Brenda took me to see A Christmas Carol this holiday season. The production at the Missouri Rep was absolutely wonderful. The story was as fresh as when I first saw it there as a child.
As we watched Ebenezer Scrooge undergo his transformation from selfish miser to generous patron, I was asking God to give me the same heart — hopefully without the ghostly visions.
This wasn’t the first time Brenda and I saw this production. Christmas of 1998 we had our first official date at the same theater, seeing the same play. She bought tickets to this year’s performance to celebrate the twenty years we’ve been together.
So, here’s to a great twenty years, and twenty more to come, and twenty more after that….
So I preached last Sunday, and I really tried not to pull any punches. The talk was on the parable of the “rich fool”, and the punchline was that we don’t really trust God, even though we say we do. We fall for the “grand illusion” that one of my favorite bands, Styx, sang about in the early 80s:
But don’t be fooled by the radio / The tv or the magazines / They show you photographs of how your life should be / But they’re just someone else’s fantasy / So if you think your life is complete confusion /
Because your neighbors got it made / Just remember that it’s a grand illusion / And deep inside were all the same.
So after I’m done, I get all sorts of people thanking me for the message. One guy said it was the best he’s heard me give. They’re happy that I told them we’re all a bunch of hypocrites who don’t really trust Jesus when he says he’ll take care of us? They’re happy that I said we’re just dupes who fall for the wisdom of the world, which tells us to get more and more stuff for ourselves? Shouldn’t they be mad at me instead, or at least offended?
So maybe the real grand illusion is the one that preachers fall for. We think we need to make our listeners feel happy about the decisions they’ve already made. I think they’re more satisfied when we just tell them the truth.
Here’s some disturbing information about pastors in America that I read in a book called Pagan Christianity? The premise of the book is that certain traditions we Christians have (among them, a paid pastor who does most — if not all — of the ministry of the church) are rooted in unbiblical sources. True or false, the picture the authors paint of pastors is bleak. Here are some statistics:
- 94% feel pressured to have an ideal family.
- 90% work more than forty-six hours per week.
- 81% say they have insufficient time with their spouses.
- 80% believe that pastoral ministry affects their family negatively.
- 70% do not have someone they consider a close friend.
- 70% have lower self-esteem than when they entered the ministry.
- 50% feel unable to meet the demands of the job.
- 80% are discouraged or deal with depression.
- More than 40% report that they are suffering from burnout, frantic schedules, and unrealistic expectations.
- 33% consider pastoral ministry an outright hazard to the family.
- 33% have seriously considered leaving their position in the past year.
- 40% of pastoral resignations are due to burnout.
Ok, so this information tells us that many pastors have a horrible job and are on the brink of quitting or having a nervous breakdown — oh, and their families are falling apart. However, compare this with a study from the Barna group (full story here), which says:
At least four out of every five Protestant Senior Pastors said they do an above-average job – defined as either an “excellent” or “good” rating – in three of the 11 aspects of pastoral involvement examined. Nine out of ten said they are above average in preaching and teaching, 85% said they do well in encouraging people, and 82% claimed to be excellent or good in the area of pastoring or shepherding people. Nearly three-fourths (73%) said they do well in providing leadership for their church, while two-thirds said they are above average in motivating people around a vision (68%) and discipling or mentoring (64%). Six out of ten pastors claim they do well in evangelism (60%), while slightly more than half of all Senior Pastors say they are better than most in counseling (54%), administration or management (53%) and developing ministry strategy (53%).
What do these two surveys tell us? Pastors have a hell of a job, but they are doing a hell of a job? Actually, no. I tend to agree with George Barna, who says regarding the above paragraph, “It’s unrealistic for most pastors to claim that they perform at an above-average level in such a large number of disparate ministry duties as those examined in the study.” He suggests that what is needed is an objective evaluation process.
What we have now, apparently, is a bunch of overworked and under-resourced pastors who think that they are doing a great job.
Perhaps we do need to re-examine the traditional role of the pastor. There are 500,000 paid pastors in the US. Every month, 1,400 ministers leave the pastorate. Every month! The average length of a pastorate is just over four years — down from seven years in the 80s. I’m not surprised; who would want the job?
I was looking through some photos that were taken the last time I went to Mexico. In the pic, I’m having a casual conversation with a good friend of mine, as we sit on a park bench. It’s very unremarkable. But it spoke to me.
What the photo doesn’t show is that we are surrounded by dozens of kids who live in an orphanage just a few miles into Mexico. Our group had just finished feeding them dinner — burgers, chips, a can of soda, and some cookies. Not a very special meal by our standards, but an absolute feast by theirs. They rarely get meat, and to be able to have seconds is unheard of. And of course a whole can of pop to themselves is quite a treat.
So my friend and I were just relaxing as the kids ran and played all around us. I was reminded then, and am again now, of the advice of Jesus: “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.”
None of those kids will ever invite me over to dinner at their house. I’ll never get repaid, and I don’t mind a bit. Jesus was right — I was blessed. It was a privilege to serve them. We escorted the kids through the food line, helped the little ones with their plates, and waited on the tables throughout the meal. It was easy.
Donald Miller wrote, “When you love somebody, you get pleasure from their pleasure, and it makes it easy to serve.”
I’ve been thinking for some time of what it would take to start a church. That is, what it would take for me to start a church. It sounds like a fun, challenging, and worthwhile idea — at least, it did until I watched my friend in the middle of one.
It seems the problem lies in whatever meaning people pour in to the word “church”. In English, the word could mean a building, a meeting held at the building, or the group of people who attend that meeting. But even more difficult are the things people attach to the notion of church. There appears to be an assumption that a church should have certain features, like youth group and moms day out, and provide certain offerings, such as marriage ceremonies and confirmation classes. People may start attending because they like the pastor or whatever, but sooner or later it seems they inevitably start looking around for the other stuff.
Maybe it’s because the church takes money. If people give to the church, maybe they think the church should be doing something for them.
So I don’t want to start a church anymore. Instead, I’d like to be part of a community that does the four things the disciples did in Acts: the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, eating together, and praying. Let’s not call it church. Let’s not take money. Let’s just start doing the stuff the apostles did — and see what happens.