G. Jeffrey MacDonald wrote an interesting piece in the New York Times last week concerning clergy and burnout. The article is based on the idea that congregations in America want to be entertained more than they want to be godly. This has put a lot of pressure on clergy who actually want to make a difference in people’s lives.
The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people. . . .
The trend toward consumer-driven religion has been gaining momentum for half a century. Consider that in 1955 only 15 percent of Americans said they no longer adhered to the faith of their childhood, according to a Gallup poll. By 2008, 44 percent had switched their religious affiliation at least once, or dropped it altogether, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found. Americans now sample, dabble and move on when a religious leader fails to satisfy for any reason.
MacDonald says the solution is for Christians to ask their clergy for challenges to growth. He writes, “Clergy need parishioners who understand that the church exists, as it always has, to save souls by elevating people’s values and desires. They need churchgoers to ask for personal challenges, in areas like daily devotions and outreach ministries.”
In reviewing MacDonald’s book Thieves in the Temple Chuck Leddy notes, “MacDonald continually calls upon churches to renew their commitment to moral purpose, to stress that “the life of faith is actually a sacrificial one.” MacDonald concludes by describing a few examples of successful churches that “reinforce the notion that spiritual growth is supposed to be difficult and uncomfortable at times.”
We all face the pressure to some degree of people in our congregations wanting “Christianity Lite”—being more entertained than transformed. While I understand and sympathize with what MacDonald is describing, I think there are two areas that MacDonald is ignoring to his peril and the church’s peril. MacDonald is part of the United Church of Christ, which many years ago moved away from the authority of the Bible and the necessity of the gospel.
One reason church members join is because they believe something in common. The problem MacDonald is describing ( but doesn’t acknowledge) is that he is dealing with a denomination that has watered down Christianity until it means nothing beyond a common “urge to be united and do good in the world.” The problem is that doing good in the world doesn’t require the spiritual disciplines he’s talking about. On the other hand, believing in Christ crucified as the only atonement for sin and living for Him in that light does require discipline.
Another reason church members join is because they all worship something in common. Second Corinthians 3:18 states clearly that we grow as we gaze upon the glory of Jesus Christ our Lord. When MacDonald’s church dilutes that glory to look like the glory of mankind, the result is predictable. People live up to their own standards and look for people who agree with them. They cannot be challenged by Christ because they aren’t gazing at His glory.
This should be a warning to us that we need to help our membership believe in and gaze upon Jesus Christ. To get distracted from this all-consuming goal will be to have our congregations go wild and our membership be nothing more than access to a club. Membership is a call to a community that shares unique beliefs and worship—not sharing our own ideas and pursuits but in a pursuit of Jesus Christ. If we need to remind our congregations of that through clear preaching and loving church discipline, we only call ourselves and our churches to following Jesus Christ more closely.