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“You Don’t Want to Be That Sick” Pastors Who Ignore

themiddle

Back when I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital I was astounded to hear my pastor make a comment which I think was one of the most heartless that I have ever heard said from a pulpit.  The church was a large and trendy Evangelical-Charismatic Church which I had attended throughout seminary and had ordained my in October 1991.  The Pastor was recounting an incident where one of our members had been critically ill in hospital and had not been visited by him.  After the parishioner was released from hospital he asked the pastor: “How sick do I have to be for you to visit me in the hospital?”  The pastor told us his response: “Sir, you don’t want to be that sick.”

The congregation laughed at the pastor’s story and he went on to talk about how he and other senior pastors should not be doing that kind of work because it “distracted them from bigger Kingdom tasks.”  You see according to the pastor the care of sick parishioners did not contribute to the “growth” of the church and thus was a “distraction and better left to others.”

The comment struck a raw nerve now that I was dealing with the suffering and death every day of people who had been abandoned by the churches and pastors.  I lost all respect for him as a man and pastor during that sermon.  My philosophy of religion professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary, Dr. Yandall Woodfin said: “You have not done Christian theology until you have dealt with suffering and death.”

Unfortunately my old pastor, and many more like had stopped doing Christian theology in order to be an “Apostle” and CEO.  He was “growing” the church and managing programs, but had for the most part stopped caring as in being a pastoral care giver.

Now this pastor is not alone and nor is the issue of the lack of care confined to Evangelical or Charismatic churches. The trend has has found its way across the denominational spectrum.  Sometimes this is by design as is the case of the Mega-churches.

Pastors of mega-churches are for all practical purposes CEOs of large organizations and have a multiplicity of specialized staff, but often which do little for pastoral care. Having attended a number of these churches, and worked for a prominent television evangelist I can sadly report seeing this first hand many times.

Sometimes this problem it is by default in cases such as the Roman Catholic Church.  In that church the ever worsening shortage of Priests is forcing the closure of smaller parishes and the increase of large parishes with a corresponding decrease in what Priests can do for their people.   Even very good Priests cannot keep pace with the demand of both Sacramental needs as well as pastoral care.

No matter if it is by design or default the result is similar.  The least, the lost and the lonely those “lambs” that Jesus talks about who need care and feeding are shunted aside.  In one case, that of the Catholic Church it is primarily a lack of Priests, Deacons and Sisters to provide this care, although sadly there are Catholic priests who do not see themselves as care givers.

The “by design” issue is more far more troubling as the focus of the church is growth, sustaining numbers, programs and buildings.  This requires that pastors spend their time with members who can supply the vast financial need that those plans require.  I have seen this in numerous congregations across the spectrum, which sometimes as was the case at a church that I attended in Florida results in a financial meltdown and collapse of the congregation, many of whom gave up and went elsewhere when the extent of the scandal became known.  Likewise the ripple effects that this caused in the denomination were like a Tsunami, it was disastrous and the church is still in recovery mode.  Going back to my pastor back when I was in residency I got the feeling that had he been the shepherd in the Parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15) that he would have let it go as hunting for it might have distracted him from the others.

When I was in seminary there were quite a number of my fellow students who chafed about having to take courses on pastoral care.  I remember friends and fellow students complaining that what they needed were more “practical courses” such as “church growth, evangelism and Sunday School program management.”  Courses dealing with Pastoral Care were seen as a bother and distraction.  Not to mention academic courses such as Systematic Theology, Philosophy of Religion and Church History which offer timeless lessons for pastors.  One friend talked about his Master of Divinity only having a “shelf-life of 5 years” because what he learned would be outdated.

Well in a way he was right.  His focus was on classes that dealt with programs and methods of church growth, programs and management.   From that perspective his degree would rapidly be obsolescent as soon as the next trend in church growth came along and everyone jettisoned the last method in favor of the new.

With the ubiquity of the Mega-church which unlike the Leisure Suit is not going away anytime soon.  The rise of the “Superstar” Pastors such as Bill Hybels, Joel Osteen and Rick Warren and the proliferation of massive “Ministry Media” conglomerates and stand-alone television ministries are actually dangerous to the vitality and health of the Christian Church in the United States.  They propagate methods which have the sole intent of getting people into church or giving to a ministry and keeping them there, doctrine, worship, sacraments or ordinances, and pastoral care of the least, lost and lonely be damned.  The methods are pragmatic and impersonal.   Numbers and crowds define expertise, credibility and worth. The bigger the church the better the church, it’s that simple.

Unlike others who pick these ministers apart for their theology or business practices my problem with what is happening is what happens to regular people in these large and often very impersonal churches.  It is easy for people to get lost, forgotten and when they are going through difficulty abandoned when the church stops making a conscious effort to do real pastoral care and focus purely on the programs which lend to growth.  Often the substitute for pastoral care is found in the home cell group, or care group or whatever cute name a church can pin on a meeting at a member’s house.

The home groups or cell groups have a noble intention.  They attempt to build community in an otherwise very impersonal organization.  There are some really good things that can come out of healthy home groups as well as long lasting friendships.  We have a couple from our time in San Antonio that is still a very real part of our lives, they showed us genuine love and care and we remain friends.  Of course this couple had an advantage over most home group leaders; he was a clinical social worker by trade who was heading off to seminary.

