After all, nobody’s perfect

The pressure to be all things to all people at all times makes it a chancy profession and a little bit lonely.

Matt Dillon of television’s “Gun-smoke” described his job this way: “I’m the marshall, the first man they look for and the last man they want to meet. It’s a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful … and a little bit lonely.”

Dillon’s words fit the mood and perspective of many men and women who have pursued the calling and responsibility of the pastorate during CHRISTIANITY TODAY’s 25-year history. While the broad themes of the pastor’s role have continued the same, it is nevertheless indisputable that little similarity remains between the pastoral world of 1956 and that of 1981.

To appreciate where most pastors have come from since 1956, look at a number of different movements just beginning to gather momentum within the church at that time. Few, if any, Christian leaders escaped the effects of these movements.

Take, for example, the onset of the so-called church renewal movement with its many and varied roots. Elton Trueblood’s The Company of the Committed was one of numerous books that began a relentless challenge to the meaning of ministry. The issue was relevance. Along with the Sam Shoemakers of that day, Trueblood cried for a new relevant commitment on the part of Christian laity that would make an impact on work and leisure, relationships, and the disciplines of solitary life.

Gibson Winter pointed up the geographical and cultural irrelevance of the church, highlighting the congregation’s seeming withdrawal from cities and centers of power. Others, along with Winter, decried the irrelevance of preaching. Pastors, they said, were answering questions no one was asking. The solution to the charge of irrelevance included small groups, encounter groups, growth groups, action groups, groups with a hundred different creative adjectives.

Pastors began to hear about concepts such as inductive Bible study. Enthusiasts suggested that it was time to stop most preaching and permit the people to engage in dialogue, searching for themselves and then sharing (another important word of the day) their discoveries for the purposes of edification and application. Students of the Scripture were taught quickly to ask the question, “What does this mean to you?”

The renewal movement appealed for greater honesty in living and expression. Keith Miller’s The Taste of New Wine set in motion a mentality counter to the old tendency to adulate Christian heroes. In some cases, the pastor was urged to “be real” with the people. In moderation, the honesty movement applied a beautiful and necessary corrective; in excess it often became destructive.

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Another movement just hitting stride in 1956 was that of the emergent and proliferating parachurch groups. Advocates of evangelistic fervor, for example, cried that the church was no longer doing its job. From everywhere came a parade of founders and directors of newborn organizations anxious to challenge Christians about new techniques and methods that could be used to invade the world with the gospel. The pastor and his congregation were told that the Lord was raising up “arms of the church” and the arms would probably exist until the church finally awoke to its real task.

Parachurch movements launched militant calls to action-oriented laymen and young people. The result? Good and bad news. Scores of people saw new ways to proclaim faith effectively in previously untouched sectors of society. The bad news was probably twofold. The implications of following Christ were shrunk to a dangerous point in order to package the presentation of the gospel in palatable form. Would-be pastors eschewed in-depth theological and pastoral training for the more immediate ministry of evangelism.

If the world was on fire, some said, there was little time for the luxury of long-term training.

Congregations and pastors felt the impact of para-churches as the percentage of missionary giving swung dramatically to home missions and away from cross-cultural missions. Lay people discovered direct mail, regional representatives, and banquet speakers appealing for their gifts and interest apart from the congregation. Few pastors escaped the problem of divided loyalties and interests as movement after movement vied for the church’s attention and financial affection.

A third movement that confronted the pastor was made up of Christians who seized the word “charismatic” to describe their affinity for the work of the Holy Spirit in the areas of healing, revelation, individual and corporate worship. Few escaped the painful dilemma created by the charismatic movement: to join, to tolerate, or to oppose. There was often little room for moderation and congregations frequently divided. Neither side—charismatic or noncharismatic—made it easy for the pastor.

A fourth movement pressuring many pastors called for a new separatism and conservatism. Its proponents challenged the pastor to take a stand against theological and ethical “apostasy.” With whom could one cooperate when city-wide evangelism became an opportunity? What biblical translations were permissible in the pulpit and which were not? With whom could one associate in any sort of endeavor or fellowship without being charged with seeming to waffle on the faith?

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Still a fifth movement affected the world of the pastor. A small but strident group began to call for social consciousness. The voice may have first been heard in the civil rights cause. It was later raised in the Vietnam debate, and still later, in the corruption issues of Watergate. It would eventuate in a call for concern in matters of justice, liberation, and the simple lifestyle. Social consciousness, too, was not a challenge to be met with simple moderation. Many pastors found it impossible to keep the confidence of both advocates and reactionaries.

Despite the pressures, other matters were very encouraging. Church growth assumed prominence as the evangelical movement gained strength. Gallup would later report that those adhering to an evangelical persuasion were growing in number while the group resistant to a conservative theological posture was diminishing in size. New converts were apparently pouring into churches, the result in part of parachurch organizations doing what they said the church had not been doing—invading the real world with the gospel.

