When Pastors Don't Believe in God

Sometimes pastors don’t believe in God. I don’t mean that they don’t believe in His existence or would deny that He is active in their lives. What they seem not to believe is in His greatness, His wisdom and in the way in which he accomplishes His plans. Sometimes they act as if they do not believe that God knows what He is doing.

From what I have observed, it seems church leaders have been taught such things as “the signs of a healthy church” and “strategies for growth” and “how to reach your community.” Instead of viewing these concepts as a source of ideas that may or may not fit God’s plan for their church, they use them as a measuring stick to determine whether or not their church is performing as it should. They check the boxes- If the church does not have the right demographic makeup, the right music, the correct percentage of young people, and the right programs, then God is not moving.

The response to this conclusion that God is not moving is to change the church. Gradual change, the kind that comes through relationships over time, is not acceptable. At times using a language of fear, leaders declare such things as “something has to be done” or “a generation is being lost,” implying that serious harm will come to our church and our culture if we do not act. The actions suggested are often superficial, focusing on décor, clothing and music styles. These changes are often associated with a watering down of the sermon content as the message is made more “accessible” to the lost and seeking. Implied in all of this is that whatever was happening before was not God’s doing, that God could not and would not work in such fashion, for if God was working, they would be able to see it and measure it.

This is what causes me concern. When I think of how God works I remind myself of the people He chose over the generations. He chose a nation of slaves to be His people. He led them out of bondage through an 80 year-old murderer shepherd named Moses. For their greatest king He selected another shepherd, this time the young boy David who was the runt in his family, who would later become an adulterer who schemed to kill a loyal friend. When He sent the Savior, God picked a virgin in a backwoods town who gave birth in a stable. For the proclaimers of His message he included uneducated fishermen and a hated tax collector, and ultimately filled their ranks with a murderous Pharisee. God has never worked in the way man would think! It seems to me that we like to talk about God moving in unpredictable and unorthodox fashion in the past tense but when it comes to the present day we like to be more in control. We need to see it!

I have witnessed the danger of putting God in such a box first hand. Years ago I was a candidate for a senior pastor position in south Orange County. It was a church of a few hundred people that had at one time numbered over 1200. Within 10 miles of the campus were two megachurches, Saddleback and Mariners, each with over 9,000 members. In the course of my interviews it became apparent that the search committee had reached the conclusion that these two churches had “figured it out,” that we needed to do whatever it was they had done to grow. I didn’t agree. When asked about my philosophy and approach I said, “We can’t try to be like Saddleback. Saddleback will always do Saddleback better than us. We can’t be Mariners, Mariners will always do Mariners better than us. We should try to be a place where the Bible is taught and taught well, trusting God to bring people to Himself.”

I didn’t get the job. They selected a more experienced pastor who had a vision for change and attracting younger people, someone who “knew” how God was moving. 18 months later the church went belly up. The pastor drove away the core of the membership with unwise changes. He did not believe that God could work in a unique way in each church, tried to implement a vision that did not fit, and as a result the church was ruined.

We need to believe in God again. We need to believe that even in a place where life is not obvious to our eyes, He may be working. We need to trust that He is the one who draws people, that His Spirit is the agent of change. We need to be patient, believing that God will, in His time and in His way, do His work in us. We need to reject the dangerous message that apart from us, God cannot reach the world, the belief that we are either the obstacle or the draw for people to come to God.

-          Bart