Christendom At The New Millennium

12/19/2007

Much can happen in seventeen centuries. Crusades. Inquisitions. Reformations. Movements. Missionaries. All of these developments had an impact on history; each has been the subject of countless volumes of scholarly analysis. The bottom line for us, though, is to realize that Christianity in its first few centuries offers us two legacies to choose from.

One heritage dates back to the earliest days, when a group of men and women lived with Jesus, experiencing Him every moment that they lived and every place that they went. These early disciples then introduced to a generation of believers the same whole-life submission to Jesus and enjoyment of Him. This corporate experience was called the ekklesia.

The second heritage dates back almost as far. It involves compartmentalizing life into “special” days and secular days, “special” places and common places, “special” people and laypeople, “religion” and “real life.” The second version of Christianity grew up in parallel with the first, gradually overcoming it in the second and third centuries and overwhelming it in the fourth.

Where, then, do we stand today, as Christianity enters into a new millennium? What is life like for most professing Christians? Are their lives infused with an experience of Jesus and each other, during every moment and in every place? Or do special places, times, and people still dominate their thinking and actions?

Religion and Real Estate

Contemporary adherents of the Christian religion can boast facilities that rival anything that Constantine or medieval cathedral-builders ever achieved.

In Southern California sits a landmark religious facility constructed from 10,000 panes of glass. This “cathedral,” designed by a world-famous architect, was built over a three-year period for a sum equivalent to $55 million in 2007. The pastor of this early “megachurch” financed it in large part by selling individual panes of glass for $500 each. The colossal structure, which can seat 3000, is also known for one of the largest pipe organs in the world.

On the other side of the planet sits a megachurch religious facility with an entirely different exterior: titanium. Completed in 2002 for $27 million, it seats 2300 people in a facility modeled after the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, Spain. It features a café, a putting green, a rooftop garden, and a lounge area complete with built-in plasma televisions. The auditorium covers 18,000 square feet. Its stage has a bright LED screen and two adjoining makeup rooms.

In 2005, the largest megachurch in North America moved into a building that was formerly home to a professional basketball team. The non-denominational assembly began meeting in 1959 in an abandoned feed store. Today, it meets in the 16,000 seat arena, renovated over a 15-month period for $75 million. During the service, three gigantic screens display video clips, while the preacher speaks in front of a giant rotating golden globe.

These modern day “basilicas” are simply the most visible examples of one of the integral features of modern Christendom: the “church building.” They are certainly not the only examples, however. In the United States alone, there were at the dawn of the new millennium at least a quarter of a million congregations claiming to represent the Christian religion3. Some of these groups shared buildings; others rented public facilities, like schools or movie theaters. But most met in their own dedicated facilities, ranging from the humble urban storefront to the elaborate glass cathedral. At a conservative estimate, close to 200,000 church buildings dot the American landscape. The value of real estate belonging to U.S. religious bodies is estimated to exceed $6 billion.

Jesus once told a naïve volunteer disciple, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay His head” (Luke 9:58). How is it, then, that there are now 200,000 structures that all claim to be the “house of God”? In the New Testament, we read of individuals and ekklesias sacrificing financially to “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10, 2 Corinthians 8-9) and to further the proclamation of the gospel (Philippians 4:10-20). In the twenty-first century, we see believers investing billions of dollars in bricks and mortar—or occasionally glass and titanium.

No one is suggesting that the Bible forbids religious structures. We are definitely suggesting, however, that in the entire New Testament, not a single Christian ever built one. It apparently never occurred to them.

One of the fastest growing religious movements in the western world is trying to dispense with the “church building” concept altogether. According to a 2006 survey4, about 5% of all Americans who belong to a Christian religious body of some type attend only house churches. A further 19% have a foot in both worlds, attending both a house church and a conventional congregation regularly. The average house church has only twenty regular attendees, with seven of them children. Three-fourths of the participants have been involved for less than a year. Most view the change as a positive experience, reporting a higher level of satisfaction than their conventional counterparts with the quality of their leadership, the faith commitment of their fellow members, and the spiritual depth they have experienced.5

But the operative word in the previous paragraph may well be “attend.” True, they meet in a house or some other venue than a traditional church building. But most of them have essentially moved their “Sunday services” into a living room, with few substantial changes beyond the smaller size and less formal surroundings. A full 80% of house churches always meet at the same time each week, and 62% never vary their meeting format. Here is a question that is rather difficult to assess in these survey results: How many of the house church members have lives that are deeply intertwined outside the meetings? Or to ask the question conversely, how many house church members still live fragmented, compartmentalized lives? How many still think and live as if “church” were located in a particular place?

Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the “Venerable Day of the Sun”

In Western society, the calendar seemingly centers on a holiday known as “Christmas.” How would an outside observer make sense of this celebration? On the one hand, it’s about a baby lying in a feed trough, commemorated by a solid month of non-stop music (pa-rumpa-pum-pum). On the other, it’s about an elderly arctic resident who violates every law of physics, crisscrossing the globe in a single night at velocities approaching the speed of light, traveling in a sled powered by flying deer. This rotund gentleman is said to break and enter each home, either by descending through the chimney or by some other security breach, and deliver gifts. Our outside observer would doubtless be relieved and puzzled to learn that this man is simply part of an elaborate mythology that is passed on as truth to trusting children by seemingly responsible adults. It would be understandable if the observer asked whether the other story—the one about the baby—was also just a fairytale.

No wonder, then, that Westerners who grew up with the competing stories seem to find the “true meaning of Christmas” a bit elusive. The “spirit” of the season is supposed to have something to do with joy, generosity, and general niceness, but the details are a little hard to pin down. As Shaw once said, “What a man believes may be ascertained, not from his creed, but from the assumptions on which he habitually acts.” Maybe, then, we can understand what people really believe about Christmas by watching what they habitually do during the season.

Most people, it turns out, shop and party.

