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3 Attitudes Are Killing American Churches

3 Attitudes Are Killing American Churches June 1, 2021

The churches are not coming apart and failing because of beliefs. It is happening because of certain attitudes among believers. I have spent most of my adult life in pulpit ministry. I once believed orthodoxy was the primary need. Then I thought maybe the true enemy was fundamentalism. Attitude is highly valued in pop culture. It is also the annihilator of churches. I have three categories of attitudes that are destroying churches. Just for fun, I will use movies to illustrate.

 The Badass Attitudes

There are several that fit this category so I use the plural. Basically, the claim of these is “No one is going to tell me what to do!” We could substitute the word “believe” at the end. Too many believers do not want any requirements, constraints, or instructions. Unfortunately, these are all part of Discipleship. The solitary rugged individual myth defines all relationships to be contractual and transactional. Every other relationship is submissive according to this view. Churches do not and should not work this way.

These attitudes are the roots of violence seen in our society. The Passion of The Christ film is little different from Braveheart when we consider the violence done to the suffering hero who allows it to happen. Mel Gibson’s William Wallace refuses the drug that would ease his pain during torture. What happens when the hero does not allow the violence to happen? The response is more violence done in such a way as to destroy the opponent. “And that’s the way he wants it,” according to the guard in Cool Hand Luke.

Listening to What I Want to Hear

The attitudes involved here are simply prejudices. Clergy often feel pressured to cater to the prejudices of the congregation. Working in ministry in the US South often means avoiding any teaching that smells like social justice. One colleague claimed to overhear a choir member say, “If he mentions the poor one more time, I will throw up.” I immediately thought of Linda Blair’s response to The Exorcist and said so.

It is one thing for people to shut their ears to the teaching. It is another for the clergy person to wrestle with negative responses. Is it worth the fight to keep, say, the food bank open? Will funding for the budget be lost? How does that help anyone? The biggest problem for churches has been how wealthy people took action to influence churches. The ministries of televangelists are well funded by more than poor widows. The other avenue has been right-wing media.

“I thought pastors only said what FoxNews told them to say.” I was told this by some lay people. It’s a problem. Pastors can feel every sermon is met with politically motivated suspicions.  These religious and secular media give such a distorted view of reality that churches have are becoming patriotic death cults. The attitudes that began it are our prejudices. The Elmer Gantrys know how to work them.

Clergy Attitudes and Agendas

Clergy are often accused of “Preaching Their Own Agenda And Not The Bible.” It is an excuse not to listen as described above. But there is some truth to it. Pastors are notoriously bad at being colleagues to each other. There are some narcissistic personalities that wear vestments and preach decent sermons. The only agenda for clergy is to be and make disciples for Jesus Christ. But, for too many of us, a little fame and fortune appear to help us do that.

President Carter once said the problem with the Southern Baptist Association was the ego of certain high-profile pastors. Political leaders know how to stroke those egos. The dangerous desire is for the fawning to become mutual. Pastors support politicians who give their endorsement for what the pastor is preaching. The goal of a politician is to get elected. That agenda becomes the agenda of the pastors. This sounds like common sense. But what has God gained? I have no movie reference here. But there is a telling episode in Acts 12:22 where Herod Agrippa is flattered by claims of divinity. The same problem occurs when clergy make Messianic claims for “God’s candidate.”

Clergy attitudes about the goals of a congregation need grounding in solid theology. What is the purpose of the Church and the Ministries of the Church? I always express it as “to bring glory to God.” My attempt is to remove myself from the focus and build ministries that survive beyond my tenure. Congregations that become emotionally and spiritually invested in a manipulative pastor do not truly belong to God. Clergy should avoid such dangerous situations.

Attitudes of Openness and Conciliation

The new attitudes for the church include those of openness and conciliation. In other words, listen to and respect each other. The origin of our word heresy means divisions and destructions. The attitudes that lead to these actions are making heretics of us all. We must recall that words like evangelical and progressive have positive meanings within something greater than either. Living out the new attitudes won’t be easy if continue only listening to voices that reinforce our prejudices. The Badass attitude is really about fear. The attitudes forming clergy agendas are more about power that does not come from God. Where else do we turn?

About C. Don Jones
C. Don Jones is Pastor of Sycamore Tree United Methodist Church in Maryville, Tennessee You can read more about the author here.

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