance of only a few years earlier. The people who leave under those conditions don’t deserve to be labeled “consumers.”

    This is a good piece, Mike. It reminds me that sometimes pastors get caught up in the change, too. I tend to think of the pastors as the instigators of the change, and perhaps it isn’t always so.

    • “The people who leave under those conditions don’t deserve to be labeled “consumers.””

      Andy, I am with you!

  8. Todays Charismatic pastor is at the forefront of controlling the congregation with manipluation…….

    Many are being burned out & leaving, often finding a good church – to the glory of God.

  9. Really, what is a church? It’s about Jesus and His saving grace. Without that we are all dead. It’s not entertainment, it’s salvation through Jesus Christ’s death and resurection and asscension. If that isn’t the message all is lost.

  10. linebackeru says

    I think a bigger problem in the american church (especially in suburbs) is they are employing so many dull, uninteresting, uninspiring, unmotivated, people. I think the standard outfit is the “pastor kahkis” with a safe blue shirt. Why are we suprised that people look for more when the “leaders” don’t stand up and rock the boat a little. While I agree that there are many “go along to get along” churches, there are a few who are growing for the right reasons. They could have the right balance talent,passion for christ and the lost ect……the perfect storm. This is rare, really rare and should be recognized as such. Instead people try to copy it. They try to copy a percieved formula instead of honestly evaluating where they are at and who they have.

    • what do you want us to do run a circus?

      • linebackeru says

        are you saying you are dull? lol. Bottom line is, churches are always trying to “compete” whith what they perceive to be a successful church model down the road. Truth is, that church is a mess to. you have all these churches running around , going to conferences, learning how to preserve the economic model instead of doing what they are actually called to do. You don’t need a circus but you do need to be authentic. Yes, even if it means the numbers drop. Now throw out the pleated pants and gap button down shirt.

  11. Sad account of the Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Arizona. He quotes the following from the pastor, “They didn’t want to engage God. They wanted relief and inspiration”.

    Care is needed. I am against moralistic-therapeutic moralism. I am against spiritual consumerism. But I’m also against red-faced, pulpit-pounding preachers who think their message has failed if it hasn’t made everyone miserable. I’m against mind-numbing, irrational teaching which no thinking person can accept without dying inside. I’m against making certain “sinners” feel guilty and excluded from grace while those who can hide their sins are welcomed at the door. Some churches are more than happy to make people feel uncomfortable; I don’t think that is necessarily a good thing. There’s a place for tough love, but there are more opportunities to be winsome, to respect the intelligence of the congregation by reasoning and exhorting – not yelling, insulting, or belittling. Pastors need to use the staff to guide the flock and the rod to beat off the predators – rather than the other way around.

    • Excellent points, dumb ox.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      My writing partner is a burned-out country preacher, currently being run ragged between two rural congregations totaling around 100 with an average age well over 65. And since his denom is congregationally-organized, the Church Ladies (AKA self-appointed “Pastor’s Accountability Partners”) have hire-or-fire power over him.

      He has actually been told to his face “We don’t want to learn any more big words. You’re here to Keep Us Comfortable.”

      • I think Luther was very wise when he said in his Heidelberg Disputation that “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it. The love of man comes into being through that which is pleasing to it.” We are by our sinful natures consumers; God by nature is the Creator. Left to our own devices, we’ll all sit back and soak in what we can get. This is no new development; your friend’s congregations are the product of close to a century of American spiritual, therapeutic consumerism. Discipleship can be a slow, two-steps-forward-and-three-steps-back process. The past won’t be undone overnight. He may never see much fruit or progress. Sometimes it takes courage to be kind.

  12. It should be all about Jesus! Anything less or more is removing the focus of why we worship.

    • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

      Luther defined a church as a place where God’s word is preached and the sacraments are administered… I wonder if that criteria ever pops up on the radar of most American Christians.

  13. This comment is a reaction to the op-ed piece only. It is not a comment on the whole of Rev. MacDonald’s thought (I’ve never read his book, where I am sure he expands his thoughts a great deal), the value of pastors, the definition of pastors, the problem of pastoral burn-out, the effects on American society of pastoral burn-out, the diagnosis that there is something wrong within American Christianity or American society in general, the nature of that diagnosis, etc., etc., etc.

