Are pastors making it too easy?

A word to pastors…

As I am reading through the gospel of Mark, I am struck by many of the things that Jesus says.  Without fail, a careful reading of Jesus’ words will blow every predictable stereotype or expectation we might have for what a “good pastor” should or should not say.  There are many times when I think to myself, “Wow, that wouldn’t go over well” or, “I don’t think I could say that…at least not that way”

We are much more willing to overlook what we’d consider “verbal slips” by Jesus’ ( being God incarnate), but seems that we wait like doctrinal-mercenaries to pounce on any pastor who might try the same thing.  For example, consider what Jesus says in his encounter with the “Rich Young Man” as well as the words to his disciples following the conversation (See Mark 10.17-24).  After this young man tells Jesus how law-abiding and moral he has been, Ju-jitsu-word-master Jesus cuts deep into his idol of materialism.  He tells him to sell everything he has.  The young man is very wealthy so he leaves, choosing to be miserable with his money rather than be joyful with Jesus.

But those aren’t the words that get me.  After the young man walks away, Jesus says to his disciples, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God.”  Difficult to enter. Hard to get in.  I always thought I was supposed to say it was quite easy. Perhaps he speaks simply to the depravity of man and the fact that it is hard (impossible) for the “natural” man to accept “spiritual” things. Regardless, it is doubtful you’ll hear many pastors throwing down such statements from the pulpit real soon.

This little passage has led me to wonder if pastors make it too easy to believe, too easy to confess, to easy to “enter the kingdom of God”. Obviously, it is “easy” in a purely theological sense. Paul tells the jailor in Acts 16 to simply, “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.”  I guess I am struggling with what many might call “false conversions” or “easy believism”.  It seems like Pastors are often so desirous to see more people come to Jesus, that they will preach the most fluffy-feel-good picture of grace possible.  And because they don’t speak about how EXPENSIVE that grace was to obtain (it costs the Son of God his life, not to mention infinite humility), we those who are led to confess don’t experience the weight (or cost) of that commitment.

It’s probably not new, but it seems like Pastors get more giddy over making “converts” than they ever do about producing disciples.  It is not uncommon to read pastors tweeting about how many people confessed Christ on a Sunday or how many people they baptized at Easter.  These are good things to celebrate and these things are happening in our church too.  But I wonder if, through emotional coaxing, whether it be guilt or joy, people are often being pushed to “make decisions” with their mouths that they really are not making with their hearts.  We’ve all heard about the person (or people) whose answered 25 altar calls and “invited” Jesus into their life every Summer camp they ever attended.  This is not to say that grace isn’t the power by which faith in Christ comes, only that we cheapen it when we believe that faith won’t cost us anything.  Of course, it is anathema to speak of grace “costing” anything because of the fear one might be claiming, hinting, or otherwise implying that someone can earn their salvation. Hogwash. They can’t.

But there has to be something wrong when people don’t believe (at least not as observed in their behavior, attitudes, or perceptions) that confessing Christ means actually following him joyfully AND sacrificially.  I have started to wonder if people don’t consider the cost enough because pastors don’t talk enough about it. They push them to believe meaningful truth, but they refuse to push them to follow in any meaningful way.  Jesus talked often about the cost of discipleship in ways that many today would consider cold,insensitive, or at least unwise for a pastor.  It was as if, from an outsider’s perspective, he was trying to convince them NOT to follow or at least he wasn’t worried about scaring away some of them:  Consider Mark 8.34-36

34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.

Or consider again “heartless” passages like Luke 9.57-62 where Jesus warns about what it will cost three different people to follow:

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

I don’t know exactly where I am going with this, though I know I am not hoping nor expecting pastors can or should try to make it “harder” to get into kingdom. I supposed I am simply saying everything that Dietrich Bonhoeffer has already said in his book, The Cost of Discipleship, that there is a cost to following Christ. And because he said it much better than I ever will, here you go:

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.  – D. Bonhoeffer


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Author: Sam Ford

Sam Ford is a preacher, planter, and pastor from the Pacific Northwest. He is currently pastoring Restoration Road Church in Snohomish, WA.

2 thoughts on “Are pastors making it too easy?”

  1. You’re thinking pretty highly of pastors if you think that they/you have anything to do at all with people feeling the weight of the cross. That is the job of the Holy Spirit. Once you start putting that burden on yourself you have a mighty big man and a pretty small God. We all know how that kind of thing ends. It begs the question, are these pastors attempting to do the bulk of the work of their calling with their public words instead of in their own spiritual pursuits, study (outside of sermons, book writing, etc.) and much, much time in prayer and petitioning for the souls of their congregations? If they are too busy for those things, could it be that the lack of visible change in their congregation likely due to this fact, and also a lack of faith on their own behalf that God will keep his promises, even if it doesn’t look like it in the way they’re expecting? (i.e. easy to see responses in their congregation that take little time or effort to visualize, because there is no time and no strength left to make an effort to really see? Could this be where many traditions have stemmed, such as a priest handing out communion, confessional booths, public liturgy and vow making, etc?)

