The resurgence of wage-based thinking in America’s churches substitutes man’s “goodness” for Christ’s goodness. Isaiah 64:6 says that our religious acts are “filthy rags” compared to the righteousness of Christ. However, survival of a (location-based, Americanized) church in a nation seeing rapid declines in church attendance and giving tempts leaders to reverse those trends by invoking a works-oriented mentality (which Jesus came to destroy). Most churches today characterize investments of time, talents and treasures in building a church as “good” and maybe even worthy of a commensurate (worldly) return to motivate. Our motive should not be recognition or rewards, but obedience that flows out of God’s incredible grace and love for us, who are so undeserving.
Building a “church” (as defined in America – i.e. a place and not people) also requires attracting and retaining congregants in ways that fit our culture. Words like “victory”, “freedom”, “fulfillment” and “joy” resonate in our consumeristic, narcissistic society. Promises of a better life, help in times of trouble, and an escape route from hell attracts those interested in what God can do for them. Sermons and songs speak of God as Provider, Comforter, Fortress, Healer, Shelter, Deliverer and Redeemer – all of which He is. However, that’s not all He is.
“Boss” of the Americanized Church
Pastors and staff who encourage wage-based thinking (in order to build an institutional church) position themselves as the “boss” in charge of the organization. They don’t view members as the embodiment of church, despite the Biblical definition of church as the “assembly of called out ones” and “those belonging to the Lord”. Churchgoers should be “insiders”, the hands and feet of Christ to be trained and deployed to pursue the real “customer” (“outsiders”). However, church leaders don’t feel they’re at liberty in this day and age to hold congregants to a high standard of performance (e.g. in carrying out the Great Commission mandate) for fear that asking too much of them would send them running to the church down the road. Therefore, most treat congregants like at-will “consumers”. They are strategic and conscientious to engage and entertain, hoping everyone will come back next Sunday, tithe and sign up for a “church chore”.
As a result, churchgoers perceive whatever they do “for the church” as an act of kindness rather than seeing themselves “as the church” with personal responsibilities (e.g. for evangelism and discipleship). They volunteer and give “to the church” but do so with mixed motives – partially “as unto the Lord” and partially as unto the pastor. They see their “religious acts” as philanthropy. They hope the Lord will pay “wages” (temporal and eternal rewards) for whatever work they do for the church. They seek compensation in the form of praise from church leaders and complain if not acknowledged for their generosity, recounting all they’ve done for the church without so much as a pat on the back. At their jobs, they are accustomed to working for a fair “boss” who gives pay raises in exchange for diligence and quality. They want a fair “boss” at church too – one who recognizes them for “good” works.
A church “boss” is also expected to replicate a work boss by leading effectively, communicating clearly, modeling diligence, exhibiting morality, and exemplifying integrity. In other words, church members have come to expect a high level of performance by their pastors.
The modern church growth model of a “genius with 1,000 helpers” (Jim Collins, Good to Great) puts tremendous pressure on leaders to live up to a nearly impossible standard. Responsibilities that should rightfully be distributed among all members (who are by definition the personification of “church”) instead fall on the shoulders of overtaxed, burned-out pastors. If the church “org chart” were flattened, with everyone bearing their biblical load rather than abdicating disciple-making to the paid “professionals”, the future of each church wouldn’t be so dependent on flawless execution by a pastor.
That status quo provides a strong incentive for church leaders to maintain a veil of perfection, a self-righteousness that could block the view of Christ’s righteousness and the need of every man, woman and child for grace – even a pastor. Most church leaders today sense performance anxiety around:
- eloquently delivering a relevant and engaging message every Sunday
- holding staff to a high standard, ensuring the music, announcements, sound, stage props, and video production all go off without a hitch
- conducting the worship service on time, carefully scripted and rehearsed, without a minute wasted and choreographed to produce a desired emotion or response
- being available to fulfill the personal requests of members, who often feel their generosity obligates the pastor to reciprocation
- rarely, if ever, confessing sin in front of anyone within the church or even in the community or risk undermining their moral authority and pastoral reputation
Ambitions to grow an organization (e.g. by labeling religious acts of members as “good”) have come back to haunt church leaders. As a “boss”, they feel obligated to do what they teach members, but at an even higher standard. By centralizing the definition of “church” around a place and pastor, most have assumed a more elevated perception and greater responsibilities than Jesus intended. The veil of perfection many pastors feel compelled to maintain contradicts the fact that anything they do is still a “filthy rag” relative to the perfection of Christ.
That veil also can tempt leaders to expect or relish praise for a “good” performance. Those in high positions in the church may begin to believe their own press, accepting accolades rather than deferring all credit to God. Humility is the essence of our faith and any attempt to hide imperfections obscures the view of Christ and rebuilds the veil torn when Christ died for everyone’s sins, pastors included.
When a church leader fails to meet those (impossible) expectations or has a moral lapse, you can quickly tell who has been working “as unto the pastor”. They take the news hard because they put (at least part of) their faith in a man. Their faith suffers. They leave the church. The body fractures and splits. However, those working entirely “as unto the Lord” biblically define the church as people and aren’t codependent on the pastor, therefore keeping the church intact and carrying forward as a family.
Jumping off the Hamster Wheel
For pastors to return the veil to its intended, severed state and provide churchgoers with a clear view of Christ’s righteousness, they must:
- Confess their shortcomings openly, being authentic and experiencing freedom from keeping up appearances
- Discourage wage-based thinking and working for a church “boss” so no one’s trust will be in the “goodness” of anyone but Christ
- No longer try to meet “consumer” expectations by defining “church” around any individual except for Jesus, elevating only Him onto a pedestal
- Build disciples and not an institution, not catering but challenging members to pursue the real “customer” (the lost outside the “4 walls”)
- Cease attempts to placate our culture by overselling self-empowerment and what God can do for us, but be honest about the high cost of discipleship, repentance, obedience and sacrifice. Jesus didn’t suffer and die to make us happier or more comfortable in this life.
- If led by the Holy Spirit, be willing to break the “script”, allowing God to take over the worship service at a moment’s notice
- Rehearse the sermon less, not aiming at perfection but wiling to expose personal limitations, relying on God to deliver the message (1 Corinthians 2:4-5)
Congregants will encounter Jesus if the pastor is fully reliant on Jesus. They will encounter only a man if the pastor is self-reliant. The veil of perfection will always obscure the view of Jesus.
Despite efforts to rebuild the veil, lower expectations, and emphasize self-actualization, the Church in America is still declining in growth, impact, influence and perception. Our world sees through transparent attempts to shape religion around culture – and they aren’t buying it. The Church’s attempts to spoon feed truth to avoid alienating “seekers” has contributed to America’s rejection of truth in all of its forms. According to Barna Research, “almost half of Millennials (47%) agree at least somewhat that it is wrong to share one’s personal beliefs with someone of a different faith.”
Spiritual truth doesn’t sound like truth when it’s couched in human terms. The growing ranks of “Dones” (with church) have experienced Americanized church and don’t believe eternal answers are found there. They know authentic faith is about more than repeating the Sinner’s Prayer, serving at the church, giving to the church, and inviting their friends to church. Yet that’s about all churchgoers are being asked to do. However, pastors worry that if they unveil all Jesus expects of His followers, fickle consumers who are accustomed to convenience and blessed with options will “vote with their feet” if not completely satisfied.
It’s Your Turn
Do you hear church members critique the “performance” of church leaders more often than they hold themselves accountable for carrying out their personal responsibility to BE the “church”? If so, how should they shift their expectations and definitions of “church”?