Friday, March 28, 2014

Respect Pastor Popularity?

American pastors seem to be under the cross-hairs a lot these days.

They get into scandals that can morph from congregational gossip to national news practically overnight.  They burn-out from stress at alarming rates because most American congregations expect their professional Christians to do everything they're supposed to be doing.

Preaching?  That's just was pastors do on Sunday mornings.  What are you doing the rest of the week?  Somebody's gotta feed the homeless, visit the sick, counsel married people, counsel divorced people, mow the church's lawn, make sure the elder board gets its agenda notes before their meeting, make sure all of the video games work in the teen hang-out, and put gas in the church van.

Then there's all that theological stuff that they graduated from seminary with, and they say they still want to read about.  And the denominational stuff, and keeping up with the trendy guys on the worship team.  Has anybody updated the church's website lately?  Why don't we have more visitors on Sunday mornings?  Why does the pastor's wife say she hardly ever sees her husband?  He has the most fluid schedule of anybody!

At the rate America's seminaries keep churning out graduates, I suspect that Church Reality 101 is not a prerequisite to graduation, and if it is, it's not being taught properly.  Either that, or seminary graduates really do think they can change the world.

It's only when they start paying for their seminary education with their first church job that most of these eager, altruistic souls start realizing that they're not entering a profession that is admired both in society in general, and Christian congregations in particular.  These graduates knew money would be tight; but respect?  Have you noticed all of the articles on Christian ministry websites lately, lamenting the loss of respect that many American pastors feel today?  They're suddenly realizing that, for church-goers, going to church is merely one of many activities in which they participate during the week.  And it's the one with the greatest lack of  personal accountability.  Studies calculate that less than 20% of church members ever tithe, hardly any church vote draws 100% of the membership, and corporate worship attendance is a fraction of the membership.  Volunteers are never in oversupply, and in fact, are usually chronically late, apathetic, unprepared, and needing to leave early for something else more fun, fulfilling, or demanding.

Indeed, there is much to lament about the casual attitude American churchgoers possess regarding their church, and their pastors.  Yet as much blame exists on the part of churchgoers, the breakdown in pastoral prestige is a two-way street.  Pastors have been among the most vocal about abandoning traditional symbols of their trade, like clerical robes, and even the prefix "Reverend" or "Pastor."  When you want people to treat you casually in America, the land of fast food and dress-down Fridays, you'll usually get what you ask for.

Nevertheless, whether your pastor wears a robe while preaching on Sunday morning is a mute point when it comes to what they're actually preaching, doesn't it?  And this is what a lot of pastors don't want to talk about.  Particularly in our post-modern era, where the relativism that is corrupting American society has seeped into pulpits across the country.  American Christians have become woefully infatuated with the popular culture all around us, and so have our pastors.

I read a recent article on a popular evangelical website in which two pastors were debating the merits of two well-known secular movies about Jesus Christ.  Over the years, I've come to regard one of the pastors as a typical consumer Christian, infatuated with culture, and quite willing to embrace fashionable trends to appear relevant.  For this article, he was the pastor standing up for some pretty heathen moviemakers, arguing that even if their theology wasn't accurate, at least they helped encourage moviegoers to think about the Son of God.

The second pastor, who wasn't buying the "relevant" pastor's argument, is somebody whom I'd characterize as less progressive, less stylish, and less cosmopolitan than the other pastor - although I suspect both of them are about the same age.  Basically, this second pastor was trying to point out that theology is still important, even in the movies, and even in movies produced by a secular studio.  And especially when the move is about the Bible, God, Jesus, and the Gospel.

Most feedback writers in the comments section following this article were enthusiastically siding with the first, "relevant" pastor.  Me?  Of course, I sided with the pastor who is right!

After all, if we truly believe the Bible contains God's holy Gospel, aren't we trivializing it by shrugging our shoulders and busying ourselves by looking for artistic merit and arbitrary validations when movies adapt the Gospel by which we're saved in ways that don't honor God?

And just because it's trendy and popular to go see movies that don't honor God, and then try to extract nuggets of religious relevance out of them anyway, does that make such moviegoing honorable in God's eyes?  By feeding on artificial depictions of our Savior, does our faith grow?  Or does it metastasize into a form of relativism, which would help explain the status of the office of pastor these days?

Don't we Christians have a bad habit of giving too much credit to our culture, and not enough respect to our Savior?

Then there was another article I read by a popular worship pastor in a large church that most evangelicals would readily recognize.  He began his article by gushing about rap music - and not Gospel rap, either; but ghetto rap.  Then he quickly transitioned into his admiration for a popular rap artist's latest creation, a vile depiction of nihilism, sin, and what we Christians call legalism.  It's dark, agonizing rap, and full of really bad theology.

And this evangelical music pastor loves it.  He thinks it's a perfect description of human sin.  How wonderful that a secular rap artist has been able to so forcefully portray debauchery and hopelessness in such a loud, pulsating fashion!

I have a very, very hard time respecting a pastor who thinks that our world needs any more reminders about what sin is, and how it feels.  Especially from an "artist" that has no intention of immediately contrasting that sin with God's grace.

I also have a very, very hard time respecting as pastor who wholeheartedly abdicates scripture in his musical tastes by defying Philippians 4:8, which encourages us to do the exact opposite of admiring songs about sin:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. 

It's quite possible that this music pastor who works at a well-known megachurch has a rationale for hammering his musical tastes within the metric of truth, honor, purity, loveliness, and excellence.  And what would be the foundation of that rationale, but relativism?  It's all relative, isn't it?  You might not like it, but I do.

But is that what the Apostle Paul means by this verse?

Pastors who can argue that it is are the pastors who enjoy significant popularity today.  But perhaps not as much respect.  If you're building your ministry on what our popular culture values, that's a paradox that can evolve.  Popularity isn't a validator of truth, substance, and eternal significance.  And no, respect isn't, either.  But people can respect you even if you're not popular.

Well, I suppose you can also be popular, while people don't really respect you.  But how meritorious is that?  How many of our pop culture celebrities embody such unrespected popularity all too well?

Meanwhile, Christ was never respected, or popular.  It's not the best way to get a job at an American church these days, but it appears if they can't have respect, some pastors are fine with popularity.

But then, who's leading whom?

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