During the first ten months of 2006, Census Bureau statistics show that retail department stores in the USA hummed along with $10 billion in sales each month. In November, department stores began singing a new tune, the familiar melody of ringing cash registers set to a rotating soundtrack of the same thirty “Christmas songs,” played incessantly over the loudspeaker. It’s music to shop by. Sales figures rose to $13 billion in November, and then skyrocketed to nearly $18 billion in December—most of that in the first three weeks.

Other retail outlets enjoyed similar sales increases during the “holiday shopping season.” Americans paid half a billion dollars for live Christmas trees and shelled out even more for ornaments. In December, sporting goods, electronics, and computer sales nearly doubled over an average month, while jewelry sales nearly tripled. The postal service delivered twelve million packages each day during the season. Liquor stores, not be left out, reported a huge increase in sales, from under $3 billion monthly most of the year to a whopping $4.5 billion in December.

Could it be that self-indulgence, characterized by materialism and alcohol consumption, is “the true meaning of Christmas”? The standard Christian answer—at least during the past several decades—would be an indignant, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Secularists, it is maintained, pulled off a hostile takeover of the holiday, but at its heart Christmas is still about Christ.

But does history bear out that assumption?

To answer that question, we must again examine Roman paganism. They worshipped a “deity” named Saturn, who is best remembered for devouring his children at birth, for fear that one might grow up to overthrow him. Romans celebrated this monster with Saturnalia, a weeklong festival marked by revelry and materialism that was observed December 17-24 each year. In AD 50, the stoic thinker Seneca the Younger wrote, “It is now the month of December, when the greatest part of the city is in a bustle. Loose reins are given to public dissipation; everywhere you may hear the sound of great preparations.” The fourth century writer Libanius observed about Saturnalia, “The desire to spend money grips everybody…A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides.” Sound familiar?

The Romans were also sun worshipers. In the early third century, they began celebrating a festival called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, “the birthday of the unconquered sun,” observed on December 25. On that date they could detect the days starting to lengthen ever so slightly, evidence that the sun was “unconquered” by the night. When emperor Aurelian took the sun to be his “patron god” in the late third century, he promoted December 25 as an empire-wide holiday.

In contrast, there is no historical evidence whatsoever that Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus with any holiday before the fourth century. The date of His birth is not recorded in the scriptures. The only hint we have is in Luke’s gospel, where we learn that shepherds were “living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night”—strong evidence that Jesus’ birth took place during the warmer months between late spring and early fall. A December date just doesn’t fit. How is it, then, that the “nativity” came to be observed at Saturnalia, on the very date pagans set aside as the “nativity” of the so-called sun god? We will let a well known twelfth-century Syrian religious leader, Jacob Bar-Salibi, explain:

It was a custom of the pagans to celebrate on the same 25 December the birthday of the sun, at which they kindled lights in token of festivity. In these solemnities and revelries the Christians also took part. Accordingly when the doctors of the Church perceived that the [nominal] Christians had a leaning to this festival, they took counsel and resolved that the true Nativity should be solemnized on that day. (cited in Ramsay MacMullen, 1997, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries, p. 155, Yale)

Christmas, then, is an example of the substitution strategy by which pagan customs were “christianized” and welcomed into Christianity. The “birthday of the sun god” morphed into “the birthday of the Son of God,” and the revelry and materialism of Saturnalia morphed into the revelry and materialism of Christmas. The names changed, but the heart remained the same.

And what of the other traditions we associate with the December 25 holiday? They, too, came from European pagan customs, attracted to Christmas because they came from celebrations held about the same time. “Yule” was an ancient winter festival of the pagan Scandinavians, who burned “yule logs” to honor their “thunder god.” Kissing under the mistletoe is the remnant of an ancient fertility rite in Britain, held each winter when the plant bore its fruit. “Christmas trees” are probably the vestige of an ancient German pagan practice of tree decoration during their winter fertility celebration.

The elderly arctic resident, “Santa Claus,” is a product of a Darwinian evolution of sorts. Several pagan religions of northern Europe worshipped beings with similar descriptions. These traditions merged with the story of Nicholas, a fourth-century Christian who was known for giving gifts to the poor. The final ingredient in our Santa is “Father Christmas,” an English figure who originally symbolized holiday drunkenness and revelry but who received an image makeover during the Victorian period. Throw in the artwork of a nineteenth-century American cartoonist, Thomas Nast, and the evolution of a modern myth is complete.

This brief history of Christmas raises the question: How is it possible to “keep the Christ in Christmas,” when He was never there at the start? And how is it possible to “take the Saturn out of Saturnalia”—along with all the other pagan elements—when that’s where those traditions originated?

Other holidays taken for granted by most Westerners, professing Christian and secular humanist alike, have similar stories.

In North America on October 31 each year, hordes of costumed children troop through their neighborhoods collecting candy. The most popular disguises are skeletons, corpses, movie murderers, occult figures, and stylized representations of the devil. “Ghost stories” make the rounds. Each year, Hollywood promotes the latest installment of sadistic horror movie franchises offering mutilation and murder as entertainment. Vandalism is also commonplace. In some metropolitan areas, the preceding evening, known as “devil’s night” or “hell night,” is celebrated with random acts of arson. Mexicans observe their “Day of the Dead” by decorating graves of deceased relatives with “offerings”—toys, alcohol, food, or trinkets—intended as gifts for the dead. Vendors in the streets sell skeleton-shaped trinkets. Candy confections known as “sugar skulls” are given as gifts. Rabbit, decorated with white frosting to look like a deformed skeleton, is a favorite meal.

Most citizens in these cultures look on the celebrations with fond sentimentality. Most also profess to be Christians. How can this be? Isn’t there an enormous contradiction between the values of Jesus and these blatantly pagan “holy days”?

The pagan Celts inhabited Britain two millennia ago. Their occult religion included an autumn festival commemorating death. The shorter days and colder weather signified the end of life for the crops in the field and the leaves on the trees. The Celts believed that the barriers separating the living and the dead broke down for one night. They were convinced that the deceased spirits would seek out their living relatives, and so sought to pacify these “ghosts” with approved rituals. Their contemporaries, the Romans, said that these Druidic rites included human sacrifice.

