Entertainment in the Pulpit

Search committees and entertainment preaching.

The church in North America is dying. This is according to Tom Rainer in an article, which originally appeared in The Rainer Report newsletter. Rainer, an astute observer of the church growth scene, noted that by the year 2010, 50,000 American churches would close. Others report that pastors leave their parishes at a rate 1200-1600 per month.[1] In some denominations, one third of pastors resign within three to five years after seminary graduation, another one third before retirement, leaving only one third to complete an entire career in Christian ministry.[2] Pastors leave churches for a variety of reasons and churches who are taking the beating are frantically scrambling around in order to find a pastor who will make a long-term commitment, and someone with whom the congregation is happy.

The church board convenes in order to put a search committee together. The search committee is charged with the responsibility to find someone who can do the job, a pastor with the right personality and good communication skills that will bring life back into the church, but in many cases, they do not have the experience to do so. Mark Lauterbach writes, "Search committees … are not usually populated by people with past experience. Most are not skilled in hiring, but must serve as human resources directors. They are not theologians, but will ask theological questions. They do not run a church, but have to evaluate someone for their ability to do so. They usually operate on the basis of what they 'like' and 'do not like.'"[3] In addition, the likes and dislikes of the congregation play a role as well. If the likes disappear, the pastor becomes dispensable.

These search committee members mean well. They spend time in prayer and ask the Lord for wisdom but this is where it stops. Of people who "sincerely" want to do the Lord's work the Lord's way, Pearcey writes, "They give cognitive assent to the great truths of Scripture, but they make their practical, day-to-day decisions based only on what they can see, hear, measure, and calculate. When confessing their religious beliefs, they sit in the supernaturalist's chair. But in ordinary life, they walk over and sit in the naturalist's chair, living as though the supernatural were not real in any practical sense, relying on their own energy, talent, and strategic calculations. They may sincerely want to do the Lord's work, but they do it in the world's way - using worldly methods and motivated by worldly desires for success and acclaim."[4]

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Search committees normally look at what works for other churches. They look at people like Joel Osteen and other charismatic preachers on TV who have big churches full of people, and say to themselves, "This is what we need. If we package the gospel right, have the right kind of worship service, and have a person with the right personality and pulpit appearance, people will be drawn to the church in great numbers and be saved." This whole entertainment approach to the church corrupts Christianity and caters to the lusts of the flesh that are part of the very essence of this world's system (1 John. 2:15- 17). We have a society filled with people who want what they want when they want it. Recreation and entertainment dominate our society today. When churches appeal to the selfish desires of people, who are mostly interested in recreation and entertainment, they only fuel fires that hinder true godliness. The result of this approach is that our churches breed a shallow brand of Christianity where taking up one's cross, and living in the right kind of relationship with God and our neighbor, is optional, or indeed, even unseemly.

This entertainment idea of doing pulpit ministry has unfortunately also blown over to our seminaries. Preaching professors encourage this idea. In an article from a leading seminary magazine, a professor of preaching writes as follows, "We have a new lead pastor at our church and we couldn't be happier. Yesterday, the pastor (name omitted) offered us a dramatic recitation of the entire book of Philippians, from memory! The pastor's (name omitted) presentation was masterful. He began, early in the service, with a brief setup to the book, helping us appreciate its broad themes. Later in the service, he actually recited the book. He was dressed in ordinary casual clothing. His only prop was a heavy chain. His presentation was deeply felt, communicating with conviction, enthusiasm, and sensitivity. Like an actor, he made the ideas in the Scripture come alive for everyone present (italics mine)"[5]

I listened to the on-line presentation and it was masterful indeed. To recite Scripture from memory is a good model for how we should harbor the Word of God in our hearts. I also believe that we need to be innovative and creative in how we present the gospel, as long as we validate our methods with the profound spiritual truth we are trying to convey.

However, what happens when the preacher is not entertaining anymore? Does he become dispensable? Will his message have the same impact? Furthermore, will this entertainment preaching draw the numbers? It will, for a while, but as Ecclesiastes will attest, even noble work at the expense of relationships proves meaningless. Research has revealed that no matter how innovative worship services, or how attractive church programs, if there is no relationship development that is nourishing and fulfilling, people lose their interest after a maximum period of approximately six weeks.[6] These people leave the church disillusioned, and disappointed, and some lose their interest in Christianity completely. Clever approaches or high profiled personalities in the pulpits to get people to come to church will work only for a short while. What works better, in making people feel at home in a church, are right relationships. Preaching the truth, planting the seed, and being involved in a ministry of genuine care, where people feel they are being considered as of worth is what works. If churches are faithful in that, the soil God has prepared will bear fruit.

Search committees need to look for the quality of leadership in their potential pastor that will foster relationships and not be blinded by what they see from dramatic preachers. Christianity is all about relationships after all. As Nancy Pearcey attests, "If you want to know what a Christian leader is really like, don't ask his peers or board members or adoring fans. Ask how he treats his support staff. That is a lesson Jerram Barrs presses upon seminary students at the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Seminary. 'When I come to visit your church someday, I will not ask people about what a great preacher or leader you are,' Barrs says. 'Rather I will talk to the secretaries, the office staff, the janitors and cleaners and ask them what it is like to work with you. That will tell me far more about the kind of ministry taking place in the church, and whether you are the kind of leader Christ desires for His Church.'"[7] The pastor's relationship with the members of his congregation is also of vital importance in determining his spiritual leadership qualities.

Moses was definitely not the peoples choice, neither was Paul, and so were many other leaders in the Bible. God chooses his own people to do his work, however foolish and unentertaining they might look to the "wise". "God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong" (1 Cor. 2: 27).

When visiting a new destination one will not easily find one's way around without the help of someone who has been there. This is also true in the spiritual realm. For us to get our directions from God, we must be there in his presence. The unseen world must be for us just as great a reality as the seen world. No matter how wise we are, we are still unable to do God's work, and choose leaders for his church, if he is not the one who is making it known to us. For God to make his will known to us and give us directions, we need to be in his presence, live in his presence, and remain in his presence.

Let the choice of God's man for God's work be someone that cannot be explained from the naturalist chair, as was the case of God's leaders in the Bible. Let search committees say, "We cannot explain this. This must be the work of God." The Lord promises in his word, "You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart" (Jer. 29:13). You will find direction and you will find the right person if you completely trust him to show you and you do not rely on your own wisdom (Prov. 3:5). God always leads those who seek his wisdom and desire to know his will in any matter, not only search committees but also all others who are interested in doing the Lord's work.

[1] Donald E. Demaray and Kenneth W. Pickerill, A Robust Ministry; Keeping a Pure Heart, Clear Head, and Steady Hand, (Indiana: Evangel Publishing House, 2004), p. 9.

[2] See for example: http://www. thelutheren. org/study/clergyhealth.html.

[3] Mark Lauterbach, Key Points for the Search Committee. How to find the right pastor in the right way. BuildingChurchLeaders - Thursday, August 30, 2007

[4] Nancy Pearcy. Total Truth, (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2004), p.362

[5] Kent Anderson. The Word Must Be Heard, Northwest Baptist Seminary magazine, Tuesday, September 11th, 2007

[6] Mary K. Sellon and Daniel P. Smith, Practicing Right Relationships (Herndon, Virginia: The Alban Institute, 2005), p. 5.

[7] Pearcy, p. 373

Mart Griesel is a graduate from Regent College, Vancouver, and a pastoral candidate in waiting.

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