For church leaders, the post-Covid waters are treacherous. Bombarded with frequent reports of universal church decline, the rise of the 'nones', a loss of interest in organized religion and the exodus of millennials, tens of thousands of good pastors are treading water. Many pre-Covid attenders have not returned, having filled their weekends with sports, shopping, get-aways and maybe the occasional peek at the Sunday livestream. Some have made deals with the devil that will come due in unforeseen ways, possibly in the lives of their children, their children's children and their communities some years off.
An unexpected threat from trendy, blandly tagged, over logoed start-ups, big box churches and wannabes has appeared. Dangling legs of vulnerable church leaders attract an especially rapacious predator: the nearby barracuda pastor is circling, sniffing for blood. With the latest copy of Fast Company on the nightstand, these t-shirted and single-minded visionaries eagerly impose their brand by building on the losses of discouraged brother and sister pastors. Bleeding churches across the country, helmed by the walking wounded, struggle to survive Sunday to Sunday. Large numbers of exhausted, diminished churches and leaders, wearied from three long years of flailing and blood loss, slip unnoticed into the deep. No grave markers for these losers.
Beat-up pastors are asking some really hard questions
Is God pruning the church? Is He pruning the pastorate? Where do regular, average pastors fit in anymore?
If this is pruning season, God's shaping of His church is nothing new. Neither is the idea that the visible church should be always reforming and refining. Ecclesia semper reformanda, popularized by super theologian Karl Barth, goes back at least to that 5th century stalwart and father, St. Augustine.
It may be that average pastors are being pushed and molded by the Spirit, but not to be a better version of themselves or to build character in the churches they lead. There's a misconception here. According to the more radical parts of the New Testament, trials come not to improve our character. They are the vehicle by which Christ is formed in us. As Oswald Chambers observed, the evidence of genuine spiritual formation is a strong family resemblance to Jesus Christ. A best version of me has nothing to do with it. It's all about Jesus living His life in us and that's a mind-blowing concept. Current trials may be a tool in the hands of the Master.
So, perhaps the current shaking will allow Christ to be formed new in some good and longsuffering leaders.
But what about those predator pastors? They happily point to numbers as permission granted by church planting gurus, denominational leaders and the Holy Spirit to inflict injury on struggling churches and fellow pastors. Buoyed along by marketing strategies, algorithms, social media manipulation, denominational approval and confirmed by an appealing, very American but cynical, pernicious view of success, they are blind to their cutthroat church building tactics.
However, what they are building is no more durable than what they are building on. Lasting structures can't have poor foundations. Much of the current American church profile is confirmation of Rene Girard's insight that human behavior and most human desires are simply imitative.
The tragedy will not be in the eventual collapse of copycat predator churches but in the lives of hundreds of thousands now sitting in cookie cutter services, enveloped in the essential blue haze, coffee in hand, eyes locked on the very bright stage, who will slowly or suddenly become disillusioned with it all. Once the overconfident pastor steps in it or the hype becomes tedious, they will quit. Wounded like so many before them, they will find the emotional and psychological barriers to knowing a God who desperately wants to be known much higher and harder to navigate.
"An appalling and horrible thing Has happened in the land: The prophets prophesy falsely And the priests rule on their own authority; And My people love it so! But what will you do at the end of it?" Isaiah 5:30-31
Overstatement? What if it's not and what if God meant it? Take heart good pastor. You're not the one being pruned.