What Do Christians Really Think About Their Pastors? September 27, 2010

What Do Christians Really Think About Their Pastors?

Christian David Hayward has an idea of what people actually think about when they’re in church.

Let’s say he’s right. (I think he is.)

One of the biggest problems with the Christian church — that I’ve seen from the outside looking in — is that there are too many people who think their pastor speaks for them. When the pastor says something abominable or incorrect, they let it slide. They remain in the church, stay silent on those issues, and the cycle continues.

When a pastor says homosexuality is somehow “more” of a sin than anything else, or that evolution is bunk, or that religion in our public schools would alleviate some problems, how rare is it for a member of the congregation to say (in some form or another), “No, you’re wrong”?

While the pastor may be the face of the church and the most notable figure there, he doesn’t always have to speak for you.

It’s ok to disagree with him.

It’s ok to call him out when he says something that’s not true.

It’s ok to leave the church if you don’t support what’s being said in there.

If you’re not doing those things, you’re just adding to the problem. I get that you might be ruffling feathers and creating awkward social situations by speaking out… but what’s the alternative? Living a lie and pretending like you agree with the crowd when you really don’t? Maybe if Christians had the courage to speak out against some of the awful/untrue things their pastors said, we could take them a little more seriously.

It’s amazing how many Christian bloggers/authors I see making fun of the church (politely, of course), or speaking out against some of the church’s practices, or denouncing what some church members do in the name of faith… and then return to those same kinds of churches on Sunday and act like everything is ok. It’s those *other* churches with the problems, not my own.

As David’s cartoon notes, how many Christians are willing to tell their pastors they’re not making any sense? Or that they’re boring? Or that they’re distorting the truth?

I feel like atheists have no problem saying those things to other atheists. We criticize each other all the time. Read the comments on a random atheist blog and you’ll see that. No one in our movement is immune.

Reading the comments on Christian blogs, I see a lot of platitudes and only the occasional (often meek) rebuttals.

I’m sure there are some people who don’t hesitate to offer constructive criticism at church. But I’d be shocked if that number wasn’t in the minority.

Where are the pastors who want open, honest feedback and who are willing to apologize or change their minds when confronted with the evidence against whatever they said? (Have you ever heard a pastor say he was wrong about a previous sermon? I’d love to hear about it.)

What are Christians doing to make the conversation less of a one-way street?

Why do Christians stay in these churches where there are so many alternatives for them out there?

Am I being too naïve in thinking this ought to happen more often?

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  • Maliknant

    Hemant:
    I’m sure there are some people who don’t hesitate to offer constructive criticism at church. But I’d be shocked if that number wasn’t in the minority.

    I’d be shocked if you heard from one xtian who offers such criticism or knows someone who does. Not during a sermon. No way!

  • Peregrine

    That’s exactly it. The thing about the average mass or sermon is, it’s not exactly an open forum.

  • Sorry, Hemant, I’d love to respond but I was too busy thinking about what I’m going to wear tomorrow 😉

    This is one of my pet peeves – why people don’t leave churches that don’t fit their ideologies. I don’t care if people want to go to church, but I don’t understand why they don’t go to churches that fit their own beliefs!
    If they did, I bet the UU church memberships would soar.

  • 10plus

    My experience back in the day was that when the pastor said those sorts of things, people never complained or countered him because they agreed with him. How many people are going to stick around at a church where they strongly disagree with what the pastor is saying? I didn’t. Certain ‘minor’ topics, like whether or not women can be pastors, people might just agree to disagree; I’ve been to churches that felt it was ok, and churches that were against it- and when I brought it up to friends in the church that was against it, the reaction was, unsurprisingly, ‘They’re wrong.’ Any argument otherwise was futile. Now imagine the same scenario except saying, ‘I feel the evidence supporting evolution is solid,’ or ‘Gays are people deserving of the same civil rights as straights.’ Good luck with that fight. So eventually I left, as have other people. Why stick around and stress yourself out fighting a hopeless battle when you can move on to something better? I am now an atheist, but I think if I had kept some sort of ‘spirituality’ about me, or maybe just hadn’t spent so many years in church, I might have ended up with the Unitarians. While I don’t know a whole lot about them, I’m pretty sure that I could actually learn something from them and grow as a person, as opposed to just being reminded of what I already believe (or being told that what I believe is an abomination and I’ll end up in hell if I don’t start believing the ‘right’ things).

