Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Future of Pastoral Ministry: Are we Really Up to This?

I spent this morning with a colleague working on the contours of a potential Doctor of Ministry program for Maryland pastors, and among other things, we discussed the future of pastoral ministry.  For a few semesters, I've had the honor of teaching Pastoral Theology at a local seminary,and one of the units we cover relates to the task of leadership in emerging culture.  As an introduction to this unit, I give the students a description of what the world will look like in the not-too-distant future.  We look at shifts that are coming in the area of population, family dynamics, medicine, sexuality, environmental concerns, technology and religion, and then discuss how these shifts should affect the way we lead churches to make disciples in the future.

Once during this presentation, I had a young man come up to me after class and say "wow!  I'm not sure I'm ready for this!"

How about you?  Are you ready for ministry in the 21st century?  What follows are nine scenarios that WILL take place in most churches within the next 20 years.  It is likely that many of these have already taken place, and if pastors are going to lead well, and in a way that honors Jesus, they need to be ready for how to minister among the following:

Scenario One:  A pastor is called to a church with the expectation that he will "help us reach the young families."  Problem is, everyone in the church is over the age of 60, and more than 50% of the community within 10 minutes of the church is also in that age range.  

By 2030, it is estimated that more than half of the U.S. population will be over the age of 50.  This "graying" of America is presently going almost completely unnoticed by most churches, who tend to go after the prized "young families with children" category.  Yet 80% of those over 50 live in a multi-housing situation ("55 and older" apartments, duplex communities, retirement and assisted living communities), and 98% of all multi-housing residents are without a relationship to Jesus.  Are you keeping pace with the generational shifts that are taking place around your church, and how your church should respond to those shifts?  In the future, if you really want to penetrate your community, chances are you won't be reaching that many "young people."  Are you thinking through how this affects programming, staffing, facility usage?

Scenario Two:  Multiple families visit the church who do not speak English, politely nod and smile, and never return. 

 By 2025, Hispanics will outnumber African Americans by 3 to 2, and will comprise approximately 40% of the U.S. population.  Over a decade ago, Oscar Romo noted that America, "hardly the 'melting pot' described by history texts, has become a land marked more by diversity than homogeneity."  In no area is this fact more clear than in the area of language.  A guest speaker at our Association's annual meeting three years ago told me that he walked into one of our malls, ate lunch, and walked back to his car, and never during that time heard anyone speaking English.  I responded by saying "welcome to central Maryland!"  And this dynamic is eventually coming to nearly every part of the United States!  

Is there an unreached pocket of people in your area for whom language is a barrier.  God doesn't intend for linguistics to be a stumbling block to the cross.  Are you capable of helping raise up ministries to help people from other nations who speak other languages to more easily assimilate?  Conversely, are you willing to greet them in their own language and make them feel welcome?

Scenario Three:  A married homosexual couple with three adopted children visit your church.  

This is one of those issues when if you are a pastor, you need to go ahead and check all your political arguments at the door.  What we believe society should or shouldn't do in this situation is of absolutely no consequence, because they are doing it anyway!  The fact is that homosexual marriage is, well, a fact.  Its true here in Maryland, in six other states, and is likely to be true nationwide in a very short time.  Truth is, we live in a nation and culture in which our understanding of marriage has been devolving for decades.  

Now that this is a reality, how will we minister to the parents and their children?  How should our children's departments be equipped to minister to the kids?  How are you equipping other couples in your church to interact with and minister to these precious souls? How can you uphold clear Biblical standards in love?  How will you help these parents and their children navigate what it means to follow Jesus, and what implications that decision may have on family dynamics?  Are you ready to admit that you don't even have all the answers to these questions, and walk slowly and in love with those who seek your counsel?

Scenario Four:  A young person who has visited your church for a while repents of her sin and receives Jesus as Lord and Savior.  As you prepare for her baptism, you discover through her testimony that she was born male, but had gender-reassignment surgery a few years ago.  

Scripture has no category for an "androgynous Christian."  There are Christian men, and Christian women, and the discipleship models spelled out for us in the New Testament tend to be described in conjunction with one's gender.  Sometimes the church argues forcefully over the appropriate "role" of men and women in the life of the church.  But regardless of what you believe on that issue, we can agree on this:  The reason the argument is sometimes so intense is that we all recognize that gender identity matters! 

