Do You Trust Your Pastor?

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According to a recent Gallup poll, 48% of Christians trust members of the clergy.  This means that they have more trust in nurses, military officers, grade school teachers, medical doctors, pharmacists, and police officers.

Here is a brief summary:

WASHINGTON, D.C. — For the 16th consecutive year, Americans’ ratings of the honesty and ethical standards of 22 occupations finds nurses at the top of the list. More than eight in 10 (82%) Americans describe nurses’ ethics as “very high” or “high.” In contrast, about six in 10 Americans rate members of Congress (60%) and lobbyists (58%) as “very low” or “low” when it comes to honesty and ethical standards.

Read the entire report here.

Christianity Today puts the story in context here.

Is the IRS Really Going After Christian Pastors?

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Donald Trump thinks so.  Or at least that’s what he told a group of evangelical pastors today in Orlando.  But is it true?

Amy Sullivan has some solid reporting on this issue at Yahoo News.

Here is a taste:

You’re the most powerful lobby there is,” Trump told the American Renewal Project, an effort to get conservative pastors more involved in politics, even as candidates. “Yet you’ve been totally silenced, like a child has been silenced.”

It was the same message he delivered to evangelicals in his acceptance speech last month at the Republican National Convention: “You have so much to contribute to our politics, and yet our laws prevent you from speaking yours minds from your own pulpits.”

What Trump is talking about is something called the “Johnson Amendment,” a change to the U.S. tax code that was proposed by then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson in 1954 to prohibit tax-exempt organizations from endorsing or opposing political candidates. Some, but not all, religious institutions claim tax-exempt status and are therefore technically required to abstain from using their resources on behalf of candidates.

Over the past decade, political speech has become a rallying point for many conservative Christians, including the group Alliance Defending Freedom, which encourages pastors to engage in “civil disobedience” to challenge the tax code. Given Trump’s ongoing campaign against political correctness, as well as concerns among conservative Christians over his bona fides on other issues, like abortion and same-sex marriage, it’s no surprise that he made free speech for pastors his main appeal to that constituency.

There’s only one problem: Pastors and other religious leaders can, and do, already engage in political speech, including candidate endorsements.

The fact is that no U.S. law prevents church leaders from endorsing candidates. What the law does not allow is endorsing on behalf of a church or using church resources — such as making an endorsement from the pulpit during Sunday services — while also claiming tax-exempt status.

Church leaders can even endorse using church resources at any time; they are simply expected to forgo their tax-exempt status in order to do so. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech and free exercise of religion, but it does not provide a constitutional right to tax-exempt status.

Perhaps the best rebuttal to the idea that religious leaders operate under a clergy “gag” law is the fact that the Johnson Amendment is currently unenforced. So regardless of whether a pastor follows the tax code by separating his personal endorsements from his role with a church, the IRS is not investigating or penalizing churches for political speech.

In fact, the most prominent recent example of a pastor’s free speech may be thebenediction delivered by Pastor Mark Burns at last month’s RNC, the most explicitly political prayer ever offered at a party convention. In his prayer, Burns declared Democrats to be “our enemies” and praised God for “giving [Trump] the words to unite this party, this country, that we together can defeat the liberal Democratic Party.”

Read the entire article here.

The Babylon Bee on Pastors “Doing Life Together”

doing-life-696x359Evangelical pastors love to talk about “doing life together.”  This phrase is basically used to describe the practice of spending time with members of their congregations in order to build relationships.  Some pastors like to “do life together” with their pastoral staff by planning elaborate “retreats” in exotic locals under the guise of “team building.”

As some of you may know, The Babylon Bee has become the equivalent of The Onion for the evangelical subculture. Here is the website’s take on pastors “doing life together.”

The article is entitled “Pastor Admits ‘Doing Life Together’ Just an Excuse to do Whatever.

KENOSHA, WI—Pastor Doug Gosport, 53, admitted that his recent forays into “doing life together” with people in his church and community were really just an excuse to do whatever he felt like doing, sources confirmed Monday.

“Frankly, it’s genius,” Gosport reportedly crowed to three of his friends during a weekend golf outing. “Normally, you get all sorts of flak from the family if you want to go grab something to eat and just watch the game, you know? But if I tell my wife I’ve got some guys I need to ‘do life with,’ she instantly approves, no questions asked. That’s actually what I told her I’m doing right now!” he laughed, before stepping up to the tee box and driving the ball.

“So basically, it’s a ticket to do whatever I want,” Gosport continued. “I just call it ‘doing life together,’ and boom—I can do no wrong. The other day, I was supposed to paint the garage, but I put on my concerned face and said I really needed to go ‘do life’ with Jerry. So Jerry and I got to go fishing for five hours instead. Jerry’s a Unitarian. We talked about John Wayne movies the entire time.”

According to sources, Gosport went on to note that the applications of “doing life together” are essentially limitless.

