A recent survey of Protestant pastors indicates that nearly 40% of them perceive that they are not “on the same page” – either politically or theologically or both – with the leaders of their denomination, and/or the congregations in their churches. A recent AgapePress article presented the results of this survey. It was authored by Allie Martin and Jody Brown, and entitled “Survey Reveals Discord Between Pastors, Denominations”. Martin & Brown report that Ellison Research found “19 percent of pastors are more liberal theologically than their denomination, 23 percent are more conservative, and 59 percent say their views align with their denomination’s teachings.” It also pointed out that “”Sixty percent of all evangelical pastors said that they are on the same page as their denomination politically, compared to only 45 percent of pastors in mainline Protestant churches,” Sellers says. “As a matter of fact, over one-third of pastors in mainline Protestant churches said that their denomination is more politically liberal than they are.”
I found several dimensions of this report to be significant. One aspect that struck me as intriguing here was the fact that political and spiritual (or at least religious) aspects are tied together. The research performed by Ellison appears to start with an underlying assumption that liberalism and conservatism are both dimensions of one’s political and spiritual position. I think that’s absolutely correct, but in this increasingly “politically correct” world, I’m surprised that researchers would make any such assumption. This would imply that there is not a statistically significant number of people in the congregation who are both politically conservative and religiously liberal, and vice versa. It would be interesting to see that hypothesis tested, I think. If it’s true (and I think it is,) the “separation of church and state” crowd will be appalled.
Another very interesting dimension of the findings is that there is a substantive difference in the degree of alignment in mainline denominations versus more evangelical churches. Again, though, when one thinks through this, it makes perfect sense. The liberalism that has been growing in American Protestant churches is obvious: Abandon the theologically rich hymns of the faith and replace them with shallower lyrics projected using Powerpoint; condone female ministers, gay lifestyles, and the idea that the Bible really is the Word of God, and as such is likely to be offensive to some folks when it is proclaimed honestly. Casual is more than the dress code of many parishioners in many of these churches; it is their view of Christianity. It is increasingly entertainment-like, and decreasingly focused on serious, soul-searching worship. There are a number of excellent examinations of this phenomenon, and among them are articles by Dave Mosher who says: “You will be hard pressed to find a local evangelical church that is not getting sucked into Emerging/Emergent/Emergence teachings.”, Melinda Penner, who says: “the Council’s decision to recommend our departure [from the denomination] was not based solely upon this issue but rather an accumulation of liberal decisions by the national body over the course of nearly 20 years, which caused a widening distance in our relationship with them as a conservative congregation. Thus the gay clergy decision was the tipping point after adding up many factors and a long-term trend.”, and Dave Cloud, who says: “Respected evangelical leader Harold Lindsell gave this testimony in regard to the mainline denominations: “It is not unfair to allege that among denominations like Episcopal, United Methodist, United Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, the Lutheran Church in America, and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. THERE IS NOT A SINGLE THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY THAT TAKES A STAND IN FAVOR OF BIBLICAL INFALLIBILITY. AND THERE IS NOT A SINGLE SEMINARY WHERE THERE ARE NOT FACULTY MEMBERS WHO DISAVOW ONE OR MORE OF THE MAJOR TEACHINGS OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH” (Harold Lindsell, Battle for the Bible, Zondervan, 1976, pp. 145-146.) Modernism has permeated the mainline denominations. Any call, therefore, to breach denominational barriers today, is a call to yoke together truth with error and is an open denial of the biblical doctrine of separation.”
The third dimension of interest to me is simply the large and increasing number of pastors who feel that they are not aligned in terms of their theology (and politics) with their own congregations. In my experience, at least in the case of strong pastoral leaders, the congregations tend to gravitate toward the perspectives presented from the pulpit. Congregations should be calling pastors who they believe to be teaching in accordance with their perceptions of biblical truth. If they are doing that, then why would there be such a large and growing disparity between their views and the pastor’s?
Finally, the dimension that I am having more trouble understanding: 23% of pastors surveyed report that their denominational leaders are more liberal than they are. It makes me wonder what is at the root of this. Are the denominational leaders, owing to their elevated standing in the denomination, “going Hollywood” in terms of relaxing their standards to be more widely accepted? I do understand the flip side, I think. The 19% who report that their denominational leaders are more conservative seems perfectly natural in light of the generally liberalizing trends in our churches today, as discussed earlier in this article. But the aspect of more liberal denominational leaders is troubling indeed.
I do understand the “Pastoral Predicament” here. Many pastors who remain faithful to the doctrinal teachings of fundamental Christianity as described by the Bible are feeling the squeeze these days, between a liberalizing denominational leadership and a liberalizing congregation. Other pastors have the challenge of denominational leaders growing further and further distanced from both themselves and their congregations. This path is slightly easier, because there is a clear way out – leave the denominational affiliation and find one closer in spiritual alignment. But even in these cases, the way forward is uncomfortable at best. It is a difficult and growing problem. I would be interested in hearing other perspectives on this.
What do you think?