I’ve noticed that there are some myths about pastors floating about in the evangelical pond these days.
Have you noticed them, or is it just me?
Maybe I’ve noticed them because I finally have time to look around.
Or maybe it’s just because I’ve always been a rebel. I’ve always been an “Oh yeah? Show me!” kinda guy.
It could be due to the fact that it’s Thursday, when I’m more curmudgeonly than ever.
Whatever the reason for my heightened sensitivity, I’m worried about some of the myths about pastors. Some are benign, I suppose. But some are harmful to pastors and to their churches.
1. It’s on you to grow the church
It’s hard oppose church growth. Or criticize pastors of growing churches.
But many well-intentioned (and apparently successful) clergy have hurt pastors who haven’t enjoyed their serendipitous confluence of circumstances. It’s complex, and no one person or organization is to blame, but it’s hard to escape the fact that contemporary American Christianity has created the “church growth is inevitable myth.”
So we find a lot of stuff out there saying it’s on the pastor to grow the church. If he really wants it to grow, it will.
The New Testament knows nothing of this. Quite the opposite in fact.
Jesus took “ownership” of church growth away from the pastors. He kept it for himself.
I will build my church (Matthew 16:18).
It’s hard to ignore the fact that the verb here is first person singular. That means that Jesus owns this. It’s on him.
I’ve done my best to scour the New Testament to see if there’s anything about church growth being on the pastor. Instead I come across passages like this:
And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:47).
Note that these folks “were added” in response to the proclamation of God’s Word, the believers’ generosity and the church’s compelling corporate life.
This sentiment – that the Lord did the adding – echoes in Acts 5:14, 11:24 and a variety of other places. And it is probably behind Paul’s observation that the growth is due to the Lord’s work, not ours.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7).
Nope, not a word about “church growth” being the pastor’s responsibility.
2. You gotta cast compelling vision
I’m not sure who started the vision thing. Perhaps a church sociologist, a pollster or maybe it was simply a rogue wave.
Regardless of who started it, the last couple of decades’ chatter has been all about the pastor as visioneer. There’s lots of self-help stuff on the pastor as vision caster.
And there’s Barna’s memorable definition of vision.
Vision for ministry is a clear mental image of a preferable future imparted by God to His chosen servants and is based on an accurate understanding of God, self and circumstances. 
This definition enjoys the benefits of being concise, memorable and largely devoid of sound biblical ecclesiology.
Add to that the fact that it really doesn’t work in most churches.
- I’ve been on staff at very rapidly growing churches with lead pastors who didn’t have “a vision”
- Research on the distinctive characteristics of turnaround pastors is clear: they have a sense of vision but being a compelling “vision caster” is not essential to turning a church around.
- I’ve been an intentional interim for dysfunctional churches that had clear vision statements. They didn’t work but it wasn’t for lack of the departing pastor’s efforts!
- Barna’s “chosen servants”, which implies the pastor, is a fish bone stuck in my throat. I keep choking on it. If the Holy Spirit indwells all the members of a congregation then the Head of the Church is fully capable of imparting his direction to everyone, not just the pastor.
God’s servants often find their vision for ministry interrupted by a sudden change of plans. When that happens, whose vision was it? Paul’s vision of reaching the interior of Central Europe was interrupted by a call to Macedonia. His vision to set up a thriving congregation and missional seat in Thessalonica.
I suspect we’d be better off with less vision and greater sensitivity to the Holy Spirit. It’s probably an overstatement (and admittedly Pollyannish) but our ministry plans should have a thirty minute shelf life.
Leave the vision thing to the Head of the Church. Listen to him and let him lead. He’ll make sure it works out according to plan.
3. Preach to audience interest
The preacher steps into the pulpit under a black cloud. It’s on him to deliver an interesting, compelling and relevant homily that opens the scriptures to the heart and mind, challenges the culture, calls for life change, but doesn’t alienate large demographic cohorts.
So you carry all the latest tools into the pulpit.
- A topic of compelling contemporary interest
- A sermon series with a nondescript title
- Compelling intro
- Anecdotes and compelling life stories
- Shorter not longer
- A little exegesis thrown in for good measure, maybe even a smattering of exposition
- A call to action
I’m all in favor of interesting sermons. Who’d favor boring sermons other than those who don’t know how to preach them?
We’ve let the sociologists, marketing gurus, copy writers and communications theorists dictate the practice of homiletic art. Here’s my pushback on all this:
- The sermon’s purpose isn’t to entertain, scratch an itch, or even inform.
- The “sermon series” bears a major flaw – those who follow this ill-informed practice never get around to preaching the whole word of God because their text selection is always guided by what they think is interesting or relevant.
- The sermon’s is an instrument of life transformation in the Holy Spirit’s hands. As such, it is the Spirit’s responsibility to bring the message home.
- That’s why Paul specifically eschewed the rhetorical arts that were specifically geared toward eliciting audience response.
1 And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. 2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. 3 And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, 4 and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5 so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
This is one of those areas where things get weird. The preacher has a duty to prepare diligently, proclaim the “hard truths” rebellious people may not want to hear them, and (oh, the insensitivity of it all!) reprove, rebuke and exhort people who don’t have the patience for sound doctrine.
4. Learn to lead from the gurus
What can I say?
If I start listing all the bloggers, writers and rock stars that tout the “pastor as leader” trope I’ll probably end up in a cave somewhere all by myself. (If there was a chance I’d end up circumnavigating the planet on a sailboat I’d be happy to name names!)
Learning how effective pastors make decisions, react to opportunities and provide leadership is great. That’s the essence of biblical wisdom. But the key is this: you don’t do what they do, you approach things or think about things they way they do. One is mindless imitation, the other is wise emulation.
But do this and see what you come up with.
- Do an Internet search for the 100 most popular Christian blogsites/websites
- Go through and see how often you find an article about leadership
- Sample a few of them, especially at the flashier commercial sites, and see determine for yourself how much of what’s taught about pastoral leadership flows from contemporary leadership theory versus how much stands in solid biblical exegesis or at least sound biblical ecclesiology.
- Assemble your own clip file of articles that urge you to emulate _______________ (fill in the blank).
Figure out if the rock stars and gurus are telling pastors what to do (mindless imitation) or how to think about ministry (wise emulation). Then you decide whether I’ve missed the boat on this one.
But from where I sit, contemporary American Christianity is rife with leadership instruction from business management theory, the social sciences and the academy, much of which is cut off from its moorings in the New Testament.
So have I over generalized something here? What’s your reaction?
Give me some pushback.
- George Barna, “The Power of Vision: Discover and Apply God’s Vision to Your Life & Ministry.” Page 26.
- 2 Timothy 2:15
- 2 Timothy 2:14
- 2 Timothy 4:2-4