How often have I read the words of Paul to Timothy, "For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear" (2 Timothy 4:3-4).
Reading through my evangelical lens I just assumed that the modern day application would be liberals who don't take the Bible or its truth seriously. Now I am not so sure! I wonder if we evangelicals are guilty of the same thing - teaching what we know our folks want to hear rather than the whole counsel of God - some of which even we don't like to hear because it forces us to examine our lives in light of pure truth.
All of us know the pressures that public businesses feel to "meet the quarterly results" so that wall street is happy. Often the long view of serving customers or even building a strong company that will last is lost to the short view of corporate returns.
What does this have to do with ministry you ask? I wonder if there is a correlation between watering down the gospel to be "relevant" - often more pop psychology to make our people feel good than the gospel which connects them with the Lord of the universe and our desire for results in the church - the big N: Numbers - by which we measure our results.
It is not often that I find a reason to quote The New York Times in this blog but in an editorial regarding clergy burn out, guest writer Jeffrey MacDonald says this: Churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them. It’s apparent in the theater-style seating and giant projection screens in churches and in mission trips that involve more sightseeing than listening to the local people.
As a result, pastors are constantly forced to choose, as they work through congregants’ daily wish lists in their e-mail and voice mail, between paths of personal integrity and those that portend greater job security. As religion becomes a consumer experience, the clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy.
And not only clergy become more unhappy and unhealthy - those they serve do as well. Short term results in the church - the hunt for success in weekend attendence is not compatible with long term spiritual results which the Lord of the Church is looking for - spiritual transformation where I live daily in grace, start to think like Jesus, bring my life priorities into line with His, and relate to others as He relates to us. It is transformation of our hearts, minds, priorities and relationships. And that takes time, an understanding of the whole counsel of God, deep relationships among believers and the desire to allow all of God's truth to soak into all of who we are.
Jeffrey MacDonald points out that The trend toward consumer-driven religion has been gaining momentum for half a century. Consider that in 1955 only 15 percent of Americans said they no longer adhered to the faith of their childhood, according to a Gallup poll. By 2008, 44 percent had switched their religious affiliation at least once, or dropped it altogether, the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found. Americans now sample, dabble and move on when a religious leader fails to satisfy for any reason.
In this transformation, clergy have seen their job descriptions rewritten. They’re no longer expected to offer moral counsel in pastoral care sessions or to deliver sermons that make the comfortable uneasy. Church leaders who continue such ministerial traditions pay dearly. A few years ago, thousands of parishioners quit Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minn., and Community Church of Joy in Glendale, Ariz., when their respective preachers refused to bless the congregations’ preferred political agendas and consumerist lifestyles.
Fighting this trend is not about being hard or harsh in our preaching. It is about honestly teaching the whole counsel of God and starting from His truth that is applied to our lives rather than starting from our lives and using the Bible like a self help manual. The Bible was meant to introduces us to the Lord of our lives whose transformation of our lives brings us into closer alignment with Him and that process is often not fun or easy. But the end result is true freedom and joy.
Rather than taking the short view of consumerism in our ministries we are reminded by Paul that "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Further he says, "Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct rebuke and encourage with great patience and careful instruction" (2 Timothy 4:2-3).
This is the long view of ministry. It is the Biblical view of ministry and it is the way to legitimate spiritual transformation.
MacDonald has it right when he says, Ministry is a profession in which the greatest rewards include meaningfulness and integrity. When those fade under pressure from churchgoers who don’t want to be challenged or edified, pastors become candidates for stress and depression.
Clergy need parishioners who understand that the church exists, as it always has, to save souls by elevating people’s values and desires. They need churchgoers to ask for personal challenges, in areas like daily devotions and outreach ministries.
When such an ethic takes root, as it has in generations past, then pastors will cease to feel like the spiritual equivalents of concierges. They’ll again know joy in ministering among people who share their sense of purpose.
I think we need to ask some serious questions as to whether we take the long or short view in our ministries. Whether we have been subtly sucked into Wall Streets view of success (all in the numbers) or are driven by the values and ethics of Scripture which is about long term life change from the inside out. What Paul said about tickling of ears is not just for the liberals. It is for all of us who proclaim the word on a regular basis - he was writing, after all to Timothy and warning him not to fall into the trap.