According to a new study conducted by the Barna Group, 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. feel that pastors are not influential or credible. Only 24 percent of U.S. adults hold a “very positive” option of pastors in general. Nineteen percent hold a “negative” opinion, and nine percent hold a “very negative” opinion. So in an age when pastors’ credibility is in crisis, what can a leader do to regain some ground in his or her community?
During their State of Pastors conference, three leaders of churches sat down to discuss how pastors might involve themselves in community work to improve their credibility in society.
Rebekah Layton – Executive Pastor of Cherry Hills Community Church
Layton’s comments addressed another statistic Barna uncovered during its study: If a person knows a pastor personally, two in three regard them “very positively.” Illustrating this finding, Layton said when people see a life transformed, when they see the Holy Spirit work in a person’s life, when they see the gospel lived out, that is when credibility is established. “When people experience God’s power and his presence and his truth and his love, that is when that divide of credibility is bridged.”
Adam Edgerly – Lead Pastor, Newsong Los Angeles Covenant Church
Edgerly’s comments focused on the need for pastors to act. He explained, when Jesus preached to the crowds, they saw him addressing the needs of the community by healing people, turning over the tables of corruption, etc. “When there are needs going on in our community, we need to show up,” Edgerly admonishes. He explains that “people need to see us as stakeholders in the community,” actively working to address needs and make things better.
Mark DeYmaz – Directional Leader, Mosaic Church
DeYmaz uses Matthew 5:16 to illustrate his point. White evangelicals tend to think if our theology is right and we think right and speak right, that will win people over. But this isn’t what Jesus was referring to in Matthew 5:16. He didn’t say “let your light shine so they hear your good words…let them know about your great theology, your doctrinal statement.” Instead, Jesus said “let them see your good works, and that will become attractive. [Good works] shines a light on who Jesus is.”
We have a tendency (especially in the white evangelical church, which DeYmaz has been a part of for decades now) to limit the gospel to “let’s see souls saved.” But DeYmaz asks, “What about saving a community?” DeYmaz then lists examples of things that will garner a church attention in a community: When things like crime are reduced by 19 percent in a three-square mile radius of the church, that gets people’s attention, DeYmaz says. When half of the neighborhood depends on you for food three or four days of the month, that gets attention. When you use your very church building to help the local government and create jobs in the community, that garners you credibility.
The problem comes, DeYmaz explains, when “we simply want to talk and we don’t want to do this hard, difficult work.”
How do we balance fulfilling the Great Commission and simply getting to know someone (a group of people) with no agenda?
Edgerly addressed this question by explaining how, about a hundred years ago, modernism started teaching that the gospel is just a social gospel that doesn’t necessarily need Jesus to work. The reaction to this mindset was fundamentalism. So we have a divide now (that we are currently trying to heal) that says on the one side that we can’t talk about social justice issues because that’s liberal, and then you’ve got people on the other side who are committed to social justice but don’t feel you have to follow Jesus in order to do that.
But prior to this divide, we saw social justice leaders and Christians like William Wilberforce who had no problem committing themselves to things like stopping slavery while also printing Bible tracts and establishing schools and helping people because of what they learned from the gospel. “The gospel is the expression of what God wants—thy Kingdom come on earth. Yes, he’s going to bring it in its fullness when he returns, but he expects us to express it now,” Edgerly explains.
The take-away the researchers gleaned from the study is that people still seek the church’s guidance in areas of relationships, racial reconciliation and community. And despite the credibility problem we are facing, 40 percent of the people surveyed said the presence of clergy offers a “significant benefit” to the community and 26 percent say they offer a “small benefit.” So we’ve got a chance. If we were to whittle down the discussion between these three pastors, we may summarize this way: When pastors are engaged in good works, using the gospel to inspire and inform their actions, our community will find us credible and thereby be open to receive the gospel.