Editors Note: This is the second in an informal series ranging over understanding some nuances of “evangelical elites” big and small. It will also probably tie into the recent SBC controversy next week.
I realize that the title is a heavy accusation. It might even be clickbait, I’m not sure. Perhaps it would be best to say that I suspect a lot of modern, American, pastors resent portions of their congregations. I have in the past talked about how pastors often can be gently pushed left out of gullible empathy, steady good PR from the liberals in their churches, and the bubble of like minded pastors they can accrue around themselves. But it is important that we remember the world they are downstream of shaped them a certain way and if we want to fix it we need to fix that world first.
Pastors are in some sense little elites. The west loves celebrity and our churches are filled with people who are sinners prone to idolatry. Here is a, typically, good looking, charismatic, person who people gather to listen to. Or to put it in modern parlance, be influenced by.* This adulation can go to the head and an expand or simply maintain the balloon of ego that was already pretty full from seminary. Scripture warns us that a little knowledge puffs up, I would put forward that a specialized knowledge balloons to something roughly the size of the Hindenburg. Seminaries can do this. I can remember the last time I came across a fresh seminarian that didn’t think he knew everything. A few of them I could say the same thing Lewis said of Tolkien after their first meeting “No harm in him: only needs a smack or so.” I have also met many pastors who very much big fishes in small ponds. There are also many other subtle ways pastors can be prideful, we are capable of complexity, humble in one way and prideful in another. I myself can be incredibly patient over the course of years, but behind the wheel of a car…
And all of these things can compound on a man to puff him up, because his professors, his peers, his congregation, and the voices he looks to for quick guidance in our fast paced times all pressure him to look the best he can. Were he to be truly humble and step into the pulpit with the word’s, “I don’t know what to say about the most recent thing but I do know God and should like to turn your attention to Him.” All of those people would be disappointed, and he knows it. We have confused pastoral ministry for an opinion columnist in the religion section of Sundays paper. The rest of the time he has been trained the be validated by validating the congregation, soothing their ills with soft words and and a Jesus meek and mild. Again when was the last time you heard the average evangelical preacher address sin as Lloyd-Jones did, “Sinners! Hateful Creatures! Ugly, foul, vile, despicable, desperate! Hurl your epithets and you still have not said enough. The sinner is an abomination, he is a monstrosity in God’s universe, he is altogether vile and hateful.”
What this all comes to is a mini elite, parroting the latest approved position from the top down, affirmed by friends, followed by a group of “the right people” and sure in his specialized knowledge. What I am describing was perfectly captured by James R. Woods in his essay How I Evolved on Tim Keller.
“During the 2016 election cycle, I still approached politics through the winsome model, and I realized that it was hardening me toward fellow believers. I was too concerned with how one’s vote might harm the “public witness” of the church, and I looked down upon those who voted differently than me—usually in a rightward direction. “Public witness” most often translates into appeasing those to one’s left, and distancing oneself from the deplorables. I didn’t like what this was doing to my heart and felt that it was clouding my political judgment.
And I started to recognize another danger to this approach: If we assume that winsomeness will gain a favorable hearing, when Christians consistently receive heated pushback, we will be tempted to think our convictions are the problem. If winsomeness is met with hostility, it is easy to wonder, “Are we in the wrong?” Thus the slide toward secular culture’s reasoning is greased. A “secular-friendly” politics has problems similar to “seeker-friendly” worship. An excessive concern to appeal to the unchurched is plagued by the accommodationist temptation. This is all the more a problem in the “negative world.”- James R. Woods, How I Evolved on Tim Keller
So for the standard issue evangelical pastor the zeppelin is zipping along nicely in his reading, peer group, education, and with the fashionable element of his church. What then when a portion of that congregation dares to raise a hand and question his conclusions? O the humanity.
Not a New Problem
It should be kept in mind that this problem has merely accelerated in this fascinating modern age we live in. Going back to the days of the American West a prairie town would need a parson and usually a bright young lad would be chosen to be sent back east to a seminary. And while there he would learn on top of his theology the customs, manners, and comforts of eastern cities. Then return to Rotten Gulch, Montana Pop. 102 and assume his pulpit. To his chagrin these people were, in his opinion what The Waco Kid would say, “These are just simple farmers. These are people of the land. The common clay of the new west. You know… Morons.” And eventually the young parson would grow weary of tending his stubborn flock that were uninterested in his superior thoughts and abandon them altogether to return East. Things have not changed all that much. A recent example of how this plays out in the current era was published in the New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/05/10/us/evangelical-pastor-politics.html
Many other pastors are choosing to remain, but they marginalize or subtly ostracize that portion of their congregation that objects to the conventional wisdom. Things like in 2016 providing room in the service to comfort those lamenting how the election went then proceeding in the 2020 result as if nothing upsetting for anyone had happened at all. And then such a pastor wonders why the conservative types think he is leaning left. or as Trevin Wax pointed out, in his currently ongoing interaction with Aaron Renn; in the south it is expected that a pastor at least pray publicly for an end to abortion. In my own church after the leak about the potential overturn of Roe not a peep was heard from our pulpit, that is concerning.**
The easy and conservative solution would seem to be, leave and start fresh. We have doe it before and can easily do it agin. I mean church hopping is practically a southern past time. Obviously I am not going to suggest that. It is darkly humorous to me that within driving distance of where I write is a street on which sits Old St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, one block down, New Old St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, another block now Greater New Old St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, and yet another block down New Free Missionary Baptist Church. I would suggest taking a page from Piper and tweaking it a bit. Young J.P. told his new congregation that was fighting his changes that he would out live them and he would out rejoice them. At the time of telling that story he had done exactly that with only one objector still alive, I assume out of sheer spite. Let us rest in the assurance of the gospel that we will outlive the nonsense. Pastors come and go but the fundamentals do not. They are greater than us and have seen many trends come and go, we are simply to bear them clearly and faithfully, play our part until we as directed to exit stage right. But while we are around. We have to stop letting the liberals have all the fun. We have to out rejoice them. Doug Wilson excels in this area, reminding us that the gospel aroma of our homes should be like that of freshly baked bread, mouthwatering and inviting. That when we are persecuted we should step around the corner and throw a little party, or at least open a bottle of very good scotch. It should be apparent that the liberals in our churches are like pharisees with twisted faces announcing their fasts from good humor, good life, reality. They should be the obvious worry warts always nagging over every offense, which mostly comes from us laughing out loud when we are corrected on their pronouns during the Sunday greeting. We should be known as jovial Bunyans, who’s presence is very much, “Come and welcome to Jesus Christ.”
Pastors have hard jobs and look for helps all over. A lot of things are present to fill those gaps, most of them increasingly bad. It is time to be the alternative. I surmise the stupid is breaking, or will be soon. The rumblings have already started in the upper echelons as the tower begins to sway. Matt Chandler has been sending out feelers for a potential leap free. Russell Moore has turned up the volume on his whining. And there is increasing concern about the growing influence of Doug Wilson and Aaron Renn. Evangelical pastors are going to start shifting in a few years, best to position yourself now to godspeed them on their way.
*It might be interesting to consider critically how a body of believers mentality has shifted from seeing pastors as authorities, Men sent by God to speak his word, to one among many influencers. Were the roots laid with the overwhelming explosion of the self help movement? Is is more recent with the rise of internet influencers? Some combination of both? I suspect yes, and would also suggest the way to recover pastoral authority is to preach as one who has that authority. Stop trying to persuade or cajole, simple preach the unvarnished gospel, wretched sinful man and all.
**And if that damned thing is overturned then Christians really should not turn down the opportunity to gloat. Before we go to work state by state to weed out this abomination.