Once upon a time, we could tell the vitality of our church life by looking at the health of our preachers. Giants once inhabited the pulpits of the Free Church; called by God, nourished by the Free Church, men of God exuded robust health for decades, leading churches to grow well into their seventh decades.
In fact, in the 1950's, Protestant and Free Church clergy had the lowest rate of disease for every major diagnosis, lived longer and were healthier than any other profession. Alas, by 1983, that same clergy group ranked highest overall in work-related stress and next to the lowest in personal resources to cope with stress. Worse, by 1999, the same group were found to have one of the highest death rates due to heart disease, having a higher risk factor than any other occupation. (Guidestone, November Newsletter, 2008).
Worse still, up to 80% of the dwindling graduating classes of seminary students leave the ministry in the first five years (Southern Seminary report on Ministerial Health, 2008). The ministerial workforce in America today is averaging an age of 55. The workforce of ministers is diminishing rapidly.
It is hard to imagine a healthy, growing congregation without an undershepherd. What are the causes of this quandry and what to do we do next?
I think the causes are several but here are three:
- People do not conform like they used to do. The last healthy decade for ministers was the 1950's. People spoke the Christian language even if they were not Christians. They felt they should be Christians or at least live like Christians. People across the broad culture could conform. In fact, conformity was considered an important virtue. By the 1980's cultural competition and sectarian warfare destroyed conformity. If you have to have three services to accomodate various tastes and five adjectives to describe what kind of baptist you are, you are living in a Christian culture more like bedlam than Heaven.
- People question more than they used to question. People who do not know how they know what they think still want to have some verifiable fix on how to know which religion is real, if any. Questioning can be healthy, until it is not, but it is often uncomfortable for any vocational minister to try to explain knowledge to a barely literate individual who really just wants to be left alone, until a crisis hits and God becomes a convenient target.
- People hate age and reverence youth more than ever. "Old" is a pejorative term. Church represents old, until it doesn't, and then may represent the generation just passed and so find itself classed as "old" and desperate to do whatever is trendy. Have you ever seen anything more pathetic than someone trying to be "cool" when they simply cannot get much beyond "dorky?" The only thing worse is when the "dorky" really believe they are "cool." Sadly, this is a lot of churches and church workers.
So, what to do? We might take a page from Paul's Mars Hill encounter.
- On Mars Hill, Paul is plainly confrontational. He calls their philosophy idolatrous and tells them they really don't seem to know what they believe. Therefore, it is very unlikely they will know if they are right or wrong, since they seek truth/knowledge in ways they themselves do not understand. The entire Mars Hill cultic group could appear on Oprah and not feel out of place.
- On Mars Hill, Paul is clearly apologetic, in the courageous sense. Paul seems to know that the less traditionally religious a person is in fact the more empty headed he is likely to be about all matters. In fact, modern atheists are more likely to believe in superstitious nonsense than are evangelical Christians according to recent studies. Atheism does not make you smarter; it seems to make you more susceptible to odd-ball beliefs. In fact, American modern atheists are more likely to believe in Big-foot and palm readers than are evangelical Christains. Who is irrational now?
- On Mars Hill, Paul is openly evangelistic. The late John Newport was often heard to say, "The religious answer to life's great questions is as valid on its face as any and deserves to be heard on its own merits." That is, we need not marry our religious explanations for life to any other cause or system to have a rightful explanation of human destiny.
There is a way to restore health to our churches, vitality to our ministers and hope to our world. Watch Paul on Mars Hill and see.