Most home groups are not that fortunate.  There are unhealthy groups which are led by people who are poorly trained and equipped to deal with broken people.  The good group leaders recognize their limitations and try to get help for those who are really hurting.  Others who do not know their limitations end up abusing these dear lambs of God. Often this is because sick, depressed or lonely people take too much time, are too needy, or that their problems don’t match up with their church theology.

My wife and I know this from personal experience as my wife suffered from a number of ailments throughout seminary and we were going through tremendous health and financial difficulties and in some places we felt cast aside and like we did not matter.  We were fortunate that some people did care and we did make it through, however it was not something that I would ever want to repeat.  I have heard similar stories from hundreds of people that I have come across in my life and work over the years.

I don’t care what you call it, but any church which has multiple services of several thousand or a major service of close to 20,000 as occurs at Osteen’s Lakewood Church is no longer focused on caring for people but sustaining their growth and market share.

I remember reading Charisma Magazine back in the mid-1990s when I still read it regularly about a church in North Dallas that has a period of incredible church growth in which it grew from 1,200 members to well over 7,000.  In the article the pastor touted the church programs which drew people to the church.  What the dirty little secret which was not mentioned was that two exits south of this church a Mega-church of some 10,000 members imploded when the Pastor, one Bob Tilton got caught doing some pretty bad stuff.  This church despite its claims of great programs simple picked up about 6,000 of these people because they were close by and a similar type of church.

All of this is dangerous as to its impact on people.  One only has to look at the latest Barna Polls about what is going on in churches to see that these large churches are alienating people even as they grow.  People come, but others either burn out trying to keep pace with the manic pace of programs proliferated by these churches or they get lost in the crowd and forgotten.  I meet a least a person every day who is a displaced Christian, often hurt, lonely and broken, not only by what they have experienced in life, but by the cold emptiness that they feel when a church surrounded by thousands of people who don’t even know their name.

Some churches do recognize that people have issues that need to be addressed and have in-house Christian counseling programs or refer members to Christian counseling services.   I think that there certainly is a place for clinically trained therapists in the life of a church; however this is not really pastoral care, even when they use “Biblical” methods.   In a sense it is the outsourcing by pastors of one of the most vital missions entrusted to a church, the pastoral care of the flock of God to others, in a sense, “hirelings.”  Again my issue is not with the therapists or Christian counselors, but rather pastors who refuse to do pastoral care as part of their ministry.

Ultimately it is people that are important, even those who are not rich, powerful and who have problems that don’t fit nicely into theological boxes or paradigms promoted by church growth experts. It is high time that churches start reclaiming one of the most vital missions given by Jesus to his Disciples, to care for the least, the lost and the lonely.
The onus for this falls on pastors who cannot simply outsource one of their primary missions as given by Jesus himself to others.  If pastors do not set the example of being caring pastoral care givers, it will not matter that they are supposedly “empowering” laypeople to do ministry.  Instead it sends another more ominous message, that if it is not important for the pastor, why should it be important to me?

Every member of the church at some time goes through a crisis when their faith, family, health or vocation.  Sometimes these are not isolated events but rather prolonged periods of anguish, as what Saint John of the Cross described as “the Dark Night of the Soul” where it seems that God has even abandoned the person.  Unfortunately people in this situation are often abandoned by their church as things fail to improve.  Despairing they become the lost sheep whose shepherd has abandoned.  This is the hardest time for pastoral care, the times where we as pastors are called to stand with someone as Mary the Mother of Jesus did at the Cross, just simply being there though nothing else can be done.

Now do I understand that the demands of running a large church can be sometimes become such that pastors have difficulty making time for pastoral care?

Of course I understand this, at the same time pastors, even those who function primarily as pastor-teacher/CEOs still have the responsibility of caring for people, not simply administering programs and preaching.  Pastors need to set the example of care for people, real people, the regular people who populate their pews, by their books and give to their ministry, even if it is only in small ways, not just the super-givers or the wealthy and powerful.

James’s “right strawy epistle” (Martin Luther’s words) has much to say about favoring the rich and powerful and neglecting the poor and seemingly insignificant people hanging about the peanut galleries of their large “Worship Centers.”  Even if the pastor has limited time he or she must be about the flock, or they will forget what the needs of the flock really are and instead of the People of God, the lambs who Jesus says to care for they will simply be the consumers of a religious message who we have to keep coming back to keep the operation going.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, ministry, Pastoral Care, Religion

Churches that Ignore: The Mega-Church and the Least, the Lost and the Lonely

Lakewood-Church-1024x768-2

“Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.”  (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)

Back when I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital I was astounded to hear my pastor make a comment which I think was one of the most heartless that I have ever heard said from a pulpit.  The church was a large and trendy Evangelical-Charismatic Church which I had attended throughout seminary and had ordained my in October 1991.  The Pastor was recounting an incident where one of our members had been critically ill in hospital and had not been visited by him.  After the parishioner was released from hospital he asked the pastor: “How sick do I have to be for you to visit me in the hospital?”  The pastor told us his response: “Sir, you don’t want to be that sick.”