Since the Celts stubbornly refused to abandon their pagan traditions, religious officials in the eighth century decided to offer them a substitute, “All Saints’ Day,” on November 1. It was still a day to honor the dead, but the leaders tried to focus the attention on departed Christian heroes. In the eleventh century, a second accommodation to paganism was proposed. An “All Souls’ Day” was added, so that people could honor any dead relative, not just “saints.” This two-day religious festival became known as “Hallowmas” and the evening before as “All Hallows’ Eve.” Popular use shortened the name to “Halloween.”

The whitewash applied to paganism soon wore off, it seems. Today, hardly anyone in North America takes the “Christian” aspects of All Saints Day or All Souls Day seriously. But the pagan aspects of the day are still thriving every October 31.

With the creation of “Hallowmas” and “Halloween,” the officials had found a successful strategy to stop Celtic religious tradition. But they had ended it not by changing hearts, or even habits. Instead, they had simply changed its name, added some Christian trappings, and welcomed it into the Christian religion! But does this strategy amount to Christianizing paganism, or is it really just paganizing Christianity instead?

What about Easter? Surely no “special day” is more Christian than the annual celebration of the resurrection, right? It is true that by the middle of the second century—two generations after the apostles—some sort of yearly observance of the resurrection was becoming common among believers. But this practice does not trace its history back to the earliest church. A well-known fifth century historian, who himself observed the holiday, offered an insightful commentary about its origins:

Inasmuch as men love festivals, because they afford them cessation from labor: each individual in every place, according to his own pleasure, has by a prevalent custom celebrated the memory of the saving passion. The Savior and his apostles have enjoined us by no law to keep this feast: nor do the Gospels and apostles threaten us with any penalty, punishment, or curse for the neglect of it, as the Mosaic law does the Jews. It is merely for the sake of historical accuracy…that it is recorded in the Gospels that our Savior suffered in the days of unleavened bread. The aim of the apostles was not to appoint festival days, but to teach a righteous life and piety. And it seems to me that just as many other customs have been established in individual localities according to usage, so also the feast of Easter came to be observed in each place according to the individual peculiarities of the peoples inasmuch as none of the apostles legislated on the matter.6

Did you catch that? An early catholic historian recognized that Easter was neither taught nor practiced by the apostles, who had no desire to establish “festival days” anyway. Instead, the men who established Easter “according to their own pleasure” actually “love festivals” because they get the day off from work! Easter, rather than dating from the earliest church, was just a custom established by local usage.

The New Testament indeed gives no hint—zero—that resurrection day, as significant as it was, should be honored by an annual celebration. There was a way that Jesus authorized His followers to remember His body and blood: the meal of bread and wine sometimes called the Lord’s Supper. But the earliest Christians did not tie this remembrance to a calendar date. After all, Jesus had said to eat and drink the Supper in remembrance of Him “as often as you take it” (1 Corinthians 11:25). For the early Christians, that meal could (and did) occur any day of the week and on any day of the year (Acts 2:42, 46).

For a way of life, the free-flowing, continual celebration of Jesus’ death and resurrection, as embodied in the Last Supper, is perfect. But for a religion, some fixed date on a calendar is preferable. So as the generations passed and Christianity began to reinvent itself as a religion, a “special day” worked its way into the calendar. And just as soon as a date was set, the “holiday” began merging with pre-existing pagan rituals that were observed around the same time of year.

The very name “Easter” (in English and German) is apparently derived from a Germanic “goddess” called “Eostre.” Ancient pagan symbols of forgotten springtime fertility rites also attached themselves to the festival. Young children everywhere believe passionately in the myth of a rabbit who brings eggs. Indeed, the “Easter Bunny” is far more widely recognized as a symbol of the holiday than are the cross or the empty tomb.

Wherever the holiday has gone, a dark celebration known as Carnival or Mardi Gras has been its fellow traveler. Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” is a carnal explosion of drunkenness, debauchery, and revelry—deliberately scheduled the day before the traditional period of fasting and self-denial preceding Easter. By the very act of setting aside a special day for sober reflection on the cross and resurrection, Christians were unintentionally setting aside another special day for depravity and decadence. Easter created Mardi Gras.

Special days have a way of doing that.

Of course no survey of Christendom’s “special days” would be complete without a mention of Sunday. We have seen that Christians in the second and third centuries drifted into the tradition of the weekly worship service, something completely missing from the record of the New Testament. We have also seen that Constantine in the fourth century legislated that “the venerable day of the Sun”—Solis Invicti once again—be observed as a Roman day of rest. In the twenty-first century, Christian assemblies have loosened up their schedule a bit. Three-fourths of all Protestant congregations offer multiple “worship services” to choose from, to accommodate different preferences in music genre or “worship style.” Some services have moved to non-traditional times, like Saturday evening. Even so, Constantine’s “Sun-day” still rules the days of the religious week. As a result, Christianity in our century is still thought of as something you do in scheduled meetings that hopefully carry you through the days of your “normal” life. The paradigm hasn’t really changed.

No one wants to be known as an “anti-Sunday holiday debunker.” That’s not really the point. What is crucial is to recognize that Christianity, as we define it in our generation, is inseparable from its special days. Those days were not part of the original experience of the early church. Instead, those special days were interlopers, intruders from a pagan environment that were welcomed into Christianity in a failed attempt to “christianize” them. Religion, at its core, is all about special days. Christianity, in contrast, is about Jesus, today and every day. There is a difference.

“Special Men,” Twenty-First Century Style

Christendom in the new millennium is characterized not only by “special places” (the building or the living room) and “special times” (holidays and scheduled worship days) but also by “special men.” The twenty-first century version of the “special man” in protestant circles is known as the “pastor.”

