Roger Helland © 2017
As I write, I reflect on what drives my three decades of Christian ministry that spans vigorous spiritual service as a lay-leader, church elder, pastor, Bible college and seminary instructor, denominational leader, mentor, and author. My fire is that pastors, church leaders, and churches would flourish! However, the chilling remark sent from the beleaguered Apollo 13 spacecraft trumpets my concern: “Houston, we have a problem!” The frequent disheartening reports about the decline of growth and health in most North American denominations and churches, combined with reports of disillusioned Millennials who are leaving the church, and reports of those who are “done” with church (though not with Christ), reveal alarming trends. According to the Barna Group, “Most people (66%) feel they have had ‘a real and personal connection’ with God while attending church. However, that means one-third of those who have attended a church in the past have never felt God’s presence while in a congregational setting. Also, when asked about frequency, most of those who have attended church describe these encounters as rare.”
On The State of Discipleship in the United States, the 2015 Barna Report stated that only 1 percent of pastors say, “Today’s churches are doing very well at discipling new and young believers.” 60% feel that churches are discipling “not too well.” Three-quarters of practicing Christians believe it is “very important to see growth in their spiritual life.” But only 20% of Christian adults are involved in some sort of discipleship activity. The research revealed little correlation between activity and perceived growth, with a disconnection between how people think about their spirituality and what occurs in their lives. Pastors feel that the most critical elements of discipleship are matters of the heart rather than of structure.”
Donald Bloesch, in The Crisis of Piety, addressed a similar demise prevalent in the church back in 1988. He wrote: “Our age currently finds itself in a crisis of faith. One symptom of the breakdown in faith is the loss of piety. Spiritual disciplines such as prayer and fasting are foreign to most modern Christians . . . What is needed today is a renewal of devotion to the living Savior. Such renewal involves the very life of the church, which rests on an outpouring, and a rediscovery of the Holy Spirit in Christian faith and practice.”
At a church service where I preached, we sang the hymn I Surrender All. I winced inside as the lyrics pierced my soul, because I had to admit that the heresy of my life did not always match the orthodoxy of the hymn: “All to Jesus I surrender, all to him I freely give, I will ever love and trust him, in his presence daily live.” Do I, do we, have a commitment that is total? Do we surrender all with the love and fear of God?
A key factor is the spiritual vitality of burdened pastors. One afternoon I sat in the dean’s office of a seminary. He excitedly said to me, “Roger, I have a new book for you to read. We’re giving this out to pastors and denominational leaders. It’s based on a seven-year research project in the United States that reveals what it takes for pastors to survive and thrive over the long haul. It discusses what’s required for effective ministry, and we aim to do something about it.”
He fetched the book from his bookshelf and handed it to me. The title is, Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving. As I glanced at the white book, I paused for a moment and replied intuitively, “Before I open this book I’ll tell you what I think it reveals as the number one issue. It’s spiritual formation.” I opened the paperback and bingo! There it was, spiritual formation—number one! The other four issues in descending order were: self-care, emotional and cultural intelligence, marriage and family, and leadership and management.
A pastor surveyed in Resilient Ministry remarked, “Look, I may be a pastor, but I’m an inch deep. My life is filled with incessant activity and little prayer. ‘Contemplation’ is foreign in my vocabulary and non-existent in my life.” To thrive as a church leader will require better major league pitches than “good to great leadership,” purpose driven strategies, preaching, teamwork, or giftedness. It will require piety.
In the weeks ahead, I will offer a posture with practices drawn from Pietism, a revolutionary renewal movement of the 17-18th centuries. It dramatically influenced the Moravians, the Methodists, the great awakenings, and global evangelicalism, as we know it today. The core posture of the Pietists was that Christian faith was Bible centered, concerned with holy living, that fostered a “religion of the heart.” As a reaction to sterile and institutional religion, it stressed that true Christianity was a living faith, a practical love of God and neighbor, that integrated the head and the heart. Oh, how we need a spiritual renewal of piety, of devotion to God, in our pastoral leadership and in our churches today.
In my book, The Devout Life: Plunging the Depths of Spiritual Renewal, I offer ten key features that can stimulate spiritual renewal today.
Roger Helland, DMin. serves as district minister of the Baptist General Conference in Alberta, Canada, and teaches as an adjunct instructor at several Bible colleges and seminaries. He is the author of six books including Missional Spirituality, Magnificent Surrender, and The Revived Church: https://www.amazon.com/author/rogerhelland.