  • Yea – that’s about right, Hemant.

    For years I didn’t agree with what my church taught me, but I still went. It took me some time to break free of the idiocy of the church (around college.)

    I still repeated some of the idiot mantras even if I didn’t believe in them (“gay marriage is only about punishing churches!” “god created the world in 6 literal days!) The only time I went to church was for a Bible study, which was actually really really good – about as secular a Bible study could be in a church.

    I wish people would do this more often, but I think they like the company and the image of ‘I’m being good and doing what god says I should do.’

  • As one of those Christians who stays in a church where I don’t agree with everything (most notably the evolution thing, though the gay thing is definitely there as well), part of it for me is being there for the other people who feel the same way I do. I’m not quiet about my disagreements (though I do hope that I’m respectful of people, even when I think they’re wrong), but I think that being there lets others know that they’re not alone.

    I have had more than one person swing by my car with the HRC bumper sticker or the “don’t torture” or “pro-life doesn’t end at birth” stickers and let me know that it’s nice to know that someone else feels the way they do. We’ve had discussions in the green room (I play music in the church) where I’ve shared my views about evolution very freely with ministers & fellow members of the congregation and it’s been good for folks to know that not everyone believes exactly the same thing. I have friends who are far more conservative than I am tone down their rhetoric a little bit because they genuinely never looked at X issue differently than they have been taught. That might not seem like much, but any opportunity to bring about constructive dialog seems like a good thing to me.

  • Archie

    It’s common for seminaries to teach aspiring ministers how to “deal” with critisim or dissent. Where I’ve seen this, the teaching seems to consist of memorizing brief conversational snippets to “defuse” the issue. I’ve never seen advice that the pastor should actually consider what the person is saying and see if there’s any truth in it. And I do think there’s a civil time and place for such disagreement.

  • AB

    I know at least in the more charismatic/pentecostal circles (my background), people are afraid to question their pastors. There’s this phrase ‘touch not the Lord’s anointed’ referring to how David (before he was made king) didn’t talk negatively about or hurt King Saul. This is taken as the ideal. People fear that questioning their leaders is akin to questioning God. If God put them in a place of leadership, how dare we disagree. Even though Saul was doing terrible things, it was no one’s place except God’s to remove him. You can pray and ask God to take care of the issue, somehow bring the pastor’s wrongs to light, but you can’t take on that task yourself. So you might disagree with something, but then time goes by and ‘God’ does nothing about it, so you either have to change your mind or maybe ‘hear from God’ to leave that church and wipe its dust from your feet, so to speak. But never do you actually confront anything. Its cyclically sad.

  • l.vellenga

    i’m mostly in agreement with this, with three comments to make. first, my husband and i often wish that there was more opportunity for dialog during sermons. there’s no biblical reason to prohibit this practice (and fairly good reason to think that this was how the 1st-century church operated); we just don’t do it because it’s not done. our loss.

    second, i’m all for open, honest conversations, but if you commit to a church fully knowing that it has some positions on basic issues that you disagree with, i don’t have much sympathy if you get mad because they won’t change their stance. if you don’t think jesus is god, don’t complain because christians organize themselves around this basic belief and you don’t think they should. if you go to a presbyterian church and start petitioning the session, the denomination, etc. to get rid of infant baptism, lots of luck. feel free to start your own denomination (and historically, some folks did) but don’t complain if people formally define themselves differently than you think they ought to.

    and third, true story: i’d been frustrated with our new pastor for several months and one sunday i’d finally had it. after the service i approached him and told him i thought the sermon was irresponsible, intellectually offensive, and (i think) a poor interpretation of the passage under discussion. i found out the next day that he’d resigned (though despite the timing, it wasn’t my comments that drove him to it). and we did end up leaving six months later.

  • P.