As we have seen, the New Testament writers used the terms “elder,” “overseer,” and “shepherd” interchangeably to describe the same person (Acts 20:17-28). In the KJV and other early English Bibles, however, the translators chose the archaic term “pastor” in place of the literal translation, “shepherd.” Today, the English language has evolved to the point where the meanings of “shepherd” and “pastor” don’t even overlap. If you met a man who told you he was a shepherd, you would never ask, “Which church?” And if you met a man who said he was a pastor, you would never respond, “How unusual! Where is your ranch?” When the Holy Spirit, speaking through the apostles, used the word “shepherd,” it only meant a herdsman who tends, protects, and feeds sheep on the open range. It wasn’t a religious title. It was a word-picture, designed to paint a mental image of a function—something certain believers with appropriate gifting, equipping, and maturity could provide within the local ekklesia.

In the first century, “shepherds” weren’t hired or fired. They were simply “regular members” of a local assembly, just like everyone else. They were recognized as possessing the “gift of shepherd” because of the impact they were already having in feeding and protecting God’s people. Their qualifications, as listed in the scriptures, all had to do with character, faith, and fruitfulness (1 Timothy 3; Titus 1). When the local ekklesia assembled, the shepherds were not the pre-arranged speakers or masters of ceremony (1 Corinthians 14:26-31). Some might have taught, but they were not the only teachers (Colossians 3:16; Hebrews 5:12). A shepherd might have received some sort of material support (Galatians 6:6; 1 Timothy 5:17-18), but it was a sharing, not a salary. Greed was never to be their motive (1 Peter 5:2). Above all, they were to function as brothers, not lording it over others but living among them as servants (Matthew 20:25-28, 23:8-12, 1 Peter 5:2).

Language has been a colossal problem for the human race ever since Babel. A little six-letter word like “pastor” connects to a thousand different experiences stored in the hearer’s memory. If you showed Ephesians 4:11, for example, to a believer in the first century, he or she would see the Greek word poimenas, immediately think “shepherd,” and a split second later associate the word with several intimately close relationships right in the local ekklesia. If you were to show 1 Timothy 3 to a believer in the twenty-first century, however, he or she would think “pastor” and associate it with the man who preaches, counsels, marries, and buries in the building down the street. Same scripture, yes, but two vitally different concepts. In the first century, “shepherd” was a relationship; in the twenty-first, “pastor” is the “special person” of the Christian “religion.”

What is a modern pastor’s job description? What does he actually do? We can get a very accurate snapshot from scientific surveys7 that have asked those very questions. The average pastor reports that he works 46 hours per week. Here’s how the pastoral work week breaks down:

• Preparing for the weekly service, including the sermon: 15 hours

• Counseling the troubled or visiting the sick: 9 hours

• Attending "business meetings" and doing administrative work: 7 hours

• Teaching classes or training people for "ministry": 6 hours

• Getting involved in community affairs or minister's associations: 3 hours

• Miscellaneous duties: 6 hours

If we removed from this average pastor's week everything that had no relevance in the ekklesia of the New Testament, what would be left? The earliest church had no “services” as we know them and certainly no assigned weekly sermons; scratch the first line item from the list. They had no business meetings. People were certainly “equipped for works of service,” but not in training classes. Sunday schools, after all, weren’t invented for another eighteen hundred years. And while believers who were sick or imprisoned definitely were cared for, it was considered the work of every member. The “congregation” didn’t “hire” a specialist to do the bulk of it for them.

And that’s the main point. It’s not that the job of the professional clergy has evolved over the years as times have changed. It’s that the whole concept of “professional clergy,” as it is practiced in our century, is foreign to the New Testament!

Please do not read that statement as “pastor bashing.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Our average pastor doubtless entered “the ministry” with the best of intentions. Perhaps he was an energetic, sincere young person who was given the opportunity to speak at “devotionals” or teach Bible studies. He wasn’t polished, but he was sharing with a heartfelt desire to serve God and encourage others. People heard his sincerity and felt the warmth of his faith, and so they were encouraged. Before long, someone—maybe the pastor—suggested that he might want to “go into the ministry.” This idea sounded wonderful to the younger man. He wanted to make a difference, and he loved God; what better career could there be than that of a “full time worker”? So he went off to Bible college or seminary, and perhaps to graduate study after that. Maybe he married someone he met in school who seemed to share his ideals and dreams. For the long years of education and training they worked and sacrificed; 60% of evangelical pastors in the United States hold a Masters degree or higher. Then at long last they were “called” to their first “pastorate” and went to work, with big dreams of “doing great things for the Lord.”

For our average evangelical pastor, that moment was 20 years, nine months, and twenty-six days ago. That means he’s put in around a thousand “average pastoral work weeks” of sermons, business meetings, counseling sessions, hospital visits, weddings, funerals, and “work days.” We desperately need to ask: has it been good for him? Has it been good for the families in the pews? Is modern Christendom’s clergy-laity system even healthy, never mind biblical?

Let’s consider for a moment one implication of having a professional clergy. Professionals, by definition, get a salary. Our average pastor has been taking home a paycheck for over twenty years, but odds are he still feels considerable pressure in his personal finances. In evangelical denominations from coast to coast, a pastor’s pay is directly proportional to the size of his congregation. We do have exact data8. For evangelical congregations in 2002, the median household income was $41,000, virtually identical with the U.S. median9. What about pastors? It turns out that most (63%) were employed by congregations with fewer than 100 members. On average, these clergy were paid only $22,300—a figure that made the pastor’s family one of the lowest income households in the entire congregation. Congregations with 101-350 members, accounting for 32% of the sample, paid their pastors a median salary of $41,051, placing them squarely in the middle of the middle class. The one pastor out of every twenty who was fortunate enough to work for a congregation of 351-1000 members fared much more comfortably, bringing home $59,315. And the one pastor out of every 200 who worked at a large congregation with more than 1000 members earned top dollar, with a salary of $85,518—which, adjusted for inflation, would have been the equivalent of a six-figure income in 2008.

