Some years ago, I was talking to a pastor friend and asked him about a common acquaintance who is also in ministry. My friend responded, “You know, our church’s denomination is very unforgiving of men who are not considered successful.”
This was a brutal way to say what very few people in ministry openly admit: church ministry can cause ministry leaders to be liked, loved, and appreciated if they are considered successful by those around them. In a time of quarantine, social distancing, and virtual church meetings, I wonder how many men in ministry are working mainly to keep up the status quo of the church. They may seem to be working for the well-being of the church, while in reality they might be working to preserve their ministries and churches. These churches may even manage to grow through this pandemic as they reach out to other people who belong to other church communities that do not have the same resources, creativity, and gifts.
This international lockdown has shown how fragile the church and many ministries can be and how much of what is done by churches and ministries is the product of marketing—a corporate mind-set that prizes the ability to attract people. Unfortunately, the appearance of success may not necessarily be a result of the gospel’s being offered as the only solution for humanity’s sin and brokenness, but rather because the church has become very efficient in creating an image of success.
Do pastors feel more pressure to achieve an image that will attract the successful, the rich, and the beautiful to their churches, even during a world crisis? As I reflect on my own journey during this time, I have been wondering how many men in ministry are more worried about their own success than in taking good care of their flocks. How much of all the hard work of pastors in the last weeks and months could be a race to win against other ministries, against other pastors, against other churches during this crisis?
The danger and fear that people in the church experience in the face of the pandemic have also exposed how many churches have tried to compete with Netflix and Amazon Prime as Christian entertainment. Is this crisis just an opportunity to help people feel better about themselves, or is it an opportunity, a call from God to repent from our idolatrous hearts that have turned to so many things for our comfort in this life?
Have pastors talked to their parishioners about understanding death as a judgment from God—a result of the fall—during this time? Have pastors talked to their congregations about how to use this time to search for, identify, and repent of our idols, the many things that we love more than God? Have pastors been preaching about how difficult it is to be a Christian and find in Jesus our only comfort when we are surrounded by so many good things?
Are pastors merely helping their people survive with a form of “good news” that is not really good news? Are they promising their members that everything will be fine, that they will go back to their old lifestyle as soon as this situation ends? Is that what we want as pastors? To go back merely to the way things were a few months ago?
In the book of Isaiah there is a call to repentance that the prophet proclaims to the Jews living in Jerusalem during the eighth century BC:
Woe to those who join house to house,
who add field to field,
until there is no more room,
and you are made to dwell alone
in the midst of the land.
The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
“Surely many houses shall be desolate,
Large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant. (Isa. 5:8–9)
We live in a time when the local church is a nice place filled with nice people. We have air conditioning, lovely music, good singers, comfortable chairs, and charismatic pastors who are clever, educated, and successful. Most of the people who attend middle- to upper-class churches have all kinds of things to comfort their hearts, as they have plenty of everything: great music, food, drink, and friends that make their hearts merry. Don’t get me wrong—not all the things that are mentioned here are evil. However, it is evil when the human heart finds ultimate joy and comfort in those things. I wonder if the words of Isaiah are calling us to mourn the many comforts we have in this time. If we reflect on the words of the prophet, we need to recognize how, in many cases, the church in our day has become a place to teach people how to be happy with themselves, how to feel great about themselves, how to use good things for their own honor and glory. For example, during the lockdown we have seen many churches distributing food and helping people in need, which is wonderful. Yet, is it possible that some are seeking to generate all the publicity they can in order to show people how wonderful their churches and ministries are?
Isaiah continues with these words of judgment:
Woe to those who rise early in the morning,
that they may run after strong drink,
who tarry late into the evening
as wine inflames them!
They have lyre and harp,
tambourine and flute and wine at their feasts,
but they do not regard the deeds of the Lord,
or see the work of his hands. (Isa. 5:11–12)
The Jews had lyres, harps, and feasts to avoid boredom. How are we any different in our fight against despair? I know we are reluctant to identify ourselves with the original audience of Isaiah, but as Christians in general, do we not think that we might be guilty of the same idolatry and addiction to amusement that the Jews were guilty of in their own time? I wonder how our lives would look after two months of lockdown if we didn’t have all the things that soothe our souls—comfort food, music, “feasts,” and videoconferencing?
I pray that the church does not miss this opportunity to help those in our congregations understand that this could be a very needed time of mourning and repentance rather than just another time where we look forward to more feasting and indulgence. This is an opportunity to seek the Lord and repent from our easy believism and idolatrous hearts. It is probably best at this time to remind our people that salvation is not about being free to go out jogging, reestablishing our busy schedules, or seeing our friends and family. Instead, it is an opportunity to remind our people that they have communion with our heavenly Father through our faith in Christ, who lived the life we cannot live and took our place at the cross so that we do not die the death we deserve for our sins.
Will we be successful pastors at the end of this crisis by keeping our parishioners pleased with themselves? Or will we take this opportunity to teach our people to mourn our sin and to repent from our old idolatrous ways?