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Can Christian Consumers Ruin Pastors?

Millions of Americans live in the shadow of churches that have become consumer Christian centers, but pastors are ruined and the mission of God is cheated when consumers enjoy goods and services from their local church. In their book, God Is Back, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge described the state of the American church as the “Disneyfication of God” or “Christianity Lite – a bland and sanitized faith that is about as dramatic as the average shopping mall.” 

Believers who think like customers contribute to the underachieving church in America. The damages move far beyond ineptness at engaging the mission of God. The incessant demands of a consumer congregation cause irreparable damage to those who lead such congregations. Some of the consumer demands are based on pastoral perception, too. Pastors often experience chronic anxiety because they fear their flock.

Robin Swift is the Director of Health Programs for the Clergy Health Initiative at Duke Divinity School. She has been a part of extensive research by Duke to understand the challenge of being a pastor. In a recent NPR interview, Swift talked about realities faced by pastors:  “Pastors, because of their calling, put everybody else first and have a difficult time naming their needs for self-care, and they also, like the Marines or emergency room staff, expect a level of high functioning from each other.” 

Wayne Cordeiro, founding pastor of New Hope Christian Fellowship in Honolulu, Hawaii, has experienced incredible popularity among Christian leaders worldwide. His success is well chronicled through thousands of attendees at New Hope and planting over 100 churches in the Pacific Rim. Yet he was transparent about his near personal collapse in spite of his success in his book, Leading on Empty:

“I was out on a run on that balmy California evening. One minute, I was jogging along the sidewalk, and the next minute, I was sitting on the curb sobbing uncontrollably. I couldn’t stop, and I did not have a clue what was happening to me…For over thirty years, I had invested my life in Christian ministry…But now I wasn’t sure I could keep going.”

Such situations make one wonder if the damage (self-inflicted and from consumer Christians) is inevitable in a modern care-giving profession like the pastorate. Are pastors destined to be victims of their own calling? What do they contribute to the situation? 

I believe the mentality in the pew (or cushioned chair) may have another contributing factor: pastoral codependency.

What is a codependent? It’s “loosely defined as someone who exhibits too much, and often inappropriate, caring for persons who depend on him or her” (I got this from Wikipedia—because you can trust everything there.) A “codependent” is one side of a relationship between mutually needy people.

A codependent pastor needs a needy congregation. And we have too many of both. But relishing the applause that comes from being the local church superstar often results in performance anxiety and utter disappointment in an underachieving church. It is a vicious cycle where everyone ends up disappointed—including God, I think.

The pastor who insists on being the focus of local ministry trains the body of Christ to sin; believers who demand all ministry to be done by “professionals” lead the pastor to sin. So who started all of this dysfunction? Was it the needy, consumer-driven congregation? Or was it the pastor, hungry for significance? It’s hard to tell. But to break the cycle, the enablers must stop enabling. God cannot receive glory in the church when pastors are always up front receiving the credit and doing the things that their consumerist congregants should be doing.

We need to understand everyone’s role. When pastors do for people what God has called the people to do for themselves, everyone gets hurt, and the mission of God is hindered. God designed the church to act as the body of Christ, and bodies have more than one part. Here is what it should look like: “Based on the gift they have received, everyone should use it to serve others.” (1 Peter 4:10) “A manifestation of the Spirit is given to each person to produce what is beneficial.” (1 Corinthians 12:7) The church is most alive when every believer serves in God’s mission where assigned by the Spirit.

Congregants should release their pastors to escape the madness by doing what they should have been doing already: caring for each other. Philip Yancey addressed the problem when he said, “I wonder how much more effective our churches would be if we made the pastor’s spiritual health – not the pastor’s efficiency – our number one priority.” 

Ultimately, the pastor’s spiritual health does not rest only with the congregation but on the shoulders of the pastor. They should give themselves permission to release undue burdens and learn to say “no” when necessary. They should visit their doctor for a check-up to get a professional opinion on where they are physically and emotionally. And by all means, church leaders should continue this conversation with peers and church leadership.  

These are serious issues in our faith communities if we truly believe that God desires to work through His church. We risk more than the implementation of poor practices. The very mission of God is at stake.

Other than pastoral codependency, how does a consumerist mentality affect churches? In your opinion, what can be done to curb this trend?

Visit EdStetzer.com to continue the conversation. 

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is the Dean of Talbot School of Theology at Biola Univeristy and Scholar in Residence & Teaching Pastor at Mariners Church. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches; trained pastors and church planters on six continents; earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates; and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America, is the Editor-in-Chief of Outreach Magazine, and regularly writes for news outlets such as USA Today and CNN. Dr. Stetzer is the host of "The Stetzer ChurchLeaders Podcast," and his national radio show, "Ed Stetzer Live," airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates.