Monthly Archives: May 2014

Pastoring is NOT what it used to be

There was a time when pastors were true shepherds of souls. They were sought after as the spiritual guides who had access to privileged spiritual information and therefore could speak authoritatively into people’s lives. They were the moral upholders of community, able to act as the voice of society’s conscience. Their primary job was to connect a community with God through preaching, counseling and teaching. Their position was undisputed and trusted. They were role models of morality, family values and model citizens. They were in charge of small communities, knew most of his parishioners by name and were there in the most important events of their lives: birth, baptism, marriage and death.

How the world has changed! If pastors can still be seen as spiritual guides so are Oprah and Deepak Chopra. If before they had access to privileged information, now anybody can access the Internet for Greek dictionaries, books and most other resources that in the past was only available to a few. If in the past they were the sole spiritual gatekeeper for a small community of believers, now they compete with many voices that are constantly speaking into the parishioner’s life. Not only that but their sermons are being scrutinized by society (case in point, a former pastor in Pasadena just got fired from this public service job because of a YouTube video of a past sermon in which he denounced homosexuality). Congregants now will listen to the pastor on Sunday and their favorite preacher’s podcast in the week. If they are curious about theology, they will buy books, read articles or enroll in seminary themselves. Many may already have some theological training through Christian college.

The role model piece is also being re-defined. While most pastors live upstanding lives, the high-profile scandals taint their reputation in society. Yet somehow, the expectation of perfection continues. The reality is that given  the current set up, the only image people get of pastors is who they are in the pulpit. Then, it is no surprise that when they get to know them better the reality falls short of the pulpit image.  This would be the case with any politician, artist or any other celebrity.

Pastors don’t counsel anymore. They leave this to therapists who many times have little training to address spiritual issues that come enmeshed in psychological issues. The current dominant church model defines the pastor’s job on a 45-60 minute sermon on Sunday and the administration of the church. He or she is judged by her weekly performance. On the administration side, most pastors struggle.  They tend to be poor administrators. Pastoring and managing require very different and at time diametrically opposed skills. The good administrator is rarely the compassionate type.

Then there is the constant comparison to the successful mega-church pastor. North American evangelical society projects the image of the successful CEO in every pastor. Well attended conferences teach the “how-toss” of building a mega ministry. Books tell tales of success affirming that if so pastor made it so can any pastor who follows these steps. They are to strive for the success portrayed by large and wealthy ministries even at the expense of family and spiritual health. Even those who are immune to this comparison trap face the harsh reality that their small or mid-size church is competing with mega-churches for the same parishioners in the area.

It is no surprise that many pastors are quitting their jobs. This is not only true for the small church pastor struggling to make ends meet. It is becoming a reality for even high-profile preachers.  The recent resignation of high-profile preachers like Francis Chan and Rob Bell is an intriguing turn of events. No, these guys did not step down because of moral failures. They simply walked away from highly successful ministries to pursue different opportunities. Another bizarre twist was a Swedish mega-church Pentecostal pastor stepping down and “converting” to Catholicism. While these pastors may be unique, you have to wonder what would drive successful pastors to step down. Are those anomalies or symptoms of larger problems in the church system?

 

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My journey with church

Let me return to the series on the changing landscape of spirituality. After the first part where I described some current trends in church attendance, I now turn to my own experience with the church. My dad probably preached a sermon in the week I was born. Heck, I might have been born inside a church building considering how central this institution has been in my life. One of my first social memories was in church. That was the first place, outside my family, where I found my place in the world. In many ways, it was a second home. There I felt loved, accepted and understood – until everything changed.

In my early adolescent years, this world collapsed. My parents informed me that the church which we have been part was dissolving. Being not just a member but in the pastor’s family meant our lives were about to change drastically. In a year’s time, we moved to the United States to a whole new culture that also included a whole new church environment. No longer I was the preacher’s kid in the church of my childhood. I was now a Brazilian charismatic Christian teenager trying to find a place in the Southern Baptist Caucasian American church. What a shock! My experience in the mega-church youth ministry was bizarre. It really felt like a whole different gospel. While I met sincere believers along the way, my impression overall was of a shallow Christianity. We were not being nourished, we were being entertained.