Is this picture healthy for anyone involved? Or does it invite charlatans while exposing well-intentioned but fallible human beings to temptations that no one should really have to face?

Here’s one such temptation: If the pastor of a 1000-member congregation can earn six figures, what might the pastor of a 10,000-member congregation earn? As the twentieth century drew to a close, a new breed of clergyman—part entrepreneur, part preacher—began applying principles learned from the “church growth movement” with lots of energy and loads of marketing savvy. These “pastor-preneurs” dedicated themselves to creating the “user friendly” church experience. Religious facilities shed the stained glass, pews, and steeples and took on the appearance of posh shopping malls with impeccably groomed landscaping and comfy stadium style seating. Messages became more upbeat, with a decidedly self-help theme. Polished performances by professional musicians playing soft-rock melodies became the norm. Some services featured warm-up acts of comedians or other entertainers to get the audience loosened up. And the evolving “mega-churches” added new perks to membership. Interest groups for every hobby imaginable were formed. Assemblies added schools, banks, daycare facilities, pharmacies, coffee shops, mortgage lenders, counseling centers and the like in the effort to attract still more members. Multimedia extravaganzas with professional lighting and sound and choirs hundreds of members strong became commonplace.

Many (certainly not all) of these “pastor-preneurs” are now compensated much like the CEO of a 10,000-employee company. Add in income from book deals and speaking engagements, and a select few mega-church pastors have grown mega-wealthy. A 2003 St. Louis Post-Dispatch article described the lifestyles of several wealthy clergymen. One drove a black Rolls Royce and traveled in a $5 million dollar jet; another lived in a $3.5 million home; still another owned two mansions; yet another owned a 50-foot yacht; and a husband-wife “ministry team” owned a jet, a Cadillac Escalade, and a Mercedes-Benz sedan. A 2006 New York Times article reported a $13 million book deal for yet another “pastor-preneur.”

Our average pastor, though—the fellow who’s been toiling away at his 46-hour work week for the past 20.8 years—doesn’t have to deal with the moral dilemma of whether to buy that yacht. You see, the average weekly attendance at his congregation is only 61. Half of those members say they tithe, but that still doesn’t leave much once the mortgage and utility bills are paid. This average pastor and his average congregation are on the endangered species list. “Church membership” in America is not on the rise. It is, in fact, what economists call a “zero-sum game.” For every winner who builds a mega-church with thousands of members, there are dozens of “average pastors” who lose members and find themselves pushed ever closer to the brink. What temptations do they face?

One, of course, is anxiety. How many pastors would leave “the ministry” if their Bible degree and resume gave them any realistic hopes of landing a secure, decent paying “secular” job?

A less obvious temptation, perhaps, is caution and compromise. Only a relatively few pastors (29.5%) say they enjoy challenging the “lay leaders” with new ideas and programs. Most (70.5%) admit that they “generally prefer to keep things running smoothly by introducing changes gradually.” And when it comes time to make decisions about what the congregation’s focus should be, not many (26.9%) even claim that they discuss the “theological rationale” of how God feels on the subject. The large majority (73.1%) acknowledge that they “primarily take into consideration how well it meets the needs of the members or prospective members.”10 With personal and congregational solvency teetering on the brink, the main consideration becomes keeping the current members happy and trying to recruit a few new ones. Is a system like that likely to yield men with bold, prophetic voices who will risk everything to take the church in a radically new (or radically ancient) direction?

The separation of believers into “clergy” and “laity” has another unintended but disastrous effect: the loss of genuine relationship. A first-century style shepherd functioning as a “brother among brothers” had no option but to lead out of personal relationship, by being deeply involved in others’ lives and demonstrating the lessons he was trying to teach. A twenty-first-century style pastor must try to function from a position above the “laity.” He has a title, an office, and a designated role as the expert in religious matters. He tries to fulfill his duties primarily through meetings—the worship service, the business meeting, the class, the counseling session—rather than through interactions in normal daily life.

That is why most pastors are quite lonely. One recent survey11 revealed a world of insight in three simple statements. Virtually every pastor—a full 98% of those surveyed—considered himself a gifted teacher. No fewer than 80% counted themselves as “effective disciple makers.” Yet a sizeable majority of pastors—more than six out of every ten—admit that they “have few if any close friends.” Clearly most pastors believe that teaching and making disciples are essentially matters of information transfer. Their very role, however, isolates them from others and prevents effective life transfer.

This disconnect between “pastor” and “member” has serious spiritual consequences.

In a scientific survey conducted in 2006, a representative national sample of Protestant pastors was asked to evaluate the spiritual health of their congregations. The pastors on average claimed that 70% of their members made faith the top priority in their lives. One pastor out of every six went so far as to say that 90% of their members made their relationship with God their highest priority. But when the members, the “people in the pews,” were asked that same question, not one fourth would even make that claim about themselves! The overwhelming majority of the members of Protestant assemblies were honest enough to rank their faith below career, family, or the pursuit of happiness on their list of priorities.

Think of it—after hundreds, if not thousands, of sermons, seminars, “revivals,” workshops, and Sunday school lessons, relatively few of those who have repeatedly heard the importance of making God their highest priority even claim to be living what they’ve been taught. But the teachers keep right on going, service after service, class after class, unaware that the flood of words is making little lasting impact.

God has spoken:

This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time, declares the Lord. I will put My laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people. No longer will a man teach his neighbor, or a man his brother, saying, “Know the Lord,” because they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest. (Hebrews 8:11-12)

If men are teaching their neighbors and brothers over and over to know the Lord, yet those who are being taught still do not know Him, or even embrace the goal of knowing Him as their highest priority, that would be very important information to know. This situation is no less than a violation of the New Covenant! Yet those who would seemingly most need to know the truth about the spiritual condition of their “flock” are perhaps the least aware of it.

Why this disconnect? When pastors in the survey were asked to list the specific standards they used in evaluating their members’ spiritual health, the majority said they looked at the percentage of members who volunteered for some church “program” or “ministry.” Nearly half also listed some sort of “conversion experience” and regular attendance to services as important criteria. No other measure was used by even a significant fraction of the pastors.