Therefore, in a situation like this, you have someone created in God's image and likeness who has become a follower of Jesus, and how must now be discipled in accordance with her/his gender identity.  Are you prepared for the Biblical, moral, psychological and bioethics questions that will necessarily be part of that conversation?

Scenario Five:   More and more people, it seems, are asking you to perform funeral ceremonies for their pets.  You have noticed over time that the grieving process for a family losing a pet, as well as the elements of the funeral itself (pictures, memorials, poems, etc.) indicate a much greater value on animals than in the past.  

We are already witnessing attitudes in our culture that betray a gravitation towards increased "equalizing" of animals and humans, and too many in the church have bought into this idea.  Are you prepared to lovingly confront the false idea that "all dogs go to heaven," and re-assert the essential distinction between human beings, who are created in God's own image and likeness, and pets, who are not?  Are you ready for the backlash that is likely to come from supposed "mature" Christians for simply asserting the Biblical truth that their pet doesn't possess an eternal soul?  Are you ready to point your people to the serious theological implications of believing otherwise? (Did Jesus really die for a DOG?  Seriously?!)

Scenario Six:  Because of growth, your church starts a "video venue," and begins live-streaming worship and sermons via the internet.  You notice that you have a growing "online" audience, many of whom log in every Sunday, and who financially support the ministry.  Through connections with these people on social media you discover that, although they may live hundreds or even thousands of miles away, they consider your church their "church home."  

Today's advanced and inexpensive technology means that churches are asking questions that would never have been considered even 20 years ago, and one of the biggest questions today has to do with the legitimacy of the so-called "internet church."  In the future, how will your church ensure that the Biblical principles and practices commensurate with a covenant community are observed in this environment?  

Are you ready for the conversations church leadership must have in the future related to how everything from church discipline to fellowship can be achieved in this context?  The most obvious pitfall of social media is that our society has never been more exposed to each other, and simultaneously, never been more alone.  How can the church be truly "counter-cultural" in this environment?  At what point should we say "no" to certain forms of technology because they threaten sound ecclesiology?

Scenario Seven:  You discover through casual conversation that a yoga class has been started by leaders in the church, that participants freely greet one another with "namaste," and that Christian meditation has been confused with the emptying of the mind that is endorsed in many Hindu communities.  

Over the past decade, there has been a huge increase in ancient pagan practices, much like those that occurred in the days of the Old Testament.  The digital age, among other things, presents opportunities for the "blending" of faiths that was unheard of even two decades ago.  In what ways should you be prepared to bifurcate for your people between what can, and cannot, be part of the life of someone who follows Jesus according to Scripture?  Are you equipped to help your people understand the difference between "form" and "meaning" when it comes to practices, so that they can separate the truly harmless from the "seemingly harmless," the latter of which has deep roots in ancient paganism?

Scenario Eight:  You receive a call from a mainline church in town.  The size of their congregation has dropped to less than 20 members. They are fearful for their future, and they ask for your help.  It is simply a statistical fact that theological liberalism kills churches.  As such, expect the mainline protestant churches in your town to continue slowly bleeding to death.  Yet, the people in those dying churches need someone to love them by ministering to their needs and reminding them of what their faith once stood for.  Are you prepared to raise up leaders who can utilize those facilities to start a second campus for your church, or start a new church altogether?  Are you now able to be friends with these people, and love them through their struggles while holding firmly to your faith?

Scenario Nine:  Parents come to you for counseling regarding their son, who has been diagnosed with multiple "generic" disorders, but doctors have been incapable of specifying the problem, and the child has been largely un-treatable by psychiatrists.  You suspect the presence of demonic activity.  

I truly believe that we will see a sharp rise in obvious demonic activity in the west, and I believe it will unfortunately be mis-diagnosed as a solely medical or psychiatric problem.  As a result, too many children will grow up expressing the personality of a psychotrophic drug unless wise and godly pastors in the west learn to recognize the presence of demonic activity, lead families past the "exorcism" nonsense of Benny Hinn and the Church of Rome, and confront it head-on with the Gospel.

Scenario Ten:  In this "brave new world," God continues to seek worshippers, and Jesus continues to save people from sin, Satan, death, and hell in miraculous ways. 