    I’ve never complained about sermons to my pastor, although I have shared the occasional dissenting opinion with my conservative Christian dad after the service. I’ve also complained on at least one occasion in the idiotic church youth group I was forced to attend (the sermon, which was the same every dang week for two freaking months: “There are things that are of God, and there are things that are on Earth, and everything on Earth is evil so you have to just live for God.” Oh? And didn’t God make Earth? So God only makes evil things?). I believe in God and I consider myself a Christian, but I really disagree with a lot of what the church says. I wish more people realized that, as you said, your pastor doesn’t speak for you. You can be a Christian AND a thinker. You can be a Christian and believe in evolution, as I do. Anytime I find myself online in a place like this, I always feel the need to apologize for how idiotic the other members of my religion can be. We’re not all crazy, irrational fundamentalists who try to convert everyone or think anybody who isn’t baptized is going to hell. Promise.

  • Roxane

    Once after we had moved in 1968, Mom dragged us around to a couple of different churches. We attended one where, at a midnight Christmas Eve service, the minister started going on and on about the awful Catholics and the awful Jews and the awful pushy blacks and why everyone except Missouri Synod Lutherans were going straight to hell. On Christmas Eve! Mom made us crawl past the other parishoners so we could ostentatiously leave down the center aisle in the middle of the sermon, but we never said anything.

    It was a turning point. I date my atheism from Dec. 24, 1968.

  • I only have church experience at one evangelical church that had an out-reach program to the “un-churched”.

    Things worked as follows:

    The pastor would “preach” with language to entice the “un-churched” to start attending. Eventually, the new-comers would figure out what the core congregation really believed (heaven and hell damnation). Those that were OK with it stayed. Those that were not OK leave. Over time, this leads to the church becoming more and more conservative (where all that remain truly believe in heaven and hell damnation). The charisma factor starts to play out between the pastor and the core congregation. No-one questions anything he says. If anyone questioned anything, they would have already left.

    Things might be different in smaller communities without so much “church hopping”.

  • When the pastor says something abominable or incorrect, they let it slide. They remain in the church, stay silent on those issues, and the cycle continues.

    Gosh can’t think of a certain prominent politician who’s described by that?

  • I used to figure most people in church were like me: bored, but there because they thought they were expected to.

  • AB

    People fear that questioning their leaders is akin to questioning God.

    Why would a Christian be afraid to question God? There are several examples in the Bible of people doing just that and isn’t their god supposed to be all loving and wise and stuff?

  • Parse

    In my experience of suburbia’s car culture, it’s far easier to change churches than to change a church. At my parents, we attended one of six ELCA lutheran churches within a four mile radius. If you aren’t bothered by changing denominations, then you’ve that many more choices open to you.

  • abadidea

    I’ve had exactly one experience with a person who, in the middle of the sermon, called out to the preacher: he was a visitor who had his wife and daughters wearing veils. The church wasn’t conservative enough for him…

  • BillC

    I’ve always been an unbeliever, but was an active member of my wife’s church. When I called out the pastor for constantly increasing his own pay, he called me out for my atheism, told to him in confidence over a beer one night years earlier, by sending me a letter. It was an official “quit the church or we’ll throw you out” letter. Either way, not one of our fellow congregants stood with us, not because I was an atheist, but because they were so in awe of this authority figure they’d been trained all their lives to respect. How could he be wrong, he’s a minister! These same people will also swallow anything a doctor gives them, no questions asked. Glad to be rid of them. Oh, and we left that church, but I remain on their membership role. My own juvenile form of revenge.

  • keystothekid

    I have an Assembly of God background, and have been surrounded by Baptists most of my life and I have to say that I disagree with this cartoon. I think most people don’t speak up during sermons because most of the people don’t think for themselves. They don’t think that what the preacher says CAN be wrong. If they did, wouldn’t they find another church? I know there are plenty in the south for them to choose from!

    And for P. who commented earlier, the christian movement really needs people like you who disagree with the christian fundementalists to stand up and make yourself heard. To people on the outside it’s getting harder and harder to remember there are nice guys and gals in the Christian affiliation. :S

    Also, I got a bit of a giggle out of this line
    “It’s ok to call him out when he says something that’s not true. ” Funny to see on an Atheist blog when most of us would probably consider almost nothing he (preacher) says to be true.

