At the beginning of this year, I began asking myself whether we really exalt God’s Name and His Word above all things? Assuming first that this is without dispute our calling, I’ve come to believe even more strongly that the evangelical movement – all too frequently – does not do so. My observation is that we as evangelicals tend to focus on the wrong things (“WHAT” is wrong) and tolerate doing even the right things the wrong way (“HOW” is wrong). My last comments on this subject (at least in this train of posts) relate to one other area in which we may sadly miss the mark – and it’s the most fundamental point, relating to the roles and responsibilities of the individual in the body of Christ. Said simply, WHO we are… is sometimes wrong, too.
Think with me about this from three directions - I'll highlight each one with a question. You be the judge, but I think that in many instances, the answers to these questions indicate that “WHO we are” may very well be wrong.
Here's today's question: WHO does “The church” Think That We Are?
One of the sad trends I’ve observed lately revolves around the role of the individual in today’s organized church. I’ve struggled with how to discuss this shift in thinking, so I’ll illustrate it through personal example.
My father-in-law served as a pastor of a number of churches during his ministry life. Typically, his churches were small (at least by today’s “mega-church” standards), and his staff was similarly small. My wife and I were married later in his ministry, so I didn’t have the advantage of watching him during the majority of his time in service. But during many long afternoons shared in front of the Cubs game while our wives were shopping, he shared with me his passion for his churches, and his philosophy of ministry.
The local church existed, he would say, to glorify God by equipping the people to do the work of ministry. His focus, as a result, was on the clear proclamation of the Word of God, and the practical teaching of Word to God’s people. He loved to tell me about what the people were doing in obedience to the Word. He loved the people… and he spent his time and energy serving them and equipping them to be the body of Christ in their community. In his world, church leadership existed to serve the people in the congregation, who in turn were responsible for reaching their world as the Body of Christ.
If I had to sum up his view of his role in ministry in just one word, it would be this: Shepherd.
Today, the philosophy seems very different in many places, and the view that my father-in-law held about the individual in his congregation is increasingly viewed as “small church” thinking. Church leaders today are visionary, planning programs and ministries to do the work of the body of Christ, and the people in attendance at the local church are to get on board with that program. Church growth has become a major data input in determining the spiritual health of a local church. As a result, programming is aimed towards getting people into the fellowship and helping them become at least preliminarily assimilated. Preaching priorities also recognize the reality of a “largely new” congregation, and while of course the Word is still preached, the focus of preaching is far more likely to be aimed at those who are outside of the faith or at the entry level of discipleship.
Even more fundamentally, programming for a church becomes less about equipping and more about doing. At first blush, that sounds right, but what I really mean is this: Increasingly, churches are expected to program “ministry” and to provide paid staff for that programming. And the “work of the church” becomes increasingly mixed with the work of the church staff. Rather than primarily doing the ministry, congregants are expected to support the ministry being done by the staff.
I read a blog recently from a church in another area of the country, and a statement illustrated this point. The writer said that his church’s pastor was God’s “man for the area” and that the people in the church needed to get behind him and “serve Pastor [X]”. I don’t know the church or the man, but the sentiment highlighted to me the shift in thinking that I’ve seen over my years in local church participation. Based on my limited observation of churches and trends (Christianity Today, for example), I question whether what I’m observing is something others are increasingly seeing. Whether it’s a trend or not, it seems clear to me that pastors in this environment do not have the luxury of shepherding… that has become the role of others on staff or in lay leadership.
If I had to sum up the most important role in the view of many in ministry positions today with one word, it would be this: Leader.
So back to the question I raised above – who does “the church” think we are (or what does church leadership see as the role of the individual in the ministry of the local church)? In answering the question I’ve raised above, my father-in-law would have said that the role of the individual is to do the ministry of the church, and his role was to equip and support them in doing so - as a shepherd. I suspect that many in the evangelical church today would find my father-in-law’s answer to be quaint, and perhaps a little naive. I think today, many in evangelical churches would say that it is the role of the pastor and his staff to establish ministries and to do the ministry, and the role of individuals is to follow well and support the staff - in their role as leaders.
Here's one free observation… Shepherding is always leadership, but leadership is not always shepherding. And the church today suffers from the lack of shepherds, and an overabundance of leaders.
Is it possible that in all of the effort to lead people, we've lost the emphasis on really loving them?
I believe that the focus in churches on "building up" (growing to maturity the people God has entrusted to our care in a local body) has become sidetracked and replaced in priority by the process of "building out" (growing the number of people under our influence). And the emphasis on reaching new people has too often had the unwanted side-effect of missing many of the people who are already there. The desire to reach new people has come with an increasing impatience for those who have been in the body. And where does this lead to in the long run?
