By Dick Alexander
When I graduated from seminary in the late 1960s, I had answers. Today I have questions. Back then, I thought I knew what a church should look like. There were some variations on a theme, but there was essentially one “model.” But today? Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Everything else is up for grabs.
Back in the day, the world was different. When the neighborhood ruffians on our block were playing in the yard and wanted a drink of water, we drank out of a garden hose—none of this sissified bottled water. And there were no seat belts in cars. The safety device for a quick stop was your dad’s arm clotheslining you before you hit the dash. Those were the good old days.
And back in the day, people looked differently at the church. The good people went to church, and the people who didn’t go thought they probably should—and if they ever got their lives cleaned up, they’d go to church because that’s what good people did. Or so it seemed.
But the days of church being a good idea are as outdated as a three-speed on the column. Now there’s open and growing hostility to churches.
Times have changed, but the changes aren’t all bad. Water is purer and cars are safer. And I would suggest in spite of, and maybe because of the opposition, the church is more vibrant now than 50 years ago. With that, ministry has dramatically changed. It is infinitely more complex and far more challenging. While not all the changes have been positive, I would suggest church ministry today is much richer than it was a half century ago.
From Respected to Marginalized
Around the middle of the last century, Christianity had majority status in the United States. While it’s unlikely more than half of all Americans were ever truly Christians (in spite of self-identifying as such), many of the Founding Fathers had a biblical worldview that shaped laws and culture. A somewhat biblical view of personal piety was common. Not everybody did the right things, but there was a broad consensus on what was the right thing.
But in the turbulent ’60s, cultural norms came unglued. In the five decades since, Christians and the church have shifted from a generally respected position to that of a marginalized minority. With that change comes the opportunity to rethink what it means to be Christian. Today, the church will either be more vibrant, more vital, and more biblical than it was 50 years ago—or it won’t survive. That’s the challenge for leadership today.
From Pastor to Leader
That’s the first major change in ministry over the recent half century—the shift to a leadership ministry. I graduated from Bible college and seminary in the 1960s with a combined total of 226 semester hours of study without having a single class in leadership. Ministers in those days were expected to pastor (although it wasn’t called that in our fellowship of churches) and preach.
A half century ago, ministers would drop by members’ houses and “sit a spell,” just to talk. Hospital calls were a routine part of church ministry, and it was normal to wait with a family throughout a loved-one’s surgery. Leadership from ministers not only was not expected—in many churches it was forbidden, as the elders governed the church. Ministers were, in some measure, personal chaplains for church members.
Today, while pastoring is still valued in churches, the expectation for the minister to personally pastor church members is largely shaped by church size, with the pastor role diminishing as the church grows larger. Leadership has become the highest expectation for ministers in most churches. Thankfully, as expectations have risen, so have resources—books, seminars, podcasts, seminary programs, and more.
And preaching has changed. My first church ministry experience began near the end of my sophomore year of college, when I served in an interim ministry in a small, struggling church. I had preached two sermons in my life prior to doing a one-Sunday fill-in for the church, and I used both those sermons that day. The church begged me to come back because they had no one else.
Over the next five months I spent 90 minutes a week on the morning message, and about 45 minutes a week preparing the evening message. In spite of that preaching, the church grew from 70 to 120 in attendance and then called a full-time minister. Could a church anywhere in America do that today?
These days ministers routinely talk of spending 15 to 20 hours a week in sermon preparation. What changed? One shift is mass communication. In the early 1980s, a woman in a small town voiced her disappointment in her minister’s sermons. She said she listened to Chuck Swindoll every weekday on her way to work; by comparison, Sundays at her church seemed stale.
A few decades before that, a minister’s preaching was compared only to his predecessor and the Baptist or Methodist pastor down the street. Today, Rob Bell, Andy Stanley, Mark Driscoll, and John Ortberg are readily available to everyone—and they are great communicators.
Along with the ability to easily access excellent preachers, there has been a shift some academics call the democratization of information . . . the Internet. Now, anybody with a computer or smartphone can find out anything about anything, almost instantly. Back in the day, a preacher was an authority—he had special training and a library. Now everybody is an authority. This forces the preacher to run harder to stay ahead of the hounds.
And then there’s the issue of attention span. America’s national disorder is ADD (attention deficit disorder). When grandpa’s sitting in the Barcalounger, what’s in his hand? The remote. The average attention span of American adults is 7 or 8 seconds. This demands not just good content in sermons, but a captivating delivery.
Today, if we want a hearing, it’s not possible to assume anything. When Billy Graham said, “The Bible says . . .” people listened and responded because they respected “the Good Book.” No more. In 2003, Graham came to our city for one of the final public “missions” of his career. As I sat in a half-empty stadium, it was obvious something had shifted. If Billy Graham couldn’t fill a stadium anymore, what was happening in America?