  • The church I attended when I was growing up supported open discussions on the Sunday sermons. They were regularly discussed in our weekday bible study classes. There were numorous occasions my peers and I brought up disagreements with our pastor. The first such occasion I remember was when I found out that premarital sex was frowned upon. I told the pastor how disappointed I was, and that I couldn’t agree with it. He told me he understood why and to be careful. I thought that was a reasonable answer at the time.

  • Jenn

    I know I’ve said this before, but at the church I used to attend, my mom threw me in confermation class. I asked so many random questions (as this was when I lost my faith) and after I got confirmed, I got a thank-you letter from the pastor for asking questions and making people think about their faith more deeply.
    Then, the time before the last time I went, the new pastor (straight from a heavy Texas Lutheran church) was complaining that not enought people were yelling out, although he wanted “AMEN!”s not “You’re wrong!!”s.

  • Karen

    As others have mentioned, I went to one of those fundy evangelical churches where the pastor was considered “called by god” and put in place by divine authority.

    Strongly disagreeing with the pastor was questioning god’s plan/authority, which simply was not done if one wanted to remain in good standing in the congregation.

    There are a host of bible interpretations that ministers of this ilk quote to intimidate the congregation from disagreeing, but I think a lot of people did send anonymous complaints about various things. I remember the pastor once complaining bitterly about how there were so many cowards who wouldn’t sign their names.

    Of course, after scaring people with the bible and god’s authority, I don’t know why anonymity was so surprising!

  • mackrelmint

    I grew up in a church, quite literally so, as for years, church services were held in my parents’ home and then when a building was rented for services, counselling (and questions for the pastor) still took place at my home.
    In my experience, people do question church leadership, but in private, outside the church and not on Sundays. Pastoral response varies, of course, depending on the issue and on the church.
    Other folks shop around for churches and during my time at my parents’ church we saw many, many people come and visit for a bit and then move on, in some cases because the church was obviously not right for them, and in others, the church members never knew specifically why they didn’t come back. (Which is an ongoing concern for the church leadership.)
    At one point the church fractured over a doctrinal issue and some members and church elders left to begin a new church but astonishingly, without apparent disagreement during Sunday services. The discussions happened in private or during small home-group sessions during the week to which a fraction of the church membership attended.
    A casual church attender would never have known there was ever disagreement with the pastor in that church, and for the most part, neither would a large number of parishioners.

  • From my experience I never challenged a pastor on something I disagreed with during a sermon, even when I was doing a Summer internship with the pastor. In my time as an undergrad Theology Major and as a Seminary student I preached and lead campus worship services a good 20 or 30 times and as I recall I never had someone challenge what I said while I was preaching. It should be noted that there were a few times where I didn’t actually believe what I was preaching while I was struggling with doubt, but I was safe since I stuck with the official church line. The standard feedback after a sermon was standing by the back door shaking hand as people left with them telling me that my sermon was just great and inspiring. Unfortunately when I left Christianity and quit the seminary that I did so as quietly as possible.

  • I have a friend who called out a pastor once when he was visiting his grandmother’s Southern Baptist church. The pastor spoke about the evils of gambling and how he wouldn’t be caught dead supporting such a thing. After the sermon my friend asked the pastor, “Didn’t your son go to school using a Hope Scholarship (which is funded by the Georgia lottery)?” The pastor didn’t say a word and no one else thought it was important to call the Pastor out on this “minor” oversight…

  • Ben Finney

    > Why do Christians stay in these churches where there are so many alternatives for them out there?

    Note that a church is not simply a place to hear sermons; it’s arguable whether that’s even something most church-going people especially want from their church.

    So “alternatives for them” would need to be what, exactly? Church provides a great many things — a pre-made circle of friends, a social life, a support network, a group label on issues that seem uncontroversial, an order of professionals whose job is explicitly about keeping the flock together, a reference for business connections, a way of blending one’s close family with a broader group, and so lengthily on — for which there doesn’t seem to be *any* single secular alternative.

    Sure, for each of those purposes separately one can find secular organisations, with greater or lesser effort and research on the part of the prospective member. That doesn’t make them an “alternative to church”, since they’re not pre-made integrated deals the way a church appears to be.

