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New Study Reveals What American Pastors Are Actually Concerned About: The Insights Will Surprise You

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The numbers in church attendance wax and wane, so, Barna surveyed 547 Protestant pastors around the country, asking them which issues are most troubling.


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Tré Goins-Phillips

More than anything, pastors in the U.S. are most concerned with Americans’ propensity to slip into a cultural Christianity, absent of deeply rooted biblical conviction, a new survey from Barna has revealed.

Barna surveyed 547 Protestant pastors around the country, asking them which issues were most troubling. Seven topics rang in above 50%:

  • Watered-down Gospel teachings at 72%
  • Culture’s shift to a secular age at 66%
  • Poor discipleship models at 63%
  • Addressing complex social issues with Biblical integrity at 58%
  • Reaching a younger audience at 56%
  • Political polarization at 51%

Separately, pastors were asked what concerns them most within their own churches. Two issues topped 50%: reaching a younger audience at 51% and declining or inconsistent outreach and evangelism at 50%.

Notice anything about the issues most concerning to pastors? They all have to do with Christian communities and their presence in and interaction with the societies around them.

A great deal of these issues would be tackled, at least in part, if churches began once again adhering en masse to Biblical teaching, taking a dogmatic and substantive approach to the issues people face on a daily basis. But staring down a swift decline in attendance, particularly among Millennials, many churches have started looking less like places of worship and more like nonprofit charities dedicated to the latest social justice campaigns.

As it turns out, though, a lot of younger people are turned off by that approach. The generations of people before them are big fans of the concert aesthetic, but they are getting older, and as their numbers dwindle, contemporary worship will lose its keenest allies.

Jonathan Aigner, who holds a degree in music from Baylor University and a Master of Arts in theology from Wheaton College, wrote a few years ago:

Millennials are seeking old ways of doing things. This (thankfully) doesn’t mean a return to the church of the 1950s, but it (thankfully) means an increasing rejection of the church of the 1990s and 2000s. More emphasis is being placed on liturgy and community, and less on using corporate worship chiefly as a contrived evangelistic tool. 

Research from Barna has backed that up, too, with a survey showing a majority of Millennials prefer a “classic” church approach to a “trendy” one.

But even if that wasn’t the case, it wouldn’t matter. The church should be dogmatic, unflinching on matters of faith. The church has existed—and thrived—without data points and focus groups for more than 2,000 years. There is a reason, for example, hymns have had enormous staying power in Christendom. It’s not because they are musically beautiful; it’s because they are deeply dogmatic and theologically rich.

“They can attribute their survival to their beauty, certainly—the poetry is refined, serious, elegant, espousing a vocabulary suitable to the holy place in which it is sung,” wrote author Tom Raabe. “But moreover, their strength lies in their theological force. Hymns tell the story of faith, of sin and forgiveness. A typical hymn lays the sinner low in his sin and lifts him up with God’s grace. It conveys the salvation story.”

I suspect, if Christians began adhering to the clear teachings of Scripture, many of the concerns pastors have would begin to wane.

To be dogmatic isn’t to make enemies of unbelievers. Instead, it is to establish a clear contrast between what it means to know Jesus and the alternative. Christianity is much more than a safeguard against hell; it’s a belief in a God who intervenes in every area of our lives, offering us present help as well as a future promise.

Sometimes being dogmatic will mean correcting our own errors, as has been the case with the recent #ChurchToo movement. And other times, it will mean drawing a stark contrast between what our culture says about something and what the Bible says about it.

The truth is, if a church—and its members—is dedicated to teaching and living by Scripture as it is written, Christendom will flourish. The numbers might wax and wane, but the Christian Church will succeed regardless.

Distinct dedication to Biblical teaching is the best way to grow the church in this present age. We aren’t the first generation, though, to face the siren call of watered-down theology. In 1879, the 19th-century Anglican bishop J.C. Ryle called for Christian doctrine to be “distinct and decided:”

If you want to do good in these times, you must throw aside indecision, and take up a distinct, sharply-cut, doctrinal religion. If you believe little, those to whom you try to do good will believe nothing. The victories of Christianity, wherever they have been won, have been won by distinct doctrinal theology; by telling men roundly of Christ’s vicarious death and sacrifice; by showing them Christ’s substitution on the cross and His precious blood; by teaching them justification by faith and bidding them believe on a crucified Saviour; by preaching ruin by sin, redemption by Christ, regeneration by the Spirit; by lifting up the brazen serpent; by telling men to look and live—to believe, repent and be converted. This—this is the only teaching which for 18 centuries God has honored with success and is honoring at the present day both at home and abroad.

Nate Pickowicz, an author and pastor from New Hampshire, has warned against the “modern attempt to repackage Christianity,” which he has argued, “does absolutely nothing for the distinctiveness of Christianity.”

“To click on some ministry websites,” he wrote, “you would be hard-pressed to find anything in its verbiage that would distinguish it from any other faith-based non-profit organization. One thing is fast becoming clear: we need more distinctiveness in our doctrinal positions.”

Then—when we are wholly committed to Scripture—will the church grow.