The organization that conducted the survey offered the following insights:

The unifying thread running through pastors’ responses to an open-ended survey question regarding how congregational health is assessed was that the most common measures do not assess much beyond the superficial participation of people in church or faith-related activity… Perhaps the most telling information relates to the measures that are not widely used by pastors to assess people’s spiritual health. Less than one out of every ten pastors mentioned indicators such as the maturity of a person’s faith in God, the intensity of the commitment to loving and serving God and people, the nature of each congregant’s personal ministry, the breadth of congregational involvement in community service, the extent to which believers have some forms of accountability for their spiritual development and lifestyle, the manner in which believers use their resources to advance the kingdom of God, how often people worship God during the week or feel as if they have experienced the presence of God, or how faith is integrated into the family experience of those who are connected with the church…There has never been a time when American society was in more dire need of the Christian Church to provide a pathway to a better future. Given the voluminous stream of moral challenges, and the rampant spiritual hunger that defines our culture today, this should be the heyday for biblical ministry. As things stand now, we have become content with placating sinners and filling auditoriums as the marks of spiritual health.12

And so we see the sad irony of the clergy-laity system in the new millennium. The people who most want to make a difference in the church are insulated from the people they are trying to help. They are asked to accomplish the goal with information transfer in a meeting-oriented system, and they are penalized if they dare to take risks. And truth is always risky.

A Million Tragedies

Two millennia have passed since the disciples enjoyed three years of “right here, right now” intimacy with Jesus and since an entire generation of believers “from the least to the greatest” discovered that same intimacy in the ekklesia. From this beginning, a radically different religion evolved. Like other world religions, this “Christianity” is built around religious observances conducted in “holy places” at “holy times” under the direction of “holy men.” Cultural variation certainly exists, but it rarely strays far from this traditional paradigm.

It is absolutely critical that we ask ourselves this question: How is this twenty-first century Christianity working? What is its fruit in the lives of its members? Should we simply accept the fact that Christianity just “is what it is” and all agree to work within the system as “churchmen” rather than reformers? Or has the loss been so great and the fruit so meager that we should be alarmed? Does the politically themed bumper sticker, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” apply to Christianity as well? Or is such talk merely “negativity”?

Perhaps one place to start is the newspaper. We could pick any year, really, but let’s choose to look at a twelve-month period during 2005-2006. We find that three stories about well-respected “church members” stunned America, making front-page headlines from coast to coast.

First, a serial killer who had terrorized a city and taunted police for three decades was finally arrested. The depraved murderer pleaded guilty in court and then calmly described each killing in grisly detail. The shocking perversions of this torturer-killer are too vile to be described here. But the perversion was fed by an unchecked addiction to violent pornography. In this murderer’s twisted life, fantasy periodically escaped into the real world.

The identity of the killer? The headline-grabbing fact was this: at the time of his arrest, he was serving as the president of his denominational congregation. He was caught because he had sent a computer diskette to a local newspaper, bragging about his crimes and mocking law enforcement officials for their inability to stop him. The diskette was traced to a computer from the church office.

The members of his assembly were absolutely stunned after his arrest. “I was dumbfounded, I was bewildered, I was shocked,” his pastor said. “It’s not possible. Not the man that I know.” One member recalled how the killer had brought spaghetti sauce and salad to a “church supper” only a few days earlier. Another member called him “a very kind man,” recounting his concern after her kidney operation. A five-year old boy, when he saw the man’s picture on television, turned to his father, who had served as an usher with the murderer, and asked, “He tricked us, didn’t he?” The father told a reporter, “I am not sure what to tell him. I am not sure what to tell myself.” An official in the denominational hierarchy preached a sermon the next Sunday and said, “We feel dismay, anger, devastation, utter shock and disbelief. The very foundation of our faith is shaken.”

After his arrest, the killer wrote what his pastor called “a very generic, laid back” letter to the congregation, thanking them for their support and asking them for their prayers. They posted the letter on a bulletin board in the foyer and included it in their morning announcements.

The serial murderer is now serving ten consecutive life sentences in a federal penitentiary.

Just three months after the trial ended, another tragic story grabbed the nation’s headlines. An eighteen-year old boy accused of killing the parents of his fourteen-year old girlfriend and fleeing with her halfway across the country was arrested. Both children came from “Christian home schooling” families. In fact, the two fleeing teens had met the previous spring at a “home schooling” function. The fourteen-year old girl had a web site that talked about attending prayer groups and her interest in soccer and babysitting. At the time of her parents’ murder, she was wearing a tee-shirt advertising a “Christian rock band.” The eighteen-year-old boy also had a web site on which he quoted lyrics from a “Christian band” and discussed his enjoyment of computers, volleyball, and deer hunting.

Of course the news stories were filled with quotes from disbelieving friends. Of the girl, a peer said, “The way I knew her, she was very smart, and she was like an amazing friend. She’s very Christian and I would have never thought any of this would happen.” She also called the deceased parents “the nicest people I’ve ever met.” The family’s pastor described them as good people dealing with “typical” teenage issues. A neighbor added, “She seemed to be a typical all-American girl, just a sweet kid on the street.”

Court documents painted a dramatically different picture, however. The teens had been “dating” for half a year and were “involved in an ongoing, secret, intimate relationship.” Furthermore, they “often communicated via instant messages and text messages on the Internet.” Their communication included “flirtatious messages” as well as “inappropriate images of one another via various electronic media” such as computers and cell phones.

After his arrest, the young man confessed the murders to authorities. The following year he agreed to a plea deal to avoid a trial with death penalty specifications. He was sentenced to two terms of life imprisonment.