    What is niggling at me is that it seems to me that the general outline of the op-ed piece is a lament that doesn’t affect just pastors, but is something more epidemic in American society right now. The outlines of the lament are something like this:

    “I got into career XYZ because I had these particular skills and interests. I was able to contribute meaningfully to society in career XYZ. I was able to support myself and my family engaging in career XYZ. Now, suddenly, I can’t support my family! And my employer doesn’t value the skills that they used to value. I think my employer will come to regret chasing after something new, rather than valuing these skills. When I got into career XYZ, it had long been a career where you could support your family and meaningfully contribute to society your whole working life! And wisdom gained from long service was valued! But now “they” won’t pay me to use the skills that they used to value highly! [alternative version: “they” have taken my job and given to “them.” ]. All this change is really, really stressful and wrenching! ”

    I have complete compassion for how wrenching and stressful this change is. I myself am on career #2 because fulfilling, worthwhile, decent-paying career #1 was outsourced to other countries. I still exercise some of the core skills from career #1 because I’m good at them, I enjoy them, and I think my exercising them improves the lives of specific other people and society in general. I’m just not paid for exercising them any more.

    So I don’t want to sound uncompassionate when I ask these questions:

    Yes, the op-ed piece touches on aspects of American Christian culture which the Internet Monk community loves to discuss … and which need to be discussed. But is the core argument of this particular op-ed piece more the lament of many many white-collar professionals … and before them, blue-collar professionals … rather than something specific to the vocation of pastor?

    Is it an utter non-negotiable that the skills used in the vocation of pastor … as defined in, say, 1955 (since that is the date Rev. MacDonald uses in the op-ed piece to use as his baseline for congregational attitudes) … or as defined by Rev. MacDonald as the skills that led him to become a professional pastor … have to remain forever skills that are correlated with full-time paid employment?

    Or is it more “Pull up a chair, pastor, and join the club of highly-skilled white-collar professionals who are having to figure out a new economy and a changed society. Change in the American economy and society and the world in general sure is fast and furious, isn’t it!? Makes you feel like the rug got pulled out from under you sometimes! Sure are interesting and challenging times figuring out how what part of the expressions of the body of Christ are going to change, and what aspects of the expressions of the body of Christ need to stay the same, and where we all individually fit in all this.”

    • Your comment fails to analyze the reasons pastoral ministry expectations have changed. If it were just a matter of life changing and the church and pastors needing to adapt, that would be one thing. However, I think rather it is influences like the church growth movement and the seeker church approach that have built a new model of ministry on entirely new theological foundations.

      • I completely agree that consumer-driven expectations, church growth movement, seeker church approach are very problematic aspects of why pastoral ministry expectations have changed. And I agree that that is a widespread problem.

        However, I think I am reacting, like several commenters, to the comparison of the 1955 study and the 2008 study on how many people have changed religious affiliation. That paragraph begins with “consumer-driven religion has been gaining momentum for half a century”, then cites the study, then ends with “Americans sample, dabble, and move on.” Is consumer behavior applied to church attendance one reason for the greatly increased rate in % of people who change church affiliation? Absolutely. Does that consumer behavior cause great stress for church employees who consider exercising pastoral gifts extremely important? Absolutely.

        However, I’ve seen the discussion on internet monk several times over the years eventually assume the form of pastors saying “I’m so frustrated. It’s the congregation. They’re so consumer-driven!” And lay people saying “I’m so frustrated. It’s the pastors. They just want to be CEOs of a business and change everything so that it will attract more customers!” As valid as both frustrations are in many individual instances, and as much as both those particular issues need to be addressed, it seems like too often the whole picture is excessively reduced down to that argument, individuals feel unjustly accused under a very broad group umbrella (“pastors”, “laity”) and the very pastors and lay people who could productively work together on the problem end up with hackles up, glaring at one another.

        It seems to me that the whole picture on why many more people had changed religious affiliation in 2008 than in 1955 is vastly more complex. I am completely unqualified to analyze the whole societal, ethnic, economic, and philosophical changes in the American landscape between 1955 and 2008.

        However, I can observe that 1955 would have been my grandparents generation. My grandmother lived in the same town and went to the same church her entire life. My grandfather lived in the same town and went to the same church his entire adult life. Neither went to college. The vast majority of their friends had been known since childhood and went to the same church. Many relatives went to the same church. Which church denomination you went to seemed mostly determined by socio-economic status. There would seem to be many societal forces reinforcing staying at one church and many forces acting against changing churches.