The congregation laughed at the pastor’s story and he went on to talk about how he and other senior pastors should not be doing that kind of work because it “distracted them from bigger Kingdom tasks.”  You see according to the pastor the care of sick parishioners did not contribute to the “growth” of the church and thus was a “distraction and better left to others.”

The comment struck a raw nerve now that I was dealing with the suffering and death every day of people who had been abandoned by the churches and pastors.  I lost all respect for him as a man and pastor during that sermon.  My philosophy of religion professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary, Dr. Yandall Woodfin said: “You have not done Christian theology until you have dealt with suffering and death.”

Unfortunately my old pastor, and many more like had stopped doing Christian theology in order to be an “Apostle” and CEO.  He was “growing” the church and managing programs, but had for the most part stopped caring as in being a pastoral care giver.

Now this pastor is not alone and nor is the issue of the lack of care confined to Evangelical or Charismatic churches. The trend has has found its way across the denominational spectrum.  Sometimes this is by design as is the case of the Mega-churches.

Pastors of mega-churches are for all practical purposes CEOs of large organizations and have a multiplicity of specialized staff, but often which do little for pastoral care. Having attended a number of these churches, and worked for a prominent television evangelist I can sadly report seeing this first hand many times.

Sometimes this problem it is by default in cases such as the Roman Catholic Church.  In that church the ever worsening shortage of Priests is forcing the closure of smaller parishes and the increase of large parishes with a corresponding decrease in what Priests can do for their people.   Even very good Priests cannot keep pace with the demand of both Sacramental needs as well as pastoral care.

No matter if it is by design or default the result is similar.  The least, the lost and the lonely those “lambs” that Jesus talks about who need care and feeding are shunted aside.  In one case, that of the Catholic Church it is primarily a lack of Priests, Deacons and Sisters to provide this care, although sadly there are Catholic priests who do not see themselves as care givers.

The “by design” issue is more far more troubling as the focus of the church is growth, sustaining numbers, programs and buildings.  This requires that pastors spend their time with members who can supply the vast financial need that those plans require.  I have seen this in numerous congregations across the spectrum, which sometimes as was the case at a church that I attended in Florida results in a financial meltdown and collapse of the congregation, many of whom gave up and went elsewhere when the extent of the scandal became known.  Likewise the ripple effects that this caused in the denomination were like a Tsunami, it was disastrous and the church is still in recovery mode.  Going back to my pastor back when I was in residency I got the feeling that had he been the shepherd in the Parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15) that he would have let it go as hunting for it might have distracted him from the others.

When I was in seminary there were quite a number of my fellow students who chafed about having to take courses on pastoral care.  I remember friends and fellow students complaining that what they needed were more “practical courses” such as “church growth, evangelism and Sunday School program management.”  Courses dealing with Pastoral Care were seen as a bother and distraction.  Not to mention academic courses such as Systematic Theology, Philosophy of Religion and Church History which offer timeless lessons for pastors.  One friend talked about his Master of Divinity only having a “shelf-life of 5 years” because what he learned would be outdated.

Well in a way he was right.  His focus was on classes that dealt with programs and methods of church growth, programs and management.   From that perspective his degree would rapidly be obsolescent as soon as the next trend in church growth came along and everyone jettisoned the last method in favor of the new.

With the ubiquity of the Mega-church which unlike the Leisure Suit is not going away anytime soon.  The rise of the “Superstar” Pastors such as Bill Hybels, Joel Osteen and Rick Warren and the proliferation of massive “Ministry Media” conglomerates and stand-alone television ministries are actually dangerous to the vitality and health of the Christian Church in the United States.  They propagate methods which have the sole intent of getting people into church or giving to a ministry and keeping them there, doctrine, worship, sacraments or ordinances, and pastoral care of the least, lost and lonely be damned.  The methods are pragmatic and impersonal.   Numbers and crowds define expertise, credibility and worth. The bigger the church the better the church, it’s that simple.

Unlike others who pick these ministers apart for their theology or business practices my problem with what is happening is what happens to regular people in these large and often very impersonal churches.  It is easy for people to get lost, forgotten and when they are going through difficulty abandoned when the church stops making a conscious effort to do real pastoral care and focus purely on the programs which lend to growth.  Often the substitute for pastoral care is found in the home cell group, or care group or whatever cute name a church can pin on a meeting at a member’s house.
The home groups or cell groups have a noble intention.  They attempt to build community in an otherwise very impersonal organization.  There are some really good things that can come out of healthy home groups as well as long lasting friendships.  We have a couple from our time in San Antonio that is still a very real part of our lives, they showed us genuine love and care and we remain friends.  Of course this couple had an advantage over most home group leaders; he was a clinical social worker by trade who was heading off to seminary.

Most home groups are not that fortunate.  There are unhealthy groups which are led by people who are poorly trained and equipped to deal with broken people.  The good group leaders recognize their limitations and try to get help for those who are really hurting.  Others who do not know their limitations end up abusing these dear lambs of God. Often this is because sick, depressed or lonely people take too much time, are too needy, or that their problems don’t match up with their church theology.

My wife and I know this from personal experience as my wife suffered from a number of ailments throughout seminary and we were going through tremendous health and financial difficulties and in some places we felt cast aside and like we did not matter.  We were fortunate that some people did care and we did make it through, however it was not something that I would ever want to repeat.  I have heard similar stories from hundreds of people that I have come across in my life and work over the years.