In spite of this, most sermons in most churches remain “insider talk”—messages presented in thought forms that are unintelligible to our neighbors, an increasing number of whom lack a biblical background.
For the gospel to be understood and embraced in the coming years, we must rethink our beliefs—not changing their essence, but communicating truth in ways that will strike a response chord with our contemporaries. When Jesus did that with the Scriptures, they said he “spoke with authority,” and crowds came to hear him.
One Size Fits . . . No One
Ministry is more challenging today because of the fragmentation of culture. Back in the day, America was thought to be a melting pot where there were shared values, and where younger generations would grow up to embrace their parents’ and grandparents’ way of life. Today we study and name generations based on their distinctive characteristics. Churches start Hispanic ministries and work to bridge the black-white divide. Some churches do multiple worship styles to help different subcultures within the church and community connect to God. One size rarely fits all these days—mass customization is the order of the day.
The downside? Thinking through how a church does ministry can be a brain scrambler. The upside? It drives us more to prayer and fosters creativity—an aspect of being made in God’s image.
Sometimes the complexity leads to sleepless nights. In my boyhood church, I did not know a single divorced person. I never met a gay person (that I was aware of) until Bible college. Recently, an NPR broadcast featured an interview with two transgendered adults. The couple were childhood friends as boy and girl. Both have since undergone sex-change operations, and now as adults are a romantically linked couple in the opposite genders of their childhood. How could the gospel be shared with them, and what would it mean for them to become Christ followers? Simple answers go begging. But the upside is this stretches our understanding of God.
My home church was a wonderful community of believers who were salt-of-the-earth people. Church life was simple—Sunday school and morning worship every week. Evening worship if you were “more dedicated.” Much has changed:
• Churches are larger—even megalarge. Megachurches affect all churches, regardless of size, and impact everybody in ministry.
• Churches do more to grow their members and to serve their communities. This requires staff leadership, opening roles for men and women with gifts beyond preaching, and it involves more church people in significant serving.
• Ministry is more holistic, being concerned not only with getting people to Heaven, but also bringing the kingdom of God to earth.
• In one of the most exhilarating changes, global mission and domestic church planting are moving from the sidelines to center stage, with far greater involvement of church members.
None of these shifts has happened without good leadership. But as churches have grown and become more dynamic, expectations for ministers have also increased. Few churches today are satisfied to stay like they are—status quo isn’t an option—and this intensifies pressure on leaders.
As the pace of everybody’s life accelerates, so does the pace of ministry. We live wired, so we live distracted—distracted from God. The quiet moments—the reflective moments—are gone. Anxiety increases; peace wanes.
So, more than ever, surviving and thriving require the practice of personal spiritual disciplines. And with this, personal identity is firmly rooted in Christ.
Three decades ago, Chuck Swindoll said, “It doesn’t matter how well you’re doing or how big your church is. There’s always somebody down the road who started a church in a high school gym nine months ago that’s already running 1,500.” To the extent ministers’ personal identities are in their jobs, comparisons will bruise them. Being secure in Christ was always preferred for church leaders—today it’s essential.
In college I was taught to sacrifice family for the church. Thankfully, today most people in ministry see their families as the first priority of their ministries.
From Satisfied to Rethinking
A half century ago, we thought the Restoration Movement in its 20th-century form was relevant. Though we were actually running on fumes, there was pride in who we were; we thought when the rest of the world woke up and smelled the coffee, life would be good for all.
Now, the old ideals that held us together are no longer strong enough. On the one hand, the “movement” has lost its identity, but on the other, this very loose-knit network of churches has a free, entrepreneurial culture that is well suited to foster innovation in a new century.
While the loss of clear identity is unsettling, we have become more relevant than we were a half century ago. The Christian church movement must answer this question: What does a unity movement based on Scripture for the sake of world evangelism look like in this new century?
These days we’re rethinking church—is it missional, attractional, missional/attractional, or . . . ? Does it meet in a building, or is it a house church? There’s a widespread sense that business as usual isn’t good enough. About the only thing for sure is church will be different in the future—it has to be. Navigating constant seas of change can be exhausting. But the fresh breath of the Spirit will put wind in our sails.
These days can seem head-splitting. But as we root our identities in Christ, embrace our minority status as Christ followers, and lean into his Spirit, Jesus makes this a great time to serve him!
Dick Alexander, retired pastor of LifeSpring Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, serves as international consultant with Christian Missionary Fellowship Inc. in Indianapolis, Indiana.