Sunday, October 30, 2005

Full-time Christian workers - a danger

Tu Quoque has a thought-provoking article about the danger of “Senior pastor-itis” in large churches – a swollen sense of the significance of the senior pastor in the life of a church. What they have failed to do, though, is point out that this syndrome is simply a special case of a more general phenomenon. When a church has a full-time worker, there is a danger that the expectation will be that the people in the pews will “receive ministry” from the pastor, who is after all being paid to minister to them.

In churches where there is plenty of activity – children’s clubs, work in the community, and so on – there is still the expectation that the full-time person will be the main man, theologically. In churches where there is a plural eldership, in many cases, the elders defer to the full-time worker. This fails to get to grips with the fact that all elders are to teach (it is effectively what marks them out within the congregation, and is how they are to shepherd the flock) – and that more significantly if we are to fulfil the great commission, then we have to get beyond simply doing things in our own churches, and get people out of the church into the world.

It is understandable that the full-time minister would want a second worker if one is available, given the isolation he will experience in this elevated position. The church is likely to want a second worker as well - there is an element of pride for the members in a church having two full-time workers. But if a second worker is present, the danger is that the mentality will become even more marked. The number of main services probably won’t change – typically two main meetings on the Sunday. But with two full-time workers to “sing for their supper”, it becomes increasingly unlikely that the non-paid membership will ever be given the responsibility for teaching the church. And with two full-time workers, the self-perceived spiritual/theological gulf between the people in the pew and the people in the pulpit is even greater - “Oh, I’m only an amateur – far better to have the professionals preach.” Or, in the case of keen young men, they are regarded as too immature, and having more senior people ahead of them, so they are restrained from doing as much as they might be interested in. As likely as not, the "older generation" within the church will then bewail the "lack of commitment" in the "younger generation" that is preventing people coming forward for full-time work - when they haven't given them the opportunity!

Evangelical churches are committed to the idea of every-member ministry; they believe in the priesthood of all believers; they are committed to the fulfilment of the Great Commission. But the effect of this elevation of full-time workers above the rest of the congregation, in addition to the points made in the Tu Quoque article, is to undermine these principles in the key area of teaching.

It is salutory that Paul spends the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians addressing the problem of “leader-itis” in the church there – showing how it is undermining the message of the gospel, undermining the nature of the church, and undermining the spiritual lives of individual Christians. It is also worth noticing how Paul operated as a missionary. He went to a new place, taught there for a period of time (supporting himself as a tentmaker!), and then moved on, leaving the church to fend for itself. When he went back, he would appoint elders, and he would keep a spiritual eye on the church, writing to them to correct problems if necessary.

Elders might be appointed within a couple of years of Paul’s first arrival in a city. In how many of our churches would we consider somebody to be spiritually mature enough after a couple of decades to be considered for eldership? And this is after careful consistent ministry throughout that period. In fact, the danger is that most people in the congregation end up listening to much the same teaching being repeated – and they haven’t grown as Christians since they last heard it.

As Christians, we have lost the sense of urgency that the New Testament believers had. If the evangelical church is going to influence the nation for good in the future, it needs to recover a more biblical attitude to this, and many other things.