        In my parent’s generation (1970s), the neighbors on one side of us were white with kids and went to the Catholic church. On the other side – white with grown kids and went to the Presbyterian church. Across the street – white with kids and went to the Baptist church. Going to church was the cultural norm. People moved a lot more than my grandparents, but it was the era of the denomination, so if you moved, you usually sought out the same denomination in the new town first.

        Me? Neighbor on one side is white, middle-aged, single gay man who avoids church. Neighbors on the other side are Thai immigrant with kids … mostly secular with Buddhist overtones, as far as I can tell. Neighbors across the street … well, white and lots of yelling, with a constantly changing mix of family members and generations I’ve never been able to figure out. Most recent officemate was secular Hindu immigrant with kids, every bit as concerned with bad moral influences on his kids as any culture-war evangelical. And churches within the same denomination varied drastically from one another, so when I moved, going to the “most similar” church often involved changing denominations rather than sticking with the same denomination. Not to mention that exposure to so many different cultures and philosophical mindsets in my neighbors/classmates/coworkers has caused to me to think and think and ponder and agonize and eventually change theological positions and practical-ministry approaches from time to time … which has led to changing my church association. I would like to think that that is not consumer-driven religion.

        In this changed cultural landscape, I think there are a huge number of factors besides consumer-driven religion on why the institutional church has changed since 1955 and why people may not stick with the same denomination … or the same faith … all their lives. And, yes, in retrospect, some of the changes institutional churches have made to try to address these changes seem bone-headed and destructive and apt to burn out the people most suited to pastor in a Jesus-shaped church.

        But have other, different opportunities arisen, also? Rev. MacDonald writes that his vocation is “help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways” and “to save souls by elevating people’s values and desires” and to “lead people to share in the suffering of others” and “to offer moral counsel in pastoral care sessions or to deliver sermons that make the comfortable uneasy.” Right now … regardless of how we got here … is the average church on the corner the only – or even best – place to exercise that vocation so as to reach a broad swath of society? Is it the only place to “know joy in ministering among people who share their sense of purpose”?

        I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do wish that pastors and laity with these types of concerns could talk together about these questions without getting caught up in the cross-fire of “you CEO pastor!”/”you consumer-religion laity!” finger-pointing.

        And I apologize to pastors to whom this does not apply, but from the point of view of this lay-person, one factor that seems to have hindered these types of conversations with specific pastors in my life is that pastors have livelihood/job-security issues on the line that laity do not. Rev. MacDonald specifically mentions job-security as one pole of the two poles he is torn between: “constantly forced to choose …between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security.” Lay people might understand better than the specific pastors I am thinking of seem to think we will … to use Rev. MacDonald’s words, broader economic changes have caused many of us understand very well being “constantly forced to choose, as they work through … daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security.”

        • linebackeru says

          Becky,You rock. Some great points.

        • Hi Becky,

          After reading your posts, I agree with you that times have changed, and that Christians must be savvy in how we minister to the world. I agree that the issue can not simply be boiled down to consumerism. I also agree that some pastors have created this very monster that some are seeing as inherently spiritually, emotionally, and physically unhealthy for pastors.

          There is a basic question here that needs to be answered. What is the role of the pastor? My feeling, from reading your first post, is that you feel the pastor is a professional like any other, and he should simply adjust to meet the demands of the market. This, I think, is exactly the consumeristic thought process that is partially responsible for the state in which some of evangelicalism finds itself. We have become disconnected from the biblical, theological, and historical moorings that have guided us in what it means to be pastor and Church representing, not the values of the market, but the values of the Kingdom.

          I present to you exhibit A of pastor as CEO: http://www.churchstaffing.com/job/27960/

          Does anyone think that this is what Jesus was talking about when he told Peter to feed the sheep? Here I paraphrase John Piper: You can’t weep with the hurting professionally. You can’t spend time in prayer professionally, You can’t battle your own sin professionally. You can’t professionally battle with your own insecurities every week as you prepare to present Christ to the people in the pews. The life and calling of the pastor is not the life of the professional.

          • wow…..pastor a church of > 1000 AND run two schools…… want the roof redone while I’m at it……?? that will be one loaded plate full for the right dispensationalist…

            GREG R

          • Apparently, it would also be helpful if the pastor is bilingual.