I'm sure some of what I've written above scares some readers.  I'm equally certain that some of you are angry, and for various reasons.  As lovingly as I can say it, I don't care.  What I've described above is a culture that is emerging, and that is filled with people Jesus died to save.   And it is in this environment when I hear evangelical Christians having the dumbest arguments!  

Where the Mid-Maryland Association is concerned, I want us to be ready for that world so we can be faithful to Jesus.  So many of the arguments and "controversies" we have these days  are proven in contrast to the realities above to be as ridiculous as they appear to be.

We have some pure, honest, real-world "issues" coming, and we don't have time for the cosmetic ones.  Are we prepared to stop pining for the world as we wished it was, and begin preparing to reach the world as we know it will soon be?  I hope so.


Prophet Among Them said...

Joel, What you have written does not 'scare' me.

I do believe that the assumptions underlying some of these issue may well be invalid.

I admire your vision and forward looking perspective onpastoral ministry. I also believe that the pending (right now) financial crisis based on 'printing money' will explode and invalidate much of what you have protrayed.

I beleive the certainty of the financial crisis is much more certain than many of the items you cataloged and will in fact make them null and void.

All that said we ALL need to be looking forward not back to shape pastoral ministry. THANKS!

Bill Cochran said...

Very real and certainly, if not now, soon present "reality," for many, most or all Churches. I'll be sharing this with some of the folks that I walk alongside regularly.

I'd be interested in a biblical resource that could serve as a study guide, if you will, or springboard for leading group discussions on these topics. In fact, I'm willing to host a "round table setting" forum, to dialogue through these and other "coming" scenarios. Joel, interested in facilitating?

Dave Van Lant said...

Hey man, there were some pretty dumb statements in this piece! (No, I’m not angry, just concerned about dumb statements made by Evangelicals.)

“…you need to go ahead and check all your political arguments at the door. What we believe society should or shouldn't do in this situation is of absolutely no consequence. because they are doing it anyway!

This is a ridiculous statement, or should I say, it’s one of the dumbest statements I’ve heard about this subject. How would it be possible to have a meaningful ministry of any kind if you teach pastors that what they think about what people should or shouldn’t do in society is of “absolutely no consequence”? That’s a really dumb statement—and no, I’m not angry—it’s just a dumb statement!

“The fact is that homosexual marriage is, well, a fact.”

Homosexual marriage is a fiction. No governing body can make it anything but a fiction; nor can any majority vote no matter how large it may be. They are a fiction no matter who might claim otherwise. If you are serious about preparing pastors to minister in this situation, you had better not tell them pastors that homosexual and lesbian marriages are a fact.

Now that this is a reality, how will we minister to the parents and their children? How should our children's departments be equipped to minister to the kids?

If you are serious about ministering to children, you had better not think that there can be such a thing as homosexual marriage. If the Supreme Court should declare fiction--homosexual and lesbian marriage—to be a fact, do you imagine that Churches will be permitted to have a children’s department in any kind of traditional sense? You haven’t even gotten close to imagining the kind of scenario you would face. This is another of the dumbest statements I’ve ever heard—and no, I’m not angry, just concerned about dumb statements in the tongues of Evangelicals.

“We are already witnessing… gravitation towards increased ‘equalizing’ of animals and humans... Are you prepared to lovingly confront the false idea that ‘all dogs go to heaven,’ and re-assert the essential distinction between human beings, who are created in God's own image and likeness, and pets, who are not? Are you ready for the backlash that is likely to come from supposed ‘mature’ Christians for simply asserting the Biblical truth that their pet doesn't possess an eternal soul? Are you ready to point your people to the serious theological implications of believing otherwise?”

Why didn’t you raise the question of loving confrontation with regard to the fiction of homosexual and lesbian marriage or androgyny? Why didn’t you raise the question of backlash there? What about asserting the biblical truth that homosexual and lesbian marriage as well as androgyny are fictions being touted as facts? Why didn’t you mention the serious theological implications of thinking otherwise with regard to those issues? It may have been an oversight, I guess, but it sounds really dumb!

“And it is in this environment when I hear evangelical Christians having the dumbest arguments!”

Most of this was fairly helpful, but some of it wasn’t all that smart—kind of dumb, actually—and no, I’m not angry, just concerned about dumb statements by evangelicals.

. said...

