With the company I work for undergoing some restructuring, a number of people are being shifted from the hub here in Bloomington, Illinois to other hubs in faraway states, and for a while, I was convinced I was going to be one of those folks asked to move. Obviously, that didn’t happen, but for some time I was so convinced of this idea that I started planning like it was going to happen. Where to live? What schools are good? How can I minimize my commute? What place has the best variety of restaurants?
(That last one gets priority over all others, BTW.)
But perhaps one of the biggest questions I had is, where will my family go to church? Without even thinking about it, I immediately found myself head first into the taboo but true topic of, yup, you named it, church shopping.
Church shopping is taboo for a number of reasons. There are two reasons that probably top the list why. First, it subtly admits that one church is better than another. And second, it reveals a lot about who we are, particularly about how our personal preferences might trump theological doctrine. I quote Jon Crist at the top of the post because he has some pretty hilarious videos about church shopping on YouTube. (Check out part 1 and part 2.)
Now, those concepts are totally true, but they’re not what I want to discuss today. As you can probably guess by the post’s title, there is a HUGE implication here why pastors are very much pigeon holed into proclaiming a doctrine and never deviating from that.
Think about traditional business models.
You start a business because you want to add value to a specific community. You could be selling products like clothes or shoes or food, or you could be providing a service like house cleaning or dog walking.
Ever heard the phrase “the customer is always right”? Well, that phrase rings pretty true. If you want to start a business teaching folks to surf in the Midwest (and don’t have any special wave pool machine thing), your business is probably going to fail. Or, if you start a bakery that specializes in cupcakes and pies but find that your pies sell like crap yet cupcakes are phenomenally profitable, then your bakery is probably going to churn out cupcakes only.
The Western church is very similar. We support the church (and pastoral staff) in the form of tithes, and if we don’t like the pastor’s theology, we just leave to another church, one that will serve our personal interests better.
So pastors are screwed.
Rob Bell is one of the most prominent examples like this. Shortly after the launch of Love Wins in 2011, Rob’s church, Mars Hill Bible Church, significantly dropped in attendance, and then a few months later, Bell quit under significant pressure.
So, how do we get around this?
Honestly, I don’t have a good answer. A universal answer may turn the concept of church on its head, so I don’t want to speculate what that might be. At least, not right now.
What I can share is two ways you CAN be a pastor who has that freedom to share whatever they want.
1. Grow a really big digital audience. This is what Rob Bell did. He’s no longer a traditional church pastor and instead has grown a huge audience via a digital platform. Between his podcast, speaking engagements, digital courses, and more, Rob is able to sustain a living to support his family. His audience is so big that he can piss off a number of them that don’t agree what he says that it doesn’t matter if he loses 1,000 followers. That’s just a drop in the bucket.
But we can’t all be Rob Bell, so here’s what other people can do.
2. Get a regular job and do this faith stuff on the surprise. Sound familiar? Yup, this is me! Though I once seriously considered entering ministry full time as a traditional church pastor, I’m definitely glad I didn’t. It gives me the freedom to be able to speak about things that would most assuredly get me fired from a church. Which is sad because I really don’t think I’m that controversial at all, but the traditional church pastor can’t even be curious about something without being scrutinized to the nth degree.
I love my faith, and it concerns me that pastors are put in this stupid box because I think we could find so much solidarity in a community that doesn’t go to church today simply by opening that curiosity door. In today’s model, that will probably never happen. And that makes me sad. So, until that can change, we Internet pastors will be here until the end of days. Good folks like Rachel Held Evans, Richard Rohr, Pete Enns, Pete Holmes, and more.
We’re tiny, but we’re mighty!