In the summer of 2000, Mike Lueken had every reason to be proud as a pastor of Oak Hills Church in Folsom, California. Every Sunday, thousands of people flocked to Oak Hill's sixteen acre campus with its 35,000-square-foot facility, and the church was doing everything that a thriving, suburban megachurch with a $2 million budget was supposed to do. But then Lueken took a class at Fuller Seminary taught by Dallas Willard. The experience led to a complete change of course for him and Oak Hills Church.
"[Willard] was teaching on the Sermon on the Mount and conveying the heart of the gospel through Jesus' teaching, and I felt I was sitting there listening to something I'd never heard before," Lueken recalls. "We realized that we had to rethink what the gospel was about. Does the Bible teach only the gospel of heaven and forgiveness of sins? Or is it about a new way of living that involves the power of God, the peace of God, along with your sins being forgiven and going to heaven when you die?"
Lueken's story illustrates the change occurring among today's pastors, change that reflects new—or renewed—interest in a fuller picture of the gospel and in a sense of mission.
In order to gain a better understanding of these changes, Leadership conducted a survey in May 2008 asking nearly 700 evangelical pastors how their perceptions of the gospel and mission currently compare with their understanding a decade ago. The results clearly indicate that pastors' attitudes and beliefs are shifting.
What the survey actually says
The survey was designed to uncover movement, not simply raw numbers, and this is important when analyzing the data. When asked if "the kingdom of God is a present reality, a future reality, or both," 37 percent of pastors said they currently believe the kingdom is a future reality in heaven, 20 percent said the kingdom is a present reality on earth, and 33 percent said both. But 58 percent said that ten years ago they believed it was a future reality, and only 9 percent said they believed ten years ago that it was a present reality. The movement is clearly toward understanding the kingdom as a present, earthly reality, even if it remains a minority view. Here are more trends uncovered by the research. Compared to ten years ago:
- Pastors are focusing more on the Gospels than on the Epistles.
- More pastors believe the gospel is advanced by demonstration and not simply proclamation.
- More pastors say the goal of evangelism is to grow "the" church rather than to grow "my" church.
- More pastors believe partnering with other local churches is essential to accomplishing their mission.
The typical survey respondent was a white male pastor in his 50s, with an average church size of about 400 people, with about twenty years of pastoral experience.
Leadership spoke with numerous church leaders to examine these results. And most were not surprised by the shifts.
Scot McKnight, professor of biblical and theological studies at North Park University in Chicago and popular blogger (JesusCreed.org) said that he considers the survey results "very good news. The shifts have actually been going on for maybe 25 or 30 years. There has, though, been a surge in the last ten years. Evangelicals rediscovered the Gospels, and began to reframe their understanding of the gospel in terms of the Kingdom and not just justification."
At the same time church leaders were becoming more biblically aware, they also were becoming more globally aware.