I don’t care what you call it, but any church which has multiple services of several thousand or a major service of close to 20,000 as occurs at Osteen’s Lakewood Church is no longer focused on caring for people but sustaining their growth and market share.

I remember reading Charisma Magazine back in the mid-1990s when I still read it regularly about a church in North Dallas that has a period of incredible church growth in which it grew from 1,200 members to well over 7,000.  In the article the pastor touted the church programs which drew people to the church.  What the dirty little secret which was not mentioned was that two exits south of this church a Mega-church of some 10,000 members imploded when the Pastor, one Bob Tilton got caught doing some pretty bad stuff.  This church despite its claims of great programs simple picked up about 6,000 of these people because they were close by and a similar type of church.

All of this is dangerous as to its impact on people.  One only has to look at the latest Barna Polls about what is going on in churches to see that these large churches are alienating people even as they grow.  People come, but others either burn out trying to keep pace with the manic pace of programs proliferated by these churches or they get lost in the crowd and forgotten.  I meet a least a person every day who is a displaced Christian, often hurt, lonely and broken, not only by what they have experienced in life, but by the cold emptiness that they feel when a church surrounded by thousands of people who don’t even know their name.

Some churches do recognize that people have issues that need to be addressed and have in-house Christian counseling programs or refer members to Christian counseling services.   I think that there certainly is a place for clinically trained therapists in the life of a church; however this is not really pastoral care, even when they use “Biblical” methods.   In a sense it is the outsourcing by pastors of one of the most vital missions entrusted to a church, the pastoral care of the flock of God to others, in a sense, “hirelings.”  Again my issue is not with the therapists or Christian counselors, but rather pastors who refuse to do pastoral care as part of their ministry.

Ultimately it is people that are important, even those who are not rich, powerful and who have problems that don’t fit nicely into theological boxes or paradigms promoted by church growth experts. It is high time that churches start reclaiming one of the most vital missions given by Jesus to his Disciples, to care for the least, the lost and the lonely.
The onus for this falls on pastors who cannot simply outsource one of their primary missions as given by Jesus himself to others.  If pastors do not set the example of being caring pastoral care givers, it will not matter that they are supposedly “empowering” laypeople to do ministry.  Instead it sends another more ominous message, that if it is not important for the pastor, why should it be important to me?

Every member of the church at some time goes through a crisis when their faith, family, health or vocation.  Sometimes these are not isolated events but rather prolonged periods of anguish, as what Saint John of the Cross described as “the Dark Night of the Soul” where it seems that God has even abandoned the person.  Unfortunately people in this situation are often abandoned by their church as things fail to improve.  Despairing they become the lost sheep whose shepherd has abandoned.  This is the hardest time for pastoral care, the times where we as pastors are called to stand with someone as Mary the Mother of Jesus did at the Cross, just simply being there though nothing else can be done.

Now do I understand that the demands of running a large church can be sometimes become such that pastors have difficulty making time for pastoral care?

Of course I understand this, at the same time pastors, even those who function primarily as pastor-teacher/CEOs still have the responsibility of caring for people, not simply administering programs and preaching.  Pastors need to set the example of care for people, real people, the regular people who populate their pews, by their books and give to their ministry, even if it is only in small ways, not just the super-givers or the wealthy and powerful.

James’s “right strawy epistle” (Martin Luther’s words) has much to say about favoring the rich and powerful and neglecting the poor and seemingly insignificant people hanging about the peanut galleries of their large “Worship Centers.”  Even if the pastor has limited time he or she must be about the flock, or they will forget what the needs of the flock really are and instead of the People of God, the lambs who Jesus says to care for they will simply be the consumers of a religious message who we have to keep coming back to keep the operation going.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

2 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, leadership, Pastoral Care

Anne Rice and the Exodus

Anne Rice

There is an exodus occurring in American Christianity.  This is not new. George Barna has reported a lot about disturbing trends in American Christianity, particularly Evangelical Christianity.  These trends span denominational lines and having watched them and seen a lot of anecdotal evidence myself over the past 20 or so years I believe that they are now having a cascade effect with visible effects.  Before the effects were covered over as mega-churches, seeker-friendly churches, the so-called “church growth movement” carved out rather large chunks out of denominational churches of all types.  The common charge leveled against “traditional” denominational churches by the new non-denominational start-ups was that they were out of touch with people, hypocritical, immersed in promoting “boring” doctrine and not keeping up with the times in their worship style, preaching or service format.  The new churches more often than not minimized the major doctrines of Christian orthodoxy, for all practical purposes reduced the Bible to a pop-psychology manual that Christians were to use to get all they wanted from God, particularly health and wealth but also self-esteem and just plain old feeling good.  Those that taught anything that deviated back toward orthodoxy usually focus on things like eschatology or on moral issues, the “culture war” and align themselves closely with political movements and parties, sometimes becoming more focused on winning the political war  than actually proclaiming the Gospel.

