The worship of the pastor offends God, which places the pastor at great personal peril. Pastors who do not realize this, who do not actively discourage such hero worship or who actively encourage it, are simply lost. Many of our pastors require obeisance because they’re not doing the work of a pastor. They are, in fact, the church CEO. Many of these guys are simply insecure. As a result, we have an epidemic of lousy pastors who allow biblically inconsistent practices to go on on their watch. But these are the guys who get passed on from church to church because they do not or cannot properly equip God’s people to make better selections.
Forgive me for repeating myself: the rail job done on Reverend
Jeremiah Wright was shameful. Like many if not most black
Americans, I found myself scratching my head wondering what the
hubbub was about. Not only were Reverend Wright’s comments not
at all shocking to me, they were not original. He was not saying
anything we, as a community, have not said ourselves—only in
barber shops and beauty shops and barbeques and, yes, in church
services. Wright’s words were not new, were not controversial,
were not even entirely his. It was, for me, no big deal, not
even the notion of the government having created AIDS and/or the
crack epidemic. It’s not about my agreeing or disagreeing with
Reverend Wright (or with The Honorable Minister Louis
Farrakhan): that rumor is out there. It’s been out there for
decades. Is Wright a crackpot? Who knows. But castigating him
for commenting on issues and theories that have been part of the
lexicon of black culture for decades is just political nonsense.
I include Wright's speech to the National Press Club, here, because, taken in fuller context, he seems much less like a crackpot. The little news clips, spliced together and placed into a political context rather than their intended venue of a pastor addressing his flock, were designed specifically to undermine him and, as he rightly states here, undermine the black church in the process. I also include Wright here because of another thing: his towering arrogance. Many if not most of our black pastors are, indeed, toweringly arrogant. I'd guess the more arrogant they are, the more successful their ministries tend to be. Arrogance seems to be a necessary component of black preaching, but it's really not. What is needed is boldness. Arrogance is boldness run amok. Wright's arrogance ultimately undermines the very goals his boldness achieves. One of the pastor's greatest challenges, therefore, is to go boldly forward while tempering arrogance with humility, a feat precious few of our leaders seem to manage.
Most pastors I know are obsessed with one thing: church growth. Actually, they’re obsessed with church finances, with finding the money to keep the doors open and to, above all, pay their salaries and per diems. But this pursuit is typically couched in terms like “church growth,” when what they really mean is “church money.” This is not, in and of itself, a criticism. These are trying economic times. Even a modest, minimalist church requires a substantial cash flow to keep the lights on, to fuel up the van, to buy bibles and communion wafers and Sunday School material. There is no biblical model for purchasing or even renting a commercial building. The biblical model for worship service was small gatherings in private homes, usually on the evening of the first day of the week. The Sabbath was then and is now Saturday, not Sunday, and believers in The Way (what was eventually to be called "Christianity") never considered the day of their gatherings a "Sabbath" of any kind. It was the first day of the week, and they met not in some huge cathedral but in somebody's back yard, sharing a meal, singing praises, and teaching.
This has, over centuries, evolved into the mess we practice now, saddling struggling churches with enormous financial obligation over sanctuaries that are near-empty six out of seven days. Money is the key stressor and central obsession of the modern church, and is the main impetus for so-called "church growth" campaigns. In our modern model, the congregation exists to service the facility. More than anything else, a pastor is focused on putting butts in seats because a certain percentage of butts equals a certain percentage of tithers. Tithing is inappropriately stressed and its biblical foundation distorted to mean almost exclusively church financing, which tithing is not. The bulk of tithes goes to pay the church bills, with the building mortgage and pastor's salary being the largest line items. This is not biblical. There is no biblical model for pastors being salaried (as opposed to a love offering freely given) or to placing church members in bondage to maintain some huge building that sits empty most of the week. Most of us grew up in this tradition and do not study the bible and, therefore, perceive my teaching as extreme and irreconcilable with tradition when, in fact, it is our tradition which is out of step with the bible and, therefore, with God.
I've known pastors who've refused to cancel worship service even during a blizzard. With dangerous road conditions and a travel advisory, these pastors still insisted on having church services, which forced the faithful--the ushers, the deacons, the choir, some of whom were elderly, many of whom had transportation issues--to brave the storm and come to church. The safety of his flock was the pastor's secondary concern. His first concern was the offering. It was the pastor's only motivation for even coming to church: to pass that plate around. One pastor told me bluntly, "We can't shut down for the storm. We can't afford to miss this week's offering."
Becoming a pastor is a lot like joining a street gang.
Once you get made, they show you the secret handshake and
reprehensible and terrible things, such as dragging old people
through a snowstorm, are revealed to you as part of the secret
trust. This is the creepy things pastors do. Some do it for the
best possible reasons; not every pastor is a crook or a thief.
But even the best of intentions have got it twisted. If your
pastor is investing all of his time, energy and focus on paying
the light bill, your church is out of step with the biblical
model and, therefore, out of step with God. You are Lost In The
Matrix, in the practice of religion, and are not followers of
Christ. Sell the building, break the lease, have worship service
because we want to worship, and get money out of the centrality
of your church's agenda.
If we were to be truthful with ourselves, we’d admit most church expenses are a minor concern, those items making up a relatively small percentage of the church’s overall budget. What far too many of our pastors are frankly worried about are their own salaries, the church’s mortgage and light bill coming a distant second.
Many pastors have gone into what we call “full-time ministry,” which is a pretty sad euphemism considering these “full-time” ministers usually cannot name a single family who lives on the same block as their church. They keep specious office hours and appear to be busy, but there’s fairly little that is “full time” about what they are doing. Budget shortfalls, therefore, impact the pastor most directly as the pastor himself is usually the biggest line item on most small churches’ budget. The ministry pays a secretary part-time, and maybe somebody to play the piano. The whole point of the church is, otherwise, to pay the pastor and struggle to hold on to the building. So, when the pastor presses us about “church growth,” it can be and often is a euphemism for securing his own paycheck. Not always, and, thankfully, not every pastor. But this is tragically less the exception than it is the rule.