Over the last few years, the Barna Group, together with Pepperdine University and the Maclellan Foundation, conducted the largest-scale research project in the history of the church, interviewing 14,000 pastors over the course of three years and comparing it with more than 30 years of tracking data.
The State of Pastors study presents a picture of a group of people faithfully serving their churches. They are, on average, older than pastors used to be, with a median age of 54 (compared to 44 just 15 years ago), and they’re staying put longer, with an average tenure of more than a decade. And they’re generally liked among the people who know them.
Among those who do not know them, however, the numbers are different. While one quarter of all US adults (24 percent) holds a very positive opinion of pastors in general, a slightly larger percentage holds a negative opinion (28 percent “somewhat” + “very” negative), and in the middle is a large group who are indifferent. And the problem is that with millennials (the youngest generation of American adults) disconnecting from church more than any generation before them (59 percent of those who grew up in church will end up “spiritual nomads”), a majority of them are likely not to get to know one.
Our culture has shifted, and, over the last few decades, the data makes clear that pastors have lost a good deal of their credibility. Younger generations think that maybe churches have something good to say about getting married, raising kids, and burying the dead, but in terms of living life day-to-day, dependence on the church for leadership is just not there.
Along with the loss of credibility comes a decreasing ability to influence culture. “The problem is not that the average American has a negative perception of Christian ministers; it’s that the average American doesn’t think about them at all,” the report says. A pastor generally has the most influence with people about 10 years older or younger than him(her)self, which may have something to do with why the millennial generation just doesn’t see them as relevant.
The problem is not that the average American has a negative perception of Christian ministers; it’s that the average American doesn’t think about them at all.
While 36 percent of Americans think pastors can help those in their church live according to God’s will, far fewer are inclined to believe that a pastor might have something to say that would help them know how relationships work or how to make those relationships better (26 percent). Most don’t see pastors as able to help them live out their convictions, and only 17 percent believe Christianity should inform the nation’s political or justice systems.
We can add to the general level of apathy about pastors a web of complex and perplexing issues, including a “skepticism of sincerity” among the younger generations, as Barna’s President, David Kinnaman, describes it. No matter how good and how sincere a pastor may be, no matter how much good he might be doing in the community or in the church, many millennials are still dubious.
Beyond this, the non-Christians who are helping to shape the culture in which we live believe Christianity is judgmental (87 percent) and hypocritical (85 percent).
There is growing skepticism of the Bible too. When asked if the Bible is a sufficient guide to a meaningful life, only 45 percent agreed, down from 53 percent seven years ago. Meanwhile, the number who strongly disagree about the Bible as a life guide increased by 10 percent. Fundamental teachings of Christianity, even the very book from which pastors teach, are all being called into question.
And times have changed in terms of the church’s reputation as well. There is a “national groundswell of cultural sentiment that Christians are irrelevant and extreme.” The definition of extremism has shifted dramatically over the last decade. “For many Americans, the definition of religious extremism extends beyond religiously motivated violence” the report says. Three out five US adults believe it is extreme to try to convert someone to your faith. Eight out of 10 who claim no religious affiliation believe evangelism is extreme (83 percent). And 45 percent of this last group consider just being a Christian “extremist.”
Disintermediation – the removal of intermediaries in a given sector
“Culture is under constant reconstruction,” Kinnaman says. “The disintermediation of institutions means the traditional role of churches as a source of spiritual authority is increasingly removed from the minds of today’s citizens. As society’s moral center shifts away from external sources to self-fulfillment, pastors’ knowledge of the Scriptures and Christian orthodoxy appears irrelevant … And the waning of nominal Christianity’s cultural power means that, in order to follow Christ, Christians must swim against the current, rather than going with the flow.”
And pastoring those countercultural Christians is a harder task than ever.
But there is good news in Barna’s report as well.
Contrary to what you might expect, most pastors are doing pretty well. Nine out of 10 US pastors say they have a good quality of life, including a strong sense of spiritual wellbeing (88 percent). While one in three is at risk for some kind of burnout, most tend to feel energized by the work they do, and a whopping 96 percent rate their satisfaction in their marriages as “good” or “excellent.” In general, pastors have good lives and a passion for sharing with others.
This quality of life and passion will serve them well in an environment of evolving complexity in the church and outside of it. They will take on challenges posed by our digital culture, turning negatives into positives through how they use technology. They will inform themselves about culture and meet the next generation where they are without compromising biblical principles.
They will go beyond teaching morality to teaching why living a righteous life is so desirable. They will recognize they can no longer expect a base of biblical knowledge among their audiences. They will teach the wonder of the Bible story and its consummation in Christ. They will be men of Issachar (1 Chronicles 12:32), who know the times and know what we should do.
The pastors who go beyond surviving to make a difference in our culture will be prayerful, resilient, adaptable, able to deal with the complexity, and willing to change systems and processes in the process of changing hearts. They will “play a vital role in the health and well-being of society,” says Kinnaman.
But they cannot do it alone.
There is an emerging need for those in organizations outside the church to serve churches in robust, strategic ways.
They may be resilient, but pastors cannot preach Christ in today’s culture alone. For those of us in the church, this is a great call to support our pastors in more real ways, to affirm and challenge them, to encourage them to continue the transformative work they do in our churches, our communities, and our world. But we will also need to go beyond the normal ways people have traditionally supported pastors.
“There is an emerging need for those in organizations outside the church to serve churches in robust, strategic ways,” Kinnaman says. Church members should be considering how the skills they use every day might be used in support of their church. How can a marketer help build confidence in the church in her community? How might a teacher, an entrepreneur, a financial advisor, a CEO, a chef, or an event planner help the church in creative ways? As a body, God has given us all skills, and we can employ many of them them in helping our pastors spread the message of Christ.
Two things stand out as the best news in the State of Pastors report. First, older generations still believe in the power and purpose of the local church. Second, a majority of the younger generation, who are more likely not to believe in traditional church teachings, do still believe that the church can meet some of the needs in their community: feed, clothe, and shelter needy people; provide counseling; create a place where everyone is accepted; and provide activities for a community’s teens and childcare for a community’s youngest members.
It makes sense for us to pursue these opportunities that glorify God through the work of his people. And it makes sense for us not to ask pastors to do it all.
Though they are resilient, still they need our help.