As a result much of the Christian landscape is dominated by churches that understand little of the Christian faith, no longer see value in practicing things like Baptism or Holy Communion and while they preach about “Biblical absolutes” in regard to abortion, an admittedly abhorrent practice and homosexuality they seem to gloss over other many moral issues including divorce, sex outside of marriage, materialism, greed and avarice, so long as those practicing them are on “our side.” Likewise they are prone to give people who actually oppose the Christian faith a pass if they fall on the same side of the political aisle.  We are simple selective literalists.

As Barna’s studies have shown Evangelical Christians have worse rates of divorce, teenage sex outside of marriage and other moral problems than those that do not claim to be Christians.  Likewise the lifestyles of many of the leaders of the Evangelical movement are prone to gross material excess and every year we see some Evangelical leader or leaders involved in some kind of sexual, financial or sometimes criminal activity.  To me it seems that American Christianity is doctrinally impoverished, politically intolerant and morally bankrupt.

So Anne Rice announces that she is leaving Christianity but not Jesus and catalogued a list of things that she found that she could not live with inside the church.  Since she announced this she has been the talk of the town. To those cynical to organized religion, though why we call any religion in America organized is beyond me, this is a boon.  For those defending the faith it is also a boon as they have an identifiable “traitor to the faith” to go after rather than some amorphous concept or idea.  Real heretics are so much more fun to go after.  I have been amazed but not surprised at the number of articles condemning Rice.  Most even if they don’t say it in the article they basically articulate the same thing that many of the early Church Fathers stated in regard to heretics and schismatics that left the church for the various heresies of the day almost all of which denied the nature of Christ, either his deity or humanity.

Rice has not done that. She has not denied the deity or humanity of Christ, his message of salvation or anything. She has protested and repudiated the outward actions of Christians and the institutional Church.  Now whether one agrees with her assessment is another matter but she has not necessarily denied Christ.  Her story is not yet completed, she may reconcile again with the Catholic Church or another Church.  To condemn her at this point would be similar to condemn Francis of Assisi when he walked out of the church.

In fact to condemn Ms Rice at this point is to miss the point of her protest.  Her protest is that the Church does not live the Gospel.  Her critics almost universally attack her for her support of homosexuals.  However a large part of that support is because her son is homosexual and to condemn her as a mother to that has lost one child at the age of 6 and is widowed for protesting the treatment that her son and other homosexuals have received from Christians is unfair to her and to them regardless of what one believes about homosexuality.  It seems to me that homosexuality is about the only unpardonable sin to many American Christians and that is the biggest criticism that I see in what her critics have written. They may talk about her separating herself from the Church and thus Christ but it really seems more to be about why she did so.   We Christians will tolerate about every sort of perversion and unfaithful action of people in the church to include leaders so long as it is not homosexuality. Divorce, no problem; gluttony, not an issue; murder, as long as it is state sanctioned; materialistic greed as long as we can link it to our own and the church’s prosperity; discrimination against people based on gender, race or religion, no problem so long as it is the name of national security or in the interest of our political party or church organization.  The argument against her is a red herring to divert people from the real issue which is the dismal state of the church, in belief and practice in the United States.

You see the argument used against Ms. Rice that by separating herself from the Church that she has separated herself from Christ and is “in schism” itself is disingenuous.  Every church body in this country can be accused of being in schism from someone and that includes the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox who to this day believe the other to be in schism.  Likewise for Protestants, especially those in independent churches to call her into question is hypocritical, many of those churches were born in schism and have few discernible beliefs or practices that link them to historic Christianity except that they “believe in Jesus.”  Protestantism itself is a “protest” against the Church and its practices, the Catholic Church to be sure but nonetheless at its heart a protest that is little different from that of Ms. Rice.

You see that is the problem with American Christianity. We want to selectively apply scripture and the teachings of the early Church to other Christians that we don’t agree with and that is something that we all do to one degree or another and it does not matter if we are conservatives or liberals, Catholics or Protestants, seeker friendly or traditionalist. No matter who we are or what our theological stance we all somehow ensure that we exclude someone else or some group from the Kingdom of God and to make it more fun we can all find something in Scripture or tradition to buttress our position.  As much as we want it to be the issue is not belief or doctrine, but practice and just who we allow the grace of God to extend to.

I don’t think that it is right to single Ms. Rice out after all let’s be truthful if a person has left a church for any issue including doctrine they are in schism.  If a person has been part of a church split at the local or the denominational level where they have left their “mother church” they too are in schism.  If someone leaves their church for a season or forever they have done the same thing that Ms Rice has done and I don’t see anyone out there making this point or going after all of us that are in schism from someone.

Let’s face it there are in the United States alone anywhere from 25,000-40,000 distinct denominational groups depending on your source. David Barrett lists 34,000 separate faith groups in the world that consider themselves to be Christian (David B. Barrett, et al., “World Christian Encyclopedia : A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World,” Oxford University Press, (2001)) In fact, many consider themselves alone to be the only “true” Christian church. Now if you ask me that sounds like a whole lot of schism going on and just looking at the numbers there are a lot of people outside the walls of someone else’s church and therefore outside of the grace of God.

