On a recent, two-part ChurchPulse Weekly episode, John Mark Comer (author and founding pastor of Bridgetown Church) sits down with Barna president David Kinnaman to discuss his thoughts on the challenging expectations pastors face when leading through the pandemic, recent cultural trends in the next generation and hope for the future of the Church.
On Challenges Facing Pastors
A recent Barna poll found that two in five pastors (39%) report their understanding of their vocation as a pastor has changed within the past year.
Comer shares about the unique ways he’s seen these challenges heighten in the past season. He says, “I think all pastors deal with the unspoken social contract of expectations that people come to the church with.”
Even with this in mind, Comer has noticed an increase in the expectations placed on pastors over the past 18 months. He notes, “The job has changed. The cultural climate has gotten significantly more hostile. We’re now facing significant pushback from both conservative and progressive so-called Christians in our own church who are actually very un-Christian in their ethics, posture and tone.”
This rising cultural tension has made it significantly harder for leaders to speak out without facing criticism or pushback. Comer has seen a polarization of opinions take place in the past year, saying, “Now I feel like anything I put out there (whether it’s a sermon, book, leadership decision or new initiative with the church) becomes both life changing for one group of people, and a point of reaction, rebellion, hostility and opposition [for another group of people].”
He shares, “No matter how hard I try to nuance, have a good spirit and nice heart and smile a lot, at the end of the day, Christian orthodoxy is radical again, and it’s radical to some people that still think of themselves as Christians.”
On Assumptions of Christians in a Secular Age
Comer talks about new worldviews that Christians have adopted within a progressive city like Portland. He says, “With each passing year, a large chunk of our church is living with a set of mental maps, […] a set of assumptions about what will make for a good and happy life, that is further and further away from Jesus’ vision or Christian orthodoxy.”
He continues, “We have Christians in our churches who genuinely love Jesus, have genuinely had an encounter with the Spirit of God (maybe they’re new Christians, maybe they’re not), but they’re living with a set of assumptions, be it about politics or be it about sexuality and gender […] that are at times wildly at odds with Jesus’ vision of the good life.”
Comer views the role of leaders as creating space for people to question some of those assumptions they bring in from secularism. He says, “We need to think about how to prepare people for those moments where they’re probably not going to be martyred, but they could lose a job, lose a promotion, lose a friendship, have a breakdown in a relationship or get attacked on social media. How do we prepare people for those moments so that in those moments, they can live with fidelity and allegiance to Jesus with courage, peace and a non-anxious sense of love?”
On Opportunities for the Future Church
Kinnaman goes on to share some recent data about both positive and negative perceptions of the Church, highlighting that three in four U.S. adults (74%) agree that churches in their community offer hope to people, with another three in five (60%) saying that churches in their community care about people like them.
Comer is hopeful that new opportunities will continue to open up for the Church in the coming years as secularism continues to prove unreliable. He says, “I think a lot of the ideas and ideologies of secular culture on both the left and the right of the culture war are failing. […] I think there’s an incredible opportunity right now where the idols of secular culture are failing, and I’m praying that there is a reopening to God and to Christian spirituality.”
To build a faith resilient enough to survive the current ideological pressures of secularism, Comer has led his church to return to the basics of a rule of life. He says, “To join our church we basically say not just I’m coming on a Sunday or even I’m giving, but I’m going to join a neighborhood based community, eating the Lord’s supper around a table, bread and wine, a full meal together, practicing the way of Jesus and living by this kind of shared rule of life that’s contextualized for our city, for our time.”
Comer concludes, “We can’t control people, nor should we, but how do we create a community that’s an alternative vision that is more compelling than that of Portland? And how do we help people have a basic kind of life architecture of discipleship and worldview that will really stay strong in a city like this and on the internet?”
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About the Research
Barna Cities: The data shown above is based on a representative sample of 2,007 interviews with U.S. adults, ages 18 or older. The interviews were conducted online from April 23 to May 5, 2021. The margin of error is +/- 2 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence interval.
ChurchPulse Data: This data was collected from January 22-27, 2021 with 421 protestant, senior or executive pastors invited to participate in this research study from Barna’s ChurchPanel. Minimal weighting is used to ensure the data set is nationally representative based on region, church size, and denomination.
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.
© Barna Group, 2021