    Perhaps the problem is exactly that. Pastors are seeing themselves as having too big a role in people’s spiritual lives and salvation. Perhaps, unlike Bonhoeffer suggests, there should be much less “requiring repentance” much less “church discipline” and much less “confession” as it pertains to Pastors forcing these things to happen as a way to measure whether or not people are adequately feel the weight of their salvation. Salvation which doesn’t have anything to do with worldly authority so it shouldn’t be regulated, monitored or otherwise cajoled by worldly authority, either. And yes, I am equating pastors to worldly authority because they are not God, they are not Jesus and no matter how mature and wholesome they are they are not without sin.

    Why would someone who is fully trusting God to do his work through them even worry for a moment about whether or not people are visibly showing signs of their salvation, repentance, etc? Again, small God, big man. Of course you can point out the verses which say that elders watch over souls as those that must give account. But the phrase is “as those”, as in “like” or “similar to”. For someone who is saved by Christ alone and not works to have to actually stand before God and point out all they did or didn’t do right in their work before being allowed into eternal communion with Him seems much harsher than any of the verses you deem “heartless”. If there is no weeping in heaven then what would be the point for God to make you feel like crap for your earthly failures before you enter?

    And if you really are going to give an account, shouldn’t it be “I trusted you completely to do your work through me.” instead of “I worked really hard to make sure people felt bad enough about your son dying for them. I worked really hard to make sure everyone looked repentant in their behavior. I worked really hard to make people confess and to discipline the people who didn’t do this enough so that you could do your work through me.” The backlash for leaders who have done the latter has recently come to light at Mars Hill Church in Seattle and many others around the world as well. Using terms like “gospel shame” and “gospel guilt” as ways for people to be manipulated into showing outward signs of the things Bonhoeffer describes in that quote. These things are a twisting of the gospel into a weapon to spiritually dominate people so there is an illusion of control. The desire to control is driven by fear, and I don’t mean the awe and wonder kind of fear, either. This seems to be simply taking the oppression of the catholic church and putting new clothes on it. Same old power plays, same old desire to control, just different methods.

    You seem to be putting one’s abilities as a pastor in comparison with Jesus’ abilities as God Incarnate. Pastors don’t have the same power because they can’t make people see something and they can’t make people understand as Jesus did. They can’t know things about people’s hearts they don’t choose to share with them and they shouldn’t use “heartless” words because they don’t know people deeply enough to wield them correctly, as Jesus did. This is why there are so many verses about joy and patience and the like. Because none of us are Jesus and that is really, really hard, especially for spiritual leaders. They have absolutely no control, they don’t have super powers and their jobs are such that not only often sees little visible return but one where they are strictly cautioned against trying to measure success in any way, shape or form.

    Perhaps the question you should be asking is, “Do pastors make it too hard—on themselves?”

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  2. Thanks for your comment….anonymous. I am somewhat surprised that, at midnight, you’d take the time to write so much in response. God willing, I am usually sleeping. Your passion for the gospel is evident, as is your pain from whatever “gospel twisting” or pastoral abusing experience you, or someone you love, may have had. I am sincerely sorry that this happened, it grieves Jesus and it grieves me. And I am not familiar with all the details of the MH examples you bring up, and I really don’t want to be. Sadly, as you know, there are many more examples of the abuse of church leadership throughout history.

    Your passionate reaction is similar to those I have grown accustomed to hearing (or reading) anytime anyone talks of a deeper sense of devotion to Christ. I am sure your response is probably intended to be grace-filled in some sense, but it sounds more like the words of a sheep whose wounds have left them fearful, cynical, and distrustful of any leadership. If I know you, then I hope you know my heart and the ministry I’m in. If not, then I wonder if you are unfairly transferring whatever baggage you have from some previous experience on to other pastors and always assuming the worst. On a side note, curiously you dismiss the influence of the pastor in his discipline of preaching, or at least minimize it a little, while at the same time maximizing his influence in other spiritual disciplines (e.g. prayer), thus making him just as “important” (though not really).

    And while I agree that a preacher/pastor does not possess the power to change a heart, he does have the responsibility to align his teaching with the person and work of Christ. My mental meandering is less about “working” to produce faith in people and more then purity of a proclamation that will naturally produce works. That doesn’t mean that pastors cannot and should not desire deeper devotion (one that can be seen) in those he pastors–we can always be more devoted. Hope, even a charge, for a deeper sense of devotion in the sheep one pastors (or anyone for that matter) does not have to be motivated by an inflated view of self or a desire for control. It does not have to be motivated by failures or some absence of measurable repentance (whatever that is). It does not have to be motivated by a need to feed an ego or to validate (or elevate) a ministry. It can be simply out of love.

    And for the record, pastors most certainly, and sinfully, think too much of themselves.

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