For one thing, individuals - people (individual members of the church), who were previously celebrated in life, loved and cared for in difficulty, visited in sickness, and mourned corporately in death, become increasingly… well, fungible, or replaceable. The focus becomes slanted towards winning over the new people as opposed to growing a group of people to maturity. Relationship maintenance -which by its nature is difficult and time consuming - becomes secondary, and as a result, people are leaving the backdoor of churches unpursued, and the relentless pursuit of new people makes them feel unimportant and unwanted... left at best to hope that things may be different in the next church they attend.
John Armstrong noted in an insightful post the decline of “pastoral leadership” in evangelical churches. Here's one thought from that article:
This is a very important observation, and I’d commend John’s article (and its discussion about the decline of the ministry of shepherding) to your attention. In the spirit of seeking to accomplish something great for God, must our focus always be on the numeric growth? Or is it possible that, by seeking to go deeper - even at the expense of growth in numbers, we might actually accomplish more than we even currently imagine?
"The church in North America, generally speaking, has all but lost the older pattern of biblical shepherding. Seminaries don't teach it, and haven't taught it for decades. We generally seek catalytic change agents to lead our congregations, not shepherds who will care for sheep, or who at least make certain they are cared for by a team that knows how to do this ministry well.
We have plainly bought into the modern CEO model of leadership more than the humble disciple of Jesus model, which is relationally-based. This is so obvious that I would be surprised if anyone would challenge it. What people will challenge is the idea that this change is an entirely negative one..." (Read Article Here)
I suspect that there are many reasons for the decline in shepherding. Just as one example, the emphasis on growth and size of many local churches seems to both define the view of the spiritual condition and health of the local body, while at the same time contributing to the difficulty in shepherding the people there! The bigger the congregation, the more programs it can offer, the bigger its resource base - and the harder it is for pastors and elders to actually connect with, love and care for the people in the congregation. Increasing, individual events and issues can not be brought to the body for attention - even prayer - simply because of the logistical difficulty of doing so for so many people. Maintaining consistency in teaching and care is harder to accomplish. And too often, these logistic difficulties press leaders to reward those who "go along" and minimize, ignore or even avoid those people who are "higher maintenance" people. Even though the Good Shepherd left the 99 to pursue the 1, the temptation today increasingly is to let the one go for the benefit of the 99.
It is striking to me that Jesus, when confronted with the opportunity to grow his number of followers, consistently thinned the crowds. While he dealt with the many, he invested in the few. When the masses were clamoring for Him, He told a hard truth, stressed the cost and didn't seem overly concerned when people left... His life was poured into a few. And the intimacy in relationship led to men who were dramatically changed.
Today's church system seems almost at the opposite end of the spectrum. And the wider our influence spreads, the thinner our depth seems to be when tested. (We'll talk more about that in response to the third question.)
This problem is exacerbated by the leadership structure in many churches… even those which claim to be “elder led” leadership structures. In many churches, the leadership structure most closely resembles an American corporation, with a CEO and a Board of Directors. The CEO, as the head of management, is expected to be the “visionary leader” who sets direction for the enterprise. The role of the Directors is to provide support and resources for the CEO, as well as some level of accountability – but they are not “management.” So the CEO sets a direction, the Directors rally around it and the organization pursues it. Sadly, this model is increasingly prevalent in today’s evangelical churches.
What are men typically asked to do in a local church... and what makes them "good" congregants? Well, they need to show up (at worship services, business meetings - maybe men's ministry), they need to give, and they need to follow - and help out when asked. I've heard men say that there is no place in the local body for them to serve - and that is a tragedy, and a failure in the body - and a problem in the church's focus. Because the "church" is really the people in it - more so than the leaders who direct it. But today's model focuses more on the role and responsibility of "leaders" than it does in focusing on the role and responsibility of the individuals to actually do (and lead!) the "ministry" of the church.
There are many problems with today's model, not the least of which is that the plurality of leadership in the local fellowship is clearly taught in the New Testament. More importantly, when one man sets direction without the passionate participation by the spiritual leadership of the church, the prospects for error greatly increase. Vision is not one man’s idea of what God wants from the local fellowship; it is God’s direction, discernable by the whole of the leadership structure and implemented in a manner that is concerned for the well being of the flock under their care. Leadership structures that, as a practical matter, delegate the “vision” responsibility to the pastor alone do their pastor and their congregation a great disservice, and they abdicate their primary responsibility to be leaders, not merely cheerleaders for “management.”
We – each one of us, you and me – are all called to be the body of Christ. We are called to be salt and light. And we are “the church.” That is not a role that can be assumed by others - it's our responsibility... yours and mine. And when we as individuals are viewed by leaders as tools to support the real ministry conducted by the professionals - and are not viewed primarily as "the ministers" ourselves, WHO WE ARE – is wrong.
Next time: WHO do we think that WE are?