Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Pathological Metamorphosis of the American Church

Last week, Tom McDonald made this startling statement:

“Too many of our senior pastors have exchanged their original calling to shepherd a flock for a driving ambition to build their city’s largest congregation. This has set up the conditions in which many church leaders have become abusive to their staff. As these frustrated pastors (and other church leaders) gradually transfer their own inner torment onto their coworkers, the church staff becomes a seething cauldron of bitterness and anxiety. This situation is epidemic among our nation’s churches. It must stop.”

Dr. McDonald is hardly some embittered cast-away, using the pulpit to nurse a grudge. He is the worship pastor at Church on the Way, one of our country’s largest congregations. He delivered his message to several hundred worship leaders. I was there, in a conference held at Christ Church in Nashville. I noted the compassion and tenderness with which he spoke.

I certainly felt the pull of his call for us to return to our calling and to our core spiritual values.

Here is another statement from that same message:

“Something serious occurs to our worship and music whenever we change them from sacramental instruments that we employ to connect the human heart with God, into mere tools for church growth.”

Wow. Please read that statement again.

These two statements expose a spiritual illness that has been afflicting the heart of American Evangelical Christianity for several decades. The illness evolves from an exchange of secular for spiritual terms, then into a continual secularizing of our worship and spirituality, and finally into a complete redefinition of the church’s purpose and ministry.

As an example of this, McDonald told the story of a minister of music who discovered he had cancer. After going through treatment, his church – HIS CHURCH -- terminated his employment. The church leaders had become afraid that the group health insurance premiums would rise as a result of his struggle.

Now, that is surely an exceptional story! It is however, only an extreme example of how we have come to deal with church matters. We tend to smile sweetly at the old fashioned and naive voice that meekly makes some appeal to scripture, trying to gently rebuke our marketing plan or our fund raising methods. We are quick to remind the protester about how things are done “in the real world.” We then lecture the poor soul about our “competition,” “our market share” and “our bottom line.”

Someone had to tell us that our new vocabulary suggests that many of our church leaders have left the narrow path that leads to life. They have joined the multitudes of our disenchanted and soulless age and are leading their congregations to walk the wide road that leads to destruction.

Our liberal counterparts did this intentionally and honestly; we have done it through our spiritual neglect and denial.

We need to remember some things.

Worship is not a concert.

The father of a flock is not a CEO.

Spirituality does not result from a market poll.

Orthodoxy is not a political persuasion.

The church is not the world.

The “real world” is not this present age; it is the age to come.

If these things are not so, why don’t we have the courage to stop pretending? If we are making our living by comforting lonely people with ancient myths, why don’t we just say so?

Every Evangelical leader in America should listen to McDonald’s message. He is a spiritual physician. He showed us the X rays of American Evangelicalism. It turns out that something is dreadfully wrong in the way we are doing church work.

I know: we do many marvelous things. We make our country a better place. We provide a moral influence for our nation. We feed people. We absorb the effects of many of our society’s ills. I am ready to defend all of that. However, the issues that McDonald raised are real. If left unchallenged, this spiritual disease will ultimately destroy our influence even with our own grandchildren – much less with secular America.

McDonald is right. Too many churches are destroying too many people.

Some of the people most harmed by church business were once called to carry the gospel to the lost, or pastor a flock, or heal the hurting. It took some of them years to discover that such things must be done “on their own time;” that the church actually pays them to feed the maniacal frenzy of church growth – getting nickels and noses into the pews.

Why are people in our pews in the first place?

Many of us seemed to have forgotten.

Why did we work so hard to get those people -- mostly from sister churches that are not as cool as we are -- into our pews?

Surely we didn’t call them here to perpetrate the spiritual emptiness that eats at the core of many of our church staffs.


DAVID said...

Great job laying it out for us, Dan. Wow! I truly believe this is what's happening. I don't want to be part of that business-only church that quickly and methodically transcends to performance rather than true worship. God hear our prayers and give us wisdom to get back on track for YOUR heart!David Butler, Destin, Florida

Bill Whites said...


Something I have found as a by product of this culture that has been created is a lack of faith. When people need to see something in the bottom line before they act on it, it doesn't leave room for God to work and increase somebody's faith. They already knew it was going to work because it was right there in black and white. Consequently they don't want to act on something if it doesn't line up with their numbers.

I have found in my own life that the times that I don't know how something is going to get done because it doesn't seem possible is when God finds a way to make it happen and then that increases my faith. It then makes it easier to step out next time to do the work God has called me to even if I don't see a way for it to happen. There isn't enough room for this to happen in the current culture of big church corporations.

I agree that too many of our churches are being run by bean counters and although we need sound advice from those types of personalities they shouldn't be the final word on what actions we take as a body to act on the calling God has put before us.

Thank you for this message.

Anonymous said...

I wish I could fully grasp this “pathological metamorphosis” to which you are referring; however, having lived most of my life outside of church, I simply cannot relate to the “American Church.”

Honestly, I vacillate between whether I like “organized religion” or whether I do not. Notwithstanding, because of Biblical teachings – which I believe is preemptive to any other source of authority -- I believe the church helps people more than it harms them.

Moreover, I believe those entrusted to be “caretakers of human souls” deserve the respect of society and the protection of law.

Unfortunately, at age 15, I stopped going to church, and I have little recollection of attending church as a child. My high school years, college years, and beyond were not spent in or around a church; although, I did attend a Catholic high school.

This does not mean I didn’t love God, or He didn’t have an impact on my life, because I felt His presence very early in my life and I vividly recall Him comforting me as a child before going to sleep each night. (I feel this SAME comfort as an adult.)

Based on this, it appears the American Church is a necessary element of one’s spiritual life; but, certainly not a sufficient one.

Mark Brand said...

Great thoughts! Thank you for sharing them!

Anonymous said...

This is way too true and sits upon my heart like a huge piece of undigested beef sits on your stomach. After reading this, I found it hard to breathe--knowing that the church that I attend reflects this and knowing that I have worked with and for church leaders for whom this is the mantra. It is neither so elegantly nor so succinctly stated as this, but it is the way the church has been heading.

When the church made a fundamental shift away from the time-tested truths of the Bible into an MBA-inspired gospel, it seems as if we have headed down a slippery slope and cannot find the exit ramp.

I suspect we need a major revival of repentance, prayer, seeking the face of God and waiting for His counsel.

Rick said...

It is the 'writing on the wall' that has already been a death knell for some congregations. It has been said the church is always one generation from extinction. But how do we equip the next generation to pick up where we have failed and march onward? I think it starts by not teaching our children how to do church but how to know the Living Christ, God among us, and teach the faith given to Noah, Abraham, Esther, John the baptist and so many others. Then when the next generation is faithful and rooted, they can correct the errors we made and pave the way for their children.

Thank you, Dan Scott, for continually heeding the call of Christ, even under public scrutiny.

Anonymous said...

It is good to hear that there is an awakening to things which we have let too long slumber in the heart of American Christianity.