Pastor Dave,

Wow. Thanks so much for your post. I mean, the moral and discipleship complexities involved in confronting people with Biblical truth in a way that may forever affect their children, their legal status, financial situation, and a thousand other things had me thinking that we had much to talk about. I'm fully aware that from God's perspective, homosexual marriage is not a reality, but since I'm dealing day to day with people who believe otherwise that I need to walk and live among, and love, I believed that made this a bit of a tightrope that we pastors needed to discuss. You brought obvious moral clarity to this situation that revealed just how simple it is: just yell at them! Thanks for that.

As for why I didn't fully equivocate my statements on gay marriage and pet funerals. Well, the wider culture pretty much already knows what we evangelicals believe about homosexual marriage, but apparently from my experience, many Christians themselves need some straightforward teaching on personal eschatology. Just trying to apply some Pastoral sensitivity, but again, I could be wrong.

And my statement at the end about our "dumb arguments" was related to the kinds of discussions I hear many pastors having today in contrast to the realities I tied to lay out in this post. I was merely suggesting that maybe we should talk about the world as it is and how to effectively engage it. But again, you have bested me with your exceedingly sharp rhetoric. Now I know that was just a stupid thing to suggest, and that we should go back to arguing over whether a Christian should see an R-rated movie, or go to the prom. Or maybe Calvinism. Yeah, lets spend some more time arguing about that, because, you know, its been such a redemptive conversation so far!

Thanks for setting me straight.......man!

Cruces Rev said...

Joel, great thoughts. Thanks for raising some interesting and tough questions, but how about some guidelines and principles for how to answer them? I am especially interested in the scenario dealing with the homosexual couple with kids. Have you actually dealt with this or is it just a hypothetical? What did you do/what do you suggest?
I know answers are a post-modern no-no, but I need some!

. said...

Cruces Rev, Thanks for writing, and great question! It isn't so much that "answers are a postmodern no-no," as it is that today's challenges seem to each bring their own context and unique set of considerations. It is for this reason that I hesitate to map out a plan and expect that it can be universally applied with success.

So for example, in the case you mentioned of scenario three; we eventually want this couple to live in a way that honors the Scriptural pattern of sexual activity only within the confines of heterosexual marriage, and celibacy in any other scenario. But the road from A to B will be determined by where each person finds themselves spiritually when they enter the doors of your church, as well as the legal situation in the state where you reside--legal situations that, because of the children, not only affect the civil relationship of the couple, but potentially custody issues with the children as well. How do you balance moving a semi-willing same sex couple toward Biblical faithfulness in this situation without hurting the kids? That question can only be answered well at the local level.

My point is that these situations are highly complicated. I do believe they each have an "answer," but I don't believe those answers can be given through the venue of a blog post. I believe they are given through pastors getting together, praying together, and wrestling with how to act as shepherd through these issues, and doing so without staking out absolute positions with regard to approach and methodology; and frankly, that's something Southern Baptists will have a hard time doing, given our propensity for boycotts and condemning resolutions. But its what's called for here (sounds like an Association, doesn't it? Or, at least what an Association should be!)

Most importantly, answers come when God's people, under the leadership of their Pastor, submit themselves humbly to the Holy Spirit and each other, with all the considerations I've listed above and more in front of them, and determine a way forward that honors Jesus and serves the people He created in His image (sounds like a congregational church, doesn't it?)

That's a long-winded way to NOT answer your question. :) But as I said, I believe the answers in your own context are best sought within. Hope that helps clarify why a clear road map isn't included with this post.

Anonymous said...

Scenario #1 is a reality - that's where more and more of us are who serve historic (100+ years old) churches. Unfortunately, the blogs, ministry magazines, and even some Bible colleges and seminaries are dealing with this by emphasizing pastors starting new churches ... which is certainly easier, but leaves a lot of older folks without competent, caring pastors. Scenario #8, on the other hand, seems pretty far-fetched. My aging mainline folks are so mad at the new churches in town (for "stealing" all the young folks in town) that they'll never go to one. And the new churches are so focused on young people ("the future of the church") that they won't offer a "traditional" service with large-print materials and familiar hymns and worship for these older folks. We seem to have entered a phase where each generation has its own church, and the idea of an historic, multi-multi generations church is screeching to an end. Sad.