What makes the pastor’s job even more spiritually vulnerable is the expectation that he also be the cathartic head of the church—someone with whom members can identify and live through vicariously. Someone who articulates their fears and hopes, someone to whom they can relate—at a distance. This is key, because the pastor has time to relate to very, very few members. Thus it is all the more important that he be able to communicate in public settings the personable, humble, vulnerable, and likable human being he is.
Thus, preaching in the modern church has devolved into the pastor telling stories from his own life. The sermon is still grounded in some biblical text, and there is an attempt to articulate what that text means today. But more and more, pastors begin their sermons and illustrate their points repeatedly from their own lives. Next time you listen to your pastor, count the number of illustrations that come from his life, and you’ll see what I mean. The idea is to show how this biblical truth meets daily life, and that the pastor has a daily life. All well and good. But when personal illustrations become as ubiquitous as they have, and when they are crafted with pathos and humor as they so often are, they naturally become the emotional cornerstone of the sermon. The pastor’s life, and not the biblical teaching, is what becomes memorable week after week.
Again, this is not because the pastor is egotistical. It’s because, again, we demand this of our preachers. Preachers who don’t reveal their personal lives are considered, well, impersonal and aloof. Share a couple of cute stories about your family, or a time in college when you acted less than Christian, and people will come up to you weeks and months later to thank you for your “wonderful, vulnerable sermons.” Preachers are not dummies, and they want approval like everyone else. You soon learn that if you want those affirmative comments—and if you want people to listen to you!—you need to include a few personal and, if possible, humorous stories in your sermon.
The inadvertent effect of all this is that most pastors have become heads of personality cults. Churches become identified more with the pastor—this is Such-and-Such’s church—than with anything larger. When that pastor leaves, or is forced to leave, it’s devastating. It feels a like a divorce, or a death in the family, so symbiotic is today’s relationship between pastor and people.
I guess many pastors might genuinely benefit from a reminder that the Bible is his (and the church’s) primary authority, and that its chief message concerns Jesus Christ and his gospel. But I don’t necessarily read this excerpt as a scathing criticism of modern pastors. Maybe there is some (justified?) criticism in there, but I think this excerpt is a helpful reminder of the challenges most pastors face, and the pressure they’re often under to be what people want (demand?) them to be. The pastor’s life is not an easy one. I’d do well to remember that sometimes.