A few more months passed, and yet another tragedy became front page news. A popular young preacher failed to show up at his congregation’s mid-week services. A few concerned members went to his home and discovered his body. He had a gunshot wound in his back. The next day, police in a neighboring state found the preacher’s wife and three children, just as they were pulling into a restaurant in their family van. The wife, police said, confessed to killing her husband. She had shot him and then had fled with the children while he lay dying in their home. After her arrest, the wife asked a friend from their congregation to convey to the members her apologies for what she had done.

The congregation was predictably shocked. They covered a bulletin board in the hallway with snapshots of the smiling family. “Words cannot describe how we all feel about this,” said one member, calling the accused murderer the “’perfect mother, perfect wife.” The member added, “The kids are just precious, and she was precious. He was the one of the best ministers we’ve ever had—just super charisma.”

Another member agreed. The slain minister “had a really true concern about saving people’s souls and inspiring people to rethink their habits,” she told a newspaper. “He was such a great preacher, very uplifting and encouraging. You felt good when you walked away from his sermons…They were such a good couple—happy,” she said.

The trial painted a disturbing picture of their home life. The wife was ensnared in a Nigerian check-cashing scam that she was trying to hide from her husband. The husband was portrayed as critical, overbearing, and demeaning. The wife was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, a common verdict in cases of spousal abuse, and sentenced to only two months in prison, in addition to the time she had already served since her arrest.

The congregation’s members did recall the last sermon their minister ever preached, just three days before his death. The topic was “the Christian family.”

All would agree that these stories are heartbreaking. But are they even germane to our discussion? Are they evidence that something is fundamentally flawed with the dominant paradigm in the Christian church of our day? Or are they mere aberrations in a basically healthy environment? Was it even fair to mention them here? After all, Christians have long maintained that they don’t get a fair shake in the national news media.

But what if these stories are pertinent? What if they are the small but highly visible tip of a huge hidden iceberg of sin, unbelief, and moral failure—what Jesus would call “leaven”? We don’t bring up these tragedies to be negative, or even to judge those who were involved. We bring them up because we believe with all of our hearts that similar disasters can be prevented. The solutions are available. But we won’t look for them unless we are first willing to take an honest, unflinching look at our current situation.

Consider the “lay leader” whose addiction to violent perversion led him to commit unmentionable crimes. Surely he was an aberration, one in a hundred million. Wasn’t he? The answer, sadly, is no. While the crimes he committed are so uncommon as to shock us, the sinful addictions that led to the crimes are very, very common.

One recent national survey13 asked a representative sample of Americans whether they had voluntarily viewed explicit pornographic images during the previous seven days. Among the “unchurched,” one out of every five admitted they had. And among the churched? The same fraction—one of five.

Statistics can leave us cold; they can seem like numbers on a page. So please, allow the implications of that figure to sink in. Next time you are in a religious service, look around you. If your assembly is typical, then one out of every five faces you see has looked at pornography at least once since the last week’s service. Among the women, the number is probably less. Among the men, it may well be considerably more. Multiply what you see by two hundred thousand other assemblies meeting around the country. And ask yourself: What is the cost, in terms of loss of spiritual power and testimony in our world? What is the cost, in terms of pain caused to the Father’s heart?

Tragically, the nation’s clergy are not exempt from this spiritual plague. One evangelist with an international reputation has estimated that the percentage of pastors who attend his seminars who are addicted to pornography is also one in five.14

And what of the immoral teens, whose sin cost a mom and a dad their lives? Again, the crime itself is thankfully quite rare. But we need to look beyond the crime and discover its root causes. The girl’s parents didn’t die simply of gunshot wounds to the head. They died of a lethal cocktail of poisons, including at least: permission for adolescent children to run off in groups or pairs alone, with no supervision and no real accountability; unmonitored use and abuse of the internet and electronic communication; allowance for romantic relationships among children a decade away from realistically being ready for marriage; fostering an environment in which children disciple other children; disjointedness and independence on everyone’s part, with no safety net of daily relationships pressing in, asking questions, offering warning or encouragement or admonition, bringing God’s Word to bear in practical ways to lives; and confusion of external “life style choices” of music and education with internal choices of genuine obedience and discipleship.

The tough question we must be willing to ask ourselves is this: how many teens, raised in the church, have lives that can be characterized by the same list?

We need to admit that the majority of teens in most churches are in deep spiritual trouble. Here the statistics can be deceptive. Teens are much more likely to participate in “church based” activities than their parents. Nationwide, six of ten teens attend services each week and one of three are involved in a youth group. But if you ask those teens if they plan to participate in a local church once they are on their own, then only one in three has any intentions of staying involved. Most church-going teens say that they are only waiting until they leave home to also leave the church.15 And if we check on attendance rates among college students and young adults, the statistics show that most of these teens will follow up on their plans. In its 2002 annual meeting, the Southern Baptist Council on Family Life reported that 88 percent of the children raised in evangelical homes leave the church at or about age 18. For two generations, at least, we have heard the cliché about children raised in the church who attend a secular university and fall away. The children are telling us we got it wrong. Doubtless there are many challenges to faith on college campuses, as well as in the workplace. But most of the time, age eighteen is only when the children stop attending. Tragically, they succumbed to faith-destroying, future-robbing temptations to worldliness and unbelief years before.

Finally, what of the pastor’s wife who is accused of ending her husband’s brief life with a gun? Surely domestic murder is a tragic anomaly, not a norm in religious congregations.

We would agree that very few marriages end with homicide, whether among clergy or laity or pagans. But millions of marriages do end in a court of law. Nationwide, one-fifth of all first marriages end in divorce during the first five years and one-third end during the first ten years. No less than 43% end in divorce or separation during the first fifteen years. Anyone who has experienced a divorce in their immediate family or witnessed one in the life of a close friend can testify to the pain. The hurt is both excruciating at the moment and chronic for years afterwards. Even when divorce seems unavoidable, it means heartbreak for all concerned.