      • But is that any different than any white collar job which is buffeted by factors in the external environment? I think in general cultural/environmental change is much more rapid and deep than it has been in the last 50 or 100 years.

        We might look back at the early 1700s when the industrial revolution unfolded to find a time of similar societal upheaval across many different occupations. Workers were affected by factories, people moved into cities, Wesley got rolling.

        I’m really not enough of a religious historian to have a thesis, but stress and burnout in the pastoral occupations might naturally follow from stress in the people they pastor, which in turn is caused by discontinuous change in external technology and the economy.

        Consumerism is very much a function of marketing, which is basically information technology.

      • linebackeru says

        A better question is, ” would the flock follow these movements so readily if pastors had prepared them better in life. The answer is yes and no. Pastors aren’t required to fend off what others are doing. They should, however, take care of those who need them and are still around after everyone has buried their heads in newest large print self help book. Tired of pastors whining about ” those other guys.” Worry about your guys. In football i never cared who the other team had, but I did worry if or guys were prepared. If we prepare and do our best and still lose then we did or best.

  14. After 25 years at our church my wife and I are considering moving. Our main reason is twofold: the teaching ministry has gravitated toward topical/felt-needs based, and the music has become very entertainment oriented and loud. We feel like we are attending a special event each Sunday. I’d like to think that we are not consumers but the attractional model that we have been moving toward for many years has left us feeling pretty wanting with respect to something very important – substantive worship around the Word and song. We feel pretty sad about the whole thing.

  15. The church has been a big driver of the consumer mentality across our society, so now pastors are hoisted by their own petard.

    Christmas, for example. It’s a Christian holiday but is there any one day that is more a celebration of excess spending, debt and the strive for happiness through more material possessions?

    Family-life centers, for example. If our Youth don’t have a basketball court, coffee shop and video arcade, they might go to that church across the street.

    Libertarianism, for example. If a church preaches a pro-capitalism message, it should not be surprised when the congregation acts capitalistic and treats it like a business.

    • I was under the impression that the secular celebration of Christmas with Santa Claus, decked out trees, elves, snowmen et al and the exchanging of gifts was distinct from the Christian celebration of Christmas. Many people I know take part in the former yet are not Christians. I would imagine a lot of Christians celebrate both aspects and some may only celebrate the religious holiday.

  16. I am reading “Holiness” by J.C. Ryle and he spoke against people who chase after the next “emotional experince” or seek a Christianity that requires nothing of them. He wrote that in the late 1800s. It seems to me this isn’t a modern issue, but a human flaw – we want the easy road.

  17. I think we’re coming up against that serving God or money thing that Jesus guy said in some book somebody wrote a long time ago. I wonder what that guy would say to today’s consumerist church. Maybe something like, “Stop serving money, and start serving God — no matter what it costs, no matter how many people walk out and join the church across the street, and no matter how many religious professionals have to start delivering pizza to pay the bills and support their families.”
    Total and complete volunteerism — I think it’s the wave of the future.

    • And as a good friend of mine and former volunteer pastor often said to his congregation: “You can’t fire me because you don’t pay me.”

  18. There is a saying “the media is the message.” While I will not lay the blame for this solely (and perhaps not even as a majority) as the feet of the mega churches, they cannot have helped. When you start to broadcast the service as if it is a rock show, a certain sense of human connection is lost. And when churches seek to emulate the most “successful” others, I suspect that more damage is caused.

    Of course, this is speculation on my part. All of the services I have ever been to, the person at the altar (be they priest, minister, reverend or rabbi) could be heard from where I was unamplified. I could easily see the expression on their face.

    Douglas Adams wrote about “electric monks” in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. They were robots that didn’t look anything like the inhabitants of the world (being pinkish, having two eyes and only two arms, while their nose was the wrong shape and they were much too short, being only around 5’8″). The monks were used for the difficult process of believing for you. Yet another automation- when a proselytizer came to the door, they could talk to the monk who would then say “I believe you.” I imagine that they were also useful for sending to church in one’s place. I wonder how many people would use them nowadays if they were available.

    • LOL…..great, my monk can earnestly testify, ‘ dude, you were better than Piper, better than Dever…..where do I put my tithe check (based on gross pay) ???”

      Jason: my mind is spinning with possibilities…

  19. Oh my… 0=)

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