So with all of this in place I have to go back to some of my original statements of how we got to where we are and why Ms. Rice’s “defection” is symptomatic of a far bigger problem for American Christianity. We have over the past 40 years or so since the societal revolt of the 1960s been collectively as Christians been laying turds in our own punchbowl. We have renounced any semblance of coherent doctrine because “doctrine is boring.” Thus when we look at the most popular preachers in the country we see that one, T.D. Jakes holds a position on the Godhead (Jesus only modalism) which has been condemned by the church for like 1700 years or so. The there is Joel Osteen who seems like a nice guy but seems to have no recognizable Christian doctrine in his preaching, except that God loves us. I have no problem with that but that isn’t all that there is. Of course there is Rick Warren and before him Bill Hybels both of whom have taken the non-denominational identification to new heights.  I won’t even go into morality as I mentioned that in a recent post about the marital problems of another big time preacher, Benny Hinn who has promulgated more heresy than I can list.  On the Catholic side we have a church that despite official statements seems to still be protecting criminals and sexual predators and silencing those in the Church who raise their voices in protest to include the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schoenborn the driving force behind the current Catechism of the Catholic Church.

For better or worse the church in the United States has become the “Church of What’s Happening Now.”  We have tossed out the riches of 2000 years of faith, replaced them with religious mumbo jumbo that most closely aligns with our special interest and when people go from church to church or drop the faith completely we wonder why?

As a military Chaplain I have had a unique perspective on the state of Christianity in this country. My experience of how people classify themselves religiously nearly mirrors what is seen in the work of the Barna Research Group and the American Religious Identification Surveys of 2001 and 2008, by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. What I have seen in almost 20 years of being a chaplain is both a decline in those that identify themselves as Christians and those that while they identify themselves as Christians have no consistent practice or identification with any particular denomination or group. The numbers claiming “No Religious Preference” and “Christian No Denomination” seem to go up every year.  Likewise the numbers identifying themselves as Wiccan or any number of other more earth based or eastern religions is increasing.  Many of these young men and women were raised as Christians or had some kind of “Christian” experience before going off to what they are now.

Barna notes that “There does not seem to be revival taking place in America. Whether that is measured by church attendance, born again status, or theological purity, the statistics simply do not reflect a surge of any noticeable proportions.” (“Annual study reveals America is spiritually stagnant,” Barna Research Group, Ltd., at: http://www.barna.org/) and that “evangelicals remain just 7% of the adult population. That number has not changed since the Barna Group began measuring the size of the evangelical public in 1994….less than one out of five born again adults (18%) meet the evangelical criteria.” (“Annual Barna Group Survey Describes Changes in America’s Religious Beliefs and Practices,” The Barna Group, 2005-APR-11, at:http://www.barna.org/ )

The American Religious Identification Survey 2008 notes other troubling facts for American Christianity.  Among them:

The percentage of American adults that identify themselves with a specific religion dropped from 89.5% to 79.9%:

Americans who identify themselves as Christian dropped from 86.2 to 76.0 — a loss of 10.2 percentage points in 18 years — about 0.6 percentage points per year.

Americans identifying themselves as Protestant dropped from 60.0 to 50.9%.

Catholics declined from 26.2% to 25.1%

The Catholic population in the Northeast fell: From 1900 to 2008, it went from 50% in New England to 36%, and from 44% to 37% in New York state. Apparently to immigration, it rose during the same interval from 29% to 37% in California, and 23% to 32% in Texas.

Religious Jews declined from1.8% to 1.2%

The fastest growing religion (in terms of percentage) is Wicca. According to Religion Link “Specifically, the number of Wiccans more than doubled from 2001 to 2008, from 134,000 to 342,000, and the same held true for neo-pagans, who went from 140,000 in 2001 to 340,000 in 2008.”

Finally 15.0% (14.1%) do not follow any organized religion. There are more Americans who say they are not affiliated with any organized religion than there are Episcopalians, Methodists, and Lutherans combined. (Cathy Grossman, “Charting the unchurched in America,” USA Today, 2002-MAR-7, at: http://www.usatoday.com/life/dcovthu.htm)

The ARIS survey noted the following about those that left or switched churches:

About 16% of adults have changed their identification.

For the largest group, the change was abandoning all religion.

Baptists picked up the largest number of any religion: 4.4 million. But they also lost 4.6 million.

Roman Catholics lost the greatest number, 9.5 million. However, they also picked up 4.3 million.

Those are just the numbers. To look within we have to look at behaviors and we find that American Christians on the whole are very similar to those with no religion whatsoever. Rates of divorce, teenage pregnancy and other social indicators often show that American Christians differ little from and sometimes are in worse shape than their non-Christian neighbors.

If we look at reasons for people leaving the faith Barna has the answer. To put it in Padre Steve terminology “we don’t treat people well.”  Barna notes: “Based on past studies of those who avoid Christian churches, one of the driving forces behind such behavior is the painful experiences endured within the local church context. In fact, one Barna study among unchurched adults shows that nearly four out of every ten non-churchgoing Americans (37%) said they avoid churches because of negative past experiences in churches or with church people.” (http://www.barna.org/faith-spirituality/362-millions-of-unchurched-adults-are-christians-hurt-by-churches-but-can-be-healed-of-the-pain)

Instead of condemning Anne Rice maybe we as Christians, Churches and Church leaders need to get over defending ourselves and get ourselves and our churches right with God, one another and our neighbors. Maybe Anne Rice is a prophet and we should thank her even if we don’t agree with all that she says. Maybe we should stop referring to her as a traitor to her faith.