Yet here is another tragedy: the divorce rate for those who consider themselves born-again Christians is identical with those who realize they’ve never been born again.16 Please take a moment to grasp the significance of that fact. Go to any large gathering of people—say, a football game. Place on one side of the stadium all those who “have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their lives today,” who say that they are going to heaven when they die because they have confessed their sins and received Christ as Savior. On the other side of the stadium place all “nominal Christians,” those who are unsure of their beliefs, those who are part of heretical fringe groups, all Buddhists and Muslims, all agnostics and atheists. Then ask all those who have been divorced to raise their hands.

The percentage of raised hands will be exactly the same on both sides of the stadium.

Again, we are not trying to be critical or judgmental of any individuals here. We are only saying that marriages are in just as much trouble inside the church as they are outside. Those statistics are true in spite of all the sermons, marriage seminars, pro-family parachurch organizations, books, tapes, and classes. In most assemblies in every denomination or non-denominational expression of Christianity from “sea to shining sea,” a large percentage of marriages and homes are in deep, deep trouble.

It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way!

We will say it again: we are not trying to criticize or judge. We are convinced that many, if not most, professing Christians involved in soul-numbing, future-robbing sins would want to be free from them. We wish we could grasp these people firmly by the shoulders, look them in the eye, and tell them that it doesn’t have to be that way. They can change. The church can change.

We live in a day in which our enemy, the devil, has made disastrous inroads into our communities, our assemblies, our homes, and our private lives. We repeat: it doesn’t have to be that way! Marriages don’t have to end in heartache; children don’t have to be pummeled by sin and lost to the world by the millions; the name of Jesus doesn’t have to be dragged in the mud by scandal and shame. The gates of hell will not prevail against the church that Jesus will build, if we’ll let Him do it His way. The Bride of Christ really can prepare herself for His return.

The message of this writing—and the message of Christianity as a whole—is not negative. It is not a no. It is a yes. “All God’s promises are yes in Christ” (2 Corinthians 1:20)! But we will never experience the richness and blessings of the future until we look honestly at the present. We must evaluate the fruit of what we are currently doing. And we must be willing to put our preconceptions and biases on the table as well, so that they can be evaluated in the light of God’s truth.

Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results.” We dare not be guilty of such madness! What we do must change; who we are must change. All illusions of “peace, peace where there is no peace” must change first. We must reject self-satisfaction or complacency.

Let’s go back to our survey of pastors and quote from the pollster’s own conclusions:

When pastors described their notion of significant, faith-driven life change, the vast majority (more than four out of five) focused on salvation but ignored issues related to lifestyle or spiritual maturity. The fact that the lifestyle of most churched adults is essentially indistinguishable from that of unchurched people is not a concern for most churches; whether or not people have accepted Jesus Christ as their savior is the sole or primary indicator of “life transformation,” regardless of whether their life after such a decision produces spiritual fruit…It’s a bit troubling to see pastors feel they’re doing a great job when the research reveals that few congregants have a biblical worldview, half the people they minister to are not spiritually secure or developed, kids are fleeing from the church in record numbers, most of the people who attend worship services admit they did not connect with God, the divorce rate among Christians is no different than that of non-Christians, only 2% of the pastors themselves can identify God’s vision for their ministry they are trying to lead, and the average congregant spends more time watching television in one day than he spends in all spiritual pursuits combined for an entire week. Pastors, alone, cannot be held accountable for the spiritual disrepair of America. But it’s worrisome when there is a strong correlation between church size and self-satisfaction, because that suggests that attendance and budget figures have become our mark of success. It’s troubling when our spiritual leaders cannot articulate where we’re headed and how the Church will fulfill its role as the restorative agent of our society. Maybe the comfort afforded by our buildings and other material possessions has seduced us into thinking we’re farther down the road than we really are.17

We may not have all the answers. But we can at least begin by admitting that we need them!

Jesus says that in His Kingdom, good teaching produces good fruit. If our teaching by and large hasn’t, then we need to make some sweeping changes. “New” or “exotic” doctrines are not needed. The answers won’t come in some extra-biblical revelation. The core message of Christianity always has been and always must be “Christ, and Him crucified.” We are obligated to “contend for the faith once delivered to the saints.”

We are not advocating new doctrines; we are advocating a renewed commitment to following the instructions and example of Jesus and His apostles, as recorded in the New Testament. Please read that precious document with fresh eyes. Ask yourself these questions: What was the starting point of the apostle’s teaching, when they were reaching out to those who were just being confronted with the claims of Jesus? What was the emphasis of their teaching, when they were instructing believers in how to grow up in the faith? And what was the context or environment of their teaching? We urge you to explore apostolic writings for yourself. May these words stimulate and provide direction for your search!

3 Jones, D. E., S. Doty, C. Grammich, J. E. Horsch, R. Houseal, M. Lynn, J. P. Marcum, K. M. Sanchagrin, and R. H. Taylor. Religious Congregations and Membership in the United States 2000: An Enumeration by Region, State and County Based on Data Reported by 149 Religious Bodies, Glenmary Research Center, 2002

4 Barna Update, June 19, 2006

5 Barna Update, January 8, 2007

6 Socrates of Constantinople, Historica Ecclesiastica

7 McMillan, B. R. “What do clergy do all week?” Research Report from Pulpit & Pew. Durham: Duke Divinity School, 2002

8 McMillan, B. R. and M. J. Price. How Much Should We Pay Our Pastor: A Fresh Look at Clergy Salaries in the 21st Century. Research Report from Pulpit & Pew. Durham: Duke Divinity School, 2003.

9 DeNavas-Walt, C., R. W. Cleveland, and B. H. Webster, Jr. Income in the United States: 2002. U.S. Census Bureau, September 2003.

10 Carroll, J. W. How Do Pastors Practice Leadership? Research Report from Pulpit & Pew. Durham: Duke Divinity School, 2002.

11 Barna Update, July 10, 2006

12 The Barna Update, January 10, 2006

13 Barna Update, October 22, 2002

14 David Wilkerson newsletter, 2006

15 Barna update, January 2, 2000

16 Barna Update, September 8, 2004

17 Barna Update, December 17, 2002

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