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Ministering to a Broken and Difficult Church

August 28, 2018 | Dr. Jay T. Smith

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It is the year 2018. Seminary and divinity school enrollment has developed a roller coaster enrollment pattern. Simultaneously, the mainline denominational and evangelical free churches are struggling to maintain members. Indeed, sociologist Robert Wuthnow has maintained since the late 1980s that the American church is experiencing significant denominational decline where the structures and doctrinal foci of the past have become irrelevant. Denominations no longer are the primary identifier of American religion (The Restructuring of American Religion, 1988).

Vast numbers of the youngest generation to reach adulthood in the United States are now choosing to remain unaffiliated in terms of religious observance, and only marginally continue to practice a traditional spirituality (Wuthnow, After the Baby Boomers, 2007). Seminaries founded in the early 19th century are merging with other schools, or closing completely at an alarming rate. The schools that continue are offering new “boutique” degrees, online learning, and extension programs. Despite these innovations, campuses continue to close and budgets continue to shrink.

Although these statistics merit our concern, there are other even more shocking concerns: pastoral burnout and church conflict. The statistics are uneven, with some polls indicating a marginally positive health of clergy, and others claiming statistics of precipitous decline of adequately trained candidates. Nonetheless, the trends point to a church floundering in a rapidly changing culture with a pastoral leadership ill-equipped for such change. Churches, under the strain of such drastic cultural change, have become as desperate and depressed as the world around them. What is the result? A high turnover of pastors, and churches in constant turmoil.

Pastors fresh from graduate school, encountering churches that have serious internal problems, are leaving the ministry at an alarming rate. These churches have lost vision, have stopped trusting leadership, and are simply attempting to maintain community traditions as they have understood them. In many cases, they are rethinking church as a consumer rethinks a brand. These churches are remaking themselves in the form of contemporary entertainment, hoping that they will be able to “attract” new members. Problematically, both approaches create stress for the clergy called to serve these congregations. These men and women either have to understand themselves as custodians of a fading tradition, or they have to understand themselves as executives of a unique corporate enterprise, dressed in the guise of an ecclesial organization. When these young leaders attempt to guide these churches to a healthier, more biblical paradigm of existence, they often encounter a buzz saw of criticism and confrontation. These leaders experience depression, anxiety, and breakdown. The resultant crisis of faith and vocation leads to an exodus from the ministry. Seminaries and divinity schools are not preparing these men and women for the roller coaster ride upon which they are about to embark!

The problems are deep, complex, and have evolved over time. There are no easy solutions. On a general level, the church in Western culture needs to re-imagine its integration with culture. It needs to re-imagine its method of theological education. It needs to review its doctrinal commitments and missiological goals. No small task here. However, if the church does not begin a serious review of its existence, and how it understands and trains clergy, it will find itself irrelevant to the point of ecclesial death in our time.

What can be done?

Much must be done, but it will be difficult, and many local churches will choose to simply close up rather than to change. But here are some suggestions:

1. The church must face the fact of its decline and the failure of its response.

The church in Western culture has not responded well to the critiques of modernity and postmodernity. It has instituted either a quick consumer “fix” in the guise of becoming “relevant,” or it has done nothing other than ardently defend its methods, even in the face of a diminishing membership. If the church and its constituent communities will “repent” and “rethink” what it means to be the church, then it may be able to survive, albeit in a different form than we now know.

2. Clergy training must change.

For those young men and women who are “called” into ministry, the organizations and institutions that undertake training these individuals should manifest several rigorous programs. The older methodology of three years of biblical study, theological study, limited practical theology, and minimal mentoring, weighted in the favor of the purely academic, is now anachronistic. A far greater percentage of studies than previously allotted must be weighted towards community dynamics, leadership, and mentoring. Here is a pattern:

  • Thorough training in community dynamics, including church conflict – origins and resolution, entrepreneurial leadership, educational theory and methods, and intercultural communication;
  • Rigorous biblical, theological, and cultural studies
  • Thorough academic, spiritual, and practical mentoring by qualified personnel
  • Entrepreneurial leadership training in order to give the young minister the tools to lead in times of intense change

Above all, institutions that train Christian ministers must be responsive to the needs of the church and flexible in the face of the ever-changing tides of culture, while remaining committed to the truth of the Gospel. Only this flexibility and responsiveness will allow ministers to thrive.

3. The church must get “back to basics.”

In order for the seminary, divinity school, or institute to train effective ministers for a changing world, it must ask one very important and basic question: What does it mean to be the church at its core? This is something that even theologians of some repute cannot agree upon! The church is both irreducibly personal and communal. Not individual, mind you, but rather a community of the Spirit, formed around the person, life, and work of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Admonitions such as “take up your cross and follow me”; “love your enemy”; “love the lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself”; “do not judge unless you desire to be judged”; “Go into all the world and make disciples”; and many other instructions of Jesus in the New Testament must be recovered for the church to thrive again. The Christian ethos is much more difficult to live than Christian doctrine is to defend; yet, we must live the ethos more than we defend the doctrine. The ethos validates the doctrine. A dear friend of mine ends his emails with the commendation, “Live Jesus!” That is where the church must go.

In conclusion, if the church wants to thrive, if we want those men and women called into ministry to effectively fulfill that calling in the midst of a difficult culture, then we must take steps to reimagine and rethink who we are as the church and how we intend to accomplish the mission set before us.

Dr. Jay T. Smith

President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

Dr. Jay Smith leads the Yellowstone Theological Institute as its president. Dr. Smith has served as minister of youth, music and as senior […]

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