Maybe Dietrich Bonhoeffer had it right when he wrote from prison:

Religious man] must therefore live in the godless world, without attempting to gloss over or explain its ungodliness in some religious way or other. He must live a “secular” life, and thereby share in God’s sufferings. He may live a “secular” life (as one who has been freed from false religious obligations and inhibitions). To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man–not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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I Think I Feel a Sermon coming on…How Some Churches Stopped Caring and the Neglect of Pastoral Care

“When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’ A second time he said to him, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Tend my sheep.’7He said to him the third time, ‘Simon son of John, do you love me?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you love me?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my sheep.” John 21: 15-17

“Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.” Matthew 18.10

Back when I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency at Parkland Memorial Hospital I was astounded to hear my pastor make a comment which I think was one of the most heartless that I have ever heard said from a pulpit.  The church was a large and trendy Evangelical-Charismatic Church which I had attended throughout seminary and had ordained my in October 1991.  The Pastor was recounting an incident where one of our members had been critically ill in hospital and had not been visited by him.  After the parishioner was released from hospital he asked the pastor: “How sick do I have to be for you to visit me in the hospital?”  The pastor told us his response: “Sir, you don’t want to b e that sick.”  The congregation laughed at the pastor’s story and he went on to talk about how he and other senior pastors should not be doing that kind of work because it “distracted them from bigger Kingdom tasks.”  You see according to the pastor the care of sick parishioners did not contribute to the “growth” of the church and thus was a “distraction and better left to others.”  The comment struck a raw nerve now that I was dealing with the suffering and death every day of people who had been abandoned by the churches and pastors.  I lost all respect for him as a man and pastor during that sermon.  The words of my Philosophy of Religion Professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary Dr. Yandall Woodfin said: “You have not done Christian Theology until you have dealt with suffering and death.”  This pastor had stopped doing Christian Theology in order to be an “Apostle” and CEO.  He was “growing” the church and managing programs, but had for the most part stopped caring as in being a pastoral care giver.

Now this pastor is not alone and nor is the issue confined to Evangelical or Charismatic churches. The trend has has found its way across the denominational spectrum.  Sometimes this is by design as is the case of the Mega-churches.  Pastors of mega-churches are for all practical purposes CEOs of large organizations and have a multiplicity of specialized staff, but often which do little for pastoral care. Sometimes it is by default in cases such as the Roman Catholic Church.  Here the ever worsening shortage of Priests is forcing the closure of smaller parishes and the increase of large parishes with a corresponding decrease in what Priests can do for their people.   Even very good Priests cannot keep pace with the demand of both Sacramental needs as well as pastoral care.  No matter if it is by design or default the result is similar.  The least, the lost and the lonely those “lambs” that Jesus talks about who need care and feeding are shunted aside.  In one case, that of the Catholic Church it is simply a lack of Priests, Deacons and Sisters to provide this care.  The other is more troubling as the focus of the church is growth, sustaining numbers, programs and buildings.  This requires that pastors spend their time with members who can supply the vast financial need that those plans require.  I have seen this in numerous congregations across the spectrum, which sometimes as was the case at a church that I attended in Florida results in a financial meltdown and collapse of the congregation, many of whom gave up and went elsewhere when the extent of the scandal became known.  Likewise the ripple effects that this caused in the denomination were like a Tsunami, it was disastrous and the church is still in recovery mode.  Going back to my pastor back when I was in residency I got the feeling that had he been the shepherd in the Parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15) that he would have let it go as hunting for it might have distracted him from the others.

When I was in seminary there were quite a number of my fellow students who chafed about having to take courses on pastoral care.  I remember friends and fellow students complaining that what they needed were more “practical courses” such as “church growth, evangelism and Sunday School program management.”  Course such as Pastoral Care were seen as a bother and distraction.  Not to mention academic courses such as Systematic Theology, Philosophy of Religion and Church History.  One friend talked about his Master of Divinity only having a “shelf-life of 5 years” because what he learned would be outdated.

Well in a way he was right.  His focus was on classes that dealt with programs and methods of church growth, programs and management.   From that perspective his degree would rapidly be obsolescent as soon as the next trend in church growth came along and everyone jettisoned the last method in favor of the new.  With the ubiquity of the Mega-church which unlike the Leisure Suit is not going away anytime soon.  The rise of the “Superstar” Pastors such as Bill Hybels, Joel Osteen and Rick Warren and the proliferation of massive “Ministry Media” conglomerates and stand-alone television ministries are actually dangerous to the vitality and health of the Christian Church in the United States.  They propagate methods which have the sole intent of getting people into church or giving to a ministry and keeping them there, doctrine, worship, sacraments or ordinances, and pastoral care of the least, lost and lonely be damned.  The methods are pragmatic and impersonal.   Numbers and crowds define expertise, credibility and worth. The bigger the church the better the church, it’s that simple.