As a result, many pastors began to find themselves surrounded by new types of communicators: converted beauty queens, professional athletes, business executives, politicians come clean. Books and movies poured out dramatic testimonies to conversion. Famous people were ready—for a fee—to grace pulpits and banquet halls, providing a sort of Christian entertainment.

The pastor became acquainted quickly with the world of the megachurch during the past 25 years. He (or, equally so, she) found a whole new vocabulary: multiple-staff ministry, church-growth principles, management, total-church programming, and a host of new concepts, techniques, and measurements conveyed by successful leaders at seminars, conferences, and workshops.

The pastor began to see the pastoral ministry segmented into specializations: youth ministry, Christian education, ministers of worship and music, administrators, and—we should not forget—the Christian counselor. No longer could churches talk about the pastor. Now the term “senior pastor” entered the vocabulary. The senior pastor of necessity managed and administered, even if his days as shepherd had virtually ended.

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The pastor as a preacher also faced changes during the past 25 years. He or she became acquainted with what was called relational or “life-centered” preaching. Illustrative materials changed from old quotes by Napoleon and William Booth to quotes from the Wall Street Journal, Time, and Newsweek.It became increasingly permissible to allude to movie themes in sermons.

Pastors were admonished to be on top of the significance and meaning of political events and social changes. Some preachers went overboard on social commentary while others embraced themes of success, good feelings, and enthusiasm. Guilt production as a sermonic device was certainly out while self-esteem was in. Anger in the pulpit was judged to be a thing of the past. Congregations, pastors were told, were to be smoothed and stroked. The bad news could come some time after the sermon.

The pastor has indeed come a long way, shaped by these and many other forces within and without the church. His or her new world is fraught with things about which one can be equally excited and disturbed.

I have excitement, for example, for the freedom of the pastor to pursue relevance; but I have concern if relevance leads to a style of life and thought that loses what Paul once called godliness.

I have excitement for the fact that pastors are free to live more comfortably; but I have concern if that means that one is led toward a clerical professionalism in which salaries are negotiated, the market is played, and a comparison of pension benefits prevails in pastoral fellowship.

I have excitement for the enormous quantity of information and technique available to pastors (including a plethora of professional degrees); but I have concern that we might become overloaded with scholars who are not shepherds, managers who are not leaders, and communicators who have no unction from the Spirit of God.

I have excitement for the growing number of women who have discovered their capabilities for intellectual growth and development; but I have concern for the tendency toward dual-careered pastoral marriages that deny the congregation the opportunity for a husband-and-wife team who model Christian marital and family characteristics for all to see. And I have concern for the pastor who desperately needs a spouse from whom to draw private strength and refreshment but cannot because the partner is drained also.

I have excitement over the new pastoral concern for discipleship; but I have concern if that replaces the age-old necessity of drawing people to conversion in the first place. And I fear that is happening.

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If I am excited over the possibilities afforded by pastoral specialization, I have concern for the disappearing general practitioner. If I am excited over the emergence of Christian counseling, I have to share concern over the tendency to reduce the gospel to therapeutic terms and techniques. And I have concern over the suspicion that too many people practicing Christian therapy find the technique more important than the integrity of their own Christian lifestyle.

If I am excited over the growing awareness by pastors in 1981 toward the importance of preaching and teaching on family centeredness, I am nevertheless alarmed over the rising number of pastoral divorces. And if I am moved to excitement over the increasing sensitivity of pastors to the social issues of the poor, the disadvantaged, and the oppressed, I am concerned over the dissipation of burden that these not only be physically assisted, but confronted with the importance of accepting Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior.

If I am excited over the capacity of the electronic church to reach into the homes of people, I am equally concerned over its potential to intimidate the small church pastor who has a rough time believing that his or her spiritual leadership can compete with beautiful women singing torchy Christian tunes in living color.

If I am excited that the evangelical pastor has so many voices representing so many different facets of the gospel way of life, I am seriously alarmed that there seems to be no way to check and arrest those whose theology is logically destructive, who are making excessive amounts of money off the ministry, and who build empires to suit their own egos.

If I am excited about the new political awareness of Christians on matters of clean government, morality in high places, and the quality of national leadership, I am concerned lest this become the new legalism that separates the Christian community rather than uniting it as salt and light.

There is so much to be excited about: the parachurch turning toward the church and becoming its partner rather than its competitor; the emergence of some fine young preachers in virtually every major city; the increasing development of holistic worship, relationship, and caring.

But there is also so much to be concerned for: that some of the best and most committed people discover the joy of being pastors; that pastors keep abreast of real human need; that the evangelical movement not squander its hour upon the stage of world recognition and acceptance.

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Matt Dillon certainly had it right: his job and that of a pastor is chancy and a bit lonely. But for those of us who love our jobs and who have survived these past 25 years with their pressures and privileges, it is worth the effort. I, for one, am not inclined to trade my calling with anyone. So, bring on the next 25.


Knowing where the rocks are helps us know where to step as we walk waters, carefully. The issue still surfaces, the question is still asked: “Whofound the rocks?”


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