*”I really don’t see much connection between what happens in my business and what happens in our church on Sunday morning.”
*”Everybody in our family is very busy. It’s all we can do to get a little family time, let alone do extra things for the church.”
*”With all the other people who don’t care, it’s hard to keep giving…it’s hard to stay motivated.”
Those were just three of the more than 450 comments gathered in a recent survey. Along with a Nazarene pastor, I collected written responses from a cross-section of our communities, both saved and unsaved. We used a method developed by Robert Flannigan of the aerospace industry. His approach, called the “Critical Incident Technique” is designed to assemble a solid sample of responses to a given question and then look for common themes which run through the written paragraphs.
We asked three questions: (1) Do you believe the Bible has lost any of its influence over culture in the last twenty years? (2) What has happened to the relationship between the church and society over the past twenty years? (3) To what do you attribute any changes you see in the influence of the Bible and/or the church in society? By sorting and sifting through the responses, we picked up clues for answering the question raised by the title.
1. Automatic Authority Has Given Way to Earned Authority.
“Our church tries to meet the needs of the whole family. It’s especially good for our children.”
“Our pastor came to the hospital when my father was so sick. I really appreciated that.”
One of the clearest signals from the study suggests that the days of a pastor, Bible in hand, possessing authority because of his office are all but extinct. His authority (and by association, the influence of the church) is earned by being there for the people when they need them. Instead of the biblical agenda being assumed, the church today must land first on the island of people’s real-life experiences before they will even consider giving the Bible a chance.
Deep down I wish the data hadn’t said that, but the hard reality of our time is that for the majority of people in our society, the Bible, per se, has lost its grip. Jay Kesler of “Family Forum” has said, “For the first time in our history, we now live in a culture in which more than 50% of students in our public schools have neither a parent nor a grandparent who holds to the Christian faith.”
When you couple that sad social shift with Gordon Kaufmann’s frightening commentary on the Bible’s reduced role in society, the handwriting is on the wall. “The Bible no longer has unique authority for western man. It has become a great but archaic monument in our midst. It is a reminder of where we once were, but no longer are. It contains glorious literature, important historical documents, exalted ethical teachings, but for most people today it is no longer the word of God.” [Francis Fiorenza, “The Crisis of Scriptural Authority,” Interpretation (October 1990):353-354]
2. Lines of Loyalty to Groups and Organizations Have Been Pulled in to a Smaller Circumference.
“I feel like our church has a stronger influence in the community than it did 20 years ago. I really enjoy our church.” We were surprised to meet quite a round of optimism in the comments. But what stood out about the optimism and accompanying loyalty was that it focused rather narrowly on the local church. Many respondents spoke with unabashed pride about their local congregations, their preachers’ gifts, the contemporary nature of their worship.
The literature calls it “a revival of localism.” It is a phase in the social cycle that appears from time to time and with one main cause. In his book, Twilight of Authority, Robert Nisbet points to a major reason for the smaller circles of our loyalty. “As a society becomes increasingly complex, individuals become overtaxed and unable to integrate all the loyalties in their lives. In order to gain control of their inner world, they are forced to narrow the range of their commitments and interests.” (p. 84) Nisbet argues that people still emit just as much loyalty in complex times as they did in simpler times, but they do it more selectively. They are less and less inclined to be “bulldozed” into submission, but seek ways voluntarily to join groups that offer meaning and relational warmth.
Could that be what we are watching in the church today? Is this what lies behind the trend toward “community churches”? Is this one of the driving forces behind the recent mushrooming of “small group” ministries? Are people struggling with a spirit of helplessness when it comes to larger institutions?
Is this drawing in of our lines of loyalty a natural response to the overwhelming number of appeals from so many voices? Could it be that the dwindling loyalty to denominations is not so much a repudiation of a particular system as it is a coping mechanism in a society over-saturated with cries for allegiance in every direction we turn?
3. The Church Is Often Perceived as Incapable of Answering Many of the Questions Posed by Our Complex Society.
Listen to the message behind a couple of these responses, “My pastor is a good man, but I doubt he would be at home in my office. His world and my world are just different.” “I’d be embarrassed to ask some of my friends to our church. They would think some of the things we do in the service are old-fashioned.”
Many people hold the view that the church has not kept up with society. They admire the church for preaching absolutes, but they are aware deep down that much of life is not lived in the realm of absolutes. Much of it is distinctly grey; so grey in fact that most people, knowing that the church deals mostly in absolutes, don’t even think of turning to the church for many of their answers. The church deals with issues at the firstand 2nd levels of clarity, while many modern issues run down into the 12th and 13th levels of ambiguity.
What about a lesson or sermon, for example, that addresses what a banker should do when one of his creditors dies owing the bank $500,000? The man’s widow has only $150,000 to take care of her for the rest of her life. Does the banker act out of simple compassion and write off the debt? Does he take a part of the $150,000 to apply toward the debt? Does he sue her for the total amount and let the government pick up the tab for the nursing home? If he decides to write off the debt, what does he say to his own stockholders? How long has it been since you heard a lesson or a sermon dealing at this level of ethical difficulty?
In Haddon Robinson’s apt analogy, you’ll never learn to hit .350 by watching four .100 hitters. If you want to hit .350, you need to watch a person who’s batting .375. People want to attend a church where they believe that the leaders and people are hitting in their same league, facing life’s tougher questions head on, aiming at righteousness while at the same time knowing that the answers will not always be clear. The banker facing the $500,000 issue will not likely be helped by a worship service in which a lady stands up front by the communion table, picks up the faded pasteboard church with the little slot in the roof, and mumbles the lines, “Dropping, dropping, dropping, hear the pennies fall; every one for Jesus, he will get them all.” That’s a Tinker Toy solution in a steel and concrete world.
What to do? Let me offer two concrete starters for us as pastors.
(1) Authority is a function of influence. And influence is gotten by the age-old method of touching people one at a time. As much as is possible, move around among the people in the foyer and in the sanctuary prior to the worship service and speak to them individually.
If you will attend to their agenda first, they will listen to your preaching agenda later. The day when the pastor comes into the sanctuary just prior to the choir and leaves without aggressively pursuing the personal touch are behind us. Authority is earned in smaller increments — the meeting of eyes, the touch of a hand, the pat on the shoulder. And as much as is possible, it needs to happen every week.
(2) Pastoral calls in the home or office. I pastor a church with more than 1200 in attendance on Sunday morning, but the brief visit to the home is still high on my agenda. I am nauseous with the phrase, “I’m a rancher, not a pastor.” Let that mentality have its appropriate burial and let’s revive the thrill of meeting persons on their turf and sitting where they sit for a few moments. There are too many shepherds who don’t smell enough like sheep. We need to be out in the pasture. Out where the sheep can learn to trust us and hear our voice, not only from the shelter of the fold, but right near the edge of their cliff.

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