I've been pastoring for quite some time now. I wouldn't go so far as to say ministry is "old hat" to me, but I have built up quite a bit of experience in the areas of pastoral counseling, teaching, preaching, and church administration. Naturally, I still have a lot to learn in each of these areas, but I have definitely passed the novice stage, which is a true blessing. Being a novitiate in anything is generally troubling and uncomfortable, especially when one has people looking to him for leadership and direction. And when the spiritual well-being of others is at stake, the pressures are even greater. I thank the Lord for bringing me to this point in my ministry and give Him the credit for any good I have done.
On the whole, I consider pastoral ministry as one of the highlights of my spiritual and professional life. I've had many opportunities to meet extraordinary people, witness beautiful acts of charity, participate in unique events, and challenge myself and others unto self-improvement and spiritual growth. Nevertheless, I have been discouraged by one aspect of pastoral ministry that consistently antagonizes me, namely, the apparent and unspoken popularity contest that exists among pastors. To be fair, most pastors are not inherently predisposed to engage in such sophomoric interests; however, the pressures to "one-up" other pastors, employ strategic elements of "seat-filling" charismata, and discover the latest, innovative tactic to attract "customers" to the one's church are real. Any pastor who says Sunday morning has not become--at least to some extent--a competition with other churches is deceiving himself/herself. Even though the idealist in all of us objects, every pastor knows that if his/her sermon delivery is not as beguiling as "the next guy's," or if the service is not choreographed with enough excitement and suspense, then some parishioners will leave and go where the entertainment value is better.
Fortunately, I've personally resisted the temptation to devolve my ministry into some sort of marketing strategy, and I know plenty of pastors who likewise eschew such notions. But the sad reality of the modern church is that far too many pastors are not so principled, resulting in a western, evangelical Christianity that seems to be more entertainment driven than gospel centered. Turn on the television or scour the web, and you'll find dozens of "slick," used-car-salesmen pastors who appear to offer everything a man or woman could want in the latest styles and comforts of 21st century Christianity; yet, once you drive this modernized faith off the lot, it immediately depreciates and its true character and flaws begin to surface. And so we do what any reasonable, western consumer would do in such cases...we go to the next used car salesman, once again looking for something we're unlikely to find, and once more falling prey to the white-toothed promise-maker.
It should go without saying that this is not what Christ desires for His church. Sunday mornings and church affiliation are not about finding the ear-ticklers among us--those popular, charming, and charismatic preacher-salesmen who make us feel good and who sell us that which simply ignites our animalistic passions. Rather, our lives of faith should be about challenging ourselves to grow and become more like Christ. We should value preachers and teachers who confront us with our sin, encourage spiritual maturation, and hold us accountable when we fall away. We should reject popularity contests and embrace leaders who demonstrate authenticity, transparency, and solidarity with the mind of God.
To be clear, I'm not suggesting one cannot enjoy church, nor am I proposing that charismatic preachers be avoided at all costs. Admittedly, I know plenty of very charming and persuasive pastors who are also sincerely committed to the gospel. My warning is simply to be wary if you find yourself tempted to "church hop" because the congregation down the street has a more captivating pastor, a livelier praise team, or a unique worship experience. Impulses such as these may be based more on a contest of popularity than on the content of orthodox teaching and authentic faith. And as Paul warned in 2 Timothy 4:4, falling prey to such urges often leads not to the Promised Land of deeper, more genuine belief and worship but, rather, to false teaching and shallowness of doctrine...those dilapidated used cars that congest the already narrow way.