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Pastoring in the Twenty-First Century

Common consensus holds that the role of the pastor has changed dramatically in the past few decades.  Despite the belief that the exclusive model for pastoring should be the New Testament church, the ministry has evolved into a functional role that bears little resemblance to the corresponding ministers of the first century.  The level of education, a radically different culture, affluence and the technology available to us today as opposed to the early church make up the more conspicuous differences.  

These changes exist on a sliding scale from benign to malignant, and so we cannot reject them all out of hand.  The critical response is that while accommodating change, pastors need to make sure that the essential nature of pastoring, or shepherding, is not lost.  This possibility looms large when we attempt to stay relevant to the society and culture to which we minister.  Relevancy in and of itself is a valuable asset, but it can also be problematic if it is indexed to popular culture rather than the timeless message of the Bible.  

Cosmetic changes are not necessarily the focus of this discussion, but, since these are the first things that people notice, let’s mention a few of them.  Some ministers no longer stand behind a physical pulpit or lectern to preach.  They sit on a stool set up in the middle of the platform or stage.  They say it removes a visual barrier between the speaker and the audience and gives the sense of the pastor being more accessible and human.  Some wear street clothes instead of the traditional suit and tie, again, to identify with the listeners and establish rapport without the intimidating image of formal dress.  Additionally, the use of elaborate lighting schemes, projection of scriptures on a large screen, use of multimedia displays including video clips to accent or illustrate major points made in the sermon—all of these innovations make our day different from twenty years ago, let alone two millennia.  

But more importantly, pastors today struggle with the function of ministry, both in and out of the pulpit.  Do we lead or follow?  Do we confront or circumvent?  Do we impress or instruct?  Do we give orders or take orders?  Current trends now cast the strong, authoritarian leadership of the past as oppressive or even cultic.  “The Man” has given way to the more collaborative approach of ministry teams.  Many pastors are moving from “one of them” to “one of us.”  Pulpit performance, teaching methods, administrative styles, disciplinary actions—almost every aspect of ministry—is now undergoing change.   The nearly two hundred book collection on leadership in my library speaks to the complexity of this new wave. 

A huge catalyst for this change is that we no longer minister to provincial audiences who have few cultural inputs other than the mooing of the cows and the occasional letter from a cousin who moved a hundred miles away.  Satellite dishes, cable networks, the internet, cell phones and other cutting edge technologies have given them a steady diet of the best of everything that our society has to offer—the best speakers, the best comedians, the best singers, the best actors, etc.  Every aspect of entertainment, education and information are at their immediate disposal.  

This universal exposure to professional performance also extends into the world of religion and church service production.  Technology has enabled church goers to listen to preachers who are very likely to be more poised, polished and knowledgeable than their local man.  They can enjoy music and worship services that far and away eclipse the typical output of the average church.  To consumers in remote areas, audio and visual expertise makes these venues seem light years ahead of their own churches and pastors.  The unintended consequences, however, are that many parishioners fancy themselves connoisseurs and critics instead of simply spiritual hungry people who need to be fed.  This level of sophistication represents a continual challenge to pastors in terms of maintaining the interest of the audience and keeping their loyalty.  We may argue whether or not these are valid or appropriate goals, but it is clear that they are factors in the business of successful pastoring. 

So, what are we supposed to do?  Lacking both the funds and the expertise, we cannot compete head to head with these alternative sources of inspiration.  Actually, a serious study needs to be done that probes at the very heart of it all:  is this the scriptural way to do church?  Have the slick outreach methods of the twenty-first century set the standards for the way the entire church should function?  Should the expectation of all be rated by the few who have the resources to be cutting edge?  These are not “sour grapes” questions motivated by envy or bitterness.  I applaud those who strive to present the gospel in the best and finest way possible.  Not only are they doing their best, they demonstrate to the rest of us that we can do better and be better.  At the same time, we need to be cognizant of the far-reaching ripples that feather out to the extremities of our constituents.  

It is time, more than ever, to return to the basics of our calling and simply do the work of pastoring, with our without the peripherals.  The degree to which we incorporate the cosmetic changes into our ministry style is less important than is our dedication to the job of preaching and caring for people.  In the medical world, a sick person needs to be transported to the best hospital available, regardless of the condition of the ambulance or EMT vehicle.  If it runs, it’s good.  In the church world, anyone who preaches the true gospel is as valuable to the cause of salvation as is his or her most sophisticated counterpart.  As my dad used to say, “Anyone who preaches the truth is a good preacher!” 

  • We must not confuse entertainment with anointed preaching.
  • We must not substitute stage-worthy performance for substantive teaching.
  • We must not equate titillation with truth.
  • We must not depend on special effects and multimedia for the genuine move of the Holy Spirit.
  • We must not gauge the quality of worship by the genre of our music or the skill of our musicians.
  • We must not show we care just by communicating in hip vernacular.
  • We must not show relevance just by our casual dress or house of worship décor. 

Can anointed preaching also be entertaining?  Absolutely!  Can substantive teaching also be a stage-worthy performance?  Certainly.  Can lighting, mulitimedia, music, style of communication, dress and décor enhance the move of the Spirit, sincere worship, care and relevance?  Without a doubt.  We must be extremely careful, however, that the criteria by which we judge the intended outcome is not tied to methodology, but to integrity of mission.  Jesus did not come to entertain the lost, but to save them!  Simon the Sorcerer was more into the “wow” factor than the worship factor!  (Acts 8:18).  If we succeed in the outward trappings of the gospel presentation but fail in the real mission of getting people to heaven, then we have failed—royally and miserably. 

I admit that this appeal grows more complicated as each year—or some fraction thereof—rolls by.  The youth of today are much more visual in their acculturation than was my generation.  One needs no further proof of the generational differences than the construction of these three sentences!  Nobody under forty talks or writes like this anymore.  My point is that it is just as wrong for me to equate my style to “the way things ought to be done” as to castigate the present generation for its style.  How dare I say that the way we did church in the sixties and seventy styles represents the only way to do church today? Such intransigence is headed for major disappointment.  My insistence on truth, however, has nothing to do with style of presentation or generational differences.  There are core beliefs that transcend every age.  Truth must be never become the casualty of any attempt at relevance.   

So, preacher, preach the truth!  Preach full salvation.  Preach the oneness of God, prayer, fasting, worship, healing, miracles, discipleship and faithfulness.  Preach modesty and holiness!  Preach about the soon return of Christ for His church.  Preach the Bible as the Word of God.  Preach about giving of tithes and offerings.  Preach about spiritual authority and good works.  Preach love, joy, peace and patience.  Preach unity and humility.  Preach with conviction and commitment.  Do not shun to preach the whole counsel of God. 

Any preacher who truly respects the message he or she represents will strive for excellence and relevance in presentation.  Others may surpass you in ability, but no one must surpass you in sincerity.  If you can do better, but you excuse yourself for some superficial reasons, you must get back on track.  Whatever God called you to be, it was not to be mediocre or complacent!  Let us rise to the highest level that our abilities and resources will allow.  In the end, that’s what God will bless.

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Reader Comments (1)

I love your blog's design! I just started one myself for our church's website. I'm kind of new to blogging though so I'm checking out other Christian blogs to get some inspiration for design and content. Feel free to check our new blog at Sanctuary of Praise

Would love to know what you think!

October 1, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrad Rothman

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