The American Church is suffering the high cost of low expectations.


I’m not referring to the low expectations that consumer driven churches have of their members.

I refer to the low expectations our American way of “doing church” places on pastors. They burn themselves out, and churches use them up, chasing low expectations. Although these expectations may be demanding, they are typically wide of the mark with regard to what Jesus called pastors to do and be. Because they don’t match up with Jesus’ expectations, they are “low expectations” even though they may be quite difficult to achieve.

So, as a result of these low expectations, our churches remain teetering on the edge of plateau, ready to slip into decline with the slightest cultural or demographic tremor.

The source of these low expectations are manifold. They include the way we train pastors, the model of pastoral success extolled in Christian media, and the unexamined preferences of many church members.

The problem isn’t that pastors don’t work hard. Most of them do. The problem is they work hard at the wrong things, which leaves them little or no resources to work on the right things.

Training for ministry: low expectations

Bible colleges and seminaries contribute to the problem of low expectations for pastors. This happens unintentionally, but it happens nonetheless. They stoke the love of study into an enduring flame, but the criteria of success sets future pastors up with low expectations.

In the learning environment students expect that a primary component (if not the main component) of pastoral ministry is a blend of:

  • Research and study
  • Writing
  • Theological fluency
  • Compelling presentations

These educational institutions are not entirely to blame. The accreditation monster saddles them with a fairly stringent taxonomy of educational objectives. These requirements bend the entire process in ways that instill a “ministry as education” or “ministry as therapy” model. As a result, students graduate with rather low expectations.

Christian media: low expectations

Popular Christian media (most of which is owned by secular media companies interested in squeezing a bit of market share from Christian believers) also contribute to the problem. They (is “media” a “they”?) bundle rock star pastors and go-go ministries as examples that others should follow. In the process, they persuade pastors and churches to buy into low expectations:

  • Attract people to mega and multi gatherings
  • Develop a large social media footprint
  • Emphasize production quality, staff capitalization, and product delivery
  • Get interviewed, get published, and get quoted

Church members: Low expectations

Church members, pastor search teams, and governing bodies contribute to the problem of low expectations. Yes, they expect their pastors to work themselves to death (often without realizing that’s what they expect).

Thom Rainer found that churches expect their pastors to work an average of 114 hours a week. But they don’t expect them to work hard at the things that matter the most. (see “Jesus Expectations” below)! They expect the pastor’s time to be spent something like this:

  • Prayer at the church: 14 hours
  • Sermon preparation: 18 hours
  • Outreach and evangelism: 10 hours
  • Counseling: 10 hours
  • Hospital and home visits: 15 hours
  • Administrative functions: 18 hours
  • Community involvement: 5 hours
  • Denominational involvement: 5 hours
  • Church meetings: 5 hours
  • Worship services/preaching: 4 hours
  • Other: 10 hours

The irony of low expectations

Lots of factors contribute to the tangled, confusing web of low expectations for pastors in the American church. The way we train pastors, our images of pastoral success, and the preferences of church members all contribute.

And this creates a two-fold irony:

  1. Pastors work very, very hard trying to meet all these expectations
  2. Most of these expectations aren’t, in the grand scheme of things, very important

So, even though pastors work harder than ever, they’re doing less significant work without even realizing it.

And the American Church continues to teeter on the brink of oblivion.

Jesus’ high expectations

Jesus had an entirely different set of expectations for pastors. In my bellicose moments I’m tempted to claim that almost none of what passes for successful pastoral ministry today bears any resemblance to what we find in the New Testament. Fortunately, those moments pass. Then I’m more likely to exchange “almost none” for “much,” thereby tempering an otherwise brash statement.

At the risk of oversimplification, I find that the scripture focuses on a small handful of interwoven expectations for the pastors whom Jesus bestows on his Church.

  • Abide
  • Equip
  • Protect
  • Discipline


Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing…. You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain….


The identify of the “fruit” in John 15 gives us a peek at scholarly schizophrenia if you take time to read some of the more technical commentaries. Some commentators see the “fruit” as “Christian character” throughout the chapter. Others find character in the early verses but then assume that John changes the metaphor’s direction toward “new believers” in the latter part of the chapter.

But there is no clear literary or theological signals indicating that John has changed the metaphor. Thus, John 15:16 clearly identifies the “fruit” as “new believers.” This text is the Johannine version of Matthew’s “great commission.” In John 15 we have “election language” (which, in the Bible, is invariably about appointment to mission) coupled with the imperative to “go.”

One of Jesus’ highest expectations of pastors – if they will indeed lead the church in effective mission – is relational.

They abide.


And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry….


The purpose clause “for the equipping of the saints” (Gr. pros ton katartismon) tells us what Jesus expects. He expects pastors to repair what’s broken and to provide what’s missing in order to prepare Christian believers to serve Jesus. When pastors fulfill this expectation, church members conduct ministry that leads to a mature church.^1 It then becomes a place in which Jesus can build his Church.^2

The chain of logic go something like this:

  • Christ himself gives pastors to the church (11)
  • The pastor’s primary duty is to equip believers to minister (12)
  • When believers minister, the church matures (15)
  • When the church is mature, it is a place where Jesus can build (16)

Abiding and equipping go hand-in-hand. Pastors need discernment in order to identify what needs to be repaired in the plateaued church. They also need wisdom to know what needs to be provided to the ineffective church. Finally, they will need strength to endure the challenges they will face when they lead the church in transition from low expectations to high expectations.

In the next post of this series, I’ll focus on two more of Jesus’ expectations of pastors: protect and discipline. I’ll also have a free resource, the Expectations Assessment Tool, for those who sign up for our newsletter.


Pastors are working harder than ever. In the face of diminishing financial resources and low-commitment members, they have fewer resources than ever to work with.

If they continue to invest their dwindling resources in pursuit of low expectations, we should anticipate the American Church accelerate its decline into oblivion.

Isn’t it time that pastors throw off the high cost of low expectations and go back to doing it Jesus’ way? After all, what we’re doing right now isn’t working, and in the few places it is tried I’m happy to report that wildly unexpected success is the result.


^1: Note the singular “a mature man” in v. 15.

^2: The subject of the verb “causes growth” in v. 16, is Christ himself, who is identified at the end of v. 15.