A New (Old) Church Strategy

In his memoir, The Pastor,1 Eugene Peterson describes America’s dominant church leadership culture this way:

Pollsters were busy issuing monthly reports on the precipitous drop in church attendance. There was widespread panic, especially among pastors, at times verging on hysteria.

If God were dead, the church couldn’t be far behind. Life-support systems were being proposed right and left to keep the church going. ‘Relevance’ became the mantra of choice. New forms of church organization were proposed. Innovative strategies of public relations, misnamed evangelism, were launched with impressive fanfare. Worship was replaced by entertainment. Statistics trumped kerygma.”

That sounds quite a bit like today’s church leadership world––workshops and conferences and strategies for how to grow, appeals to the need for “relevance,” marketing and PR, though many have long dispensed with naming anything “evangelism.”

But when Peterson writes this, he’s not talking about today’s church leadership culture. He’s talking about the 1960s –– some fifty years ago as he was starting in ministry.

He writes in another place (I’m quoting him at length. His wisdom is worth it):

I was watching both the church and my vocation as a pastor in it being relentlessly diminished and corrupted by being redefined in terms of running an ecclesiastical business. The ink on my ordination papers wasn’t even dry before I was being told by experts, so-called, in the field of church that my main task was to run a church after the manner of my brother and sister Christians who run service stations, grocery stores, corporations, banks, hospitals, and financial services. Many of them wrote books and gave lectures on how to do it.

[…]

This is the Americanization of congregation. It means turning each congregation into a market for religious consumers, an ecclesiastical business run along the lines of advertising techniques, organizational flow charts, and energized by impressive motivational rhetoric.”

I love how Peterson identifies the problems with turning the church into an ecclesiastical business. And I love how he upholds the vocation of pastor while so many are turning into mere missional strategists. But mostly, I’m interested that in these quotes, he’s talking about the 1960s.

How have things gone for the Church in America since the 1960s? Most of the pollsters would say not good. Our decline has continued, and at a far quicker pace. A “religiosity index” that rates total religious interest (see at right) is at an all-time low after steep declines for the past fifty years. We’re talking about the rise of the “nones.” My denomination, the United Methodist Church, last increased its U.S. membership in 1965, when Peterson was starting in ministry.

An observation: During the last fifty years, a time of decline in America, the leading voices in the Church have been the ecclesiastical business gurus.

Many of those gurus can point to bright spots of success. They can show the churches that adopted their methods and grew. But while they have been our leading voices, the results across the nation have been dismal. Is the problem just that not enough churches are listening to them? I’m not convinced.

Even where these advisors have led local churches to growth, I don’t believe they’re off the hook for the results across the nation. Instead, I believe even those growing ecclesiastical businesses may have contributed to the decline. Because even while they’ve grown in number, where they have deemphasized real pastoral ministry, they’re likely to have developed shallow churchgoers, consumer churchgoers, churchgoers who see the church only as a utilitarian machine. Those are churchgoers likely to drift from the church without much loss or flee at the first disagreement. They’re less likely to raise up the next generation in the faith.

I wonder — Why do we continue to give center stage to the group of gurus who have presided over 50 years of decline? Many of their strategy specifics have changed, but still they look to the business world or social sciences world for the church’s answers. (If you can tweak most of what you’re calling “church strategy” and fit it to a business, you’re strategizing for an ecclesiastical business.)

Could we instead call this a failed experiment? I know some local churches have had great numerical success following these strategies. But for the American Church as a whole, this experiment has failed. The era when every church has a mission statement has been an era of decline in the church. The era of “church growth” and “small group multiplication” and “innovation” has been an era of decline in the church. The era when pastors have spent more time in conference rooms than living rooms has been an era of decline in the church.

Peterson writes about today’s pastoral vocation:

Men and women who are pastors in America today find that they have entered into a way of life that is in ruins. The vocation of pastor has been replaced by the strategies of religious entrepreneurs with business plans. Any kind of continuity with pastors in times past is virtually nonexistent.”

This quote invites a next observation. What pastors are doing in this era (an era of decline in the big-C Church) has no continuity with pastors in eras past (eras that have included great growth in the Church).

What if it’s time to stop listening to the leadership gurus about entrepreneurial leadership and missional strategy? What if it’s time to listen again to pastors from times past––to those pastors who didn’t mind to be called “pastor,” who probably didn’t have a mission statement or a 5-year plan, but who led the Church in some of its greatest times of growth?

In another book, Under the Predictable Plant, Peterson describes the work of a pastor:

I want to be a pastor. I want to lead people in worship each Lord’s Day in such a way that they will be brought into something large and beautiful – into God and his salvation (not reduced and demeaned). And I want to be with them through the days of the week at those times when they need verification or clarification of God’s continuing work and will in their lives (not promoting sure-fire moral schemes, not bullying them into churchly conformity) so that they can live originally and praisingly.”

Peterson doesn’t write about preaching to get everyone “on board.” He writes about preaching to bring them into God and his salvation. He writes about being with his people through the days of the week, not to recruit and strategize, but “so that they can live originally and praisingly.”

Peterson writes about the pastoral vocation as it has been practiced for 2,000 years. He writes against the new model of pastor as ecclesiastical business CEO, as it has been practiced for 50 years.

Church strategy

After my post last week – “Pastors or Missional Strategists?” – I had several follow-up conversations with people who wanted to reemphasize the importance of strategy. They stressed that we must be more than “just chaplains.” They stressed that pastors need to be strategic in equipping others for ministry.

I think when many people hear “pastor,” they hear only the role of pastoral care––nurturing people in need. The classical pastor –– the Eugene Peterson type of pastor –– does much more than that. (S)he looks at people with a concern for how they can grow in faith. This absolutely includes equipping principled Christian leaders for the church and world. It involves equipping teams of people for ministry and setting them free to do it. I don’t do anything alone in my congregation. Worship preparation, visitation, outreach and witness, all of these are team ministries. I rarely receive a direct phone call about a crisis in someone’s life. I receive most of them second-hand, from the (lay) pastors of our small groups.

And in the end, I suppose I’m not even railing against “strategy.” Our church isn’t strategy-less. We know what we’re doing and why. We even have a mission statement! Goodness, I chair our Conference Stats Team!

Instead, I’m suggesting that we’re using a bad strategy, a failed strategy. It’s a strategy that seeks to turn pastors into managers and CEOs, one that makes strategy itself the answer. Today’s graduating seminarian is more capable of taking people through a mission-vision-values retreat than sitting across from someone to talk about the state of his soul. Today’s ministry conference or workshop is more likely to provide training on writing a ministry action plan than training on how to “visit from house to house.” The latter was emphasized during the Methodist Church’s greatest period of growth. The former has been emphasized during our greatest period of decline.

I want us to reclaim the strategy of pastoral ministry:

  • Lead the people in worship each Lord’s Day in such a way that they will be brought into something large and beautiful – into God and his salvation. This is different than planning an exciting Sunday worship experience with a teaching that will get people on board with our vision.
  • Be with people through the days of the week to help them clarify God’s continuing work and will in their lives. This is more than being with people to strategize and equip, though it will certainly include those things. The difference: We start by looking for where God is at work in people’s lives, not by looking for where people fit into our strategic plans.

Those may not sound as exciting as some of the big hairy audacious goals and strategies we put to paper. But for most of the church’s history, they’re what has actually worked. Maybe it’s time we focus on them again.

I write often about pastoral ministry, the “classical pastor” (see some related posts below), and the UMC. If you’re interested in any of those, I’d be honored if you would click here to subscribe for future posts.

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  1. Yep, I’m referencing it again. You should go read the whole thing.

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