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Is Church Harder than It’s Ever Been?

March 25, 2014

Guest post by Travis Collins.

Being a spiritual leader never has been easy, I’m sure. But something’s different nowadays. Sheri Ferguson noted that “radical changes in our society over the past 50 years have fundamentally redefined the very nature of what it means to be in ministry.”

Why does life seem harder for ministers now? Here are some suggestions.

1. There was a day when trust was the minister’s to lose. Now it is his or hers to gain.
The growing distrust of all leaders makes it tough even on clergy. The proverbial pedestal might have been embarrassing and uncomfortable for ministers in the past, but it gave us a platform that we no longer have.

2. Incivility is growing in our culture, and it’s infecting churches.
Of course, churches always have been mixed blessings to those who labor in them. Just read the New Testament; some of those churches were beyond dysfunctional. A number of people, however, observe that good manners are increasingly rare even in church. Peter L. Steinke writes a lot about congregational conflict, and he declared, “Not only are the number of incidences rising, but also the number of people who are stubborn, deceptive, and mean.” It’s so bad across the pond that our British brethren are forming a ministers’ union for protection against church bullies!

3. There is a universal lack of respect for authority and expertise.
Physicians, for example, are being chastised by their Web-MD educated patients. Likewise, people who have a theological education, and who make church leadership decisions every day, are challenged on their leadership like never before by people in their congregations. Being the pastor of so many people who know best how to run the church can be exhausting!

4. Institutional loyalty hasn’t been popular since Nixon was president.
Meaning that if your church is the Cathedral of Cool or the First Church of Perpetual Hipness, then you’re in good shape. Until, that is, the Community Church of the Latest Happenin’ moves down the street from you. Then those who found it easy to switch to your church will find it equally easy to switch from your church.

5. It’s hard to make changes without the momentum that comes from growth, and church growth is rare in North America.
People who are otherwise resistant to new things often look around at lots of new people and are awakened to the need to do things differently. But when they look around and all they see are the same old faces, change seems less palatable.

6. The absence of young adults means it’s more difficult to make changes, and the inability to make changes makes it more difficult to reach young adults.
It’s another catch-22. We’ve got to have young adults to attract young adults, and we are not likely to reach young adults without intentional new approaches.

7. The culture is becoming increasingly secular, so attempting to grow a church is swimming against the tide.
When the church isn’t growing (and most aren’t), fingers get pointed at the ministers.

8. The culture is changing so rapidly that finding relevant means of communicating the unchanging story is like trying to hit a moving target.
If your church is just now fighting over starting a contemporary service, for example, it’s probably too late to start one. Meaningful forms of worship, as well has outreach efforts like how to “market” your church, are hard to figure out with people’s routines and even world-views changing so quickly.

9. People are so frightened by the unnerving changes going on around them that they will fight for predictability in their church.
Before her death, my mother was in a nursing home. While trying to care for her, I became a little frustrated with her obsession over her bedside table. She was constantly re-arranging the trinkets, bottles of lotion, and photos, or asking us to do so.

I asked Keri, my wife, “What is the deal with Mom and that bedside table?”

Keri said, “Travis, that table is the only thing in her life that your mom has control over.” My wife was right. All decisions, including health care, were being made for my mom. She couldn’t even get up to go to the bathroom without waiting for her needs to fit into someone else’s schedule. The only thing in life she could arrange was that bedside table. It wasn’t that my mom was crazy, or mean. She was scared, and deeply frustrated that her world was far beyond her control.

The church has become that bedside table for some people. With so many things changing, doggone it, they’re not going to change our church!

So maybe it’s not just paranoia. Maybe things really are harder in the church than they’ve ever been.

Travis Collins
CHC-Virginia Coordinator
Director of Mission Advancement and Virginia Regional Coordinator for Fresh Expressions US
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