Then came the college years. This is a time where your mind is stretched, your world is re-interpreted and your faith is deeply challenged. In the midst of that, I struggled again to find a place in the student ministries available on campus. I sensed the similar shallow youth group approach and just could not connect with Christians at the school. Thankfully, I did find a home church with a pastor willing to take me in and help me find Christian community again. For a while it felt familiar –here I was in a charismatic church that operated in similar ways to what I had grown accustomed to.

Yet, this sense of familiarity would soon grow into restlessness. After college and now married, I found myself feeling out of place again. The evangelical theology that raised me seemed now utterly inadequate to address the challenges of married life and vocation. Church services were endless searches for the supernatural with little connection to daily life. There was also very little incentive to think through these issues and a lot of emphasis on unquestioning belief. I felt depressed. For months, I would dread the weekend knowing we would have to go to church. This went on for years. At this point I came to settle in this strange position of loving the universal church but believing I would never find a true home church again.

Finally, a glimmer of hope appeared. In my late twenties, I found a church that made me believe in church again. The worship, the message and the environment exuded freshness. For the first time in over a decade, I had found a home. I found fellow believers struggling to work their faith through a changing environment with the courage to ask the unspoken questions. Yet, God is never satisfied to leave us at awe of anything but Him. Soon came crushing disappointments, unfulfilled promises and a growing sense that it was time to leave. This was a slow but painful process that would eventually send us across the country to California for a new beginning.

My story is somewhat unique, yet the themes are very common.  The evangelical bubble burst, and we had to learn to find God in new ways. By God’s grace, I never left the faith. Yet many of my on-fire fellow teeange believers have become jaded adults, skeptical of church, faith and at times even God. I would not have survived have it not been for a disciplined devotional life that carried me to God’s arms when the church could not do so. More recently, I have also learned the power of Christian community when I myself could not do it on my own.

To me this is not just a topic of study. It is deeply personal. I do it not in a desire to expose the failings of institutional church but hopefully to help those who have grown disillusioned with it. It is only through study and prayer that I have come to see the universal and timeless bride of Christ. Thorough this perspective I am learning to love her with all her faults. Yet, I also believe we are in a time of transition. A time in which the Church may not be contained only in the human organizations we built to contain her. What does that look like and how will it take form?

Like the people of Israel, we too are experiencing exile. The familiar is no longer certain, but only a vague memory of a country we left behind. What will it take to be faithful to Christ in the Babylon of fast change? These are the questions I am concerned with.

 

Why we are sponsoring a child with World Vision

Before I go back to my series on quitting church, I wanted to weigh in on a current controversy that still lingers. I know that for some this is old news but late in March, World Vision announced that it would start hiring individuals in same sex relationships. Two days later, the organization reversed its decision after the uproar in the evangelical community against it. You can read more about the controversy here.

Today, I stumbled upon this podcast in the Gospel Coalition site where a pastor re-tells how he and his congregation reacted to the controversy.  To be fair, the podcast had some positive points. If you are looking for hatred or caricature image of conservatives you will not find here. Here was a pastor looking to engage people with same-sex attraction, while still holding a biblical view of marriage.

However, what was sorely missing from this discussion was any allusion to the impact this controversy had on sponsorships. The pastor did encourage people to sponsor again but this was a very short portion of the broadcast. Maybe, this was a tacit show of priorities in the evangelical mindset right now: fighting culture wars first, helping the poor second.  Some estimates claim that as high as 10,000 lost sponsorships. This is when I decided to write something about it. I honestly find it tremendously un-biblical (to say the least) to neglect the poor in such manner. What was missing from this podcast was that this was not about cultural wars but about helping the most vulnerable in the world. Both presenter and the pastor totally neglected this very important point.

What makes really upset is that even after the policy was reversed, past sponsors have not returned.  World Vision probably considered this decision not because of pressure from society but by realizing that to hire the most competent people; they may need to consider those in same-sex relationships. Honestly, if this is the standard for doing business with a company then evangelicals should not buy anything from most Fortune 500 companies. The majority of them already hires and provides benefits for people in same-sex relationships.

I hope evangelicals who oppose same-sex marriage will realize that the child in Kenya needing help is more important than a political statement in the US. This is an example of trying to win a battle while missing its impact in the overall war. I do not have space in this post to list all the verses in Bible in which points toward caring for the poor and or God’s negative view of those who do not.

After this controversy, we decided to start sponsoring a child ourselves. We thought we needed to put our money where our mouth is. I encourage all of you to consider doing as well, REGARDLESS of your thoughts on same-sex marriage. For Christ’s sake, let us never forget the least of these.