“Basically, whatever you want to do becomes a church-endorsed evangelical activity—write-offs and all—as long as you use those magic words. This month alone, I’ve used it to go to Ed’s Pub three times, a ball game, bowling, and the Boat, Sport, and Travel Show. The elder board even told me the other day that they’re super-impressed at how I’m ‘continually coming alongside’ others.”

The group was reportedly planning to go “do life” at a local Buffalo Wild Wings after the conclusion of their round.

A Pastor’s Guide to Historical Research

Pulpit-largeIn a world in which ministers are encouraged to run for office and bombarded with claims about religion and the nation’s founding, Beth Allison Barr of Baylor University has written a very useful post titled “A Pastor’s Guide to Reliable Historical Research.”

Barr challenges members of the clergy to critically evaluate websites, check their sources, and check their own bias.  Maybe she will turn her post into a book!

In the meantime, here is a taste of her post at The Anxious Bench:

A friend of mine was preparing his sermon. We happened to be at the same social function, and so he casually asked me what I knew about medieval illuminations (i.e. fireworks). To be honest, I didn’t know much. From my years of teaching world history I knew that gunpowder and fireworks had originated in Asia and spread rather slowly (along trade routes and through military ventures) to Europe. Hence European fireworks are really an early modern/modern phenomenon.

My friend’s question, however, was fairly specific: when was the earliest use of fireworks for a royal event in England? This was beyond my general knowledge.

I wasn’t worried. I knew I could quickly find the answer. So I did, and told my friend what he needed the next day (late fifteenth century, for those of you interested).

I am a professional historian. But the methods I employed to help my friend are not monopolized by my profession. Most of the tools pastors need for basic yet reliable historical research are readily available in our digital age. 

Read the rest here.

Evangelicals, Stickers, Boomers, and Small Towns

The deeper I go into academic life the more I lose touch with the passions that led me to pursue a professorial career in the first place.  After reading Jake Meador’s recent essay in Christianity Today, a part of me wants to leave academia, move to a small town, and pastor a local Protestant congregation. I think I could be happy doing this.

In “Why We Need Small Towns,” Meador draws upon the work of Rod Dreher, Wendell Berry, and Wallace Stegner to encourage evangelical pastors to think about pursuing vocations in small places.  It’s a great piece.  Here is just a taste:

Of course, American Christians know something of the little way. The evangelical movement has always had its share of what novelist Wallace Stegner famously called “stickers.” In the words of Wendell Berry, a student of Stegner’s, stickers are people who “settle, and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in.” America’s first great theologian, Jonathan Edwards, spent much of his life serving in a single small parish. Presbyterian theologian B. B. Warfield spent nearly his entire adult life in Princeton, New Jersey, where he taught at the university and cared for his sick wife. The late Dallas Willard taught and ministered in the same philosophy department for nearly five decades. Just recently, my pastor interviewed a dozen fellow pastors who have served in Lincoln, Nebraska, for over a decade. All of them are committed to staying at their churches indefinitely.

But, like so many Westerners, we don’t always practice the virtues of the little way in our communities. Evangelicals are a people of megachurches, national conferences, city-centric thinking (which often comes with derision for small-town life), and ever-expanding religious empires, be they church-planting networks or the Twitter feeds of celebrity pastors. Consider just one example: the rise of video preaching and podcasting, and the cultlike following they have generated around certain leaders.
The point is not to demonize cities or the prominent ministries that grow out of them. God does work through these and other large endeavors. Indeed, if stickers have always been a part of American evangelicalism, so too have their more ambitious counterparts, the “boomers.” In Stegner and Wendell Berry’s use of the term, boomers are people driven by dreams and ambitions. They are always moving to the next project, always imagining a new idea or movement to pursue. If Ruthie Leming was a sticker, Rod Dreher is a boomer (or has been for much of his life, at least).
Boomers have a long tradition within evangelicalism as well. George Whitefield was our first celebrity preacher, traveling all over the country to lead revivals that drew hundreds to thousands of attendees. Much of 19th-century evangelicalism was marked by the spirit of revivalism, a boomer movement if ever there was one. And today’s U.S. megachurches—which have exploded in number in the past few decades—certainly reflect a boomer ethos, and their bigness has its value. For example, the 6,000-person congregation has resources that my 350-person one could never dream of. It would take us years to raise a mercy fund that the megachurch could raise in one week. Impressive buildings, major missions campaigns, and citywide revivals all have their place.

What Do Pastors Read?

Here is the synopsis of a recent Barna Group survey of Protestant pastors:

  • There are approximately 315,000 Protestant churches in America.  (As compared to 13,000 McDonalds and 4000 Walmarts).
  • Pastors buy 3.8 books per month per person
  • 92% of pastors by at least one book per month
  • Pastors buy 8-13 million books per year. 
  • Pastors buy more books than the general population.
  • Younger pastors buy more books than older pastors.
  • Pastors buy books on topics that interest them or that are recommended to them.
  • Half of pastors are reading biographies.
  • One-third of pastors are reading business books.
  •  Pastors buy most of their books at Christian bookstores and online.
  • Half of pastors read books on an e-reader of an iPad.
  • 90% of pastors recommend books to their congregations from the pulpit.