Unlike others who pick these ministers apart for their theology or business practices my problem with what is happening is what happens to regular people in these large and often very impersonal churches.  It is easy for people to get lost, forgotten and when they are going through difficulty abandoned when the church stops making a conscious effort to do real pastoral care and focus purely on the programs which lend to growth.  Often the substitute for pastoral care is found in the home cell group, or care group or whatever cute name a church can pin on a meeting at a member’s house.  The cell groups have a noble intention.  They attempt to build community in an otherwise very impersonal organization.  There are some really good things that can come out of healthy home groups as well as long lasting friendships.  We have a couple from our time in San Antonio that is still a very real part of our lives, they showed us genuine love and care and we remain friends.  Of course this couple had an advantage over most home group leaders; he was a Clinical Social Worker by trade who was heading off to seminary.  Most home groups are not that fortunate.  At the same time there are unhealthy groups which are led by people who are poorly trained and equipped to deal with broken people.  The good group leaders recognize their limitations and try to get help for those who are really hurting.  Others who do not know their limitations end up abusing these dear lambs of God. Often this is because sick, depressed or lonely people take too much time, are too needy, or that their problems don’t match up with their church theology.  We know this from personal experience as my wife suffered from a number of ailments throughout seminary and we were going through tremendous health and financial difficulties and in some places we felt cast aside and like we did not matter.  We were fortunate that some people did care and we did make it through, however it was not something that I would ever want to repeat.  I have heard similar stories from hundreds of people that I have come across in my life and work over the years.  Another thing some churches do is to either add a “Christian Counseling” program or refer members to “Christian Counseling” services instead of doing pastoral care.  In a sense it is the outsourcing of one of the most vital missions entrusted to a church, the pastoral care of the flock of God.

I don’t care what you call it, but any church which has multiple services of several thousand or a major service of close to 20,000 as occurs at Osteen’s Lakewood Church is no longer focused on caring for people but sustaining their growth and market share.  I remember reading Charisma Magazine back in the mid-1990s when I still read it regularly about a church in North Dallas that has a period of incredible church growth in which it grew from 1,200 members to well over 7,000.  In the article the pastor touted the church programs which drew people to the church.  What the dirty little secret which was not mentioned was that two exits south of this church a Mega-church of some 10,000 members imploded when the Pastor, one Bob Tilton got caught doing some pretty bad stuff.  This church despite its claims of great programs simple picked up about 6,000 of these people because they were close by and a similar type of church.

All of this is dangerous as to its impact on people.  One only has to look at the latest Barna Polls about what is going on in churches to see that these large churches are alienating people even as they grow.  People come, but others either burn out trying to keep pace with the manic pace of programs proliferated by these churches or they get lost in the crowd and forgotten.  I meet a least a person every day who is a displaced Christian, often hurt, lonely and broken, not only by what they have experienced in life, but by the cold emptiness that they feel when a church surrounded by thousands of people who don’t even know their name.  Some churches do recognize that people have issues that need to be addressed and have in-house “Christian Counseling” programs or refer members to “Christian Counseling” services.   I think that there certainly is a place for clinically trained therapists in the life of a church; however this is not really pastoral care, even when they use “Biblical” methods.   In a sense it is the outsourcing by pastors of one of the most vital missions entrusted to a church, the pastoral care of the flock of God to others, in a sense, “hirelings.”  Again my issue is not with the therapists or Christian counselors, but rather pastors who refuse to do pastoral care as part of their ministry.

Ultimately it is people that are important, even those who are not rich, powerful and who have problems that don’t fit nicely into theological boxes or paradigms promoted by church growth experts. It is high time that churches start reclaiming one of the most vital missions given by Jesus to his Disciples, to care for the least, the lost and the lonely. The onus for this falls on pastors who cannot simply outsource one of their primary missions as given by Jesus himself to others.  If pastors do not set the example of being caring pastoral care givers, it will not matter that they are supposedly “empowering” laypeople to do ministry.  Instead it sends another more ominous message, that if it is not important for the pastor, why should it be important to me?  Every member of the church at some time goes through a crisis when their faith, family, health or vocation.  Sometimes these are not isolated events but rather prolonged periods of anguish, as what Saint John of the Cross described as “the Dark Night of the Soul” where it seems that God has even abandoned the person.  Unfortunately people in this situation are often abandoned by their church as things fail to improve.  Despairing they become the lost sheep whose shepherd has abandoned.  This is the hardest time for pastoral care, the times where we as pastors are called to stand with someone as Mary the Mother of Jesus did at the Cross, just simply being there though nothing else can be done.

Now do I understand that the demands of running a large church can be sometimes become such that pastors have difficulty making time for pastoral care?  Of course I understand this, at the same time pastors, even those who function primarily as pastor-teacher/CEOs still have the responsibility of caring for people, not simply administering programs and preaching.  Pastors need to set the example of care for people, real people, the regular Joes and Jane’s who populate their pews, by their books and give to their ministry, even if it is only in small ways, not just the super-givers or the wealthy and powerful.  James’s “right strawly epistle” (Martin Luther’s words) has much to say about favoring the rich and powerful and neglecting the poor and seemingly insignificant people hanging about the peanut galleries of their large “Worship Centers.”  Even if the pastor has limited time he or she must be about the flock, or they will forget what the needs of the flock really are and instead of the People of God, the lambs who Jesus says to care for they will simply be the consumers of a religious message who we have to keep coming back to keep the operation going.

My sermon is over and I do hope that there will be more “amen’s” than calls for burning me as a heretic.

Peace, Steve+

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