    How are such people to even become aware of the alternatives? Whatever the alternatives may be, we can surely agree that they don’t stand out nearly so well and speak to the needs of these people the way a church does.

    So I think that’s an answer to why people who realise they disagree with their existing church nevertheless stick with it: there *aren’t* clearly alternatives for them. That’s something we freethinkers need to work on.

  • muggle

    It’s ok to disagree with him.

    It’s ok to call him out when he says something that’s not true.

    It’s ok to leave the church if you don’t support what’s being said in there.

    Well, you got one out of three right. Notice I’ve done that last there. As for the first two, uh uh. No how, no way. Note the commenters above who are saying people did call out, they did so in an environment other than during the sermon. The congregation is definitely not free to stand up and question the sermon. If you did, you’d be told to sit down, not disrupt and heed god’s words. In fact one major difference I found in synagogue from the three protestant churches I grew up in was that congregants interrupted the sermon to disagree!!! I was never so shocked. I got used to it over the six months I went to Sabbath services but my first Sabbath I was shocked as hell.

    Disagreeing aside ain’t exactly the same thing and is definitely just shrugged off and/or buried. It’s a rare minister that thinks the laity might just have a point in correcting him. After all, he’s a minister to lead them in their faith. Therefore, he presumably knows better and more about god and what god expects of man than they do. Are they ordained? No, they’d be off leading their own flocks if they were. Therefore, he automatically gets the final word about it.

    hoverfrog, I can only speak from my own experience but, no, you are not allowed to question gawd. As a kid, I was always getting in trouble for this, asking for clarification of buybull stories that made no sense to me. I remember this culminating between my mother and me about 13 or 14 with a strident warning from her about not demanding answers of gawd. I shouted back rather heatedly, that if Moses could question gawd, so could I. In fact, I often prayed with my head unbowed, looking at the sky and starting with God why? Pretty amusing to look back on now.

    BillC, thank you for reference to doctors. I’m always going up against the ones that suffer from god complexes because I just don’t take their word on what I should do but demand to know all my options and the pros and cons of each as well as of doing nothing so I can make my own decision as to what I want to risk. Just got discharged from another such asshole yesterday who was downright verbally abusive in front of my daughter and grandson too so I’m reporting him everywhere and putting negative reviews of him on-line. Shrug.

    Am I being too naïve in thinking this ought to happen more often?

    Bottom line, Hement: yes, you are.

  • LaurenF

    From my own personal experience, I think that 10plus and Ben Finney especially make some good points, although now that I think of it the points are kind of opposites. Both true though, in my experience.

    From 10plus, the statement that people don’t speak up or contradict because they agree: true. It seems like a lot of times on this blog people assume that “Christian” equals “fundy evangelical”. If a Christian blogger is commenting angrily on someone else’s anti-gay behavior in church – they’re probably NOT going to the same church, or a similar one. They’re probably going to a pro-gay church! (Unless they’re really, REALLY dedicated to their cause maybe? Trying to subvert the opposition from the inside?) The people who regularly listen to that pastor’s tirades probably don’t speak up simply because they agree with them.

    On the other hand, BF’s comments about the support network, social circle, and the rest are also very valid points. It’s hard to walk away from people you may well have learned to care about in spite of differences in belief. Maybe you tell yourself that the issues you disagree on aren’t as important as the friendships you’ve built. I don’t know for sure – I’ve got a friend who is both female and a geologist who somehow attends a church that both thinks women are inferior to men (though of course they don’t SAY it that way, oh no) AND is full of young-earth creationists.

    The young earth creationists have mostly learned not to try arguing with her, I’m happy to say. But I still don’t really get why they stay there. I wouldn’t. But then, I go to a church that supports gay rights, that is far more concerned with helping people NOW than badgering them about eternity, and where the pastor celebrated Darwin’s 200th birthday with a sermon discussing her trip to the Galapagos islands and how awe-inspiring it was to be in the same place and see for herself the same animals that helped him in developing his theory of evolution. So, yeah, I have a hard time understanding why anyone (especially a woman!!) would stick with a church that thinks the only proper job for women is homemaker/mother.

  • Love your blog. Thanks for another good read!