Years ago I remember my pastor giving a sermon on forgiveness and bitterness. I was in college, still recently removed from a fairly nasty church situation, and, well, I was struggling a lot with bitterness. After church, I was talking with some friends when my pastor, who I was very close to and sometimes would banter with in a playful way, walked by, elbowed me, and said “that sermon was for you, Meador.” I winced, then laughed, and didn’t think much of it. I knew he loved me, I knew he cared about me and knew me deeply (far better than any other pastor had), and that these kind of playful jabs were part of how we sometimes related to each other.
A few hours later, I got a call. It was my pastor calling to apologize. I assured him that it was OK, I hadn’t been offended at all, and, ultimately, I knew he was right. So we hung up and I’m not sure either of us ever talked about it again. And, over the next several years, we continued to grow closer and he was able to help me, over time, work through a lot of those feelings of bitterness and resentment and move toward forgiving the people at that old church. He’s a good pastor and he was doing what good pastors do. He wasn’t perfect, but I never doubted his sincerity or love and, after all, love covers a multitude of sins.
These days, however, I find myself thinking about that interaction more, not because my pastor did anything wrong, but because I wonder how such a story would hit people today.
One of the things I appreciated about Samuel’s review of DeGroat is the way he highlighted the fairly impossible situation many pastors now find themselves in.
On the one hand, congregants that probably come from more progressive backgrounds or have more progressive sensibilities are on high-alert for signs of abuse, manipulation, or hypocrisy in church leaders. Due to things like Jesus and John Wayne, the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, and other lesser known but still influential books, like DeGroat’s or Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer’s Church Called Tov, these parishioners already have well established scripts in their minds of how churches become abusive.
The presence of these scripts, however, often can cause people to over-read situations and pre-judge difficult problems in the life of the church. It can also malform their own moral sensibilities by suggesting that something like “self-actualization” or “emotional health” is just another way of saying “Christian maturity.” (It is not.)
Additionally, because pastors are aware that their parishioners have these scripts in their heads, they feel a fairly high degree of anxiety about ever doing anything that might be interpreted as manipulative or abusive. This can make ordinary pastoral care enormously difficult because pastors have to confront both the situation in front of them and the litany of questions associated with how their response to that situation will be judged by congregants.
In short, these pastors find themselves chased and hounded by congregants fearful that Mark Driscoll is hiding around the corner, about to jump out at them. And, of course, sometimes someone like that really is there and really is going to abuse their authority. But the over-determined script now fixed in the heads of many congregants is not only inaccurate as a portrayal of the vast majority of pastors, it also makes providing pastoral care nearly impossible.
On the other side of things, reactionary journalists and the broader anti-woke movement create similar dynamics from the right. While the more left-leaning congregants are steeped in therapeutic categories which they then apply, often sloppily and unfairly, to ordinary faithful pastors, more right-leaning congregants are taught by unaccountable online personalities to use political categories to judge and criticize their pastors.
This makes it very hard for pastors to preach and provide leadership because congregants are being told to view their pastors with suspicion and cynicism. This, in turn, can lead to parishioners thinking that an ordinary faithful exposition of a text concerning hospitality or generosity is a trojan horse for “wokeness” or “cultural Marxism” or “critical race theory,” even if the pastor sticks closely to the text. I have sometimes wondered what would happen in the typical evangelical congregation if a pastor were to read the Magnificat without clueing people into the fact that he was reading Scripture. Or what would happen if Basil the Great stood in our churches today and delivered some of his homilies on wealth and money.
In especially extreme cases, something like a totally innocuous reference to Tom Hanks becomes evidence of a pastor’s slide toward heresy. From this side, it seems that there is fear of a different Mars Hill lingering in the background: The Mars Hill of Rob Bell, the former megachurch pastor and now apostate self-help guru to surfers and rich Californians. And, again, this does really happen sometimes. But it it not the normal trajectory for most pastors. To act as if it is is simply to engage in the right wing version of the Mark Driscoll discourse, pre-judging a problem by defaulting to established scripts rather than considering the actual evidence in the case in question.
In both cases, we have parishioners shaped by online networks in such a way that they have become suspicious of the pastoral leadership and spiritual authority in their local settings. These online networks create crises of trust in local churches, which makes church life fraught and unnecessarily difficult and will, in time, lead to our churches being politically segregated because we have lost the capacity to exist together amidst difference. It is perhaps worth recalling Jesus’s words in John 17 and allowing ourselves to be troubled by the fact that such behavior, according to our Lord, authorizes the watching world to say that he did not come from the Father.
Pastoral ministry is challenging under normal circumstances. But when congregants whose minds have been shaped by authors, pundits, podcasts, and other online networks turn against their pastors, it becomes far harder, if not impossible. The church in America today has enough challenges facing us from without. If we begin devouring one another and, especially, devouring our pastors, then those challenges may prove fatal.
Note: This piece was updated to note that Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer co-authored Church Called Tov.