Preachers and Churches

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There’s an old blue Psalter Hymnal in the pews of the congregation we have been attending. There’s a newer edition, silver, parked there too. Soon a brand new one will be available, but I’m not sure what the people will do. The last couple decades have taken a toll, and I don’t know whether they have much more fight in them, at least not over a hymnal.

That big, old church sits in the middle of town. Up north and just outside of town is a congregation that gave up books altogether. On Sunday, they read hymn lyrics from a projection screen wallpapered with landscapes.

Out here, east of town, a brand new congregation in an ex-used car dealership chooses not to brandish the denomination’s name. It’s a hybrid, hitched to a promise not to be what churches have always been, but instead to offer a gathering place for both the unchurched and the overchurched. Their people are mightily fervent, and I’m told their praise band rocks.

There’s a fourth, too, sort of mainstream, business-oriented, very healthy. People are happy to be there, proud to belong. They try to steer a middle course.

Four churches co-exist in a town of roughly 5000 people in the heart of a county full of Dutch-Americans, a place one might have called an ethnic ghetto not long ago, and still may be. If, by chance, you move here, and you have an inclination to be Christian Reformed, you’ve got vital choices. There’s no cookie-cutter.

Diversity, these days, is a glorious word, and I’m not sure we earn it exactly. After all, most people here are likely related, recite the same Apostles Creed, and likely know by heart the first Q and A of the Heidelberg Catechism. But we're not what we were. Then again, nothing is.

But if worship is talking to God, then all four use a slightly different language, and language is important. After all, people don’t laugh well if they don’t know the language; they don’t love well either. Only shared language carries our intimacy.

The latest Christian Courier’s cover story is remarkable because it documents a phenomenon that’s truly denominational news—the significantly high divorce rate between preachers and congregations in the denomination I’ve always been a part of. "Fractured Flocks: A Leadership Crisis in the CRC" begins with this fact: pastor-church splits have increased over 500% in the CRC in the last ten years. That's a lot of sadness.

But it’s also understandable. Matching preachers with churches was never easy, I’m sure, but it was likely much less hazardous when congregations were, in fact, shaped by a cookie cutter. No more.

I’m a member of a church that recently brought three names before the congregation, three candidates to be its pastor, all of whom had undergone extensive appraisals that outdistanced anything their grandparents had ever put to task, much less imagined. In the end, embarrassingly for everyone, not one the candidates passed muster, not one made the grade; and today the committee is back at work.

The CRC is not the only denomination that is suffering. Most are scrambling to keep alive what was once vital. Dozens of substantial reasons exist to explain why denominations are in decline; and most of those reasons, or so it seems to me, are sociological and not theological: the CRC is not in tough shape because of a bad hymnal, shoddy theology, or stifling traditionalism.

But that decline, no matter what it's cause, is especially tough on preachers, who, by the way, are also changing, who are looking more and more these days for long-term commitments that will suit their family’s own life choices. The pastor-congregation divorce rate has exploded for reasons which are perfectly, but sadly, understandable.

I once asked our seminary’s president to choose five really vital congregations in the denomination, and he did, without pause. Interestingly, the five he chose, he told me, weren’t alike in any way except this: their people were happy being what they were. One was active in inner city ministry; another was proudly high church; another was immensely community minded, yet another invested greatly in their worship, and etc.

Maybe what we need is a bishop—or else just some software for computer dating.

It’s a frightful and complex problem. For those who, like me, appreciate the CRC for its immense gifts, “Fractured Flocks: A Leadership Crisis in the CRC” is simply a must read, sturdily researched, carefully reasoned, and thoughtfully written.  

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Great article by Jim Schaap and a great article in the Christian Courier. One thing I was sad to read, however, is how misunderstood the education of a pastor is. "Fractured Flocks" mentions the high education of other church members as contributing to a lack of respect (my word) for pastors. That sadly makes some sense in a church culture where biblical interpretation is taken to be a practice of thinking through the text through a pre-existing lens of theological education, knowledge of other Scripture passages, and browsing a commentary or two. Generally, when it comes to putting this study into a sermon, the pre-existing theology and knowledge of other Scriptures tends to carry the bulk of the sermon while the commentary adds a few interesting details. As a result, most sermons I hear sound like like very general truths about God and how He works, usually the same things I learned in Sunday School as a child, and the few commentary details are there to give at least some appearance that the sermon actually comes directly out of the text at hand. It is very true that nearly any educated person could pull off such a sermon with a bit of practice and some time.

Sadly, this approach not only passes muster with most Christians, it is often what they demand - although not in so many words. The number one thing quoted for problems between pastors and congregations, if I'm not mistaken, is pastoral care. The pastorate has become more about making visits than about wrestling with each and every text until it shows itself "useful for preaching, teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness" (1 Tim. 3:16). (Dr. Greidanus made a good point in his preaching class at Calvin Sem. a number of years back, that 1 Tim. 3:16, by logical inference, must mean that no two Scripture passages can be completely redundant with each other since that would mean we could do without one of them (i.e. it wouldn't truly be useful).) As a result of seeing the pastor as more of a paid visitation specialist than as a studier and doer of the Word, congregations have placed the pastor in a position where, in order to be accepted and liked, he or she must focus on roles that elders and deacons could mostly do. And, the thing which only the pastor has been trained to do - beginning with the original text, carefully exegete each text into a well-crafted sermon no matter how long that takes - is basically left undone in favor of the quicker and easier method of interpretation described at the beginning of my response - an interpretive method that anyone with a quality education and time could pull off.

I don't at all mean to distance the pastor from living out the Word, which must absolutely include visitations. Some visitations require more than what a deacon or elder can bring to it, for one. But even more importantly a pastor needs to be involved in applying the Good News to the everyday trials of life before he or she can truly understand how radical, important, and sometimes difficult to believe the Good News can be. Nevertheless, even this needs to stem from the text and the Spirit's leading to apply that text, rather than congregational pressure to increase visits.

So, while it's true that having better educated congregations has affected the professional respect a pastor receives, in my thinking that is an indicator that we have lost sight of what a "Minister of the Word" truly is and what only he or she has been trained to be. 

Scott - great comments.  I agree - but I also think we as pastors are as much to blame for vacating the study for the board room as much as the congregation is for pushing us there.  Maybe it's been a build up over decades and decades, but when we've downplayed the importance of sound, exegetical preaching by our practices, we've trained a congregation to think that way.  Now, to put aside talking about good sermon prep and getting back to actually doing - I'm signing off!!

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Chad - I agree completely. My apologies to anyone reading my thoughts - I did put too much onto the congregation.